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Para cycling

Silke Pan: seven mountain passes in seven days

Each pass represents a personal victory
Each pass represents a personal victory

L’Isoard, l’Agnel, le Sampeyre, le Fauniera, la Lombarde, la Bonette et le Vars… all have, at some stage, featured on the programme of the Tour de France.

By climbing the seven passes on seven consecutive days, Silke Pan has entered the select Confrérie des 7 Majeurs (Fellowship of the 7 Majors). She is the first para-cyclist to achieve this exploit which amounts to 360km with 12,000m of climbing.

Paraplegic since 2007, Silke Pan has become a well-known figure in Elite para-cycling, winning several international competitions and claiming the silver medal in the time trial at the 2015 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships. German by birth and a long-time resident of Switzerland, Silke Pan decided at the end of last year to retire from competition and pursue more personal goals.

She undertook her latest challenge together with her husband Didier Dvorak and accompanied by a support team.

None of the climbs left her indifferent: "Each of them had an impact on my body, my emotions and my memory.”

Nevertheless, she had to make a particular effort - both physical and mental - the day she climbed the col de la Bonette, which at 2860m is Europe’s highest paved mountain pass. Tackled on the second-to-last day, this formidable mountain reserved her four seasons in one day: from torrential rain and cold, to sun and heat with a head wind so strong it blew gravel into her face.

Torrential rain during the climb up the Bonette

The last kilometre, with a gradient of 15%, was a particular challenge for the hand-cyclist considering she relies uniquely on her arms as a locomotive for her handbike which weighs a quarter of her body weight. It is moments like these that the mental takes over: “Looking across the valley and seeing all that I had already climbed, I thought back on all the problems I had already overcome. I knew that as I climbed I would leave them behind me as I got ever closer to lightness and sun.”

Also graved in her memory forever is the beauty of the Sampeyre (2284m) and the Fauniera (2511m), and the monuments in honour of Fausto Coppi at the top of the Esischie and of Marco Pantani at the top of the Fauniera.

Throughout her seven-day marathon, she was encouraged by onlookers and also members of the Confrérie des 7 Majeurs who formed welcoming committees at the top of some of the passes. She is amused by the reaction of two Italian cyclists who, on seeing her pass, exclaimed: “good gracious, it’s a woman!”

Silke Pan already has an idea for her next challenge in 2018 which, she says, will be “hugely difficult.”

“I have seen what I am capable of, and now I want to go where I have never been before: longer, higher, harder, because that is how I grow internally. Then I can share my experiences with those who don’t dare take the plunge. I like to tell people starting out in sport that it is all our ‘small’ victories that enable us to feel stronger and dare to tackle bigger challenges.”