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The Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard: A gentle Alpine giant

Pete Muir
6 Jun 2022

This Alpine gateway from France to Italy is no killer, but depending on how you approach it, it can still deliver a nasty bite

Words Pete Muir Photography Dan Milner

We can do this the easy way or the hard way. The easy way up to the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard is the longer way, taking 31km from the Alpine town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, but it averages just 4.4% gradient and never gets above 6%.

The hard way means a detour via the village of Montvalezan, which shaves 5km off the distance but throws in some vicious, steep sections that spike up to 13%.

Both routes are equally attractive, but the hard way has a road that’s pink, so let’s go the hard way.



Taking the pistes

Bourg-Saint-Maurice sits in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of southeast France, just below Mont Blanc and near to the border with Italy.

During the winter it is ski central, being the jumping off point for the resorts of Les Arcs and La Plagne, with easy access to Tignes, Val d’Isère, Courchevel and Meribel.

Indeed, the valley it sits in is home to more glamorous skiing venues than anywhere else in the world. And where there are ski resorts there is usually good cycling.

From Bourg you could head northwest to the beautiful Cormet de Roselend, or south to the mighty Col de l’Iseran, or west to La Plagne, but today we will set our sights to the northeast, where the gateway between France and Italy is guarded by the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard.

It’s not to be confused with the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, its big brother, which sits at a height of 2,469m and marks the border between Italy and Switzerland about 30km to the north. This French Saint-Bernard may be petit by comparison, but at 2,188m it’s still a big beast, and higher than the likes of the Col du Tourmalet.

The centre of Bourg-Saint-Maurice is all chalet-style hotels, so there’s no shortage of places for a coffee and croissant before clipping in and following the main D1090 road eastwards out of town. A series of roundabouts sees Bourg morph into Séez, where the gradient eases upwards, but it’s nothing that can’t be dealt with by a couple of clicks up the cassette.

A staircase of gently curved hairpins lifts you up above the town and into a green world of forests and fields. The road remains wide and billiard-table smooth – perfect for when you’re driving your Ferrari to Val d’Isère, but just as good for riding your bicycle to the Italian border.

After about 6km you arrive at a junction where you must decide: easy way or hard way? Of course, you’ve already made your mind up, so you ignore the sign pointing to Col du Petit- Saint-Bernard and take the D84 to Montvalezan.

At the junction you also see a small pink sign saying ‘Montée de La Rosière’ with a picture of a cyclist. And as you ride away, you can’t help but notice that the cyclist in the picture seems to be tilted upwards at an alarmingly steep angle.

Pretty in pink

La Rosière is a small ski resort that a few years ago decided it needed to do something to raise its profile to compete with its bigger, better-known neighbours. The town’s officials emptied the piggy bank and formulated a plan – to host a stage finish at the 2018 Tour de France.

And so it came to pass that on Stage 11 the peloton left Albertville, crossed the hors catégorie Montée de Bisanne and the Cormet de Roselend, before descending to Bourg-Saint-Maurice and following the exact same route as this climb, via Montvalezan and on to the finish at La Rosière.

On the day, a breakaway made it to the final Cat 1 climb before disintegrating, leaving Spain’s Mikel Nieve alone at the front. But the chase was on. Geraint Thomas attacked from the pack with 6km to go, bridged over to Tom Dumoulin and Damiano Caruso, and the trio set about closing Nieve’s one-minute lead.

The Spaniard emptied himself on the final climb but had his heart broken by Thomas, who powered past in the last 200m to win the stage and take the yellow jersey – which he held all the way to Paris.

In celebration of that day, La Rosière now hosts an annual ‘cyclo-climb’, where all-comers can pay €5 to race up the climb from Séez to La Rosière on one of five dates over the summer (see larosiere.net for details).

The 17km climb averages 6%, but a central 6km stretch rears up to gradients well over 10% and culminates in a section that has been painted bright pink to match the blurry haze that will descend before your eyes as you grind up its steep slope.

Long way to go

Once they arrived at La Rosière, the pros got to stop. Not you. Now back on the main route to the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard, there is still 8km to go to the summit. The good news is that from this point it rarely gets above 6%.

The trees start to thin out and the landscape becomes more barren and rocky. The road, however, remains as pristine as ever. Far, far in the distance, the square silhouette of the Hospice du Petit-Saint-Bernard sits on the skyline.

It is an austere, grey block of a building that houses a hotel and has been the site of a travellers’ inn for centuries. And it will be a fair bit older by the time you arrive at its door, having watched it grow in size agonisingly slowly during the ascent of a road that has remarkably few bends for an Alpine pass.

It’s a section of road that has seen action in the Tour only four times, firstly in 1949 on a stage won by Fausto Coppi, and most recently in 2009 from the other direction.

First over the summit was Italy’s Franco Pellizotti, while the stage was won by Spain’s Mikel Astarloza – although both were later stripped of their results and handed two-year bans for reasons that will be wearily familiar to all fans of pro cycling.

After you pass the Hospice and the statue of St Bernard himself atop a rocky pillar, there is 1km left to the summit. Come here in June and this bit of road will slice between high walls of packed snow, yet to melt in the summer sun. A month later the snow will be gone, and the surrounding hills covered in dense, rough grass.

Eventually the road levels out, a scattering of rustic buildings comes into view and a sign informs you that there is no more of the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard left to climb. It says ‘Welcome to Italy’.

With thanks to Shelley and Adrian at Alpcycles. For road cycling holidays in the French and Italian Alps, go to alpcycles.com

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