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Riding the Colle del Nivolet, the Giro d'Italia's new mountain

In-depth
23 May 2019
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Welcome to the Colle del Nivolet, a climb as beautiful as it is brutal, that featured in the 2019 Giro d'Italia

Words Pete Muir

There’s a good chance you’ve seen the Colle del Nivolet before, but not because you watched last year's Giro d’Italia. The climb in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy has never been graced by the country’s Grand Tour, mainly because it goes nowhere except to a dam that holds the water supply for Turin.

The top isn’t expansive enough to accommodate the crowds and infrastructure that might allow it to be a summit finish, so instead, it remains blissfully undiscovered by the hordes of col-bagging cyclists. Yet this could be all change as of next year, as the rumour mill suggests that the Giro is set to visit the Nivolet.

Luckily, it is still quiet with the only traffic heading up its slopes are hikers venturing into the Gran Paradiso National Park, motorcyclists on a day out to see the views, and maintenance crews for the dam.

So where have you seen the Colle del Nivolet before? The answer is in a classic movie from the 1960s: The Italian Job.

Having pulled off a robbery of gold bars in the city of Turin, Charlie Croker (played by Michael Caine) and his gang are making their getaway across the mountains in a bus, driven by ‘Big William’.

Swinging it around the hairpin bends, William loses control of the bus and it ends up dangling precariously over the edge of a cliff, with the shifting weight of the gold threatening to tip the bus and everyone on board into the abyss below.

The Italian Job ends with one of the greatest lines from movie history, as Caine utters the immortal words: ‘Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea.’

The scenes on the winding road and the precipitous cliff were filmed on the upper reaches of the Nivolet, which, being a dead end, suggests Caine and his crew were going the wrong way anyway.

Self-preservation society

I have my own Italian job to complete today, and the plan is simple, although I’m worried that the execution could prove fairly difficult. Step 1: cycle from the bottom of the Colle del Nivolet to the top. Step 2: return.

That’s it. There’s no chance of creating a loop, and there is only one road so route finding will not be a problem. We just have to follow the road until it runs out, and then come back again.

The hard bit is the altitude gain. Today’s ride is a climb of 40km, rising 2,200m almost continuously from our start point in the town of Locana.

It begins at a fairly shallow gradient as it tracks along the edge of the Orco river, but even the early stages have spikes of up to 15%. That’s before we hit the mountain proper, where the final 13km of ascent hovers between 7% and 10%.

My partners in crime today are Diego and Alessandro, two guides from the Piedmont Bike Hotel, where I stayed last night.

There’s not much chance of me getting lost so their guiding skills will not be put to the test, but it’s still handy to have some local knowledge, if only so I can appreciate what I’m about to let myself in for.

As we prepare our kit in a car park in Locana, I ask Diego for his opinion on the Nivolet climb. He ponders for a moment, searching for the right words, before saying, ‘Hard. It’s hard.’

Tunnel visions

We couldn’t have picked a more beautiful day to make our assault on the Colle del Nivolet. The sky is a brilliant blue and the temperature is hot but not unbearable.

At least, not for my Italian companions, for whom sweating is an unseemly activity best left to dogs and British tourists.

The first few kilometres slip by reasonably easily as we make our way out of Locana and along a valley flanked by steep hills of rock and dense forest.

To our left the river runs lazily in the opposite direction, and along the roadside are stone-clad houses and the occasional cafe, tempting me with the aromas of freshly-ground beans and sugary pastries.

We don’t stop. Instead we tap along at a brisk pace on a road that, from my angle, could be almost flat, but the growing tension in my thigh muscles and the thumping of my heart informs me that we must be going uphill.

It’s an optical illusion that has me slightly worried – if it’s this much effort on the shallow gradients, what will I be like when the steep stuff arrives?

I find out about 14km into the ride, when a signpost tells me I’m about to hit slopes of 15%. Immediately we come to a short series of switchbacks that hoists us away from the valley floor up the side of the mountain, and the steepness has me hauling on the bars of my bike and begging for the road to flatten out quickly.

Which it does for a while, until another signpost informs me of another 15% stretch – only this time inside a 3.5km-long tunnel.

The idea of fighting that sort of gradient, in the dark, while cars whizz past in an enclosed space, is a touch alarming, but this is where my local guides earn their crust.

They lead me down a small road to the side of the tunnel, which at one point looks impassable as there is a giant boulder blocking the route ahead.

But we shoulder our bikes, tiptoe over the rubble and remount on the other side of the boulder, where a broken and deserted strip of tarmac winds its way into a narrow valley carved by the steep and fast-flowing Orco river.

With no access to traffic, the road is perfectly quiet except for the gurgling of the rushing river, and we creep upwards, twisting and turning between the potholes and rocks strewn across the surface.

After a couple of kilometres, the pathway arrives at a large hole in the cliff face and Diego tells me to prepare myself, as we’re about to re-enter the tunnel.

I creep up to the edge of the hole and, sure enough, it leads back into the road tunnel, which heads steeply upwards into darkness.

A car blasts past, inches from where my front wheel is protruding through the side opening. I’m uncertain about venturing inside without any lights, but Diego informs me that we only need to ride for a couple of hundred metres before we can escape through another window back onto the side road again.

With that, he clips in and disappears into the darkness. I take a moment to listen for straining engines echoing around the tunnel, and when I can hear nothing I launch into an uphill sprint, aiming for the light in the distance.

Thankfully no cars appear, and I emerge blinking into the sunlight. Once back on the gravel-strewn track, with the sun glinting off the river and the only sound being the gentle buzz of tyres on tarmac, there’s no evidence that we are only a few metres away from a main road.

About half a kilometre further on, the roads merge once more and we continue westwards along the valley, aiming for the snowcapped peaks that guard the French/Italian border.

If I could ride straight on and over those mountains I would find myself in the French ski resort of Val d’Isère, on the slopes of the infamous Col de l’Iseran.

As it is, our road swings northwest, skirting around the wall of mountains. We pass the Lago di Ceresole, a large artificial lake created by a hydroelectric dam, besides which families sit, soaking up the sun in deckchairs.

It’s all very peaceful, and makes me want to lie on the banks of the lake and snooze for a while. But we’re now more than 25km into our route and the real work is about to begin.

Shortly after the end of the lake we hit a hairpin bend that marks the point where we leave the river behind and start the climb proper to the Colle del Nivolet.

‘OK, now it gets steeper,’ says Diego. ‘For maybe 12 or 13km,’ he adds with the deadpan demeanour of a doctor delivering bad news to a patient.

I nod to show that I understand, and try to maintain a poker face that suggests 13km of hard climbing on top of the 27km we’ve already done is really not a problem at all. No siree, no problem whatsoever.

Beauty and the beast

As soon as we turn north onto the narrow road that heads into the mountains, I know this is going to be a special ride.

On the great cycling checklist, every box is ticked. Blue sky: tick. Soaring, snow-capped peaks: tick. Solitude: tick. Twisting road through verdant hillsides with endless views that change to reveal new wonders around every corner: tick. Marmots: tick.

Looping and swirling, the road leads inexorably upwards and we gain height so quickly that within minutes I’m looking back over a landscape of rugged splendour stretching far down the valley below.

With the change in gradient I am constantly standing, then sitting, then standing again as I try to find the most energy-efficient means of getting up the mountain.

Beside me, Alessandro at least has the decency to look like he’s struggling as well, which he tells me between gasps for air is a result of a recent holiday, where he spent rather more time partying than riding.

Diego, on the other hand, taps up the slope with the metronomic cadence of a Swiss watch, not so much as breathing heavily, and with the unflinching expression of a hitman.

Approximately 7km into this upper section of the climb, we turn a bend to see a vast wall splitting the landscape up ahead. It’s the dam that services the city of Turin, and as we approach it towers above us like a fortress.

A series of hairpins takes us up to the reservoir, which allows us a brief moment of respite as we take the opportunity to ride along the top of the dam wall and peer into the placid green water below.

Our rest is short-lived, however, as the road continues sharply upwards for another kilometre before arriving at something we haven’t seen so far on our journey since leaving Locana – a descent.

It’s only a couple of hundred metres long, but we attack it with the gusto of starving men grabbing at morsels of food.

The short drop takes us to another artificial lake and over a dam wall that curves elegantly around the mountainside.

At this altitude, the scenery has switched from lush green to a more spartan landscape of scree and dark cliffs, pockmarked with patches of snow.

Inset with the turquoise of the lake and the twisting ribbon of tarmac, it’s a scene that is almost too perfect to be real, and I spend a few minutes just taking it all in.

Gates of Paradise

Diego brings me back to earth with the statement that there is still 5km to go to the summit. I look up the road, which shows no sign of having any end, and try to persuade my legs that it’s not too far to go now.

My legs aren’t so easily conned. They know exactly what’s in store and they start to complain bitterly as we grind up the final slopes, now above the 2,000m mark.

I make a pact with my legs that we will rest after each kilometre of ascent, which seems to placate them a bit, although they will only function at a greatly reduced rate.

It doesn’t help that, when I do stop to recuperate, Diego rides up and down the road beside me, pulling wheelies to keep himself amused (although his expression maintains the inscrutability of a waxwork).

At one point, as I stand gasping at a small layby, the peace of the mountain is shattered by a procession of motorbikes that snakes up the mountain and roars past in a blur of beards and leather.

We’re above the snow line now, and the surface is wet from the runoff of melting ice that is piled up beside the road.

Each corner promises to be the last, only to reveal another stretch of steep road. But all of a sudden we are there – the top arrives without warning, heralded by a signpost that declares we are now at a height of 2,612m above sea level.

Beneath the sign, the bikers have gathered for a photograph, giving the thumbs up and congratulating themselves on having driven up a hill.

I ride past and drift to a halt beside a wooden barrier. From here the wonders of the Gran Paradiso National Park are laid out before me – brooding peaks of dark rock set against an azure sky, icy mountain lakes and mossy green valleys criss-crossed by trails.

It makes me want to swap my cycling shoes for walking boots and just keep going.

Instead, after a period of refuelling and soaking up the views, we turn the bikes around and embark on the second half of our journey.

This is the part I’ve been looking forward to for the past two hours – the part where we cash in on the investment of effort and sweat we made to get us here. From the top of the Colle del Nivolet to the car park in Locana (barring a couple of hundred metres next to a dam) it is downhill all the way for the next 40km.

And what a descent. We fly through the bends like we’re on a helter-skelter, dashing past lakes and over bridges, giving the hairy bikers a run for their money.

Within minutes we’re back at the hairpin that means we’re now racing the river all the way back to Locana.

It’s here I realise just how steep the first part of our ride really was. Hunkered on the drops we blast along the road, overtaking dawdling cars and hurtling at speed through the 3.5km tunnel we went to such pains to avoid on the way up.

We whizz through the villages, their stone houses now a blur as we pass. There are no junctions or traffic lights, nothing to slow us down at any point on the way down.

The return to Locana is so quick it almost feels like we’ve been short-changed. All that climbing must surely deserve more descending than this, but at least my body feels fully replenished.

My legs have long since stopped grumbling and now they’re having fun again.

As we pull up at the car park, I can’t help wondering how such a magnificent climb is so little known in the cycling world.

For me, the Colle del Nivolet deserves to be spoken of in the same revered tones as Ventoux or the Stelvio. People really should be told about it and encouraged to discover it for themselves.

Luckily, I’m in a position to do something about that.

The route: 40km up, 40km down

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/66nivolet. From Locana on the SP460 head west along the only road, climbing for 40km until you hit the summit of the Colle del Nivolet, before turning round and freewheeling back down.

About 15km into the ride you come to a 3.5km tunnel at 15%. Avoid it by taking the (very broken in places, but under repair) road to the left that follows a picturesque river.

At one point the road re-enters the tunnel, so you have to sprint uphill for 200m before you can exit via a window onto the escape road.

 

The rider’s ride


Scott Addict 10, £3,499, scott-sports.com

This is the 2016 Addict, but it’s virtually identical to the 2017 model bar the Dura-Ace components, which have been upgraded to the new 9100 groupset.

In a world of beefy tubesets and aggressive aerodynamics, the Addict remains slender and elegant.

It’s a bike for climbers, being both light and stiff – exactly what I needed on the endless ascent of the Nivolet (all the kamm-tailed NACA airfoils in the world won’t make any difference if you’re doing 10kmh after 35km of climbing).

On the way back down, the Addict’s precise handling only added to the fun of carving through the mountain’s winding hairpins.

Despite its light weight, the bike never felt sketchy or jittery in the corners, and the aggressive racing geometry encouraged me to get low in the drops and hammer the Addict down the 40km descent, grinning all the way.

I also liked the lack of fiddly components. It’s easy to set up and adjust, and there were no clicks, grinds or creaks, leaving me to simply enjoy the ride.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew to Turin with BA. Expect to pay £100-£200 return, or you can save a bit of money with the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair but, as always, look out for the additional charges levied on bike bags.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Lo Scoiattolo, otherwise known as the Piedmont Bike Hotel, on the outskirts of Turin. The hotel boasts a large lock-up-cum-workshop for storing bikes, professional ride guides on hand and top-end Pinarello bikes for hire.

It’s one of a group of five cycle-friendly hotels throughout Italy, with others near Verona, Rome, Bormio and Cesenatico.

Packages start from around £250 for three days. Go to piedmontbikehotel.com for more details, and try biciamoremio.it for info on riding holidays at the other hotels.

Thanks

Many thanks to Davide Cerchio, bike manager for the Piedmont Bike Hotel, and owner Gianni Marsaglia. Also to my ride partners for the day, Diego Donadae and Alessandro Ferrio.