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Between Heaven and Hell: Alpine borders ride

In-depth
7 May 2021
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A ride of two halves over the angelic Col du Petit Saint Bernard in France and the devilish Colle San Carlo over the border in Italy

Words: Mark Bailey Photography: Juan Trujillo Andrades

‘Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark.’

Toiling up the fiendishly steep, tree-suffocated slopes of the Colle San Carlo in Italy’s Aosta Valley, the opening line of Dante’s Inferno seems strangely appropriate. The 14th century Italian poet, lost and afraid in a ‘savage’ forest, was forced to endure an allegorical journey through Hell to see the heavenly sky once more.

I kind of know how he feels, as I struggle anxiously beneath a dark canopy of towering red spruce and pine in my attempt to reach a sunlit summit I can no longer see.

It’s not quite the Nine Circles of Hell, but the 30 ramp-like hairpins I have to negotiate feel grim enough in the gloopy heat of the forest. The 1,971m Colle San Carlo may be a little-known climb when compared to the greats of the Giro d’Italia, but its cruel average gradient of 10% over 10.5km puts it in the same league as spirit-crushing ascents such as the Mortirolo (10.5% over 12.4km).

On his journey into the Inferno, Dante sees an ominous inscription above the gates of Hell: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ The wooden kilometre markers I pass make similar declarations: 11.45% gradient up ahead; 7.5km still to go.

My quads and calves are slowly turning to stone. From start to finish, this unforgiving climb offers no respite from its killer gradients to revive my legs. So this is what purgatory feels like.

 

When finally I escape the dark of the forest and emerge, soaked in sweat, at the summit, I catch up with the devil who enticed me here, my local guide Edouard. He smiles at me from behind red-tinted glasses, which give his eyes the fiery glow of Lucifer himself.

I’ll need a can of something cold and sugary before I can forgive him. As I lie on a stone wall, staring up at the immaculate sky, it is not the sunbeams of heaven I see but the dancing lights of dizziness and dehydration.

Border raids

On the morning of our ride, as we prepare our bikes in the sunshine, Edouard stills seems positively angelic. Yesterday we tackled the mighty Col de l’Iseran – at 2,764m the highest paved road in the Alps – and his breezy suggestion for today’s ride gives the impression that it will be a recovery day, nothing to worry about.

We’re in the ski resort of Val d’Isère in the Tarentaise Valley in France, an excellent base from which to explore the French-Italian Alps.

The town hugs the Isère river and is surrounded by pistes and pristine forests. Edouard suggests we begin with the 2,188m Col du Petit St Bernard, then hop over the border into Italy, before a skip up the hidden and little-known climb of Colle San Carlo.

Our route, he says, will enable us to explore the glacier-covered peaks of the Savoie region of the Rhone Alps, famous for its ski resorts and Reblochon cheese, before plunging into Italy’s tranquil Aosta Valley, a world of fortress-topped mountains, hearty polenta dishes and atmospheric forests. Sounds idyllic.

We depart our chalet hotel early with the scent of suncream and chain lube perfuming the cool dawn air. The start of the ride is exhilarating as we drop 1,000m in altitude from Val d’Isère (1,850m) to Bourg Saint Maurice (815m) over 30km.

We dash past the dazzling expanse of Lac du Chevril and the Tignes Dam, fizz through tunnels splashed by waterfalls and slice between the yawning jaws of mountains.

White scree slopes are visible on the sides of the mountains, which are sometimes carpeted in thick forest and sometimes scalped with neatly carved ski pistes.

The gentle downhill gradient beckons us to pick up speed and we have to stop to pull on gilets and armwarmers as the mountain shade and wind chill leave us shivering.

It’s tempting to whizz past all the valley towns but it’s worth slowing down to admire the traditional Savoie-style homes of stone and wood in Sante-Foy-Tarentaise.

More importantly, a slow ride through the pretty hamlets gives me more time to inhale the wonderful smell of baking bread emanating from the boulangeries.

Saints and scenery

At the town of Séez on the edge of the Vanoise National Park we swing right and venture onto the lower slopes of the Col du Petit St Bernard. With 1,382m of ascent over 26km, it’s the length of the climb that is the challenge here, not the gradient itself, which averages a mild 4.6% – albeit with a few leg-biting segments of 8% and 15%.

With more than 20 sweeping hairpins on the climb we soon get to enjoy expansive views over the wooded Isère valley, where small villages, patchwork fields and the dazzling silver thread of the river lie beneath the grey turrets of the mountains.

The climb initially weaves past farmland, but the scenery alters dramatically after we pass the ski resort of La Rosière. This is the gateway to a landscape of harsh peaks, boulder fields, scree slopes and inky lakes. Up here the grey and green colour scheme is broken only by the glimmer of a few striking black cliffs, which shine like freshly buffed patent leather.

The Col du Petit St Bernard has been an important strategic foothold throughout history, with the armies of Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Napoleon all crossing the peak.

It’s named after Saint Bernard of Menthon, who opened a hospice there in 1050 to provide a safe haven for pilgrims on their way to Rome. The hospice fell into ruin but it has since been rebuilt and now offers food and shelter for hungry hikers and cyclists.

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The pass first appeared in the Tour de France in 1949, when Italian legend Gino Bartali reached the summit at the head of the race. Since then it has featured three more times, with the most recent being in 2009 when Italian Franco Pellizotti led over the pass on his way to securing the polka dot jersey – only to be stripped of it later for reasons painfully familiar to fans of the pro sport.

At the summit we stop for some lunch at the Bar du Lac, which serves rustic pasta and polenta dishes, and take a walk around the dark water of Lago Verney.

From up here we can see grey peaks marching to the distant horizon and evidence of a 72m-wide stone circle that dates from the Iron Age. Near the summit, the driver of a classic but temperamental Mercedes convertible requires a push start. Fancy kit, dodgy engine – I know the feeling.

 

The Italian job

Only a discreet blue flag marks the border, and we begin the dash into Italy with a cluster of tight hairpins. Thick power lines and cable car wires stretch across the valley, as if the neighbouring mountains are playing a giant game of cat’s cradle. I slow to enjoy the sight of cloud shadows creeping across the rich green valleys below.

We soon arrive in the picture-perfect town of La Thuile. With its neatly painted, pastel-coloured hotels, fluttering flags and plush mountain backdrop, it could be straight out of a Wes Anderson movie set.

From here we could take a direct approach to the Colle San Carlo via its southwestern ascent, but Edouard suggests that it will be better to continue 15km downhill to Morgex and then double-back to tackle the climb from its steeper northeastern approach. I succumb without a thought.

Only once we hit the early part of the climb do I realise what I have let myself in for. This is basically an intensive gym workout masquerading as a scenic detour.

The 10% gradient is raw and relentless and the thick heat of that dark, Dante-esque forest only adds to the ordeal. I think back to how much I suffered on an ascent of the mighty Giau in the Dolomites – 9.1% over 10.1km – and realise that this climb is harder.

It offers no mercy. I sink into a rhythm, lower my head and disappear into a fog of pain and self-doubt. Some playful graffiti – in cima polenta a concia – promises suffering cyclists bowls of rich, buttery polenta at the summit.

When eventually I arrive at the top, drenched and gasping, even super-fit Edouard looks like he has suffered on the slopes of the Colle San Carlo.

From this lofty viewpoint we will descend back into La Thuile to end our ride. It would be possible to complete an epic 170km return ride to Val d’Isère but with the hills and the heat, this 101km one-way dash feels more than enough.

As we relax in the shade, all the pain dissolves and we begin to soak up the views from the summit. I’m not sure I could handle a steaming bowl of polenta right now, but the sight of the sun-drenched Aosta Valley is heavenly enough.


Return of the Saint

Follow our tale of two climbs

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/103bernard. This 101km point-to-point route begins in the French ski resort of Val d’Isère and takes in the Col du Petit St Bernard and the Colle San Carlo. Head north along the D902, past the Tignes Dam and the town of Saint-Foy-Tarentaise, then swing right at Séez to join the D1090 up and over the Col du Petit San Bernard.

Cross over the border into Italy, then descend the SS26 to the town of La Thuile. Continue on to Morgex before cutting back over the SR39 to take on the Colle San Carlo. This route ends in La Thuile, but if you have the time and the fitness you could complete an epic 170km loop back to Val d’Isère.

The rider’s ride

Trek Émonda SLR 8 Disc 2018, £5,599, trekbikes.com

For 2021 there’s a new Émonda on the block that promises to be faster and better looking. But that simply means that you’ll soon be able to pick up this previous 2018 model for a snip, and it still comes with all the performance parameters you could wish for on a climbing bike.

Despite being fitted with disc brakes, the whole package weighs in at just 6.65kg, which is little short of remarkable. Add in a stiff frame and it certainly couldn’t have done any more to help me up the Colle San Carlo, which meant I only had myself to blame. On the descents it proved to be reassuringly responsive, and on the flat bits in between it did its best to dampen any vibrations coming from the roads, aided by 28mm tyres.

There’s a clean, stripped-back look to the Émonda – even the paintjob is deliberately unfussy – that makes this bike feel like a pure performance machine. Just the thing you need for a day in the Alps.

Buy the Trek Émonda SLR 8 Disc now

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew with EasyJet, which has flights from London to Geneva or Lyon from around £60 return (pre-lockdown prices). Bike carriage starts at £90 return when booked in advance. It’s about a three-hour drive from Geneva to Val d’Isère. Our support vehicle for the ride was provided by SnowDrone (snow-drone.com), which also offers private airport transfers.

Check flights from London to Geneva now on Expedia

Accommodation

We stayed at the three-star Hotel La Tovière in Val d’Isère (hotel-latoviere.fr). The hotel is cycle-friendly, with storage rooms for bikes, a sauna and steam room to aid your recovery, and an excellent restaurant. Rooms cost from €59 (not including breakfast).

Book your stay at Hotel La Tovière now on Booking.com

Thanks

We were guided by the excellent Edouard Rolland from On Gravity, which is based in Tignes, a short hop from Val d’Isère. Guided tours cost from €100pp per day and include bike hire and helmets. Call +33 (0) 603 886 311 for details.

Cyclist was a guest of the Val d’Isère tourism board (valdisere.com). Many thanks to Rosie, Kerstin and Cecile for their help in organising the trip.