2008 France Italy Switzerland

The Alps #3

This is the report of the Tour de Nivolet, my cycling holiday in mountainous areas in Switzerland, France and Italy. Results: nine passes and a very special off-road detour. In seven days I cycle some 600 kilometers and climb 12,700 meters.


When I was a kid I was studying the map of the National Park Gran Paradiso: all those narrow valleys leading to Italy’s pride. I also noticed a high pass road, the Colle del Nivolet, suited for motorized vehicles on one side. That was where I wanted to go once. Last year I was watching the map in order to decide exactly where in the Alps I should go next and googled ‘Nivolet’. One of the hits led me to Jerry Nilson from Sweden who had cycled over the pass road. It made me curious, so I mailed him, and his reply was as follows:

‘Hi Willem,

(…) it would be easy to just go right soon after the Refugio-shop where the asphalt ends and simply walk down the path along the little stream. You will probably not be able to cycle more than 200-300 m or so down this vague track, which soon turns into paths. I think you get over on the right side of the stream and try not get too far off from it – many confusing paths down there – but as long as you seem to go in a somewhat straight line ahead it should take you down to the cross and the serpentine path down to Pont. The serpentine path is wide and good, but I still managed to fall headlessly down the steep side (no good with cycling shoes). The walking takes you 3 hours at normal speed without stopping down to Pon, a bit longer than one would suspect looking at the maps and even while being there, but it is some way down. If you have heavy packaging it might take a bit longer. Hope you will have nice weather and a nice trip!

Jerry Nilson’

With the opportunity of crossing the Nivolet this way I really had to go…

Day 1: Martigny > St Gervais-les-Bains (80 km)

Yesterday I took a night train for the first time since I went on Interrail back in ’92. Not very cheap, but quite convenient. From Lake Geneva I am sitting in a train carriage with twelve Japanese tourists who make pictures of almost everything they see. The conductor informs me that this group booked the entire carriage, but he has no problem whatsoever with my presence. We have a nice talk about his house near Montey.

It is 11.15 am when I get on my bike and leave Martigny. After a few kilometers I turn right to the Col de la Forclaz: a not very spectacular road that starts between the vineyards. The height difference to the pass height is just one kilometer, but I have to do it in thirteen kilometers at 8% on average. The temperature – 30 °C in the shade – makes it a tough ride. From the beginning to the summit there is no shade, and despite that I am wearing sunglasses and a hat I develop a headache. Just like at off-days during previous cycling holidays in the Alps I declare it’s the last time I cycle with luggage in the mountains.

When I have finally reached the summit (1,526 m). I buy myself a large coke. On the bike again I go down to France until I have to climb again, this time to the Col des Montets. To be honest, it is pretty nice here, and certainly not as neat as in Switzerland. On top of the pass (1,461 m) I can see a large white bulb: that must be the Mont Blanc! The descent is beautiful, with at the left hand the immense Massif de Mont Blanc with all its steep ridges and glaciers.

Argentières and especially Chamonix are terrible places crowded with American tourists. After Chamonix a four-lane road starts, which even becomes a highway a bit further. I am lucky to find this road sign “cycling route” and continue on a secondary road. Great. For 90 minutes I climb all kinds of narrow and steep roads, and climb a few hundred climbing meters more than planned. The sun makes my hamstrings hurt. I cycle at such slow pace that a road skier is overhauling me. I hope nobody is witnessing this.

And then at last, there is the road to St Gervais-les-Bains. The ascent to the campsite, some three kilometers behind the ski resort, is easy. The friendly camping boss tells me that the temperatures in this region have been very high this year, between 30 and 35 °C. After getting instant noodles there is little time left to watch the bats fly before it’s completely dark.

Day 2: St Gervais-les-Bains > Bourg-St Maurice (96 km)

St Gervais is a nice town, quite sophisticated so to speak. In contrast, the higher situated town of Mégève is a ski resort without soul, the big supermarket where I get my breakfast being the only positive element. On the map the ride from Mégeve along the river looked promising, but in practice it is fairly dull. I am happy to turn left, onto the road to the Col de Saisies. From the very start there is quite some climbing involved. I do not enjoy the landscape around here: the entire area is destined for skiing. Even on the summit of the road (1,650 m) are ski slopes, drag lifts, a restaurant and other entertainment. French ski area planners sans frontiers…

But, let’s stop whining, as a much more beautiful part of France including the magnificent view of the Mont Blanc awaits me. In the nice town of Beaufort I have lunch in front of the mini-Casino. Next starts the ascent of the Cormet de Roselend. The first few kilometers I cycle in the woods and there it is relatively cool. But then the shade becomes less, and the temperature rises to 30 °C. Due to all the sweating I attract lots of nasty flies circling around my head all the time. After a while I cross the ridge and reach a high-altitude valley with a reservoir. It is beautiful here! The view of the surrounding mountains is panoramic, and commercial activities, as with some of the other pas roads, are absent. After a coke I climb another 400 meters to the summit of the pass road (1,926 m).

The descent on the eastern side of the Roselend is amazing. At some point I have a splendid view of the Mont Blanc, but I have no time to lose. I continue quickly through a canyon with hairpins. I finally arrive at 7.40 pm in Bourg St Maurice. As the shops are closed I have no choice but to go to McDonald’s. At the camping I meet a Swiss couple of about 50 years old, travelling by bike with their luggage all around the Alps. I am impressed! This week I will hardly see people cycling with luggage; unfortunately I will notice hundreds of motor cyclists.

Day 3: Bourg St Maurice > Lanslebourg (82 km)

After getting groceries at the Intermarché, I leave for the Col d’Iseran at 9 am. The ascent consists of four stages: first an easy-going slope, then fifteen kilometers climbing at 5-9%, next an easy part through the ski resort Val d’Isere, and finally some more climbing at 5-9%. So it isn’t too difficult. The valley is beautiful, particularly the right side where the snow-covered Mont Pourri (3,779 m) rises majestically above the forests and alms.

It gets ugly though from the moment the ski resorts become visible. Around Tignes, situated a few kilometers westwards, lots of ski lifts are visible on the high mountains. In my opinion it is hypocrite to draw the boundaries of the French national parks just around these high altitude lifts. They might as well stuff the whole area. Having that in mind I enter Val d’Isere, which in fact is fully stuffed with ugly hotels, bar/restaurants and lifts. After a few more kilometers it starts drizzling followed by a hailstorm and sounds of thunder. On the highest point (2,764 m) it is dry again. I want to make a picture of myself next to the summit sign, but the two Germans who just arrived there in their old Land Rover keep posing on the same spot for several minutes. Well, they deserve to celebrate after such an achievement.

The south side of the pass road is far more beautiful and rougher, and ski lifts are absent. After Bonneval sur Arc it starts thundering: on my left the weather is terrible, while the sun is shining on the mountains on my right side. Very special. I really have to keep going in this long stretched valley. For just 6.50 euros I find myself a nice, small camp site in Lanslebourg. The numerous mosquitoes and flies force me to stay in the tent. My legs and nose are burnt despite using sun cream factor 25.

Day 4: Lanslebourg > Viú (103 km)

My left hip hurts so much that I cannot sleep any longer so I get up at 7 am. This must be what ageing feels like. No bread is sold in the supermarket, but no worries: I have saved some from yesterday, and have already cooked noodles before I left. The ascent of the Mont Cenis is not too difficult and in fact quite boring: a series of long stretched hairpins with only a few shade spots. At the pass height (2,084 m) the landscape changes. On the opposite side of the reservoir lake I can see beautiful mountains with lots of snow on their flanks.

Cycling down to the Valle di Susa is enjoyable: more than in Switzerland or France, Italian mountain roads tend to follow the shapes of the mountains better. So no boring straight roads with hairpins, but instead meandering roads with after every bend a surprise. Half way the descent the road is under construction and not passable, but I manage to lift the bike over large concrete blocks.

The lower valley going from Susa to Torino is hot due to the lack of shade. I follow the S24, a broad main road, which is relatively quiet thanks to the nearby parallel highway and siesta time. Then after a while, I encounter another roadblock. This time they have removed an entire bridge over a wild mountain river. I manage to find my way through a meadow and push my bike under the barbed wire just before the farmer and his cows arrive there.

The ascent to the Col del Lys has been giving me headaches for some nights. The height profile that I had grabbed from the web shows, amongst other things, one continuous part of three kilometers at 15%. With that steep part in mind, but also a temperature of 32 °C and a shortage of water, I am extremely reluctant to start this climb. But, after just a few kilometers cycling through a rich neighborhood I notice a roofed fountain where I can fill the bottles. Cycling on much happier I drink a large coke for only 1.50 euros in the shade.

I am starting to realize that the altitude profile I brought with me can’t be correct. The road is just fairly steep, between 5 and 10%. The profile must originate from an alternative ATB track. According to the road map the landscape is beautiful, but unfortunately I can’t see hardly anything due to all the trees along the road. One kilometer before the summit it starts raining and hailing. The temperature drops to 15 °C. On the pass height (1,311 m) I find shelter in a café and buy another coke. Immediately after it has stopped raining I get on the bike again. The beautiful road meanders along the flanks of the high hills and through little villages.

In Viú I buy groceries and check in at the camping. It appears to be one for mobile homes, but I am allowed to pitch my tent on a small piece of grassland covered with molehills. It keeps raining and with no camping alternative available I decide to stay. At the moment the camping manager charges 12 euros for one night (excluding a shower coin) I explode. He offers 10 euro instead and I accept reluctantly. After the cold shower (the coin didn’t work) I run through the rain to my tent where I will cook a delicious meal.

Day 5: Viú > Prese / Ceresole (89 km)

First on my action list of this morning is visiting Viú’s cozy village shop: a hot room full of flies and all kinds of food. The shop girl works very hard to help the many customers. After fifteen minutes it’s my turn. I am completely warmed up when I walk out of the shop with bread. The road to Lanzo meanders downstream along the hills. Lanzo is a nice town on a hill, with a long-stretched shopping street in the center, and also (covered) alleys and staircases. A small version of Perugia, one might say.

Next I arrive in Corio, where I eat the bread on a picturesque church square. In another village I ask a car driver the road to Rivara. The young woman points to the right direction and, to my surprise, keeps driving behind me for many kilometers until the junction where Rivara is mentioned on the road sign. This ‘service excellence’ confirms me in my belief that many Italians are helpful and cordial.

From Rivara on it is hot (30 °C) which makes cycling a challenge. There is barely any shade, but luckily also little traffic on the excellent road. I now enter Valle di Locana, the southern entrance to the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, which lacks ski areas. The Gran Paradiso (4,061 m), the highest mountain entirely on Italian grounds, is covered in the clouds today. Nearly 20 kilometers further on in the valley, in Locana (613 m), I buy myself a coke and eat a second roll with marmalade.

Next I climb for some ten kilometers to Noasca, which lies 400 meters higher. Time for another coke. Just after Noasca follow five steep (up to 15%) hairpins, and yet this “interval training” seems to suit me better than incremental climbs for long stretches, like previously today. What follows is a 3.5 kilometers long tunnel, 5-8% on average and in the middle for one kilometer 10-15%. This is doable, thanks to the low temperature here. Today I love tunnels!

Right out of the tunnel I see a gigantic cumulus in the air in front of me, and, at the same time, a road leading to a camp site. Time to call it a day. I can recommend this camping to all people interested in pitching a tent on a quiet, flat place and do not need hot water. The view of the Levanna mountains on the border with France (behind which the Col d’Iseran is located) is really splendid.

Day 6: Prese > Aosta (74 km)

I can definitely recommend the Colle del Nivolet! I first climb to Ceresole, which is situated at the border of a long-stretched basin. There are few hotels here, but at least six (!) campsites two of which packed with scouting army tents. I have breakfast at a lovely spot near the end of the lake. Ski lifts are absent. Instead, I see huge traffic signs stating that during the summer, motorized vehicles are not allowed on the upper part of the pass road, to give some space for hikers and bikers.

From the lake onwards I cycle some 600 meters in eight kilometers before I arrive at a smaller basin. And from here it’s another 400 meters’ climbing along a steep mountain wall to reach the pass height (2,612 m). The road is narrow, diverse and not very steep, and offers excellent views of the part done so far beneath me. The only negative thing are these terrible flies, which are only absent when the wind blows them away – for a few seconds.

When I reach the pass height there is no summit sign. How can I prove that I have been here… One kilometer further I drink a coke and eat a banana, and while enjoying the view of the Gran Paradiso, I leave for Aosta. The hikers up here look surprised that I’m cycling on a non-suspension bike with luggage on a hiking trail. But I have “secret information”: Jerry Nilson’s e-mail has convinced me of the possibility to descent on trails by bike. And hey, he did it in three hours, so I can do that as well.

The first part goes more smoothly than I’d expected. I cycle through a high valley in which a small stream is meandering. The trail follows the east side of this stream. Often I have to walk, but sometimes it is possible to cycle for a few hundred meters. I really haven’t got a clue what took this Nilson so long – this is really easy! I am getting very excited and imagine that, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, I currently score a straight 10.

Shortly thereafter appear a few man-sized rocks which I have to clamble. No problem. But then yet another rock, and another… There are boulders, rock plates and mud all over the place. This continues for a long while. This is not very enjoyable with a heavily loaded bike. But, I keep on going because, according to Jerry’s briefing, from a cross a simple path to Pont leads down to Pont.

It takes me more than 90 minutes to reach that cross. But then the real trouble starts. I look into the deep and notice a small path zigzagging 300 meters down. At this very moment I realize that Jerry might have cycled on a cross-bike or a racing bike with only a small rucksack… For the next two hours I manage to take myself, the bike and 20 kilos of luggage down over and between rocks. The brakes, which I am using all the time except when I carry the bike, are having a hard time. Several times the left pedal sticks into my right heel, I am fortunate not to fall.

I am so F U R I O U S that I want to keep ahead of an older lady walking here, but eventually I have to let her pass. Her companion declares it’s silly what I’m doing: it isn’t possible to descend from this mountain with such a bike. Sure, so what am I doing right now?! When I finally see the little village of Pont below me, I can hear thunder and it starts raining. All in all I took me some three and a half hours to get down from the Colle del Nivolet, which doesn’t sound too bad at all.

I put my raincoat on and head for Aosta at once, hoping to avoid the thundershower. Wishful thinking… It starts pouring down so heavily that I can hardly see the road. Using the brakes is difficult as the brake pads are worn out due to the constant use during the way down from the cross. After a few kilometers I am fortunate pass by a youth hostel where I can shelter under a canopy for a while. The shouting and screaming of the bambinos is louder than the noise of the heavy rain and the wild mountain stream nearby.

After twenty minutes I am so chilled that I have to get on the saddle again. The rain intensifies as soon as I am cycling. But now I really want to continue, even while some parts of the road are floated with water. Despite that I have to keep my eyes almost closed, I notice the beauty and roughness of the valley, which for many kilometers offers little more room than for the river and the road I am riding on.

Then at last I arrive in the sunny and broad Valle d’Aosta. The main road leads me into Aosta’s old town center in no time. I order a tourist menu at Ristorante-Pizzeria “Moderno”. The starter, a simple pesto pasta, is just perfect. But the main dish, a tasteless piece of chicken, is gross. Fortunately the ice cream tastes well again. The camp site is located a bit higher next to the St Bernard pass road offering a view of Aosta (600 m). I drink three cups of tea, listen to the thunder far away and dive into my sleeping bag. What a day!

Day 7: Aosta > Martigny (78 km)

All that I take for breakfast is one liter bottle of milk; I have to score bread somewhere along the road. While still riding in the outskirts of Aosta I see a hitch hiker with a folding bike standing next to the road. I shout: ‘Come on, cycle with me to Switzerland!’ After a few minutes he appears next to me! His name is Ingo, is German, works in Algeria, and arrived yesterday by plane in Milan to hitch-hike to Switzerland via the Grand St Bernard. At the other side of the tunnel he will meet a friend with whom he wants to go rock climbing. Ingo cycles with for several kilometers, quite a performance with those little wheels and an old weekend bag on the rear carrier. After having climbed some 300 meters he stops and resumes hitch hiking again.

The pass road is not steep, and this encourages me to cycle a little bit too fast. As a result I almost get cramp in my left leg. From Étroubles (1,264 m), where I can buy bread and chocolate, I decide to continue in the lowest gear, to prevent any more cramps with still 1200 meters climbing ahead of me. Near the junction of the pass road and tunnel road it starts raining. Too bad these low-hanging clouds, but at least it’s not so hot as earlier this week. Most people use the other, covered road leading to the entrance of the tunnel. The old pass road, that has little traffic, is being renovated completely. Bulldozers, excavators and laborers are all around here.

After five and half hours of cycling I finally reach the pass height (2,469 m). It is raining and the temperature is below 10 °C. As usual on pass roads in the Alps, German Motorfahrer take pictures of each other after their “riesen Leistung”. Toll! What remains for me is a long descent. The upper part is fairly steep and has some hairpins, but thereafter I can cycle 50 kilometers per hour for a long time using neither pedals nor brakes. In Martigny I use the shower facility of the local camping and catch an early train to Basel, where I switch to the night train to the Netherlands.