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November 25, 2019 12 min read

In September 2019 we headed to Susa in the Italian Alps. We had 3 days to to ride the best climbs in the area, the Colle delle Finestre, Sestriere, Col d'Izoard, Col d'Agnel, and the big one, the Colle del Nivolet, Europe's finest climb.

Day 1 - Colle Delle Finestre and Sestriere

90km 

2600m of elevation

We started our Italian adventure in the picturesque walled town of Susa located 51km West of Turin, nestling at the foot of the Cottian Alps. We had breakfast in our Airbnb apartment, got our kit together and wheeled the bikes out onto a beautifully sunny September morning. The sleepy town still quiet aside from the sounds of the church bells ringing and the click clack of cleats as we walked down the ancient cobblestone street, through the hidden tunnels into the town square. 

As every cyclist knows, a good ride starts with coffee and today was no different - sat out in the sunshine we sipped on espresso and cortado’s before we clipped in. The Italians of course take pride in their coffee and I don’t think I had a bad one the whole time we were there. With our desire for caffeine satisfied we made our way through the town warming up the legs for what lay ahead - the Colle delle Finestre - made famous from appearances in the Giro D’Italia with the last 8km being a twisting trail of gravel to the summit. Memories of Alberto Contrador lighting up the race and more recently Chris Froome were fresh in my mind as we turned off the main road onto the foot of the climb only a few hundred meters from Susa town centre. 

From the foot of the climb it’s some 19km to the summit and with the 2nd half being entirely on gravel we knew to take it easy for the first part, especially with not having a big warm up before we started climbing. The immediate ramp out of Susa through the old village is perhaps the steepest part of the early climb and came as an early warning of what lay ahead.

The first part of the climb is narrow and covered in trees, you can’t see too far ahead or back down the mountain as the short switchbacks are pretty enclosed.  As we settled into a steady rhythm on the early slopes the gradients hovered at around 9-10% for the majority of the way up. The further we go up the less and less civilisation you see, only the odd farmhouse or barn providing any markers registering your progress.

Pretty soon the thick forest section appears, with a countless number of tight, narrow switchbacks. You can rarely see up or down the mountain for some time with many of the switchbacks very similar in appearance. It’s difficult to gauge how far you’ve come apart from the data staring back at me on my Wahoo. There’s no Alpine style kilometer markers to tick off on this old road. 

After a steady hour or so of climbing on tarmac the smoothness ends and the roughness begins - and it is very rough to begin with. My 25mm road tires bounce and dance over the loose stones, some the size of pebbles and others the size of a fist. The average speed drops straight away as I struggle to find a gear that's comfortable to spin and still maintain traction.

It is much tougher to keep a smooth pedal stroke going as you pick your line through the corners, staying seated to keep traction. The gravel at times is quite rutted, so much of the climb I spent trying to find the path of least resistance. This frequently meant riding completely on the wrong side of the road. Thankfully it’s a very quiet climb, I think we counted 3 cars all the way up, none of which were coming down towards us. 


We started the climb together and it was easy to ride together as a group on the smooth stuff but suddenly on gravel we found ourselves scattered on the mountainside as we each found our own pace and tried to tame the rutted, rocky gravel. At this point the mind turns to hopes of getting to the top without puncturing.

Every couple of switchbacks I stole a glance down the valley and could see the other guys grinding it out, everyone just in their own zone - engaged in their own personal battle with this brute of a climb.  A few kilometers from the top and the valley opens up and the beautiful summit comes into view, the remainder of the road snaking across the mountainside.

The climb certainly has a sting in the tail as the steepest part is typically and agonisingly saved for the summit - the last couple of switchbacks are savage. As I reached the top and I got my breath back I filled up my bidon at the very welcome fountain and looked back down the climb, what a view! As stunning as it is challenging, I was happy to tick this one off - all of us puncture free too, which was an achievement in itself considering we all rode standard road bikes with 25mm clinchers.

Once we all reached the gravelled summit we took a breather and some obligatory photos while chatting to a German Harley Davidson rider and some Italian cyclists in their 60’s, who were clearly regulars at this particular summit, judging by their impressive calves and freakishly small gears. 

As we took in the view it’s clear that the summit could be only half the battle. Should you wish, with a gravel bike and more strength you could climb so much higher than the 2178m of the Finestre, up to 2800m, entirely on closed gravel military roads on theLa Strada Militare Gran Serin or the Strada dell’Assietta. We make a note to come back with wider tyres and take these climbs on in the near future.

With so much gravel around it’s reassuring to see the descent ahead is firmly on tarmac. We quickly gain speed on some open and flowing corners. It’s a quick 11km down to the main road which we turned onto for the final climb of the day to Sestriere. The climb up to the Italian Ski resort is on wide roads and is quite gentle so it seems easy in comparison to its unpaved brute of a cousin down the valley. In truth it’s a relatively dull climb in comparisson to the day’s earlier adventure. From Sestriere it was a steady cruise back to Susa where we’d certainly worked up an appetite for pizza and a beer or 2 that evening.

Strava Route :https://www.strava.com/routes/22734565


Day 2- Col Agnel and Col D’Izoard 

135km 

3631m elevation 

To tackle these 2 giants we decided to drive across the French-Italian border and start the ride in the French town of Briancon, a regular in the Tour de France. We unloaded the BoC van and headed out of town on the valley road south which was nice and undulating for the first 30km or so, a slight tailwind meant we made it to the town of Guillestre for a quick coffee stop in no time before the serious climbing began. We needed the coffee, for what lay ahead was 40km of climbing up the 3rd highest paved pass in Europe.

 

After our brief stop we began the climb. Some immediate ramps over 10% out of Guillestre quickly warmed the legs, before the valley road began. Some beautiful scenery awaited us along the valley road to where the climb starts proper in the small village of Chateau Queyras - from here its 22km to the summit. 

 

The Col Agnel is a formidable climb which reaches 2744m. Only the cols of the Iseran and the mighty Stelvio are higher (The Cime de la Bonette is of course higher still, but that isn’t considered a Col) This height is something that comes as a bit of a surprise to one of our party who wasn't even going to pack a gilet today! Unlike its more famous cousins the Agnel is relatively unknown and not mentioned as much in greatest climb lists or magazine features - don’t let that put you off as it is a stunning climb which has it’s summit at the French/Italian Border.

Passing through the ski villages and small mountain towns the road winds up through a wide open valley, on the day we rode it the wind was whistling down - unfortunately for us this meant a tough headwind all the way to the summit. As we climbed higher there was a lot of fog to deal with, as the temperature and visibility dropped the wind got stronger, the last 4km to the summit were a real battle. As we made it to the summit we could barely make out the country sign showing the border between France and Italy; let alone any of the beautiful view which was hidden today. 

 

We zipped our gilets up and began the descent back down the same side - the first ten mins or so were freezing before we dropped below the cloud cover. Once the fog cleared and our hands warmed up we flew down the descent, the wind still blowing down the valley so we clocked up some decent speeds on the longer rolling sections, a nice reward after such 40km of climbing.

 

After the long descent we were on the lookout for somewhere to recover and refuel for the next climb. It was slim pickings. We stopped at the only place we could find that was open and ordered what was available at that time - the dryest ham and cheese sandwich known to man and a can of Coke. Looking back it might have been better to pour the drink over the sandwich to offer it some moisture as eating it was almost has tough as the climb we just did. It seems you can’t have it all. After we finished up the crusty delight we hit the valley road again to face the final challenge of the day - the Col D’Izoard. 

We began the climb at around 4.30pm. We knew the light was fading and we had around 2 hours of daylight to get over the Izoard and back to our van in Briancon. We only had basic lights, not designed for completely unlit mountain roads packed with switchbacks, so we knew we had to ride harder than we’d like for own safety. A lesson learned to set off earlier in the day or bring better lights.

I don’t know if it was the effect of climbing the Agnel before it, the fatigue from yesterday or maybe our sawdust-like lunch (perhaps all 3) but all of us struggled up the climb. As soon as you hit the foot of the climb on the road D947 you know that you are in for a challenge over the next 15km to the summit. 

The first few kilometers are very open and straight, and serve as a warm-up for what is to come - as you reach the village of Arvieux the gradient is already around 8% and soon after 10%. The further you climb the rougher the surrounding terrain becomes, the first hairpins cloaked in pines were beautiful in the fading light of the late afternoon. For the 5KM before the 2000m point the gradient does not drop below 8% - a real test for weary legs. I think it was at this point I wished I had eaten 2 of those dry baguettes. Damn it. 

 

A short descent swoops you down into the stunning Casse Deserte with the iconic monument of Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet - gone are the pines and open countryside and I found myself in luna amphitheatre surrounded by jagged rock formations on all sides and a view to the valley below - absolutely stunning. The summit is in reach now but not before passing a few 10% ramps, I’m ticking off the hairpins now, there’s not long to go. Reaching the top I sat on the summit sign and gathered our breath while I waited for the others.

The eerie silence of the valley shattered for a moment as a procession of Porsche drivers tear up the valley and over the top, their engines echoing around the valley. The rest of the guys arrived just as the sun was setting, meaning we had just enough time to descend before dark. 

 

The descent is perhaps as good as any descent in the Alps. It starts with wide open views and super flowing corners, then heads through the forest where the switchbacks continue in abundance, the light fading still further with the trees overhead. We flew down back to Briancon nearly as fast a German sports car as the light turned to black, another epic day in the saddle.

Strava Route :https://www.strava.com/routes/22734613

Day 3 - Colle Del Nivolet 

80km 

2300m elevation

To say I was excited to ride up the Nivolet would be an understatement. I have read numerous articles and blogs about its amazing scenery, challenging slopes and picture perfect lakes and stone dams on the mountain side. This was the Italian climb I was most looking forward to, and what was to come did not disappoint. 

After breakfast we loaded the BoC van and headed out on to the road on a perfect Italian morning, blue skies and hardly any wind. From Susa to Locana where we planned to start the ride it was about a 90 minute drive. Once we arrived we unloaded the bikes and had a quick espresso at a small cafe in Locana, just off the main road heading into town. Bunting and Giro posters still adorning the walls from when the race passed through here a few months before for the first time ever. 

A lively little place, the cafe seemed to be the hub of the town as people came in and out chatting to one another and enjoying the morning. Locana is already on the climb and it is possible to start from further down the valley but from here it was still 40km of climbing to the summit where it tops out at 2641m, another giant. 

Setting off from Locana you’re on the same road the whole way up the valley right to the summit. The first half of the climb is in truth quite unremarkable with some light traffic, it's not until further up the climb really gets interesting. After 14km of climbing you come to a tunnel - I would advise not to ride through it as its 3.5km long and has an average gradient of over 9%, it’s not a nice place to be. instead take a left turn 100m before the entrance and take the old road up the mountain instead - its recently been resurfaced and is closed to cars. The old road meets up with the main road after a couple of kilometers and it's a much prettier detour along the side of the river and cliff face. The climb starts to get tough here too, with some steep ramps on the way up over some nice hairpin bends on perfect tarmac. 

After we reached Lago di Ceresole there is a short descent, a nice breather to spin the legs out and take in the view of the lake to the left. From here it's about 15km to go to the summit and the climb really opens up and shows its breathtaking scenery. Hairpin turns twist left and right up the mountainside before you reach the first of 2 hydroelectric dams, the first of which is Lago di Serru - absolutely stunning backdrop on a clear day. It was here where the Giro d’Italia finished on it’s first ever race up the Nivolet in 2019. We stop, not for the first time, to take photos of the Dam and the stunning backdrop. Regular photo stops would be a feature of the next few KM’s, the sheer beauty of the climb was everything we hoped for and more.

Another few KM’s later and more switchbacks passed, we reach Lago Agnel, another beatifully blue body of water with short flatter sections of road as the tarmac navigates around the waters. Once across a small bridge over the water, the road pitches up again and doubles back on itself, rewarding you with views of both lakes and the road draped down the valley like a piece of concrete spaghetti. What lies ahead is perhaps the finest piece of road design we have ever seen. Despite nearly 40km of climbing in the legs, we don’t want it to end. The view changes on every twisty corner, the views of the lakes below change with every few meters of climbing, getting better and better until we reach the summit. Even then, we don’t want it to stop. We want more. We ride over the summit and take in the view over the other side. The road does drop down over the other side into the Aosta region of Italy, but it does end after a KM or so by another lake. With only hiking available from there.

This is a climb with only 1 side, and that’s a very good thing. It means you get to take in the views a 2nd time on the way back down, with 40km of descending to come down what we crown as the finest climb in Europe, if not the world. 

The Colle del Nivolet really is an epic climb. So epic in fact, it made us feel emotional, stood at the summit together as friends, we knew we probably would never enjoy another climb quite as much as this one, no matter where we ride in the future.

Strava Route :https://www.strava.com/routes/22734665

 


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