Cycling in Italy: Colle del Nivolet

Region: Between the Aosta
Valley & Piedmont, Italy
Departure: Locana
Length: 40.5 kms
Elevation: 2,612 metres
Elevation Gain: 1,999 metres
Average Gradient: 4.7%
Maximum gradient: 14.0%

Despite many cycling holidays in Italy, I’d never  heard of the Colle del Nivolet until it was recommended to me by a good cycling friend, 70-plus year-old Eric. Known for its beauty, the 2,612 metre summit is located at the top of the Orca Valley on the road from Turin to Ceresole Reale, in the heart of the Gran Paradiso National Park. The colle forms part of the boundary between the Aosta Valley and the Piedmont region in northern Italy.
Purportedly the 11th-highest paved road in Europe, the route was built between 1953 and 1963 to service two hydroelectric dams – both passed on the higher stretches of the climb.

Due to a tight schedule, which involved leaving for Modane (France) the next day, I had little option but to climb the Nivolet the next morning before I left. While I'd previously arrived in Locana late in the afternoon in sunny weather, the morning was filled with dark-grey skies and the threat of rain.  

The 40 kilometre ride to the summit started out easy enough; it hovered between 3% and 4% (on the SP40) for the first 12 kilometres. But like the beginning of France’s Col de Vars (from Jausiers) and the Col de la Croix de Fer (along the D526 from Le Bourg-d’Oisans), I soon realised that it plays the imposter, giving the rider little idea of the steep gradients above.
The first obstacle, 15 kilometres into the climb was a 3.5 kilometre long tunnel. Never a favourite of mine, long tunnels, particularly those that are narrow and without lights, make me feel uneasy; even the short ones. The tunnel towards CeresoleReale and its artificial lake disguised as a dam – the Lago di Ceresole – is the longest and steepest tunnel I’ve heard of in relation to cycling; it has an approximately 8% average gradient that rises as high as 14% on occasions.
Fortunately, there was an alternative route, one I was happy to try perchance. It included hairpin bends, though not as many as I imagined, along the remains of secondary roads that meandered steadily upwards adjacent to the tunnel.

After three kilometres of easy cycling and with little more than 15 kilometres left to travel, the SP50 road from Ceresole Reale soon left the Orca River Valley behind.  From now on I'd be travelling along the steepest part of the climb, which contained more than 30 hairpin bends and lengthy gradients of 9% and 10%. 

Nivolet is a gruelling climb, but I dare say much harder and dangerous in bleak conditions. The closer I drew towards the summit the colder it became and the more difficult it was to see. Known for its extreme and unpredictable weather conditions; blizzards, snowstorms and even landslides, it was an unnerving, solo journey towards the top. As for the artificial lakes, Lago Serrù and the smaller Lago Agnel, located directly below the pass, it was almost impossible to see them through the mist.
Once at the summit, I spent little time taking in the views. Unlike most road mountain crests there was none to be had; just icy snow and a view of little more than 30 metres. I'd read that the paved road descends for another two kilometres, towards the Piedmonte-Aosta border. I was curious but with my hands numb and shivering with the cold it wasn’t worth the risk. I learned why the pass is closed between mid-October and the middle of May each year; and I was cycling in early June.
Glad to have made the climb, I was nevertheless wary of the descent down the slippery, lonely road. There was not one cyclist or motorcar to be seen, not even one below the snowline. Would I make the climb again? You bet I would, but I’d be more careful about the day I'd choose to do it. I've experienced steeper but given the weather, it was probably the most dangerous climb I've even done.
Books by Mark Krieger:

‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books

Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante

“I still must abide by the rules of the road, of biking, of gravity. But I am mentally far away from civilization.”

                    US author and poet Diane Ackerman


Cycling in Austria: Kitzbüheler Horn

Region: Tirol, Austria
Departure: Höglern
Length: 9.7kms
Altitude: 1996 metres
Height Gain: 1250 metres
Average Gradient: 12.9%
Maximum gradient: 22.5%


There aren’t too many road climbs around double figures that exceed more than 10%. Italy’s Passo del Mortirolo, Monte Zoncolan – from each of its three routes – and Spain’s Alto del Angliru, immediately come to mind but perhaps surprising to many cycling enthusiasts, none of them are as steep as Austria’s Kitzbüheler Horn

Kitzbüheler Horn was one of the three toughest climbs I did back in the European summer of 2012. The other two high Alpine roads were Rettenbachferner and Grossglockner. Close to the summit, Das Alpenhaus, a so-called Alpine house and meeting place for skiers and snowboarders during winter, has provided the finish of the King or Queen Stage of the Tour of Austria over many years, including last year, (2017).

Beginning from Höglern, the road up onto Kitzbüheler Horn is incredibly steep and winding. The first 800 metres of the climb’s 9.7 kilometres is by far the easiest, should you regard 8.9% a comfortable gradient. Arthurs Seat, near where I live, has always been a formidable task for me, but one I’ve grown used to. Three kilometers with an 8.1% average gradient is tough enough but it is nothing compared to the Austrian climb's 9 kilometres ahead, even with a 34x30 gear ratio. 

Alternating between 12 and 15%, the road zigzagged back and forth, and like just about all of the fabled climbs, it became ever harder the higher I climbed. I didn’t know at the time, but the final 2 kilometres was along privately-owned road, a very thin road, little more than a metre wide. Averaging 17.5% and maxing out above 22%, the final 700 metres of ‘footpath’ towards Kitzbüheler Horn’s 1996 metre summit, was a hell of a way to finish. Incredibly steep, I dreaded the thought of coming to a sudden halt, for fear of not being able to get back on my bike. If you’ve climbed the final 3 kilometres of Monte Zoncolan, from Sutrio or Priola, you’ll know exactly what I mean: tough!   
But one thing is for sure, the sprawling views of the valley below and the mountains beyond are well worth the sweat and heavy breathing of the last hour. Like all great climbs, it's well worth the effort!
 Books by Mark Krieger:

‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books

Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante

“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

                                  English author Iris Murdoch


Cycling in the French Alps: The Col d'Izoard

Departure: Guillestre
Length: 31.7km
Altitude: 2,360m 
Height Gain: 1,438m
Average Gradient: 4.5%
Maximum gradient: 7.0%

With Ventoux behind me, I was looking forward to continuing my journey through the Alps, and eventually back to the medieval town of Langres, where it all started. While long and challenging, the ride from the valley floor of Eygliers to the thriving city of Grenoble was probably the most satisfying of all the days I’d ridden so far.
Heading off early, I was a lone figure along deserted mountain roads. The Information Route sign just out of Guillestre told me that there was literally a smorgasbord of climbing opportunities available. Travelling ever so gently along the D902, I began heading northeast through the strikingly beautiful narrow canyon known as the Combe du Queyras. Though cycling through mist and drizzle, the heaviness of the morning didn’t detract one iota from the stunning scenery along the fast-running Guil River below me. In fact, it was a welcome relief from the oppressive heat of the day before.

Riding along such a quiet and remote mountain route I had plenty of time to think. You can do that when you’re not trying to hold your nerve along busy roads or second-guessing the movements of erratic drivers. Here I was, virtually travelling in the shadows of Napoleon’s Alpine army. I was still in the Southern Alps, but a long way –  not just literally, but also metaphorically – from the Mediterranean coast. Gone were the black single-cylinder mopeds, the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the car horns and the unpredictable traffic lights that led to the even more unpredictable behaviour of motorists. And while travelling along remote Alpine roads, there wasn’t much chance of taking a wrong turn and getting lost. Quite unequivocally, give me the mountains any day.

Close to the Italian border, at the junction of the D902 and D947, was the turn-off to the Col d’Izoard (2,360 metres). Separating the Guil and Cerveyrette valleys, the remoteness and beauty of its route, amidst a stunning geological backdrop, is as scenic as it gets. Once at the turn-off, the gradient becomes more severe, along an almost constant straight line of more than 6 kilometres, until you reach the tiny village of Brunissard. From here the road winds steeply through the trees. Finally, as you get closer to the top, the surrounding landscape changes dramatically and you find yourself in the barren scree slopes of the Casse Déserte wilderness, which are often photographed to showcase the Tour de France.
The village of Brunissard
Standing below the eroded cliffs of the Casse Déserte, about 2 kilometres from the summit, is the memorial to two of the great Tour riders: Frenchman Louison Bobet and the great Italian cyclist, Fausto Coppi. Dual winner of the Tour de France, in 1949 and 1952, Coppi also won the World Championship Road Race in 1953 and the Giro d’Italia on no less than five occasions.

In the 1953 Tour, Bobet, on his way to gaining the yellow jersey, and the ultimate prize, took the lead at the foot of the unmade road up the Col d’Izoard and was almost nine minutes ahead of the pack by the time he reached the summit. Not competing in the race that year, Coppi stood underneath the Casse Déserte, at the site where the memorial now stands, watching Bobet’s famous breakaway. As Bobet rode in indomitable isolation past him and other spectators, the awestruck Italian was heard to say to French team manager, Marcel Bidot, “Beautiful, that was simply beautiful.” No fluke, and testament to his durability and determination, Bobet also went on to win the Tour de France the next two years, becoming the first- ever three-time winner of this great event.

Riding in perfect isolation, though not nearly as perfect as Louison Bobet’s climb that day back in 1953, it didn’t take me much longer to reach the top. Hardly surprisingly, there were spectacular views from the summit down each side of the col – and there were many people sightseeing and taking photographs.

           Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round
Books by Mark Krieger:

‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books

Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante

“Ride as much or as little, as long or as short as you feel. But ride”.                          
                          Eddy Merckx, Belgian road cycling legend