The Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard: A gentle alpine giant

Words Pete Muir Photography Dan Milner

We can do it in a simple or difficult way. The easy path to Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard is the longest, taking 31km from the alpine town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, but it only has an average gradient of 4.4% and does not exceed never 6%.

The hard route means a detour to the village of Montvalezan, which shaves 5km from the distance but throws up vicious, steep sections that climb up to 13%.

Both routes are equally attractive, but the difficult path has a pink route, so let’s go all out.



Take the tracks

Bourg-Saint-Maurice is in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France, just below Mont Blanc and near the border with Italy.

During the winter, it is the center of skiing, being the starting point for the resorts of Les Arcs and La Plagne, with easy access to Tignes, Val d’Isère, Courchevel and Méribel.

Indeed, the valley in which it sits is home to more glamorous skiing venues than anywhere else in the world. And where there are ski resorts, there are usually good bikes.

From Bourg you can head northwest to the magnificent Cormet de Roselend, or south to the mighty Col de l’Iseran, or west to La Plagne, but today we let’s aim for the northeast, where the gate between France and Italy is guarded. via the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard.

It should not be confused with the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, its big brother, which culminates at 2,469 m and marks the border between Italy and Switzerland about 30 km to the north. This French Saint-Bernard may be little by comparison, but at 2,188m it’s still a big beast, and higher than the likes of the Col du Tourmalet.

The center of Bourg-Saint-Maurice is made up of chalet-style hotels, so there’s no shortage of places to grab a coffee and a croissant before cutting and following the main D1090 road east out of town . A series of roundabouts sees Bourg turn into Séez, where the gradient tapers upwards, but there’s nothing that can’t be dealt with with a few taps on the tape.

A gently curving hairpin staircase lifts you above the city and into a verdant world of forests and fields. The road remains wide and the pool table smooth – perfect for driving your Ferrari to Val d’Isere, but equally good for cycling to the Italian border.

After about 6km you arrive at a crossroads where you have to decide: easy way or difficult way? Of course, you have already made your decision, so you ignore the sign indicating the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard and take the D84 towards Montvalezan.

At the crossroads you also see a small pink sign saying ‘Montée de La Rosière’ with a picture of a cyclist. And as you ride, you can’t help but notice that the cyclist in the photo appears to be leaning upwards at an alarming angle.

Pretty in pink

La Rosière is a small ski resort which decided a few years ago that it had to do something to raise its profile and compete with its bigger and better known neighbours. City officials emptied the piggy bank and formulated a plan – to host a stage finish at the 2018 Tour de France.

And so it is that in stage 11 the peloton leaves Albertville, crosses the except category Ascent of Bisanne and the Cormet de Roselend, before descending to Bourg-Saint-Maurice and following exactly the same route as this climb, via Montvalezan and until the arrival at La Rosière.

A breakaway that day reached the final Cat 1 climb before disintegrating, leaving Spaniard Mikel Nieve alone up front. But the hunt was on. Geraint Thomas attacked from the peloton with 6km to go, bridged Tom Dumoulin and Damiano Caruso, and the trio set about cutting Nieve’s one-minute lead.

The Spaniard emptied out on the final climb but was heartbroken by Thomas, who overtook him in the final 200m to win the stage and take the yellow jersey – which he kept until Paris .

To celebrate this day, La Rosière now hosts an annual “cyclo-escalade”, where all comers can pay €5 to climb the climb from Séez to La Rosière on one of five dates in the summer (see larosiere.net for details).

The 17km climb averages 6%, but a central 6km stretch rises to inclines well over 10% and culminates in a section that has been painted bright pink to match the hazy haze that will descend before your eyes as you climb its steep slope.

Long way to go

Once in La Rosière, the pros had to stop. Not you. Now back on the main road to the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard, there are still 8km to go to the summit. The good news is that from then on, it rarely exceeds 6%.

The trees begin to thin out and the landscape becomes more arid and rocky. The road, however, remains as pristine as ever. In the distance, in the distance, the square silhouette of the Hospice du Petit-Saint-Bernard stands on the horizon line.

It is an austere, gray block of a building that houses a hotel and was the site of a traveler’s hostel for centuries. And he’ll be a bit older by the time you get to his doorstep, having watched him grow excruciatingly slowly as you climb a road that has remarkably few turns for an alpine pass.

It’s a stretch of road that has only seen Tour action four times, first in 1949 on a stage won by Fausto Coppi, and most recently in 2009 the other way around.

Italian Franco Pellizotti was the first to reach the summit, while Spaniard Mikel Astarloza won the stage – although both were later stripped of their results and handed two-year bans for reasons that will be familiar to all fans of professional cycling.

After passing the Hospice and the statue of St Bernard himself on top of a rock pillar, there is another 1 km to the top. Come here in June and this stretch of road will cut through high walls of packed snow, which will not yet melt under the summer sun. A month later, the snow will be gone and the surrounding hills covered in dense, rough grass.

Eventually, the road levels out, a scattering of rustic buildings appears and a sign informs you that there is no more Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard to climb. It says “Welcome to Italy”.

With thanks to Shelley and Adrian from Alpcycles. For road cycling holidays in the French and Italian Alps, visit alpcycles.com

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