A quieter climb than the Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo (Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard)
At the head of the great Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps; the mountains rise up to form a seemingly impenetrable wall. The great Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and many other 3,000 metre plus mountains soar far above the valley floor.
The route to France is easy these days for vehicular traffic, since the Mont Blanc tunnel opened in 1965. Yet for the thousands of years before the tunnel opened; people had to find high passes through the peaks that are only passable when the snow melts in summer.
With the most famous of these passes being the Colle del Piccolo Sant Bernardo, or Col du Petit Saint Bernard in French. (N.B. for brevity and translation purposes, hereafter referred as the Little Saint Bernard). It is possible to cycle the same route that weary travellers have used down through the centuries. Some say that even the great Hannibal passed this way; as he took the fight to Rome.
However, the main road with its many blind corners is now used by speeding cars and motorbikes. That cause heavy pollution to fill the roadside where you are struggling to breathe as you climb the steep gradients. So if you go further south in the Aosta valley to the town of Morgex. Then carefully find the right road out of town; you can climb an almost deserted pass. Where you are left in peace to enjoy the ride. The name of this pass is the Colle de San Carlo.
I had a personal reason for doing this ride. A long time ago when I was just a small boy, I passed this way on a family holiday. My parents and four brothers were packed into an old Volvo 240 with its huge bumpers and a caravan in tow. With the Mont Blanc tunnel charging by the length of your vehicle; my hardworking parents could simply not afford the toll. The Little Saint Bernard was also closed for construction. So studying the maps, my mum found a tiny squiggly line climbing the contours west and in to France.
Asking in the local newsagent, the shopkeeper confirmed the Colle de San Carlo was open. He explained how you drive down the side of the Cafe Quinson in the town square; then cross the river. After that; just keep heading up. Although it was May; he warned to be careful as there were still snow drifts higher up the mountain.
So carefully weaving through the narrow streets of Morgex; we passed the Cafe Quinson. The alley seemed so narrow; it felt like we would arrive to their back garden. Yet the view opened once again as we crossed the Dora Baltea river. We then set off in to the forests as the mist descended around us. My father took it steady through the hairpins; with the caravan in tow. Yet a huge articulated lorry suddenly appeared and past us. We thought he must have been local; because he took the bends at speed, with the trailer inches from the walls on either side. Eventually reaching the summit of the Little Saint Bernard; the snow was still four to five metres deep in places. So the snowplough had to cut a perfect path with vertical walls of snow towering metres above us.
This time, in late June; the route was clear all the way to France. Furthermore, I was staying in a French campsite; so I drove over the Little Saint Bernard and down the Colle de San Carlo to begin the ride
I parked just across the river from the town square of Morgex. At the very base of the Colle San Carlo road. Look for the Mont Blanc mineral water bottling plant on Google maps, then park across the road from the entrance gate. Bearing in mind that by parking here; you will be immediately starting the climb with cold legs.
Into the cloud forests
So by the time I had driven from France; it was almost midday. Parking the car at the base of the climb; I readied my bike by lubricating the chain and inflating the tyres. Looking at the dark clouds over the mountain tops; it was hard to judge how many layers to wear. Too many and I will be hot; too few and I will get chilled on the descent. Guessing at just a jersey and packable gilet; I set off up the road.
The first few bends out of Morgex were brutal. My legs were cold from driving and the sudden change in exertion caused my heart to race. Yet after the first few hairpins; I soon found my rhythm and began to relax. The houses soon disappeared as I climbed up in to the forests.
It was midweek in June and the road was deserted. When the occasional vehicle passed; I pulled over to help them and to also not breathe in the cars exhaust fumes. I was not in race for a record breaking Strava segment; I was here to appreciate nature and to relax.
Turning a corner; I stopped to look at a raging torrent thundering down over the hard rock. The sound of the water was amazing as it echoed off the cliff faces. Whilst blackbirds sang and the wind whistled in the trees. Carefully clambering down over the wet rocks; I filled my water bottle back to the brim. Looking down into the bottle; there was no sediment so I tasted it without iodine tablets. It was delicious; better than any bottled mineral water and truly mountain fresh.
The Colle de San Carlo stays in the forest for most of the climb. With steep but short sections and numerous hairpins to keep taking you higher. Compared to the busy motorway of the Little Saint Bernard; I felt as if I was on a private road.
After well over an hour of hard climbing; the trees began to separate and give way to meadows. Distant valley views opened up between the trees and the air felt much fresher here. It was mid afternoon now; yet the fast moving clouds gave regular shade from the sun.
To the south, the upper Arpy valley rose up and away like a giant amphitheatre. It is possible to walk up to lakes in this valley. Where you can take in the views towards Mont Blanc.
Meanwhile, the roadside was lit up with a stunning carpet of wild flowers. Edelweiss, Daisies, Asters, Harebell, Crocuses and many more. Coming from England, where every square inch of land is owned, managed and over farmed; it was good to see nature in control.
Remembering Diego Pellegrini
Climbing up and around another hairpin bend; I saw a small plaque set into a retaining wall. Drawing near I could see the words and realised with sadness what had happened here in September of 1993. Roughly translated, the words say: ‘Tragic fate here stopped the race of Diego Pellegrini’.
The race finished at the bottom of the Colle de San Carlo; in Morgex. So the riders were going as fast as they could on this final descent. Before this hairpin; there is a long straight, on which riders reached speeds of 110kmph (68mph). Unaware of the hairpin ahead; one rider named Laddomada had already crashed off the road. Whilst he was being rescued from a storm drain; two riders: Paolo Savoldelli and Diego Pellegrini approached the scene. Savoldelli managed to weave his way between the support cars and the wall; whilst braking with his feet. Diego Pellegrini was not so fortunate.
The Colle de San Carlo
After leaving the scene of the tragic accident; I climbed up the last few miles of the Colle de San Carlo. I passed a large picnic area with brick barbecue stands and numerous wooden benches. I thought what a great place for a family picnic. Or just a peaceful camp spot for the passing bike packer. Climbing further still; I passed a small restaurant where the terrace was packed with walkers. Everyone here was enjoying the Aosta Valley and at a relaxing pace.
Just after the restaurant; the road suddenly levelled then began to descend in a short distance. I had reached the summit of the Colle de San Carlo. There were no hordes of serious looking cyclists with overpriced bikes; or motorbikes and campervans parked anywhere and everywhere. No, I was alone; surrounded only by trees and nature.
After taking a selfie with the Colle de San Carlo road sign; I put on my gilet and a Buff. I knew the descent would be cold at this altitude; along with the clouds covering the sun. As I began my descent; the view opened up in front of me. Down below on a high plateau was the town of La Thuile. I stopped again; to imagine all the weary travellers that had passed this way. Even the great Hannibal must have seen this same view; whilst pondering the issues of the day.
Down the dark and dirty main road
Descending from the Colle de San Carlo to La Thuile was short but sweet. A straight and clear road descended across the meadows and into the back of the town. La Thuile is now mostly a ski resort which felt strangely empty in mid June. With most of the buildings drab empty apartment blocks or pricey hotels; the traditional mountain way of life seemed to have for ever left town.
Reaching the main road coming down from the Little Saint Bernard pass; I turned right to head back down in to the Aosta valley. Immediately a tourist bus overtook me then stopped at the traffic lights for some road maintenance. As the bus idled in front of me; the foul smell of diesel began to fill my nostrils. Pulling off to one side; I waited for the lights to change with a grimace on my face.
When they did eventually change; I had to ride as hard as I could through a long tunnel that was reduced to one lane. Using the dirty slipstream of the bus; I just managed to clear the tunnel before traffic came the other way. Letting the cars behind me pass; I enjoyed a temporary silence once more. Although the road is wide; the sheer speed of the cars, motorbikes and buses made me baulk in disgust. Sure enough; I soon heard another wave of racing cars descending above me as the traffic lights had released them like bats out of hell.
Taking it steady and being aware of the traffic; I carefully descended the Little Saint Bernard. As you descend; you have to pass through six tunnels of varying lengths. Some are poorly lit and others contain blind bends. I was glad I had remembered to attach lights to my bike; which really helped me to be seen. However, for this reason; I would strongly advise against climbing up the Little Saint Bernard. Even with lights, slowly cycling after a blind bend; you really are at the mercy of the seemingly crazy car drivers.
Into the Aosta Valley once more
Reaching the valley floor once more; I arrived to the town of Pre-Saint-Didier. Here the Petit Saint Bernard meets the main road to the Mont Blanc Tunnel. The gentle gurgling of the river and the wind in the trees was drowned out by the heavy traffic. The town of Pre-Saint-Didier is a good place to stop for refreshments; with various cafes and restaurants on the road side.
I left Pre-Saint-Didier on a quiet back road that led along the opposite side of the Aosta Valley to the main road. Looking across the valley I could see the main road on stilts as it tried to maintain a steady gradient in this vertical landscape. I was tired but relaxed and the gentle descent helped me back to Morgex. After crossing a small stream by a campsite; the town of Morgex appeared below. In between were rows and rows of vineyards. Apparently; these vines produce a rare pink grape called the Roussin de Morgex. From which a pink sparkling wine is produced in small quantities.
Arriving to Morgex by a Agip petrol station; I carefully crossed the main road again. From here I could cycle alongside the Dora Baltea river on a much quieter road. Passing industrial units and the Mont Blanc mineral water plant; I soon arrived back to my car.
This place is hard to get to; even from Italy. Yet to ride in the upper Aosta Valley on the quieter back road of the Colle de San Carlo is a truly amazing experience. Surrounded, by the grandeur of the the mountains, the trees and green grass, the colourful flowers. To hear the babbling waters, the wind in the trees and the birdsong. Come and see for yourself and I hope you too can find a route to relax.
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