Switzerland, France & Italy (2008)

This report describes 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 manage to cycle 600 km and 12,700 altitude meters.


When I was a kid I was watching the map of the the National Park Gran Paradiso: al those narrow valleys leading to Italy's pride. I also noticed a high pass road, the Colle del Nivolet, on one side suited for motorized vehicles. That was where I wanted to go once. Last year I was watching the map in order to decide where in the Alps to tour and googled 'Nivolet'. One of the hits appeared to be Jerry Nilson from Sweden who had cycled over the pass road. It made me curious, I saw an opportunity. I mailed him about the Nivolet. 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'

And that is why I started this tour…

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

Yesterday I took a sleeping train night train yesterday for the first time since Interrail '92. Not as inexpensive as I had presumed, but I must admit it was excellent. At least I slept way better than in the cycle coach to Slovenia back in 2000. At 6.45 am I have to transfer in Basel. From Lake Geneva I am in a train carriage with twelve Japanese tourists who make pictures of everything they see. The conductor tells me as a formality that the whole carriage has been reserved by the group, but has no problem whatsoever with my presence. We have a nice talk about his house near Montey.

It is 11.15 am when I leave Martigny. After a few km I turn right to the Col de la Forclaz, a not too spectacular road between vineyards. To the pass height it is "just" 1 km vertical distance, but I have to do it in 13 km at constantly 8%. The temperature – 30 °C in the shade and over 40 °C in the sun – make it hard. From start to end there is no shade, and despite of the fact I am wearing sunglasses and a hat I get enormous headache. Just like off-days during my other cycling holidays in the Alps I declare this is the last time I cycle with luggage in the mountains. When I finally reach the summit (1,526 m) I buy myself a large coke, as usual. Next a short descent to France where the Col des Montets awaits me. To be honest, it is pretty nice here, not as "clean" as in Switzerland. On top of the pass (1,461 m) I can see a large white bulb: that must be the Mont Blanc!

Going down here is easy. At the left hand the immense Massif de Mont Blanc with all its steep ridges and glaciers. Argentières and foremost Chamonix are terrible places crowded with American tourists. After Chamonix a four-lane road leads down the valley. I am lucky to find this road sign "cycling route" and continue on a secondary road. However I fail to see a second sign. Great. For 90 minutes I climb all kinds of narrow and steep roads, and do a few hundred non-planned climbing meters. The sun makes my hamstrings hurt. I cycle at such slow pace that I am being overhauled by a road skier. I wish nobody saw that. And then at last, there is the road to St Gervais-les-Bains. The ascent to this ski resort is easy. The friendly camping boss tells me that the temperatures in this region are very high this year, between 30 and 35 °C. I have some instant bami and watch the bats until it gets dark.

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

St Gervais is a nice town, quite "mondain" so to speak. The higher situated town of Mégève however is an ice-cold ski resort, 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 is fairly dull instead. I am happy to turn left, the road to the Col de Saisies. I have to climb from the very start. I do not enjoy the landscape around here: a large ski area. Even on top of the mountain (1,650 m) are ski pistes, drag lifts, restaurant and entertainment. French ski area planners sans frontiers...

But, let's stop whining, because 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 miles I cycle in the woods and are relatively cool. But the shade becomes less and less, and the temperature rises to 30 °C. Due to all the sweating I am very attractive to these nasty flies circling around my head all the time.

After a while I cross the ridge and reach a high-altitude reservoir. It is beautiful here! A panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, and no commercial stuff. I buy myself a coke and continue my way up (400 m) the mountain. By now I have drunk some 3.5 liters. On the summit (1,926 m) I have some leftovers.

The descent on the eastern side of the Roselend is really fantastic. 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. It is not before 7.40 pm when I arrive in Bourg St Maurice. The shops are closed, that leaves me 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 notice cyclists with luggage, instead I will see hundreds of motor cyclists.

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

First thing to do today is go to the Intermarché. At 9 am I leave for the Col d’Iseran. The ascent consists of four stages: first an easy-going slope for a starter, next 5-9% for 15 km, after that easily through the ski resort Val d’Isere, and for desert quite a bit of modest climbing (5-9%). Not too difficult. The valley is beautiful, particularly the right side where the white Mont Pourri (3,779 m) rises majestically above the forests and alms.

The fun is over from the moment the ski resorts become visible. Near Tignes lots of drag 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 be honest and 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. I fully understand that the local inhabitants need some income, just like the Dutch with their Rotterdam harbor extensions (Maasvlakte) and their national airport Schiphol. Still I have to think of something while cycling. Anyway, after a few more miles 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 all they have put so much effort in reaching the top.

As expected, the south side of the pass road is far more beautiful, above all rougher, and drag 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 push the pedals in this long stretched valley. In Lanslebourg for just 6.50 Euro I find myself a nice, small camp site. The numerous mosquitoes and flies force me to stay in the tent. My legs and face are burnt despite sun cream factor 25.

Day 4: Lanslebourg > Viú (103 km)

My left hip hurts so much that I cannot sleep any longer after 7 am. Bad sleeping position for sure. Feels like being aged. No bread is sold in the supermarket, but no worry: I have saved some from yesterday, and I have also  brought with me some noodles. The ascent of the Mont Cenis is not too difficult and in fact quite boring: a series of long stretched hairpins with a few shade spots. At the summit (2,084 m) the landscape changes. On the opposite side of the reservoir lake I can see gorgeous mountains with lots of snow on the flanks.

Cycling down to the Valle di Susa is fun: Italian mountain roads follow the shapes of the mountains more than in Switzerland or France. So no boring straight roads with hairpins, but instead meandering roads with surprises after every bend. Half way down the road is under construction and not passable, but I manage to lift the bike over large concrete blocks. The low altitude valley going from Susa to Torino is hot and without 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, another roadblock. This time they have removed a complete bridge over a wild mountain river. I manage to escape through a meadow and push my bike under the barbed wire just before the farmer arrives with his cows.

The ascent of the Col del Lys has given me headaches for some nights. The height profile I grabbed from the web shows, amongst other things, one continuous part of 3 km 15%. Given this road, 32 °C and a shortage of water, I am extremely reluctant to do this climb. But, after just a few miles cycling through the rich village I see a roofed fountain. This must be my lucky day! After this pit-stop I can surely hit the road again. Cycling on much happier I have large coke for only 1.50 Euro in the shade. I start to realize that the altitude profile cannot be correct. The road is fairly steep, 5-10%, but never 15%. The profile I got must be of an alternative ATB route. Looking at the map the landscape should be beautiful, but unfortunately I can't see hardly anything because of the trees along the road. One mile before the summit it starts raining and hailing. Temperature drops to 15 °C. On the summit (1,311 m) I dive into this café and buy myself another coke. As soon as it stops raining I get on the bike again. The road is impressive, meandering along the high hills and through little villages.

Having arrived at the town of Viú I get myself some food for dinner and go to the camping. It appears to be a camp site for mobile homes, but I am allowed to pitch my tent on an small piece of grassland full of molehills. It keeps raining and with no camping alternative available I decide to stay. At the moment the camping manager charges 12 euro for this piece of crap (excluding a shower coin) I explode. He offers 10 euro right away and I accept. After the cold shower (the coin did not work) I run through the rain to my tent in which I will cook myself a delicious meal.

Day 5: Viú > Prese / Ceresole (89 km)

It is not before 9.30 am before I leave. First I go to Viú's cozy village shop, a hot room full of flies and foodstuff. The shop girls works very hard to help the loads of customers. After 15 minutes it is my turn and score  bread, I am completely warmed up when I walk out of the shop. 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 centre, and with (covered) alleys and staircases. Like in Perugia.

Next I arrive in Corio, where I eat the bread on a picturesque church square. In another village I ask a lady the road to Rivara. She points to the right direction and, to my surprise, she keeps driving behind we with her car for many miles until the junction where Rivara is 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 hard. There is barely any shade, but luckily also hardly any traffic on the excellent road. I enter the wooded and non-ski resort Valle di Locana, the southern entrance to the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso. Too bad I do not get any glimpse of the Gran Paradiso (4,061 m), the highest mountain fully on Italian grounds. Nearly 20 km in the valley, in Locana (613 m), I buy myself a coke and have my second roll with jam.

Next it is 10 km climbing to Noasca which lies 400 m higher. Time for another coke and banana for desert. Just after Noasca there are five steep (up to 15%) hairpins. But this way of climbing suits me better than long distance moderate climbing. What follows is a 3.5 km long tunnel, with a gradient of 5-8%, and in the middle 10-15% during 1 km. This is doable, thanks to the low temperature here. 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. Let's 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 want 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 climb to the Colle del Nivolet. First to Ceresole, situated at the border of a long-stretched basin. Few hotels here, but at least six (!) camp sites of which two are stuffed with the scouting's 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 summer cars and motors are not allowed on the upper part of the pass road, to help hikers and bikers enjoy the stay. The road is varied, not too steep, and offers excellent views of the part done so far below me. The only negative thing are these terrible flies; they only stop terrorizing me when the wind blows.

From the lake onwards I cycle some 600 m in 8 km, in order to arrive at a smaller basin. And from it is another 400 m to the summit (2,612 m) along a steep mountainside. But there is no pass road sign here, how can I prove that I have been here... One km hereafter, while watching the Gran Paradiso, I take a coke and eat a banana, and head for Aosta. The hikers up here seem surprised to see me cycling with luggage, after all there is no road. But I have secret information: Jerry Nilson’s e-mail has convinced me of the possibility to descent on the small paths by bike. He did it in three hours, so I can do that as well.

The first part goes more smoothly than expected. I cycle through a high-altitude valley in which a small stream is meandering. The foot track 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 do not understand why it took that Nilson so long - this is easy! I am getting very excited. I imagine that, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, I will be scoring a straight 10 now. Shortly thereafter the first hill: a few rocks which I scramble, up and down. No problem. But then another rock, and another... Huge rocks all over the place. This continues for a long while. Not very doable with a heavily loaded bike. But, I keep on going, because according to Jerry's briefing a simple path to Pont should lead down from a cross.

It takes me one and a half hour in total to get to that cross. Hurray! Just over that hill and then... the real shit starts. I look into the deep and notice a very small path zigzagging 300 m down. This is the moment I am beginning to realize that this 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 and 40 kg of bike and luggage down over and between rocks. The brakes are having a hard time, I have to squeeze them, except when I carry the bikeSeveral times the left pedal sticks into my right heel, I am lucky not to fall. I am so A N G R Y that I keep ahead of an older lady walking here, but eventually I have to let her pass. Her companion thinks I am mad, it is not possible whatsoever to descend this mountain with such a bike. Sure. When I finally see the little village of Pont below me, I can hear thunder and it starts raining. Welcome! I took me some 3.5 hours to get down from the Colle del Nivolet, which is not to bad considering the quality of the track.

I put my raincoat on and leave at once. I hope to stay in front of the thunder. Bad luck. It starts raining so heavily that I can hardly see the road. Using the brakes is difficult since the descent over the gravel path harmed the brake pads. After a few miles I am happy to arrive at a house where I can shelter for a while under a canopy. This seems to be a youth hostel; 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 cold that I get on the saddle again. Of course the rain intensifies as soon as I am cycling, but now I will continue to cycle on the road which sometimes is floated with water. Despite the fact I have to keep my eyes almost closed I notice the beauty and roughness of the valley, for many miles more like a gorge with just room for the river and the road.

Then at last the sunny and broad Valle d’Aosta. The main road brings me in the old town centre of Aosta in just a moment. I order a tourist menu at Ristorante-Pizzeria “Moderno”. The starter, a simple pesto pasta, is okay. But the main dish, a tasteless piece of chicken, is worthless. Ice for desert tastes well. The camping site is locates next to the St Bernard pass road with a view over Aosta. I drink a bottle of milk, three cups of tea, listen to the thunder far away and go to bed early.

Day 7: Aosta > Martigny (78 km)

Today I have to get up early when I want to catch the afternoon's train in Martigny. For breakfast I have only 1 liter of milk; I have to score the rest somewhere else along the road. While still in Aosta (600 m) I notice this hitch hiker with a folding bike. I shout: “Come on, cycle with me to Switzerland!” And five minutes later he appears cycling next to me! His name is Ingo, a German, he works in Algeria, arrived yesterday by plane in Milan and wants 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 will climb for the next few days. Ingo cycles with for several kilometers. That is quite a performance with those little wheels and an old weekend bag on the rear carrier. After having gained some 300 altitude meters he will try hitch hiking again.

The pass road is far from steep, and that makes me cycle a little bit too fast, as a result of which I almost get cramp in my left leg. After Étroubles (1,264 m) where I buy bread and chocolate I decide to cycle only in the lowest gear. Still 1,200 altitude metres to gain from now on. Near the junction of the pass road and tunnel road it starts to rain. Too bad I cannot see much of the surroundings, but in this temperature it is better cycling than what I experienced in the last week. The old pass road is low traffic; most people use the main covered road, the large viaduct kind of stabs into the mountain to Switzerland. The pass road is being renovated completely. Bulldozers, excavators, laborers and stop lights are all around here.

After five and half hours of cycling I reach the summit (2,469 m). It is raining and the temperature is below 10 °C. As with all cols in the Alps, German Motorfahrer shoot pictures of each other after their "riesen Leistung". Toll! For me what remains is the descent. The upper part is fairly steep and has some hairpins, but thereafter I can cycle 50 km per hour for a long time without using pedals nor brakes. Having arrived in Martigny I take a shower at the local camping and take an early train to Basel, where I take the train back to the Netherlands in the evening.