Riding the Italian Western Alps

Early spring is a time of the year when we start looking out of the window for challenges, yet most of the traditional Giro and Tour de France monster climbs are still closed for snow. Classic climbs like the Col du Galibier or Passo dello Stelvio don’t open until late May or even late June. As a result, destinations like Majorca have become very popular for early breaks. A convenient and well organised hospitality industry caters very well for those who want to tackle Sa Calobra and the many other climbs, which are open all year round. But of course Majorca is not the only destination you can reach on a budget flight. In fact, in early spring I normally drive down to Italy, which is more expensive than flying, thanks to the motorway tolls in France, but it takes away the stress of checking in an airport with a bicycle in a bag. The drive to the North Western tip of Italy, namely Valle d’Aosta is “only” 8 hours from Calais. If you have a big engine and you are keen to take on the French Gendarmerie, you can, of course, do it quicker than that. Coming from that very area, I find Valle d’Aosta an ideal training ground for early spring. There is a healthy number of challenging climbs open pretty much all year round and the temperature on a sunny day can easily reach a maximum of 20 degrees even in early March. The geography of Valle d’Aosta is uncompromising: the main valley is narrow and all roads follow the bed of the river Dora Baltea. The busy SS26 can be avoided by using local roads on the opposide (western) side of the river, which are always deserted. From the main valley, a significant number of climbs branch to the lateral valleys. Most of them are very hard and long climbs, but dead end roads, which terminate in the proximity of perennial snow, but a few of them are geographical “cols” and allow to plan circular routes, without the need to retrace your steps. Below is a collection of my favourite low to mid altitude “cols” in Valle d’Aosta, together with their profile.

Col de Joux: it is the “classic” climb in the lower Valle d’Aosta, often featured in the Giro della Valle d’Aosta, a UCI race for young climbers, recently won twice by Fabio Aru. The best side to climb is the western face, starting in the lively town of San Vincent (which has a famous James Bond’s style casino’, if you want to burn some cash). It climbs at a regular 7-8% gradient all the way to the 1640 metres of the col, where you can have lunch in a rather pitoresque restaurant-cafe’. Typical dish all year round is polenta with local mountain goat stew. Cakes of all sorts are also on offer (can you tell I have been there a lot?). joux You can then descend on the opposide side all the way to Verres, or you can take the turn at Challant St. Anselme for the ascent of the tough Col Tzecore (or Zuccore): this is a different beast altogether. It has barely any motor traffic, yet the surface is very good. The climb to the 1600 mt geographical col is not for the faint hearted, with long sections at 11-13%. You do need a compact gearset. From the top you can then descend back to San Vincent or you can rejoin the climb to Col de Joux if you haven’t done it earlier in the day. No cafes at the top. zuccore The same two valleys (val d’Ayas and val Tournenche) are also joined by the lower Col d’Arlaz: this is an ideal early spring climb, as it is located at 1030 mt elevation and therefore any winter snow clears earlier than the previous two cols. It is also a beautiful climb, with a tough but fair 10% section of 3-4 Km. I have hardly found any traffic at all during my ascents from Montjovet. The views over the main valley and over the snow capped mountains of the Val d’Ayas from the top are worth the effort. Again, no cafe’ at the top, but you can descend 300 vertical metres into Challant St. Victor, which has plenty of food and good coffee to offer. arlaz Last, but probably my favourite of all, is the Col St. Panthaleon: again, this is a hard but steady climb, which winds its way to the 1630 mt of the geographical col. You begin climbing among the vineyards of Chambave (the local red is really good), then through the green marble caves of Verrayes. The second part of the climb is in total isolation, among pine trees and blueberry bushes (only ripe in July-August, I’m afraid). From the col, the view of the Cervino (which the Swiss call Matterhorn) is simply stunning. You can descend on the opposite side for a coffee at Torgnon and from there descend into Chatillon or climb the main road to the ski resort of Cervinia. I don’t particularly like the latter climb, as it is a very busy route with heavy traffic and smog. The col St. Panthaleon is often featured in the Giro d’Italia, as the climb before the mountain finish to Cervinia. pantaleon   So, why Italy and not the French Alps for an Easter cycling break? Of course I am biased here, but it comes without saying that if you like to stop for a decent coffee mid ride, any place is better than France… The other reason is climate: in early spring the sun is low on the horizon and the temperature is significantly more benign on the Italian, rather than the French or Swiss side of the same massif, which is simply down to enjoying south exposure, hence more hours of sunlight.

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