[ blog » 2020 » 08_Tour-Alps ] d07: Bessans to Arvier – Col de l’Iseran and Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard (by Philipp Gesang, location: Arvier campsite)


After another rainy night spent surrounded by puddles I went to take on the culminating point of this trip, the Col de l’Iseran at 2770 m. One of the iconic climbs in cycling, the pass road was already bustling with cyclists when I arrived at the base of the climb at Bonneval-sur-Arc. Luckily I had spent the night at an altitude of around 1700 m so I only had to surmount another kilometer until the top, which I did in a little over one hour and fourty minutes.

The Iseran road has both switchbacks and longer straight sections so like the scenery the riding has some variety near the top the temperature dropped to around fifteen degrees while some residual snow was lining the road in the permanent shadow of rocks. After a photo session and smalltalk with other tourers from Austria and Germany, both groups on their way to the Galibier so I could give them some advice based on my experience three days ago.

The descent from the Iseran into the Isere valley starts with some switchbacks, but widely spaced ones so it doesn’t degenerate into a braking orgy. From Val d’Isere on the route is mostly straight and can be taken at almost full speed. It has some tunnels interspersed which are mostly ok, except for one where the road surface was rather sketchy, and another one that is being overhauled and thus had no real road surface in the first place; nor had it the usual lights – another occasion for my dynohub to literally shine. That aside this downhill section was even more fun than the Lautaret descent.


A few kilometers before Bourg-Saint-Maurice a shortcut leads up to the “Little” Saint-Bernard pass. Another 1000 m of elevation but of an entirely different character as the brutal Iseran: mostly gentle slopes up to five percent gradient, all while emerging from the stunning Isere valley. Riding while having a conversation was more than feasible on those slopes so it was serendipitous that I met one tourer again who I crossed paths with the day before in Lanslevillard at the bottom of the Iseran. Together we crossed the col at an enjoyable pace and headed into Italy and the Aosta valley to complete the day.

The Aosta descent is somewhat heavy on the switchbacks on the upper parts too and then becomes a rather steep mostly straight downhill around 1200 m of altitude. Even more frequent and longer tunnels require attentive riding, especially considering drivers have significantly less patience on the Italian side of that mountain than on the French side. Extensive stretches of the road are limited to a speed of 30 km/h, where we went at around 50, but were still being overtaken on the regular by cars going at least 70 – among them one carabinieri patrol who are it would appear exempt from the traffic code. Add to that the really close passes and the annoyingly high number of next to unmaneuverable campervans, it was not the most enjoyable part of the trip even with the superb scenery in the background.

Two passes in a row, not bad an accomplishment. The elevation gain adds up to 2280 m for this day, almost one Galibier ascent. It’s safe to say that some serious action was had today.


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