We drove into Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel with its high security presence, the carabinieri carry automatic weapons in full view. Then headed down to the charming town of Pre Saint Didier where we parked up the car and unloaded the bikes. Almost as soon as we passed the outskirts of the town the Stelvio style hairpins began, I counted eight of them as the perfect smooth wide ribbon of road snaked up the mountain side. It was a luxurious excess of tarmac draped back and forth across the sheer incline, providing spectacular views of the Aosta Valley.
Think of the opening titles of the Italian Job with Matt Munro singing ”Questi giorni quando vieni il belle sole ……” and you will have a flavour of this wonderful mountain pass. The mention of the Italian Job is relevant as apparently part of the movie was filmed on the Petit Saint Barnard pass. It was the scene when the DB4 and two E-Types are tragically destroyed by the mafia.
As we turned the last hairpin the road headed into the first of a series of tunnels, there are five in total. We were joined in the dark by a Porsche GT3 in white, the driver was entertaining himself opening up the throttle and listening to the amplified engine note. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t do the same if they were lucky enough to own a car like that and be visiting the Alps? This climb has everything: hairpins, tunnels burrowing through the side of the mountain, savagely deep river gorges with churning white water far beneath, bridges (modest for this region but part of the charm of this climb), the small town of La Thuile (a typical ski town but more attractive than most when robbed of its snow covering) and forestry giving way to the bare windswept summit encircled by snowcapped peaks. I loved this climb, it is spectacular but never harsh as it ascends 1171m to 2188m in 23.5km at an average gradient of 5%.
Nothing can dampen my enthusiasm for the Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo, not even the road works that began as we passed the military college in La Thuile. Extensive stabilisation work was taking place on the hairpins that kicked in above the town. We climbed on, emerging from the forested slopes into a dramatic landscape of boulders and short grass blasted so violently by the icy wind that trees were rare and stunted. The drop in temperature was significant. We had begun our ascent in the short sleeved warmth of Pre St Didier but now, only a few kilometres from the summit, the tempestuous wind drove through us necessitating windproof clothing that hardly kept away the shivers as we tacked up the zigzag road. We rode passed the ghost town infrastructure of the skiing industry: dormant cable cars and shuttered hotels waiting for the snow.
There was still evidence of the 2009 Tour de France on the roads, large white hand painted letters announcing: Sastre, Wiggins, Miller, Cavendish, Evans, Armstrong, Andy and Frank, amongst many others. I never grow tired of reading these names on the tarmac. It’s what makes cycling so special, I know it is a cliché, but there are so few sports where a leisure participant can cover the same ground as the elite athletes of the sport. The Tour has included the Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo on four occasions since 1949 when Gino Bartali was the first to reach the summit.
I find it difficult to judge scale in the Alps. Was the snow line half a kilometre away or five kilometres? Everything looks so massive, then I realise the mountain I am looking at is even bigger than I thought. The snow line looked close enough as we reached the summit and the Italian/ French border. A small cluster of buildings on both sides of the road, a sign and the national flags of both countries marked the moment of arrival. As we dismounted to savour the moment and take the obligatory “we made it” photographs, we were joined by another British cyclist who kindly offered to take a photograph of my husband and I together, while he waited for his friend to catch up. I blame the biting cold and desire to get moving again for not introducing ourselves or asking for his name, but he took a good photograph.
Then there was the descent back to Pre Saint Didier, magnifico!