A ride out to the highest pass in the Alps

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2006 Part 3:

Col de l’Iseran & Col du Petit St. Bernard

The plan today was for a longer ride than our short blast up the Grand St. Bernard yesterday. Phil had planned a route that would explore some magnificent Alpine roads and gain a lot of altitude, and before days end would have us riding to the top of the highest pass in the Alps. There were a lot of miles to cover today if we wanted to get there so the consensus was that we needed to be on the road and rolling by 9am.

We were on the road by 9 but not rolling because most of us needed fuel. There are plenty of places to fill up in and around Chamonix but we weren’t sure what the situation would be like up in the mountains. As we were going to be heading west from Chamonix we dropped a mile or so down the valley into Les Houches and filled up there. Everyone filled up regardless of whether they needed fuel or not with the SV and the Fireblade brimmed.

After fuelling in Les Houches we continued west and headed for Megeve on the N212 before turning at Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe up the D218B. The D218B took us over the Col des Saisies – 1,657m high and a part of this year’s Tour de France route. From the top of the Saisies we headed down to Beaufort where we picked up the D925. The D218B was good but we had no idea how those cyclists manage to get up the passes.

From Beaufort we kept on the D925 up the to the top of the 1,605m Col de Meraillet and then over the 1,968m Cormet de Roselend. The scenery here was stunning but unfortunately we only stopped briefly at the top of the Meraillet and Roselend so no scenic pictures. There was more hairpin practice coming down into Bourg-Saint-Maurice and then again on the D902 through Val-d’Isere.


We then climbed the 2,770m to the top of the highest pass in the Alps, the Col de l’Iseran. The D902 is justly rated as a 5-star biking road although we did have to stop for roadworks in a couple of the tunnels. However it is well surfaced and not too tight – so it was second gear for the hairpins and third gear for the straights. Despite the altitude all the bikes were running perfectly and the views from the top Iseran were spectacular.

From there we retraced our steps back down towards Bourg-Saint-Maurice before turning right off the D925 at Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise to cut across to the N90, meeting the pass to La Rosiere close to the top, and turning right for the Col du Petit St. Bernard. The climb up to the pass heading north is gentle and fairly featureless and tops out at 2,188m.


The pass going down towards Courmayeur is much more challenging with hairpin after hairpin after hairpin. Most of us found the trick was to stay in second gear for all but the tightest hairpins and use both the front and rear brakes before the bend, releasing the front before the bend but keeping the rear on and balancing it against the throttle, before releasing it as the bike straightened up. From Courmayeur it was another trip through the Mont Blanc tunnel back to Chamonix and then home to the chalet.

Coming down the approach to the tunnel on the French side you pass the memorial commemorating the efforts of those who died in the great fire in 1999. The fire started only 750 metres into the tunnel on the Italian side when a lorry carrying flour and margarine stopped and caught fire. 39 people died in this fire but one of the heroes was an Italian security guard named Pierlucio Tinazzi.

Pierlucio Tinazzi was also a biker and he rode in and out of the tunnel as the fire raged rescuing a number of those trapped. Eventually he was forced to seek refuge in one of the shelters but unfortunately it was one which had not been upgraded and sadly he died.