I bet you’ve never heard of the Colle del Nivolet. The Giro has not visited and soon after the pass the tarmac ends, a road to nowhere. So what’s this place got going for it? If the photo above by Flickr’s Muneaki isn’t enough it’s in the top-10 of Europe’s highest paved roads.
Amid the famous climbs of the Tour de France and Giro in this series, here is the opposite: a road without celebrity status but which is one of Europe’s best, almost road you must ride.
The SP460 starts climbing out of Pont Canavese, a town in North-West Italy. The road follows the Orco valley, briefly famous for gold panning, to Locana where the climbing proper begins. Through Noasca and there are three numbered hairpin bends which feel hard but are pleasant compared to the 3.5km long tunnel, it is lit and wide but steep. Past Ceresole Reale and its lake the road continues up the valley and becomes the SP50. It continues up to the pass with a total of 33 hairpin bends. The road goes down after the pass for about two kilometres after which it becomes a rough track only suitable for mountain bikes and dedicated off-road vehicles.
It is 50km from Pont Canavese to the top and 40km from Locana from where the average gradient is 4.5% but it has long sections at 7-9%. The pass is at 2,641m.
The valley gets narrow quickly after Pont Canavese but there’s no sense of the climb ahead beyond the snowy mountains high above, it just looks like you’re riding up a valley. There are clues in the white water of the river Orco that the road is rising but it’s not until Locana that the road climbs meaningfully. Locana feels mildly oppressive, walled in by the valley. What do people live on here?
The worst part of the ride is a long tunnel after Noasca. Forums say it’s Europe’s steepest tunnel, maybe, maybe not. It’s lit but I removed sunglasses, it’s dirty, dark and takes time and all the mountain charm has gone, this feels like a service road under Gotham City but eventually the side wall opens up to reveal pines and rocks and the Alpine reality. It takes time to climb but you’ll descend later wondering what the fuss was about, the gradient means you fly through in no time.
Soon after the tunnel the road passes the Lago di Ceresole, an artificial lake. It’s a touristy and quickly passed. Beyond the lake, the road is closed to cars on Sundays and a bus ferries passengers up and downhill. There’s surely a mutual misunderstanding between cyclists and bus passengers. “Why drive up?” you think as a bus passes with a few captive passengers on board. Presumably those on the bus can think of nothing more futile than cycling up only to go back down.
By now a pair of steep switchbacks mark a change and the road becomes more typically Alpine with open spaces, rocky meadows with grazing cows and a horizon lined by snowy peaks and ridges. This is what you’ve come for. It’s from here on that the road transforms into a real mountain pass with sumptuous views and wild terrain. The road rises but there’s still no goal in sight, just a road deliriously tracing its way into the distance.
Onwards and upwards and rounding a bend brings a primitive restaurant and then a large dam, impressive in size but a reminder that the lakes are artificial especially as the wall is stamped “Citta di Torino” and a reminder of the millions living down below who count on this valley for water and electricity. Up and round a ridge and then a short descent and you pass another lake and cross its dam. By now it feels like you’ve made it into the mountain kingdom but there’s still a final four kilometres to go and it’s all uphill. It’s a rich landscape with varied rock formations, cliffs, pastures and the lakes to look at.
It’s worth it for the views alone. There are high peaks and ridges all around meaning no view far across the Po plains to Turin, nor into France (the Col d’Iseran is just over the ridge) but you’re never hemmed in by the mountains, you’ll appreciate the sense of space and enormity.
It’s all accessible. Distance and altitude take their toll but it is not fiendish in gradient and even the upper parts roll well. This is perfect because it allows a certain comfort and lets the cyclist take in the surroundings rather than count down the distance.
Europe’s best road?
Daniel Friebe’s Mountain Higher ends with this book. The book ranks climbs by altitude but this one peaks with praise too, as “close as you’ll get to heaven on earth” concludes Friebe. Is he right? Well that’s subjective. You might find the blue lakes beautiful but others might find the artifice of dam walls spoils the natural setting. Certainly the whole climb is not beauty, of the 50km only the final 15km are stunning. But the same goes for most other mountain passes. The lakes are impressive, the altitude is an undisputed high point and because the road doesn’t go anywhere the traffic is lighter. Perhaps the Nivolet has rivals but it surely belongs amongst the best of Alpine aristocracy.
Altitude is not subjective. At 2,612m the Nivolet is Europe’s fifth highest paved pass and in the top-10 of Europe’s highest roads.
In cycling terms there is none. No Giro d’Italia and seemingly even the U-23 Giro delle Valle d’Aosta hasn’t visited nor even a gran fondo. In Mountain Higher Friebe says it could be in the Giro soon but because it’s a park and a dead-end finding the money helps explain its absence.
As seen on screen
The pass did feature in the 1960s film “The Italian Job” where the final scenes of a bus swinging on the parapet were filmed near the top of the Nivolet with the lakes visible through the rear window.
Traffic and road closures
The road cyclist needs cars. Without cars there would be no tarmac to the top of the Nivolet, just the rough military-built track. The first part of the ride has plenty of people living along the way and even a few factories and workshops but these places have seen better days and the traffic is light. The road doesn’t lead anywhere much beyond the pass, except for a restaurant and a car park for walkers. Crucially this traffic seems to be enough to keep the road in good condition, to warrant regular repairs and the surface is as smooth and well-maintained as anything at sea-level. In July and August the upper half of the pass, the real mountain zone, is closed to traffic on Sundays, a bus shuttles tourists up and down, but you can ride.
The Myth of Mount Iseran
The horizon to the west marks the border with France. A rocky ridge topped by the Aiguille de la Grande Sassière and the other side is France and the Col d’Iseran, Europe’s highest paved mountain pass, is nearby.
For years the Alps had remained inaccessible, the preserve of hunters, herders and smugglers. But in the nineteenth century pioneering climbers set out to explore, map and conquer the mountains. For a long time they circled this area in search of “Mont Iseran” a peak higher than 4,000 metres that had been observed by others. Tales and trigonometry alike had identified this colossus but no could find a peak so high and eventually it was put down to a calculation error by the 1860s.
Travel and Access
Turin, Torino to locals, is the big city with air, road and rail connections although Milan has more international access.
From Turin it’s 50km from Pont Canavese meaning a 200km round trip to tackle this. It’s not as bad as it sounds given you need only need to think of a 100km ride to reach the top. Make it up and there’s a free 50km back downhill. Stop for lunch to refuel and it’s just 50km back to Turin, a solid ride.
Turin and the surrounding area make a good base with many other climbs and mountain routes within an hour’s drive. The stunning Col d’Agnel, Sestriere, Mont Cenis and more. But these all suffer as major access roads to France and can be busy. The nearby Aosta valley is itself a big transport axis but sideroads branch off with more big passes like the Grand and Petit St Bernard passes. Many big names but none compete with the Nivolet for beauty.
Note the col typically only opens in June given its altitude. As with all high passes, they can close again only to reopen days or weeks later. Check the weather before setting out.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads