Recon Tour du Petit Saint-BErnard

October 9th 2020


Bourg-Saint-Maurice usually benefits from a warm and sunny Indian Summer. However, in our first autumn living here, the warm and sunny days are few and far apart. Since the first snowfall mid-September, the big mountain passes have been regularly closed. And also for next week, snow is forecast at altitude. But today, the weather is excellent so I decide to take on my first big ride over multiple passes since moving here. I had climbed the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard before but always returned at the top. Today I will continue into Italy, descend all the way down to Pré-Saint-Didier and return via the steep Colle San Carlo.  


The main road to the Petit-St-Bernard is not the most scenic. Therefore I usually take the little road through Montvalezan after 6 km of climbing. This road takes you past the little church of Le Châtelard which is always a lovely photo opportunity. It’s still quite early and the sun is behind the clouds. 



Although it’s a bit chillier than I expected it’s a lovely morning to be out on the bike. I take it fairly easy up the steepest part of the climb and rejoin the main road with 12 km still to climb. As the percentages don’t go above 6% anymore I continue up to the pass at an easy pace. I love the moment when you turn the corner after La Rosière and see the hospice at the summit in the distance. This really is a beautiful climb.



I take a few photos at the top (which is still snowy),  put on my wind jacket and start descending. As of now I’m in new territory. The view on La Thuile is gorgeous and the descent is quick. I ride through the town and continue my descent down to Pre-Saint-Didier. The road is very large and there’s also a few tunnels and galleries to negotiate. Although most of them are short and well lit, I don’t feel all that comfortable. Luckily I’m descending at the same pace as the cars so there’s no overtaking. But it probably isn’t a very nice road to climb. I’m happy when I reach the bottom of the descent as I was getting quite cold by now. There’s 10 km of gentle descent left to the foot of the Colle San Carlo in Morgex.


I drink and eat a bit and stop to take off my wind jacket. I’ve regained the feeling in my fingers and am quite looking forward to the climb. According to the profile it’s a 9% average grade. I’ve only seen it climbed once in the Giro d’Italia and as usual, the pros didn’t make it look overly difficult. How wrong I was ! As it turns out, it’s a brute of a climb. It starts out quite steep, 9-10% but it only gets worse as it goes along. The small road winds through the dense forest so there’s not much views. There are nice wooden kilometer signs that indicate altitude, distance to the top and the percentage of the next kilometer.



Sadly they don’t make for encouraging reading. As you crawl your way up, you can spot them in the distance. Because of the slow pace, it takes ages to get there. You’re looking out longingly to see a percentage below 10% but it’s disappointment after disappointment. Although the climb is only just above 10km, it seemed endless to me. Interestingly, the Italians decided to place the kilometer signs with reference to the start of the climb. So instead of a sign with 1K to go, there’s a sign with 1.436m to go. Only in the final 2km do the gradients ease up a little bit but by then I was so spent that it still hurt just as much. It was a real relief to get to the top. Despite all the cursing, it instantly became one of my favorite climbs of the region.


And then I still had the terrific descent to come ! Suddenly the road widens and it’s gorgeous hairpin after gorgeous hairpin on the way down. All the woes of the climb are forgotten by the time you roll happily into La Thuile for a second time.

I stopped for a drink at an Italian bar and had a last bite to eat. There’s still a 12km climb left to the top of the Petit Saint-Bernard but the percentages are very moderate. If you’ve made it this far, you’ll probably will be able to make it to the top. The wind is full in the face though so I’m not going as quickly as I would have hoped. The last kilometers seem to take forever but I’m enjoying the views and the surroundings. It’s always a joy to discover a climb for the first time. I’ve been out for more than 6 hours now with more than 3.000 m of vertical climbing but the legs actually still feel reasonably good (always an easy thing to write a day after the fact…). There’s still 30km to go but it’s (literally) all downhill from here. I take it easy on the descent and reach Bourg-Saint-Maurice with a big smile on my face.