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Cuneo - Briançon - over the murder cols of the Southern Alps

Murder cols? Doesn't that sound a bit exaggerated? Well, if one of the cols has the nickname "colle dei morti", maybe there is a reason. And maybe there’s even more than one reason to link these cols to death. But you'll find out further in this story, which starts in Cuneo.

When you look to the east in Cuneo, you have no idea that you are so close to the Alps. The Po Plain stretches near Cuneo at the confluence of the Stura and the Gesso. If you turn around you can almost touch the mountains. Within 10 kilometers you will already be driving between the toes of the Alps, which enclose, like a bowl, Cuneo and the northern Torino, parallel to the Italian-French border.

That border is closer than you think. With a single ascent you'll reach it, among the rapidly rising and astonishingly high peaks. But before we cross the border, we decided to cross some mountain ridges to the north. Actually, that is the main reason we travelled here. After all, in the eastern dawn this southern part of the Alps can be considered one of the most beautiful of the Alps. But, also one of the toughest.

The next two days 4 cols are on the menu. Not just 4 cols, but 4 cols "hors catégorie". In two days we drive from Cuneo to Briançon over the Colle della Fauniera, Colle di Sampeyre, Colle dell’Agnello (border with France) and the Col de l'Izoard. In the Tour de France the latter is invariably catalogued as a col “hors catégory”. It will turn out to be by far the easiest of these four cols.


With a fresh morning sun we drive west towards the mountains. Little wind, for now. Perfect for a beautiful hard day on the bike. First we head southwest in the direction of Borgo San Dalmazzo. From there the road begins to rise slightly, to descend again towards the river Stura. The start of the climb could also be located there, although you continue on the main road, with the Stura on your left.

There is quite some traffic on this road. It is one of the easiest (read: least steep) border crossings for freight traffic. If you follow the SS21, you will arrive at the border crossing of the Colle della Maddalena / Col de Larche and continue to Barcelonnette. Although you are not allowed to go there by bike.

But the pleasant Barcelonnette is for later and a bit further we turn right at Demonte and start the real climb. And we feel that right away! From the first hectometers it goes towards 10%. Then we descend and then ascend again. The pattern for the first kilometers is known, but unpredictable. The road follows the movements of the mountain. And they are far from even. For the less winged climber this is not ideal. On one of the 10%+ strips we are overtaken by an Italian climber of 60 kilos. A bit further we take him back on a descending strip. So it goes on a couple of times.


Sheltered between the blades we are not aware that the wind has come up. Except on the Mont Ventoux , we have only suffered sporadically from the wind in 20 years of climbing. The high mountains usually protect you and flatten the wind. Not so today. The jet stream drives the wind in an easterly direction, the wrong direction. When we reach San Giacomo with its beautiful white church after about 10 kilometers of climbing, the climb opens up and we feel the wind for the first time. Just as the climb also begins to ascend more. From here on, you cross 900 altimeters in the next 10 kilometers. Something similar to the forest of the Mont Ventoux. But now, the wind has free play and blows with about 4 beaufort in the face. It adds an invisible 2% to the climb which from now on continuously fluctuates around 10%.

We toil our way up and enjoy those few hairpin bends that give us a few hundred meters of tailwind. We don't get over the 10 km/h anymore. Fortunately, the surroundings are beautiful. And although little motorized traffic passes through here, the road surface is also quite ok. More than an hour later we reach the junction to the Colle della Valcavera whose summit is nearby. The heaviest is now behind us.


The two remaining kilometers to the top are just a formality, although the road surface is getting worse and worse. A harbinger of what follows! On the summit we see the Marco Pantani memorial. The Italian climber got a beautiful and well deserved place here. We are now at an altitude of 2511 meters and have been on the road for about three hours. We have conquered almost 2,000 altimeters. However, if you take the descents into account, it’s a lot more. Fortunately, a real descent follows. Well, fortunately.


We start the descent and almost miss the exit to the Col d'Esischie and Marmora. What follows is a mix of everything you don't want to find in a descent: gravel, deep pits, blind bends, steep passages, rain gutters, stones and all that is masked by the play of shadow and sun. Supreme concentration is required and we never descend faster than 30 km/h. Our disc brakes (fortunately!) suffer and although we can't descend at all after about 20 years of mountain biking, we have to brake almost continuously. And just when you think the road surface is getting a bit better, you get pits and gravel again. This is the worst descent we've encountered in our cycling career. Less than an hour later we are finally down in Ponte Marmora. A quick bite later we are back on our bikes in the direction of Stroppo where the Colle di Sampeyre starts.


After a few flat kilometers on the SP422 we take a left turn past Bassura di Stroppo. The climb immediately becomes steep. The first 2 kilometers are about 10%. At the church of Stroppo we take the exit to Elva and the climb becomes less steep. The trees offer from here a welcome shelter from the midday sun. We are at the end of August. Right above us we see the church of San Peyre. That is the first goal. Two long straight lines and two hairpin bends further we pass the beautiful church.

We now make a big bend against the mountainside, away from where we finally have to go. From Cucchiales to San Martino we hardly gain any height between the trees. It is pleasant, but it also raises questions. Because we have to catch up for those almost flat strips later on. This becomes clear as soon as we leave San Martino. A heavy strip of about 15% announces the rest of the climb. The mountain now shows its true face and we keep crawling up at almost double percentages. When we get another 15% two kilometers further, we decide to catch our breath for a while. That hasn't happened to us for a long time. We don't stop during a climb since the time we first climbed Mont Ventoux and were forced to bow our heads.


In the meantime we recognize the good and bad signs in ourselves. Are we still fresh enough to enjoy the surroundings? Or are we bothered by those motorbikes that skim past you? Are we wondering too much how far we've come? We mainly follow our altitude. But how high was that mountain again? 2584 meters? Or was that the next one? Maybe 2211 meters? Another 500 meters altitude. On a VAM of 850 meter that's... too difficult to calculate. We often lose our well-developed computing power somewhere in the middle of a mountain. Is it the thin air or just the state-of-mind that doesn't allow us to make a simple calculation? We push on. Bicycle emptiness. Is no one coming after us? Not a target for us in any case. No one catches up with us? More likely. It's been years since we wondered why we were doing this in the middle of a climb. A good sign. In the meantime we have mastered the climbing and the mountains. Breath and cadence, from foot to top. No matter how long or how steep (well...). Although we are still renouncing it, we can enjoy it more and more.

With fresh courage we start the last part of the climb. A bit further we turn right towards the summit we see in the distance. Another three kilometers of climbing. We now cycle on the ridge of the col where the wind has free play. Luckily we have tailwind this time. That helps, because the climb remains steep. When we reach the top we have a 360° view of the surroundings. Mother Maria looks along from 2284 meters altitude. We have conquered our second col outside category and get a descent for dessert.


It can't be as bad as the Colle della Fauniera. But don't be under too many illusions. This descent is also very tricky and the pits in the road are numerous and can surprise you after every turn. Better stretches are suddenly interspersed with very bad strips. So put your hands back on the brakes and focus. We're afraid that also here there have been many casualties. Luckily we reach Sampeyre in one piece, where we can recover after 110 kilometers and 6 hours and a half from this very special trip. What a day. We broke our record of the lowest average speed, but thanks to this experience we can handle a lot more. To start with the Agnello and the Izoard, that are waiting tomorrow.

DAY 2 : crossing the border

It promises to be another beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky, a degree or 15. Perfect to immediately bring out the climbers legs. And we have to, because today we're once again climbing two greats in the history of climbing: the Colle dell’Agnello ("the sheep's col") and Col de l'Izoard. Since we spent the night in Sampeyre, we have to climb from the first meters. Although the official start of the climb is in Casteldelfino, only about ten kilometers further on, it is already going well up just outside Sampeyre. This will weaken later on, but in those 10 kilometers you already cross 320 altimeters. And they also go on the counter.


After half an hour up and down and even some hairpin bends we reach Casteldelfino where the SP105 is lying around nicely. After we've rounded the village it slowly starts to rise and even before Rabioux we're presented with a serious kilometer of 9%. Until Vilaretto it keeps going up well. After that we get a fairly long almost flat intermezzo where we pass the Lago di Castello. When we drive through Chianale we already have 22 kilometers and 900 altimeters on the counter. And actually, the climb has yet to start. A fantastic final chord it will be. But also a very heavy one. The next 9 kilometers we will climb no less than 890 meters, accounting for 9.9% on average. And already after the first corner we see a sign with 14%!


We are now on a real climb. That soon becomes clear. The road is beautifully constructed - what a difference with the Colle di Sampeyre, and the Colle della Fauniera - and meanders up the mountain through green grazing lands of marmots. After passing the spigot of the mountain, the col opens up. We now crawl right against the mountainside and get a great view of the road that meanders up below us, in the middle of the greenery. It is a real pleasure to be able to play sports on such a beautifully landscaped road with such a view. But it also hurts, because the percentages stay in the double digits. Here and there the mountain offers short stretches where you can catch your breath. There is even a short descent. Which you of course quickly with a piece of 13%.


But the mountain still has a surprise in store. In a long, wide arch we now ride against the final ridge. Time enough to enjoy the snowy mountains and the landscape to our left. We are almost held up by some wild horses. Luckily we can cycle between them. After a penultimate hairpin bend we see the top in front of us. It keeps going uphill for a while to double percent. Only in the last hectometers the climb gives itself. At the top we get two beautiful views for the price of one climb. That the col is popular can be seen by the thousands of stickers on the nameplates. Next to a wooden sculpture of a cyclist we find the famous indication of the border crossing France - Italy - 2744 meters. Two of the most beautiful (cycling) countries in the world, united on one col. A col to tell you the truth.


After the usual pictures and refreshments (it's already about 18 degrees on top of the col in the late morning anyway) we can enjoy the descent. Enjoying is the right word. It is a beautiful descent over a beautiful road. Almost straight down to Molines-en-Queyras where we join the D5. A little later in Ville Vielle we take the D947 in the direction of Guillestre. Slowly we can start to think of the Col de l'Izoard. But first we pass Chateau Queyras named after the castle that rises on a rock above the town which in turn is named after the region. For a while we have to climb. Then we descend to the exit to the Col de l'Izoard. Known terrain.


The beautiful approach from Guillestre through the gorge along the river Guil we do not do this time. It goes immediately real uphill. We pass and stop in Arvieux for lunch. On the left side of the square is a bakery with a nice terrace. Cold drinks, delicious sandwiches and cakes or ice cream. We keep the latter for later. With strength we start the most difficult part of the climb; a straight line of 2 kilometers at about 9%. Then we take the wide right turn to the final part of the climb. The climb varies between 8 and 9% and is very even. After the climbs of the last few days, this climb, which in the Tour is invariably catalogued as out of category, is almost a piece of cake.


Three kilometers from the top you come out of the forest and suddenly the landscape changes. In front of you lies the Casse Déserte. You suddenly imagine yourself in an American western. Again we miss the memorial plaques of Louison Bobet and Fausto Coppi. But we are allowed to descend a few hundred meters. That hurts. Another difficult kilometer and we can once again see the famous stele from 1934 in honor of General Baron Berge and his troops, who helped shape the Routes des Alpes over the Izoard, Col de Vars and Col de la Cayole. We stand at an altitude of 2360 meters. A beautiful final chord of a two day climb with four fantastic climbs! On to Briançon. And then on again. more

  • 9/12/2020
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