Some interesting mountain passes - Part 1
The French Alps.After spending a lot of time exploring some of the more inaccessible roads of Europe, I am often asked to recommend some good passes for inclusion in a European tour. This can sometimes be difficult, as one rider’s interesting road can be another rider’s nightmare! I can, however, recommend some of the more major routes with a clear conscience.
The French Alps are always a good place to begin an exploration of mountain passes, for they are filled with interesting roads leading to equally interesting towns and villages.
This area is full of fascinating little roads, mostly coloured white by Michelin, which invite exploration, and in most cases have road surfaces which put the average UK secondary road to shame. Once notorious for their use of gravillons, the French now lay real tarmac at high altitude, which has grip and wearing properties we can only dream of – in general, do not worry about the surfaces. For those with trail bikes there is a bewildering array of small gravel roads which climb to the most inaccessible places, normally reached by ski lifts.
The roads around Grenoble are a good starting point for most people, and many lend themselves to form a circular tour. They are well covered by the red Michelin map 721 (16 miles/inch) while the yellow 244 and 245 (3 miles/inch) give even greater detail.
South-west of Grenoble is the Vercours area, the scene of an epic but futile battle by the French Resistance during 1944. This area alone can occupy you for several days, with twisting roads, passes, and monuments. A good campsite and a small hotel can be found in St. Jean-en-Royans. If entering the area from the D93 Gap – Valence road, the torturous climb of the D518 towards the Col de Rousset will certainly impress you, as will the narrow D76 Combe Laval road, cut into the cliffside half way up a sheer drop.
If heading south from Grenoble, the N85 leads to Gap, and thence to the D900, running along the shore of the Lac du Serre-Ponçon, the largest man-made lake in the alps. This road leads into Italy via the Col de Larche, passing through the charming town of Bacelonnette and the village of Jausiers. The road east of Jausiers is worth exploring, being overlooked by several interesting old fortresses, some of which are open to the public, and enough narrow winding tracks to satisfy the most ambitious GS rider.
A right turn in Jausiers will bring you into the mountains, and Europe’s highest pass. A few hairpins and a short stretch of what Michelin charmingly refers to as ‘Route difficile ou très dangerous’ will bring you to the Col de Restefond. At 2,678 metres this is amongst the highest passes, but is simply an access ramp for the Col de la Bonette, a road built during the ‘sixties, which at 2,808 metres (9,266 feet) is the highest pass in Europe. Even the descent on the other side is impressive, the road squirming its way down to the village of Isola, where there is a good campsite.
The Col de Lombarde
For the keen explorer there is the old road, disused since the Bonette was built, with perhaps even better views, and a short but uncertain tunnel. (Watch for the wild goats) This is another ‘Route difficile ou très dangerous’, and runs from the end of the Restefond to rejoin the main road at Pont Haut. The return journey from Isola to Barcelonette is quite something, with a never-ending succession of small villages, tight bends, and staggering views.
If travelling east from Grenoble towards Briançon the N91 winds its way between the mountains, climbing steeply into the ski country beyond le Bourg d’Oisans. Care is required when approaching the short tunnels on this road, for many of the locals do not use their headlamps, with the result that, as one’s eyes try to compensate for the abrupt change from bright sun to darkness, an unlit car will be past before one is aware of its approach.
Look out for a short tunnel controlled by traffic lights, and turn right immediately after the exit. This road leads to the well-known ski centre of les Deux Alps, but a car park on the left affords a good view of the Lac de Chambon, another massive man-made lake built to harness the abundant waters of the area for hydro-electricity. A small hotel and bar is opposite the car park.
The N91 continues to climb towards the Col du Lauteret, which at 2,058 metres is the highest point on the road. The summit is usually wild and windswept, but the road is wide and well-surfaced, as it carries heavy traffic to Briançon and Italy. As one reaches the collection of buildings there, turn immediately left onto the D902 towards Valloire. This is a quieter road, winding through many hairpin bends to the Col du Galibier, which at 2,646 metres is the fifth highest pass in Europe.
The Col du Galibier
As with all such minor roads in this area, one must consider the time of year before planning the route, for most are officially closed until June, and in many cases this means the end of June. Even when classed as ouvert, the temperature can easily fall below freezing point, and snow is to be expected. During one visit to Valloire in mid-June Heather and I found ourselves driving between walls of snow over ten feet high, following the snow plough as it finished the day’s work! Even then, at minus 4 degrees Centigrade the road surface was generally good, and did not give any problems for Chris Mancrief, who was following on his R80RS.
From the summit the road follows the river into Vallois, another ski village, where the Hotel de la Poste makes a good value overnight stop. Their restaurant is excellent, with Canard au Myrtelles being one of our favourite meals.
From Vallois the road climbs again, to the Col du Télégraphique – take care at this point, for the main road cuts across the apex of a hairpin bend, a potential site for problems. From 1,566 metres the road falls through a series of hairpins to St. Michel-de-Maurienne. After crossing the A43 autoroute and the river, a right turn will follow the N6 towards Lanslebourg and the Mont Cenis area.
Mt. Cenis pass in the fog
Those heading for Italy should follow the N6 to the right, just past Lanslebourg, from where the road winds its way over the Col du Mont Cenis (2,010 Metres). After a break at the summit to admire the intensely green waters of the Lac du Mont Cenis the road passes into Italy, where the S25 leads towards Susa.
Francophiles will instead follow the D902 again, which leads to Lanslevillard, a pleasantly modern ski resort with an excellent campsite on the left as one enters the village. This is a good base, with many hotels, restaurants and shops. Most local dishes include generous helpings of their cheese, but are appetising in the extreme.
The Col de l’Isèran
From here the D902 winds its way through some of the best scenery in the French Alps, climbing steeply from Bonneval-sur-Arc towards the Col de l’Isèran. One misty day on this road John Coleman ran over a rock, bending back the rim of his R80 front wheel until the inner edge of the tyre bead was almost totally exposed. Thanks to BMW’s use of very ductile rims on the Monolever models I was able to repair it with a hammer when we reached the summit, but it could have resulted in a quick trip to Bonneval far below!
During a late June trip we met a R1100GS rider who had some drama while making the journey across the Isèran before lunch. Even during early summer one must take the greatest of care when riding on these roads, until the afternoon sun and the snowplough have done their best.
At 2,764 metres the Isèran is the second-highest pass in Europe. Few other roads can exceed this altitude, except the Col de la Bonette and some one-way routes such as the unsurfaced track leading to the Point del Sommelier in Italy. During the ‘sixties the Chamoix Rally was held on the Isèran, when it was a real challenge to ride the gravel road of what was then Europe’s highest pass.
The summit gives wonderful views across the Vanoise mountains, and features the inevitable small restaurant, after which the road descends to Val d’Isère. The brash ugliness of this the nineteen-sixties ski town soon gives way to more breath-taking scenery as the road skirts the Lac du Chevril, passing through a series of concrete avalanche shelters until it meets the D87 at a dam. This road crosses the steeply curved dam before climbing to Tignes, a modern but pretty winter sports resort built around the inevitable lake.
From the dam an improved section of the D902 takes you to the village of Sees, in the outskirts of Bourg-St. Maurice. If you need any petrol, buy it here! After a sharp right hand turn the serpentine bends lead high above the trees to la Rosière, which at 1,850 metres is the last French village before the Col du Petit St. Bernard.
There is a campsite for motorcyclists only, just below the village, with a sign which suggests that tattoos and heavy metal music are mandatory! However, the first exit at the first roundabout will take you to the Hotel le Solaret, an excellent alternative, and an ideal base for exploring the area.
The locale offers many good roads, one of the favourites being the Cormet de Roseland, which provides an interesting alternative to the main road route between Bourg-St. Maurice and Albertville. Another good excursion is to spend a day in Italy, ascending Mont Blanc by means of the cable car from Entrèves, north of Courmayer. After three successive cable car rides the view across the mountains from 3,842 metres (12,600 feet) is well worth the journey.
The Col du Petit St-Bernard
The Col du Petit St-Bernard offers a good route into Italy, by following the pointing finger of the Saint’s bronze statue. The road leads to Aosta, and then into Switzerland via the St. Bernard Tunnel or the Pass. Southern Switzerland has many attractions for those who enjoy twisting roads, and this road leads to some to some of the best, but we will examine these later.
Article and photos by Mike Fishwick - first published in the BMW Club Journal