Col du Mont Cenis (Both Sides)

Amazing Alpine Adventures – Day Nine, St Jean de Maurienne.

Today was our first (& possibly only) commute, so we had a 1 hour drive up the Maurienne valley to Lanslebourg for the start of our adventure. Most of the Mountains we’ve ridden on this trip are famous for the cycle races that use them. Today was different, as Mont Cenis is a famous passage in its own right that occasionally has cycle races on its slopes.

At 2,081 metres, Col du Mont Cenis separates Lanslebourg, France from Susa, Italy – it also marks the border between the Cottian & Graian alps. From Lanslebourg, it’s a 6.25 mile ascent with 2,100 feet of climbing as the road winds through fir forests at a fairly consistent 8% gradient. There are a couple of lookouts where there are huge views to the Iseran at the end of the valley – although it’s almost mid-July, there is still plenty of snow in sight! As we climbed higher, the scenery changed to meadows with goats & cows roaming freely.

After 65 minutes, we’d reached the summit & were ready for elevenses – blueberry tart & a quick espresso. We were expecting a long day in the saddle, with plenty of photo ops, so we decided to speed up our traditional lazy coffee stops!

Col du Mont Cenis is steeped in history, as historians believe this may be where Hannibal & his Elephants crossed the Alps from France into Italy in 218 BC & from the 1860’s the summit was considered as the border between France & Italy. However, after World War 2, the plateau & lake were ceded to France, so the border is now several kilometres down the Italian side, below the dam & lake.

This is one of my favourite alpine lakes, as the colour of the water is incredible & it’s normally quite full – today was no exception, the only difference to normal being that the enormous mountains were shrouded in clouds & there was a haziness to the sky.

While the climb of the French side of the mountain is short & sharp, the Italian side of the mountain is a complete contrast. We descended 19 miles into Susa in a little over 40 minutes, as the road is wide & the corners are sweeping, allowing us to ride through the bends, rather than having to brake before them.

By the time we arrived in Susa, it was time for lunch, so we went all in on a pasta dish of gnocchi with mushroom sauce, penne with tomato sauce & spaghetti bolognese. The food was out of this world & was so filling that I didn’t need dinner this evening. All was going well until Sean ordered a Cappuccino at 1.30pm – as all coffee aficionados know, this is a criminal offence, especially in Italy!

We set off from Susa at about 1.45pm on what we knew would be a long haul back to the summit, although the good news is that the 19 miles ascends at an average gradient of 6%. Based on my climbing over the last 8 days, we knew this was likely to be a 3.5 hour ascent, with the temperature hitting 90 degrees fahrenheit for most of the afternoon. During today’s ride I drank 7.5 litres of water, which equates to over 10 pints – it was scorching all day!!

The early stages of the Susa climb were through deciduous forest, which became pine as the altitude increased. The Col du Mont Cenis used to be a main trade route between France & Italy, however in 1980 the Frejus Tunnel was opened & much of the heavy truck traffic was diverted away, which is great news for cyclists. However, there was a price to pay for the locals, as many of the restaurants & cafes that catered for the passing haulage trade closed down – we passed numerous deserted bars, cafes & restaurants on the ascent.

As we continued our ascent, we could see a huge bank of cloud forming above us at the lake (although we were still in the sun) – it appeared that the clouds were rising from the Susa side today, but the warm air from the plateau was then pushing back the colder mountain air – there was an invisible wall that prevented the clouds reaching the lake.

After about 2.5 hours of riding & a quick stop for espresso & an ice cream lolly, we had our first glimpse of the switchbacks – at this point we both knew we only had an hour or so left of the ascent. The hairpins climb a wall of a cliff & the views back down the valley are superb, as the trees are replaced by grassland & a man-made lake/pond provides colour to proceedings.

The final push saw us reach the summit & stop for some more snaps of the lake, as the sky was now much clearer. It was just after 5.30pm, so it had been a very long day in the saddle & we still had the final descent to Lanslebourg to negotiate. After the first couple of blind corners the road opens out & there’s clear line of sight on where the corner ends, so I was able to let the brakes go & simply enjoy the ride.

I can’t believe that this is the end of Day Nine already, where has the time gone? Today was another awesome day of cycling in the big mountains & I’m hoping for one final day of fun tomorrow!

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