Alpine Adventures – Tour de Barcelonnette – September 2019

Both sides of Colle della Lombarde / Cold de la Lombarde – Day Five

Blue skies overhead for the second day running, so we decided to jump in the car for a 1 hour commute to Italy, to climb the Colle della Lombarde from Italy, descend to Isola in France, climb the Col de la Lombarde from France & descend back to the car. Just in case you didn’t realise, this is the same mountain, but I’ve used their Italian & French names!

Today’s adventure would only involve climbing or descending, so while we would only be riding 53 miles, more than 26 miles would be uphill. As soon as we set off the road began climbing a sheer cliff face in a series of tornantes (hairpins), very similar in appearance to the Lacets de Montvernier in France. The gradient was a constant 8% for the first couple of miles, as the road weaved its way through a deciduous forest & followed a roaring river that was below us & off to our right.

The road surface was potted & rough from the constant freeze/thaw cycle that takes place during winter, but wasn’t an issue as we were ascending. There wasn’t much in the way of views to talk of in the first 5 miles, as we were surrounded by tall trees. However this all changed when we crossed a bridge to the other side of the river & the landscape switched to meadow, with views of the huge mountains all around us.

As we continued to climb, there were great views of the road below, as the switchbacks allowed the tarmac to find its way between the outcrops of rock. The views also helped to take my mind off the consistently steep gradient of the climb. As we continued to gain altitude, the valley opened out & we had our first views of where the road would be taking us – a long way up!

To the right of the valley a group of baroque buildings came into view – at 2,035 metres, the Sant Anna Sanctuari is the highest in Europe. Unfortunately, time was against us today, so we followed the signs to Francia & crossed back to the forested side of the valley. As we continued to climb, there were great views across & down to the Sanctuari. We were now about 9 miles into the 13 mile climb & as we rose above the treeline, we were back in alpine meadows.

The Colle della Lombarde was just visible in the far distance, some 1,500 feet above us. Along the way, we spotted parked cars where their passengers had set out for a day’s hiking on one of the many trails into the wilderness. There were also a couple of people who had set up a picnic on the edge of an alpine lake – they really had got back to nature.

At the 12 mile mark, the climb eased off slightly for about ½ mile, which enabled me to gather my breath & prepare for the final push up to the summit. In the distance I made out what looked to be a statue of a deer, perched above the Col. I decided to explore further when we returned later in the day. Once we reached the summit, I took a couple of snaps, pulled on my windproof jacket & set off into France, for a 13 mile plummet to Isola, via the ski station of Isola 2000.

The first 3 miles of the descent were full of twists & turns, as the single track road zig-zagged down to Isola 2000. As with many other ski stations, the roads up to them are wide affairs – what struck me as being different about this one was how steep it seemed to be. If I let go of the brakes, I picked up speed incredibly quickly – it was only the sharp bends that forced me to moderate my speed. The first warning signs about the climb back up to the summit!

Once we reached Isola, the plan was to grab some lunch, however, the village/town only appeared to have 1 restaurant & it was just closing when we arrived. Although we had enough cycling food to get us back to the summit, there’s something morale building about sitting down & enjoying a nice meal – oh well, a banana bar & raspberry gel it was for lunch.

The early miles of the climb out of Isola were brutal – the first 3 miles averaged 10%, but due to the hairpin bends being level, the actual climbing was nearer 11 or 12%. As we toiled away under a baking sun (the temperature hit 27 centigrade), we could almost feel our energy draining away. The climb itself followed a river, but the valley was really narrow, so there wasn’t much in the way of views.

There was welcome relief from the sun as we passed through a number of avalanche tunnels, this also provided a degree of recovery time, as the gradient eased slightly through the tunnels. The higher up the mountain we climbed, the harder it felt – this could have been a combination of lack of food & water / our 5th big day of riding / being at altitude (the summit tops out at 2,350 metres). In any event, we were relying on good old British grit to see us through!

As we reached the 6 mile point in the climb, we got a glimpse of Isola 2000 & our spirits rose – we’d both seen a restaurant on the way down & there were people sat outside. This spurred us on as the road continued to climb through the trees, taking us ever closer to…….disappointment! The restaurant was long closed. We took a few minutes to regroup & down our final gels before the final push to the summit.

The good news was that it was only another 3 miles to the summit, the bad news was the final mile was at a gradient of about 9%. All around us the mountain peaks loomed above us, providing some great views as we continued to climb. As we turned to tackle the final steep ramp, we realised that we had a tailwind to help us get to the summit! An Italian couple were sat on the verge watching us battle up the climb & as we passed them they shouted out ‘Bravissimo!’ – a small gesture, but one that was really appreciated, as they could see I was at my limit to finish the climb.

More snaps at the summit, then a short hike to get a closer look at the animal sculpture on the mountain peak – it appeared to be a bull, but with elongated coloured antlers, rather than horns. I’m none the wiser as to what it represented, but I enjoyed looking at it anyway.

After strolling back to the bikes, we put on our jackets for the descent on the single track road & with regret, we both agreed we were too tired to do the extra climb up to the Sant Anna Sanctuari. All that remained was to buckle up & enjoy the banzai descent back to the car as we returned to Italian soil.

An epic & challenging day in the high Italian & French Alps – the views were spectacular & the climbing was about the toughest I’ve experienced on any of my Alpine Adventure trips to date!

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