Col du Grand Saint Bernard is one of the highest Cycling Cols in the Alps at 2,469 metres (8,100 feet). And one of the longest at 45 kms from the Swiss side.
A Little history
This pass has been used for almost 3,000 years to cross the Alps. Julius Caesar crossed with an army in 57 BC. Today, along the route are signs with drawings commemorating Napoleon’s crossing with 46,000 soldiers in 1800.
In the 900’s Saint Bernard of Menthon opened a Hospice to provide a safe haven for travellers – the hospice is still operating today.
The Saint Bernard dog was first mentioned in 1709 and has become an icon of the alps. Stuffed versions were on sale everywhere at the top.
Back to Cycling
I prefer beautiful routes to complete routes and I have avoided this great pass for a long time because quite honestly the lower part of the Swiss side is a lousy route. It’s on a main road with fast traffic and plenty of tunnels; and trucks heading for Italy.
But as the route climbs, seven kms from the Col, the main road becomes a huge tunnel right through the Alps. And there is a little turn off to the old route (trucks are forbidden). From here on it’s a great ride.
My cunning plan: Drive to this turn-off and cycle up. And then descend the other side into Italy until the old route meets up with the main road again.
While purists will be appalled at not “doing the whole climb”, this worked perfectly for me and by combining two climbs it still resulted in almost 1500 metres (5000 feet) of climb.
It wasn’t just the natilly dressed Italian customs officers that let me know I was in Italy. The road surface was awful on the south side.
EDIT 2012: Since the Tour crossed the St Bernard a couple of years back, the Italian side has been resurfaced. Smooooooth.
A wonderful ride on epic, very high, safe roads. Makes sense to me.
Complete elevation profiles from the Swiss (Martigny start) and Italian (Aoste start) sides:
Here’s a link to details of the Col du Petit Saint Bernard. Nearby climb that links France and Italy.