Col du Mont Cenis (both sides) & Col du Petit Mont Cenis


Above: View north over Lac du Mont Cenis

A fairly magical route climbing both the French and Italian sides of Col du Mont Cenis, as well as a brilliant detour up to the Col du Petit Mont Cenis.

People have been crossing the Col du Mont Cenis for thousands of years. Both Constantine the 1st and Charlemagne crossed the Pass with armies. It was the most frequently used passage between Italy and France in the middle ages. When the French ports were blockaded by the British after the battle of the Nile, Napolean ordered an improved road built over the pass. Finished in 1810, it allowed carts and carriages to be able to make the crossing.

Both sides of this great climb are wide, well surfaced roads. Additionally any through-traffic between France and Italy here – especially trucks – will take the Fréjus tunnel. Thus any extra holiday traffic in August isn’t too bad. Note, there is another paved option on the Italian side that is super quiet, joining the main road near the Italian/French border – see here.

For an amazing mountain bike climb above Col du Petit Mont Cenis all the way to Col du Clapier (another Hannibal possible pass) – see here. This route also does a loop of the lake.

I started by climbing the French side from Lanslebourg. It’s a scenic, not-too-steep, climb up regular hairpins. The geographic Col is well before the lake – see map. The Col sign is no longer there – it is marked on a little hiking sign – here’s an old photo.

My only previous time here, I turned around at the Col. I was better prepared this time. First I followed a truly special side road for 7 kms to the Col du Petit Mont Cenis.

Start of road to Col du Pt. Mont Cenis

Little road to Col du Petit Mont Cenis

The 7km single lane road is perfectly surfaced, not too difficult and just beautiful. There are plenty of additional paths and trails to go further or even do a loop of the lake. Well worth a visit with a mountain bike.

Some historians believe this pass was used by Hannibal when he made his famous elephant Alps crossing.
With a road bike, it’s necessary to double back from Petit Mont Cenis to the main road. For roughly five kilometres the main road is relatively flat as it runs beside the lake. The dam itself is on the south tip of the lake – a little detour is require but it’s possible to cycle across it – next time.

View north showing the dam:

If the north side climb is scenic and not too tough, the south side is something altogether different. It’s a giant 25.5 kilometre climb. I descended all the way to Susa, Italy wondering if I was making a mistake – it was a long way down.

But what a climb. Again, rarely too steep, this wide road winds up out of the valley on a far less regular route than the north side.

The top few kms of the south side, and in fact the entire lake is in France. I have marked the Italian border on the map

The best part of the climb is the hairpins just below the dam:

Italian side: nice hairpins!
Nice Hairpin
The entire route was just over 100kms and by the time I reached the summit from the Italian side I was exhausted and ready to “rehydrate.” Cheers.
9.0 Awesome

A fairly magical route climbing both the French and Italian sides of Col du Mont Cenis, as well as a brilliant detour up to the Col du Petit Mont Cenis.

  • Views 9
  • Difficulty 9
  • Road Condition 9
  • Quiet / No Traffic 8
  • Fun Factor 10
  • User Ratings (2 Votes) 6.2

Happiest while cycling uphill.


  1. So jealous Will. Glad to see you are back enjoying the Alps like they should be.

    Wasnt a million miles away for the Marmotte or the Tour Du Mont Blanc this year. Itching to get back for the Alpen Brevet!!

    Did you treat yourself to a new bike too?

  2. Hi,
    We are planning a cycling trip for next july.
    Just wondering about camping in this area, we will have a van so I,m guessing we can pretty much stop & stay anywhere we like.

    Hobart TAS

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  4. One of my favorite pictures is the lake at the top of Mont Cenis from the Lost Boys Tour from 2006. Wish we could have done the descent into Italy – looks like fun.

  5. Hi Will,
    Have you ridden the Italian side via SP212/210 through Moncenisio??
    Looks like it could be a much quieter route.
    Planning to do this in July this year.

  6. Hi Nathan,

    I remember seeing where that joined the main route. I agree, I think it’s a good idea. The main road, frankly, isn’t that crowded, and I remember thinking while climbing that it was a very, very wide road so traffic didn’t feel annoying (and I hate traffic). But your idea must be virtually empty down low. Enjoy.

  7. Will,
    Just returned from a month of riding including the alternative route via Moncenisio, very worthwhile alternative. Used your website for much of our planning, many thanks.
    Especially enjoyed the Allos, Champs,Cayolle loop.

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