My favourite climb. Period. It is so beautiful one just laughs while pedalling. Here’s what I said in 2014 after my first visit:
Let’s get the hyperbole out of the way: This may be the most beautiful high Alps paved climb I have ever cycled. Seriously. 🙂
It’s the 3rd highest paved pass in Italy. See here for the 10 highest paved passes in Italy.
This was the last climb of the Alps visit of my great friend Jens. He had originally suggested Barcelonnette as a place to visit. I nodded enthusiastically and planned as many special climbs as I could (see last few posts) — but saved a final detour for this amazing place.
I’ve written about Nivolet a couple of times before (here’s a 2016 autumn ride), but a few fun facts ….. and, of course, some photos.
- The road was built in 1931, primarily to give access to the dams/lakes up high.
- It has never appeared in the Giro d’Italia, partly for environmental reasons, partly for logistical reasons (dead-end, etc).
- Apparently it is one of the best star-gazing sites in Italy. No pollution, high, no light, etc.
- Yes, it featured in the original Italian Job film – the teetering van scene
- Col de l’Iseran, the highest paved pass in Europe, is only a handful of kilometres away as the crow flies (less than 10), but over high, high mountains. France and Italy park authorities manage wildlife herds here in partnership. But it’s a 4 hour drive by car between the passes! No roads.
Near the start of the climb to Nivolet is a fabulous “secret” road to another high alpine dam. Lago di Teleccio. Highly recommended, and perhaps the only other “great” climb in the region. See here. Trust me, truly marvelous.
Back to Nivolet: We started from Ceresole Reale at the first of several dams/lakes. This left us the best 18 kilometres of the route. One can start far lower, see profile, but most of the lower slopes are nothing special.
I’ve ridden these lower parts. The important thing to note: perhaps 28 kilometres from the summit is a 3 kilometre tunnel. And it’s very steep in this tunnel, yuck. But, see this 2014 post for an amazing “detour” on the old road. Great hairpins, the need to briefly climb in and out of the tunnel, etc. But so fun. Note, this old road is falling apart and one needs to be responsible. But so much better than a long uphill tunnel.
EDIT! IMPORTANT: Since I wrote this, the old road has been refurbished and now is in perfect shape and cyclists can avoid the long tunnel in peace and quiet.
Here is a 3D video of ride that includes the lower slopes/tunnel:
I don’t have much else to say except I love this road. The final 15 kilometres or so are truly incredible. So let’s get to more photos. 🙂
First, one climbs a fabulous series of hairpins below Lago di Serru, the first of two big dams/lakes.
The Diga (dam) di Serru is at 2275 metres. On Sundays in summer the road is closed to cars from here onwards. Very nice.
A future project? On the fun hairpin section below Lago di Serru, one can easily see the old military road on the way up. It looks steep/rough but do-able on a mountain bike. Strangely, I didn’t take a photo of it. ;(
Next, there is an easier stretch riding across the Lago Agnel (lamb lake) dam.
If the climb ended here, it would be a favourite. But now the true fun begins. The road hairpins higher with an ever changing angle of the best cycling view I know. Yes, we took a lot of photos.
The pass itself is 2612 metres (3rd highest in Italy). But don’t stop here. Just over the pass are a few more lakes and a couple of restaurants. Note, the road continues down in Aosta.
What a road. Ridiculous.
It’s possible to descend the far side of Nivolet to Pont, the top of a 26 kilometre climb in Val d’Aosta. But the road disappears and it is a steep hiking trail for a stretch. Not easy. See here for a post where I cycled up to Pont and began the hike, but have up due to late season lack of light.
Hi Will, Jens sure is lucky to have a friend like you! Those are incredible photos, and it looked like you found the perfect day. I’ll be visiting the Maurienne Valley in early September for some riding, and would love to visit the Nivolet. However there doesn’t seem to be an easy way of getting there. Do you make a day trip or do you have a favourite place to stay near by?
Stay safe and thanks again for letting us visit these amazing places through your Blog.
Hi Martin, yes, Nivolet can be tricky to reach from the French side.
Ceresole Reale would be the nicest tourist place to stay along the route. Nice lake/dam, touristy but not big. But it’s well along the route.
Well down low, before entering the valley, I’ve stayed in Rivarolo Canavese and enjoyed the town. I stayed at the Hotel Riovarolo- walking distance to centre of twon. Quite nice. If more businessish feel then charming.
Third time already haha!
One would wonder if it is possible to ever get bored of this climb.
You described it perfectly at the start of this post with the ‘laughing while pedaling’ remark. I found myself smiling and overjoyed too during the parts above the dam, regularly having to stop to gaze at the views and take a deep breath trying to take it all in. Fantastic photos of a fantastic climb again!
A week ago, I climbed Cirque de Troumouse in very good conditions and since then I’m in doubt whether I have a new all-time number 1 in stead of the Nivolet or not. These photos however… 🙂
I’m curious what your opinion would be if you climbed Cirque de Troumouse a second time now!
First congratulations on your huge Pyrenees trip. Fantastic.
For me, Cirque de Troumouse was such a surprise. I had no idea what to expect and it was beautiful – a great climb. But Nivolet is just bigger, higher, and has all the views with the dams/lakes.
I suppose the reason I preferred nearby Cap de Long over anything else I’ve ridden in the Pyrenees is my weakness for high alpine dams. 🙂
we (my wife and I) biked the Col this Monday (21st Aug.) and really enjoyed the day. The weather was perfect and nature beauty is amazing.
I fully agree with your advice to begin in Ceresole Reale. The long below is really scary.
I wander how it would be to bike here in the beginning of July or in September – off the main holiday season. The road was quite busy though I must say that most drivers were quite decent.
Jaromir, Well done!
Yes, I rode it in late September last year. VERY quiet.
I am planning to do Nivolet in next few days. Do you know about shuttle bus which takes bikes? Where can I find timetable and information if it really take bikes?
I rode up to Nivolet this past Thursday, Oct 26. Nice and warm! The larches have turned yellow/orange, the colors were incredible – the forests are mixed larch and pine. Beautiful views, just a different palette from Will’s photos.
The road has been closed to cars a few km above Ceresole since Oct 16, just hikers and bikers allowed beyond. Complete peace! Apparently they will clear the road up to the Serru dam mid May, and to the col mid June.
The bad news is there were major forest fires in the valley, like in the Susa valley and elsewhere in Piemonte. The smoke was stuck in the valley, some inversion phenomenon. When I got back to Ceresole (where I stayed overnight) the smoke had crept up, one couldn’t see beyond 100-150m, and it was colder than above. It had cleared next morning, but below Noasca it was thick, no visibility, firemen running about. Fire was visible from the road near Locana. (Needless to say I gave up on the Telessio dam ride). Let’s hope some larches will be left standing…
Three of us are planning to climb the Colle del Nivolet with panniers at the beginning of July. We hope to descend to Pont and then continue to Aosta. We would appreciate any insights you may have on the difficulty of descending with panniers along the hiking trail. We have no issues walking the bikes during difficult or steep stretches. We noticed that there are a couple of hiking trails branching off the road at the top. Would you advise following the road as long as possible before branching off on the trail? Thanks in advance for any information. We are psyched for the climb. It looks gorgeous.
sorry, I’ve never done it, I’ve only started up from Pont but turned back. I am not certain the absolute best trail option.
Some great news! The giro went through here this year as far as lago surru. The tunnel bypass has been completely resurfaced with a layer of perfect bitumen and the towns and villages festooned with pink ribbons and pink bikes. Most of the potholes had been filled and any dodgy surface repaired or redone. This road was the highlight of my three weeks away. Virtually no traffic. The last 50 metres was blocked by a snowplow that had ceased work for the day and had a 10 foot wall of snow in front of it. Above lake sorru was just a great long snow wall with the road awash with melting snow. The temperature was up at around 15 degrees at the top so it was just superb. One day later we would have made the top. A spectacularly beautiful ride – sensory overload – and the descending 45km back down to Sparrone was sensational too! Thanks again for the valuable resource you have shared!
Well done. Yes, I saw they renovated the old road. Indeed, great news. A beautiful detour around a nasty, long, modern (and uphill) tunnel.