Time on my research trips is always short as I aim to keep the budget tight and days away from the family to a minimum. It’s essential I do all the leg work before I leave so the climbs are researched, routes devised, hotels booked and daily schedules plotted to the minute to squeeze as much out of each day as possible.
While researching the Colle del Nivolet, a climb I’d been aching to ride for a number of years, it became apparent that to complete it from base to summit I would have to begin some 56 kilometres down the valley in Cuorgnè. There was simply not the time in the schedule for this though so I was forced to pick a suitable point further up the road, but not too far as it was still essential I got a proper feel for the climb. Looking at the profile it seemed the serious gradient kicked in just after the village of Noasca as up until then there was nothing more testing than about 4% so that would be my start point. After calculating the estimated ride time, locating a place to park another part of the plan was perfectly in place, or so I thought. Whilst plotting the route to the summit I had failed to pay attention to the tunnel just past Noasca. I’ve ridden plenty of tunnels on climbs, they are never that long (apart from the dreadful one at the top of the Gavia) so I just assumed this would be no different and didn’t give it a second thought.
Three of us set of from Noasca, me, and two mates Nick and Chris, we’d already done a couple of climbs that morning so were slightly jaded but any feelings of fatigue were quashed by the excitement of what lay ahead, well in my mind anyway. Nick wasn’t too sure, he said if it got too much he might head back so don’t wait for him. I told him turning back wasn’t an option on this road, and that he would regret it for ever because at the top was the promised land, not sure he was listening though.
Straight out of Noasca, and bang you hit a small flurry of 20% switchbacks, a formidable wall of gradient, or as I see it, the first of a brace of obstacles to keep travelers from reaching the treasures ahead. Undeterred we romped through these initial bends and approached the next obstacle, the tunnel, so if the 20% gradient hadn’t stopped us, then maybe this would. I turned to Chris, “There’s a tunnel here, I’m sure it won’t be long, although to be honest I have no idea as I didn’t look that closely at the map.” As we got closer I started to get a bad feeling, and then, THEN I saw the sign. 3345 metres! Oh, that is actually MASSIVE.
Did we have lights? Of course not. Could we turn round? Of course not, we were heading to Nirvana. We’d just have to hope it was well lit and get through as quick as possible, which, as we found out is not easy when the whole thing is set on an 8-10% incline! It was cold, dark purgatory, thankfully neither of us were claustrophobic or panic may have set in as it just went on and on and on, oh and then there was the noise. First you would hear a faint hum, it would get louder, and louder, and then you would start to panic as in the gloom and there was no where to escape. The rumble then turns to thunder, you daren’t turn round because it sounds like a 747 is approaching, and just as you brace for impact a Piaggio rolls past. Such are the acoustics in this giant cavern that opening a packet of crisps would sound like dropping a piano, so every vehicle that approaches is amplified to gigantic proportions. We had dropped Nick on the first bends, as was the plan, but half way through this hellish tunnel, having led him to this fate I was starting to feel a bit guilty that he was having to endure it alone. We had no plans to turn round though to see if he was OK as we just desperately had to get out the other side, so sorry Nick. On and on we rode through the perpetual gloomy abyss and then there was a chink of light and then another and finally we had passed through the proverbial wardrobe and entered our Narnia.
Darkness was replaced by light and impending doom turned to sheer delight as the road began to twist up the mountain. Not too tough at first, but then passing Lago di Ceresole the gradient ramps up to a pitch that ensures you will be chewing your handlebars for close to nine kilometres. There was no sign of Nick behind so hopefully he hadn’t perished in the tunnel of doom and the pace Chris was starting to set at the front had brought a halt to any conversation. Whenever I dared to glance up I just saw the road disappear further up the mountain, looking steeper and steeper so quickly reverted my eyes to the wheel in front of me. Then, just as the imaginary elastic holding me to Chris’s wheel was about to snap, and is if it sensed I needed respite, there was a jolt from the rear of the bike, and pop, my chain split, and in doing so somehow twisted my front mech out of shape. At last, a rest, thank god, never before have I welcomed a snapped chain, I climbed off, and for a moment just sat on the grass.
Chris had done 500 metres before he realised I’d stopped, he was that focused so by the time he rolled back I’d just about got it fixed, although the front mech would need more work so I’d not be using the big ring the rest of the day. Checking my phone as we stopped, there was a message from Nick. Firstly cursing me over the tunnel, and secondly to say his legs had gone and he was returning to base camp. I hastily replied in a hope to get him to change his mind but I knew it was too late, Nick was not going to witness the wonders of the summit.
After a short break and with legs refreshed we got stuck back into the climb and now could see the giant wall of the Lago Serru Dam. This is the point where Stage 13 of this year’s Giro will finish as it visits the Nivolet for the very first time. Why it hasn’t been before, I don’t know but to make the effort to come all this way and not actually go to the top, well that is a tragedy. I’m sure there are many very valid and sensible reasons it isn’t going to the top but to end the climbing here at the dam is like going to the cinema and leaving after the trailers. It’s like going to the breakfast buffet and just having a yogurt and some fruit. The real Nivolet magic lies beyond the dam as heading north past Lago Agnel you enter a landscape even Hollywood would struggle to create. Surrounded by high peaks rising above glistening azure lakes, snaking between rocky outcrops, a perfectly smooth tangle of tarmac winds through pure paradise. I knew what I’d find up here would be spectacular, I’d seen the pictures, but no photography can ever do it justice, just as no words I could write could ever truly describe it.
We spent almost as much time at the top as we had riding, it was just impossible to leave, impossible to soak in. Until this moment the mighty Col de la Bonette in the Southern Alps had been my favourite road, but no longer, it had lost it’s crown, the top spot now belongs to the Nivolet. Its an absolute masterpiece.
This climb, and 99 others can be found in my new book, The 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of Italy, which is OUT TODAY!
Guiding you to amazing roads like the Stelvio Pass and Monte Zoncolon in the North all the way down to Monte Etna in Sicila. Through the unparalleled beauty of the Dolomites to the solitude of the southern Apennines prepare to discover climbs beyond your imagination. Made famous by the Giro d’Italia, or simply because of their wild beauty each one is guaranteed to stir your emotions and have you falling head over heels for this wonderful country.