Col  du Mont Cenis

There are so many great passes in the alps to cycle over, that it's understandable that with time, you get some of them mixed up. But it is unlikely that one would mistake a ride over Mount Cenis Pass with any other ride still in memory. This one is just too different, and that's what makes it unique and memorable. The top is not a knife edge, but a large plateau stretching to distant snowcapped mountain walls. I imagine one could make a film of central Mongolia here. Mountain peaks play the distant part in this movie. Closer to the road is a large water reservoir with all its civil engineering ornamentation. And last but not least, there is the size of the climb from Susa - large - very large.

01.(500m,00.0km) START-END SOUTH: Susa
02.(1320m,11.1km)route from SP212 Moncinisio(sh) joins here
03.(1710m,16.5km)SS25 crosses into France
04.(2030m,23.4km)road reaches Lac du Mont Cenis, and its first access road
05.(2070m,25.7km)turnoff to large restaurant on Lac du Mont Cenis
06.(2099m,30.2km)Col du Mont Cenis
07.(1400m,39.8km)START-END NORTH: Lanslebourg
08.(1300m,46.2km)Termignon la Vanoise
11.(550m,93.8km)START-END NORTH ALT: St-Jean-de-Maurienne

From East. The icy alpine peaks in the French alps fall off very steeply towards Italy and the Susa valley. It's a special day if you can see these mountains it their totality, when looking up at this ice crowned wall from Susa. Almost always, there are some clouds somewhere, highlighting a section of the wall, while obscuring another.

Climbing up towards this wall on a bicycle, first of all involves a lot of forest. It's difficult to gauge where you are in the big scheme of things, that is  - getting to the top of this pass. Over there behind the trees is still that wall, sharp peaks above parted from the rest of the landscape by a solid layer of clouds in the middle. But there comes a point in time, not long after the junction with the SP212 Moncennisio shoulder summit route has joined the main road, that first signs of a lake become evident. Not the lake itself, but just a lower spillway with many old official looking structures around it. The road markers also take on size and proportion that speaks of national pride and national interest. Cars are mere bugs compared to these guards of the mountains.

After relaxing for a short time, while the road follows the spillway, a dam becomes visible, and the next section of the climb takes place on a few regular ramps, with lots of brickwork in form of walls and arches, again adding to the celebratory nature of this scene. The mountains do what they have always done, the vertical part.

Reaching the last part of the switchbacks I am again looking forward to relax a little bit, while the road might follow the peaceful shores of this lake. Wrong again. - The road turns back east and climbs higher above the lake. Passing a few auberges, it also becomes evident, that I crossed into France long before reaching the lake. The road does finally follow the north shore, but high above it.

Then I ride over the highest point on the route, and actually have no idea that this is it. Following the ups and downs along this vast lake, in above the trees tundra, you reach a concrete teepee, standing in a large parking lot, filled mostly with motor cycles. Here they sit and drink away the time, served by a few "wilderness stripmall" businesses, housed in government concrete.

The vastness of this tundra plain with its distant wall of high peaks, is what makes this place special. A few more restaurants/bars follow. The official pass is located at the exit of this vast plain. Three relief monuments allude to the long history of travelers, that have crossed this pass - this is the short version. First there were the elephants, you have to imagine Hannibal with them. Pictured on the second monument: then came the armies. Trying to differentiate between them all would require a lot more space than one relief. There are just too many. And the on the third relief: cyclists, standing in the pedals and giving them all they got, armies of cyclists now flood the top of Mount Cenis Pass.

From West: Since I had no indication that the unlikely spot along the lake would be the highest point, I was very surprised to find these switchbacks actually going down. From my map without contour lines, I had expected them to go up. From the route along lake it looks entirely plausible, that more climbing is to be done behind it. But then, even more surprising, even the descent is short. Lanslebourg appears just after a short distance. Compare that to the Susa ascent, where I didn't see signs of levelness for much longer than my panniers felt comfortable. And so the day was not that long after all.


Hannibal: A route over the summit plateau, but descending into France over a different route to Bramans in the Arc valley, is believed by to be the route taken by Hannibal with his elephants, during during his invasion of the north.

Medieaval Times: The pass was already used by pilgrims, bound for Moncenisio in the Susa Valley. From there they could follow an old roman road named Via Francigena to travel onward to Turin and Rome.

The pass was used as a natural boundary between countries from the time, that the Third French Empire annexed Savoy, till after the second world war. Part of he summit plateau was now part of Savoy (or France), and heavily fortified against an invasion from the Susa Valley. Like other formerly disputed boundary areas between Italy and France, it is now located completely in France. But the Royal Italian Army also built three stone forts, one of the on top of Mont Malamot. In preparation for the second WW, they also built small fortifications as part of its Alpine Wall strategy, but the real war happened elsewhere.

Roads: After the Romans, Napoleon also build a road over the pass between 1803 and 1810. Even a railway existed over the pass for a short time between 1868 and 1871. It featured English Railway drivers. The pass continued its role as one of the most used alpine crossings, which started in the middle ages, all the way to the opening of the Mount Cenis Pass tunnel in 1871.

Cycling: The pass was on the Tour de France itinerary five times (current till 2013), first in 1949, last in 1999. Of the cyclists in the lead, 2 were French, and one each from Spain, Italy and Russia. The Giro d'Italia alsco crossed the pass in 2013.

A Day on a Tour:

( Passo di Gavia | D207 St Pierre de Belleville- Aiguebelle(sh) > )
Col du Mont Cenis , SP212 Moncenisio(sh) : Susa > Venaus > Novalesa > SP212 Moncenisio(sh) > Co du Mont Cenis > Lanslebourg <> out and back weekend shopping trip to next town donwvalley: 43.8miles with ft of climbing in 5:44hrs

Dayrides between this point and the next summit ride with different start and end points, St Jean Maurienne are on pages:

Col de l'Iseran
Village du Loop - Longchamp s(u)
Col du Galiber