Col du Mont Cenis
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.
START-END SOUTH: Susa
02.(1320m,11.1km)route from SP212 Moncinisio(sh)
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
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
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
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.