Col de Tende
aka Colle di Tenda
This is usually thought of as the most southerly of the big
and important passes in the alps. The two special things
about this pass are: One: the amazing number of regular
switchbacks, stacked up on top of one another as part of an
old unpaved road on the French side. Two: the historical
importance of this crossing, resulting in a immensely
fortified ridgeline. The ruins of these fortifications
remain. In a way this is like a visit in a museum, but
without the crowds or fees that are often connected with
such a visit.
START-END SOUTH ALT: Ventimiglia: jct Corso Genova -
05.(15.5km,205m) road crosses into France
06.(18.4km,222m) turnoff on right to Libre and Cotte
07.(23.7km,284m) Breil sur Roya
08.(30.0km,445m) turnoff to Saorge on right
09.(40.1km,697m) turnoff to la Brique on right
10.(44.2km,818m) START-END SOUTH: Tende
12.(53.5km,1257m) old pass road turns off N204 on left
13.(60.5km,1870m) TOP: Col de Tende; road crosses into
14.(74.5km,1011m) START-END NORTH: Limone
17.(94.5km,639m) START-END NORTH ALT: Borgo San
From South. The profile starts with a big
old highway bridge in Ventimiglia,There are probably plenty of
ways to go around it, but why bother ? The highway bridge works
just fine, and it is easy to find on the first try by following
simple road signs. Once past the bridge, S20 enters the canyon
of the river Roya. The route follows S20 and the river all the
way to the town Tende.
But back to the start: After a km inside the canyon, there are
two sections of long tunnels. I think the first one is half a km
or a bit longer. But it doesn't really matter, because you only
glimpse daylight briefly, before it enters the next one, and
then the next, and so on. There were so many tunnels, I lost
count. They all had plenty of space for a bicycle, were fairly
well lit, and I had no problems with the traffic.
Meanwhile the road crosses into France. Glimpses
of hilltowns far above the canyon make this ride as fascinating
as many of the adjacent southern canyons: the towns Fanghetto,
Saorge, la Brigue, and maybe best of all, Tende itself.
Tende has all the infrastructure for a good base
location to explore the surrounding mountains on a mountain
bike. A sports shop, a municipal campground, that also rents
reasonable simple rooms, 2 medium to small food stores
(including 1 Spar shop), and a tourist department. Even if it's
closed, there is a map displayed north east of the center of
town, that shows the principal mountain biking routes. Just
about all of them involve Col de Tende in some way. But the
nicest thing about Tende is the old medieval town itself. You
really don't need a day of rain, and an excuse not to bicycle,
and to explore the town instead. My favorite spot is the
cemetery, also the highest point of the town.
Tende from below cemetery
Most descriptions of the pass start in Tende.
Past the town the road gradually gets steeper. Even before the
old pass road branches off the newer tunnel route, I count 9
switchbacks. Apparently there is also another secondary road
that bypasses some of these lower switchbacks. It is signed as
"no car traffic - sauf souverains (local traffic
only)". At this point you can already see the goal, the old
central military fort above, and in the morning light it doesn't
really look that high. Just before the tunnel a hard left takes
you onto the old pass road, and then the switchbacks really
start. There are 48 of them, regularly spaced on a narrow road,
like a staircase. A few of the switchbacks are numbered. The
dirt road does not start until switchback 28 or a little above.
Compared with the other military roads, that leave from the pass
(now MTB trails) this dirt road is in really good condition. I
met a cycling couple with fully loaded regular touring bikes on
top. They made it from Tende to the pass by about lunch time.
The connecting ramps tend to get longer and longer, making you
think that you have made more progress than is actually the
case. By the time you climb above treeline the ramps are many
times as long, as they were in the beginning of the climb.
There are forts along the ridge line in both directions. The
Central main military fort is a little distance to the east.
It's easy enough to just walk over to it. It would be a shame to
miss it. On a mountain bike it's just a roll away.
summit of Col de Tende
From North. (described downwards). I had
the feeling I missed the south side as soon as I started rolling
down the north side. All the medieval hill architecture is gone,
suddenly replaced by ski hotels, pretty much all closed when I
was there. Mountain views are also not as good, at least in
morning light. There is also a short unpaved section, a little
distance below the top on this side. Past Limone the route
converges with the traffic from the tunnel, and there are a few
short sections that could be described as unpleasant due to
traffic and an abrupt road edge. But it is really no problem, at
least in a downward direction. - The tunnel is open alternately
in each direction. So the traffic exits the tunnel bunched up
into convoys, then a long time - nothing. Quite far down the
valley, somewhere around Robilante a bike path starts. But all
the racers still seem to use the road. Unlike the French side,
there are plenty of industry and shops on this side, and this
gets heavier the closer you get to Cuneo. Now there is no
problem to find the foods you've been doing without on the
medieval French side.
Ancient to Medieval times:
You would suspect that people have been following up the canyon
of the river Roya for a long time, and that people have been
wandering up into the mountains above Tende for nearly just as
long. It turns out that a Greek geographer by the name of
already mentioned this pass. He was then quoted by Roman authors
Varro and Servius. It is widely speculated that the Hannibal
with his elephants ascended the (now) French side of the pass,
when he started out on the Iberian peninsula to invade the Roman
empire from the south.
A mention of a highway between
Ventimiglia and Borgo San Dalmazzo, ie the route of the profile,
goes back to 1178. It was used as a salt trading route into the
alps. Tende provided surveillance and maintenance for the road.
During the middle ages the road was reinforced and the entire
Roya valley prospered from this work, controlled by the town of
Napoleon: During the mid
18th century, this was one of many pass roads that was improved
by Napoleon. For the sake of easier troop movements, the road
bed became better engineered, the slope was made gentler, the
surface harder and more even.
World War 1 and 2: The
remnants of the fortifications that we see to today on the ridge
line were built in 1877 trough 1880 by the Italian Piedmont,
then fortified into a series of six buildings, in order to be of
advantage in conflicts with the area to the south.
The pass played a big role in the
various complicated twists and and turns, resulting in wars that
Europe fought with itself. The last one of these is WW2, when
France captured the pass, along with the already built tunnel.
With the "Treaty of "Paris" following WW2, de
Gaulle insisted that the Italian French border runs well north
of the ridge line, thus giving France the entire ridgeline with
its forts and fortifications.
Modern Roads: In 1882 a 3182m long tunnel was
constructed at 1750 m altitude. It was the first long tunnel
under a major alpine pass, and followed by a railway tunnel in
Cycling: The paved nothern
approach from Vernante over Limone was used by the Giro d'Italia
in 2005. Earlier the Tour de France ran over the top twice, 1952
on a 251km monster stage between Sestriere and Monaco, and in
1961 on a 225km stage between Turin to Antibes and Juan-les-Pins
A day on a tour: (<Col
de Castillon|Col de Larche>)
Tende > Col de Tende > Limone > Borge S. Dalmazzo
> up the Itinerario Valle Stura signed bike route >
Demonte: 53.8miles with 5610ft of climbing in 5:22hrs
Notes: includes about 7 miles
of exploring the area immediately around Demonte.
starting point of this day, Tende, is on page Via
del Sale s(u)
ending point of this day, Demonte, is on page: Colle
back to Cycling
Passes in Europe