There are many mountain passes between Italy and Switzerland. The Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard might not be very well-known, but it's high. Getting here takes some effort, but it's worth it.
Picture 1: Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard
|Country:||Switzerland / Italy|
The Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard is a cross-border pass between the French part of the Swiss canton of Wallis (Valais) and the Italian region of Valle d'Aosta. Therefor both the French name (Col de Grand-Saint-Bernard) as well as the Italian name (Colle del Gran San Bernardo) are used. In this article, we'll use the French name.
Valle d'Aosta is the smallest Italian region, but also the highest one. In this place you'll find the Mont Blanc de Courmayeur, the second highest peak of the of the Mont Blanc mountain range as well as the highest point in Italy. The region also houses the highest all-Italian summit: the Gran Paradiso. Famous climbs include the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard (Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo) and the Colle San Carlo.
Wallis is a Swiss bi-lingual canton (French and German) which contains the highest mountains of Switzerland. Its warm and sunny climate make this a great tourist destination. In our article on the Furkapass we've said one or two things about this area. Next September, Martigny will host the UCI World Championships. The Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard starts in the French part.
St. Bernard dogs made this col famous. It's named after Bernhard van Menton, who found a monastery here in the 11th century. The monks helped out travellers who lost their bearings in the mountains. They used St. Bernard dogs to track them down.
The north side
This climb starts in the Swiss town of Martigny. The road to the start of the col is a wide and straight road which is really recommendable. Luckily there's an escape route. Just outside of Martigny, starting from Les Valettes, there's a alternative road towards the Lac du Champex. It's a nice climb on a beautiful, small mountain road. It's not easy though, since the average gradient on the last 10 km is around 8,5%. A great chance to add a nice climb to your palmares. After a short descent you pick up the original route towards the Grand-Saint-Bernard from in Orsières.
The road from Martigny to Orsières consists predominantly of false flat sections. After Orsières the gradient picks up, although it doesn't surpass 6%. From there, it's another 26 km to the summit. The closer you get, the nicer the view on the snow-packed mountains of the Grand Combin. After Bourg-Saint-Pierre, you'll ride through a 6 km long gallery, sometimes interrupted by a closed tunnel. Although you're predominantly riding on the light side of the road, bringing lights is highly recommended.
Eventually, you leave the road, heading the col. Finally, it's time to get started. It's another 6 km of climbing at 9%, on a quiet road. The bare rocks alongside the road and the view on the white summits make this climb quite special. Rough and hard, this is what you're here for. On the summit, there's a hotel / restaurant and a lake. When the weather's good, it's a nice place to spend some time.
The south side
The south side, from Italy, is a even nicer. Starting from Aosta, it's a 33 km climb. It's a long, straight road, but fortunately it's never too steep: between 5 and 7%, that's it. You will have to ride through a few dark tunnels here as well. After about 20 km, there's an exit towards the Colle del Gran San Bernardo. From here it's about 13 km of climbing. It's not as steep as the Swiss side, it's quite moderate. The switchbacks add to the scenery. The view on the ongoing road is endless. Although the landscape is not as rough as the other side, you will get that true 'col feeling'. After a short tunnel, you're on the top.
The main road to the pass can be busy from both Switzerland and Italy. Be prepared for that. Use light to make yourself visible in the tunnels. Something you should always do in the Alps. If possible, avoid the busy times with a lot of holiday traffic.
Until the 60's, both the Giro and Tour regularly passed by. Especially for the Tour that's remarkable, since none of the 2 sides start from France. For decades, the grand tours neglected the climb. However in 2006, it was part of the Giro and in 2009, the Tour dropped by. Stage 16 went from Martigny (Zwi) to Bourg-Saint-Maurice (Fra), over the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard and the Col du Petit-Saint Bernard. The stage was won by Spanish rider Mikel Astarloza. A win was which was taken away later on because he had been caught on the use of EPO.
Click on the images to download the routes.
|16||Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard /
Colle del Gran San Bernardo
|18||Roque de los Muchachos||Spain||2426|
|20||Col du Granon||France||2413|
Picture 2: The start of the road to the summit
Picture 3: the Swiss side
Picture 4: the Swiss side
Picture 5: View from the summit
Picture 6: the Italian side
Picture 7: The summit
Pictures: Michiel van Lonkhuizen (CyclingCols): 3, 4, 6 - Ron Pronk: 2, 5, 7 - Wikipedia: 1.