The charming Italian town of Bardonecchia, nestled just across the French border, serves as a hub for four distinct valleys, offering a breathtaking backdrop of towering Alpine peaks. Located in the province of Piedmont, this picturesque village is the starting point for those seeking an off-road cycling challenge that leads to the legendary Colle del Sommeiller, renowned as an off-road mountain pass that reaches an awe-inspiring altitude of just above 3000 meters (officially 3009 meters).
Photo: Summit View
Formerly a military road, Colle del Sommeiller is celebrated on various websites and even Wikipedia as the highest pass accessible by car, a fact we encountered during our route planning but didn't fully comprehend until we experienced it firsthand.
Photo: First Section Along the River
This 26-kilometer ascent, boasting an elevation gain of 1800 meters, guides cyclists through the Rochemolles Valley, leading to the pristine Lago di Rochemolles reservoir. Two routes lead to this point, but the initial 6 kilometers are paved, offering little hint of the adventure that awaits. Amidst the dense foliage of these initial kilometers, cyclists may feel like they're the only souls in the world until they reach the reservoir. Here, you'll encounter cars, RVs, and motorcycles, some of which brave the unpaved path upward.
Photo: Lago di Rochemolles Reservoir
The broad gravel road undulates gracefully and offers a pleasant cycling experience. As you ascend, you'll leave the tree line behind, granting panoramic views of stunning peaks while the soothing sound of a flowing river accompanies you beneath the clear blue sky. Climbing here feels like a reward, not a punishment! Halfway through the ascent, you'll pass Rifugio Scarfiotti and decide to continue upward. At approximately 2200 meters in altitude, the atmosphere changes as the road becomes busier. Motorcycles and cars join the ascent, affirming that reaching "the highest pass attainable by car" is a bucket-list achievement for many. The road steepens, becomes rougher, and showcases challenging hairpin turns reminiscent of the Stelvio Pass. Cars struggle to navigate the curves, leading to unique encounters where cyclists often overtake automobiles.
Photograph: Switchbacks Stelvio style
Photo: View of Rifugio Scarfiotti
Reaching 2600 meters, a relatively flatter stretch appears before the final kilometers of the climb. Here, the landscape starts to resemble a moonscape akin to Mont Ventoux, and motorized traffic becomes scarce. Whether you find this landscape beautiful or not becomes secondary; at this point, the focus is on tackling the steep gradients, enduring the incredibly rough "road surface," and coping with the thinning air, which makes it feel more like a survival mission than a cycling adventure.
Picture: Lunar landscape
At the summit, you'll be greeted by a brisk alpine wind, a small mountain lake, and remnants of snow from the glacier's base, along with a panoramic view of the challenging climb you've just conquered. The road ends here, making your descent equally enjoyable. As you descend on wide trails, you might even pass some dirt bikes. It's unusual to encounter so much motorized traffic on a mountain trail, but surprisingly, it adds a touch of entertainment to the experience. Make a stop at Rifugio for a slice of cake, then continue your descent via thrilling singletracks, including bike park trails, leading you back to Bardonecchia!
Photo: The final section of climbing
Photograph: Descent just after the summit
Whether attempting this ascent on a gravel bike is advisable remains a debatable question. We found mountain bikes to be well-suited for this terrain, though it's not impossible on a gravel bike; be prepared for a rugged ride! Due to the extreme altitudes, it's best to tackle this road during the summer months, as snow can persist at other times.
Photo: Singletrack section in the descent