Where France & Italy Unite: A great gravel experience

From issue 71 • Words/images by James Startt

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Some call it the poor man’s Alps. The Maurienne Valley is likely the least known of France’s alpine valleys, because it’s the least developed, lacking the industry or the world-renowned ski resorts of the Tarantaise or Oisans areas. But for any cyclist, the Maurienne is one of the richest. It is, after all, the doorway to mythic climbs such as the Madeleine, Croix de Fer and Galibier. But as the central valley road climbs toward Italy, the Maurienne is also the gateway to numerous lesser-known climbs, some virtually undiscovered. And, as we find out, it’s ideal terrain for a great gravel adventure.

Few people know this valley better than Jérôme Furbeyre, a resident of Bramans in the heart of the Haute-Maurienne. A former junior regional coach for the French Cycling Federation and mountain guide in the Maurienne, Furbeyre now manages Au 31 du Cycle, a fashionable bike shop in downtown Lyon. But he is only too happy to return to the Maurienne for a weekend gravel getaway.

“I’ve ridden all kinds of bikes,” Furbeyre says, “but for me the new generation of gravel bikes is simply the best compromise for what I like to do. You still maintain the sensations of a road bike on paved roads, but they just invite you to do so much more. And here in the Maurienne there is so much more to do. There are of course lots of great climbs, but there are also plenty of opportunities to get off the main roads.”

The first climb that Furbeyre suggests tackling is the little-known Plan du Lac, at the foot of La Vanoise National Park, which boasts some of Europe’s greatest glaciers. Following a narrow road out of Termignon the road climbs steadily toward this summit, a summit where no bike race has gone before. “While this is a well-known destination for hiking, cyclists rarely come up here,” Furbeyre says. “And yet it is just an amazing climb. There are some great little gravel roads one can discover near the top, and then the views at the summit are just amazing.”

A reality check at the summit confirms that Furbeyre is not exaggerating. Numerous paths and routes shoot off from the Bellecombe parking lot, where motorized vehicles must stop. And while not all of the paths are open to cyclists, some are. Follow the agricultural road toward the Refuge de la Femma, for example, and you get not only breathtaking views of the Dôme de Chasseforêt but also the Pelve glacier. And it is here where you gaze upon the summit of the Grande Casse, the highest summit in France’s Savoie region. Mountain lakes spot the plateau on the summit, and you can easily ride through aging mountain villages and hamlets that are gently crumbling back into the earth. “It’s just a special place up here,” Furbeyre says. “Before, I could only come here to hike, but now I can ride. It’s one of my favorite destinations.”

Making our way toward Italy in pursuit of more epic climbs we then venture up the Col du Mont Cenis, a historical link between France and Italy. It was here that Roman commander Hannibal Barca apparently crossed the Alps with elephants in tow on his march toward Rome after conquering much of the Iberian peninsula in 218 BC. And the route was later frequented by Napoleon, although cyclists are more likely to remember it for when Italian Claudio Chiappucci crossed it during his long solo breakaway stage victory to Sestriere during the 1992 Tour de France.

But while the main road that links France and Italy is steeped in history, getting off this road is even more intriguing. A rich turquoise-hued lake crowns the summit; although created artificially by the construction of a dam, it is a mere infant compared to the roadway. Around the lake, however, are numerous small roads, perfect for the properly equipped bike. “There are loads of roads up here that are great for gravel riding,” Furbeyre explains. “Most of them are old military roads used to service the many forts that were built here by the Italians, back when the Savoie region was still a territory of the King of Sardinia. You know, this place was basically Italian until France definitively took it over in the late 19th century. And these roads that remain are just great for a gravel ride.”

In fact, the roads and trails here are so complete that one can ride from Bramans in the valley to the summit, although some dismounting would be required. “It’s an amazing climb and one impossible to cover in a car, only by foot or bike,” Furbeyre adds. “But while there is no paved road here today, some think that Hannibal actually crossed the Alps this way since the slopes are more gradual. It’s just amazing here. You are lost in time.”

Whether by paved road or off road, it is hard to pass up the picturesque Alpage les Couleurs restaurant/fromagerie that joins the two passages. It is here where the paved road literally runs out and this seasonal eating-place provides a perfect stopping point at the summit. A great place for coffee or even a meal, the aging owners are only too happy to open the doors of their fromagerie and show off their selection of cheeses. Most are made of goat or sheep’s milk, and many of the firmer, Crottin-style cheeses even fit easily into your jersey pocket. Note to the reader, however, do not rush the hosts. Here, somewhere between France and Italy, time stands still.

After our lunch on the summit of the Col du Mont Cenis, we then decide to descend into Italy. The descent down the Italian face of the climb is some 30 kilometers, nearly three times longer than the climb up from France. But the descent is well worthwhile, because at the foot of the Italian slope, in the town of Susa, one finds the road to the Colle delle Finestre, quite simply one of Europe’s most epic climbs.

It is here that the Giro d’Italia first made its way just over a decade ago, while its regular returns since 2005 have put the climb on the map of any self-respecting climber. And, according to locals that we meet along the way, the Giro will once again make its way to this rocky summit in 2018.

Almost immediately upon leaving Susa, the route to Finestre narrows to a single lane as it cuts through the dense forest found on the lower reaches of its slopes. A standard road bike works fine under such conditions although the generous gearing of Furbeyre’s Bombtrack bike was evidently appreciated. But where the gravel bike is a virtual must is in the final 5 kilometers, where pavement runs out and the steep, pure-gravel road forges its way toward the summit. Top pros, of course, can still manage on their road bikes, but mere mortals—even fit ones like Furbeyre —will find a gravel bike perfectly suited for this rugged terrain.

“The Colle delle Finestre is the perfect mix of road and gravel,” says Furbeyre. “Its just unique the way the road climbs through the forest into this barren landscape at the summit littered with rocks and covered in dust. This climb just really lets you enjoy the potential of the gravel bike as it forces you to use it both on and off the paved road. But that is why I love these bikes. They are built aggressively and give you a real road bike feel when you are on the roads, but they quickly adapt to the conditions once the road runs out.”

Exiting the tree line as the road nears its 2,176-meter (7,139-foot) summit, Furbeyre powers steadily across the final kilometer of bleached-out roads. “Man this is gravel riding,” he says, reaching the top. “You want the ultimate gravel experience, the Finestre is hard to beat.”

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