In this post I describe the highest roads in Europe. With this definition I include only the carriage passes on both sides. I have ridden all six of Europe’s highest passes by bike-almost all of them during a cycle trip! They are all beautiful steps: each has its own wonderful characteristics!
La Bonette, at 2802 meters, is officially the highest carriageable pass in Europe.
Actually, the pass is slightly lower than both the Stelvio and the Agnello passes: but effectively the 2802 meters of the summit of la Bonette is the highest paved point in Europe.
The ascent is splendid from both upper Provence (Jausiers) and the Maritime Alps (St. Etienne de Tinee). In both cases we climb for about 25 km at an average of 6.5 percent.
Just before the summit you can see fortifications, called Camp des Fourches, in a spectacular mountain scenery! I went up from St. Etienne de Tinee and came down to Jausiers: I tackled this climb along the cycle route that allowed me to climb so many passes between Italy and France!
At an altitude of 1900 meters, on the St. Etienne de Tinee side, there is Restaurant le Pratois: this could be a good foothold. After this, there is nothing left until Jausiers!
The Iseran, at 2770 meters, divides the Val Cenis with the Tarentaise.
From Val Cenis, Bonneval sur Arc is the last village before the Iseran: they are now missing 13 km, and about 1000 meters of elevation gain to overcome. The average gradient of 7.3 percent should not mislead: two nearly flat kilometers lower the figure. The Iseran by bike from Bonneval sur Arc is a tremendous effort: slopes often hover around 8-9%. The most difficult kilometers of the Iseran are the last three: here you often pedal at 10 percent.
From the summit, the view is spectacular-there is even a small bar to refresh yourself! From the col d’Iseran it is 17 km to Val d’Isere. The road continues downhill to Seez: a total of 48 km! This valley is also very beautiful: however, one must pay attention to the tunnels after Val d’Isere, as some are poorly lit.
The Iseran has the steepest slopes from Val Cenis: from Lanslebourg to the Col de l’Iseran the road is splendid, and I talk about it in depth in the post devoted to Susa Aosta by bike.
Bonneval sur Arc and Val d’Isere are the last supports before the summit.On the same day as the Iseran climb I had previously completed the Moncenisio: a splendid tour!
At 2758 meters, the Stelvio Pass is the highest pass in Italy. It connects Lombardy to Trentino Alto Adige and lies within the Ortles Alps. It can be reached from three sides: from Bormio, from Prato allo Stelvio and from Switzerland, via Umbrail Pass.
I have tackled the Stelvio on two occasions, always from Bormio: the first time during the Granfondo Stelvio Santini, the second time during the 2017 Giro (a stage won by Nibali, but made famous by Dumoulin’s physical problems).
From Bormio, the Stelvio is reached in 21 km., with an average gradient of 7%. There are no extreme inclines, but the last three kilometers are quite steep as they always exceed 8 percent.
From Prato dello Stelvio to the top in 24 km, with an average gradient of 7.5 percent. In fact, the first piece is the softest: from Trafoi to the summit the slopes are almost always constant above 8 percent. It is definitely the most difficult side!
Even from the Swiss Grisons, Santa Maria to be exact, the ascent is difficult. The 13 km at 8.5 percent lead up to the Umbrail Pass: at an elevation of 2,500 meters, the road joins the one that climbs from Bormio.
At 2744 meters above sea level, the Agnello Pass is one of the highest carriageable hills in Europe. From both the Italian side (Pontechianale) and the French side (Guillestre) the real difficulties are seen at the end: in fact, in the last 9 km the slopes are always around 9-10%.
From the Italian side the road becomes particularly steep just out of Pontechianale, while from the French side the real difficulties begin after Fontgillarde.
Again, the scenery is sublime! A statue dedicated to Michele Scarponi, the Italian cyclist who died in a tragic car accident in 2017, can be seen at the summit.
Pontechianale and Fontgillarde are the last supports before the summit: there is no bar at the summit.
The Colle dell’Agnello was also part of the bike ride between Italy and France:In the same stage I covered 76 km, including the Izoard!
Also in the French High Alps department, it is possible to climb the Galibier by bicycle.
The slope from Briancon is the easiest: to get to 2642 meters you first go over the Col du Lautaret, which is never steep (only the last few kilometers exceed 5 percent). From Lautaret to the summit there are 8 km to go, at 7% average.
The toughest Galibier is from Valloire, which can be reached after descending the Col du Telegraphe. The 18 km from Valloire have an average gradient of 7 percent, but the last 8 km are the trickiest, at an average 8.5 percent.
The Valloire side, besides being toughest, is the most beautiful. From the summit there is a splendid view of both valleys.
Cycling enthusiasts remember the Galibier for Pantani’s legendary feat in the 1998 Tour, when he won the yellow jersey with a marvelous action from a distance.
I climbed the Galibier twice. In 2017 I started from Briancon (Strava track): I watched the Tour de France stage won by Roglic, with Froome in the yellow jersey. In 2018 I tackled the Galibier from Valloire, during the Granfondo Marmotte (here is the Strava track) .
The Col du Lautaret, at an altitude of 2,000 meters, can be used as a foothold on the Briancon side. On the other side, however, there is a bar just before the last 8 km: it is called La Poutre. Valloire has no shortage of bar and restaurant choices!
The Gavia Pass joins Bormio and Ponte di Legno.
From Ponte di Legno the first 4 km are easy, never steep. Just before the St. Apollonia junction, the road begins to climb and get narrower and narrower. The view, however, is truly splendid! Around 2200 meters you go through a tunnel, which is particularly dark: if faced downhill, it is essential to have good lights!
After the tunnel, you can see the beautiful Black Lake on the left. The last kilometer, fortunately, is one of the easiest: reaching the 2618 meters of the Gavia by bike is truly a great satisfaction! In total, the Gavia is 16 km long with an average gradient of 8 percent
From Gavia Pass to Bormio, the road descends for 24 km.
From Bormio, however, the climb is more rideable: the only challenging kilometers are those after Santa Caterina.
Bars can be found at the summit. From Ponte di Legno to the summit there are no support points, while from Bormio there is precisely Santa Caterina.
I tackled the Gavia in tandem with the Mortirolo:135 km for 3200 meters of elevation gain, spectacular!
Off the charts, but deserving of a mention, is the Nivolet. The Col du Nivolet, at 2612 meters, joins the Orco Valley with Valseverenche and is located in the Gran Paradiso Park in the Graian Alps. The Piedmont part of the pass is paved, while the Aosta Valley part is suitable only for MTB.
I rode this climb in 2018, two days before participating in the Granfondo Marmotte Alpes. I left the car in Ceresole Reale, at an altitude of 1580 meters. The road was built in 1930 for the purpose of reaching the artificial reservoirs of Lake Serrù and Lake Agnel.
The seven kilometers leading to the lakes are the most difficult, with an average gradient approaching 9 percent.
The last six kilometers, however, are at an average 6%. The view is truly sublime! Observing these two reservoirs from above is something unforgettable!
A bar can be found at the summit, and I descended again from the Ceresole side. I met so many marmots: I saw them mostly on the downhill, just before the lakes!