If a cycling God exists, they would live at the summit of Lago del Naret. Forget the famous French climbs, this one tops the lot. It’s not the longest, not the highest, not even the steepest. This climbs needs no such labels, no such gimmicks. It has beauty.
The staggering, jaw dropping scenery combines the best of the greatest Alpine passes. Forests, swooping hairpins, single track roads, snow capped peaks, and lakes so blue you’ll think the sky is upside down. Welcome to the climb of Lago del Naret, welcome to paradise.
It’s rare a climb lives up to expectations, let alone exceeds every superlative you’ve heard. Is this the best climb in the Alps? Possibly. Time will tell [another lake climb, the Colle del Nivolet, sounds similar and might vie for the title].
The best climb is of course subjective. As I’ve noted before in this blog post, mountain climbs are a personal experience and every climb can deliver multiple experiences depending on the weather, your legs, your state of mind.
A benign beginning. A gentle valley slope from the town of Bignasco eases you into the climb. There’s no silly gradients. Not yet. The road is considerate to cold legs and breakfast digestion. Wide but quiet roads, a dead end. Cool too, you’re funnelled through a corridor of pine, hidden from the intense glare of the sun. Which is fortunate. July, a heatwave and temperatures close to 40°C.
A babbling river beside you, ice cold snow melt free after a winter frozen in captivity, rushing down the mountain as if there will be no tomorrow. That’ll be you later.
A picture postcard village clings to the slopes as if painted on. You dream of remote village life, pondering not the harsh realities of winter, the lack of jobs, the boredom.
Hairpins and the start of the climb proper. The road kicks up but is manageable.
A minor detour through the next village, Fusio, ancient narrow streets lined with weathered timber huts from a bygone era, dark and thick larch logs stained black with time not creosote. Mountain travel is three dimensional. It’s vertical, a journey through the seasons, it’s time travel.
The imposing dam wall of Lago del Sambuca. You imagine James Bond free falling down its face.
The road flattens and clings to the lake edge. The lake calm and tranquil but for the waterfalls, snow melt falling from the skies.
You could stop here and be happy with all you’ve seen yet you’re but halfway to heaven and the wonders are still to come. There’s a price to pay however. The single track road pitches up and gradients hit 19%. Ouch.
You hear and smell the cows before you see them. An orchestra of chiming bells. The cows pay you little attention, grazing on inclines so steep it’s a wonder they don’t roll down the mountainside.
Next up the goats. A trail of droppings forewarning you of their presence. There’s always one stood in the middle of the road, the protector, ready to challenge you to a duel. Thou shalt not pass. The flock skittish, your fingers cover the brakes, just in case. Mental note for the descent later.
Majestic wild meadows open up at the next false flat, tiny flowers of white, red, purple and yellow dotting the valley floor. Cooler now, the snow capped mountains well within reach.
Lago di Sassolo up next. Melting bergs littering the lake, all that remains of the deep winter past. Snow hugs the roadside, up you go, past a huge yellow digger blocking the road to cars. What lies ahead? Is the road passable? Will you claim the summit?
Lake number three distracts you from such worries, the aptly named Lago Superiore, three quarters ice, rivulets of crystal clear turquoise water, only this isn’t the Caribbean.
The road ahead disappears beneath snow. You spot a pencil line of asphalt in the distance. So close to the summit, you cannot be denied. Bike slung over a shoulder, off you set across the snow.
Cycling cleats are inappropriate for most surfaces, especially slick supermarket floors when you’re tired and hungry. In snow, cleats become crampons. Sinking deep into the snow with every step, feet instantly cold and wet as the breathable shoes seep with ice cold water. Refreshing.
At 2,300 metres high, a combination of thin air and the nonexistent upper body strength of a cyclist quickly leaves you panting like a large dog on a hot summer’s day.
Onwards. Back on the saddle. Debris from rock falls block the road, more snow. Nothing can stop you. Up, up, up you go. The wall of another dam signals the summit, the small Lago Scuro split from the large Lago del Naret.
Stunning. An snow covered, ice filled world. Alone. Not a soul in sight. You feel not the chill dressed in your thin Lycra. Elation warms the coldest of hearts.
Words can do the scene no justice. Pictures cannot capture your joy. The climb will stay with you long after you have descended, an indelible imprint of happiness on your cycling soul.
I have a fascination with snow capped mountains. Iconic images of shivering riders racing through towering walls of snow, traversing from summer to winter and back in a couple of hours. The contrast of sultry, sticky 38 degree heat in the valley to the goosebumps at the icy summit. Incredible.
A cyclist searching for snow should be careful what they wish for. There’s a fine line between a mountain being rideable or best avoided. Go early in the draft of the snow plough and ride between huge walled corridors of snow? Or hit the remote climbs and time it just right to hike over remaining snow drifts, bike shouldered, ice crunching beneath cleats, snow knee deep.
The weather annulled stage of this year’s Tour de France shocked me. Not the decision of the race organisers but the severity of the weather in the middle of summer. These are mountains of course. A timely reminder. I’ve had the fortune to ride in the high Alps in perfect sunshine. How easy it is to forget the unpredictability. Seek the wilderness, never forget its wildness.