THE GREAT ST BERNARD PASS
The imposing Gran San Bernardo Pass, standing tall between Italy and Switzerland
In the Pennine Alps there is a pass that connects Italy and Switzerland: the Great St Bernard Pass, along with its endless history: it served as an important route across the Alps for the Roman Empire in the early A.D. In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte and his French army passed through it during the second Italian campaign against the Austrians. However, without having to go back to wartime periods, the Great St. Bernard Pass is historically and traditionally part of the Via Francigena route, it has greeted countless pilgrims, as well as giving many cyclists, amateurs as well as professionals, a hard time, since the Giro d’Italia has tackled it eight times and, in 2009, the Tour de France also arrived at its 2473 m summit.
It is a long, very long climb, a good 34 km, with an average gradient of 5.5 %. As the kilometres go by, the slopes steepen and, if the first 15 km are quite rideable, the last 19 start at 6% and then remain constantly between 7 and 8%. The temperatures drop metre by metre and, at an altitude of 2500 m, in May, the roadside is very likely to be covered in snow. In recent years, the Giro d’Italia has not gone beyond the tunnel, located at an altitude of 1918 m, but in 2023 the Corsa Rosa is making its way back to the very top of the Gran San Bernardo, which has not been reached since 1963, when a wild Vito Taccone passed first and went on to win the stage.
This alone would be enough to define the Gran San Bernardo as an “imperious” climb, but its charm grows even greater when reading the names of those riders who have conquered it over the years. As mentioned, the Giro d’Italia has climbed it eight times, but without the peak of this mountain ever being a stage finish. On the contrary, it has almost always been climbed in the first half of the stage, the ideal moment to shatter the peloton and tickle the fancy of those champions who have made themselves protagonists of legendary actions.
The Corsa Rosa discovered this pass in 1952, inserting it at km 61 of the penultimate stage of that edition, in the 298 km Saint-Vincent – Verbania. Leading the way over the Great St. Bernard was none other than Gino Bartali who, at the age of 38, was on his twilight years, sportingly speaking, but still had plenty of grit and pride. In that Giro, dominated by his eternal rival Fausto Coppi, “Ginetaccio” – that was his nickname – tried until the very end to overturn the GC, attacking and arriving first on the Great St. Bernard Pass before trying again on the Sempione Pass, but Coppi was always right on his wheel and Bartali had to be content with 5th place overall.
A few years later, the Italo-Swiss pass became the hunting ground of the Angel of the Mountain, the Luxembourger Charly Gaul, for whom those altitudes seemed the natural habitat. In 1957, in the Saint-Vincent – Sion stage, he attacked as the fans were clearing the road of snow, came solo over the summit, but on the descent, he was caught by Gastone Nencini and Louison Bobet, with the latter winning the stage and flying into the Maglia Rosa. Even more epic was the Aosta-Courmayeur, the penultimate stage of 1959, which was 296 km long and featured the Great St Bernard right at the start. Jacques Anquetil was firmly in the Maglia Rosa, but the never trivial Luxembourger had chosen that scenario to carve his name in legend. He began to stir things up on the very climb he had already beaten two years earlier, passing first again, but Anquetil held his own both there and on the Col de la Forclaz. The wrath of the tiny Gaul, however, was unleashed on the Piccolo San Bernardo: Anquetil went into crisis, lost six minutes and punctured three times on the way down, losing ten minutes to his rival, who made it to Courmayeur alone and acclaimed. The next day, at the Vigorelli in Milan, in the Maglia Rosa is on the shoulders and wings of the Angel of the Mountain.
Listen to the episode of In Cima dedicated to the Gran San Bernardo Pass: