Mountain Roads

Stolen from
BikeNet
Written by Mark Ellott

I remember being introduced to mountain passes as a teenager when we lived near Machynlleth in north Wales. My father regularly drove us across the perilously narrow road from Machynlleth to Rhayader via Staylittle. I failed to understand why he took this winding, high (very high) and exposed road with nothing between us and sod all for several hundred feet down into the valley and the added peril of brain challenged sheep wandering into our path when there was a perfectly acceptable road via Newtown that only involved an extra twenty miles or so.

I was, of course, missing the point. While I sat scared rigid during those journeys I failed to realise that it was the exhilaration of the drive (albeit in a car) that made the road so attractive.

It's all to do with control. I don't much like riding pillion and I don't know many riders who do - we'd much rather be at the controls. Do something dangerous and you will doubtless experience a thrill. Sit in the passenger seat while someone else does it and you will doubtless experience fear - because you have no control over the situation.

I rode the road to Machynlleth some years later after I started motorcycling. It seemed to me that it lost its nightmare factor. This time I was in control and I enjoyed the ride. Now when I plan a trip I actively seek out the narrow roads that meander through the mountains of Europe. If they are yellow lines on the map - or better still, white, then I am drawn inexorably towards them. When we went to Italy earlier this year, I pored over the maps looking for suitable passes through the Alps. Sure enough there is a yellow line that squiggles between Annecy and the Italian border...


Britain

My first mountains are found near to home. These days they seem like hills compared to such places as the Pyrennées and the Alps - but they have some interesting roads nonetheless.

Rhayader to Machynlleth

From Abergavenny take the A40 to Crickhowell then turn off to the right on the A479 then the A 470 to Builth Wells. Follow the A470 to Rhayader. On the outskirts of the town you will see signs for the mountain road to Machynlleth. Take the B4518. This route will save you about twenty miles but the reason for choosing it has nothing to do with mileage. Once you are over the cattle grids you are in sheep territory and the Welsh sheep don't worry overmuch about traffic. Beyond Staylittle the road forks. Turn left for Dylife. This is a white road on the map and very interesting it is, too. Eventually you will drop down the hill into the pretty town of Machynlleth.

Bala to Vyrnwy

From Bala take the B4391 towards Llangynog - but don't go that far. Shortly after leaving Bala turn right to Rhos-y-gwaliau. Another white line on the map, this road meanders up the mountain to Alltforgan on the shore of the artificial lake Vyrnwy. You could take the road back down towards Llanuwchllyn. If you turn right where the road splits you will follow the Afon Twrch as it drops down the mountain to meet the Bala Lake. If you turn left you will descend steeply to Dinas-Mawddwy. Both roads are worth a ride.

Hard Knott and Wrynose

These passes are classics that I suspect most of us have ridden at some time. If not, when you go to the lakes seek them out. Ambleside is on the northern tip of Windermere - probably the most commercialised water in the lake district. From Ambleside take the A593 towards Coniston. Shortly after Skelwith Bridge there is a right hand turn for Little Langdale. Follow this road through Little Langdale and when the road splits, take the left fork. The road then climbs steeply. It is also narrow so it pays to avoid the tourist season or you will be following snails all the way. It also pays to avoid the winter or the pass will be blocked by snow. Eventually the road will split again. The left fork will take you past the old man of Coniston and eventually to Broughton in Furness. The right fork will follow the Hard Knott Pass bringing you out on the A595 and Ravenglass.

This is not an easy ride. I first attempted it two up on a Yamaha XS650 - in low gears for much of the way. When we reached Ravenglass, I felt exhilarated at the ride.

Alston to Middleton In Teesdale

Strictly speaking, this isn't a mountain ride, it's more about gentle hills and moorland. I include it because if you are in the Lake District then you should take time out to follow this road. It's a great ride with fantastic scenery. Head towards Penrith then take the A686 to Alston. From there take the B6277 to Middleton. The road descends through what was once Westmoreland as it follows the river Tees. When you get to Teesdale, stop off at High Force Waterfall. It is an attractive place to spend an hour or so - particularly if you like an easy walk.

France

Petit St Bernard

Following the road from Bourg St Maurice to Aosta in Italy, this is one of the more demanding alpine passes. It climbs steadily through a series of hairpins to the summit where the road is unguarded. On the French side, the road surface varies from indifferent to poor. Once on the Italian side it improves and the descent is more enjoyable. In high summer watch out for caravans and buses as they make a motorcyclist's life difficult, particularly on the hairpins. Ride early in the morning and it is relatively clear and more pleasant. That said - I enjoyed the challenge.

From Chambéry, take the E13 to Albertville - or from Annecy take the N508 then the E13. From Albertville follow the N90 to Bourg St Maurice. This takes you through the Col Du Petit St Bernard to Aosta.

Col Des Montets

This takes you from France to Switzerland, or vice versa. Like the Col Du Petit St Bernard, high summer sees it plagued by tourists and their associated paraphernalia like caravans clogging what would otherwise be an excellent road. Either travel out of season or early in the morning.

This road is the N506 between Chamonix and Martigny. It is well signposted from both towns. The climb on the Swiss side is steep and dramatic. Long straights are interspersed with some very interesting hairpins.

Col Du Somport

From Pau follow the N134 through Oloron St Marie then Urdos. The Somport pass weaves through the Pyrennées to Jaca on the Spanish side. As passes go, this is interesting without being too demanding. The bends are fairly easy and this is a good pass to get a feel for the mountains. On the Spanish side the road is wide and gentle - a doddle.

Pourtalet

This runs parallel to the Col du Somport. Pick up the road from Pau and from Gap take the D934. The first major town on the Spanish side is Huesca - unless you turn off at Sabiñango and pick up the Jaca road. This pass follows the Gave d' Oloron through the gap in the mountains - with its views of tumbling white water and in some places attractive sheltered picnic spots. It is a little more tricky than the Somport, but although largely unguarded and narrow it is not too strenuous.

Corniche De Cevenne

One of my favourites, the Corniche de Cevenne is a difficult road to find - hidden as it is in the Cevenne national park. I recommend seeking it out if you are in the area. Basically it is the D9 between St Jean du Gard and Florac although that is probably an over simplification.

I approach it from Lodeve because I like Lodeve and if I'm in the area I tend to spend a night there. Follow the D25 to St Hippolyte du Fort then the D982 to Anduze. There you pick up the D9 to St Jean du Gard. The corniche is signposted from St Jean, but it is easily missed. Good luck.

Once on the corniche, the road is well surfaced with plenty of hairpins and tremendous views - it is also fairly traffic free. This is probably because no one can find it. In winter you may need to follow the less interesting D907 - check locally to see if the pass is open.

Spain

Pica Valeta

From Almeria take the coast road (N340) and turn inland towards Berja. You are then on the largely unclassified roads. From Berja continue to Ugijar, then Mecina to Trévelez. It's a good idea to stop for the night at Trévelez - you will need the rest. Just outside the town the road to Granada traverses the Pica Valeta on unmade unguarded carriageway - if carriageway can be used to describe something that is little more than a cart track. You will have to go in high summer as it is closed for much of the year.

This is not a road for the novice - it is hard work whatever bike you ride. It is worth it however.

Switzerland

Simplon Pass

The road between Brig in Switzerland and Domodossola in Italy is wide, smooth and just twisty enough to be satisfying. As with other roads in this region, it is busy in high summer. From the Italian side, take the E2 that skirts the northern shore of Lake Maggiore then to Domodossola. The road then traverses a series of tunnels and cuttings before dropping down through breathtaking valleys on the Swiss side - arriving eventually at Brig on the valley floor.
 
Britain 
Pass  Open in Winter  Remarks 
Ambleside to Eskdale (Wrynose and Hard Knott)  May be closed, check locally  Steep and twisty, busy in summer 
Rhayader to Machynlleth  May be closed at certain times  Relatively little used. Beware of sheep. Road surface indifferent in places. 
Bala to Vyrnwy  May be closed at times - check locally  Steep, narrow, twisty - triffic! 
Alstone to Teesdale  May be closed at times - check locally  Gentle sweeping roads through tremendous scenery. Good surface. 
France 
Pass  Open in Winter  Remarks 
Bourg St Maurice to Aosta France to Italy (Petit St Bernard)  Closed Mid October to Mid June  Good surface, twisty, narrow - some unguarded edges 
Chamonix to Martigny France to Switzerland (Col Des Montets)  Sometimes closed between December and Early April  Good surface but steep on the Swiss side 
St Jean du Gard to Florac (Corniche De Cevenne)  Can be closed - check locally. Alternative route D907  Good road surface relatively clear. Hairpins 
Pau to Jaca France to Spain (Col du Somport)  Can be closed in winter but usually open - check locally  Good road - easy ride but busy in summer. Unguarded in places. 
Pau to Huesca France to Spain (Pourtalet)  Closed October to June  Twisty in places but relatively easy ride. A good alternative to the Somport. 
Mont Blanc Tunnel France to Italy  Open all year  Costs 90FF. Customs on Italian side 
Switzerland 
Pass  Open in Winter  Remarks 
Brig to Domodossola Switzerland to Italy (Simplon Pass)  Sometimes closed between November and April  Wide, relatively easy road with some hairpins. 
Italy 
Pass  Open in Winter  Remarks 
Aosta to Martigny Italy to Switzerland (Grand St Bernard)  Closed October to June  Relatively easy - good surface 
Spain 
Pass  Open in Winter  Remarks 
Trevelez to Granada (Pica Valeta)  Closed from around October to late June  Lousy surface, hard work - good for the soul 
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