by Albano Marcarini

Of the two sides of the Izoard, the southern one is the most challenging. The average gradient is 7.2%, with a peak of 14%, versus 5.9% and a peak of 9.9% on the north side. We set the starting point at the junction of L’Esteyre (elev. 1,353 m), at the junction between the road for Queyras (D 947) and the road to the top (D 902), which is 14.2 km away. You can approach the Arvieux valley with impetus, but it’s wiser not to overdo it. The signs inform you, every kilometer, about the gradients to tackle. We go up the slope between meadows and woods. At elev. 1,400 m, after reaching the few houses of La Cassière, you have a moment to catch your breath – a flat straight stretch pointing at the church and the mighty bell tower of Arvieux, the capital of the valley, where you will find a fountain and a cozy pastry shop.

In case you want to dress the tourist’s clothes, the 16th century church with the carved portal, and the Protestant temple are worth noting. In the passage between the houses of Arvieux the road rears up again and reaches gradients close to 7-8%. The track does not help – it has tiring stretches cut in the meadows with few reference points. Brunissard (elev. 1,755 m) is the last village. It features a curious wooden bell tower and old houses, not all of which have survived fires and avalanches. Past the village, we reach the foot of the mountain that blocks the valley. After a curve to the right, the D 902 features seven tough hairpin bends with the only mitigating effect of the shade provided by the Bois Noir.

Here it gets serious – gradients never lower than 8%, often close to 10%. It is about 5 km of effort that lead to a first summit: the Col de la Plâtrière (elev. 2,212 m), a viewpoint on the Casse-Dèserte, the gigantic stony ground, dotted with peaks and rocky pinnacles, within which the road passes. If you are not concerned about performance, it’s nice to stop and admire a unique landscape. A slight counter slope awaits us in the Casse which ends just before the spike of rock where the plaques in memory of Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet are set – it is here that they showed off their prowess.

Having tackled the 14% peak on a stretch of about fifty metres, we can spot the top of the hill. There are 2 km left that we tackle along a bare slope where the last three bends (10%) and the curve that leads to the Col d’Izoard plateau (elev. 2,360 m) are drawn. Here stands the stele that recalls the men who built the road in 1897 – also it is where we access the Route des Alpes, from Evian to Nice.

For a refreshment there is a buvette, but it is better to go down a couple of bends on the other side to find the Refuge Napoléon, one of the eight sponsored by the emperor for gratitude during his return to France after being exiled in the island of Elba.

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