Chris Case founded Alter Exploration to help other adventurous cyclists experience the types of transformative journeys he's been lucky enough to take his entire life. Alter Exploration's challenging trips create opportunities for physical and mental evolution in some of the world's most stunning destinations. Each day, the goal is to be preoccupied as much with the captivating experience as with the satisfaction of exhaustion.
The sun’s rays pierce through chiaroscuro skies, lending tranquility to the ragged scene. Misshapen mountains surround me as far as the eye can see. On the final switchback of this daunting climb, high in the Cottian Alps, I delicately navigate the loose dirt, making sure not to add too much torque as I round the precarious 180-degree turn.
Finally, after more than two hours of ascending—with the occasional stop to take photos and frequent attempts to take in the magnitude of the scenery—I crest the acclaimed Colle delle Finestre. There, I am met with yet more layers of hazy mountainscape—ridgeline after sawtooth ridgeline fades into the distance. No one else is here on this mid-September day. An old stone pillar, the shape of a tombstone, marks the summit.
I rest. I contemplate my next move. All down from here, I reason. But then, wait, what’s that continuing up the mountain?! I say at nearly the same moment. It isn’t well marked. It’s not quite a road. There is no signpost. There are more cow patties than tire tracks.
Is it a hiking trail? A goat path? I catch myself. Stop asking questions and start riding. This is what life—this cycling life—is all about. Take the leap. Make the abrupt turn. Go up.
My instantaneous decision to climb higher into the rugged landscape far above the Finestre takes me onto a grassy double-track, which soon becomes a cliffside path—and quickly redefines the word “cycling.”
I’m not sure where I am, but I know exactly where I’m going.
Forging ahead is a relatively bold choice. It could arguably be called stupid—out here all alone, 4,000 miles away from anyone who knows me. I am riding a bike upon a centuries-old military road—the Strada Militare Colle Finestre-Gran Serin, to be exact—far better suited to mountain bike treads. And yet it is also just a bike ride—a fantastically adventurous, spontaneity-filled bike ride.
I ride on, tingling with anticipation, never knowing what will come around the next bend. In the best of ways, I feel exposed. I question whether I should keep going, and it makes me tap into my perseverance, resilience, and self-trust. With every pedal stroke, I am becoming a better version of myself. What more could I ask for from a bike ride?
We can thank war for some of the most thrilling gravel roads in Europe. The Cottian Alps form the border between Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) and France's Savoie and Hautes-Alpes departments. The mountainous region has been fought over for hundreds of years. Now, the remnants of these ancient military roads and forts high atop the ridgelines make it a spectacular venue for exploration.
Nearby, some of the most storied climbs used in the Tour de France—from the Alp’s highest paved pass, the Col de l’Iseran, to the iconic Col du Galibier—make for smoother days. Not that you’re in search of easy. And then there’s the Colle del Nivolet. Found deep in the heart of Gran Paradiso National Park, the curvaceous road is one of Italy’s most mesmerizing. The spider web of gravel tracks sweeping across this wild basin would take weeks to navigate.
All these treats, all in one place. It’s a gravel cycling paradise.
The old military roads are not overly technical, never very steep, and the mesmerizing views of high-alpine landscapes drift into the distance, beckoning you to ride on. The climb at the heart of this region is the aforementioned Finestre. It is a behemoth and steeped in legend, having been the site of several iconic battles during the Giro d’Italia. (It has been included in the grand tour’s route four times since it was first used in 2005.)
When the Giro passes over its 19-kilometer length, the walls of the mountains are littered with humanity, and the echoes of helicopters, fans, and energy bounce from cliff to cliff. The last eight kilometers are gravel and dirt, a thread of wet noodles slithering through the forest, then curling around on itself high on the sides of this proverbial bowl.
If and when you ride it, it will be considerably less chaotic. The only sounds you’ll hear will be heavy breathing. This is a huge climb: nearly 19 kilometers (11.5 miles), some 1,694 meters (5,557 feet) of elevation gain, at a relentless average of 9.1%.
But the area boasts so much more terrain than this one climb. If the Finestre is the heart, then the old military roads, in particular the Strada dell’Assietta, are the main arteries that bring adventurous sustenance to the region. La Strada dell’Assietta was built in the late 1800s to link various military installations. Much of the old road travels far above 2,000 meters; it’s roughly 35 kilometers of high-alpine riding from the Colle delle Finestre to the Col Bassett, which sits above the ski resort village of Sestriere.
Prior to the road's construction, in 1747, the Battle of Assietta was fought at altitude here during the War of the Austrian Succession. The Piedmontese military was forced to protect 13 passes; they successively resisted the French invaders, inflicting some 5,000 casualties. Monuments to this and other battles litter the ridgeline, including a huge statue at the summit of Testa dell'Assietta.
If that all sounds intriguing, get ready for the wildest and most memorable section of road in this region: La Strada Militare Colle Finestre–Gran Serin, which links Colle dell'Assietta and Colle delle Finestre. (This is the path I spontaneously turned up now.) After World War II, the road was officially classified as "inutile e di difficile manutenzione" (translation: unuseful and difficult to maintain, aka, "don't take your road bike") and was quickly abandoned, which is why it is now such a delight on a gravel bike.
Reaching roughly 2,800 meters, the trail skirts along precipitous cliffs while passing various military ruins. If you love that feeling of being far from civilization while immersed in a place dripping with history, pulsing scenery, and a bit of danger, this is the spot. And, remember, don't bring your road bike.
What comes around each successive bend of La Strada Militare Colle Finestre-Gran Serin is more gravel paradise. Curvaceous switchbacks of crushed rock, technical bits that feel a bit like cyclocross, and otherworldly grandeur that makes me feel minuscule. Reaching the remnants of massive barracks high in the mountains makes me pause—while I am having the time of my life, I realize this place was once a dismal landscape of war. Men died here, most assuredly. I gain yet more on this ride—perspective and humility.
Around the next bend, I spot a rifugio in the distance. Prayers are being answered: Replenishment of food and water way up here is possible. Is there anything tastier than a Coke and a rustic panini on a hot, dusty day after six hours of riding? I challenge you to bring me something.
As the ride continues, puzzle pieces fall into place. Eventually, I make my way down to Sestriere—with its cars and structures and civilization, I don't stick around for long. Needless to say, I don't have time to waste since I am only halfway through this ride and there is plenty of climbing to go. The paved descent from Sestriere feels as smooth as shaving cream compared to the rock-strewn ridges I've just traversed. But it isn't long before I wish for more five o'clock shadow. Glancing at digital and analog maps helps me decipher my plan for the second half of the day.
I skirt up some twisting, nameless backroad toward Pian dell’Alpe, a gorgeous open bowl of grasses, late summer golden blossoms, and tinkling bovine bells. I then connect to the other side of the Colle delle Finestre, dropping into the shadows, chewing on this spaghetti-like road all the way back to Susa.
Eleven hours after starting, I have the wide-eyed gaze of a person who has just lived a massive day in life and come out the other side as a better person—wiser and, yes, wizened.
Who could ask for anything more from a bike ride?
Best town to call home base
Susa, Piedmont, Italy
Closest international airports: Milan or Turin, Italy
A rental car is most practical for getting to and from wherever you decide to base yourself. It also allows you to drive to other areas—for example, the Colle delle Nivolet (see below)—which significantly expands the riding and terrain options.
There are good AirBnB options or Napoleon Hotel Susa caters to cyclists (bike storage room, workshop area, etc.). If you need only modest accommodations, check out B&B Scotty and Co.
Time of year
It's possible to ride in this area between May and October, though some of the highest passes may still have snow into June. In July and August, portions of the famed Strada dell'Assietta are closed to vehicle traffic on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 am to 5 pm.
A gravel/all-road bike fitted with 34-42mm tires would be a great choice if you wanted to do a bit of everything. Be equipped with a large range of gears (at least a 1:1 low gear, but preferably more). Bring a bar bag or hydration pack to store food and water; there aren’t many places to refuel once you get up high. And always bring a weatherproof layer; mountain weather can be fickle.
Recommended side trip
Can a climb have too many curves? No. But the Colle del Nivolet tries. The seductive switchbacks of this dead-end road have only recently become known to the outside world ever since the climb's inclusion in the Giro d'Italia in 2019.
Normally I would recommend immersing yourself in one spot, in and around Susa, to take in all that the area has to offer. But given the staggering views in Gran Paradiso National Park and the curvaceous switchbacks of the Nivolet—arguably the most beautiful climb in the Alps—it is worth considering. A two-hour drive takes you to the stunning Colle del Nivolet, as well as opportunities to traverse rarely-traveled military roads high above alpine lakes in this wild basin.
No visit to this part of the world would be complete without a stop at the Fenestrelle Fortress, the largest alpine fortification in Europe. Its construction began in the 18th century and was used to guard the route between the Kingdom of France and the Duchy of Savoy. The massive structure is the largest walled construction after the Great Wall of China. The colossal stonework climbs nearly five kilometers up the hills of the Val Chisone, gaining almost 700 meters from base to summit.
When riding along the Strada dell’Assietta, be sure to stop at Rifugio Casa Assietta for lunch. The surroundings are entirely wild—not to mention it’s your only choice so high up in the mountains.
From Susa, immediately start climbing the Colle delle Finestre. Just after the pass, look to the right for a grassy track leading higher—this is La Strada Militare Colle Finestre–Gran Serin. This road eventually runs into La Strada dell'Assietta, which stays high atop the ridge until you begin the descent to Sestriere. From this ski town, descend the paved SP23R toward Pragelato. After 10 miles, in the small village of Pourierres, look for signs for Balboutet on your left. This climb will take you back toward Pian dell'Alpe and eventually to the Colle delle Finestre. From there, it is a long, twisting descent back to Susa.