Stella Alpina Rally


Like every summer before, the beginning of July 1978 heralded the Stella Alpina and of course we heeded the call. At an altitude of 3009m this was the highest motorcycle rally in Europe. It was the inspiration, at the end of the 1960s, of the great Mario Artusio and is run at the Colle del Sommeiller.

Mario Artusio

For us back then, it was one of the most important events of the year, a meeting attracting die-hard rallyist and definitely not to be missed by those in the know.

The real fanatics of motorcycle touring would meet there; often as part of their annual summer vacation, having fun and partying for a few days in Bardonecchia, in the company of fellow international rallyists sharing a common passion.

Annual pilgrimage for unrepentant sinners

Over the years, this legendary Italian rally had in some sense become our annual pilgrimage.

A sort of 'Pilgrimage of Compostela', not on foot as 'The Way of St. James', going to Spain to undertake an act of penance, but rather on two or three wheels, returning to Bardonnechia in Italy, where we compounded our already long list of past sins. Two of those sins being gluttony; gorging ourselves on delicious Italian cuisine, as well as drinking to excess fine local beer and wine.

"The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you're hungry again." - George Miller

Partying also added to our list of sins. With our friends by our side there was far too much drunken behaviour, often lasting until the early hours. Our normal 'good behaviour' went 'out of the window' on these occasions as we willingly forgot to be wise and to behave ourselves.

If you ask them why they are already at the aperitif so early in the afternoon, these four culprits would probably answer you in unison that it is because of the scorching heat of the Italian sun that forces them to have to ease their thirst.... On the terrace in front of our annual 'headquarters', the hotel-restaurant 'Chez Luigi' (from left to right): Pascal 'Papy' Hiesse (looking down), Marc Pfeiffer (center), Jean Sauvaire aka 'Jeanjean d'Orleans' (flashing the V sign) and Yves 'Bebert' Beranger (sticking his tongue out).

I have written much here about previous Stella Alpina rallies since their beginnings in 1966, so the years 1978/79 don't merit much more, especially since nothing of importance occurred during these two meetings. They were both successful, despite the constant growth of numbers and the challenges that larger number of participants created.

However, there are particular aspects of the rally that perhaps bear more explanation and could stand a few more lines here. One such aspect is the 'Colle del Sommeiller', one of the key elements of the rally's success.

In the mud and the snow, at the top of the 'Colle del Sommeiller', at the 1973 meeting

Let's face it, my enthusiasm and passion for this rally may inspire some of you to research and explore further and perhaps in future discover for yourself the places that inspired me all those years ago.

Along the way I must also mention two Italian characters who through their work, dedication and tenacity, became inextricably linked with the Stella Alpina, although in truth they have no connection with the motorcycle scene.

Colle del Sommeiller

The 'Colle del Sommeiller' (2993 m) is a mountain pass located in the Cottian Alps along the border between Italy and France. It is located between Punta Sommeiller (3333m.) and Rognosa di Etiache (3382m.), and connects the city of Bardonecchia with the Municipality of Bramans, in the French department of Savoy.

An ancient glacier descends from the summit of 'Monte Sommeiller' whose 'feet' reach the pass forming a spectacular glacial lake.

A breathtaking view of the glacial lake

The 'Colle del Sommeiller' is only accessible from the Italian side, and then only from the end of June until the first snowfall. We ascended by an unpaved mountain road, one of the highest in Europe, although still suitable for vehicles and crossed the valley of Rochemolles, arriving at the Italian-French border.

It was first opened in the spring of 1963 and it's that same mountain road back in '63 that motorcyclists travelled to the top of the 'Colle del Sommeiller' where they could collect their rally commemorative badges.

Originally, the road served the summer ski lifts of the Sommeiller glacier as well as the 'Albergo' bar-hotel-refuge, (also called 'Ambin'), built at 3009 m. to accommodate skiers and tourists.

On this photo dating from July 1971, we can see the 'Albergo' bar-hotel-refuge in the background, behind the snowdrift on the left. Some years when the snow was too deep, it was impossible for the rallyists to reach the refuge.

The traditional rally Sunday morning climb to reach the top of the pass, even on a touring motorcycle not equipped for off-road riding, is not a particular dramatic achievement. The climb itself doesn't present any insurmountable difficulties. It only requires enough time to accomplish its 26.3 km distance, with a climb averaging 6.5%.

No difficulty for combos to reach the top too

One thing is certain, it is totally worth the effort and trouble. Both are amply rewarded along the way, with magnificent mountain landscapes and breath-taking vistas. There is no other ascent in Italy like the Sommeiller.

Even the most beautiful Italian mountain sceneries and views such as those of the Stelvio, Gavia, Fauniera, Agnello, Nivolet, Blockhuas, cannot compete with this jewel of nature.

During the climb, a group of die-hard French and Belgian rallyists made up of Herve 'Le Grec' Bully, Daniel 'Rapha' Raphael and 'Toulouse' stopped to admire the view over the Rochemolles Valley

Germain Sommeiller (1815–1871)

The Colle del Sommeiller owes its name to Germain Sommeiller, a French civil engineer from Savoy who directed the construction of the 12 km long Fréjus Rail Tunnel also known as the Mont Cenis Tunnel, between Bardonecchia in Italy and Modane in France from 1857 to 1871.

It was the first of a series of major tunnels through a mountain, built in the late 19th century to connect northern and southern Europe through the Alps.

The workers from Italy and France met under 1,600 meters of rock on 25 December 1870.

Germain Sommeiller saw the end of the construction work but unfortunately was unable to attend the Frejus railway tunnel official inauguration which took place three months after his death

Let's ride to the top of the Sommeiller together!

Gentlemen start your engines! Exit Bardonecchia and make for Rochemolles, following the paved road of the same name. Leaving the village behind, the adventure really begins. The asphalt surface rapidly disappears and transforms into a stony, dusty dirt road that leads ever upwards to the Scarfiotti refuge at 2,163m.

Right in the middle of the Rochemolles Valley, in the direction of the Sommeiller, at 2156m on the plateau is the Scarfiotti refuge

On a touring machine,the toughest and the most difficult part of the ride is the last 5k of ascent, and surely the most beautiful section of this mountain path offering spectacular views of the surrounding Alps.

Once at the top of the pass, the dirt road continues until it meets the border with France. Nowadays though, it looks more like a meadow than a road. In addition, motorised vehicles are prohibited. Only walkers, cyclists and horse riders are allowed to use it.

- Jean-Francois Helias

(to be continued in the next report about the Stella Alpina 1979)