Saturday, August 7, 2004

posted on 8/07/2004

Switzerland 2004

Time for another cycling trip which was going to take me from Geneve all the way to my hometown of Rovereto in Italy. The route mostly crossed through Switzerland and entailed several high cols to climb including Stelvio on the italian border at 2758 metres, the second highest motoring pass in Europe. This trip was taken at the height of summer probably the only time when it is possible to enjoy riding over 2000 metres wearing shorts.At the start of this tour was the village of Chamonix at the feet of Mont Blanc and offering some really amazing views of the summit often shrouded by a veil of clouds oddly shaped by the strong winds.Stelvio is a revered climb among cyclists. The highest climb in Italy, it often made history during the cycling tour of Italy deciding the fate of winners for over a century. 

Geneve - Chamonix, 30th July 2004

First day of this cycling trip in the Alps. The flight to Geneva was on time and most importantly the bike made it with only a minor scratch. From the airport I had to cycle through the town centre which was interesting as at least I had a chance to get a few glimpses at Geneva itself!
 Still I didn’t want to waste too much time sightseeing as the real journey was about to begin along the ‘Route des Grands Alps’. Like I expected the road scenery got nicer and nicer the more I approached the mountains; the first 50 kilometres were surprisingly flat. The wind was also with me pushing me faster than I ever could have been on this warming up day. After 67 kilometres I reached Sallanches the town where, according to my plans, I was meant to spend the first night of this tour. Despite being slightly tired from the early rise in the morning I took the bold decision to jump ahead of schedule and aim for Chamonix, an extra 30 kilometres ahead. After a gentle rise the road began to rise steeply at le Fayet but all this climbing was made much easier by the majestic views of Mont Blanc, like on a picture frame, hanging in front of my eyes for almost two consecutive hours. The views got even better as I got closer to Chamonix the mountain village at the foot of the Aiguilles du Midi. I wrote this notes sitting by my tent at the campsite Marmotte, admiring an exquisite sunset turning the snowy Mont Blanc to a beautiful purple colour. Weather and temperature were ideal throughout the day and the road traffic was not bad at all too considering we are in full summer holiday season.

Chamonix - Sierre, 1st August 2004

I left Chamonix at 9 o’clock under an auspicious blue sky and a sun shining on the summit of Mont Blanc. The road for about 10km was flat and twisty along forests of pines and stunning mountains rising steep to the sky. After the gentle start the road began a steady climb to the first challenge of the day, the Col des Montets at 1461 metres of altitude. The road was not too busy with cars and it seemed that cyclists in this part of the world have been taken into account as more often than not the road had a spacious side lane. At the top of the Col was the great view of the rocky and crested tops of the Aiguilles Rouges, ture to their name, really flame red, reflecting the hot midday sun. The descent to Chatelard was fast and enjoyable. Forgetting I had actually been in France so far I finally crossed the border into Switzerland. I wasn't stopped by customs unlike all the cars, here's a tip for smugglers! The second climb began the Col de la Forclaz at 1526m. This proved a tough climb with the weight I was carrying and at the top was a well deserved picnic on the grass as well as a airing and drying of my sleeping bag and tent left humid by the morning dew. After a long descent to Martigny I began cycling along the wide Rhone Valley still pushed by the wind until Sion the capital of Valais as well as my programmed stop for the day. Alas no camping was near town so after a few picture of its beautiful castle perched on a rocky hill I kept going for 15km more until I reached Sierre. Today I met at least 7 or 8 bike tourers but they were all going the opposite way making me wonder if I had taken this trip the wrong way around!

Sierre - Ulrichen, 2nd August 2004

I left the camping site early morning heading to Brig along the Rhone Valley; this would be probably the most boring 40 kilometres of this entire trip as the main road to Brig was a series of endless straights. It got better for the last kilometres where I found a cycle route along the river to make this ride just a little more entertaining. While in Sierre people seemed to be confused as to whether they should speak french or german; as I went deeper into Suisse they seemed to have finally made up their mind and opted for german! A few stern looks and german answers to my french questions made me adopt a more neutral stance and use english instead. No more stern looks but hardly any answers! I quickly stopped at Brig mostly looking for a fountain to cool down from the heat of midday. Water bottles reloaded I went further to a nice little village called Morel where I had a break for lunch and a nap on a bench in the cool shadow of a large tree. I began the long approach to the Rhone sources of Furkapass but soon after Fisch dark clouds gave way to thunders, rain and hail and only a timely cover under the eaves of a house on the road kept me dry. Luckily in half an hour it all changed and a light drizzle and broken clouds let me ride on. I reached the beautiful valley of Goms where each village seemed an ideal setting for an alpine fairy tale with all tiny houses built in timber. I reached Ulrichen where a quick tour of the wet grounds of the campsite made me opt for the comfort of a room instead. All considered, another great cycling day!

Ulrichen - Trun, 3rd August 2004

Not needing to pack my tent this morning meant I could start my cycling day earlier and by 7:30 I was already tackling the long climb to Furkapass in the cool morning breeze and with hardly any car traffic. The sky was clear and the ride really entertaining with great sceneries and many switchbacks breaking the steep ascent and allowing me to catch my breath! After 22 kilometres, following the Rhone all the way to its source, I was on top of the second highest climb in Switzerland at 2431 metres. A brief stop for a picture and then I started the steep descent to Andermatt testing the brakes of my loaded bike. The valley was quite narrow with steep slopes covered with pines. Andermatt at the bottom was a very picturesque mountain village. I thought I might have a lunch break there but feeling good I opted for only a quick stop at the local delicatessen instead where I had an apple tart to give me the energy to climb the Oberalppass another col over 2000 metres. A bit tired from the first climb I still managed to cover the 12 kilometres to the top by lunchtime. I stopped for a lunch overlooking the artificial lake and mountains all around. I ended the day with a long downhill ride to Trun where I set camp and had a most deserved shower. Again today I must have met over 20 tourers but all going the other way. I finally figured out that I am far to slow to catch anyone in front, yet not slow enough to get caught!

Trun - Lenz, 4th August 2004

Last night the tent was tested by the rain that fell all night. I enjoyed the music of the raindrops falling, a bit less the noise of a group of neighbours who partied and were making the most of the alcoholic properties of beer! Again little sleep but at 8 o’clock I was ready for the fifth day ride. The road followed the Rhein until Ilanz where it turned uphill for a long and unexpected climb to Flims-Dorf. This was a very typical Swiss village in a great setting of green pastures surrounded by mountains. I descended to Chur where the biggest test of the day lay ahead. The Lenzerheiderpass at 1549, was really hard work particularly the steep first half where there was not an inch of flat to catch my breath. On the way up I was very proud as I finally caught the first cycle tourist going my direction! Nothing to boast about as he was struggling uphill pushing his bike by his side. Being sunday there was a procession of keen cyclists climbing in the extreme heat of noon; they all seemed to agree on one word 'scheize'! I couldn't agree more. A fountain half way up saved me from a heat stroke and after 8 km the climb became flatter and a bit easier. Not one shop is open on sunday so 3 km from the top I decided to have a quick meal of ham sandwich and apple strudel in a restaurant. This was a good decision because as I was told by one of the members of the 'scheize club' the last 3km are hell! And so it was but the strudel kicked in at the right time and I eventually made it. Only disappointment was, after all the effort, to not find even a little signpost with the col name and altitude at the top. This meant not being able to frame a nice picture of me, proudly standing on top and appeasing some of my cyclist vanity, scheize! After a few kilometres I found the St Cassian campsite, a great location to spend the night, pitching the tent in a forest of pines at an altitude of 1500 metres.

Lenz - Santa Maria, 5th August 2004

As expected today was the toughest so far with two mountain cols above 2000 metres to climb and over 100 kilometres distance to cover. The awesome landscapes crossed made the effort much easier to bear. In the morning after a brief descent from Lenz and a picnic breakfast in Brienz I began the climb of the Albulapass. Thanks to the suggestion of the camping site owner I chose this route instead of the Fluelapass and how a good choice this turned out to be! I have climbed many mountains but this as far as landscape, little traffic and great views topped them all. It was hard not to stop at every other corner to take pictures and in fact I took far too many. For the second time I caught two bike tourers a man and woman from Holland but only exchanged a few words with them and then went ahead. After three bananas and as many litres of water I got to the top with two other local cyclists. I bought the Swiss shirt that by now I well deserved to wear and headed downhill. At La Punt Chamus I had my lunch by the river and spread the tent and sleeping bag in the sun. The descent to Zernez was made even quicker by the wind pushing. After an ice cream and food shopping I began the climb to the Offenpass also known as Pass dal Fuorn, climbing to over 2100 and crossing the Engadin National Park a great expanse of forests and nature at its best. It started drizzling with black clouds threatening all over so I decided to find cover and stop for a sandwich opposite a hotel and thinking that I might not be able to continue much longer; again as it often happens on the Alps the clouds soon began breaking, letting the sun peek through. Reaching the top I met an italian guy with a racing bike and rucksack who had been riding 230 kilometres and had 20 more to go! We exchanged pictures and I shoot downhill tired and eager to find the campsite above Santa Maria and just a few kilometres from the italian border. Tomorrow weather permitting I will climb Umbrailpass and Stelvio the last mythic mountain of this tour and I feel most excited crossing into Italy and getting nearer to my hometown, now only about 100 kilometres away.

Santa Maria - Termeno, 6th August 2004

I got up at six o’clock when the sound of a light drizzle on the tent meant that my planned climb to Umbrail pass and mount Stelvio was likely to be off. Luckily only thirty minutes later the clouds gave way to some sun. I packed up and went to the village centre to restock on food and also to have a breakfast with coffee and an extra large plum cake. Well fed and eager to climb and cross the italian border, I left and began the very twisty and steep Umbrail. For about four kilometres a girl on a mountain bike had been about hundred meters away traveling at identical speed. I decided to make an effort to finally catch up with her and make the climb more entertaining. For the remaining hour and a half Sabina and I climbed the Umbrailpass using the little oxygen left in our lungs to chat. After so many days on my own it was a relief to climb with somebody else and before even noticing we were at the top, at over 2500 metres, taking pictures and waving each other goodbye; she went back down to Switzerland while I went the opposite way crossing the italian border. The brief descent brought me to the road leading from Bormio to the 2758 metres of Monte Stelvio that I was able to reach after about three more kilometers. Needless to say the view on top was magnificent. Hordes of cyclists puffed their way up from the other side, the more usual route I had taken few years back and where 48 hairpins are sign posted in a countdown reminding one's progress! I was now in a familiar territory not much more than a day far from my hometown Rovereto. During the long descent all I was thinking was to cover as much road as possible to get me home early the following day. In Merano I met Tobia with whom I covered about 40 kilometres of nice cycling routes. I got to Termeno where I had planned to get a room since I had not given any time to the daily task of drying my camping equipment.

Termeno - Rovereto, 7th August 2004

All that remained today was to cover the short distance from Termeno to home. I made the most of a hearty german/italian breakfast included in my room rate and after a short trait on the National Road I quickly found the beautiful bike route following the Adige river. Leaving Termeno before eight, the ride was a breeze with the features of the landscape becoming ever more familiar as I got closer and closer to Rovereto. The wind was yet again on my side! I must say that in the last few tours I accumulated some good credit on that respect and they have not always been the fruit of careful planning, rather pure good luck! The Adige bike route is a modern cycle way with plenty of areas to stop with benches and tables as well as a "cyclist grill restaurant" and a pumping area! It follows the river bed from Bolzano to Rovereto from where it goes further south towards Verona or turns right on a beautiful twisty ride down Lake Garda, a must for any cycle tourer heading that way. Wearing a red Swiss shirt with white cross on a loaded bike felt somehow different to the hundreds of times that in the past I had ridden this route, training on my light Bianchi racing bike!