I used Avocet Road 700x28 wire-bead, non-Kevlar tires on Mavic MA-2 36 hole rims with 1.8-1.6mm DT spokes; Campagnolo Record brakes (Cool Stop red pads) and small flange hubs with a Sun Tour new winner pro 6- speed FW 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 24, Sun Tour Pro derailleur and down tube shift levers, and Shimano Dura Ace 180mm cranks with 47-50 CW, SPD 525 pedals and M110 shoes; the frame is steel and about 26" with oversized top and down tubes equipped with Avocet Racing Turbo Gel saddle on a two bolt Campagnolo Record seat post, steel bars and stem. I wear Avocet polypropylene shorts and jerseys.
My suitcase and bicycle, two pieces of legal overseas air baggage and my small carry-on bag can be taken on trains on arrival. Whole bicycles can be shipped by air but upon arrival the bicycle cannot be carried onto most trains. Sent as baggage, the bicycle can cause a days or more delay just when it is least convenient.
In Luzern the famous wooden bridge for which the city is best known had curiously burned to the water last winter from one end to the other while the fire department watched finding no equipment that could be brought to the bridge. A few years ago this same fire department watched while the train station burned to the ground. Skilled wood workers rebuilt the bridge to exactly replace what had stood for hundreds of years with identical materials and construction methods that were used by the ancients. I hope that before long the modern touch of fire sprinklers will be added.
After taking a picture at the Lion monument sculpted into a sandstone wall, I walked across the beautifully rebuilt bridge and headed off toward Kriens and the Alpnach leg of the lake where the Pilatus railway in Alpnachstadt climbs the steepest cogwheel route in the world at 48% grade. It uses two horizontally opposed gears that engage a two sided gear rack in the center of the 800 mm gauge track. A sample piece of rack with the two engaged gears is displayed as a sculpture on the lawn in front of a floral display.
Because it was fair weather I decided to cut over to the parallel Melchtal instead of taking the direct route over the Brunig Pass (1008m). At Sarnen, taking the road past the train station, I headed up a scenic and car free route that goes over the mountains to the Susten Pass road and into the Haslital. At Stockalp (1075m), at the end of the Melchtal, the road becomes narrow (timed one way traffic) and steep, climbing to the Melchsee in 7 km. Just before the lake, in Frut (1902m).
I picked up a snack at the general store before taking the scenic ride around the two lakes to Tannen (1976m) where the road ends at a large comfortable youth hostel and the Tannalp diary. Hiking trails head off in several directions of which one, that leads to Engsteln (1837 m), is partially cut into a granite wall as it enters the canyon. From Engsteln a narrow paved road descends down a classic alpine steep walled canyon to the sound of ubiquitous cowbells. After descending to the Susten Pass road I rolled down to Inertkirchen (625m) through sweeping curves and several curved tunnels. From Inertkirchen it's a small sprint up the four traverses of the Lammi pass (709m) that detours around the Aareschlucht, a narrow slot in the rock through which the Aar river slices. At the top of the Lammi I turned off onto the road to Rosenlaui and the Grosse Scheidegg pass. The sky was dark and let out a few drops now and then. It was good climbing weather and as I rode past Hotel Zwirgi next to the Reichenbach waterfall I thought of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty who went for a final vertical swim there, according to Conan Doyle. The Reichenbach gorge is a steady steep climb that only lets up just before Hotel Rosenlaui (1330 m).
On the way up, the usual dippers cavorted in the roaring Reichenbach and the large European jays were a counterpoint to the jangling cowbells. As I arrived at the hotel I noticed the parking lot was well stocked with cars and the famous bakery from Meiringen was unloading heaps of meringue (invented in this bakery and named after the town) specialties, as Christina Kehrli came out to tell me that a wedding party had reserved the entire hotel but that space 'could be found'. This was possible because the servants quarters are separate and I got a small room with a view to the glacier.
With only one menu (darn!), I had to eat at eight when the party was served. I was the only other guest (served in the coffee shop) and shared their dinner selection of a large mixed salad, trout with small yellow potatoes and steamed vegetables. I didn't get the cake but was amply satisfied with a generous fruit sundae. At midnight I awoke to fireworks that were as powerful and brilliant as any I had ever seen, except that these reverberated in the confines of granite walls.
As I rolled down the valley of the Schwarze Luetsch toward Interlaken (563m), the still air became icy every time I crossed the river or better said the cascade of the river. Having made an early start and with some favorable air along the lakeshore, I rode around the lake to Brienz (566m), took some pictures of the BRB steam/cog railway and continued on to Meiringen and up the Lammi where I ate lunch at the Gasthaus zum Lammi, it being Sunday, when restaurant meals are the rule.
From Inertkirchen the road climbs south into the granite walls of the upper Aar river to the Grimsel pass (2165m). The Aar has two sources that flow from the Unteraar and Oberaar glaciers on the east slope of the Finsteraarhorn (4275m), the highest peak of the Berner Oberland. There were some snow banks along the road as I got above Handegg, and making the clear but high overcast day interesting, a strong wind blew down from the pass. The wind was so stiff, as I tried to crest the first dam, that I had to dismount to avoid being knocked down, quite aside from not being able to move forward in bottom gear. Fortunately this was a quirk of the location so the rest of the climb was mostly with a crosswind. At the summit, with its lake still frozen and substantial walls of snow, the clear air made Gletsch (1761m) in the Rhone valley, 400 m nearly straight down seem close.
In Gletsch, I stopped off at the DFB (Dampfbahn Furka Bergstrecke) train station where a raft of books and post cards about the days before electrification and the restoration of steam operation on this line is available. They have a snack bar from which all proceeds go to the DFB. I got filled in on the latest developments and hope some day to take a steam train from Realp to Gletsch or even farther to Oberwald.
I headed up the Furka (2431m) where the sun seems to shine more often than not, and stopped to take the obligatory picture in front of the Rhone Glacier. As often is the case, the afternoon chilled fog was already pouring over the Grimsel and down the wall onto Gletsch, there where I had just ridden in clear air. As I approached the summit the clouds got thicker and began leaking a bit but quit as I began down the hill. It was relatively warm for the late afternoon making it a pleasant descent to Realp (1538m) with a good view of the upper Reuss valley and the Oberalp pass above Andermatt at the far end of the valley. In Realp I dropped in on the DFB roundhouse where newly rebuilt locomotives DFB#1 Furkahorn and DFB#2 Grimselhorn (two of the original locomotives #1 and #2 of the Furka RR that were recovered from Vietnam) along with DFB#7 Weisshorn were being shut down after a day on the hill.
With a rare tailwind, I cruised to Hospental (1452m) and the Hotel Sternen, an old and comfortable inn. I parked my bike downstairs, showered and changed into "formal" dinner wear for a tall Eichhof (58cl) beer and hearty fare at the Hotel Gotthard down the street with everything you can want to eat after a day on the bike. Outside, the weather gods seemed to be taking flash photos while watering down the granite paved streets with monster drops.
At Ilanz (699m), I borrowed a wrench to tighten my head bearings that I had just installed for the trip. It's about time someone made a head bearing that fits fork crowns more easily and doesn't creep into position. I ate a hearty grocery store lunch with a 1/2 liter fruit yogurt and fresh bread with mortadella and cheese and a couple of apples. From here the main road goes up over the chalks where the Rhine cuts through sheer white cliffs. The climb is gratuitously high at 382m up to Flims (1081m), so I stayed on the south side on the small and untraveled and mostly paved road, climbing only 209m to Vesam (908m) and rolling down to Bonaduz (655m) with appreciably better scenery.
At Bonaduz I turned south to Thusis and Tiefencastel along the Hinterrhein. This was once an unbelievably remote area where a one- lane dirt road with long hillside tunnels weaved its way up the canyon to Davos, and where freeways and wide highways carry vacationers over the Alps today. I am glad that I was able to ride these roads before progress intruded. At Tiefencastel I turned up the Julier pass (2284m) that starts up out of town with a jolt of 13% but gets civilized after a few km's. I hadn't been on this road for 33 years and was pleasantly surprised by its scenic beauty. The last time I rode it was in the other direction, Easter 1961 in the snow. Mixed clouds made for comfortable riding with light traffic.
As I descended into Silvaplana (1816m) I could see that the sunshine running out and a wall of clouds pushing east over the rim of the Maloja pass. While I rode into a brisk wind along the lake, sailboarders darted across the chop on the lake. The road was sheltered near the hillside along the lake but as it reached the Silsersee the wind came from straight ahead. Mentally I was already descending the Maloja so I didn't notice it so much. The water and mountains had an animated character in the fleeting sunshine under the dark sky. As I "crested" the Maloja pass (1815m), with its flat approach from St Moritz, I dived into the clouds but found dry pavement down to Vicosoprano where it had just stopped raining. I got to the Bregalia, the old grand hotel, getting only my feet wet before the sky let go. That was great timing and the dinner with some Swedes, who were on a climbing holiday, was first class.
From Lugano I headed off to Ponte Tresa and over the hills to Laveno on the Lago Maggiore (193m) riding through the back hills on smaller roads. I had a map from the 1950's that showed a railroad on this route but all I could find were the train stations that seemed unchanged except that there was no sign of a roadbed. The partly cloudy weather gave the landscape unusual contrast and spared me the muggy air common at this time of year. At Laveno I got on the ferry, that seems to run so often that I have never had to wait more than a few minutes, and crossed to Verbania. I rode to Gravellona, up the valley of the Toce that leads to Domodossola and the Simplon pass, and turned south to Omegna (298m). This former big steel town is now a pleasant vacation spot on the end of the Lago d'Orta and whose economy I don't understand.
The Lago d'Orta, as most of these lakes at the southern edge of the Alps, is drinking clean and has beautiful shores, some of which are not cut off by vacation villas of regal proportions, although these also exist. A rustic castle occupies a small island with chestnut forested hills rising on all sides of the lake. I rode to the south end of the lake and headed west after climbing a small ridge. The road rises to Pogno and then winds slowly up to a divide with a tunnel at 598m before descending to Borgosesia (359m). I said hello to the innkeeper who formerly also had rooms but I neither wanted to stay in the hotel in town nor stop so early so I headed off to Croce di Mosso where I thought I could find lodgings. One innkeeper after another explained that they were booked up with people who had come to enjoy the football game (Spain-Italy I think) so I went on to the next until I found a place in Biella. I joined the crowd and watched football instead of bicycling.
I took some pictures, rode on down to Mosso Santa Maria for a store where I could get some lunch and returned over the bridge to ride on some obscure Piemontese roads behind Biella and on to Ivrea. I found my way to Brian's house in Perosa Canavese were I cooled my heels for a needed rest. I seemed to be burdened with after-effects to anti venom serum that was still coursing in my veins from a recent bout with a rattle snake bite. It was hot and the snooze felt good.
We rolled into Cuneo (587m) crossing the high double decked viaduct that carries the highway and railroad over the Stura di Demonte river into town. Turning right after the bridge, to the piazza at the train station, we cooled off at the large fountain before rolling on up the gradual grade to Borgo San Dalmazzo (641m). At the lower end of town, we headed south on Rt.20 toward the Tende. At Robilante (686m) I photographed a bit of the chain saw store that seems to have several thousand chain saws in its catacomb like stone building. There are no forests near Robilante. Then we stopped at the Albergo Ristorante Minerva where I have often spent the night after riding from Borgosesia, a distance that makes this an appropriate stop. I got a large beer and Brian, not wanting to violate training rules, decided on coffee. Brian being an Anglo-Italian, explained in Italian, what I could not, about my appreciation of the great hospitality that I have received over the years, treating us to the family style (no menu) back dining room.
From Robilante (686m) the road begins to climb a bit while the Tende RR climbs over huge viaducts and loop tunnels to gain altitude. This rail line is noted for being in tunnels more than in daylight and when not underground it is mostly on bridges. From Limone (1010m), the real climb to the summit tunnel begins, a tunnel not for us and not the real attraction of this pass. From the tunnel entrance at 1321m we took the old road, that has been sanitized (paved) for ski slope maintenance vehicles, to the summit of the Tende (1908m). Here, from the border, the road looks as it did in 1913 when the tunnel was built. "Rocky road" describes it well and of course narrow and steep. The view to the Roya river gorge reveals what appear to be about 100 hairpin turns stacked steeply, sometimes on revetments, on top of each other. The turns are so tight that only a short car or jeep can take them in one swing. It took us about as long to descend as it took to climb the other side because the road is rough and there are the endless turns with deep rocky ruts. It is an amazing road.
Once down to the main road at the tunnel and back on pavement, we blasted off to glide down the sweeping turns. It was on one of these turns that I crashed in the rain and broke my hip in 1986. After some swift sections to Vievola, the RR line appeared from its tunnel only to vanish into a loop tunnel and many bridges as both it and the road descend to the town of Tende where we found a perfect hotel in an alley with simple quiet rooms. The dinner was great but this could have been an illusion common to riders who bike all day, although this didn't affect my appreciation of the fare.
Just before Breil we turned west up the Col de Brauis (879m) as we began to feel the warm weather that was later described as a heat wave in the flatlands. In spite of the elevation and thin overcast, it was pretty warm and I was glad for the roadside spring 2/3 of the way up and the sour cherry trees a little farther up. The landscape here is Mediterranean with sparse vegetation, olive trees and broom (gorse) blooming bright yellow. A long descent took us to Sospel to the great ice cream store and bar near the big bridge. This picturesque town has a train station on the sparsely traveled line between the Tende and Nice with several of the dark blue cars with gold trim from the orient express on display. It is the main junction of several mountain routes including the Turini pass (1607m) that figures prominently in the Monte Carlo Rally in the spring. We headed up the Turini by the direct route because we wanted to get to the Bonnet/Restefond pass by the shortest route.
As we descended to the Vesubie valley, Brian broke a spoke while rounding a hairpin turn. It was so loud I thought he hit a rock. We made some adjustments so he could ride on to St Martin (930m) where we found no bike shop but grabbed a bite and headed up the Col St Martin (1500m) where there is a MTB and ski rental shop. As the others, this road has spectacular vistas as it clings to rock walls and dives in and out of bare rock tunnels. Tunnels in which martins nest and sometimes defend against bicyclists by dive bombing and pecking heads. We got the freewheel off, put in one of my spare spokes, and descended to the west where a panorama of mountains with many roads became visible as we dropped down to the Tinee river. The road follows the Tinee in a gradual climb to St Etienne de Tinee (1144m) where we stopped for the day.
On the way up we came upon the obligatory passage through a flock of sheep going the same way. Passage is only possible with the aid of the dog to whom the shepherd must give the command by whistling in a way that seems to explain all. We continued on up and cruised over the top feeling pretty good, so Brian decided to take the scenic loop that climbs another 100m. Having done this before and having found the view not substantially different from where we were, I chose not to go. When Brian returned we rolled down to Jausiers (1220m), some 22km's that seemed to take forever.
At the bottom, instead of turning left into Jausiers we turned right up the Ubaye river past Condamine with its cliffs riddled from top to bottom with tunnels that connect huge fortifications that keep their silent vigil for enemies long gone. We passed the junction with the Col de Larche (1991m) (Colle della Maddalena) that joins the Route des Grandes Alpes from Borgo San Dalmazzo, and started the climb of the Col de Vars (2111m). Local hillside slippage has made the road steeper in some sections than the listed 10%, while also causing some flat spots.
At the summit we met a young first-timer who, as is common, did not know what he would need so he took more than that. He had among other extra baggage, an aluminum lawn chair strapped to one of his panniers. Fortunately he had the gears and the enthusiasm to haul almost anything, as did the overweight ~50 year old couple on a tandem that was substantially loaded front and rear in addition to pulling a large two wheeled trailer packed to the limit. In spite of their gears, I suspect they spent numerous rest stops on the way up. I don't know how they did their descents, even with a hub brake.
At Guillestre, the pleasant mountain town at the base of the Col de Vars and Col d'Izoard (2361m), we turned west to the valley to skirt the Izoard because we wanted to make it to the Lauteret pass by evening. The main highway and railroad to Briancon follow the Durance river and have only one 200m bump over which the road rises at the narrows of the valley. At Briancon (1321m) we turned west and rode into the usual wind up to the Hotel des Glaciers at the summit of the Lauteret (2058m) to drop in on M. Bonnabel who runs this fine hotel. The sad news was that next year he will retire and won't be there to greet us and tell us entertaining tales in his Inspector Cluseau manner. We ate well and got a good night's sleep.
The descent has a couple of fast places in it just before Valloire, after which the road starts climbing again to the Col de la Telegraph. However, the fast section before Valloire yields at best 80km/h without a tailwind. The rest of the descent is either too flat or too crooked to exceed 60 km/h. This is in contrast to the inflated speed reports presented by TV announcers of the TdF that exceed reality by a wide margin. From the Telegraph, it's the big descent to St Michel sur Arc (890m) where some stores are open on Sunday so we stopped for a good grocery store lunch before heading up the valley toward Modane (1017m) where most traffic goes through the Frejus highway and railroad tunnels to Torino. From here there is little traffic on up to Lanslebourg (1399m) at the base of the Col du Mont Cenis (2083m).
After Lanslebourg traffic was even thinner as we climbed the Col du Madeleine (1746m), a small but steep bump out of Lanslebourg and into the high valley of the Arc toward Bonneval sur Arc (1783m) where the Iseran climb begins. The side valleys exposed views of glaciers and snow covered peaks as we approached Bonneval, a grey village of stone buildings with stone roofs. A tourist store that is "always" open had what we needed to go to the top of the big one, the Col de l'Iseran (2770m) this sunny and fairly warm Sunday afternoon.
From Bonneval the first climb goes into the upper valley with only one turn, a second climb rises into the high valley and the last steep climb goes to the top. Considering the elevation of Bonneval, it seems unduly far to the summit. I wasn't climbing well and was overheating even though I packed my cycling cap with snow at intervals. It was hot enough that the melt did not run down my face but evaporated off the cap. At the top we sat on the massive concrete road sign as I had done more than 30 years before and had the usual picture taken by an available camera operator. The view down to Val d'Isere, made famous by Jean Claude Killy, reveals a valley that is chock full of ski hotels and commercial amenities.
The descent from Val d'Isere was swift and with sparse traffic. I stopped at a campground with hotel just before Seez (920m) where I had stayed last year. When Brian pulled in he explained what I had misinterpreted up until then. He had to be at work tomorrow, not home tomorrow evening as I had deduced from his "I've got to be back by Monday". Had I remembered what we had planned via e-mail, I would not have been under the mistaken notion of an extra day that I had created for myself. So with my wishful thinking reset to reality, we said goodbye and Brian rode off into the proverbial sunset. We'll do that extra day next year.
So while I was taking a shower, Brian rode up the Petite St Bernard (2188m) and down to Pre St Didier (1050m) where he ate dinner and hitched a ride home. Meanwhile I had a huge mixed salad and a delicious frutta di mare pizza before a good night's sleep to attack two tough ones the next morning. I was disappointed because I was looking forward to showing Brian the Col de la Seigne. Something I am sure would have been the highlight of the "five" days.
I descended to Courmayeur (1226m) eating lunch at Entreves (1306m) at the south portal of the Mont Blanc - Chamonix tunnel before heading up the Val Ferret. The road starts climbing steeply and only levels off after a few km's along the cascading La Doire river at about La Vachey (1642m). The road gets smaller and at Pre de Bar it becomes a rocky jeep trail that ends at Rifugio Arnuva (1769m) [a can of Coca Cola LIt3500] where formerly only a milking shed stood. From here it is a steep trail (no riding) requiring carrying the bicycle at times. Only about the last 100m along the summit of the Col Ferret (2564m) can be ridden. The sign at the bottom states that the climb takes 2 1/4 hours so now I have a calibration on what this means because it took me one hour to hike it with the bicycle. The descent to Ferret (CH)(1700m), that is substantially longer and not as steep, also took one hour. Although there are walking sections, such as when crossing snow, the advanced trail rider will find this descent mostly rideable.
Finally the hiking trail falls steeply the last 100m to La Puele (2071m) a milking shed from which a jeep trail makes the rest of the ride to pavement easy. The south side of Mont Blanc is far steeper than the north side at Chamonix and therefore, in some ways, more spectacular with hanging glaciers that make the mountain's character more intimate. It is also a more rugged terrain that is less spoiled by human development. From Ferret (1705m) the paved road allows a swift descent to the Grand St Bernard highway at Oisieres (901m) and on down to Martigny (467m) at the corner of the Rhone valley.
The road climbs in several pitches to the high valley that reaches from Niederwald to Oberwald (1371m) from which the FO railway now enters a nine mile tunnel instead of going over the pass. I rode up to the base of the Grimsel pass at Gletsch (1759m). From here I headed up the Furka pass (2431m) in warmer and clearer weather than the first time and with more power than I did ten days ago. I had a pleasant descent down to Realp (1538m) with practically no traffic. In Realp the DFB#1 steam engine was pushing a string of passenger cars around the yard. I rode on to Hospental (1447m) to stay in the hotel Sternen again.
As I descended to Airolo the usual clouds began to form behind me and a brisk wind chased me down the hill. It was great to not push a headwind down the Ticino river to Bellinzona (239m) and even get the wind to push. As often, there were large groups riding SBB rental bicycles down from Airolo. At Arbedo, just before Bellinzona, I turned up the Moesa valley toward Mesocco (777m) and the San Bernardino pass (2063m). The valley was warm and my stomach was complaining. When I got to the climb I noticed that my system began to feel better the harder I climbed, so I rode to the grocery store in Mesocco and loaded up before heading on up to Piano San Giaccomo (1140m) and farther to the town of San Bernardino (1607m) where I put away a large dish of ice cream. Whatever had bothered me, it was now down the sanitary drain. Above here the road is exposed and has little traffic as it climbs through granite boulders and rushing water. As I neared the summit it became cloudy and I quickly forgot the heat of the valley.
There was almost no traffic on the descent to Hinterrhein (1624m), the last town in the upper end of the valley where this branch of the Rhine river originates. A moderate headwind met me as I turned down to Splugen (1460m) but the descent made riding into the breeze easier. Without stopping in town, I crossed the river past the dairy store and large grocery store to head up the Splugen pass (2117m). I rode easily now that I had cool climbing air under cloudy skies. I looked for dippers that are often active in the stream but instead saw goldfinches among the alpenrosen and many wildflowers that covered the hillsides. I rode up the group of layered identical hairpin turns to the Swiss border station and on to the desolate summit with its military like, and forever unfinished Italian border portal. Neither place wanted to know anything from me as I passed the approving nod that I believe is essential before proceeding.
Descending to Monte Spluga, down an uninteresting winding road, under grey skies gave the little town its classic desolate colorless look. I can't imagine what draws people there either as visitors or as inhabitants. However, there are a couple of youth camps. With no wind, I rolled around the hydroelectric lake that was absolutely dry. Having never seen it like this, I took the opportunity to photograph the old road that went straight across the floor of the reservoir to the town. On the front of the granite faced dam, giant Roman numerals proclaim in dark green stone the date of construction, 1931.
The descent of the Splugen is a revelation to the first timer with its unexpected tunnels that serve to protect against avalanches, and even more so the descent of "the wall" in hairpin turns in tunnels and stacked one above the other. All these tunnels were, until recently, unpaved and one way. Some still are. In between are small towns that seem to be there in spite of the terrain. Below where the canyon is narrow littered with a mass of granite boulders, small towns and granite cutters find space. Finally the road straightens for the last km's down to picturesque Chiavenna (333m) where the Maira river, sculpted into a granite bedrock flows through town, at the junction of the Maloja and Splugen highways.
Up the valley past the Piuro and its aqua minerale bottling company, and the Swiss border at Castasegna (686m), I came to Bondo, Sottoponte, Promontogno, and Bregaglia (793m), all of whose city limits signs are within a km of each other. This is a beautiful corner in the canyon from which many landscape calendar scenes and travel posters originate. The rustic architecture, streams, stone arch bridges, and glacier covered crags that vanish in the clouds all make this an unforgettable image. Just for a change, I stayed at the hotel in Promontogno instead of the Bregalia Hotel (different spelling from the town) where I stayed a ten days earlier. I wasn't as good.
The summit is a pleasant change with many tourist facilities for all seasons. The broad expanse of this high valley with the Silser lake (1797m) and the backdrop of dazzling white capped mountains make this an exhilarating experience. There is no descent as such, the road rolls almost flat from the summit along the lake, past Sils to the Silvaplana lake (1791m) and on to the St Moritz lake (1768m) in front of the grand hotels where only nobility hobnobbed in the early part of this century. The hotels exude this air even today.
On the way around the lakes, I passed a couple on bicycles, he pulling a trailer. I wondered where they had started but assumed they were just riding around the lake. After a small detour to Samedan (1721m) and eating lunch in Pontresina at the base of the Bernina pass (2328m), I rode up to the RhB railroad crossing where the train makes a great picture as it negotiates the steep 7% curve with the Morteratsch glacier, Piz Bernina and Piz Palu as a backdrop. A classic poster scene.
I got the shot and rode on up the mild climb in the my 50-15 just to see if it still worked as I remembered from when I was" young and beautiful" more than 30 years ago when I didn't question the choice of gear. It worked but the speed wasn't there. What WAS there, was the couple with their trailer. They had been on the train that I photographed. I offered to take their picture in front of the summit sign and then asked what was in the trailer. It was their two month old infant with which he planned to blast down the steep south descent. He told me that brakes were no problem if you go fast enough, the trailer working as an air brake. I began descending briskly as I usually do and noticed as I looked back that he was following in like manner. I didn't want to see the results and hurried on down, sometimes over bumps in the road that required leg suspension. I don't know what a trailer did for these but it wasn't safe, especially with an unsecured infant.
Just before Poschiavo the road was suddenly wet for a couple of km's a shower that must have just passed, although there was no sign of rain. After Poschiavo the RhB tracks are sometimes in the street or cross at a low angle giving the bicyclist a challenge. After the lake that fills the valley so the road must climb the wall at Miralago, a swift descent follows, where the RR and road run side by side straight into Brusio, the road a bit steeper and good for exciting speeds. I stopped at Hotel Bettoni to say hello to my acquaintances, Mr. and Mrs. Beti, and to savor a large dish of ice cream, just what I needed for the next climb. There being no train on the spiral viaduct, I didn't catch a photo but rolled on down to Campocologno, crossed into Italy to Madonna di Tirano and headed to Stazzona (396m) where I caught the shortcut to the Aprica pass (1176m). The climb reveals a panorama to the south that invariably vanishes in the haze somewhere behind Sondrio toward the Lago di Como.
Aprica, as usual, was awash with visitors from the Lombardia seeking the clear air above 1000m. The road was covered with Giro d'Italia graffiti, mostly for Bugno, on the way down to Edolo (675m) where I turned up the road to Pso del Tonale (1883m) and stopped in Temu (1144m) at the Locanda Veduta del Adamello where Silvano Macculotti presides. The old "2/3" star hotel was closed now that the new two star version was complete but once inside I realized that only the surroundings had changed, the great food and casual family style had not. I was at home. Dinner w/o menu was at eight.
Formerly a roadblock discouraging visitors from attempting the pass blocked the road, such that you had to be willing to skirt the closure to continue. Today the road is insultingly wide and paved, but wait, two km's up the road the pavement ends and the old one-lane dirt road still prevails, with its warnings and 16% sign as it was when I took the cover shot for Bike World magazine in 1975. Near the top, I chose not to go through the new tunnel but to ride around the cliff where, years ago, I rode for the poster shot that still hangs in the Rifugio Bonetta three km's farther up at the summit of the Gavia pass (2621m).
The cliff route is no longer entirely rideable because angular rock has fallen on part of the road but I took a picture of my bike under the overhang before riding on to the top. A rider caught up to me just as I got back on the road. We talked for a while and then he said he had to ride his own pace and hurried off only to realize that it was not the right pace. Having decided I wasn't breathing hard enough, I was able to demonstrate "my own" pace to the top by a good margin. Events like this remind me that bicycling nearly always involves competition.
I said hello to the gal at the bar who called into the kitchen "it's him" (from the poster), drank my mini (20dl) Coca Cola and rolled on down the saddle of the pass to the real descent a km away. The north slope is entirely pave now although still narrow and winding as always. I think this road department has a better understanding of the Gavia than the one on the south slope. After Santa Caterina (1734m) the road is wider and fast as it descends to Bormio (1197m). Bormio is the home of Braulio liqueur but I found no occasion to sample it as I ate lunch from the A&O market, and later I couldn't find any in my hotel.
All fueled up, I headed up the hill into the Val del Braulio above Bormio and the tunnels and serpentines of the Stelvio pass (2760m). As I approached the lower hairpins, a rider coming down the hill stopped and asked, "aren't you Jobst Brandt". It was Larry Sokolsky, whom I did not recognize having not met him before. He is a rec.bicycles reader who seemed to have deduced from the items I had posted how I looked in the flesh. I suggested an interesting route to Livigno, where he and his wife were headed, over the Lago di Cancano, Lago di S. Giacomo and the Alpisella pass, a Roman road impassable to motor vehicles. He took it under consideration as we continued on our separate ways.
I continued climbing as the weather accommodated me with some cooling clouds. At the top I bought a batch of "Stelvio" post cards that show the endless zigzags of the east slope as seen from the air, before heading down and taking the usual pictures on the way. The post card scene is famous and ancient, having been made before the advent of color post cards. It was colored many years ago but the lady told me that it will be reissued in its original black and white. She had one of these from the days when all cards were B&W. As I descended the north side of the Ortler (3905m) with its smooth and shiny white dome and many glaciers looked magnificent.
After passing Trafoi (home of Toni Sailer the Olympian), Gomagoi, and Prato (913m) in the valley, I headed east and down to Merano with a gentle tailwind. The endless fruit orchards were gearing up for a big season of apples apricots, peaches, while the cherries were already ripe. I bought a big batch and cruised along, spraying cherry pits as I munched mouthfuls, riding no hands with the wind. Merano (302m) still had its main shopping street torn up more than a year after starting a project to redo the street as a pedestrian mall with ornate pavement. The narrow street was once the main highway.
On the way out of town, a truck had broken a fully loaded branch from a cherry tree and no one had considered harvesting the fruit. Of course I volunteered until I could eat no more. As I rode up to St Leonhard (688m) the headwind gradually increased but because this isn't much of a climb it didn't make much difference. I rode through town and up the Giovo pass to a hotel about 300m farther up where I had often considered stopping if it were convenient. It was a great choice. My room had a view down the valley and I slept with an open window that revealed that the wind from the pass increased to gale force before stopping suddenly about midnight.
After a half of a roast chicken and a couple of dishes of ice cream at a street fair, I was ready for the Sella pass (2214m). The sun was back in business and the view was grand as the spires of the Dolomites filled the skies. The Sella is surrounded by a skier's and rock climber's paradise. Off to the south the glacier fields of the Marmolada rise above the mountains with the gap to the Pordoi pass in the foreground. I rolled down toward Canazei and turn off to the Pordoi pass (2239m) a few km's before town. As the climb revealed more of the beauty of the Dolomites, I was tempted to take pictures before the summit. At the top the long valley to the east toward the Campolongo and Falzarego passes lay below while to the west I could see way down the Val di Fassa.
I rode on to the Falzarego pass (2105m) and down to Cortina d'Ampezzo (1210m) that is situated in an almost artificially beautiful ring of mountains. The town itself sits like a jewel in the center of this huge scenic bowl under elegant towering crags of white rock. I found that by riding up the sidewalk of the opposing one way highway into town I could avoid the chamber of commerce tour to the bottom of town. I headed right up the road to the Tre Croci pass (1809m) over which a new vista to the eastern Dolomites and the Misurina pass (1756m) opens. There is only a small climb between these two passes from the road junction (1641m). The Misurina lake was smooth as glass for the first time in my experience, so I took a reflecting pool photo of the Tre Cime di Laveredo, and from the other end of the lake, I took the view back to the eastern Dolomites. It was a gorgeous day. From here I rolled down the 20 km's to Toblach (Dobiacco 835m) for a big dinner after a lot of hills. It was a long day.
I pushed a headwind up the valley to Heiligenblut (1301m) but the cool air made it pleasant. In Heiligenblut, at the base of the real hill, the grocery store on the corner is always open, all day, every day, for people just like me who need travel supplies. In my case that was a good load of fuel and they have all the things I could want. I relaxed on the bench with a view and savored the goods before pushing off slowly knowing that 20 km of 12% with a descent in the middle doesn't benefit by hurrying. It was overcast by now but with good visibility. The glacier capped Gross Glockner peak (3798m) was visible to the west as I climbed over the first summit at Kasereck (1913m). After a swift descent the remaining climb to the main summit at Hochtor (2505m), the border between lands Kaernten and Salzburg, is is a series of long sweeping curves with a few hairpins in between.
Although traffic was occasionally dense, the wide road makes it no problem. The weather at the top was fairly cool but because I had just worked up a heat, I descended without putting on my jacket so I could dry off and also for the last summit at Fuschertorl (2428m) that requires a 12% climb from Fuscherlacke (2262m). At Fuschertorl the Glockner peak is straight across the valley and magnificent. From here the road dives at a fairly constant 12% into a series of hairpin turns and into warmer climate. I passed a Czech bus that I had seen twice before in Switzerland more than a week ago that still holding up traffic with its underpowered motor and brakes that required utmost descending care. After passing the long string of cars and the bus, I soon came upon a larger hindrance of many more cars waiting at a construction site that I and motorcyclists could pass. I was glad to leave the whole bunch behind because the road on this side of the hill is narrow.
I left the clouds behind as I reached the Salzach river at Bruck (757m) and headed west toward the Gerlos pass. The ride up the Pinzgau along the 720mm gauge Pinzgau RR took me through Mittersill where most traffic turns up the Thurn pass (1273m) to the north or south trough the tunnel to Lienz. From here it's pretty quiet to Wald (867m) at the foot of the old Gerlos pass. I rode up to the 17% section where there is a hotel that I tried last year and where, again, I was not disappointed. After finishing my dinner I saw the trout dinner on another guest's plate and ordered one of those too. With a great double dinner and a good night's sleep I was in fat city, so to speak.
I rode up the valley with clear skies to Hall just before Innsbruck and to some lunch before the store closes. Although most major gas stations have mini markets that are open all day, they have a selection that is more limited to snacks than real lunch. I cruised through the center of Innsbruck and headed west along the north shore until the road crosses at Zirl. These roads are all pretty friendly now that the freeway is completed. I rode up the valley with a tailwind and was feeling pretty good when I got passed by two riders who were hustling pretty hard.
Toward the junction of the Oetztal (from the Timmelsjoch, Pso Rombo) I saw them up ahead and caught up as they rested through a town. I joined them to discover they were foreigners on a short out and back ride to familiar places. As I mentioned that we were about at the beginning of the "big hill" one of them explained that there was a way around the gratuitous climb out of Imst. There is a dead flat bike path along the Inn that only locals know about, and is unmarked but easy to find. As you roll down the hill toward Imst it takes off over the bridge where the sign says OBB railway station and goes on down to the river rafting place. It was a great discovery for me although 150m climb isn't all that terrible.
I rode the bike path and on toward to Landeck (816m) where I headed south to the Reschen pass. This is a lovely and easy valley to ride except that a long section of the main road is designated as freeway although it is the safest part to bicycle. In the past I took the circuitous route prescribed for bicycles and found it to be about 50% longer and full of little climbs as it crosses the "freeway" several times. Last year I decided this was BS and took the main road. I did the same this time and got to Pfunds (971m), where all roads join, in good time. The climb went easily and at the top of the Reschen pass (1508m) as I rode around the lake I caught the wheel of a fast guy who towed me briskly to the descent. Unfortunately, he could not take advantage of my draft down the hill because he was not one to take curves fast and the Reschen has long 60+ km/h curves that can be taken without braking if you don't mind leaning low into curves.
It was great weather as I turned off toward Switzerland at Mals to cut over to the Ofen pass junction (967m) and headed up to Santa Maria. I was delayed by wild cherry trees that needed to be picked as I started up the hill to the border. As I neared Santa Maria the sky became more cloudy and I could hear the thunder over the ridge. A few drops fell as I passed the junction of the Umbrail pass, the north ramp of the Stelvio. From here, a few stiff km's rise to the upper valley and Fuldera (1638m) my goal for the day. The light and thunder show got better and better as I approached the hotel but it stayed on the ridge to the south until after I was under cover. I parked my bicycle in the garage with many others, the owner being an avid bicyclist himself.
The descent to Davos was uneventful and isn't especially scenic even when clear. In Davos (1560m) the sun was dimly visible as I rode around the lake to the Wolfgang pass (1625m) that is no contest from this side. The descent to Klosters (1000m) on the other hand is pretty swift but in the trees, so the big alpine scene is over for now. In Klosters I just barely got into the grocery store for lunch after begging the gal inside to let me in a couple of minutes after 12:00 noon. After good munchies, I rolled on down the hill and out through the narrows to Landquart (530m) in the Rhine valley.
From Landquart I followed the river on the old federal route on the west side to Sargans, with most traffic taking the freeway. Although I rode into a headwind the bike rolled along nicely. After Bad Ragaz the wind died and with the help of some cherries that I bought, I rolled, sitting up and eating cherries, into Sargans (483m). I am always impressed that the Rhine flows past Sargans about five meters below a divide that keeps it from taking a short cut through Zurich on its way to Basel. Someone must have at least considered tapping off water to the Walensee at some time. I rode over to Mels on the south side of the valley to catch the bike path that parallels the Seez river straight down to the lake at Walenstadt (427m).
On the lake, just after Murg, my favorite way to get to Glarus cuts off up the Karenzerberg (743m) a small pass that cuts off the corner of the mountain along the lake. The alternative is an undulating bike path along the lake that is scenic and uses a couple of long and abandoned RR tunnels, but it is tedious after you have seen it once. The view up the Linth valley toward Glarus was spectacular as always because the mountains, although not earthshakingly high, rise steeply around the claustrophobic valley and vanish in the haze, giving them greater than real dimensions. The Kloental, off to the west, is even more so, with a narrow lake filling the bottom of the ravine that rises to the amazingly steep Pragel pass (1550m) to Schwyz. I descended to the valley and took the agricultural road/bike path to Netstal and continued up the valley past Glarus to Linthal (662m). By this time the road was wet and rain is imminent.
As I began the climb up the Klausen from Linthal where the road heads into the cliffs and a dense forest that kept me from getting wet. As I approach the first of two curvy natural rock tunnels I passed the portal of a new tunnel that will go straight through and avoid the narrows. Higher, out of the woods, I got a cool shower that stopped after about 10km as I leveled off on the Urner Boden, the high valley before the pass. I rode into a wind and dried off quickly but as I approached the end of the valley at Port (1372m) the wind became so fierce that I used my lowest gear just to reach the hotel. I ducked under the Hotel roof just as a cloudburst let go but only for about five minutes, washing the landscape with a lively display of thunder and lightning.
On a wet road awash in water, I proceeded up the hill, glad that I didn't have to stay there for the night. Had it rained much longer, it would have been too late to go over the top and still get dinner. I rode to the summit with shreds of clouds rising out of the ravines while the setting sun gave the underside of the clouds some golden trim. At the top of the Klausen (1948m) the view to the west was cheerful with large gaps of blue sky. The view straight down into the Schaechental was as breathtaking as always with only roofs visible abut 300m below at the end of the box canyon that gives the pass its name.
At Urigen (1300m) I called it a day at Hotel Urigen where Steffan Truschner, who runs the place with his wife Karin, served me a great dinner with a couple of tall cool Eichhof beers. He was amazed that I arrived dry and left dry because in contrast to the last several years when I stopped there it had rained hard.
I climbed up to Wassen (916m) whose church is seen on three different passes by train passengers on the Gotthard rail line. The train station in this town is on a reverse loop such that the platforms are clearly marked Zurich and Bellinzona opposite to their actual physical directions to prevent boarding errors. At the center of town I turned north up the Susten road that starts out with curved bridges under bridges and curved tunnels until it breaks out in a high and steep valley that exposes most of the road to the summit. Knowing that in August, the road repair at great rock slide was to be completed after a three year wait, I assumed that the construction might still be in progress, so I took the detour for the first time. In the past I had climbed over the rocks. As it turned out bicyclists could ride through the structurally complete repair although this was not apparent from below.
The detour has a 13% climb returning to the main road. I was glad I had ridden it because next year there will be no sign of it left. The Susten (2224m) is the glacier highway of the Alps in my book. It is a beautiful road with broad vistas and steep cliffs. After the summit, when going west, a huge glacier reaching from high above to the valley below fills the panorama. The descent includes many tunnels in curves, s-bends, and hairpins. It has steep sections and flat ones that stretch out along pasture land after which unexpected descents go farther down ending abruptly in Inertkirchen (625m).
From here it's over the Lammi for the third time, into Meiringen and up the Brunig pass (1008m). The Brunig isn't high but it has a couple of 13% pitches from Meiringen before descending gently to Lungern (752m) and after the lake down to Giswil and Luzern (436m). In Luzern I dropped in on Mrs. Dierauer Sr. while the weather saw fit to drop about an hour's worth of rain. Without as much as feeling a drop, I was able to make the final dash to Affoltern before it rained again, riding down the Reuss valley back the way I had started out to end a great ride of 3064km.