In mid-September, a group of five Digital employees set out to ride from Geneva to Venice: Ian Walker and myself from Reading CC; Rod MacFadyen, (ex-Reading, currently working in Ferney Voltaire); Piers Letcher (the tour organiser, also based near Ferney) and Alan Paxton from the VMS group in Edinburgh. The planned route was 800km, and had >10,000 metres of climbing, with pre-arranged hotel bookings at strategic points.
On the morning of Friday 10th, Ian and I took the train from Reading to Ascot; cycled to Heathrow, and took a BA flight to Geneva. Leaving Geneva airport, we had a taste of the weather to come, catching a fairly serious rainstorm on the three mile ride to the bar in Ferney where we'd arranged to meet the others.
That evening, we had a kind of luggage-alohics anonymous meeting, and apart from Piers, managed to reduce the load to one pannier each. I think Ian was eventually grateful that we talked him out of taking his headset spanners...
Our equipment was a bit of a mixture. I had my mid-range Raleigh bonded steel racing frame, with 36/48 Stronglight chainset and a 12-28 7 speed block. Rod was using an old 531 fast tourer with the same gearing as mine (his usual Titanium frame having been written off in a crash the previous week). Alan had a carbon-fibre Specialized with a triple chainset and a close ratio block. Ian and Piers were on proper 531 touring bikes with triple chainsets and wide ratio blocks.
We left Rod's apartment on Saturday morning. The first 75km were flat and uneventful along the southern shores of Lake Geneva. We ate a huge lunch in Aigle, unwise in view of the 25km climb up the Col du Pillon which was to follow. Alan reached the top first, with Rod and I arriving a few minutes later. The last 5km section was 1 in 10, and very hard going for me, even on 36x28. Ian and Piers were a long way back, Ian suffering for having been unable to prepare properly for the trip. This was my first really major climb, and I was pleased to be able to stay with Rod, an experienced col-bagger, although he found his true form later in the week. From the Pillon, we descended about 30km into Gstaad. Total, 130km/1400 metres climb.
Sunday was scheduled to be the flattest day of the trip. We left Gstaad on the short climb of the Saanenmoser in glorious sunny weather, with long views of fresh snow on the peaks around the lush green valley. The descent was pepped up by poorly advertised roadworks, some unexpectedly damp hairpins, and a closing level crossing, which we squeezed underneath at an irresponsible speed.
We continued on through Interlaken, where there was a terrific view of the snow-capped Jungfrau towering above the surrounding mountains, and on to our hotel at Meiringen. In the evening, a tough-looking group of locals marched up the street banging drums and ringing huge cowbells. We were rather worried when they marched, still playing, into the bar of our hotel. The noise was deafening, and the atmosphere intimidating. Then they just stopped and had a quiet drink. We found out later that this was a traditional event associated with bringing the animals down from the high pastures. 105km/700m.
Monday's route had a planned 113km and 3000 metres climb, and the weather did not look promising. Piers left early, and the rest of us started the 1500m ascent of the Grimselpass together. There was a very strong headwind, and it started raining after about an hour. As the road passed the first dam, the wind was so strong through the cutting that it was impossible to cycle into it [aside: the same thing happened to Jobst Brandt when he went up it in 1994]. We had to carry our bikes up the steps.
We reached the top after almost three hours to find Piers already in residence in the cafe. He had been caught up in the end of an Alpine running event on his way up, and was offered food, drink and cheers by the spectators for his efforts. No such luck for us.
We decided, over bowls of soup that we would carry on up the next pass. The rain had worsened, the descent into Gletsch was treacherous and cold, and we were then straight into the ascent up the 700m Furkapass. Ian and I climbed this slowly together, stopping for a very brief look at the spectacular Rhone glacier on the way up to the fog-bound summit at 2400m. Descending, my hands and face were numb after thirty seconds, and the road was awash with rainwater. I reached the rendezvous cafe in Realp very cold indeed, and didn't stop shivering for about an hour. The weather was too bad to continue the planned route to the Oberalpass, so we found a hotel, and spent a luxurious afternoon after hot showers planning a warmer route to Italy. 61km/2200m
That night, I slept badly, due to noisy plumbing, a too-small bed, and the picturesque, but chiming, town clock being twenty feet from my window. In the morning, we set off on our revised, more southerly route, to climb the St Gotthard pass on the way to Lugano. Riding down the valley, which was moodily lit by early sunlight, there were views of fresh snow at about 2000 metres on the surrounding mountains.
Rod, Alan and I climbed the St Gotthard together, reaching the snowline and cloud just before the summit. The descent into Airolo was exhilarating, with long straight sections, tunnels, flyovers, hairpins, you name it. At the bottom, we had moved from German-speaking to Italian-speaking Switzerland. After lunch, a long shallow descent followed, along a gorge with torrents of water pouring through waterfalls, streams, even the gaps in the stone walls. We then found the 300m Monte Ceneri between us and Lugano, a minor point that nobody had noticed on the map. We attacked this shortish climb hard in a torrential hail and thunderstorm, overtaking some heavily laden mountain bikers on the way. Wet again. 121km/1000m.
On Wednesday, we left Lugano early for the ferry across Lake Como. On arriving at the lake, there were rainclouds in the mountains to the east, and sunshine was to the south. We changed route again, and took the ferry south. The new route would take us to Venice through the Italian lakes. We snatched lunch in Lecco, a town that appeared to be populated entirely by vast numbers of schoolchildren. For the rest of the day, we ended up riding a lot on horribly busy Italian main roads, being cut up by lorries and cars. The overnight stop in Sarnico on Lake Iseo was delightful though. We ate a lot of good food and fabulous ice cream, and generally congratulated ourselves on not getting wet. 118km/600m.
There was a choice of routes the next day, Rod, Ian and I taking the hillier one. Rod stormed up the first climb up from Iseo. I took it more slowly, looking at the great views across the lake on the way up, but still managing to outsprint Ian for the summit. After the descent, we found ourselves unexpectedly amongst lorries and factories again, and then on another long climb that wasn't obvious from the map. We caught the ferry across another lake (Garda?), with hazy views of mountains to the north. It was hot, and we were dry for a change, which made us very happy.
After a rather late lunch in a mediterranean-style village by the lake, we rode the next 55km to Villafranca in team time-trial mode, and knocked it off at better than evens. We were aided for a while by a local who we passed, who then hung on the back, and subsequently dragged us at high speed for a few km. This was the best cycling day of the trip for me, as it had a bit of everything: ups, downs, speed, good food and superb weather. We met up with Piers and Alan outside the railway station in Villafranca to find that they had already arranged a hotel for the night. 128km/1200m.
Friday faced us with a long ride across the dead flat countryside from Villafranca to Venezia Mestre, our final destination. It was pretty boring, but we made our own entertainment by sprinting for town signs. I did well at this, mainly through having better eyesight than the others. We had an excellent lunch at a very friendly restaurant, where we felt extremely underdressed, which we attempted to rectify by leaving a large tip.
The last 10km of the ride were enlivened by a reckless dash through heavy traffic to get to the Mestre town sign first. I was eventually outsprinted by Rod, but the race had made up for a lot of tedious hours in the saddle that day, and we were happy when we got to the hotel. We were a bit less happy when we discovered there were three beds between five people, but this was sorted out before we had to draw lots... 152km/0m.
We went across to Venice in the evening, discovering at the station that there was a train strike the next day, and that we would have to leave early for Geneva, consigning the bikes as freight (This sentence neatly summarises three hours bargaining and negotiation with various officials at the station. The man at the information counter was adamant that "bicycles cannot travel on international trains from Italy". The man in the freight office had twenty-three different rubber stamps on his desk, and used seven of them in doing our paperwork).
After spending Saturday morning