See the Jobst Brandt's Tour of the Alps Collection under the section for Europe of the Trento Bike Pages

Tour of the Alps 1996 - Part 1

By Jobst Brandt (, Mon, 16 Sep 1996 18:07:08 -0700. Revised: Thu, 11 Sep 1997 8:43:45 PDT
This is part 1 of a report consisting of 4 parts. See Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, the Index, or the (big!) one-file version.

How and what I took along (Same story as before)

As in past years, I loaded my suitcase with a few clothes for off-the-bike activities and some gifts for my friends in Europe as well as my loaded bicycle saddlebag (weighing 4.6kg) with most of the items on minimalist checklist for a bike tour. The cranks, QR skewers, chain, and rear derailleur together with tools necessary for assembly also go into the suitcase. The bicycle, partly dismantled, had its handlebar and fork turned backwards, the wheels strapped to either side of the frame. I used 5/16-16 spreader bolts to protect the front and rear dropouts from being bent. I inflated the tires hard with my floor pump because I hate pumping with a frame fit pump and I didn't anticipate pumping again for at least six weeks. I covered the bicycle with a clear plastic bag and taped it shut.

I used Avocet Road 700x28 wire-bead, non-Kevlar tires on 36 hole Mavic MA-2 rims with 1.8-1.6mm DT spokes; Campagnolo Record brakes (Kool-Stop red pads), 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 46-50 CW, SPD 525 pedals and M110 shoes; the frame is steel and about 26" with oversized top and down tubes using an Avocet Racing Turbo Gel saddle on a two bolt Campagnolo Record seat post, steel Cinelli bars and Ritchey stem. I wear Avocet polypropylene shorts and jerseys.

My suitcase and bicycle go as two pieces of legal overseas air baggage and, with 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 one or more days delay just when it is least convenient.

The trip

On Monday, 1 July, Richard Mlynarik and I flew with United Airlines from San Francisco with a stop in Washington (Dulles) to Zurich. We took the train from the ZH airport to Affoltern am Albis (491m) where my friend Fredy Ruegg runs a top notch bike shop and where I have made my base camp with my friends, the Dierauer's for many years. We assembled our bicycles and, in an effort to not fall asleep before dinner, rode up the Albis pass (791m) and along the ridge to the Uetliberg overlooking Zurich. That ploy almost worked as we nodded off in mid sentence while sitting in the living room before dinner. The weather was cool and cloudy in contrast to most of June that, I am told, was sweltering and left the mountains with little spring snow.

Still suffering the aftermath of the flu that hit me on my second Sierra Nevada spring tour, I took a whole day in the sack while Richard took a ride over Aegeri to the Zurich Lake and over the Sattelegg (1190m) to Canton Glarus, where he sampled the beauties of the Glarner Alps and the Pragel Pass (1550m) that climbs through the steep walled Kloental and descends with a stiff steady 18% grade to Bisistal and Schwyz. Meanwhile, I seemed to gain enough strength to believe I could start, although I was still having hot spells that felt like fever but weren't.

1. Thursday, 4 July (Affoltern - Rosenlaui; 120km, 2436m):

We set out toward Luzern and the central Alps under cloudy skies, riding across the Reuss valley to the south to Merenschwand, in canton Aargau with its tall church steeple and red tile roofed houses with window boxes of geraniums. The Reuss, that originates on the Gotthard and Furka passes, and flows through Luzern and on to the Rhine, would greet us again a few times on this trip. The road through Aargau is lightly traveled and has an excellent bike path most of the way up the valley to Luzern. At Gisikon we crossed the Reuss again to get on the main road into Luzern where, at the city limits, two large redwood trees stand at either side of the road.

In Luzern (436m) we stopped for photos at the famous Lion sculpted into the cliff and at the (new) old wooden bridge across the Reuss with swans and the Pilatus (2120m) as a backdrop. We visited Mrs Dierauer Sr on the Musegg above the Armory at the city wall before riding on to the Alpnach leg of the lake. At Alpnachstadt the Pilatus railway 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. Here the beaches along the lake were empty and there was almost no holiday auto traffic even though school was out.

From Sarnen we headed toward the Melchtal instead of taking the direct route over the Brunig Pass (1008m). Taking the road past the train station, we headed up the scenic forest road to Flueli, and on up the Melchtal where we ate lunch before the climb to Frut at the Melchsee. At Stockalp (1075m), at the end of the valley, the road becomes narrow (timed one way traffic) and steep, climbing to Frut (1902m) and the Melchsee in seven kilometers. From Frut a scenic and car-free route goes over the ridge to the Susten Pass road and the Haslital.

We stopped at the general store in Frut before riding 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. Our trail (some walking required) heads down to Engsteln (1837m), cut into a granite wall high above the Engsteln canyon. From here we descended the small paved (restricted access) road through the narrow canyon to the chime of ubiquitous cowbells. After reaching the Susten Pass road, we descended the few kilometers to Inertkirchen (625m) through sweeping curves and curved bare rock tunnels.

We rode up the three hairpins of the Kirchet (709m) to the Lammi Gasthaus where we turned off to Rosenlaui. The road climbs steeply through a forest to the canyon of the roaring Reichenbach, where Sherlock Holmes and Dr Moriarty went over the falls to meet their deaths. As the road rises above the cascades of the Reichenbach, the Rosenlaui glacier and the Wetterhorn came into view. Here, in the high valley, we stopped at Hotel Rosenlaui (1330m), where Andreas and Christina Kehrli preside. After a hearty dinner of hackbraten with roesti and a tall (58dl) cool Eichhof beer we retired to the 5th floor dormitory accommodations where we were the only guests and got a good night's sleep to the sound of rain and the rushing creek.

2. Friday, 5 July (Rosenlaui - Hospental; 205km, 2976m):

With dry roads and high overcast, we headed up to Schwarzwaldalp and the high meadows above tree line on the private road of the Grindelwald bus company. The higher peaks were frosted in fresh snow from the night and the Wetterhorn (3701m), with plenty of snow, had icefalls that went off like artillery as they pulverized on the cliffs below. We could just see the tip of the Eiger as we approached the summit.

The Grosse Scheidegg pass (1961m), directly beneath the north face of the Wetterhorn, gives a view across the Eiger (3970m), Moench (4099m), and the pure white Jungfrau (4158m). At the bottom of the descent, where the road widens and becomes public, a wooden gondola built by von Roll stands at the edge of a parking lot to commemorate the world's first aerial tram that was built from here to a ledge half way up the Wetterhorn. There wasn't much going on in Grindelwald (1034m) as we rolled through town, inspected the BOB and WAB cog railways, and continued down the Luetschine river with a favorable breeze toward Interlaken. The weather was cool enough that we didn't notice the chill of the icy river.

In Wilderswil, the Schynige Platte (BOB) 800mm gauge cog trains were loading passengers that had just arrived from Interlaken on the BOB (Berner Oberland Bahn) meter gauge train. Not to let any rail activity go unnoticed, we inspected the operation carefully before heading off to Interlaken (563m) where we looked back across the large meadow in the middle of town for a look at the Eiger-Moench-Jungfrau. From here we headed east along the Brienzer Lake to Brienz where we checked out the BRB steam cog railway as we ate lunch, before riding on through Meiringen where a life sized bronze of Holmes now sits on the lawn in the middle of town, deerstalker hat, pipe, cape, and all.

We rode back over the Kirchet (709m) to Inertkirchen (625m) and up the Grimsel road to Gutannen and Handegg before climbing over the imposing dams of the Haslital Power Company that hold back the Aar river. Bits of blue were visible through the clouds as we climbed in refreshingly cool air and a trace of a drizzle to the top of the Grimsel pass (2165m). From above the upper lake, the Finsteraarhorn (4275m) where the Unteraar and Oberaar rivers originate, rose above the end of the valley to the west.

Unlike last summer, there was no ice on the summit lake and no snow because spring came with such a heat wave. We stopped for a hot chocolate at the last Gasthaus before descending to Gletsch (1761m) almost straight below in the Rhone valley. Descending the stacked hairpins opens a magnificent view of the Furka Pass (266m above), and the desolate glacial valley 400m below. Clouds and late afternoon lighting made for a classic stormy ambience that befits the Grimsel.

At Gletsch we dropped in on the DFB Furka Steam Railway station where I paid my annual dues and bought a pile of literature to be mailed. Then we headed up the Furka Pass (2431m) and took obligatory pictures in front of the Rhone Glacier. From the summit, we back to the Grimsel, where late afternoon fog cascaded through the gap to flood the valley where we had just been: a real Goetterdaemmerung ambience if ever there was one.

We rolled over the broad summit down a nearly empty road above the Furka Reuss canyon toward Realp (1538m) with the Oberalp Pass visible in the distance beyond Andermatt. In Realp, we stopped at the DFB (Dampfbahn Furka Bergstrecke) engine house. Richard warmed his hands on the immaculately restored cogwheel steam engines that were still hot from a day's service on the hill. A light rain began to fall as we rode the nearly level road to Hospental (1452m) where we stopped for the day at Hotel Sternen.

3. Saturday, 6 July (Hospental - Trivero; 205km, 1444m):

Under dark skies we headed up the wide concrete paved Gotthard highway whose ramp begins in Hospental. Here, above tree line, only scrub brush, grass, wildflowers, and alpenrosen decorate the landscape. The alpenrose is an azalea that is prevalent throughout the Alps adding a lovely bouquet of pink and red among the many small flowers, like the striking deep blue gentians, forget-me-nots, and the many varieties of daisies and dandelions. There was no trace of the usual huge piles of snow left from winter snow removal at the Gotthard summit.

We took pictures of the old road through breaks in the fog, below in the Val Tremola, with its stack of hairpins and Roman road that cuts through it. In Airolo (1165m) the road levels off and cruises through town before descending to the valley of Ambri-Piotta and Rodi-Fiesso, where the Ritom funicular railway rises at 100% gradient to Lago di Ritom. From here we descended to Faido and finally to the main valley in Roveredo. Although the double track Gotthard railway with corkscrew tunnels and many bridges is impressive, it is dwarfed by the enormous bridges and tunnels of the split level motorway, so high above that it is out of one's field of vision. The cost of such roads is seldom questioned because it allows the public to ride this amusement park without a perceptible entry fee. The otherwise roaring Ticino River is mostly diverted from its polished granite bed for hydro power leaving only a token flow of clear mountain water.

We stopped for lunch at the super market in Biasca near the railway station, where a multistage waterfall descends from practically out of the clouds to the valley, finally crossing over itself in two opposing streams that flow from a swimming hole about 100m above. We rode on to Bellinzona, Cadenazzo, and along the east shore of Lago Maggiore toward Italy (193m) under cloudy skies, passing holiday homes with gardens of sweet smelling wisteria and hydrangia. After we crossed the border and because it was Saturday, we stopped in Luino at the bancomat for Italian money. The convenience of using an ATM card to access my home bank is a great leap forward from the days of cashing travelers checks, banks never being open when you need one. The lake looked refreshing but the air temperature didn't encourage swimming. Just as well, because it was the kind of cool air that suits bicycling. We took the ferry from Laveno to the busy side of the lake in Verbania from where we crossed the Toce river that originates on the Simplon Pass. From here it's a small climb to Omegna (298m) and the Lago d'Orta where traffic again dwindled to nothing after the town as we rode along the east shore of the lago d'Orta that has an island with a picturesque red stone castle.

Turning west at Gozzano (367m), we climbed to Pogno (461m) where the evening bells were ringing in the slow rhythm common in this region. In contrast to Gothic bells, these bells are suspended near their center of gravity, giving them a slow and peaceful peal. With accompaniment of the carillon, we climbed a small road through a forest of chestnut trees that are common all over the Piemonte. At the end of the canyon, that ends abruptly where the road enters a tunnel (598m), we descended to Borgosesia (359m). Here the beautiful Sesia flows through a deep rough granite riverbed with large trout and swans that made a peaceful scene as we crossed the high arched stone bridge out of the city.

Continuing toward Biella through valleys with moribund textile mills, we stopped for the day in Trivero (580m) where we found a hotel with a good looking dining room. We were not disappointed, as Richard savored a delicious porcini mushroom dinner and I had some fine pasta and vitello. After swatting the resident mosquitos, we got a good night's rest.

4. Sunday, 7 July (Trivero - Robilante; 222km, 1432m):

We continued up the road to Valle Mosso and turned to Mosso Santa Maria so Richard could see the "bridge to nowhere" to Pistolesa (655m). Large signs just above Santa Maria proclaiming "Bungee Center" seem to have finally given the bridge recognition for something other than carrying practically no traffic. The eight foot high safety fence now has a wide gate at midspan that can be opened for jumpers for whom a red carpet covers the walkway in front of the gate. The height of the bridge is impressive no matter in what context you see it. After taking some pictures, we headed on through the hills to Biella (410m) and Ivrea (245m). This route crosses several conspicuous ridges of huge ice age glacial moraines from the Val d'Aosta.

In Ivrea, we rode around the castle and descended to the old bridge in the narrows of the Dora Baltea while swifts screamed in the air above, chasing each other around the old fortress. I phoned Brian Tomlin, a bikie who works here at Olivetti and with whom I have ridden in the Alps, but his wife said he (among 2100 others) was off racing the Fausto Coppi (Cuneo...Cuneo 243km, 4200m; over the Col d'Agnello, Col de Vars, and Col de Larche). Because we planned to pass through Cuneo today anyway, we said we hoped to see him and continued south to Chivasso (184m) and Torino (239m). In Chivasso we discovered the bridge across the Po river was still out, two years after the big washout, although construction was in progress. We took the expressway along the north shore to Torino where, in the middle of town, we found a good restaurant near the river just before the kitchen closed at 2PM.

After lunch we headed south on Rt N20, the Tenda Highway, with 87km of flat road to Cuneo (587m), where about 10km from Cuneo the mountains began to emerge emerge from the summer haze of the great Po valley. Soon we crossed the high stone arch road and rail viaduct over the Stura di Demonte into Cuneo. The city was full of bike racers coming down through the center of town with the police directed traffic on the affected thoroughfares as groups of riders arrived. We watched but soon realized that there was no hope in finding Brian. After a drink of water at the great fountain in front of the train station, we headed west. The stream of incoming riders continued until Borgo San Dalmazzo (641m), where we turned south toward Robilante (686m) and the Albergo Ristorante Aquila Reale for the night.

This is part 1 of a report consisting of 4 parts. See Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, the Index, or the (big!) one-file version.