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 3

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

11. Sunday, 14 July (Argentier - Hospental; 190km, 2524m):

As we rode over the Col des Montets (1461m) we saw that the meter gauge rail line, that runs from Martigny in Switzerland to Chamonix, is still powered by an unprotected 1000VDC third rail as it runs through the countryside. We mailed postcards with French postage and crossed into Switzerland, descending to the turn-off to Finhaut (1224m), just before the climb to the Col de la Forclaz (1520m). We rode along the north side of the Gorge del Trient, to the one lane restricted access road that parallels the rail line. This is a major scenic shortcut to Martigny (417m) and the Rhone valley.

In Martigny we got something to eat, changed money, and headed up the valley toward Sion and Brig, a flat 82km away on Rt N9. The weather was cool with blue skies and scattered puffs of clouds as we caught the favorable breeze that gets stronger throughout the day in the summer. As we rode through well tended vineyards that cover most of the valley's floor and its terraced lower slopes, traffic was anywhere but here. It was a great day for an easy cruise. We stopped in Sion (512m) at a store that happened to be open for our lunch and again at a fruit stand where we wolfed down a large basket of dark red cherries and chatted with some Dutch motorcyclists. At about Susten, above the narrows in the valley, the language changes from French to German, making the canton Valaise into the canton Wallis.

About 15km before Brig, the BLS (Bern-Loetschberg-Simplon) railway, 600m above, emerges from the Loetschental, clinging to the walls as it passes over graceful stone-arch bridges and through many tunnels on its descent to Brig (648m). We rode through the center of Brig where the streets are now pedestrian malls and allow only busses to enter by ingenious 30cm diameter hydraulic barrier posts that lower into the street when a bus approaches. After checking out the FO and BVZ trains in the Bahnhofplatz, we headed east on Rt N19 toward the Furka pass. As we left town we saw the dual portal of the 20km Simplon railway tunnel with the dates 1905 and 1921, first the single track bore and parallel air shaft that was completed before the advent of pneumatic drills, and then the enlargement of the air shaft as the second track, sixteen years later. As we climbed to Fiesch (1062m) where the valley is steeper, the Rhone was full of clear rushing water in contrast to the roaring grey snow-melt of spring.

As everywhere in Switzerland, hay was being gathered in the lowlands while the cows were in the high country, eating the grass that's too hard to reach. The lowland growth is dried green and stored for winter when the cows remain indoors all day. Gathering hay is a family affair in which the city relatives come out to the farm to help. The growing season is short and the winter long up here in the north, considering that Naples and New York are on the same latitude.

As we passed Bretten and Fiesch, we saw large parking lots, hotels, and cableways that take visitors northward to the ridge above the giant Aletsch glacier that starts at the Jungfrau and reaches 23km nearly to Brig. At both of these towns, the road makes a major climb, the railway switches to cogwheel drive, the Rhone becomes a cascade, and we shifted into lower gears. After that, it was a breeze to the end of the valley. At Ulrichen (1349m) we could see the start of the Nufenen pass (2478m) vanish into a narrow dark valley as we rode on to Oberwald (1371m) where the FO enters the new 10km Furka tunnel and the climb to the Grimsel and Furka passes begins. Three kilometers up, the Hotel Rhonequelle, a good place to stay, was closed for a complete renovation. I hope it doesn't lose its welcoming friendly nature. From here it is only a short climb to Gletsch (1759m) where the still dormant DFB cogwheel right-of-way enters a 270 degree loop tunnel to gain nearly 50m as it enters the mountain far below the highway only to emerge in the inside of a hairpin turn a short way up the road.

It looked like "off-season" as we rode up the Furka (2431m) for the second time. The DFB railway was constructing a new crossing on the Furka road and had made amazing progress since our previous visit nine days earlier. In contrast to our first crossing, today was a bright sunny day, yet as we reached the summit, we looked back to the Grimsel to see the icy fog pour down from the pass toward Gletsch as usual. The descent to Realp (1538m) was swift as we overtook a large platoon of twenty or so cars that seemed to move almost as a team. We stopped in Hospental (1452m) where our usual digs were full, so we stayed at the hotel St Gotthard that turned out to have great food and comfort, but was expensive. The plush surroundings with heated towel racks was good for a change as we dried laundry and slept comfortably.

12. Monday, 15 July (Hospental - Brusio; 208km, 3107m):

We headed down to Andermatt (1447m) at the foot of the Oberalp pass (2044m). The Oberalp road climbs through meadows alongside the FO railway to the summit, where it shares the shore of the lake for about a kilometer in an avalanche shed. After an initial steep descent with hairpin turns, the descent becomes more gradual along the upper (Vorder-)Rhein valley past Disentis (1142m) where the Lukmanier Pass (1916m) heads south. Here the FO railway hands off the Glacier Express to the RhB (Rhaetische Bahn) railway on its trip to St Moritz. In Ilanz (699m) we took the scenic route along the south side of the valley through Carrera, climbing to Verasam (908m), in contrast to the main highway through Flims (1081m), that is longer, less scenic, and full of traffic. The last unpaved km's, just before Vesam were finally being paved even though there is no skiing there to pay for the roadwork.

The descent from Vesam to Bonaduz (655m) crosses 200m above the gorge of the Habiusa river with a great view of its confluence with the Vorderrhein in the narrow canyon. At Bonaduz we turned south up the Hinterrhein valley, passing through Rhaezuens, the mineral water town, on the way to Thusis. From here, the road climbs through long tunnels up the Schyn valley along the Albula river to Tiefencastel (851m), where the Julier pass (2284m) heads south to St Moritz. We stopped at the RhB train station there to place my annual order of RhB scenic wall calendars.

Farther up the valley, as we approached Filisur (1023m), we saw the famous Landwasser viaduct, where the RhB crosses the gorge and vanishes into a tunnel in a vertical granite wall. In Berguen (1386m), the RhB has one of its Krokodil locomotives on display in front of the station of this town that has no level streets. After Berguen the road climbs some 12% sections amidst the looping bridges of the railway as it climbs to the 8km Albula tunnel at Preda (1789m). The road threads its way under and over the rail line that takes 18km to cover airline 5km, making the experience almost as good as riding the Glacier or Bernina express.

The sky became cloudy as we continued up the Albula pass (2315m) with its high meadows in full bloom. Traffic is usually light here because most traffic blasts over the shorter and straighter Julier pass to the west. The Albula remained one of the last unpaved roads and has kept its bucolic nature even today through its remoteness. The descent to La Punt (1687m) in the Inn valley is fairly steep but with a good surface (its first pavement) so that hard braking comes easily. Once in the valley, we headed west to Samedan and then south to Pontresina, where we made a big grocery store fuel stop before heading up the Bernina pass (2328m).

We failed to get a train shot at the famed Montebello railway curve/ crossing, although a train came downhill just after we headed up. It wasn't a big loss though, because it was dark and overcast and the Morteratsch glacier was mostly obscured, and no sign of Piz Bernina. We got to the summit and took pictures under threatening skies at about 6:30. Before pushing off we exchanged road stories with two riders who had arrived at the same time as we, one who had come from Livigno and the other who was going there.

After a few kilometers the descent became less than swift because the road was wet from recent showers that were still drizzling a bit here and there. Farther down the rain had not reached Poschiavo so the road was dry from there onward past La Prese and Miralago on Lago di Poschiavo (962m), before the final blast down to Hotel Bettoni in Brusio (780m) for the day's stop. We were well taken care of by Mr and Mrs Beti who run this fine establishment.

13. Tuesday, 16 July (Brusio - San Antonio; 110km, 3070m):

We heard the howl of wheel flanges from trains on the 7% grade coming up the Brusio 360 degree loop bridge. As we got to Campocologno, where the RhB and road cross the Poschiavino river on the same bridge, a train approached, causing the crossing gates at both ends of the bridge to close while the train crossed diagonally between them. At Madonna di Tirano we turned left to Tirano (433m) and Tovo (526m) where we turned up the Passo di Mortirolo, a pass renowned for its effect on the Giro d'Italia. The road was not marked by a conventional road sign but had a brown one used for parks and scenic areas. The road is just wide enough for one car, is well paved with asphalt, and starts right out with some steep jabs. After awhile the steepness becomes constant as the road climbs through deciduous woods with few vistas to the valley.

On some 20% grade sections, graffiti of encouragement for Italian racers covered the road. Occasionally there was one with "Bugno 52-12" just when the 20% grade was getting tiring. The summit is actually the Passo della Foppa (1852m) but this seems to constitute the modern summit of the Mortirolo. This climb is decidedly steeper and higher than the long way around over the Passo d'Aprica (1176m).

Near the summit we saw cars of mushroom hunters who were busy searching the woods. The road joins Rt N42 at Monno (868m) where we headed up toward Ponte di Legno. Mushroom hunters sat at the roadside here and there with their cache, holding up a porcini for the passing gourmet. We arrived in Temu' (1144m), at the Hotel Veduta dell Adamello, in time for Silvano Macculotti to serve up a great lunch of gnocchi, vitello, and tiramisu. True power food that nearly stopped me in mid afternoon at the base of the Gavia.

We rode through Ponte di Legno (1258m), where the Pso Tonale (1883m) heads south while we followed the ice cold and raging Oglio Frigidolfo river to San Apollonia (1585m). Here the river suddenly loses its bite where it meanders through meadows in the high Valle del Messi. I drank a soda and went to sleep in the grass near the Hotel San Apollonia. After I settled my heavy lunch with a short snooze we sampled both flavors of Apollonia water, heavy in minerals and some fizz, and went up the hill to the Passo di Gavia (2621m).

The Gavia, although steep, has always been an easy climb because it is so scenic and so "civilized". Its steepness is always balanced by easier sections that seem to come along just when you want them. Its warnings also seem more severe than the terrain suggests:

Tracciato Tortuoso e Stretto
Privo di protezioni Marginate
Possibile Piano Viabile Ghiacciato
SS n300 del Passo Gavia
dal Km 13+000 al Km 37+000
Dal 1 Settembre al 15 Luglio
Obbligo di Catena a Bordo
So it's a tortuous and narrow road with little protection from going over the side. The roadway may be covered with snow and chains are obligatory all but six weeks of the year. On top of that there is another sign with a "fill in the blanks" avalanche road closure.
Chiuso al Transito Dal Km____ al Km ____
Pericolo di Valanghe

For a change, I rode through he tunnel instead of walking around the now closed cliff section, where rock-fall has made passage more difficult every year since the tunnel was built. At the summit, my poster of the cliff passage was in good shape and the owner poured me a drink on the house as has been the custom all these years while Richard ate a blueberry tart. We descended under light clouds with great visibility along the high valley where the glacier covered peaks of the Ortler, Gran Zebru, and neighbors showed off their fresh snow. After Santa Caterina (1780m), we rolled down the long swift straight sections against a light breeze and stopped in San Antonio (1339m) just above Bormio.

14. Wednesday, 17 July (S Antonio - Welschenofen; 156km, 2600m):

We were still a bit above Bormio (1225) so we coasted down to town where we checked out the still sleeping downtown before heading up Rt N38 to the Val Braulio and the Stelvio pass. There was almost no traffic after we passed Rt N301 that branches north over the Foscagno (2291m) and Eira (2208m) to Livigno at the edge of Bormio. We climbed under a mixture of sunshine and clouds with refreshingly cool air and no wind.

Above the serpentine road of the Braulio and after the Swiss border at the Umbrail summit (2498m), there was a little traffic up the last 3.2km to the top, 262m higher. As we got within 300m of the summit, I felt drawn to the top of this great pass, that I had first ridden in 1959, and began to sprint effortlessly at any speed I liked, accelerating all the way over the top. It was an emotional experience to once more blast over this great climb. We took the usual pictures of the amazing road down the east side, below the towering Ortler (3905m) with its glacier dome, brilliant with fresh snow. I bought a dozen or so of the famous postcard that shows the endless stack of hairpins, now again available in its original black and white, before heading down the 48 turns to Prato (913m).

We got some lunch in Prato and rode to Spondinig (885m) where we crossed the now defunct FS (Italian Federal Railway) rail line to Malles and headed down the Adige [Etsch] river in the Val Venosta to Merano (302m). In Merano we inspected the newly refurbished main street with its classy terrazzo and much too sanitary water flume down the center, before heading to Bolzano (262m). Bolzano has a marvelous city center with a great mix of classic architecture, narrow stone paved pedestrian malls, and an endless array of shops and specialty stores as well as elegant public buildings on its classic main square. From here it was a short run up the Isarco [Eisack] valley to Cardano where we turned up the Eggental Rt N241 toward the Costalunga pass.

The Eggenbach flows from a wall of rock behind Cardano that seems to defy penetration, except that the road is cut into the vertical dark red stone walls above the river, diving through tunnels where the river has cut a crooked gorge through the cliffs. The road climbs with 16% grades through this gorge, where it receives little sunshine even at high noon. The cliffs gradually gave way to grassy valleys and forested uplands as we gained altitude. Signs posted throughout the region prohibit mushroom gathering. I'm not sure that this has as much to do with protecting mushrooms as it does with protecting the mushroom market. Gradually meadows and dairyland became the foreground to glimpses of the beautiful Dolomites as we approached Welschenofen (1182m). We stopped for the day at the Hotel Diana where the road leveled off above town, a short distance below the Lago di Carezza.

15. Thursday, 18 July (Welschenofen - Cortina; 121km, 2800m):

We pulled out of plush Hotel Diana after a hearty breakfast with all the steep stuff behind us, and rolled to the beautiful Lago di Carezza with its deep blue-green waters through which we could see to the bottom while the myriad spires of the Latemar (2842m) reflected on the surface. On the great meadows below the Rosengarten (2981m), aptly named for its overwhelming sunset displays, was the Hotel Carezza, a beautiful vestige of grand hotel architecture from the turn of the century, with massive gabled roofs and dormer windows that accentuate its mass. This and other landmark hotels took years to restore after damage and disuse during and after WW2.

After the junction with the Nigerjoch Pass (part of which is the 24% road to Tiers), it was only a couple of hairpin curves to the top of the Costalunga (1745m) and the long gradual descent to Vigo di Fassa (1400m) and on to Pozza di Fassa up Rt N48 along the Torrente Avisio to Canazei (1465m) at the base of the Pordoi and Sella passes. We headed up the Pordoi, turning north on Rt N242 to the Sella, under the walls of the Gruppo di Sella and Piz Boe'(3152m) directly above. The Dolomites are almost entirely vertical walls with millions of spires of white and orange, weathered stone. We could make out several climbing parties against the towering cliffs. Unpaved roads in the area expose the white stone so that riding there is as hard on the eyes as is skiing without sun glasses.

The view from the Sella pass (2213m) revealed the Marmolada glacier (3343m) and Pordoi pass (2339m)to the south, and the Sasso Lungo (3179m) to the west. From the summit we could see the road descend toward Ortisei and the junction with Rt N243 (1780m) to the Gardena pass on the other side of the Gruppo di Sella. There seemed to be a million cars parked everywhere with people reveling in the brilliant weather even though traffic was light as we descended toward the junction. Several hairpin turns took us up through fields of wildflowers to the long straight flat run in the shade of the north side of the Sella before the hairpins to the Gardena summit (2121m).

From the Gardena it was all downhill for the next 30km as we rode through Corvara (1555m) and on Rt N244 down the Val Badia along the Torrente Gadera, stopping for lunch in Piccolino. After lunch it got warmer, so we stopped again farther down the road to eat a watermelon from a roadside stand. At Lonega [Zwischenwasser] (1005m) wee turned southeast up the gradually climbing long straight Val di Marebbe, and Val di San Vigilio that ends at Rifugio Pederu' (1540m). Here private roads, open only to hikers and bicycles, head up into the mountains. Last year I took the route to Rifugio Sennes (2126m), so this time we rode up the other valley to Rifugio Fanes (2060m). This turned out to be a longer and less steep road, but also less scenic.

Richard managed to ride most of the way to the Rifugio, but then the road got looser, rougher and steeper. I made do with walking the steeper sections and riding about 2/3 the way which didn't slow us down much because there was still some steep bike pushing ahead before we got to the top. From here the road was just a rocky trail because there was little jeep traffic and finally the road became a rocky trace. Sections farther down had been improved by the park service but they were isolated by long sections that were not and were awash with large rock. Not having a tire fat enough to absorb the rocks, we chose to walk some of the roughest parts but it was good to see that riders with suitable tires could ride.

As we descended the Val di Fanes, we came upon a bridge aptly named the Ponte Alto, that spanned the Rio Travenanzes more than 100m below this otherwise unremarkable bridge over an insignificantly wide crevasse at edge of a meadow. As on the other road I took last year, some of the steepest parts of this barely passable trail were paved with continuous roughly finished concrete to prevent erosion. Finally we passed a gate at a parking lot, after which the trail became a smoothly paved one lane road. We rolled down to Rt N51 on which we found a good hotel just outside of Cortina d'Ampezzo (1210m).

16. Friday, 19 July (Cortina - Strassen; 158km, 3408m):

The sun was out although we were still in the shadows of the Pomagagnon ridge that hid Monte Cristallo (3221m) and Crodo Rossa (3146m) from view. We rode through Cortina and up the Falzarego road Rt N48 with le Tofane (3243m) overhead as we rode to Pocol (1453m), taking in the panorama of Cortina below, surrounded by the magnificent Dolomites. Here we took Rt N638, the Pso di Giau (2233m). The road climbs as though the terrain had been tilted after the road was built so that some runs are steep while others are inexplicably flat. Meanwhile the many peaks that can be seen from the Giau gradually came into view. As we were taking pictures on the summit, we met the rider whom we had first met days before on the Bernina pass and once in between. We compared routes and experiences before heading down the south side that is much steeper than the side we just rode up, but its broad curves make it a pleasant descent.

At the bottom we joined Rt N251 at Selva di Cadore, stopped at the grocery store for a bite and headed up the valley along the Torrente Fiorentina to the Forcla Staulanza (1773m) in the shadow of towering Monte Pelmo (3168m) just about straight overhead. We rolled down the Rio Conedo to Forno (810m) and headed north up Rt N347, the Pso Cibiana (1530m). We looked for a good place to eat lunch but found neither an open grocery store nor a restaurant along this small but pleasant road. We eventually came upon a small hotel a few kilometers before the summit that seemed to be expecting us. We had a huge plate of pasta with a rich meat sauce to carry us over the top.

We descended through the town of Cibiana and descended to a high bridge across the Torrente Boite before a short steep grunt up to Rt N51 the same road we were on as we rode into Cortina earlier in the day. Just below the junction we noticed an odd building, here, in the middle of nowhere. We recognized it as a train station and upon closer inspection found that the shady side had a display of photos of the meter gauge electric railway that used to pass here on its way to Cortina and beyond. The man who lived in the old station came out to tell us more about about it but our command of Italian was not good enough to take advantage of his knowledge. Today, although much of the right-of-way is a local dirt road or hiking trail, rails and cross ties are still visible in the pavement at crossings and places where the railway ran in streetcar fashion on the highway. I recall seeing these trains on my early rides in the Dolomites, and I also saw it enter the Cortina station in Peter Sellers' first Pink Panther movie.

As we approached Cortina being determined to not take the circuitous route through town, I spotted the proper place to take the "rails to trails" path into town that comes in high at the railway station, that now serves only buses, right at the junction with the road we wanted to take out of town. It worked perfectly as we rode over the viaduct under which the main route climbs steeply from downtown to the station. From here we headed up Rt N48 to the Pso Tre Croci (1809m) from where we could look back on the beauty of the bowl in which Cortina lies surrounded by many great peaks, the Pso di Giau just visible on the far side. From here it is a short descent to the junction to Misurina and the Col San Angelo (1756m), also known as the Misurina pass. The summit lake was smooth enough to serve as a reflecting pool for the Tre Cime di Laveredo (3003m) standing bright in the late afternoon light. From here the descent is swift at first but the long haul down the Valle di Landro is easy only if there is no headwind. There was none as we again joined Rt N51 and followed the right-of-way of the same abandoned railway that once connected Cortina to the FS at Dobiacco [Toblach] (1241m). Dobiacco lies on a broad saddle from which we turned east down the Pustertal along the Drau river into Austria, stopping at Strassen (1140m). After passing up the Sport Hotel in the center of town, deterred by the many sport utility vehicles with mountain bikes, we found a comfortable hotel above town far from the highway.

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