Tour of the Alps 2005

Wednesday, 29 June, I flew with Continental Airlines from San Francisco to Zurich where I arrived Thursday morning. I don't know whether all airlines plan on ding this but Continental charged $80 each way for my bicycle bag, something that I hadn't experienced in all the years of taking my bicycle to Europe. I was lucky to catch a THROUGH train from the ZRH airport to Schwyz where my friends, the Dierauers picked me up for the short ride to his house in Ibach, the town where Victor Inox, aka Swiss Army Knife, is at home.

I unpacked my bicycle from my Nashbar soft-bag and assembled it installing the right crank, turning the fork and bars to the front and installing the rear derailleur and chain. To not fall asleep from nine hour time change, I took my usual ride around Schwyz, visiting Victor Inox, the old downtown and the high school I once attended there. Things hadn't changed much since last year and after a cruise around the Lauerzer See in the shadow of the Rigi I joined Edith and Turi for a delicious raclette cheese dinner followed by good night's rest. Edith and Turi Dierauer have been my gracious hosts for many bike tours, were the senior Dierauers before them.

The old school:

1. Friday, 30 June (Ibach - Rosenlaui); 103km, 2536m):

Heavy rain practically roared during the night but let up toward daybreak although it was still overcast as Mark Fitzgerald, who flew in a day later arrived at the house. Just the same, we headed off on dry roads to Brunnen on the Vierwaldstettersee (aka Lake of Lucerne) to take the Axenstrasse along the east shore toward Klausen, Susten, and Gotthard passes.

The Axenstrasse is noted for its rugged cliffs that drop steeply to the dark green lake. The Gotthard railway lies below the road near the water, mostly in tunnels, while the road wound its way through short tunnels on the way to Flüelen in the Reuss valley. The Axenstrasse can best be appreciated from a bicycle with its view of towering snow capped peaks above the lake. On the way, we passed the noted Tellsprung where Wilhelm, along these cliffs, escaped from the Austrians who had taken him captive.

I took pictures of Mark posing in front of the Tell monument in Altdorf where Tell stands proudly, bigger than life, in bronze, son at his side, with crossbow (Swiss trade mark) over his shoulder in front of a mural of the Alps of canton Uri for a backdrop. We rode up the Reuss valley on dry roads past Erstfeld (472m) where the huge SBB 57km Gotthard tunnel project begins.

The climb to the Gotthard pass begins abruptly on a stone-arch bridge over the Reuss at the SBB hydropower plant in Amsteg. Here the valley becomes a steep and narrow alpine gorge as the highway wends its way along the granite walls while the double track SBB, in order to not exceed a 2.7% grade, uses helical tunnels to gain altitude on its way to the original 16km Gotthard Tunnel. As usual, traffic was light, because most of it stayed on the four lane Autobahn that is largely in tunnels and avalanche sheds.

We reached the road junction to the Susten pass in Wassen (916m), before noon and settled for a hearty grocery store lunch.

As we headed up the Susten Pass road a light drizzle began to fall. A short way up this pass, that has an almost perfectly uniform 8% grade, we could see all the way to the summit where fresh snow was falling about 100m above the summit tunnel. Although cloudy, the road was dry on the way down to Inertkirchen where we crossed the Aare river and climbed the little ridge of the Kirchet past the Aareschlucht gorge.

Just after the summit, we turned left on the road to Rosenlaui, past the Reichenbachfall, where we thought we could hear Holmes and Moriarty go over the cliffs. This is a steep climb but rewarding as it levels off just below the Rosenlaui Glacier and the backdrop of the magnificent Wetterhorn. We got a comfortable room and great dinner at Hotel Rosenlaui, where Andreas and Christina Kehrli preside.

2. Saturday, 31 June (Rosenlaui - Hospental; 133km, 2520m):

In the morning, under overcast skies we climbed to Schwarzwaldalp where the public road ends. From here the road is smoothly paved restricted-access Grindelwald Bus road. This road is only as wide as the bus that does not slow down for bicyclists. This is clearly stated with a picture of a bicyclist at the beginning of the road. The road climbs steeply through meadows with grazing cows amidst wildflowers on its way to Grosse Scheidegg (1961m) beneath the walls of the glacier covered Wetterhorn (3701m).

Cloudy weather seemed to have kept tourists indoors because we met no hikers and bikers over the pass. Under cloudy skies, we saw parts of the dark north face of the Eiger in front of the pure white Jungfrau, and Grindelwald (1034m) below, seemingly in miniature in the midst of rich green meadows.

From here it's all downhill along th icy Luetschine river to Interlaken (563m) where we looked back across the large meadow in the middle of Interlaken (563m) for a postcard view up the Lauterbrunnental to the Jungfrau.

We crossed the Aare river and rode along the north shore of the Brienzer lake to Brienz where we got a good grocery store lunch that we enjoyed on the benches of the steamer dock. Meanwhile, the steam powered Brienzer Rothornbahn (BRB), 800mm (Abt cogwheel) railway was getting ready to climb through tunnels in rugged cliffs to the top of the Brienzer Rothorn (2353m), in my estimation the premiere mountain railway of the Alps.

A bit beyond the end of the lake we passed through Meiringen where we photographed Sherlock Holmes, in life-sized bronze, with pipe, cape, and deerstalker cap sitting in the middle of town. After Willigen, a short climb up the Kirchet (709m) got us to Inertkirchen and the approach to the Grimsel Pass up the Haslital. The Grimsel road has three reprieves, one in Guttannen (1057m), with a good grocery store, and another at Handegg (1402m), with good accommodations in case of foul weather and finally above the upper dam as the road follows the lakeshore. The road climbs between granite walls to lower and upper concrete dams that are reached in winter by giant aerial trams.

From the summit, the road passes through a gap from which a grand view of the end of the Rhone Valley spreads out below. This was Mark's first experience in the Alps and the long climb to the Grimsel was daunting, but the view up the 100m higher Furka pass was beyond imagination.

From the summit we had a view into Gletsch (1759m) with its hotel, train station, and the Furka road junction nearly straight below beyond a series of hairpin turns of the Grimsel road. Above to the east, the Galenstock (3583m) and the Furka gap were the backdrop for the Rhone Glacier and the adjacent Hotel Belvedere. We stopped in Gletsch at the Dampfbahn Furka Bergstrecke (DFB Furka Steam Railway) train station and perused their collection of historic books and paid member dues before heading up the Furka Pass.

The Furka Pass (2431m), 266m higher than the Grimsel, lies in the gap at the head of this valley, swept clean except for some shrubs, by avalanches. The Furka has a great panorama that, as I experienced once on an exceptionally clear day, can include the Matterhorn to the west. Below, the DFB west portal of its summit tunnel, still deep in snow, appeared tiny in this gigantic landscape.

I convinced Mark that it was an easy climb and that if it got too much we could always stop at the historic Belvedere Hotel perched above the Rhone Glacier. I guess the ease with which this climb progressed was inspiring because we rode right overt the top.

It's a long gradual descent to Tiefenbach after which the grade gets steeper and the curves tighter on the way down to Realp that lies in the upper Reuss valley. As we descended to Hospental from Realp, a steam double header came up from Andermatt where the Furka steam RR had its annual meeting.

After that we had a good dinner and cozy stay at the Hotel Rössli in Hospental.

3. Sunday 01 July (Hospental - Orta); 170km, 1004m):

Under clear skies, we rode up the smooth and wide Gotthard highway that starts climbing in Hospental. This is different from the previous passes in the smooth granite bulges and cliffs interspersed with lush green meadows and wildflowers. We didn't take the old road across the summit meadows and stayed on the wide concrete empty road through the avalanche sheds to the top.

I had a premonition that it was tractor time, judging from a few farm tractors we saw going up the Gotthard highway on the first day, and true to form, we caught up to the main event here on the summit of the Gotthard pass (2106m) where we found air cooled Porsche tractors, as well as Ford, McCormick, John Deer, and above all, Lanz Bulldog. About 200 polished monsters in all.

It was great to see the Bulldogs with their outside flywheel and huge one cylinder thumpers chugging around in more than oriental splendor. Most of these utility machines today had high luster auto enamel finishes, finer than when they were new. Most had custom matching trailers for their travel gear, there being no trunk space in a farm machine.

With clear skies, we had a clear view down the Val Tremola, where the old road descends in serpentines with grey 10x10x10cm granite cobbles with orange ones for a center stripe, to the Fortezza di San Carlo a huge fortification from ancient times that was last rebuilt in the 1940's. Last year we stayed on the new road that claims to be a freeway from here on down because there was no traffic at all. This time we got off and took the cobbles down to Airolo (1141m) where we joined the "forbidden" road again to make the descent to Bodio (330m), the portal of the new 57km Gotthard RR tunnel.

After Bellinzona, we found a new rural road from Giubiasco down the middle of the valley to our route down the south shore of Lago Maggiore (200m). After crossing into Italy (Euro currency) we stopped in Luino at the same ATM where I formerly got Lira and we were in the right money. It was a comfortable breezy ride down Lago Maggiore to Maccagno where we took a swim before continuing to Laveno to take the ferry across to Verbania. Even in "rush" hour, traffic was mild as we rode Omegna (298m) and to Orta on Lago di Orta to a posh little hotel and a swim in the lake. The drinking water lakes are beautiful azure jewels of the southern Alps with an amazingly comfortable temperature.

4. Monday, 02 July (Orta - Racconigi; 107km, 1348m):

Rounding the end of the Lago di Orta we climbed past Pogno and up through the ubiquitous chestnut forests of the Piemonte in a gradual climb that crests through a short tunnel before descending toward Borgosesia. In Borgosesia the Sesia, with its deep blue waters, ducks, swans and huge trout makes a beautiful picture.

Cresting at Valle Mosso (625m) we descended to Biella (410m) from where we could see the huge prehistoric glacial moraine to the west, the largest in Europe. This ridge was formed by a glacier from Monte Bianco that filled the Val d'Aosta. We climbed gradually to Zubiena (492) with its rustic ancient appearance with a four spigot fountain in the middle of a cobblestone piazza between the church and city hall. The west side of this moraine drops steeply into the valley to Ivrea (254m) where the Dora Baltea, the river that drains Valle d'Aosta and flows into the Po valley through a striking narrows.

We had lunch with bikie Brian Tomlin with whom I took a tour of the alps a few years ago before heading south to Chivasso, to cross to the east side of the Po around most of Torino. This section is unfriendly dense traffic that must have a better way. We crossed over to do the last kilometers to the start of SN20 (Tenda HWY) and head south toward Cuneo. We stopped in Racconigi across from the Castello Reale, the magnificent historical residence of the Savoy.

We viewed the dozens of storks nesting atop the Castello before finding a great dinner in what seemed to be a new family operated pizza shop, judging from their enthusiasm and confusion. They were entertaining and we had lots to talk about after a good day's ride. During the night thundershowers entertained us with a light show and rumbles. I thought of the storks standing out there over their huge nests of sticks.

5. Tuesday, 03 July (Racconigi - Tenda; 107km, 1608m):

In the morning my cough had gotten worse as we rode south to Cuneo (587m) an unexciting flatland stretch other than the largest "Italian job" building project that never got past the reinforced concrete frame and has stood in the midst of rich agriculture ever since I first rode by here. Italy, and even France have a scattering of such projects, the remains of which stay for a long time. Finally the road turns east at the canyon of the Stura di Demonte a grand river that flows from the Col de Larche.

Japanese plums grow along this piece of road and because they seem always to ripe when I come by, I always stop to put away a deliciously large load of this tart juicy fruit. The trees are gradually being cut down for some reason along this approach to the great stone arch bridge over the river, with double track FS below and highway above. The great fountain in front of the train station was fenced off for construction so we could not get the traditional cool drink.

We continued up the Tenda highway to Borgo San Dalmazzo, where it turns south to Robilante, a favorite stop. I said hello to the innkeeper at the Albergo Aquila Reale where we have often stayed before heading up the valley past the many cement plants, to begin the climb of the Tenda Pass from Limone (990m).

We had ideal cool weather with puffy clouds in a blue sky as we climbed to the summit tunnel (1871m) and took the old road to the top of the ancient pass (1962m). The road was in excellent shape because this year a stage of the Giro d'Italia finished on the top of the pass. However, pavement ended at the French border so we were on the rocky course of the ancient road that was replaced by the tunnel in 1913.

We stopped early in Tende (816m) in an attempt to help me get over the bronchitis, something I haven't had on a bicycle tour before.

6. Wednesday, 04 July (Tenda - Sospel; 44km, 580m):

In spite of rest, the bronchitis got worse. We descended through the narrows of the Gorge du Soarge, beneath the lineal hill town of Soarge that is on the lip of a rocky canyon rim. Some houses have 100m drop from their windows to the ground. We turned west before Breil to take the Brauis pass (879m) to Sospel (349m) for a lunch stop and overnight. We checked the train schedule at the station and had a good dinner. Mark had to get on the train in the morning to return to SF on business.

7. Thursday, 05 July (Sospel - St, Martin; 53km, 1688m):

Still hoping for improved health, I rode over the Turini Pass in ideal weather, descending the magnificently beautiful west side past la Bollene before making the final descent to the Vesubie river (520m). It's a pleasant scenic ride up the valley that finished before lunch in St. Martin Vesubie (930m). Although it only rained the next day, I stayed there six days taking antibiotics and raft of other stuff the doctor prescribed... to no avail.

8. Friday, 12 July (St. Martine - St. Etienne; 57km, 1250m):

I hatched and exit plan which took a short day over the Colmain Pass, a gentle and beautiful climb out of the Vesubie valley to the Tineé river and up to St. Etienne di Tineé. From here I could go over the Bonette pass to Jausiers/Condamine from which the flat Col de Larche went back to Cuneo for an easy day's ride to where I could catch a train to Ibach and fly home.

The ride to St. Etienne (1142m) is a gradual rise along the Tineé river with colorful stone formations above the rushing waters. St. Etienne seemed to be asleep before the heavy vacation time ahead so I easily found accommodations to my liking. The bronchitis was bothering me mainly by having to cough but that could change.

9. Saturday, 13 July (St. Etienne - Bonnet; 25km, 1510m):

I hadn't been this way in four years but I recalled it clearly. At the base of the climb, far away, the summit was especially visible outlined by fresh snow that covered the slopes around the summit gap. The climb is gradual with only one 500m steep section that I walked up to get me on the final ride to the top.

Unfortunately, I didn't realize the climb left me so drained that I wasn't running on a full CPU and I crashed on the first, inane turn still on the practically flat summit. Fortunately, the only injury, in spite of the steep terrain, was a broken right collar bone. Some bikies that started down the hill behind me noticed that I wasn't in sight and saw me waving to them from below the road. They helped get my bike and baggage back on the road while I climbed up. A local army engineer unit on maneuvers picked me up with a jeep and took me to their "WW1 fort" a bit down the hill. The volunteer volunteer fire department (Pompiers) from Jausiers drove me down to town. These were great folks and helped graciously.

Once the local doctor got hold of me I was stuck in a Kafka-like routine in which he sent me to the hospital in Gap 90km away (of course without my bag and bike) for, I-don't-know-what. He had already X-rayed my collar bone and put a sling on it. Of course after the long ride and three hour wait, the hospital discovered the same thing.

With the assistance of the desk clerk I got a taxi and escaped to a hotel, enjoyed a great 13 July fireworks and got some rest. Many towns do their Bastille day on the 13 to not conflict with the national celebration.

With cell-phone commo and son Olaf in Munich on the other end, I gradually made progress in extricating myself from the massive good advice I was getting "to check into a hospital, and drop everything to get a flight to SF from Grenoble, or the like".

With a bit of communication the rest became history. It turned out that getting a rental car to drive myself out was a bust, Avis, Hertz, Budget, and Eurocar, all had no cars and didn't expect any soon. My last resort, Arthur and Edith Dierauer drove down and made a Saigon Embassy roof pickup with their Renault helicopter and we were out of there.

The next day, I got on a plane to SF and spent the next week and a half recovering. The Collar bone is pretty well mended and I'm back on the bicycle.

What a bust.