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Discovering the Alps by Bicycle - Part I
Central Alps 1997

By and © of Christian Gfeller,,
First Released Wed, 19 Nov 1997 08:00:28 EST,
Revision 1, April 1999


The Tour

This is the report of a one week bicycle tour in the Swiss Alps and parts of the Italian and Austrian Alps I undertook in the "summer" of 1997.

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July 18, Zurich - Tannen, 109km / 1900m

The weather forecast predicted rain for the afternoon so I set out early, hoping to make it to the day's goal before the rain started. At six in the morning I left home and I was quite excited. It was a great moment I had been looking forward to for months. Of course it was already raining! I always say weather forecasts have not progressed much since the days of reading chickens' intestines.

The rain was only light and my motivation was high: after climbing the short ascent from Albisrieden to Waldegg I made good progress and rode on through Birmensdorf, Lunkhofen and Ottenbach into the Reuss river valley and followed the bicycle path to Lucerne. The rain stopped and the scenery became more mountainous as I approached the Alps. At Sarnen (471m) a steep but short road with almost no traffic leads up to Flüeli (743m). From there a shady road (not that I needed much shade, with all the clouds...) closed to cars continues through the forest to Melchtal where it joins the main road with little traffic and goes on in an easy slope to Stöckalp where the real climb of the day started. A steep road leads to Melchsee-Frutt at 1902m and I felt good being in the Alps finally, in spite of the toils. There is also a cable car from Stöckalp to Melchsee-Frutt and they probably take bicycles, so if you want to save yourself 1000m of climbing ...

I rode on past the two small lakes and arrived around 2pm at the Tannen youth hostel which has modern facilities but not the typical youth hostel atmosphere. However, at 38 Swiss Francs (EUR 23.80) including a good dinner and breakfast I considered it good value.

Half an hour after I arrived it started raining cats and dogs so I had been really lucky with the weather. I spent part of the afternoon sleeping and later had long discussions with a Tibetan philosopher from Zurich who had come to Tannen for the weekend. This was very interesting and good exercise for my head after the exercise for the body earlier in the day.

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July 19, Tannen - Hospental, 81km / 2200m

From Tannen there is a walking path over to Engstlenalp (and another lake). Depending on the type of bicycle and your skill you can ride part of it. Even though I pushed my bicycle most of the way it only took half an hour. From Engstlenalp (1834m) down to Innertkirchen (625m) there is a near perfect road which makes for a fast descent. The only obstacles are the cow gates and grates usually pointed out by a sign. If you don't slow down in time you will come to a quick halt when you hit them.

From Innertkirchen the road up the Grimsel pass (2165m) starts out and unfortunately it more resembles a highway and traffic is heavy, especially on weekends. If you have the time, use the weekends as rest days. I didn't have the time so I plodded on up the pass which is actually quite beautiful in spite of the high-tension lines. The scenery at the top is special because of the granite rock predominant in this area and the views of the snow-topped Bernese and Valais Alps. Obviously, there is also the indispensable lake at the top of the pass (and a few more on the way up).

The road then descends to Gletsch (1757m) in long serpentines. I could already see the Rhone glacier and headed up the Furka pass (2431m). The road is being widened and renewed at the moment (this will probably lead to even more traffic in the future - those who sow roads will harvest traffic ...) and winds itself up the mountain side after a longish straight part at the beginning. You get really close to the Rhone glacier and can see how much farther down it reached only a few decades ago. There is also a view onto the smaller but nice Mutt glacier to the South. I stopped at the youth hostel in Hospental (1493m) which was 18 Swiss Francs (EUR 11.30) with breakfast and simple but very friendly. Many bicycle tourists had stopped there for the night because Hospental is at an important cross-roads of the Furka, Gotthard and Oberalp passes. Hospental is a village with a medieval tower and the remains of a medieval gallows in a wood-clearing nearby, if you're at all interested in these things.

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July 20, Hospental - Splügen, 127km / 1750m

The way from Hospental on to Andermatt and up the Oberalppass (2044m), where there is no lake for a change, was an easy start. From the top it is a short descent to Tschamut, the uppermost village in the Surselva, where the Vorderrhein flows (the Anterior Rhine; one of the two main arms of the young river Rhine). Here you are in the canton of Graubünden. The cars from this canton carry number plates starting with GR. Supposedly this is short for the name of the canton, but many people, me included, suspect it might stand for Gebirgs-Rowdy (German for "mountain rowdy"), indicating the way people drive here. On one occasion, a GR-driver overtook me just before a blind corner. After barely avoiding an accident with an oncoming car, he stopped and chided me for not moving over to the side ...

You have to follow the main road which has medium traffic until Tavanasa from where a largely unpaved bicycle path takes you to Ilanz. You will be slower on this path than on the road but there are no cars. If you're in a hurry continue on the main road to Ilanz (I would probably do it next time), but from there do take the small road through Castrisch, Valendas, Carrera and Versam, rather than the main road. The small road has less climbing, minimal traffic and spectacular scenery where the gorge of the Rabiusa river meets the Vorderrhein and below you can see the railway tracks follow the river Rhine. People travelling the main road don't get to see this.

At Bonaduz I turned South towards Thusis and then up the Via Mala gorge of the Hinterrhein (Posterior Rhine), the other arm of the alpine Rhine. The Via Mala is famous for its century-old history of transalpine commerce routes and dangerous paths but scenery-wise I was more impressed with the Rabiusa gorge. Continuing towards Andeer and then up yet another gorge (the Rofla) I reached the village of Splügen (1457m) in the late afternoon. It is situated in the Rheinwald where the San Bernardino and Splügen passes meet. I checked into Hotel Partigiana (65 Swiss Francs, EUR 40.70) and went the short walk to the ruins of a 13th century castle which at the time blocked the entire valley with a wall whose remains can barely be made out nowadays. The village itself is nice and shows traces of Walser as well as Italian and Engadine influence in its architecture, highlighting its former role between the cultures. Many houses still have slate shingle roofs. At the hotel I had to fill in a form with three check-boxes for the means of transport used: car, railway (even though there is no railway in Splügen) or bus. I crossed them out and with a certain pride wrote down: bicycle.

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July 21, Splügen - Poschiavo, 133km / 2800m

After a hearty buffet breakfast I set out up the deserted (at this time of day) Splügen pass (2113m). This pass has lost a lot of the importance it used to have since the opening of the San Bernardino tunnel, but has not lost any of its beautiful scenery. Also notable are the 14 serpentines a short way below the Swiss border control. They make for a great photo opportunity!

From Pianazzo downwards there are many tunnels and galleries where the road is built into the very steep wall of the S. Giacomo valley. I sure was glad about the reliable lights on my bicycle. Less to see more but to be seen by the car drivers. I think I mentioned the "GR" drivers in Switzerland. However, in Italy you can sometimes find an even crazier species of motorist. While the GR-drivers try to summon supernatural powers and see around corners, in Italy they are followers of Einstein and the formula e=mc**2: when they are overtaking and there is an oncoming car they try to accelerate to c**2 transforming mass into energy and thus passing through the other car unharmed.

Finally I reached Chiavenna (325m) after discovering that you can get tired of down hill riding as well. Chiavenna lies at a very green intersection of three valleys and at the foot of beautiful mountains. I began the looong toil up the Bregaglia (Bergell) valley, had a big plate of pasta on the way and then continued to the top of the Maloja pass (1815m), entering the Engiadina (Engadine) valley, a marvellous, wide valley with beautiful lakes and famous resorts like St. Moritz.

Amazingly enough, I felt great after arriving at the top of Maloja pass and aided by a tailwind virtually flew all the way to St.Moritz (1822m). From there I took the largely unpaved but nice and car free bicycle path to Pontresina. Don't let yourself be fooled by the tough looking 50m climb at the beginning of the path, the rest of it is mostly flat. On this path I once again became aware that a new generation of kids is now coming into their teens which seems to believe that 1% slopes and unpaved roads can only be tackled on a full-suspension mountain bike. Probably, my father's generation would have done this path with a 25kg, one speed steel bike without turning a hair. No, I have nothing against mountain bikes or their riders at all, I'm just having some fun at their expense. I'll certainly prefer a thousand mountain bikes to one car!

By the time I got to Pontresina (1805m) it was maybe 4pm and I still felt so good I decided to drop my plan of staying at the Pontresina youth hostel (just by the train station) and push on over the Bernina pass (2328m) to Poschiavo instead. I was rewarded with great views of the Morteratsch glacier and the mountains behind it. Piz Bernina on the right hand behind the glacier is Graubünden's highest mountain at 4049m. On the top of the pass there is - yes! - a lake. This one is called Lago Bianco and quite remarkable with its milky white water against the backdrop of the Bernina massif. The way down into the Poschiavo valley is long and fun to ride. I eventually stopped at the beautiful village of Poschiavo (1014m) staying at the hotel Croce Bianco (80 Francs, EUR 50.10) and topped a great day with a big dinner.

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July 22, Poschiavo - Bormio, 111km / 2750m

After an equally big breakfast I pulled out of Poschiavo down to Brusio and into Tirano, Italy (433m), then turned right into the main road to Sondrio. The traffic on this road was terrible and I was happy enough to leave it after 3km to go through Stazzona and up the little travelled road to the Aprica pass road and to the pass itself (1176m). From the Aprica road you have a view of the Valtellina (Veltlin) valley sometimes but otherwise it is quite unremarkable compared to the other passes I had seen the past few days. After Aprica going down to Edolo (675m) you unfortunately lose some of the height you just gained and have to climb again to Ponte di Legno (1257m), the starting point of the Gavia pass. On the way there I had wonderful pizza at a roadside restaurant in Temu.

Before Ponte di Legno there is a cross-roads with the main road going straight and a smaller road branching off to the left towards Ponte di Legno. The signpost says to follow the main road for the Gavia pass but this applies only to cars as they are not allowed to drive through the town of Ponte di Legno. For a bicycle it is more pleasant to take the route through the town. The road continues to Sant'Apollonia (1585m) where the real pass starts. The road has an impressive array of signs warning you of the dangers of the pass and claiming that it is officially closed for renovation. There is even a chain across the road, effectively blocking traffic. The chain seems to work: on my way up, I was never overtaken by any vehicle, car, motorcycle or bicycle. However, quite a few motorcycles came the other way from the North side.

At first I did not know what all the fuss was about, the road was paved and in good shape. This was soon to change and at about 1700m above sea level the road turned into little more than a gravel path, but feasible with my bicycle and the motorcycles coming the other way sporadically proved to me that the route was indeed passable. Farther up I passed a group of workers doing road repairs and I just hope they don't progress too fast or the cars will start coming...

For once, the cloudy weather fit very well into the peculiar mood the pass has with its solitude and the impressive scenery. You are never quite alone, though, there are always marmots whistling (like on many other passes) when you approach to warn their families of the perceived "danger".

At one point you get to a dark, threatening looking tunnel. The alternative is to take the old cliff-"road" around it which is in a very bad state (I had to push the bicycle) but spectacular and highly recommended over the tunnel route. It looks like there are rocks falling down all the time so you might want to keep your helmet on :-) Somewhere along this bit of road there is also a plate with the names of soldiers who fell down into the abyss in their army lorry.

After I got past Lago Nero it was a short climb to the top and fog started to creep up the mountain slopes from the South and made the scenery even eerier. At the restaurant there is a special reward for all those who have read Jobst Brandts bicycle wheel book, bicycle tour stories and newsgroup posts and who always wondered what he looked like. There is a poster on the wall of him climbing the Gavia on his bicycle and I will definitely know how to recognise him now, if I should ever meet him... I won't say more, if you want to know go up the Gavia pass :-)

I also met a German (or Austrian?) bicycle tourist at the top. He had already done the Stilfserjoch/Stelvio that day and then climbed up the Gavia from Bormio on his way to the Lago di Garda and not surprisingly he was quite exhausted. We chatted a bit about mountain passes and bicycles and he asked if I was going to stay at the Gavia hospice. I was eager to go on to Bormio so I said no. In hindsight maybe I should have stayed, would have made for some pleasant conversation probably. Anyway, I rushed down to Bormio (1197m) where I stayed at Hotel Silene (60'000 Italian Lire, EUR 40.00, nice rooms with bathtubs but pathetic breakfast, not recommended), then went for dinner. I love Italian food. In fact, I'm inclined to say it may be the greatest cuisine in the world, and I was not to be disappointed...

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July 23, Bormio - Umbrail, 89km / 2750m

The next morning as I set out towards the Livigno duty free zone :-) I felt really good and strong. Unfortunately I would not be able to make use of the cheap whisky buying opportunities as my cargo capacity was rather limited...

Rather than following the road to the Passo di Foscagno which has a lot of traffic, I took a way which had looked interesting on the map. After Premadio I turned right and on an unpaved road went up to the Torri di Fraele (1952m), two ruined towers which used to take duties from travellers in the Middle Ages. You can still see the ancient path snake its way between the towers. Following the road North from the towers there is a fishing pond and a few restaurants. The road gets rougher and follows the South shore of Lakes Cancano and San Giacomo. After the lakes, a steep and winding gravel path leads up to the Passo di Alpisella (2285m), where - you knew it - there is another small lake. I could ride most of this path with my bicycle but there were some difficult bits where I had to get off and walk. On a mountain bike you should be able to ride all the way to the pass, I think.

Unfortunately, the way from the Alpisella pass down to Livigno is a completely different story. It is mostly very steep and narrow and really meant for hikers not bicycles. There are also many places where you can fall down the precipice if you don't take care. To top it off, it started raining a cold, unpleasant mountain drizzle. I was glad when I finally made it to the shores of Lago di Livigno, from where a good unpaved road leads to the town of Livigno (1810m). While the route via the Alpisella pass is interesting and has very little motorised traffic after the Torri di Fraele (none after lake S. Giacomo), if you want a smooth, quick trip to Livigno it is not recommended. However, it would make a decent day trip from Bormio to Alpisella and back.

I followed the road along the West side of the lake where the many galleries kept the rain away from me. At the end of this road a 3.5km long one-lane toll tunnel leads into Switzerland and to the Ofenpass road. This tunnel is not for the weak of heart. There are traffic lights at both ends which are supposed to keep any cars from going in opposing directions. There are signs saying that bicycles are not allowed and that passage is at your own risk and they do not accept any responsibility. What they really mean is go ahead but if run yourself head-on into a car it's your own fault. On the positive side, bicycles don't pay the toll...

No way was I going to pedal back to Livigno and down to Bormio so I decided to take a chance and waited in front of the traffic lights. I had to wait for about 7 minutes (in the rain, of course) and figured I would have about that much time to get through the tunnel when the lights finally changed. The tunnel descends about 100m from Livigno to the Ofenpass road so I thought the 3.5km should be doable in 7 minutes. What I didn't know was that the intervals change with the number of cars entering the tunnel: after 5 minutes I saw the first headlights coming my way! Fortunately, there are passing places about every three hundred meters, so I pulled over at the next one and waited until the puzzled looking car drivers coming the other way had passed.

To sum it up: Going through the tunnel from Livigno can be done but be alert and as soon as you see headlights, wait for them to pass at the next passing place. The tunnel is all straight so you can see far and you'll have some warning of the cars coming. I don't recommend doing it from the other side because you would be cycling uphill and spend a long time in the tunnel.

At the other end of the tunnel you meet the West side of the Ofenpass road at 1706m from where it is an easy ascent through the Swiss national park to the Ofenpass (2149m), then on into the Val Müstair to Santa Maria (1375m) where there is a youth hostel. The weather had improved a lot and it was only mid-afternoon so I decided to tackle the Umbrail pass still today. The Umbrailpass is really like a third access to the Stilfserjoch from the North. It is a partially unpaved road but in perfect condition and had little traffic. At the top (2501m), just before the Swiss border control, there is a friendly restaurant. I would have stayed there for the night but it will be a few months until they offer accommodation also, so I went over to the Italian side where there is also a restaurant just after the border post and they did have a bed for me (45'000 Italian Lire, EUR 23.25): simple, old and cosy, food was very good but small portions for the price, and a dismal breakfast (again!)).

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July 24, Umbrail - Braz, 170km / 1900m

Today I would reach the highest point of this trip: the Stilfserjoch or Stelvio pass. At 2757m it is one of the highest passes in the Alps and also the border between the Valtellina (where Italian is spoken) and the Vintschgau (where German is spoken). From the hotel near the Umbrail pass it was a very short early morning climb to the Stilfserjoch where life was just awakening. The scenery is very impressive but tainted a bit by the insensitive architecture found at the pass. This ugly incursion of civilisation also had its positive points and I found a telling machine to refill my waning supply of Lire.

The famous 48 serpentines are numbered so you always know how many more you have to go when riding uphill. They are fun to ride down, even though the surface could be better in places and I often had to slow down almost to a stand-still to navigate the narrow curves. It is quite amazing to get down to the Vintschgau where German is spoken by everyone. The villages have names in two languages, the houses look Austrian and if it weren't for the occasional Carabinieri post you would not know you are in Italy.

The way up to the Reschenscheideck (Passo di Resia, 1507m) is very unpleasant not only because of the heavy traffic. It looks like you're going almost flat and yet you feel a strong resistance. I was all the more surprised when I suddenly saw the first of the two lakes and knew that I had made it. Just before the Reschenscheideck I stopped at a restaurant for a well-earned lunch. Shortly after, there was the Austrian border and a descent down into the Inntal, where I was greeted with an unpleasant rain that should remain my faithful companion for the next two days, with only short intermissions.

From Pfunds most of the way to Landeck bicycles are not allowed on the fast road but must use the by-roads. This would be great if the way was signposted a bit better so that you didn't lose five minutes in every village trying to figure out where the continuation was. Also, the small road often is more at the side of the valley and therefore has a tendency to always go up and down a little. This is OK if you go for a two-hour Sunday-morning outing but a bit of a nuisance if you're travelling long distance and have been riding for several hours with several more to go and it is raining.

A few kilometres before Landeck (816m) the bicycle-way joins the main road again and the traffic is very unpleasant, indeed. In hindsight maybe the ups and downs of the small roads weren't so bad compared to the traffic of the main road. Anyway, a short way before Landeck I was to discover a peculiarity in the Austrian traffic system I found repeated at least three times in less than 24 hours in Austria: before every town of more than 10'000 inhabitants there seems to be an eternal traffic jam. As I whizzed by many of the cars which had only minutes before noisily overtaken me, some of them sounded their horn showing their outrage at having the natural inferiority of cars (and car drivers) shown to them so clearly.

By now, morale had become low because of the continuing rain and traffic and the advancing hours. At Pians I decided to skip the Silvretta-Hochalpenstrasse with the Bielerhöhe (2037m) and instead head for the Vorarlberg via the shorter and lower Arlbergpass (1793m). This turned out to be a sensible decision because the rain didn't stop and became colder as I climbed higher. From St. Anton, where the brunt of the climb to the top starts, the road was like a highway and it seemed very steep to me, maybe it was just my tiredness. As I approached the top, fog encroached on me and I could hardly see more than 20m. Luckily, on the other side of the pass after 100m of descending the fog dissolved and only the faithful rain was there to accompany me down the long descent into Vorarlberg. I finally stopped at the Gasthof Rössle in Innerbraz (710m). This highly recommended hotel made up for everything else this on the whole not very pleasant day had been fraught with. The friendly people, the huge, comfortable room with a wonderful bathtub and the great food, lovingly prepared were exactly what I needed to recover. The prices were more than reasonable with a mere 450 Austrian Schillings (EUR 32.70) for the room (including a wonderful breakfast) and 263 Austrian Schillings (EUR 19.10) for a great dinner with four courses including drinks. I slept like a baby, hoping for the rain to stop the next day.

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July 25, Braz - Zürich, 147km / 1050m

The evening before I had announced my approximate hour of return to my wife and little son and was now really looking forward to getting home and out of the rain.

A rather uneventful journey down the Vorarlberg through Feldkirch (when I passed there at 10am another of the traffic jams was already building up) into Liechtenstein, across the Rhine-valley (450m), was followed by a stiff climb to Wildhaus (1090m) in the valley of Toggenburg. This was to be the last serious climb of this trip. From now on it went slightly downhill almost all the way to Wattwil (613m). Shortly before Wattwil I turned left onto a small road for the hop up to the Ricken-"Pass" (794m), then down again to lake Zürich (406m) and the last 30km along its Eastern shore home to Zürich.

Now, of course, I'm already planning for my next trip in the Alps, in 1998 ...

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Maps, What to take, etc.

Maps and Books

I can not recommend highly enough the excellent maps of the Federal Office of Topography (Bundesamt für Landestopographie, CH-3084 Wabern) which are available everywhere in Switzerland. In particular, I used the 1:300000 "Generalkarte der Schweiz" (General Map of Switzerland and bordering regions) which covers all of this trip on one map and not only shows the roads but also the topography.

Also recommended is Denzel's "Grosser Alpenstrassenführer" (ISBN 3-85047-753-3, Verlag Harald Denzel KG, A-6020 Innsbruck, only available in German) which has a description of almost every mountain road in the European Alps and is updated regularly.

What to take

The general rule is very simple: take as little as possible and then leave half of that at home. On a trip like this you'll spend most of the time on the bicycle so you don't need much, really. Also, nobody will know you therefore it doesn't matter if your clothes are not squeaky clean. Consider that most hotels provide towels and soap so you don't need to take that either. The following is a list of what I took along:
•repair kit
allen keys, tube repair patches, chain tool
•mini-pump, valve-adapter
after repairing a puncture, I use the mini-pump to get rolling and then pull over at the next petrol station to inflate the tube to the required pressure with the valve adapter
•small camera
•map, notebook, pen
•travel toothbrush kit
•sun screen
this is really essential in the mountains. Get a good one, use it every day and you will still get a tan
so you don't need to bring an extra pair of shoes
•cycling shorts, cycling shirt, underwear, helmet
•windproof jacket
I don't believe in waterproof jackets: if you don't get wet from the rain you'll get wet from sweating. I'm sure many people disagree with this so it's up to you
•a pair of slacks and a t-shirt
for those moments when you want to get out of your "cycling uniform" and look a bit more civilized
•ID or passport, bank/credit card, cash

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The Bicycle

I use a fairly conventional bicycle I built myself (except for the frame). It is the same bicycle I use every day summer and winter, for touring, riding to work and shopping. It is not optimised for weight or speed but is built to work in a broad variety of circumstances.

The frame is made of Tange Infinity tubing, the wheels are 28" Mavic T217 rims with DT double-butted spokes. I made the wheels myself with the help of Jobst's book (ISBN 0-9607236-6-8 (English), ISBN 0-9607236-4-1 (German), highly recommended). They were the first wheels I ever made and while they took some time to build I have never ever had a problem with them or even needed to retrue them. I say, if you take your time to read this book closely and then take enough time to build your wheels carefully, even your first wheel will be very good compared to what I saw from many bicycle repair shops. Besides that, it is a great feeling to be rolling on your own wheels and should there ever be a problem you will know how to fix it.

On the front wheel I use a Schmidt hub-generator with a halogen B&M Lumotec front-light and a diode tail-light, both twin-lead wired. Reliable lighting is very important to me and with this set-up my lights have never failed me, not even in the snow. I don't believe in battery lights because they tend to be exhausted just when you would need them most.

The drive-train is a Sachs 3x7, the tyres are Panaracer Pasela TG 700x28C on the front and Panaracer Roadrunner 700x35C on the back. Finally, I use a Sigma BC800 cycle computer to keep track of my progress.

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I would probably never have made this trip without the many inspiring reports on the net by such people as Gavin Dixon, Milosz Wisniewski, Jobst Brandt, Marco Buffa, Francis and Sheila of Virtual Alps fame, and others. Most of these stories are available at the Trento Bike Pages or elsewhere on the net.

Many thanks to all of you! I am glad I can finally contribute in a small way to the treasure of knowledge that is the Internet.

Disclaimer and Copyright Notice

This report was written on my own time and equipment. It may be freely copied or distributed for non-commercial purposes provided its content is left unchanged and this copyright notice is included.

© 1997 and beyond by Christian Gfeller ( All rights reserved.