The Swiss - Grand Tour
Updated: Feb 11, 2019
This is my first foray into the world of blogging, so be kind, enjoy, I know I have much to learn, and probably naively don't know how far I have to go, but you have to start somewhere, right? So here goes, I'm diving in head first, and tackling an iconic big one. A ride for the ultimate bucket list connoisseur, where even the chocolates are shaped like mountains and the mountains are pictured on chocolate boxes, theres something philosophical or comical in that but I can't quite find the right words to phrase it yet - art imitating life, life imitating art - chocolates of mountains, mountains of chocolate - one can at least hope it's plenty of the latter. Either way I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it, and sometimes maybe as much as eating chocolate.
So we're kicking off in Switzerland and following a ride which saw me take on three of the countries most iconic climbs. They form part of the very aptly named Swiss tourist route - Grand Tour*.
*disclaimer - I have to be honest here, and apologies if I maybe mislead you though the title of this post. It maybe inferred that this piece was about the three middle aged blocks who roar up switchbacks whilst clinging onto shiny carbon fibre chassis' all in the name of and for our entertainment, but more, if I can let you down gently, it, you'll be pleased to hear, still features roaring around lots of switchbacks whilst clinging on to shiny carbon fibre chassis but that the three middle aged blocks will be replaced with me, lycra and bicycles. If thats not for you then maybe stop now but if you've got this far why not see what those switchbacks look like, as we both agree we do love roaring around them. Also, as compensation to the petrolheads, and car lovers in us all, please do enjoy the odd car that I couldn't quite cut out of some framed shots. Now thats out of the way, lets enjoy those switchbacks and my Swiss 'Grand Tour'.
I'm sure we can all both marvel and maybe even laugh at this picture. Showing where I started my ride, the brilliant irony of the placement of the signage in a concrete carpark pointing towards where the real adventure starts. I initially took this sign quite literally, pointing towards my destination for the day, but now its more symbolic as it really did point towards what I felt was a Grande days Tour and not just one which led away from a non-specific car park.
The days stats
100.56km : Distance ridden
2899m : Elevation gained
3 (HC climbs: 3) : Number of passes
11 : Cobbled sections
4 : water bottles, 3 : cans of coke, 2 : snack bars
Too many : Photos taken
3 : Waterfalls, 1 : Lakes, a bit of Snow
Epic Matt day scale: 10/10
For all the other nitty gritty details heres my stava link download the route or GPX files:
The set up
As with all stories, theres a beginning, a middle and an end, and mine was at the base of the Grimsel pass in a small cluster of buildings known as Gletsch. I'd arrived there at 09:15 after driving that morning following a pleasant nights sleep camped out in a chocolate box town with crystal clear turquise lakes, Interlaken. You might at this stage ask why on earth do you camp, that surely can't be comfortably especially after riding all day in the saddle and all you want is a nice comfy bed, space to relax in and less chance of being disturbed by the next-door-tent-neighbours' snoring? In regard to this last point, I'm usually far too tired to be woken after a full day in the saddle, out riding and capturing shots, to even notice. For the first point I'd probably have to agree with you, but luxury on a blow up roll mat can be achieved! What really over-rides (pardon the pun) those things and is a winner for me, is the versatility and flexibility camping provides. The fact I can just look at what the weathers is doing, drive, then camp where I know it's going to be better, more stable, weather, gives me the best possible chances of maximising my time, taking kit with me and capturing shots all day. So here is the route I planned, and as planned due to camping, was a sunny bluebird day at a comfortable 24 degrees.
So why, I next hear you ask, would I start the ride here. Surely any one of the other more accessible larger villages or points along the way would be suitable locations to begin this day. To be honest yes, but starting this ride from Gletsch, I felt, was the best option for me, but no matter where you start this tide it will be epic. For me tackling the hardest climb first, and then hopefully as the day went along, meant I wouldn't be completely worn out by the time I got half way up the second climb, and also that this way the markedly easier last climb was left to last, Furka Pass. All in all to minimise suffering, maximise quality cycling time and get the best lighting conditions for photos as the sun moved from east to west and I rode anti-clockwise.
On a side note - Gletsch offers a train stop and bus link if you wanted to get there by other means, but again for flexibility I prefer to drive by car.
Sunrise, lighting and shots
You'll get the morning sunrise over the top of Furka behind you, climb the Neufene before the midday heat and see the sunset to the west as you ride up and over the Furka pass to end you day, perfect for some brilliant photo opportunities. Plus riding it anti-clock wise also lets you tackle the most iconic side of the Gotthard pass with its almost 9 km of cobbles in well lit conditions if its sunny. As an air of caution, don't be put off by the sound of cobbles based any previous experiences of them or what we see the pros ride on in the spring classics. The Gotthard's cobbles are Swiss, and much like the attention to detailed and connotations associated with a Swiss watch making, these can be applied to Swiss cobbles as well. Therefore these cobbles aren't your Northern European speed bumps but beautifully crafted, squared off blocks, measuring 8x8x15cm, lain, maintained and kept as smooth as possible. You'll glide over them effortlessly with only really a light vibration transferred to your body from your contact points on the bike on your ascent upwards. Out of interest the same can't quite be said for a descent so I have to advise you swallow any reservations or thoughts of someones insanity for wanting to ride up hill on cobbles, happy in the knowledge you'd definitely be more comfortable going up them than down them.
Gletsch (my start) to Ulrichen
The beginning of something epic. As soon as you leave Gletsch your ride takes you through serene places. Gently coasting down the tight valley, you follow the railway line to your left as it snakes and cuts its way down between gorges, rock faces and the road itself. Theres not much time or space to stop on these sharp winding sections, but the spectacle of the train running alongside you whilst hammering down this first part of the route is incredibly thrilling. Once you reach Ulrichen, if you haven't burned off all your excitement, then you can saver some for the views back up the valley because for your next climb up to the top of Nufenen pass you won't see much until about half way when the gradient really starts to kick up. If you have time though before this and want a quick refuel of caffeine before the Nufenen, the small village of Ulrichen has a few small shops and a cafe to fire up your engine.
Ulrichen to Ariolo (Nufenen Pass)
From here it was a 12.85km ride ascending 1108m at an average of 9% to the top of the days hardest climb, the Nufenen.
Direction: North west to south east
Average gradient: 9%
Max elevation: 2478m
Views: Waterfalls, dams, Swiss Chocolate shaped mountains
Don't underestimate this climbs initially gentle start, as I alluded to earlier in my reason for the route choice, it soon kicks up with sections reaching 14% and becomes increasing persistently steep towards the end. The views from half way though are spectacular, with the ever present dominating mass of a concrete damn holding back the Griesse lake in front of you, its enough motivation to be reminded to quickly move on, mesmerising. I didn't have long to ponder or gaze in wonder though, after this the final steep sections tightly zigzag up towards to final plateau. At the top you are rewarded for your efforts, views of a refreshing crystal clear glacial melt water lake and the surrounding mountains omniscient commanding presence, really make you appreciate your effort, make ever sweeter by the sudden silence. This stunned awed silence seems even more shockingly surreal by the fact that only moments ago whilst ascending the side of these giants you thought it impossible that the unremitting roar of the car engines, motorbikes, and your heavy breathing, could ever be halted. Theres something magical about mountain views and how they draw all of our attention to one specific moment, something you'll most certainly need to re-allgin and harness for the oncoming fast 22km descent into the next village of Airolo.
Leaving the top of Neufene your treated to even more spectacular views on your decent, don't let your eye wander though as the switchbacks come thick and fast from the off. This top section really gives you a chance to rest up the legs, let the bike roll and your body sink into to those cambered corners. Be careful though as the tarmac you've used to riding along so far has been replaced by harsh slabs of concrete, uniformly shaped, and with 3cm gaps between each one. What ever the reason for this change in surface (I assume either weather, engineering, drainage or to maybe slow people down) its best to air on the side of caution, or you might be catching some big air yourself, and getting to know those concrete slabs a lot better than you intended.
The road soon straightens out, mountain views give way to pine forests, lush alpine farm land, and far into the ever rapidly closing distance, the sign of a major engineering marvel. Until you reach this though its an easy cruise at 40-50kpm, so click into those pedals, rest up and enjoy the ride, the next ascent will make those concrete slabs seem incredibly smooth.
Airolo to Hospentale (St. Gotthard Pass)
Here is where the real fun begins. Firstly before the start it's important to note that the Gotthard has a few different names. I was tackling the south side, also known as the Tremola, German: Gotthardpass, Italian: Passo San del Gotthardo, English: St. Gotthard Pass, but whatever you call it, it's still epic, where Italian style meet Swiss Finesse.
Direction: South to north
Distance: 11.81km (Cobbled: 6km)
Average gradient: 8%
Max elevation: 2106m
Cobbled sections: 11
Number of cobbles stones: unknown
Number of smiles: endless
Teeth rattled out: nil
So here we go, just after descending to Airolo I had to navigate the huge intersection which makes up the entry point to Europes longest road tunnel (Gotthard road tunnel - 16.94km) and also nearby the worlds longest and deepest rail tunnel (Gotthard base tunnel 57km). These massive construction projects really are incredible given the ampitheatre of the mountains around them. If you felt your day of riding was over, though I'm not sure why you would want to miss what I regard as the best road cycling experience out there, you could take two great shortcuts if you didn't want to tackle another climb. Sensibly, I opted for another climb. I was not disappointed. Having never ridden up, or really heard much about this climb before doing it, I was in for a real treat, getting to the start of this climb though was something of a slow start. The iconic cobbled road of the Gotthard starts off fairly inconspicuously. Thankfully I didn't have to join any of interweaving spaghetti roads and simply took the bridge over them, meeting the main road from Airolo (A2P), which I followed for a short while, and then saw the small red signs for the Gotthard Pass. It should be noted here that unless you take this turn you'll be faced with the other main road over the pass, a far less nostalgic experience, one which still offers up stunning views but can be quite busy with traffic and you'll miss out what you came for, cobbles, right?
These didn't start immediately. I soon found them quick enough and was grateful they only lasted short straight strips at first, intermixed with tarmac corners and a few views over to the main road below and past a rather ominous Swiss army compound. Once I'd had a taste for them though I began to get into a good rhythm. The smoothness, uniformity, high quality granite square blocks and maintained to a high standard, are testament to the Swiss's pride in their heritage, and also played nicely to my ride comfort.
The real fun beings from the second half of this climb: 5km of pristine cobbles, switchbacks, overlapping roads, endless views, countless photo stop spots and no need to worry about your starve time as you'll be too busy stopping to enjoy it all. I don't have many more words to describe this section so the next set of photos I think captures everything and a flavour of what to expect.
After I'd spent far too long taking photos and enjoying every switchback at least twice I edged onwards to the top of the pass. From here you have a few options but if you want to see the true beauty of this engineering masterpiece then take a short trip down the main road to the left of the pass. From a lay-by just before the main roads tunnel you can stop, look over the precipice and drink in the full view of the top section of the Gotthard Tremola side of the pass.
After this view I opted to take a leisurely stop off around the small lake which forms part of the passes other main tourist attraction, a start point for hiking, a health spa, museum and numerous small outdoor roadside food stalls selling bratwursts and chips. I decided to take on some food, put on some layers and prepare for the descent. Again I was blissfully unaware of another treat as I was just expecting to take the main road down to Hospentale in record speed but you can continue down a further cobbled section of road for another 3km before joining up again with the main road. This short stretch of downhill cobbles gave me more than enough of a good feel for what I'd have been in store for if I'd opted to tackle the full Tremola climb the same way. This definitely gave me a happy contented feeling knowing I'd made the right choice for my hands, feet and bike but also that I got to experience it, take some photos and without hardly another car in sight.
After I rejoined the main road again it was a plain sailing, freewheeling to everyone else, down into Hospentale. The large sweeping corners and frightening speed were one thing, the views another, but the enormity of what I had just been doing still felt palpable, mostly from the buzzing sensation in my hands from all the cobbles. I didn't think this last climb could be eclipsed or the day made any more epic, I was wrong, Fukra pass awaited.
Coffee break at Andermatt
At this point it's probably worth mentioning this small village which is perched at the base of another fantastic climb (Oberalp pass), not for it's notable climb, although it is another treat, but for its notable film connection, James Bond's Goldfinger. Yup thats right, the one with Sean Connery and his classic silver Aston Martin with the ejector seat (ok here's where the petrolhead in me maybe kicks in). Yup, I've mentioned a car, but on this occasion it can be forgiven because this is the very village where the famous car stops to fill up at petrol station, you can visit that as well if you want. Ok nothing ground breaking yet, but its where the car had come from in the film that was more important to my ride, Furka pass. The first time I did this loop I was completely unaware of the film connection, you'll see where it dawned on me soon, so forgive me that I missed out this little village on my first trip here. I'd highly recommend a stop, not just for the film connection but, because this small village offers a rustic, although now tourist-y-fied, feel for what the area looked like when the films' directors first came to visit. On a side not it also has a great campsite for basing yourself at for lots of other rides, including my another of my Swiss Grand Tour loops but thats for another blog post and another time.
Hospentale to Gletsch (my finish)
The final climb of the day. At this stage of my ride I was still giddy with excitement from riding the Gotthard pass. In this state of euphoria I also began to think I was somewhat dreaming as all I could see were signs for 'Hospital' instead of 'Hospentale', which made it all seem even more surreal, and I began to wonder I really was on my way to heaven. After leaving Hospentale, and realising this small sleepy village had no such connotations or any buildings with anything remotely medically related, the road towards Furka pass unfolded before more. Initially the gentle incline and tailwind helped ease me up towards the start of the base of the climb. Before this though was a long section of road which seemed to go on forever. This was because of firstly, and mainly, the false flat of this road stretching straight out ahead running parallel to the railway line with no trains to chase this time to quicken the pace and secondly, and thus also consequently, that the small village of Realp did not seem to get any closer. Once I reached it though the climb soon started to kick off and I was treated to the first of many incredible switchback views.
Direction: East to west
Average gradient: 7%
James Bond cars: 0
Mandatory 007 photo: 1
Ultimate switchback hotel: 1
From the side I ascended the Furka pass has something quite uniquely mysterious about it. The small narrow road, with its precarious bollards marking the edges, twists and turns quickly for the first few kilometres. Tightly packed together, they provides a constant reminder of how much you've ascended so far but due to the nature of the land's terrain you also struggle to place exactly where the ribbons of tarmac start and end. Giving the illusion of an ever changing fluid landscape, this seemingly random winding pattern slowly begins to reveal its mystery the further up you climb. Its only by the last few turns of this first section of the climb that the mystery is revealed, and you get a true perspective point to look out from to appreciate the roads path below. Half way up this section is another hidden gem and it was also this point at which I realised this road has more history to it that I thought.
As I mentioned earlier this road took centre stage for one of the scenes in Goldfinger, Bond chases the infamous villain in his Aston Martin whilst being pursued by Tilly Masterson up and down Furka pass. I didn't quite have anyone in hot pursuit going up the pass but I did get to enjoy the same view point made famous in the film. In the past few years a sign and plaque has been erected to mark this famous street just after the 4th switchback, you can't miss it. A great spot to stop off at, not just for the view but if you wanted a memorable cheesy photo snap. After enjoying this hidden gem, making the day seem even more surreal again, I continued onwards to the top of Furka pass. The middle and second third of this climb are far removed from the tight switchbacks of the first third, you can almost see all the way up to the top of the climb from this point. From here on in its a steady gradient most the way up with the mountain railway far below also picking its way up the valley cautiously, waterfalls, more switchbacks, a couple of tumbling down old building and a few lonely old worn looking hostels scattered the along the roadside. The views back down the valley at this stage appear as if you've hardly climbed any height at all as Realp is obscured from view behind the mountain slope making up the first third of the climb. Once you reach the top though the view fully opens up again and you can bask in the knowledge and joy that you've almost completed your loop.
As I crested the top of Furka I took some time to enjoy what I'd achieved so far. The sun was setting over the opposite mountain tops, the light fading quicker, I could see that looking down towards Gletsch I'd be completing my ride possibly in the shadow of the mountains as the sun continued to drop behind them, and took this moment to drink in my days highlights and this final awe inspiring view before me. There was a chance for a quick, what I thought would be my final, photo before descending down to the end of this epic days ride.
This one shot reminds me exactly of this ride, the moment, what it felt like, all the days emotions wrapped into one and how I couldn't have asked for anything better. As I edged off from this viewpoint looking out towards the Gletsch I saw another climb caught under the setting suns light casting a faint ribbon snaking it's was up the mountain side, Grimsel pass. I knew then and now that I would have to come back and tackle this climb, vowed to myself right there I would be back. Rolling down towards Gletsch whilst the sun slowly receded behind the mountain tops I was expecting this to be the end, but this wasn't to be as I was again met by another hidden gem. Only a few short bends further down from the top of Furka pass there is another engineering marvel beautifully nestled on a switchback just below the Rhone Glacier. You won't be able to go past without stopping, arguably it also features in the film Goldfinger but maybe it didn't seem as striking or stick in my memory at the time. Wrapped neatly by the tarmac ribbon of a switchback is a hotel which appears forgotten by the march of the modern era. Still retaining it's elegance, even in its boarded up and closed front facade, it stands proud, overlooking passers by, commanding their attention, and my cameras. The old belvedere hotel, perfectly lending itself to a photo opportunity, I had to stop.
Having experienced and ridden this ride with little to no prior investigation of what to expect, this moment at the hotel was again a moment of pure visceral visual overload. The whole day had been on another level and this moment at the end just made it even more memorable.
Hopefully I've inspired maybe one or two or maybe even three people to venture out and discover this route or even one of these climbs for yourself. I promise you won't be disappointed, and you can certainly call it your own 'Swiss - Grand Tour'.