A Trip Across the Swiss Alps – A Review

WOODBRIDGE, VIRGINIA, USA

Sometime in the winter when I knew that Ride the Rockies would not work out for this year I decided to ride across Switzerland. Over the Alps.

I did not want to “bikepack,” which is to carry all my clothes with me on my bike. I found and had been following the tours at BikeSwitzerland.com. They looked (and look) great but was a little more time and money than I wanted to spend.

I asked my friend, Ben Zahler, if he knew how I could do this self-supported and he found Eurotrek, a company based in Zürich.

Me with Ben

Both companies offered a self-guided tour over the Alps via Panoramic bicycle Route 4. The cost differences were significant. BikeSwitzerland offered a couple extra days and a little extra riding from Geneva to the start in Aigle. Plus a return to Geneva.

Cost was a factor but so were logistics. BikeSwitzerland started in Geneva whereas Eurotrek started near Zürich. My base of operations would be in Zürich at my friend, Corinne Kolb’s, apartment.

Corinne and Stelvios

Both companies offered rental bikes. I never considered renting instead I flew with my own bike. I do not know what Eurotrek charged. But BikeSwitzerland offered my Trek Domane with Di2 shifting for 600 CHF.

I booked this trip with EuroTrek. They made all hotel arrangements and transported my luggage daily from one hotel to the next, otherwise it was self-supported.

Hotel Huber in Lichensteig

I flew my bike to Zürich. From Washington, D.C., American Airlines charged me $200. Returning, the same airline charged me 84 CHF ($87.50). I have no idea why the price difference. I liked the price coming back.

American Airlines 767 from ZRH to JFK

Day 1 was from St. Margrethen to Wattwill (Lichtensteig). The course was lumpy, even mountainous. Actually it had the most climbing of the seven days although it lacked an iconic mountain pass. I did not pre-load my map to GPS and could not always follow the Rte 4 signs. I also developed saddle sores (which I never get) and feared the worse.

Day 2 was from Wattwill (Lichtensteig) to Linthal. This was the shortest day. It started with a climb (once I could find it) and ended with 30 km of flat farm roads or trails. It was the perfect remedy for saddle sores.

Day 3 was from Linthal to Beckenreid via a ferry at Gersau. It was the best ride of the trip. It featured a hard climb out of the box over Klausenpass. But the rest of the day was super easy. A great descent of Klausenpass followed by the nice trail along a lake I have been one.

Day 4 was also nice but had the opposite profile of Day 3. This one had the lake riding first and ended with a climb up the Glaubenielen Pass down into Sörenberg.

Day 5 was from Sörenberg to Thun. I began the day by riding back up the mountain to the Sörenberg tram to the mountain overlooking Interlaken. Then, given a choice of adding an extra 12 km to Thun, I took the long way. I beat my luggage in then went swimming in the River Aare.

Day 6 was Thun to Gruyères. It felt more like a slog. I got lost in Fribourg. It was hot. Beautiful scenery but nothing breathtaking like Day 3.

Day 7 was Gruyères to Montreux. Somewhere I must have missed a Route 4 turn and just took the main road to Aigle. That was fine.

And that was it. Post trip I found that Eurotrek had GPX files I could have downloaded but I did not know to ask.

Only after the trip did I realize that perhaps a solo trip across the Alps was a bit risky. I mitigated some of the risk by carrying a hand pump with gauge and an extra tube. But a broken spoke or chain or worse, an accident, would have done me in.

As I updated my trip on Facebook I started adding Cycling Tips for Switzerland. The “numbers” were random, of course but here they are:

Tip #38 for cycling in Switzerland … Leave that finger at home. Number of times I’ve been buzzed (0), yelled at (0), thrown at (0), blown smoke on (0), honked at (0), had tires squealed at (0), cutoff (0). You just don’t need it as part of your cycling kit in Switzerland.

(This would end in Zürich on my last day when a woman pulled an impromptu U-turn in front of me causing me to take evasive action. I did not use a finger.)

Tip #19 for cycling in Switzerland  … If you see a house at the top of a mountain and think “isn’t that nice, I wonder how they get up there?” rest assured that after 60 minutes of sweating profusely you will pedal right by that house

Tip #1 for cycling in Switzerland … In small villages and big cities and in the countryside too, you will find the freshest water available for free. Don’t stay thirsty, my friends.

Tip #23 for cycling in Switzerland ... Be cool, wear a helmet. Most do. Gone is the time they knew you were American because you were the guy with a helmet.

Tip #29 for cycling in Switzerland … lose weight

There’s not much I would do differently. I was glad to have my own bike and starting two days after I arrived was perfect although I could have got my bike ready in one day. Well, there is one thing. I would not start on a Thursday or Friday because those days mean that Day 3, Klausenpass would be on a weekend day and I now know that is a popular “driving road” for sports cars and motorcycles.

It was a great trip which I highly recommend. And see Tip #29.

Three Country Ride Part Deux

SISSACH, SWITZERLAND

Three years ago Ben Zahler and I went for a three country ride. I asked him to come up with one again. He did.

We took a train to Laufer for the start. My train ticket was 13 CHF. My bike ticket was 20 CHF. For a country which is cycle-centric, or maybe it isn’t, I think their train bike passes cost at least twice what they should be.

Welcome to France. I think. I think I can also read this sign. Speed limits in towns is 50 kph (31 mph); in the country it’s 90 kph (56 mph), and on super highways it’s 130 kph (81mph).

Laufer is near the French border of the Alsace-Lorraine region. We rode about 15 km before coming to a French sign. Ben pointed out another sign which noted that Swiss soldiers were not allowed to be on this road in uniform.

Ferrett, France

The road turned up and Ben rode ahead. We quickly established that on this day I would be first down the mountains and he would be first up. We went through some French villages although we were in the outskirts of a much bigger town, St. Louis, when I suggested we stop at a bakery.

Ferrett, France

We both got a chocolate-strawberry croissant then rode to a shade location to eat. We ended up next to a school where students were practicing a dance routine. Never quite figured out what kind of school that was.

Bakery in St. Louis, France

We found our way to the Three Country Bridge that connects France and Germany but looks at Switzerland. Close enough.

Ben led us through Basel, looking for a road back to the town and the climb we did three years ago. We made some sketchy moves in traffic, i.e., probably not riding where we should have.

But we got through Basel and back into Germany until crossing back over at a dam on the River Rhine.

Hello Germany

It was hot, with temperatures in the low 90s. I carried two bottles and was going through those fast while Ben had just one.

Three Country Bridge that connects France and Germany

We looked for water – easier in Switzerland than France or Germany. I didn’t feel I was getting enough and I know Ben couldn’t have.

It wasn’t all pavement today

We began the last climb which would take us over the “hill” to Sissach. It was quite a formidable climb. Ben took off and 2-3 times pulled over until I dragged my butt up to him. I was in a granny gear and wasn’t going to work any harder.

At the top Ben was lightheaded. His wife had biked up from Sissach (quite impressive actually) and he had planned lunch at a restaurant up the hill from the summit. A second summit.

But he said he was so light headed couldn’t control his bike. He rested and gathered himself and then we descended, with me being the fastest.

Ben Zahler

On the descent I hit 75 kph which is 47.5 mph. Had I known I would have pushed it to 50 mph. But it was my fastest speed of the time I was in Switzerland.

Switzerland. France. Germany. It was a most excellent trip. Thanks Ben!

Me. Ben. The last day I wore those ripped shorts.

 

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A Gorgeous Lake

BECKENRIED, SWITZERLAND

I am blown away at the view of Lake Luzerne and it’s hard to remember what an awesome day in the saddle it was. Or out of the saddle.

Just 55 degrees at 8:00 a.m. I put on arm warmers which would last all of about half a kilometer. I was prepared for how tough a climb last night by meeting the couple from Zürich. I saw them this morning at breakfast too. “Tough,” he said.

The cobbles would last about 150 meters through the first switchback

I would be climbing the Klausen Pass. I studied the route map and new what exactly to expect. Just not cobblestones.

I would normally ride without stopping but I figure this will be the only time I am ever here. So I said I would stop for photos. The first was the snow shed and I also turned on my lights.

Gorgeous snow sheds or tunnels.

The snow sheds had windows to the outside world and breathtaking views. However, I did not capture enough. As I climbed higher I sometimes thought there would be better vistas only to find the road went straight into the forest and I was no longer able to see the valley below.

Cows. Lots of cows.

The climb up to the pass was 23 km. At 10 it was a plateau (mostly), sort of like Big Meadows in Skyline Drive in Virginia. To the right I could hear the symphony of cowbells playing in the distance. I wondered if they needed a director.

The white building to the right, ahead, is the Wilhelm Tell Hotel

In the plateau area, a false flat mostly for about five kilometers, are free range cattle.

Just another gorgeous view

I would go through a small village of Urnerboden. To the right was the Hotel Wilhelm Tell. I didn’t think much of it at the time but this was said to be the birthplace of Swiss Hero William Tell. (The area, not the actual hotel.)

Urnerboden
The plateau area
Bees, lots of bees.

After the second section the road kicked up again to the summit, this time about eight kilometers.

The solitude of the climb was interrupted by motorcycles passing me, one within inches. In addition were lots of sports cars, Porsche, Jaguars, even saw four Deloreans. Unfortunately, many drivers treated this road as their race course.

On the climb I passed two cyclists, a man and a woman, and got passed by three, two men and a woman. And 203 motorcycles.

I would characterize the climb has hard but not the hardest. Four climbs: Mount Washington; Hurricane Mountain Road (NH); San Pellegrino (Italy); and maybe Henrietta Road (PA), all brought me to my knees making me think I should quit. This ride never did it. It was just a slog, a 2.5 hour slog to be sure, but I knew I would make it.

With the hard part over and drenched in sweat, it was time for the easy part of the day. The descent.

I thought I might bomb the descent but instead took it easy. The words of Wayne Stetina resonated with me when he told me four years ago that he never bombs a descent he hadn’t seen before. I decided I would take it easy.

I stopped frequently for the views. In addition, the road was too beat up and too windy to let the bike roll.

It’s pretty far down there
I held the camera and said “Cheese,” a universal word.
Altdorf

I descended into Altdorf, a beautiful town. And then I saw it. Lake Luzerne.

Lake Luzerne

Leaving town I found a bike path to avoid riding with the cars in the tunnels, of which there were five or six.

Lake Luzerne

The bike lanes in Altdorf were well marked. Once I was in a dedicated lane sometimes it was bike-only and sometimes it was bikes and pedestrians.

Lake Luzerne

In the tunnels, often the bike lane would go in with the cars and the pedestrian path would be on the outside of the tunnel, high above the lake. Sometimes the bike lane would be outside as well. Simply gorgeous.

The one thing to watch out for is bike paths could become sidewalks without notice. And there are penalties for riding on the sidewalks.

As the road got closer to Brunnen it was harder to determine where the bike lane was. But I managed to find my way, at times following two locals (I presume).

Lake Luzerne

 

Lake Luzerne

 

Brunnen
The signs in Brunnen

I came to a small stadium for FCB (Footballclub Brunnen). Either it was too late in the match to collect admission or the game was free but it was free for me. I wanted to see the referees of which there was one. Two thoughts: I was surprised they were using just one referee and my refs in Woodbridge are better.

The rest of the ride was lakeside to the ferry at Gersau. What a beautiful road.

On board I saw a cyclist. Everything about her could have been American. She was on a Cervélo bike (which is Canadian and more likely in the U.S. than Europe), wore a Specialized kit (based in California), rode Speedplay cleats and had a Garmin 500 GPS. But she was a local who ride halfway around the lake (60 km) then took the ferry back.

I saw the hotel but went looking for the Klewenalp. This where Ashley and I went with Ben Zahler seven years ago.

Ferry from Gersau to Beckenreid

It was enjoyable riding along the lake in Beckenreid.

I found it, then bought some ice cream and watched the paddle steamer. We rode that boat in 2010.

Only then did I check into the hotel. I was told when my luggage was dropped off the guy wondered if I beat him. He said I always do. I didn’t know it was a race. But actually I arrived an hour earlier and had spent the time riding around.

A room with a view!

Tomorrow he doesn’t stand a chance.

The hotel was Seerausch. Simply gorgeous. I would love to return here.


Reflections on the Year – 2014

WOODBRIDGE, VIRGINIA

For the second straight year, a year of great riding was marred by the passing of a friend. I reached 5,000 miles in October but slowed towards the end due to tendonitis or a torn meniscus or both. But then found the will to suffer through a cold December to reach 6,000 miles.

In order of chronology, here are my top ten rides:

(1) Riding in PennsylvaniaAbandoned Turnpike and Ligonier – Riding with the college kids has been fun the past three years and this year’s adventure through the tunnels at Breezewood and on to Ligonier would be no exception. On both days I rode in small groups with Jamie Roberts who would die on the road in Kentucky 10 days later.

(2) Ride the Rockies (Multiple Entries) – My second time and it is a blast riding in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I missed the first day due to a wedding then extended by a day to ride over Berthoud Pass to Winter Green, Colorado, with Bradley Allen. But it was a somber ride as we had just received the news of Jamie’s death.

(3) Stelvio Pass – I went to Italy with Trek Travel to ride in the Dolomites. I did not know much about these Italian climbs and I loved them all, none more than the 48 switchbacks one must navigate to climb over Stelvio Pass.

(4) Three Country Ride – Imagine a ride starting in Switzerland, going into Germany, then to France, back to Germany and ending in Switzerland. I did that in July with friend, Ben Zahler.

(5) Crater Lake and Alex – I planned to ride around Crater Lake, Oregon, and to ride with 12 year-old, Alex Shepherd. I achieved one of those. I rode around Crater Lake (it was awesome) but was at least able to visit with the Shepherd family even if we didn’t ride.

(6) Home Sweet Home – I’m about as native Pennsylvanian as one can be except that my grandmother was born in Oregon in 1907 (and then moved back to Pa.). She never returned but I did, doing a 50 mile ride in and around Sweet Home, Oregon.

 

(7) Washington – I promised Chey Hillsgrove that if he biked across the country again I would meet him at the finish. On their next-to-last day, I met him in Port Townsend, Washington, and rode 45 miles with him as part of a 70-mile day. And I went over 24,906 miles cancer-free (should that be a separate entry?).

24,906.25 miles – Cancer-free

(8) Mt Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb My seventh straight year up the mountain, I came that close to not going. But I was encouraged by my daughter, Ashley. I didn’t push myself, we had the worst weather in seven years, but I can’t say that I really suffered. All that riding in Colorado and Italy must have been good for something. And we saw a moose. Or two.


(9) Livestrong Challenge
Great weather and great company, I didn’t ride 100 miles but it wasn’t about the miles. It was about riding for Jake The Hero Grecco and Alex Shepherd.

 

(10) Ride of Silence
– I learned on June 14 that Jamie Roberts was killed and as I rode with
Bradley Allen up Berthoud Pass in Colorado I thought about organizing a
Ride of Silence for Jamie. That came to fruition on October 26, two
days after Jamie’s 25th birthday.

 

I am thankful for every ride, for every day of health. I don’t know what 2015 holds outside trying to organize a ride for to raise money for children’s cancer research. This I do know: the rides that become my “Top Ten” are rarely expected, rather something happens on the ride that makes them so memorable.

Peace and safe riding!

Barry

Three Country Ride

SISSACH, SWITZERLAND

I had never been to Germany and a few months ago I told Ben Zahler that we should ride (or that he should design) a ride that takes us from Switzerland to Germany. And he designed a good one.

I took the train from Zürich to Sissach, met Ben, and went over to Stonebite bike shop, right down the street from the train station. Met a very nice guy working there. I grabbed a Trek Madone with Di2 (electronic) shifting and he fit me to the bike. One problem though. When I tried to shift I discovered the battery was missing and he couldn’t find it. But a couple of phone calls and 45 minutes later we were off and riding – the train.

(Actually there was a second problem. The bike was too large for me and a seat I could not lower. I would be uncomfortable for a day. Oh well.)

Ben, giving a Turkish Couple directions

We took the train to Basel to begin our tour. Winding our way via bike paths, we found our way across and then beside the Rhine River. It was navigating by feel. Within six kilometers we were crossing into Germany.

And almost immediately once we were in Germany, we were leaving Germany. We crossed the Three Countries Bridge into France. I was in Germany for 600 meters. But it counts.

Three Countries Bridge

Once in France we were on pancake flat roads, parallel to the Rhine River and the Grand Canal of Alsace but never quite seeing it. The road was a chip and tar road and a bit difficult to pedal. After 12 kilometers we turned towards the river and followed a road back to a hydro-electric power plant on the river at Krembs.

Hyrdoelectric Plant at Krembs on the Rhine River

No cars but we could cross the damn on bikes. We stopped to watch a ship come through the lock.

Ship coming through the lock at Krembs

Once we crossed the dam we followed the canal south until crossing into Germany. We jumped on a bike bath which was paved but turned to dirt and gravel. Germany has many bike paths next to roads, most are paved but this one wasn’t. We rode it for a few kilometers before finding another path/road which was paved.

Bike path in Germany ran out of pavement

Ben had printed out directions but we seemed to be off cue as much as on and it sure was fun. We followed open roads to wherever they led – which was not to lunch.

Closed on Mondays

Hungry, my breakfast was a Snickers bar in the train station, we found a restaurant/tavern which was closed on Mondays. Then another. And another. Finally we found a place in Kandern in the Black Forest which may have been Pizzeria Sanlorenzo, but I can’t say for sure. After a cyclists’ lunch of pizza, we headed out and up – up a beautiful road through the Black Forest.

Black Forest

Occasionally at a town or intersection Ben would check GPS but just as often we would say – “let’s go that way” as long as it was headed south or west – back towards his home in Sissach.

Ben and a Bike Path in Germany

We were on country roads, for the most part not heavily traveled, but just as often we jumped on the paved bike paths which followed the roads.

Reaching Rheinfelden, Germany, Ben mostly knew the way except that a landmark old building was missing. A quick question to a tourist and we were headed across the bridge crossing the Rhine back into Switzerland, to Rheinfelden, Switzerland. Two questions really. Which way to Switzerland and is that water (in the fountain) potable? (It wasn’t)

Rheinfelden, Switzerland

Ben said from Rheinfelden it would be 15 km more – all uphill. Before leaving, we found a water fountain with potable water and filled our bottles.

Ben, filling his water bottle

Once we left Rheinfelden we were on a somewhat traveled road until going through Magden. And there the climb began. In earnest.

 

Bridge over River Rhine at Rheinfelden Germany and Switzerland

In the morning we had been riding on dead flat roads along the Rhine in Basel and in France. But in Germany we picked up some hills in the Black Forest and now we had a small mountain to get over. My Garmin was showing it was mostly 11-12%. This was a mini Mt. Washington – 12% but for only two kilometers and not 12 kilometers.

Ben at the summit before Sissach

And it was raining. Cloudy in the morning and sunny in Germany, the rain was coming down in Switzerland. But it felt good on the climb. Once over the top we had 3k back to town. I was able to drop the bike, change, and catch my train, all in a matter of a few minutes.

Meanwhile, back at the bike shop

Three countries on a bike. What a great ride!

Barry and Ben
Barry and Ben

A big SHOUT OUT to Ben and Corinne Kolb, my hosts on this day. They were both exchange students in the 90s who I have kept in close contact with. And on this day they were both texting each other as to my whereabouts. I was staying with Corinne and she seemed very worried I would miss my train connections to Ben. And when I left Ben texted her with my EPA. Love you both!