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.

A Smart Decision

BORMIO, ITALY

I had a great week in Switzerland with the weather. I could not ask for more. Well, yes I could. I could ask for two. But I would not get it.

As I prepared to go to Finland on Saturday, Corinne Kolb said to me that it looks like the weather is going to be bad all week. From then I kept an eye on the weather in Bormio, Italy.

My plan was to rent a car and drive to Bormio, stopping in Liechtenstein along the way. I would ride Stelvio Pass from both sides, perhaps one of the most ambitious days on my bike – ever. But the forecast continued to get worse. Daily highs for the town of Bormio were in the 50s with 100% chance of rain.

I’ve driven to New Hampshire where the Mount Washington Auto Road Hillclimb was canceled – twice – because of bad, i.e., dangerous weather. And I viewed going to Bormio with the same risk. The weather on top of the mountain could be 10-20 degrees colder with freezing rain or snow.

When I went with Trek Travel, I at least had a SAG vehicle and extra clothes at the top for crappy weather. This would simply be me all alone against the elements.

I planned to stay two nights plus had the expense of renting a car and gas. I really couldn’t justify the cost of going to Bormio to watch rain. It was a tough decision but I know it was the right one. I decided to return home instead.

My biological cycling clock is ticking. I don’t know if in five years I could get up Stelvio Pass. Or even one. I would like to one more time but not at the risk of death (and one pass over, Mortirolo, is the Mountain of Death). The only time I descended Stelvio I almost crashed head on into a car. It simply wasn’t worth the risk.

And if there was any question I made the right decision, Will Swetnam send me a photo from Stelvio Pass. I made a smart decision.

Stelvio Pass on June 30, 2017

Stelvio – I am hoping I will see you again. In decent weather.

 

Thun

THUN, SWITZERLAND

Headed to Thun today. Happy birthday my friends!

The stay last night was at the Hotel Rischli. I really enjoyed it. The desk clerk, Yvonne, was very nice. She had presented me with a complimentary card which I could use for the aerial tram. Although I did not use it yesterday.

But first – goats. Just outside the dining patio was an enclosure of the cutest goats. They also had an enclosure of rabbits too.

Yesterday when I went by the gondola I did not feel like pedaling the 4.5 km back up the mountain. Today I looked at it differently, one from a fresh mind.

The ride over to Thul was supposed to be a short one and why should I be in a hurry. I decided I would bike back up to the gondola.

I had no clue where I was but in looking at the advertisements I saw they also advertised a cog railway. My friend, Corinne Kolb, and I took that three years ago and it dawned on me that we saw a gondola come up the mountain.

I rode to the base, presented my comp pass, and saved 38 CHF (which was about $40).

It was cool being back there. This time I could look down and see the cog railway engine sputtering away.

On the ride back down on the gondola the “conductor” made sure to point out where there were mountain goats. He asked me if we have them in the U.S. and I told him Colorado (of course other states do too).

It was a quick descent back to Söreneberg and a stop at the hotel. Since my luggage hadn’t been picked up, I decided I would carry a set of clothes just in case I got to Thun quicker. I couldn’t imagine I would with the trip being so short and now it was after 11:00 a.m.

But first there was time for a ride on their Alpine slide. This one was cool because the ski lift dragged the rider and sled to the top on an enclosed course.


At the top the pool automatically disengaged and it was a quick ride down the mountain. Pretending I’m a kid.

Sign in Schangnau looking back to Sörenberg

About one km out of town, maybe farther, I came to a sign which showed to directions to Thun (actually Schangnau). Why I didn’t capture that picture, I don’t know. I just wasn’t thinking I might want to display it in a blog.

But it would be an additional 13 km to go the long way, which is, of course, what I opted for.

There was some pretty scenery Nothing iconic like I saw this morning or at Lake Luzerne though.

It was just a nice ride through the Swiss countryside.

Oh, there was one climb. Up to the Schallenberg.

That would have been the high point of today’s ride if I hadn’t gone back up the mountain and started at the tram in Söreneberg.

The ride down the pass was great and then I was treated to some back county farm roads. It was all downhill or flat.

When I saw the John Deere tractor I thought of my dad. He loved his Deeres.

Getting near Thun the bike route stayed high while the main road descended. That meant one thing: A fast run down to Thun when it came.

I went looking for the River Aare as a landmark. I found the river which had a swimming area built into it. This side of the river was fast moving but not nearly as fast as the other side or as it travels through Bern.

My hotel, Hotel am Schloss, was situated just below a castle. The room was small, the window did not open enough for air (no A/C) and it was hot. And my luggage did not arrive until 5:45 p.m.

Still, I managed to go swimming in the river, in the process burning the bottoms of my feet on the scorching asphalt.

I swam in the River Aare three years ago in Bern. I knew I had to do it again. There were some bridge jumpers although the bridge wasn’t nearly as high as in Bern. Instead I followed a couple as they found some steps to the river.

The river in Thun is split by an island and this swimming channel was clearly slower than the other side. But one only needed to jump in and float and be carried away. Pretty fun!

Dinner tonight was at McDonalds – 8,90 instead of 35 or 40 CHF. My only issue was I went for WiFi and a little A/C. But it seems WiFi is available only if you have a code which will be texted to you – if you have WiFi to receive the text. Sigh.

The hotel was AM Schloss. It had no A/C and only a small window over a busy street. It was pretty miserable sleeping.

 


 

Covered Bridges and another Mountain

SÖRENBERG, SWITZERLAND

The day started with breakfast at the Seerausch Hotel in Beckenreid. It was the first hotel where they had a full buffet including eggs. So good but the view of Lake Luzerne was better.

The Panoramic Alpine Route 4 would quickly take a lakefront road. There standing in the grass close to the lake was a topless woman talking to another person. She was probably getting ready to catch some rays.

The water of the lake is clear. The morning was perfect, about 68 degrees (20 C).

I would follow the Blue Route 4 signs where I could find them and rely on my Garmin as backup. And I would need them.

A real surprise was coming to a covered bridge. I couldn’t tell when it was built…

…but it sure had sweet decking (floor).

The first direction decision came at a culvert. There was a sign and I thought I followed it correctly but it took me in this 100 meter loop under the road I was just on.

I didn’t mind it one bit because it gave me a unique view of the mountains.

I got of course a bit in the little town of Stanstad. I did a two block loop, looked closer at the signs and compared to Garmin and kept going.

This was 10 meters from the turn for Route 4 at Lake Luzerne but sure is pretty

I crossed a bridge then followed Rte 4 on a lake road to Alpnachstad.

I followed the road next to the lake. There was a “sidewalk” which was really a boardwalk.

The Pilatus-Bahn cog railway

I was expecting about a 30 km (19 mile) easy cruising ride this morning and that is what I got. Cobbles. But for a short ride.

The town of Saren is beautiful. In the center was fresh water, which I would need. And the fad of 2017, Fidget Spinners, is global.

On my way out I entered a forested area then crossed what appeared to be a stream project. Had I looked to the right, and maybe I did, I would have seen what I was in store for.

Along the lake I was back on a highway. Some roads have bike lanes which is really one meter to the right. The lines presumably make the drivers aware that we are there.

At Giswil I came to a second covered bridge. It’s not quite Bedford Co., Pa., but I was a happy camper. Or rider.

Leaving Giswil, I uncharacteristically made a good biking decision. I stopped for a photo then jumped in behind two riders who looked like they were riding the Alpine route.

Ahead I could see a road climbing, steeply, to the left. I knew I had a left turn coming up. They turned and the one guy turned back. I passed him and started climbing. It was steep.

I checked Garmin and it said I was “Off Course.” Well, sometimes one can be 10 meters off and it says I’m off so I was going to ignore it. I started climbing higher and could see I was going away from the route I mapped.

The two men has stopped already and I asked (MAJOR LANGUAGE BARRIER – not sure they were German speaking) if this was Route 4 (I held up four fingers). They said it was.

I thought back to the turn. There was a sign but I didn’t look. The thought of going back down those steep 400 meters to check the sign then climb it again disturbed me but not more than taking the wrong route. I grabbed a quick photo and went back down.

I was glad I checked. I was right. Rte 4 continued straight for another 400 meters before turning onto Panorama Strasse.

Hey, that looks like my RAV4

This road was mostly a one lane road. Two cars could not pass. But there were some sections every 400-500 meters or so where a car could pull over to let one pass in the opposite direction.

I looked up and figured I would pass by every house on the mountain. I was right.

There was room for a car and a bike but only inches between a bus (city) and this bike. Thank you bus.

I was sweating profusely. On the lower slopes were simply farms and no trees. I was exposed to the blazing sun.

The climb was 11.8 kilometers (7.3 miles). Much of the way the grind was 8-9%.

Looking back to the washed out stream I had crossed

In my mind I had calculated the climb to be 11 kilometers but as I watched Garmin I had a math error. I was off by one kilometer. It’s tough when you think you’re at the summit but you’re not.

Somewhere, and I have no idea where, the open section gave way to woods. It was a welcome relief from the sun.

In the wooded section the Garmin showed higher grades. It was registering 11-12% and even up to 18% (which I know it wasn’t – my body knows 18%).

Actually a 7-8% upgrade here

Unlike Klausen Pass yesterday, where I was passed by 203 motorbikes, today I would be passed by 13 and only one “was in a hurry.”

I went long stretches not hearing anything but birds of the forest and the occasional cow bell.

The higher I went the more cows I heard. I crossed a cattle guard and was in an open cattle area.

On this corner was an air sock and this guy sitting with his toy. He showed no interested in interacting with me even as I stopped and took an obvious photo.

I went through those two bottles and saw a water fountain. I stopped and filled up. Very cold water. They would last me another 2-3 kilometers.

I came upon perhaps 40 school kids on a hike. For a while they seemed to be walking at the same pace I was climbing. But I soon passed them. A couple kids tried to run alongside of me but they didn’t last long although I thought they may beat me to the summit.

What I thought was the summit was still 1200 meters from the top. A man sat their with his toy airplane. Their was a windsock attached to a pole and he brought along his own wind sock. I thought about asking him for a photo of me climbing but he had no interest in even making eye contact.

The views on the descent weren’t nearly as breathtaking as those on the ascent. Or maybe I had more time to take them in on the climb.

Right before Sörenberg I stopped at a cable tram. Interesting, but I didn’t know where it went. Although I would find out later.

Going through Sörenberg I saw some young ladies in front of a school for Hospitality Management.

I stopped and asked if they spoke English (the sign was in English). They all did. Four young women from Vietnam. I also asked if I should go to Vietnam for bike riding and they laughed and said “Oh no.”

I checked into Rischli and the desk clerk offered me a discount card for the tram. As she was showing me the brochure it also included a cog railway. Then I realized this approach was the back side of the mountain that Corinne Kolb and I had traveled three years ago. Had I spent the money to see the views from “up there” I certainly would have been surprised. And maybe pissed. LOL.

Dinner was out on the patio. I wanted to order Rösti although at the time I did not know the name. I settled for a Pork Cordon Bleu dish which is what I had yesterday in Beckenreid. It was delicious but at 35 CHF a bit pricey for this traveler.

 


Pissed in Zürich

ZÜRICH, SWITZERLAND

I arrived yesterday and quickly built my bike. Something was wrong. I felt a rattle in the fork although things were tight. I caught up to a cyclist at a light and asked for a bike shop.

Unknown cyclist but nice guy who towed me to Cyclone Bikes

He took me to Cyclone Bikes where a young woman wrench (that’s cyclist talk for a mechanic) told me I simply had tightened the screws on the fork before the top. I just needed to reverse the order. I did and felt ready for the Alps. I also bought a CO2 cartridge.

Things worked perfectly after that and my exploring and warmup would be finished for the day. I went back to the apartment of Corinne Kolb who graciously let me store my stuff while I biked across Switzerland.

Corinne Kolb and Stelvios

Today was a beautiful day, I tried to map a ride which would do more than circumvent the lake although that looked like a nice ride. I added some of the hillier terrain in town.

My plan was to head up to the zoo which is next door to FIFA headquarters. From there I would stay north of lake before coming back to it at its southeastern end.

From downtown I started climbing immediately. It’s about two miles all uphill all the way to the zoo. I visited the FIFA HQ then could not have Garmin pick up the way out of there. With the lake as a landmark, I started back towards the lake, although sooner than I wanted to.

Hotel Restaurant Erlibacherhof

But the route along the lake is nice. I came to a ferry, which took me by surprise. I should have adjusted but I didn’t.

I went to the Kiosk concession stand by the ferry and had a nice conversation with the woman making me a hot dog. I admired the ferry and she said I should take it. I told her I was going around the lake and that would cut my workout short. What she should have done is what I thought of as I rode back towards Zürich.

She should have suggested that I cross the lake on the ferry then ride south back up to the ferry on the east side. Take it back over and complete a figure eight. In other words, I was going clockwise and could cross the lake then go counterclockwise back to the ferry and cross again, finishing clockwise. A perfect figure eight.

Instead I crossed at south end as planned and as I was riding up the west side of the lake I thought about the ferry more. When I got there I went to the front of the line and never made my final decision until the ferry worker waved me on. So I did an over and back. Same distance but not as sexy as if I had one a figure eight.

I really enjoyed the time crossing the lake but it would have been better one quarter of the way across and again at three quarters of the way.

When you ride on the streets in Zürich there are sometimes bike lanes which is basically 1/4 of the full lane. Sometimes the lane ends abruptly and directs you up onto a sidewalk for a few meters or a couple hundred. Some are marked better than others.

Transition from walk to bike lane

Corinne had told me horror stories her cyclist-boss had said about the police. They set up traps and wait. I found one.

Going uphill on the lake road, I came to a construction zone. There was a red light and I was first at the light. To go, I would be first and slow up a hill, holding up traffic. There was no bike lane because of the construction.

To the right was a bike path. So I thought. There was nobody on it as far as I could see and it looked like any of the many bike lanes I had seen. I rode up it when I heard someone calling. It was a policeman. I suspect I could have ignored him (not heard him) but I went over to him.

He started speaking Swiss-German which I did not understand. When it was apparent, and I was wearing my AUSTIN, TEXAS Livestrong jersey, he switched to English to tell me I was on a sidewalk. I apologized, told him I truly didn’t know, and hoped that would be end of it.

Instead he said that would cost me 40 CHF and asked if I had cash. I did not. But he would take a credit card. He explained how on a bike I might hit people. I started to ask “what people?” (there were none) but thought better of it.

I was pissed. I tried to do everything right and police should have some discretion to educate and not just punish. But he was young and perhaps hadn’t learned when to bend. He got his 40 CHF and left me with a negative feeling about biking in Zürich.

Nearing the apartment I turned on Widmerstrasse (or the street leading to it). I went under some tracks and there was a couple walking bikes. Strange, I thought. The road kicked up a little for 25 meters.

Couple pushing their bikes up the street with steps

And then it turned hard right. And straight up. I couldn’t even look down at Garmin. My guess is more than 25%. On my left the sidewalk was steps. Steps!

I think DO NOT ENTER except Bikes and Buses. I think.

I was less than two km from the apartment then went and sent Corinne my adventure. Told her that I told the cop I knew a good lawyer but they didn’t know her. She laughed at me.

The week can only go better.

 


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!