There’s a ride out west which bills itself as “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride.” It circumvents Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada and it sure is beautiful. Maybe the title is a little presumptuous but it surely is in the top ten of beautiful rides in the U.S.
Today I cast my vote for my most beautiful ride in the world. I would not have found it without Ben. I learned a lot about trains and bikes in Switzerland today. Ben and I (but mostly Ben) thought we had a plan but there were many moving parts. And not all went so well. We left Ben’s house at 6:40 a.m. and walked to the train station in Sissach.
When the train for Zürich came we tried to be aligned with the car that takes bikes. We weren’t. Ben spotted it and we rushed with two bikes, a bike case, and two suitcases. And barely made it.
Once on board, it was a relaxing train ride to the Zürich Main Station. There we found the DHL luggage drop-off, mainly because I had used it before but had no idea when, how, or why. The cost for day storage was 12 CHF per bag. I loaded both my two extra bags into the empty bike case to make it one bag instead of three. This is beating the system.
Ben had tried yesterday to make a reservation for our bikes for the train out of Zürich and could not. He assumed the app or website was not working properly but it may have been because they were sold out of bike reservations. But it didn’t display that way.
In Zürich, we rushed over to the track and Ben asked a conductor about getting our bikes on the train. She told him he needed a bike reservation and there were none available. Ben said he had been trying but their app wasn’t working. After some back and forth she told him to see the conductor at the end of the train. (The exchange was not this pleasant though.)
Now the end of this train seemingly was 200 meters away – at least. Ben was running to reach the conductor. I was in flip-flops and couldn’t run without them falling off. I got on my bike and rode down the platform. I hope that was OK.
The conductor took our bikes and put them in a freight car on the train. We took a seat and the conductor came by at which time we paid 5 CHF for the “reservation” which we did not have. The cost of a bike pass was 20 CHF so now I was in for 25 CHF to be able to take my bike on a train. I had paid 30 CHF for a companion pass to be with Ben.
We had to transfer, somewhere, I was just along for the ride. Ben said to disembark and we got off and then transferred to another train. This train to Airolo only required that bikes be hung on one of the two hooks in each car. The train came into the station and we looked for a car with room for our bikes. As the cars went by the bike hooks were all full. We went to the last car as did four other cyclists and neatly put six bikes in a space for two.
Once the train started rolling we felt safe. But Ben mentioned that if they saw the bikes they could put us off at the next stop, which was a couple of stops short of our destination. Two conductors came by. I could not hear or at least understand what they were saying. Ben said they laughed at all the bikes and said it wasn’t the record – they once had 47. Or maybe we have 47 on this train.
Some of the riders on the train were road cyclists headed to see the Tour de Suisse, as we were. Some were enjoying a beautiful summer day to go mountain biking. But there were lots of cyclists on the train whether they be of the slick tire or knobby tire variety.
We exited at Airolo, which is in the Italian-speaking portion of Switzerland. I met a couple who saw the cookie decal on my bike. He asked me if that was a Phil Gaimon cookie. Who knew someone in Switzerland would know about the cookies? It turns out that the young man was from Switzerland but has ridden Mount Palomar and Mount Baldy in Southern California, as I have. His friend, or girlfriend, was from Russia.
We did not have water in our bottles and would make a critical mistake. Seemingly water is free (and good) everywhere in Switzerland. We found a fountain in town but it was turned off. We found a second fountain and it too was off. What was up with that? We began the climb with no water.
Turning onto Tremola Road we faced a stretch of cobblestones. They were beautiful in design but require, of course, more effort. I had read about this climb once and thought there was 1-2 km of stone. Boy was I wrong. It was cobbled for all 14 km (9 miles) of the climb.
I had gotten sick midweek in Luxembourg and it was hanging on me. I was sick. My legs may have been dead from all the work too. I had nothing. Perhaps the answer would be revealed later.
We may have been 10 km in when I spotted a bathtub in a pasture with a pipe over it and cold running water. I asked Ben if we could drink the water coming out of the pipe and he said sure. We filled out bottles and it was good. The cows agreed.
Near the summit is a four-kilometer (2.5 miles) stretch of 24 hairpin turns (or switchbacks). Some riders were riding in the gutter, a paved concrete section that was smoother than cobbles, but when I tried it I found I was too tired to hold a straight line. I was afraid I would hit the curb and go down. I moved back to the cobbles.
At the summit, we found a restaurant. Many people were here, not just cyclists, although there were plenty of them too. I had told Ben that when I reach the top I only wanted a Coke. Two Cokes, actually. But I saw some kids eating pasta with a meat sauce and it looked delicious. I ordered it and it was. I would have eaten a local bratwurst too except there was too long of a line.
Ben was on his phone checking train schedules and the progress of the last stage of the Tour (actually, it had not yet started so we were checking estimated times of arrival). These races publish an estimated time, a fastest expected time, and the slowest expected time.
We decided we would follow the route and ride to Hospental where the course turned left, sharply. From there we could go right (or straight) to catch our train without being on course. But it would be tight to make the train depending on how fast the Tour de Suisse was riding.
I could not miss the train. My suitcase was in my bike bag. I was sick. I wanted to be on the first flight to the U.S. tomorrow. If I missed it I might be able to go to the hotel with my bike and the clothes on my back. Tomorrow I would have to go back to the main station and retrieve my stuff then get back to the airport, where I was staying, in time for my flight. The thought of managing this was blowing my mind.
We finished eating and on the initial descent, I had hit 75 kpm (47 mph). Had I been riding and displaying miles I would have hit 50 mph. Or tried. But my mind and computer display were in kilometers. In Hospental we had found our position on the corner and waited for the Tour de Suisse to come by. After an hour, it did, with Hugh Carthy (EF-Education First) with solo breakaway and a 2:00 lead which he would hold to the end.
It was here that my bike was in the wrong gear to start, having descended in a 50:11. I decided to change gears by hand cranking the bike which is when I saw it. When I spun the wheel it went a few revolutions then stopped. The brake pad had been rubbing on the wheel. No wonder it was so hard climbing. All the jostling of bikes probably caused it but I should have checked it in Airolo.
As soon as part of the peloton had come through, we planned our escape. Ben said it would be 32 km and we had one hour. We would have to average 20 mph and would have no time for stops. That would normally be a very tough ask but we also knew the road went downhill.
However, we did not plan for a headwind – a vicious headwind. Ben did better on the climb, much better, than me but was having a problem with the wind. I took the lead most of the way and let him sit in my draft.
We went through Andermatt, a beautiful mountain town. And then for the next 20 km, the scenery just would not stop. Unfortunately, neither could I. We didn’t have time.
We saw white water rivers with the glacier turquoise water blasting down through small canyons under stone arch bridges. The scenery was breathtaking. But we knew not to stop, and besides, by the time we saw the perfect place we were already 200 meters past it and would have to turn around.
We kept the speed up and Ben made one final check – seven km to go (4.2 miles). And we had 20 minutes. I knew an easy day I could do those in 16 minutes. Of course, we would have to get to the station and find the right track. I rattled off each K-to-go and we pulled in with 10 minutes to spare.
Old train in Wassen
Ben was worried about this train as it might be full of cyclists from earlier stops. If we missed it we would miss getting my luggage from the train station. It was a train where no reservation was needed or apparently accepted. Just first-come, first-served. Look for empty bike hooks, and we guessed right for the car.
What a day. It was my most beautiful day on a bike. I’ve never seen anything like that from Andermatt to Wassen. And going up, wasn’t as scenic but it was epic – a 14 km climb on cobblestones. Wow!
EPILOGUE – June 25, 2019. I was at the doctor’s office and had a very bad bronchial infection. She examined me and asked if I was exhausted. I pulled out my phone and showed her Tremola Road.
“Well, two days ago I biked up this 9-mile cobblestone road in Switzerland. Then I went 24 hours without sleep.”
She replied, “I take that as a yes.”
Of the great climbs I have done, many or all call for a do-ever. But none more than this one. I was sick and weak the day I climbed this and want to go back healthy. It’s more than Strava times. The scenery from Hospental to Andermatt is beyond description. I want to ride it without worrying about a train to catch.