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Flock-ing to the Alps

How many of us have read an article, seen a picture or heard of an event and thought ‘Wow.Really must see/do that’.  The answer is ‘lots’ and it’s about the same amount of people who then forget about said article and never get to live out that experience.

Luckily, some of us have mates who’ll see something and then help start checking it out for ourselves which is why I’m currently in the back of a car, driving alongside Lake Lucerne, after spending 4 days in the Italian and Swiss alps doing three epic rides.

The article in question was in Issue 1 of cyclist magazine, was titled Pitch Perfect and featured a remarkable sounding ride over three mountain passes in the Swiss alps  - Sustenpass, Grimselpass and Furka Pass. It also gave suggestions for additional passes if you were mad enough to want to do a monster day out.

Said mate mentioned above, Neil, took that article and though it’d be a good two day trip so what else to tag on? How about ‘New kid on the Blanc’ which also featured in Cyclist Mag (Nov 2013 Issue - there’d been a delay due to a new baby!!). Voila – our 2014 trip was taking shape.

I love the excitement a new road trip brings and all those important decisions still being made the night before - What tunes are we playing on the way down? What to put in the sarnies? What’s the weather like at the destination and will I be able to wear my most slimming kit? Insignificant though in comparison to Neil’s question of ‘Is this two inch hole on the underside of my lightwieght carbon frame's chain stay going to hold up to descending at 70kph if I put a bit of insulating tape round it?’ Er.... probably not Neil.

Still, just think of the extra kudos you can claim once you’ve pushed the extra weight of your steel Genesis up a few mountains!!!

Which is exactly what was leaning outside our small hotel in Courmayeur as we faffed incessantly ahead of our first ride.

In no particular order we had delays for an over-inflated bulging tyre, forgotten money, lost Allen keys, forgotten camera, extra sun-cream needed.... but eventually we departed.

‘New kid on the Blanc’ is 120km with 3500m of climbing. Three ‘major’ climbs feature along with lots of gratuitous smaller climbs just to keep the hurt on. Staring in Courmayeur the first 25km is brilliant – all downhill on wide open (and on a Sunday morning, quiet) roads heading towards Aosta. Very quickly therefore we soon came to Avise at the foot of the first big climb - always a great moment on a trip. No amount of training at home can replicate that effort needed to climb constantly for upwards of an hour as we just don’t have the roads. Luckily the Black Sheep adopt an ’any excuse’ to stop policy so coffee stops and picture moments are always taken.  This is especially true of Alan who scoffs at compacts and triples, generally climbs standing up using a 39 chainring and is usually miles ahead. Luckily he’s mustard with a camera so there were bound to be loads of good scenic shots and ones looking down on Neil and I.

My guess though is that even the most committed of mountain goats would have allowed themselves a moment to take in the view of Mont Blanc that appears halfway up this unnamed climb. Rounding an unremarkable bend on this satisfying climb you are suddenly confronted with one of those picture postcard moments that make any effort worthwhile.  It’s the sort of beauty that renders most superlatives redundant so not for the last time on this trip we stood slack jawed, every so often offering up the entirely inadequate ‘Wow!’ or ‘Stunning!’.

Eventually shutter finger fatigue set in so we continued with this now, suddenly wonderful, steady climb. Hovering around 6 or 7 percent it’s a great way to get back into alpine climbs and we very soon reached the village of Saint Nicholas where our route flattened out. Spinning along with the valley floor 1000 metres below us Aosta soon hove into view and with it it’s rather ugly steel works. Ugly that is, unless you happen to be Alan who dropped anchor and started snapping away and regaling us with tales of the ground water sampling he did on the site back in the day. Happy to report that, although it smells a bit, the site ‘poses no risk to human health whatosever’.  Phew.

The route drops down to the valley near Aosta then turns back North, at first taking in a couple of small climbs on this eastern side before crossing the valley floor to the western slopes and climb 2. This pleasant wooded climb is again another gradual 6/7 percent but to be honest I didn’t take too much in as thought had turned to food and the restaurant we’d convinced ourselves would be at the top. Only to find of course that there was no such thing!!

Mounting hunger pangs and the cumulative strain of climbing started me hallucinating so that at one point I convinced myself the Pope was waving at me.

Sandwich heaven did exist at the foot of the fast descent though and a happy half hour in the sun was a stretched out interlude ahead of the ride’s denouement.

A significant headwind made the first 10km after lunch rather harder than it should have been but before too long we took a left at Morgex straight onto a steep ramp.By far the hardest climb was now before us - the Colle San Carlo. Both Cyclist Mag and @cyclingalps had plenty to say on this climb. Unfortunately we’d read it all so were ‘slightly daunted’ at what rose ahead.

Cyclist Mag: ‘The Colle San Carlo is kicking the hell out of me. Three times on this HC climb I seriously consider stopping...’

Cycling Challenge: ‘Colle San Carlo is steadily steep. Roughly 10kms at 10%. Nicely carved wooden signs warned me each kilometre, how much the next stretch was going to hurt’


To be fair the San Carlo is beautiful, rising ever higher through scented pines and occasional pastures that offer glimpses of the valley below. It also draws comparison to bits of other climbs. Neil commented between gasps that it reminded him of the lower slopes of Ventoux – which if you’ve done Ventoux means you’ll appreciate this makes it an object lesson in pain and suffering only really enjoyed in the bar afterwards.

The gradient does vary over the kilometres  - although the easiest is 9% and the hardest is 11.5% so the variety is only between ‘hard’ and ‘Where’s my mummy? I want to go home now’!!

Even the man practicing his accordion halfway up didn’t distract for long or turn thoughts away from the need to keep turning the cranks. It’s hard to recall with clarity but I can only remember two hairpins where the gradient dropped to 5 or 6% for about 20 metres but boy was I glad when I could make out Alan waiting at the top through the sweat in my eyes.

I’d do it again tomorrow if I could!! And yes – we did enjoy it in the bar afterwards.

 

Day 2 saw us leave Italy and enter picture perfect Switzerland via the Col des Montets. We broke up the 5 hour transfer with a short ride up to Zermatt and its views of the Matterhorn. Lunch on a sunny terrace beneath this iconic peak was another unexpected pleasure and the short ride was just  the ticket to ease the San Carlo lactic from the legs.

We therefore emerged on day three feeling refreshed and eager to go, although stepping outside our hotel in Goeschenen the fog on our breaths soon had us worried. This was supposed to be a summer holiday but at 8am the temperature was not far above freezing. A check on the weather report suggested highs in Andermatt of 10 degrees C and with a North Westerly building throughout the day. Quickly factoring in that our maximum altitude for the day would be nearly 2500m ensured that 3 Michelin men started the descent that morning. Given the fact we were effectively layering up with summer gear meant some of us fared better sartorially than others(see later pics - honestly, it's worth the wait!!)

After a chilly 5km descent we soon turned onto the first pass of the day – Sustenpass. We had no expectations here as Cyclist described it as ‘18km of gradual torture’ and Cycling Challenge as ‘...a big, long climb – with uneven grading, sometimes very steep, sometimes false flat, but relentless.'

Perhaps where you start the ride varies your perspective though. If this was the last climb on a hard day, feeling jaded, then the length of road stretching before you would no doubt seem daunting.Being our first climb though, feeling decidedly bright eyed and bushy tailed we were entirely spellbound. 

The gentle 5% slope you encounter after a few initial bridges and tunnels, gradually warming air temperature allowing us to strip down to 3 layers, and the natural beauty around us soon had us tapping out a good rhythm. Just as well really since the number of photo opportunities we were soon taking meant our ride time was ever increasing.

The scenery around meant the eye rarely lingered on the 10km incline laid out before us. The waterfalls started ever higher and fell further, the classically glaciated U shaped, verdant, valley floor contrasted perfectly with the boulder dotted slopes to either side, and the peaks became increasingly massive and serrated. The majesty of one perfect pyramidal peak springing into view was only beaten because 500 metres additional pedalling brought it’s slightly larger twin into view.

With the road now turning 90 degrees and starting to snake its way up the head of the valley this seemed like a perfect place to stop and contemplate the world. Fortuitously a cafe owner must have thought the same and was on hand to supply the requisite coffees.Perfect Swiss hairpin engineering meant that the last 5 or 6km to the summit was still all at enjoyable gradients and so we soon gained the snowline, popped out a final tunnel and cruised to a halt amongst the motorcycle tourists.

The glaciers and snow-capped peaks stretched out on all sides but you couldn’t fail to be drawn to the plunging route down the other side of the pass.This was a 30km blast with the expected hairpins interspersed with long, sweeping, flat out sections. Initially dropping through boulder fields and using many small tunnels to tackle rocky outcrops, this smooth road quickly had you back amongst scented pines before spitting you out into the gentler pastures below. 

A high average speed and desire to stick to the road stopped us being able to recall too many specifics but the overall impression we had was of another stunning valley – one we’d all want to come back to and climb from this side to appreciate it more fully.


At the foot of the Sustenpass  there is probably 1k of false flat before Grimselpass begins with some sharp initial kicks. This was our own ‘gradual torture’. 28km with 1400m of height gain means it is a beast of a climb. The gradient is far more erratic here and although, as with Sustens, there are many easy 6% sections, there are many short drops and switchback, steeper sections that break your rhythm. This is a narrower, more enclosed valley. Barren granite slopes to either side are less pleasing to the eye so more of your focus will be back on the task at hand -  especially when after 20k dam walls high above come into view and the road can be seen criss-crossing the cliffs in between.

A long road tunnel to the foot of this section is nicely bypassed using the old, partially cobbled, road so you get a welcome break from the sports cars roaring past.It was here we first encountered ‘ Mr Bianchi’. One of the joys of cycling is the camaraderie that is especially evident amongst us non racing snakes. Generally we are here to complete, not compete so our own struggles make us appreciate the efforts of others.  Due to natural breaks, picture breaks, and ‘this headwind and 10% section are pissing me off’ breaks, Mr Bianchi kept yo-yoing ahead and behind us.  Every time we inched past he mockingly referred to us as ‘the express’ but we picked up that he was based in Innertkirchen and was ‘only  doing the Grimsel today’. We last saw him midway between the two dams near the top of the pass but with the wind whistling around, it was decidedly chilly even when climbing so we pushed on eager for refreshments.

We have an overall perception that mountain top cafes are rubbish – over-priced and below average food with some tatty souvenirs on the side. The Spag Bol we all chose at the top of Grimselpass though was a massive exception. Well, the price wasn’t but boy did it taste heavenly with what seemed like an extra shot of beefiness.

We definitely dawdled over the last few strands but could delay the trip back out into the cold no longer. The talk over this late lunch had been on the climb up the Furka to come. Having driven it the day before Alan and I were convinced it was ‘pretty gentle and not too high’. Midway up the Grimsel though Neil had begun to contemplate that we were wrong, he recalled it as much steeper and longer.  ‘It is also higher at 2436 metres, we’d be going into a headwind, climbing after eating is always harder, we’re getting tired etc etc’. We all started to agree but since the bus didn’t go over the Furka we had no way out.

Once more into the breach...

However you are feeling the view down the Grimsel and up the Furka is surely one of the best for alpine cyclists. The 400 metre plunge down is neatly divided by precision laid hairpins and the 700 metre climb up the other side definitely doesn’t look too bad. It’s not. Within minutes you are climbing (after passing the hotels built to view the now retreated Rhone glacier) and soon perk up as you realise the last climb averages only 7%.

In the main it’s a steady climb, at first on a long straight section that soon leads you to the final switchbacks that have been drawing the eye for the last 20 minutes. Within them is one that clearly looks to be steeper than the others and so it proves, with a sharp pull of 13% testing your diminishing strength. It is thankfully soon cracked and after passing the Hotel Belvdere the last 2 km of 5% beckons.  Here is where we really felt the North Westerly promised earlier - turning the pedals became a chore and my mind a blank.

‘Smile Tim for the summit picture’.

 ‘Sod off and leave me alone’ was, I think, my witty response.   

Yet soon, our suffering was put into context with a meeting with yet more great cyclists. The previous day whilst driving into Switzerland we had passed a couple of guys with ‘Across the Continent’ banners across their panniers. Miraculously here they were - 2 young German lads on a charity ride from Inverness to Palermo( the most northerly and southerly airports they could easily access). Using towels wrapped round their hands to ward off their cold they urged us to try and pick up their bikes. We barely managed it – they must have weighed 70/80 kilos for crying out loud!!

We don’t think they were bragging either and prefered to see them as battle hardened warriors merely reminding us that our pain was relatively minor and would soon be over.

It was downhill all the way from the sub-arctic Furka. Into a gusting gale. With big drops and no barriers. As the fearless descending Neil, gradually became a speck far below, the more circumspect Alan and I pondered physics on the way down:

‘If a gust of wind catches me, when I’m doing 50 kmh how far down the cliff will I land?’

‘What is the slowest I could hit one of those concrete bollards and NOT somersault out into the abyss’

‘Where can I get a disc-brake fitted bike’

Still, at these temperatures there was no chance of the rims overheating so Neil only had a 10 minutes wait at the foot of the Furka’s hairpins until we could TTT back to Andermatt. Not easy in the headwind and unbelievably heart rates reached their days maximum on the slog back down the valley. Struggling to make 25kmh on these gentler downhill slopes we were at least going faster than the traffic. With the Gotthard tunnel closed and roadworks in the tunnels below Andermatt we joined up with a couple of motorbikes and zig-zagged in and out of slow moving traffic down the last 5km. Carefully of course Mum!!

A thrilling end to an epic, epic day. Despite the cold, we’d judged our efforts pretty well which meant that after lengthy warming showers we still had enough energy for celebratory beers and the best chicken and chips ever. PS - See what I mean about dress sense?!

Day 4 and a confession. The original plan was for another monster day – Furka in the reverse direction, followed by the Neufenen pass and lastly the fabled San Gotthard with its cobbled hairpins. Given the previous days exertions though we decided that discretion was, indeed, the better part of valour and that we would therefore shorten our route.  Yep, we bottled it and changed our original plan, but since a plan is only a guide we enjoyed a more leisurely breakfast and then drove to Airolo through the San Gotthard tunnel .

Here we’d changed our route to a variant of the Medio Fondo San Gotthard route and with only 1500 metres of climbing something much more suited to our fitness levels (in hindsight we should have thrown in a ‘rest’ day. Or trained more).

There’s no messing about at the start of this route as from our car park we crossed a road and joined the climb up the San Gotthard. Initially there is only one route but after 1km the old route splits off left leaving the more modern route behind. Rounding gentle hairpins near some Army barracks we quickly hit one of the main features of this climb. Cobbles! Thankfully these were Swiss engineered cobbles so a good deal smoother than the Arenberg Trench, although still enough of an additional strain to keep us honest.

The gradient on these lower slopes is, yet again, a steady 6 or 7%. Plenty easy enough for us to work off yesterdays heavy miles and take in the views as we climbed. Whilst not particularly spectacular they are made more interesting as the old and new roads constantly weave in and out, above and below each other, giving plenty of opportunity to marvel at the construction of the new road. With tunnels, bridges and elevated hairpins this was revealing itself to be what looked like a great descent for later on.

Focus on the here and now was however maintained by the construction of the old road and in particular the cobbled sections, interspersed with pleasingly smooth tarmac or concrete. Above us we could see the old and new roads part for the last time as the old 'Temolastrasse' entered a narrow ravine. With slightly stiffening gradients we also discovered that from here on in the cobbles would be constant. We estimate that the last 5km are cobbled and although the buzz and clanking from your rattling bike never stop, you’ll forget the pain in your legs and your teeth will stop chattering from the bumping as you gape open mouthed at the hairpins above. Built out from the hillside with beautifully carved grey stonework the bends are stacked almost on top of each other - in places the left to right turns are so tighly packed they measure less than 30 metres. Leaning out over each left hand corner you marvel at how quickly you climb and how many hairpins lie below. In all this road has 38 hairpins and we stopped innumerable times as the view just got better and better.

Eventually the cobbled spaghetti monster spat us out onto the last right angled kilometre(where amazingly we saw the Across the Continent boys for the third day running) and you can join the hordes fighting for Bratwurst at the numerous stalls dotted about.

In contrast to the previous day the temperature allowed us to sit in the sun alongside a small lake and enjoy the unexpected sight of an old horse drawn Swiss Postal coach pull into view, its arrival announced by the uniformed bugler sitting on the top seat.

Rolling away from the summit the new road soon enters a long tunnel, but just before we entered it we pulled over to the left to check out the view over the scene of our morning's toils. Good job too – the scene is simply stunning with the many curves of the cobbled old road curled in almost impossible tangles below. It is a stunning scene and one that we’d defy any cyclist to be able to resist. Daniel Friebe of Mountain High fame sums it up nicely ‘  The old cobbled Tremolastrasse, an extraordinary noodle of 38 tightly bunched hairpins, the road itself perhaps even eclipses the natural beauty of the surrounding summits’

Cooling limbs forced us away and we pushed on down the descent, initially through the gentle downhill tunnel but emerging into sunlight the gradient picks up on this smooth wide road. Long, long straight sections just beg to be attacked and the curves allow for a free flowing descent. Naturally for this part of the world there are a few hairpins but they are very wide and allow for sight down the road so you can minimise your braking on each occasion. It only seems like a few minutes before we had dropped back down the 12km to our start point and shot South back through Airolo to our final Alpine climb.

A tiddler really, as we were only climbing halfway up the slope to the village of Altanca . We saw only one car on the whole of this climb and seemingly owning the narrow road we soon passed an amazing ‘railway’ built up a 60 degree slope to the dam above. Generous as ever, Alan waited to allow the tourists on board a chance to view his prized Colnago EXtreme Power. Maybe the best thing they had seen all day?

Descending, again on a car free route, back to our start point we gazed for a last time down across this gentler valley. Perhaps more fitting then that our easier ride was ending in less dramatic circumstances, but there can be no doubts that the San Gotthard pass is a unique climbing experience. There is not the grandeur of some of the higher mountain routes but that is to miss the point as the star of this ride is the road itself. This ancient cobbled road is a cycling heaven that you need to get a plan in place and visit . Or like me – find a mate to help plan it. Cheers Neil !!

 

Further thanks must go to Cyclist Mag for the initial inspiration. Always a great read and the Sheep have not missed an episode from launch.

Additionally we love @cyclingalps - Check out his website at www.cycling-challenge.com. This is an amazing reference guide for tons of individual climbs as well as giving tips by area that will help work out a full weeks holiday should you need it.