Tour of the Alps

June 28 - July 23, 2003


Zurich train station
Zurich train station

We are on Swiss mountain time. The clocks at the downtown Zurich train station are synchronized mechanically so that the second hand pauses at the twelve-o’clock position until it gets the signal to move. Jobst Brandt and I pass the time watching the time pass, waiting for the S16 to Schwyz. The train arrives, on the minute, and we pick a car marked second class non-smoking and wrestle our packed bikes into the luggage compartment.

Edith Dierauer picks us up at the train station in Schwyz in her Renault mini-van, which has ample room for two bikes and three adults, and drives us to their place in Ibach, a short distance away. The Dierauers are long-time friends of Jobst and have generously hosted his bike trips over the years. A brochure on their coffee table advertises Schwyz as “Swiss Knife Country,” with a Victorinox forming the ‘i’ in "Knife."

“Everything’s so green!” we exclaim. Even after a heat wave rolled through Europe the week before. Pastures, gardens, meadows, forests – it takes awhile to adjust to the intensity of green, especially in contrast to California, which was well into the gold season when we left.

“Yes, well, it rains a lot here.”

For dinner, we are treated to fresh tomatoes and green beans from the Dierauer’s garden and sweet local cherries for dessert. From the veranda, tree limbs frame the double-peaked Mythen, with its twist of red rock over gray, sliced by one of the many faults that shuffled rocks together to form the Alps. At nearly 1900 m, Mythen towers 1400 m above us, yet the pass we will cycle over tomorrow is over 2200 m high. The vertical scale eclipses the horizontal in Switzerland.

Starting line in Schwyz
Starting line in Schwyz

I study the face of Mythen and note the perspective, should I need to find my way back here on my own. Although Jobst invited me to go on his tour of the Alps some months ago, our pilot runs in the Sierra and Santa Cruz Mountains, while congenial, had been less than synchronized. We’ve lost each other on Mt. Tamalpais and Monitor Pass in the Sierra, where it’s seemingly impossible to get separated. We’ve come up with various theories over why we cannot stay together, but can only agree on one thing: it doesn't happen with anyone else. At least I’ll be carrying the maps and the battery charger for the digital cameras.

As the conversation drones on in German, I watch the swifts circle and dip in perpetual motion, darting in and out of the rafters where they nest. The outside air is warm and humid, and the vapors from the citronella candle waft me back to a prior time zone.

After dinner, I make sure the gear for the bike is packed and ready to go and then hit the sack. The Lindt chocolate bar next to the pillow promises sweet dreams.

Day 1
Jun 28 (Saturday)
Schwyz – Rosenlaui
64 miles, 103 km Map

Breakfast is homemade black cherry jam on fresh-baked bread. We’re soon on the road…but not on the bikes. Jobst needs to replace the cycling clothes left on his table in Palo Alto, so back to Zurich we go, by car, courtesy Edith Dierauer. It’s a good excuse to visit Fredy Ruegg’s bike shop in Affoltern and for Jobst to catch up with long-time friends.

Fredy Rüegg
Fredy Rüegg

“There, that’s Fredy.” Jobst points to a poster of Fredy Rüegg, winning the Tour of Switzerland in 1960. Then Fredy Rüegg appears in person, with a full head of silver hair and jovial smile, looking fit as ever. While Jobst shops for clothing, I am captivated by the bicycle frames hanging from the ceiling – the ones built by Fredy Rüegg. Some have simple elegant lugs, others are sleekly brazed. Steel blue, bright blue fade, deep cherry red with gray fade on the forks. None in my size, though. Fredy shows us his workshop – a frame alignment table, barrels of tubing, frames in various stages of construction, tools neatly arrayed on the wall. An old Cinelli rests in the corner, in mid-restoration.

Back in Schwyz, we are finally on the road, this time on bicycles. Jobst earns uncharacteristic style points with his new cycling kit. Bright yellow gloves and cycling cap match yellow bike, but he draws the line at yellow socks. “No! Cycling socks are supposed to be white.”

“You might be mistaken for a serious bicyclist, maybe even a racer.” He shrugs.

“People won’t recognize you.” He doesn’t respond.

Into the Bernese Oberland

Urner See
Urner See

Turi Dierauer leads us out of town by farm road and bike trail down to the Urner See. He bids us farewell and we pick up the highway running along the east shore of the lake. Sailboats are heeling into the wind against a backdrop of glistening peaks.

Over the next couple days we will do a whirlwind tour of the Bernese Oberland with enough momentum to catapult us over the high backbone of the Alps into Italy. This region is quintessential Switzerland – lush mountain meadows, towering peaks, gleaming glaciers, and sparkling lakes.

At the southern end of the Urner See, we stop in Altdorf to salute William Tell and pat his son on the head. Just up the lake is the Tellskapelle, where Tell, as much helmsman as marksman, outwitted the Austrian tyrants by jumping to safety and setting them adrift on stormy waters. Whether man or myth, the national hero is kept alive in play, opera, museum, monument, and at least one Tell Hotel.

Wilhelm Tell monument
Wilhelm Tell monument

From Altdorf, we follow the Reuss upstream. It flows a turbulent milky blue-green, the color of glacial water, prescient of the source we will be visiting soon. Streams cascade from mountain walls to join the Reuss. The valley gradually narrows and finally pinches out at Erstfeld.

“See that sign?” Jobst points out the plain white sign on the rail line reading 26 1255. “It means 2.6 percent grade for 1255 meters.” This is trivial for a bicycle, but steep for a railroad.

“That’s why the Swiss are digging a new Gotthard base tunnel.”

We pass mountains of spoils and a platoon of construction equipment. The existing 17 km long Gotthard railway tunnel was built in the age of steam and was long ago outgrown. The new tunnel is being promoted for flat, high-speed transit through the Alps, and at 57 km, will be the longest railway tunnel in the world. It will be ready to roll in 2011, carrying 100 passenger trains and 220 freight trains per day.

“And in California they can’t even schedule a single freight train and a commuter train over Altamont Pass,” Jobst comments.

Susten Pass
Susten Pass

The railway spirals through tunnels up to Wassen, but the road never seems to quite catch up. At Wassen we give up the chase and turn west towards Susten Pass. The highway climbs 1300 m, starting gently in the Meiental, but steepening in the switchbacks to the summit. Boulders of gneiss form neat retaining walls along the road and wildflowers decorate the meadows. My German field guide to alpine wildflowers identifies the feathery purple heads of Berg-Flockenblume (Centaurea), the silvery yellow heads of Alpine Kratzedistel (Cirsium spinosissum), and the pale lavender bells of Bartige Glockenblume (Campanula barbata).

The air is warm and humid and squeezes out a few drips. When we reach the summit, it is socked in. It’s a cool descent through tunnels and avalanche sheds to Innertkirchen. Here the valley of the Aare unexpectedly narrows to a spectacular slot, the Aareschlucht, which cuts through a resistant transverse ridge of limestone. The formidable canyon is said to harbor its own river dragon, the snake-like Tatzelwurm, but visitors can find “safe passage” on paths, tunnels, and galleries glued to canyon walls…for a fee.

We climb above the gorge and soon turn west on a narrow road towards Rosenlaui. The road winds steeply up the course of the Reichenbach, a tumultuous stream that roars through dark slots to the Reichenbach Falls of Sherlock Holmes fame. Mist swirls around the road, a warm drizzle wets the pavement, and thunder periodically rumbles around the peaks. The setting is sufficiently sinister to evoke a Conan Doyle mystery.

Hotel Rosenlaui
Hotel Rosenlaui

It’s an energetic climb up to the high Rosenlaui valley, where the Reichenbach placidly meanders through meadows, acting nothing like its fitful self below. With our late start, the evening is getting on and I’m glad to see the Hotel Rosenlaui come into view. It’s a grand five-story hotel, built more than two hundred years ago for tourists wishing to take in the alluring juxtaposition of glaciers and hot springs. It’s a busy Saturday night and the hotel is booked, but there is space in the sports annex, a dormitory which is perfectly adequate for tired bicyclists.

We are just in time for dinner. The lower dining room is filled, so we are seated in the empty upper dining room. It is a grand ballroom with high beamed ceiling, a grand piano, antiques, and a large wall clock that chimes on the quarters. While waiting for dinner, we look out on a shrouded Wetterhorn through windows with the lovely distortion of antique glass.

Because the kitchen is already overworked, dinner is served by three cherubs, Kobi, Hanna, and Daniel Kehrli, who magically appear with each course and vanish with the empty plates. The next morning we are told that the children vied for who would serve us next.

Day 2
Jun 29 (Sunday)
Rosenlaui – Hospental
85 miles, 138 km Map

Blue sky and crisp views of the Wetterhorn and Rosenlaui glacier greet us in the morning. After a hearty breakfast of muesli, bread, cheese, and blackberry jam we set off for the Gross Scheidegg. When I rode here five years ago, the road was unpaved and large cross-drains angled across its surface, making the going rough. Now the road is entirely paved, though the ghosts of the drains still show through the asphalt.

Grindelwald bus
Grindelwald bus

“Hey, there’s a bus coming – get off the road!” bellows Jobst from below me. It’s hard to miss what fills my entire field of view. The road is closed to vehicle traffic, except for the bus, and the bus has the right-of-way. I’m already into a turnout on the narrow road as the large yellow postbus galumphs by, bugling its inverted triad.

“That farmhouse used to have cowbells,” Jobst points out. “But people kept stealing them, so the farmers don't hang them up anymore.” In fact, we are later told that people steal bells right off the cows! Then we spy a house with a fine cowbell display and wonder how it manages to stay intact. As we squish through piles of manure to get a photo, we understand what the deterrent might be.

Gross Scheidegg
Gross Scheidegg

From the summit, it is a quick descent to Grindelwald, which is bustling with trekkers and climbers. A formidable ring of mountains presides over the town. In clear sky, the Eiger doesn’t look nearly as foreboding as it does peering gloomily out from behind dark clouds, as when I saw it several years ago.

We continue down to Interlaken and turn up the north shore of the Brienzer See. At Brienz we stop at the train station, where steam locomotives of the Brienz-Rothorn are exhaling brown coal smoke over crowds of tourists. Large wood carvings of animals and gnomes peer out of shop windows in this town known for its wood-working crafts.

Sleuths in Meiringen
Sleuths in Meiringen

We leave the lake and head east to Meiringen, where the namesake meringue in the shop windows tempts me off course. Here the Reichenbach makes a final leap to join the Aar in the Reichenbach Falls, which are visited via trail and funicular by Sherlock Holmes fans. At the town square we spy Sherlock himself and pause to do some sleuthing. With pipe in hand, he eyes us discerningly: “It’s elementary my dear riders, the wheel had too few spokes.”

Headwaters of the Valais

We cross our path of yesterday at the junction with the Susten Pass road and head for a trio of high passes, the Grimsel, Furka, and Gotthard, which form the high backbone of the Alps. We climb the steady grade of the Grimsel, accompanied by a slight tailwind and a steady stream of Sunday traffic. Motorcycles zoom by and vintage cars in the Swiss Alpine car rally parade up and down the route.

Grimsel Haslital
Grimsel Haslital

The Grimsel is about granite, water, and power. The headwaters of the Aare are milked for their potential energy before joining the river, which sweeps the western circumference of Switzerland and drains to the North Sea. Reservoirs fill valleys, power plants hide inside the mountain, and “Guttannen Man,” an impressively overdone monument to the hydroelectric builders, towers above even Jobst. Near the summit, a funicular track shoots up the mountain at an impossibly steep angle to service a high reservoir.

From the rather sterile summit, we view the fertile Rhone valley to the west, the barren slopes of the Furka pass to the east, and the town of Gletsch almost directly below. Sweeping hairpins carry us swiftly to the valley floor, and after a quick stop at the headquarters of the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway, we catch a tailwind up the Furka Pass.

Furka from Grimsel
Furka from Grimsel

In contrast to the Grimsel, the Furka is mostly schist, sculpted into more rounded hills and more scoop-shaped valleys. The schist is apparently rather unstable, as the Furka Pass road is under repair in several places.

We stop at the Rhone Glacier, source of the Rhone River, and clamber over some rocks to get to a photo spot.

“You used to be able to just stand on the road and get a picture,” Jobst comments. The alpine glaciers are in retreat.

The summit offers one last look down the Rhone valley, and then we sail down a bumpy narrow descent, accompanied by the clinking of cow bells, to the tiny town of Realp, the eastern terminus of the Furka Steam Railway. We join a busier highway up to Hospental, where we find lodging at the Hotel Rossli.

Day 3
Jun 30 (Monday)
Hospental – Borgosesia
121 miles, 195 km Map
Fortress Tern
Fortress Tern

I am still on California time and it takes a mere single-bird serenade to wake me up at 4:07 a.m. By 6:03 a.m. the bird is still going strong, so I get up to walk off the jetlag. A footpath leads to the remains of fortress Tern, where there’s a birds-eye view of the rooftops, packed together at every angle but 90 degrees.

At 7:06 a.m. a thin breathy train whistle breaks the stillness and the red Furka-Oberalp glides up the valley, heading for the Furka tunnel. The sun peaks over the ridge and an equilibrating wind comes up. Cowbells tinkle and traffic picks up on the highway as I head back for the 7:30 a.m. breakfast at the hotel.

From Hospental, we head south on the Gotthard Pass road, where traffic is light because most of the through-traffic takes the Gotthard tunnel, which runs directly under Hospental. Several kilometers from the top, we are diverted onto the old road by construction. It’s to the credit of Swiss highway engineers that bits of historic old road are left like oxbow lakes, to be enjoyed by cyclists.

Gotthard cobblestones
Gotthard cobblestones

“They come up here every year and paint the center stripe,” Jobst notes dryly. The road is composed of gray granite cobblestones with an inlaid center stripe of red granite. But I have to look carefully, just to make sure.

At the summit we stop briefly at the Gotthard museum and gift shop, which depicts the history of the pass, the early roads, and the trains. Although the sun is out, the summit is cool and breezy and we decide to head down before getting chilled.

Gotthard flying hairpin
Gotthard flying hairpin

It’s a fast descent on the modern highway of concrete pillars and flying hairpins, which contrast with traces of the ancient Roman road. Partway down, bicycles are diverted back onto the cobblestones, where we are forced to slow and take in the good vibrations. We wind down through Airolo, which is a crossroads town at the junction of the Gotthard and Nufenen Passes and a popular stop for tour buses.

Ticino and Lakes

We head south down the Val Leventina along the Ticino river, where climate and culture are distinctly different from the other side of the mountain. The weather is warm and humid and vegetation is lush with subtropical plants. With all the road signs now in Italian, I have to keep reminding myself that we’re still in Switzerland.

Granite quarries dot the steep mountainsides and factories display carved statues, tombstones, and fountains in their storefront lots. The railroad, highway, and autoroute are all crammed together in the narrow valley, and crops fill any arable land in between. A persistent headwind blows up the valley, but the counteracting descent allows us to make good progress.

New Gotthard Tunnel
New Gotthard Tunnel

At Faido we pass a huge complex of construction for the new Gotthard tunnel and then another at Bodio, which is at the southern portal. Construction is taking place at both ends and several intermediate points along the route. Even as a geologist who has seen many world-class mines, I am impressed by the amount of rock being moved around.

In Biasca we stop near the train station to see the crossing waterfalls, but the right-hand fall is merely a trickle. We continue down-valley and then exit onto a one-lane farm road to avoid the traffic into Bellinzona. This road heads towards the north end of Lago Maggiore through a patchwork of corn, wheat, potato, and hay fields. When the farm road peters out, we rejoin the highway and head for the east shore of the lake and uneventfully cross into Italy. It’s midday and hot and sticky, so we stop to dip our toes in the lake, a ritual that is more ceremonial than effective.

Lago Maggiore
Lago Maggiore

“I don’t know how frequently they run, but there’s always a ferry at the dock when we get here.” Jobst nonchalantly pedals off to get a Coke and returns just as the ferry begins to load.

The twenty-minute crossing is a refreshing respite from the heat. At Verbania we negotiate busy traffic to Lago d’Orta and follow the east shore of the lake, where estates with well-groomed grounds are framed by colonnades of old trees.

At Gozzano, we turn west towards Pogno and climb a short but unexpectedly steep hill dubbed "Pogno Pass." The grade eases as we climb through a lush forest to the true summit, which is unnamed on the map. At the top, we pop through a tunnel that leaves a good stretch of ridge above us and have a pleasant descent to Borgosesia. Lodging is limited in Borgosesia, which is better known for woolen goods than tourists, but we find space at the three-star Garden Hotel. We get the bikes unpacked and under cover just as thunder claps and the rain begins. After a dinner of one pizza each, the rain has stopped, so we walk down the street for pistachio and cherry gelato. Ah, Italy!

All Roads Lead to Torino

Day 4
July 1 (Tuesday)
Borgosesia – Carignano
99 miles, 159 km Map

A map of the Piedmonte looks like a giant claw raked the Alps and scratched a ditch to the Adriatic Sea. The Ticino, Toce, Dora Baltea, and Susa tumble out of deep canyons in the Alps and join the Po for its meander through the lowlands to the sea. Ice-age glaciers scoured lake basins, scooped valleys, and deposited sinuous moraines. For a cyclist, the path of least resistance is down to Torino, but to skirt the edge of the steamy lowlands, one must cross the grain of the land.

“Let’s not go to Torino,” I suggest.

“But there’s the Fiat factory, which used to have a test track on its roof,” replies Jobst. I’m not interested in Fiat factories. I am interested in avoiding the heavy urban traffic, which is not my cup of tea.

The rain has cleared out, and we head across the ridges towards Biella, a dreary city marked by high-rise apartments and old woolen mills. Then we climb a substantial forested glacial moraine and loop down to Ivrea. We bike-messenger through the city on the cobblestone streets and stop at the bridge over the Dora Baltea to wait for Brian Tomlin.

Riding with Brian is a ritual on Jobst’s tours. Brian guides us via car to his condo southwest of town, where we meet his wife and teenage daughter. Brian, the gourmet chef, cooks lunch while his wife and I chat on the deck and Jobst browses Italian cycling magazines.

We sit down to a fine meal of pasta with pesto, roasted bell peppers, fresh tomatoes, and green beans, with Carte d’Or ice cream for dessert. While Jobst expounds on U.S. politics, Brian and I hold a whispered conversation across the table. He mentions that he placed second in the recent time trial championships. Wow! And he’ll be riding the Marmotte in another week. Cool.

Team Tomlin
Team Tomlin

After lunch he shows us his featherweight time-trial bike and minimally spoked carbon-fiber wheels. I can lift the bike with two fingers. Jobst manages to not look unimpressed.

Then Brian leads us on a brisk ride out of town. Due to construction, we take a circuitous route up through the hills, where Brian points out an estate of the Savoie monarchy. We pass a country house with a large wedding party, complete with dancing and accordions. The pace is brisk and I'm enjoying the climbing. But then we swoosh out onto the flats and Brian gives us a fast tow down the highway, where I can barely hang on. We’re quite a contrast: Brian with fast cadence and spiffy racing bike, Jobst and I plugging away on our sturdy touring bikes.

“He didn’t used to be like this,” Jobst remarks. We stop for sodas at a service station and Brian needs to get back home. We thank him and wave good-by. The highway points towards Torino.

“Let’s not go to Torino,” I again plea.

Jobst mutters something about a river route and takes off – right into the heart of the city in rush-hour traffic. When the road merges with a six-lane expressway, my bike screeches to a halt and sounds the retreat. We backtrack onto an older road through the city and ride along a lane reserved for the streetcar. While trying to keep Jobst in view, I fail to notice the streetcar tracks veering off to the right. My front wheel catches, and down I go.

People immediately surround me with telephonini’s in hand, poised to dial emergency services. I shake my head no, I’m alright, “no problemo.” Though I’m not so sure myself. A handsome Italian businessman comes running out of the adjacent shop with bottled water and bandages and begins rinsing out my road rash, of which there is precious little. I am beginning to wish there was...more....

Fortunately nothing feels broken, but my right hip is beginning to swell. Too unsteady to ride, I push the bike down the sidewalk, seeking to lick my wounds in an air-conditioned hotel or at a gelato stand, whichever comes first. Jobst is long gone. But I still have the battery charger for the cameras. I wonder how many days it will be before he realizes that his camera battery is dead…and oh, didn’t there used to be another rider on this tour? I review my mental imprint of Mythen.

But then Jobst reappears. He wastes no breath with sympathy, but suggests we ride to the next small town to find lodging, to which I agree only to get out of Torino. But Carignano has no hotels. By now the bump on my hip is the size of a tangerine, my head is spinning, and I can ride no further. A sympathetic shopkeeper comes running over and points us to the Red Cross up the road. He kindly offers to watch our bikes. It must have been a slow day at the emergency station, as the Red Cross people seem much too eager for business. However, to receive even basic first-aid, I must submit to The Process, which requires a trip back to the hospital in Torino – by ambulance, with full siren going. Everyone but me seems to enjoy the drama.

Hours later, the x-rays show nothing amiss and I am allowed to escape with a clutch of chemical ice packs only after promising to come back for a blood test the next morning – after 10 a.m. Meanwhile, the shopkeeper from Carignano comes in to check up on me and assures us that our bikes are safely locked in his shop for the night. At nearly midnight, we take a taxi to a nearby hotel for some fitful sleep. Will I ever get out of Torino?