Tour of the Alps Part 4

June 28 - July 23, 2003

Day 20
July 17 (Thursday)
Longarone – Tolmezzo
88 miles, 142 km Map
Longarone dam
Longarone dam

A breakfast of packaged croissants demands a supplemental grocery stop in Casso for yogurt. Then we climb a small pass to the site of the dam disaster.

The reservoir would be typical if it wasn't partially filled by a hill, which is a jumble of rocks, some the size of houses. The slope above the reservoir has scars where those rocks used to be. Strata dip steeply into the reservoir, in prime position to be undercut and slide. An exhibit shows a layer of weak mudstone that was the failure plane.

We continue over Passo di San Osvaldo and through some tiny drab villages. There’s not much out here. The air is warm and humid, and thunderheads are building over the mountains. We descend to Barcis, where the lake has an unnaturally blue-green color due to the carbonate bedrock in the area. Here Jobst looks for a road he had taken some years ago. New roads and intersections have been constructed since, obscuring the original route. We follow the river down to a small hydroelectric plant, cross the river, and wind through some dark tunnels. Continuing up the narrow valley, we come to a spectacular canyon, with the road clinging to the cliff. It would be a great road to ride except that it is gated and the gate is plastered with authoritative “no trespassing” signs.

Mangia Maniago
Mangia Maniago

We retrace our steps to the main highway and face the only alternative – a 4 km-long tunnel. Aside from the lack of a view, it is well lighted and cool, a pleasant break from the warmth and humidity. We ride into Maniago at noon and decide on a grocery lunch. I have a rice-olive deli salad, Jobst has a sandwich, and we split a small watermelon between us, making a huge juicy mess at the edge of the parking lot. That hits the spot. We are almost too water-logged to get on the bikes.

This is new territory for Jobst, so we unfold the Michelin map and trace out a route of white and yellow roads to Tolmezzo. We head east on Hwy 464 through fields of corn and soybeans and ride through the small towns of Colle, Lestans, and Valeriano. The vegetation is subtropical, and palms and banana trees decorate the villages. An energetic climb brings us to Pinzano al Tagliamento, where we veer away from the big valley of the Tagliamento and head north.

“Can Italians build roads?” Jobst asks rhetorically. “Can they ever build roads!” Our little secondary road is narrow, but smooth, perfectly graded, and gracefully contoured. As we enjoy the climb through a pleasant forest, the clouds close in. The sky darkens and thunder rumbles ominously. I stop to repack my saddle bags for rain, just in time for the split-splat, split-splat, followed by a solid drumming.

“Not up there!” I eye a particularly dark rumbling cloud emitting streaks of rain.

“What’s the matter, haven’t you ridden in rain before,” Jobst taunts. He seems energized by the bad weather. Well, yes, but heading directly up into a thunderstorm is inviting fate. Fortunately, the road turns away from the cloud and starts switchbacking up the ridge to our right. Rain comes steadily, but at least it is warm.

At the summit, there is a bar/restaurant, but we don’t see much activity and decide to keep moving to stay warm. Fog obscures the road, and I strain to follow it through mud-splattered glasses. We look for lodging in several villages, but none has a hotel. Surely in a town the size of Tolmezzo we will find something. But after a futile search in downtown, we inquire and find out there are only two hotels in all of Tolmezzo and they are full. We are definitely out of tourist country now.

The next hotel is 12 km down the highway. Hotel Carnia is an autostop with a rating of more stars than we need, but we decide to take it, as the rain isn’t letting up. The dining crowd is mostly business travelers – men with briefcases and overcoats and cell phones, all smoking. Dinner comes slowly by an overworked staff, but I top it off with a flank slab of tiramisu, which brightens my spirits considerably.

Day 21
July 18 (Friday)
Tolmezzo –
Stara Fuzina
88 miles, 142 km Map

A hearty breakfast compensates for what the hotel lacks in ambiance, and the next morning we are well fueled and on our way by the usual 8:30 a.m. The rain has quit, and the air is clear, cool, and clean.

We turn east off the highway at Chiusaforte and follow a road shown on the map as a thin yellow line highlighted with scenic green and labeled Canale di Raccolana. It is a beautiful climb through a beech forest and traffic is practically nil. We spot a new wildflower growing in the roadside fields – a striking blue-and-yellow columbine. The river is a deep aqua-marine on its bed of white dolomite. The road follows the canyon and then switchbacks to the summit at Sella Nevea, which, surprise, is a big ugly ski area. It is dead this time of year, but true to its name, patches of white stuff remain in the woods.

Passo di Nevea
Passo di Nevea

At first glance it looks like snow that was left over from last winter. But no, it is hail! Hailstones the size of garbanzos are piled up under the trees. Climbing this pass in the thunderstorm would definitely have left an impression.


At the junction with the main road, there is a lovely glacial lake, Lago di Predil, which is attracting its share of tourists. We turn right down the main road and uneventfully cross the border into Slovenia. Now the houses have roofs with flattened apexes and are painted pale yellow, burnt orange, light green, dark red, and gray trimmed with white. There is lots of construction in the small towns and it looks as if the country is rejuvenating itself.


“It’s all downhill from here to Bovec,” Jobst promises me. Except for the short steep climb up Pradel Pass. From the summit it is indeed a long descent, with some steep sections that bicyclists are struggling with on the other side. Triangular peaks rim the horizon and lush green meadows carpet the valleys.

We eat lunch at an outdoor restaurant and are served ice water with lemon, something unheard of elsewhere in Europe. Hey, this is just like home!

“I remember when we used to have to convince them to give us cold beer,” Jobst reflects. It feels even more like home because English is the official business language, though the natives also speak Slovenian. People are friendly and smiling, and I begin to relax.

Slap Boka
Slap Boka

Signs point to river rafting, and trekkers and uniformed scouts are milling around. Sports appear to be high on the agenda around here. We take a look at Bovec’s famous waterfall, Slap Boka, which is worth the stop if just for the name, and then continue down to Kobarid. Slovenia rarely finds it way onto American cycling itineraries, but the riding is superb, aside from the slightly crazy drivers. It must be popular with those in-the-know – we meet a troop of fifty or more bicyclists with full panniers, headed in the opposite direction.

By now we are ready for gelato. The waiter dishes it up with a flourish. “Vanilla, pistachio, hazelnut,” he repeats as he drops them into the dish. He swirls whip cream on top and drizzles raspberry syrup over everything. It is so good we go back for seconds, if for no other reason than to witness the performance.

Back on the bikes, we follow the river on a gentle downhill to Tolmin, where we take a small road up out of town and wind through hills and small villages. The road is more like a bike path in the forest, though it has some moderate climbing. We finally meet the main road again at Krieza and continue east. There’s a steep bump, where the train goes into a tunnel, and then we follow the river up to Podbrdo.

Podbrdo train station
Podbrdo train station

Here we are hoping to catch the auto-train and avoid a circuitous climb over the hills to Nemski. But the attendant at the station tells us that no trains would stop here tonight, even though the schedule on the wall lists times for the trains at this station. We are confused. Then a young woman translates for us – the trains will come through, they just won’t stop. Oh. We’d have to go 20 km back to Most na Soci to catch the auto-train. Or catch the southbound train that does stop and then take the northbound train through the tunnel. Got that?

As we contemplate the 16% grades and two-hour ride over the hill, another attendant comes out and tells us that the train will be making a special stop here in an hour and we can board. Good deal! When the train finally arrives, we realize it is stopping to take on a railroad man. We aren’t so special after all.

At the other end of the tunnel, we get off in Bistrica, where all the hotels are booked. It is the weekend and this is a popular resort area, but with help from the tourist office, we get a reservation by phone at a pension in Stara Fuzina, 6 km away. We pedal up a lovely road to a large lake and find our hotel. There’s just time for a shower before the 8:00 p.m. seating.

Day 22
July 19 (Saturday)
Stara Fuzina –
100 miles, 161 km Map

The next morning, we are on the road by 8:15 a.m. under sunny skies and already warm temperatures. We cruise back down to Bistrica and take the highway to Bled. Traffic is mostly heading the other way – up to the mountains. We exit when the highway becomes autoroute and roll down to the industrial town of Jesenice.

Bohinjskojez, Slovenia
Bohinjskojez, Slovenia

We cruise along the river valley through green pastures, cross a subtle drainage divide, and continue west to Tarvisio. On the way, we have crossed from Slovenia into Italy. At Tarvisio, we have gelato and then ride on to Pontebba. We are within 15 km of completing the loop started near Tolmezzo two days ago. But this time we head north.

Spectacular peaks poke up to the south as we turn onto the road to Pramolio Pass. The canyon looks impenetrable, but the road is carved into the wall. It switchbacks up through a tunnel so dark that we have to dismount and walk for fear of running into the walls. More switchbacks bring us to a high valley, where the 10% grade shown on the map kicks in. We climb into a cool conifer forest and make a few more turns to the summit, where there’s a marshy lake, a few cafés, and a small ski area. We are now in Austria.

The road down the north side has sweeping curves and we descend rapidly to the valley of the Gail River. Then we turn west and ride gentle ups and downs, but mostly down, with a good tailwind to Kotschach-Mauthen, where we look for lodging. We try several places before being referred to the Pension Panoramic, up a short steep hill above town. We have a dinner of fruit from the supermarket, since the hotel doesn’t serve meals.

Austria – The Grossglockner

Day 23
July 20 (Sunday)
– Zell am See
76 miles, 122 km Map

We ride from the hotel back to town, where a mountain bike race is assembling. High-end bicycles with race numbers are parading up and down the road. It looks like a big event and turns out to be the Oberdrauburg Marathon. We are taking the easy route over the hill – on pavement.

Our destination today is the Grossglockner and we may be lucky enough to see it in fair weather. I have been eagerly anticipating this climb. It is seldom showcased in the great bicycle races that are followed in America, but is one of the most spectacular passes in the Alps.


We head north over the Gailbergsattel Pass and descend to Oberdrauburg. Then we follow the valley of the Drau northwest heading towards Lienz. We jog up to Iselsberg and back down to Winklern, then continue up the valley of the Moll towards the Grossglockner. There are a couple bumps, then a steep climb to Heiligenblut, where there’s a good grocery store that’s always open when you need it, according to Jobst. We need it and it is open, so we fuel up for the climb ahead.


From here, the road kicks up to 12% and doesn’t let up until the toll station, where cars must pay a hefty fee, but bikes get in free. Then there’s more climbing at grades over 10% up to a saddle, which features a café and panoramas identifying all the peaks in the sweeping 180-degree view.

We talk to a group of German cyclists there who seem impressed that we are doing the climb with touring gear. Jobst indicates that I don't speak German and rattles on about his tours. But I’ve heard all the stories before and revive enough college German to follow along. When they ask Jobst how the Fraülein is doing on the climbs, I reply, “Oh just fine!”, much to their amusement.


From here, the grade continues in double digits, but there is some relief on the hairpins. The mountain panorama unfolds as we climb through alpine meadows. Stiff gusts make the going difficult, and I have to stop under guise of taking pictures to steady the shaky legs. Ahead is a knife-sharp ridge where the traffic disappears into a tunnel. Tour buses and motorcycles are out in force as it's Sunday and the weather is spectacular. But unlike the Gavia, the road is wide enough for all to easily pass.

When Jobst arrives at the tunnel entrance, he remarks, “The best pictures are from the second summit.” Second summit! What second summit?! I check the map – this is only the first summit, the Hochtorl at 2575 m.


We pop through the short tunnel, and the second summit, the Fuschertorl, comes into view. Although it is lower than the first (2408m), “it doesn’t come for free.” We swoop down the descent and my bicycle screeches to a halt at the Rock Garden. Boulders of different rock types from the Alps form a giant circle – quartzite, phyllite, schist, granite, gneiss, and ecolgite. Display panels explain how they formed. Geology 101. But they don’t say where the rocks are from, so are little help in putting together the geologic story of the Alps.

The second summit isn’t as bad as it looks and is mercifully short. On the other side of a knife-edge ridge is a spectacular mountain panorama, with glaciers cascading from high peaks.

“Take a good look at this scene and remember it,” Jobst says, “because it’s not always this good.” He recounts crossing the Grossglockner in a blinding rain storm, or having the mountains socked in with clouds.

Zell am See
Zell am See

We get drinks and snacks at the gift shop, take photos, and head down the mountain on a steep and loopy descent to the toll gate on the north side. Here we regroup and continue down to the valley of the Salzach, wind through Bruck, and then head north to Zell am See. The lake is surrounded by villages, hotels, and resorts, and is encircled by a popular bike path.

We ride up the west side and stop at the Hotel Seehof, which has outdoor seating with a view of the lake and backdrop of hills, and for entertainment, the railroad line just below. We have an early dinner of trout (inspired by the surroundings), salad and a Heisse Liebe (“Hot Love”) – vanilla ice cream with warm marinated raspberries and whipped cream. It hits the spot. After dinner we walk down the street to a brass band concert, which is playing Westside Story. It's not what I would have predicted for Austria, but it works, and at least is on the correct side of the lake.

Day 24
July 21 (Monday)
Zell am See – Fugen
67 miles, 108 km Map

After a good breakfast of muesli, fruit, and hot cocoa, we head west up the valley of the Salzach to Mittersill. Traffic is heavy on the mostly shoulderless highway, but there is no alternative. A bike path appears intermittently, but it is too discontinuous to be of use.

The forested hillsides have patches of clearcuts, like cat fur after a fight. Fields of corn grow in the valleys, not my stereotypic image of Austria. In Mittersill, a crossroads town, there is a traffic jam that we get around by riding on the sidewalk. Most of it is headed north and south, but traffic is still moderately heavy as we continue west towards Gerlos. The Pinzgau Bahn is a terribly narrow-gauge railroad that runs up to Krimml. As it chugs by, I notice two cars with a bicycle emblem on them. It looks like a good alternative to this busy highway.

Gerlos Pass
Gerlos Pass

At Wald, we get a grocery store snack and start up the old road to Gerlos Pass. The new road is a more forgiving grade, but much less interesting. Plus, it is a toll road. And it doesn’t have the Hotel Grubl or...a Mrs. Kaiser.

We stop at the hotel, but it appears to be deserted. A miniature waterwheel turns languidly in the yard. We are about to leave when Mrs. Kaiser appears. She in her gardening clothes and takes off her knee-high waterproofs as she greets Jobst warmly. They speak in German and I’m allowed snippets of translation. She has just returned from a survival school in Nevada and Utah and the tent is now pitched and airing on the deck.

“Where’s Mr. Kaiser?” I wonder, as we pedal off.

“I’ve never seen a Mr. Kaiser.”

We finally face the advertised 17% grade and it doesn’t seem that steep, nor is it very long. We follow a canyon up the pass, descend from the false summit, and then climb a couple switchbacks to the top. From the summit, there is a good view of the lake and surrounding peaks. And this being Austria, there is a ski area. Here we join the new highway and take a long descent with some hairpins to Zell am Ziller, where the Gerlostal intersects the U-shaped Ziller Valley.

We turn north and follow an undulating secondary road on the east side of the valley through small villages. The main highway now turns into an autoroute. Clouds move in rapidly and start spattering. As we cross to the other side of the valley at Fugen, thunder rumbles and rain starts to come in buckets. A gust of wind nearly blows me over.

We duck under an awing and review our options. Jobst wants to keep riding, but I see no point in getting drenched for another hour or two just to get a few more kilometers down the road. And besides, a key stage of the Tour de France is happening in the Pyrenees and I want to see it.

We find a hotel, store the bikes, and seek out Eurosport. Yes, bicycles! Lance attacks on the Luz Ardiden, is hooked by a spectator and goes down. Jan Ulrich waits, or does he? Lance is back up, then stumbles again, then attacks, catches the lone breakaway rider and takes the stage. Good show!

By now the rain has tapered off, the streets are drying, and birds are chirping again. But we’re already in and paid, so can’t reconsider going on. We eat at a café on the street and then have a gelato. It will be good to get some rest for the long stage tomorrow.

Back to Switzerland

Day 25
July 22 (Tuesday)
Fugen – Schruns
128 miles, 206 km Map

We have a good breakfast at the hotel and are on the road by 8:15 a.m. under clear blue skies refreshed from the rain. We take the highway down to the Inn Valley and exit the Inn at Rotholz to take secondary roads through villages on the south side of the river to Schwaz.

Golden Innsbruck
Golden Innsbruck

From Schwaz we follow Hwy 171, which has little traffic because it’s all on the autoroute. We cross to the north side of the Inn and decide to take a quick spin through Innsbruck. In the old part of town there’s a cobblestone pedestrian street and lots of glitzy shops. The showpiece for tourists is the palace with the golden roof. From down the street, one can glimpse the golden roof through the Golden Arches, which if more iconic are certainly less romantic.

Back on the main highway, we exit to Vols on the south side of the river. The Inn runs muddy and full. We follow secondary roads through villages and stop for an early grocery lunch. Then we rejoin the highway at Telfs, and even then it is light traffic as we travel west towards Imst.

To avoid the “gratuitous climb” to Imst, we exit towards the train station and follow signs to “rafting.” After crossing the river, we pick up a bike path that parallels the autoroute for several kilometers and then rejoins the road at Mils, opposite a country church.

Silvretta Pass east
Silvretta Pass east

There is a moderate climb to Landeck and then on to Pians, where we exit south on the Silvretta Pass road. Clouds are forming, but not threatening, though the headwind we’ve had all day is still with us. We ride up the valley through small towns being redeveloped for skiing. New lodges advertise four stars with sauna; new tunnels are being constructed through avalanche zones. Ischgl has a big clump of hotels and seems to be the ski center of the area. We continue up the glacial valley to Galtur, which is the last real town before the pass. After all that build-up, the ski area looks small – only three lifts are visible.

Beyond Galtur, the hydroelectric company takes over. The road narrows and swings to the left, climbing through worn meadows with scant wildflowers. Glaciated peaks rise to the southwest. Near the top a herd of cows jams the road and is in no hurry to move on.

At the summit reservoir a British rowing team is packing up from practice. They come here for the high altitude training, they explain.

Silvretta Pass west
Silvretta Pass west

The water is extensively exploited for hydroelectric power. The summit reservoir has a huge concrete dam and a display board showing the water works. Pipes run up and down the mountain, connecting reservoirs with a drop of up to a 1000 m.

We start off on the descent…and now there’s a horse jam on the road. Clearing that, we’re on our way. The descent is completely different than the climb. Serpentine curves snake down the wooded valley, and the road is well-graded and banked. Goats are bleating from across the valley and we stop to talk to the goatherd.

“The goats only come down if I leave them goodies,” says the old man.

Clouds are building behind us, but blue sky shines to the west and we hope to outrun any thunderstorm. We continue through small villages to Schruns, a sizeable town where Jobst’s father once had a summer home on the hill.

We find a hotel in the center of town that has a plaque stating that Ernest Hemingway stayed here in the winter of 1925-26 to ski and write a book. For dinner, we have the vegetarian special – garden burger, potatoes, and carrots. The thunderstorm finally catches up to us, and rain begins as we sit down to dinner at the outside tables. But the canopy is waterproof, so we stay outside to watch the thunder and lightning show.

The rain continues through the night, punctuated by bells in the adjacent church that chime every 15 minutes. The locals must just get used to them.

Day 26
July 23 (Wednesday)
Schruns – Schwyz
98 miles, 158 km Map

Last day on the road! There is a good assortment of cereal for breakfast. It begins raining again as we pack up. The bicycle can smell the stable and its rider is just as ready to go home.

The rain picks up to a steady drumming as we ride down to Bludenz. We continue west towards Feldkirch on a highway that is busy with trucks, in spite of the parallel autoroute. Here we cross to the west side of the Rhine and take the bike path south. The swirling river is brown and muddy. By now the rain has stopped and the sun is coming out. En route we uneventfully cross into Liechtenstein, which ups the country count by one, but looks no different than Switzerland.

Rhine River bikepath
Rhine River bikepath

At Vaduz we cross the Rhine on a covered wooden bridge and pick up the bike path to Sargans, then turn west and head towards the Walenstadt. From the east end of the Walensee, we take the bike path along the south shore of the lake. It has some unexpectedly steep pitches and seems more like an afterthought than a design. In early afternoon we stop at a restaurant near Murg for a lunch of skimpy overpriced salad, which needs later supplementation at a grocery. We continue to the west end of the lake and then take the highway to Nafels, Netstal and Glarus. Unfortunately, there isn’t time or interest from Jobst on taking a side trip to Elms to see the famous Glarus overthrust (the site where older-over-younger rocks was first recognized in the Alps).

There isn't time to do Klausen Pass, either, so we head over Pragel Pass instead. It’s a pleasant alternative. The road narrows to a single lane and has some steep sections. Meadows, cows, tinkling bells, and glaciers on the high peaks signal a return to Swiss mountain country. We pass the Klontaler See, a lake courtesy the hydroelectric company, and I scurry on up the pass.

Pragel Pass
Pragel Pass

At the summit, a herd of bleating goats scampers across the road. I want to talk to the goatherd but cannot summon enough energy to break the language barrier. I contemplate the peaks, which sport unusual cloud formations that look like smoke. It seems like we’ve been on the road forever…or have never started. The many alpine passes merge into a collage of smooth hairpin curves, the drone of insects in mountain meadows, the diesel fumes of passing vehicles, the sparkle of glaciers in the sun. It’s a mixed review. In spite of differences in cadence, I’m glad we stayed together, though wonder where separate paths would have lead. Certainly not into Torino for me, but probably not into Slovenia and Austria, either, which turned out to be highlights of the trip.

Another cyclist arrives, followed by Jobst, who pauses just long enough for a final photo op. The descent down the forested west side is steep, with grades up to 17%. Jobst shoots off and races the Colnago down the twisty descent.

“Well Mr. Racer wasn’t as fast as he thought he was,” Jobst says, when I finally reach the base of the hill. “I passed him and punched the stopwatch and he was 30 seconds off.” I don’t ask how far off I was, nor do I care.


The road opens out at Stalden and it’s a fast ride down to Schwyz. The Dierauers had told us that it was all downhill to their house, but we do some uphill in Schwyz, because we can't remember exactly how to get to their place. I check the landmark Mythen for perspective. Jobst recalls the diagonal street below downtown. I recognize the stone driveway, Jobst sees the garage door that didn’t close all the way.

I’m surprised we’ve made it back here at the same time.

The Dierauers welcome us home. The potted basal plant is several inches higher and the swifts are swooping like they’ve never stopped for breath. Mythen winks through the trees as we sit down to an outside dinner of delicious raclette with new potatoes and fresh tomatoes from the garden. Sweet local cherries and ice cream top it off for dessert.

“So how did it go?” they ask.

“Well...the weather was good,” we reply, nearly in unison.