by Curtis Gillespie
I had rarely linked the words Switzerland and drama in the past, but now that I’ve cycled its major mountain passes I know better. The distillation of this insight came while descending the epic Susten Pass. It wasn’t the car coming towards me that caused it all, it was the one that came from behind. But I’ll return to that.
Every climb starts at the bottom. Ours began on day one in the tiny hamlet of Airolo. In what I soon learned was the case throughout Switzerland, the minute we got aboard our bikes, we were climbing a ramp. It was instantaneous elevation, which was dispiriting on many levels. First, there was a stretch of about five metres for a warm-up. Second, it appeared to be a pretty little village, but I didn’t see much of it as within fifteen seconds of getting on my bike my eyes were crossed and I was puffing for breath. Third, and most tellingly, on a 400 kilometre trip with 7,000 metres of climbing I was exhausted after the first ten minutes. I was at the bottom in more ways than one. We stopped at the first main switchback, well before hitting the famous cobblestones of Le Tremola.
“Hang on,” I said to my long-suffering domestique (and close friend), Rich. “I just need to adjust my seat.”
“Bit early for a seat adjustment, isn’t it?”
I ignored him as I regained my breath and will; I knew what was coming. The 36 switchbacks of the Tremola Pass carry you from the Italian-speaking southern Alps to the German-speaking northern Alps. The Tremola is renowned for being one of the routes Napoleon utilized on his rampage while conquering Europe, and it gets its name from the Val Tremola to the south, or the Trembling Valley. Its dramatic 7 per cent gradient has featured in the Tour de Suisse more than any other climb, and is rated the number one climb in Switzerland, due in large part to being paved with cobblestones. After much trembling on my part, we finally made the pass, which brought about our introduction to the second of two inescapable facts about Swiss cycling, which is self-evident given that the first inescapable fact is that to get anywhere in Switzerland you must go up.
We zipped over the pass and down a massive chute-like valley, almost screeching to a halt in Andermatt. Gondolas and ski lifts appeared to emanate from every street corner and it was easy to imagine the cozy perfection of it during ski season. It wasn’t all that bad in the summer, either, with a lovely stream bisecting a town of tight streets and restaurants serving fondue and rosti (the classic Swiss potato dish). But as we paid our dinner bills, our feelings of peace and contentedness were popped by our guide, the former pro cyclist Alain Rumpf.
“Sleep well,” he said. “Tomorrow is a big day, a day when the climbing really starts. Up. Long. Big. The next three days. All three. Up. Much, much climbing.”
He said climbing like clime-bing, which only made it seem even more like something I wasn’t going to enjoy. The next morning, after (of course) a stiff short climb straight out of Andermatt, we progressed along a pastoral valley floor populated with cows and pastures and farms planted by the Tourism board to resemble exactly what visitors imagine they’ll see in the Swiss countryside. Our destination was the Furka Pass, famous for the scene from Goldfinger in which Bond pursues the eponymous villain along the scenic and hair-raising road. Near what I thought was the top (which turned out to be the halfway point), we could see straight back down the valley to Andermatt, floating in the distance like a mirage. We then turned a corner to find a long traverse hugging the wall of a vast bowl leading to the pass proper. Rich, as is his won’t, rode ahead a bit to test himself and also to do some advance scouting. I met him near the top. It was cooler and breezy, and as I wheezed up to where he was waiting for me, near an old abandoned inn, he said, “You’re not going to believe this view from the other side where it starts to descend.”
A couple of minutes later, we got off our bikes on a perch hanging over a vast bowl created by the Furka Pass, the Grimsel Pass, the Rhone Glacier and the valley that constitutes the origin of the Rhone river. It was 30 km in diameter and a thousand metres deep, the entire basin carved over the millennia by glacial runoff. The road plummeted away from us so sharply in vast sweeping scimitars of pavement that parts of it were not visible due to the severity of the gradient. It was instantly apparent that dropping into that bowl was only going to mean one thing, and I could see it on the far side: the Grimsel Pass.
But how were we to know—after swooping down the descent, passing through the valley, having a quick lunch in Gletsch and then punching up Grimsel—that we would be visited by an even more spectacular view cresting Grimsel east towards Meiringen. Beneath us was the dammed lake of Grimselsee, with its eerily opalescent blue waters, chalky with mountain runoff, and the descent stretching 35 km to the east. We stood there sputtering as Alain drove up to check in and see what we thought.
“It’s outrageous,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Alain grinned. “I know! This is Swiss cycling. People don’t realize.”
“Why?” asked Rich. “Why is it not more popular, more crowded? Why doesn’t everyone come here?”
“Perhaps something to do with the proximity of France and Italy,” said Alain. “Also, of course, here there is much much clime-bing. But you haven’t even gotten to the good climbs yet! Wait until the next two days, then we will see what words you have.”
Alain’s words made me ponder, later that night, why Switzerland wasn’t more overrun with cyclists, which then made me wonder, well, what is Switzerland, after all? Who are the Swiss? Yes, we know they are landlocked, have four official languages, a reputation for neutrality, a banking system that has become synonymous with secrecy, they are surrounded by the cultural titans of France, Germany and Italy, not to mention surrounded by the staggering heights of the Alps. It’s normal to think, as I did for decades before going there, that it’s a tiny little country where things work and everyone is rich and they eat well and they stay out of the way.
But it’s only when you get to Switzerland that you begin to understand the fluidity of the place, its shape-shifting richness. On any given day, in any given hour, the country can feel German, Italian or French, or, if you’re in a very specific part of the country, Romansch, a culture and language particular to that spot. It certainly seems apropos that fondue is a national dish, given that the whole country feels like a bit of a melting pot mixing the influences around them (Italian zest, French taste, German efficiency) and blended it into something quite unlike any other national sensibility. It’s a country perhaps defined by its precision, but in a joyous rather than mechanical way. They just like to do things right, even if it’s snacking on a hunk of chocolate. Why weren’t there more cyclists? There’s no reason for it.
Having survived the double climb of Furka and Grimsel, we checked into the rustic Hotel Reuti before dinner and opened our balcony door to find that we were looking straight across to the valley of the Grosse Scheidegg, at the far end of which sat the Eiger. Yes, that Eiger. It jutted into the sky like the tip of a blade glinting in the late day sun. It looked high up and far away. Very high. And very far.
“It just keeps getting better,” said Rich. “What’s our route tomorrow, by the way.”
I checked our itinerary. “Oh no,” I said.
“What?” Rich turned to me. “What’s wrong?!”
I dropped the booklet and raised a tremola hand to the Eiger. “We’re doomed.”
The next morning broke cloudy and cool. We didn’t talk much during breakfast, the mood bordering on the apprehensive, knowing what was ahead of us. The Grosse Scheidegg pass over to the Eiger and Grindelwald is one of the great climbs not just in Switzerland, but Europe. The overall length of our ride wasn’t all that daunting—a bit under 100 kilometres—but the brutality of the day’s major climb stirred a frisson into my yogurt and muesli. Nearly 30 kilometres with an average gradient of 9%, with some ramps topping out at 15%. A beast. There was no getting around it, only over it. We finished up with breakfast and got our bikes out of the van. It was time.
Grosse Scheidegg is a climb that will remain with me forever due to the gulf separating two profound yet simultaneous experiences. On one hand, I was entranced by the perfection of the ride. The road was freshly paved and as smooth as a dance floor. The route was free of cars; no traffic was allowed save the transit buses that presaged their passing with a fruity blast from a flugelhorn. And around every corner we found new expressions of Swiss mountain meadow beauty—clanging cowbells, burbling streams, pewter mountainsides, wild flowers by the side of the road, barns teetering on the side of cliffs, all with the granite wall of the Wetterhorn to our left.
But this perfection had a wicked stepsister, which was that I was in agony for much of the climb. In many sports, you can hide a deficiency in one aspect of your skillset through various sleights of hand or adaptations in other aspects. In golf, a poor driver might make up for it by having a great short game. In tennis, someone with a weak serve might make up for it by being able to scoot around the court. But when you are going up a mountain on a bicycle, there is simply nowhere to hide, no possible compensations. The stark physical reality is that if you weigh too much or aren’t fit enough, or both, you are going to experience a gruesome assortment of unpleasantries. Of course, even if you are light and fit you’ll still suffer, but at least you’ll suffer less and suffer shorter. Still, no one truly ever escapes. Everyone suffers. The night before Grosse Scheidegg, over a beer, we had asked Alain what had made him a good pro cyclist early in his career. He thought about it for a moment.
“I was good at suffering,” he said. “It was a great skill.”
It ultimately boils down to math. Namely, how much power you can produce in relation to how much you and your machine weigh. Hauling 185 pounds (what I weigh) up Grosse Scheidegg isn’t just 40% harder than if you weigh 135 pounds (what Alain weighs), it’s 400% harder. And the difficulty of the gradient increases exponentially the more you weigh. At 7% on Grosse Scheidegg, I was suffering and felt the burn, but I was managing nicely. At 8%, it changed the descriptor from effort to work. When the gradient went over 9%, it altered my ability to cope. After 25 kilometres of steady climbing that hovered between the 7% and 8% mark, we came out of the meadows and into the high alpine moraine of the final five kilometres, with the Eiger looming ahead like a giant tomahawk threatening to fall and cleave us in two. Those last five kilometres had gradients of, respectively, 12.5%, 8.5%, 9.5%, 9% and 9%, with occasional two hundred metre ramps of 15%. It was here that the suffering began to take on existential dimensions. Rich ran his dainty little 155-pound frame to the top and waited for me. I trickled in 15 minutes behind him, physically and psychologically broken. It had taken everything I had to make it up that last kilometre. At the top, there was no exhilaration. I laid down for a moment, then sat up. I ate a pastry, guzzled a sport drink.
“You don’t look too good,” said Rich. “It might be your jersey, but you look kind of green.”
“That,” I croaked, “was the hardest climb I’ve ever done.”
“I felt it, too. Especially that last five kilometres.”
“Oh, right…you mean that last five kilometres you abandoned me on?”
He grinned, evilly I thought. Only then did I notice, no longer in the distance, the Jungfrau and the looming blade of the north face of the Eiger ahead, straight down a luge run of a descent into Grindelwald. Another ten minutes on, I had recovered and was ready for the descent and the long rumply ride along Brienzersee. The ride down was a steep, sweeping, plunging thrill ride. It was hard to know how fast we were going, but it had to be 80 kmh in spots. There were no cliffs, which was maybe even more dangerous because we took more chances. The Eiger towered over our left shoulders. At the bottom, in Grindelwald, we met up with Alain for a bit of lunch. In the restroom, an elderly but fit looking man was washing his hands at the sink. He saw me in my cycling kit.
“Grosse Scheidegg?!” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Just going up?” he said.
“No, we came from Meiringen,” I said.
“From Meiringen?” he said admiringly. “The tough side!”
I nodded humbly and decided not to tell him that it took me almost fifteen minutes to do the last kilometre.
The drama of the Sustenpass and the car incident arrived the next day. It was nearly as long a climb, not as steep, but with just as much beauty. Sustenpass had a bit of everything: tunnels, flats, ramps, waterfalls (including one tunnel that went under a waterfall), switchbacks, as well as one of the key elements of any great climb, that being the chance to stop and look back over the vista of where you’ve come from and what you’ve achieved. Near the top of Susten, at the elbow of one of the upper switchbacks, we gazed back down the throat of the valley and could see a fishing line of pavement 25 kilometres away and 1500 metres beneath us. The blue sky hung like a drape over the pen-tip mountain.
I made it to the top feeling only physical pain; there was not the existential turmoil of Grosse Scheidegg. After a snack, we cycled through the Sustenpass tunnel and the drama erupted, jolting us as if we were attached to battery cables. It was like passing through a portal from one world to another, from a land of pastoral alpine bliss to the depths of Mordor. The Sustenpass descent shot away from us across a vast scree-covered valley, the dominant palette having changed from green to grey. Amidst the exhilarating mix of peaks, sky, cliffs and stone we could a thin filament of tarmac crisscrossing the drop like a wire swinging down a Christmas tree branch to branch. I thought I had grown accustomed to Swiss scale, but this was another level. We pushed off, freewheeled for a few hundred metres and were already nearing terminal velocity. I had to brake, slow, move towards the centre. I am not afraid to admit I was nervous. That was when I saw the approaching vehicle. I was ready; hands on the bars, two fingers on each brake, weight evenly distributed on both pedals. I veered a touch towards the flimsy thigh-high guardrail, over which was a drop of a few hundred metres to the valley floor, but I still felt in control and enjoying the scope and scale of it all.
The car coming up the narrow two-lane road seemed unnecessarily close to the centre line, and at precisely the moment it passed me a car I hadn’t seen also passed from the rear, meaning that for a millisecond, on a stretch of pavement ten paces wide, there was a car going north at 70 kmh, a car going south at 80 km/h, and a cyclist centimetres from the cliff edge doing 65 km/h. The passenger mirror of the southbound vehicle missed my left handlebar by a couple of centimetres. I wavered, tried not panic, tried to keep control of my machine. A bad cycling accident a couple years earlier had taught me that overreacting is almost as bad as not reacting at all, and so I didn’t try to overcorrect the drift pushing me to the edge and an untimely end had I gone over. I veered right, felt my pedal just about touch the fence, let the natural balance of the bike work in my favour, and took a hundred metres of road to move a dozen centimetres away from the edge, rather than trying to do it in ten metres, which might have led to losing control.
When I caught up to Rich 5 km further down at the apex of a switchback, I was still vibrating. The severity of the descent had gotten to him a little bit, too.
“I’m not sure I enjoyed that,” he said.
I told him what had happened with the cars.
He nodded. “It’s too gorgeous…too tight. At least on the way up it’s just pain, but on the way down there’s so much to look at and so little margin for error.”
Later, over dinner, I recounted the episode for Alain Rumpf. “There are some pretty hairy spots on these roads.”
Alain shrugged like a pro. “You go up,” he said. “You must also come down.”
It was hard to argue the point and, indeed, a version of this had become the working metaphor of the trip. I’d once asked a skilled cyclist what makes a great descender. “Someone still on his bike at the bottom,” he said, not laughing. It’s advice worth heeding in Switzerland, where the experience isn’t just visually or athletically dramatic, but occasionally real-life dramatic. Riding a bike in the Swiss Alps is the most fun you’re ever going to have while also feeling that your stomach is being turned inside out. It’s an addictive thrill. You are just one piece in an assembly of elements—gravity, gradient, suffering, speed, drama—but they work together perfectly. This is Switzerland, after all.