The first day started with a train ride from Zurich to Bergün/Bravuogn (1367m) at the foot of the Albula Pass (2312m). The Albula was the first real test for me and my new bicycle. I had never ridden a 2000+ meters pass on this bicycle and was a bit concerned with the bigger gears it has when compared to last years Sachs 3x7. However, I rode up the pass almost effortlessly (well, I'm exaggerating a bit here) going at 9 to 11 km/h which is pretty fast for me (I know. I'm no Pantani...) and didn't feel tired when I got to the top. I had a lunch of spaghetti and salad in the friendly and not too busy restaurant at the top. After eating I rode down the quick and in places steep descent (today's top speed 74,5 km/h) into the Engiadina valley to La Punt(1687m). The Albula is one of my favourite passes in Switzerland because of its relatively little traffic, its rugged beauty and its spectacular stretch of railway track. I also have fond memories of a week's holiday I spent in Bergün earlier this year with my family.
I slowly gained my inner calm and realized I was finally on my way to this year's Big Bicycle Adventure. I followed the road down the valley. In Zuoz I received a thorough bottom-massage from the cobblestones in the centre of town. A short ways before Zernez there was a quick, heavy downpour. The forecast had predicted rain in the morning and fair weather for the afternoon. Of course it was the other way round: so much for weather forecasts. If you've read last year's report you already know my opinion on weather forecasts.
At Zernez (1473m) I turned up the Ofenpass/Pass dal Fuorn road leading into the Münstertal/Val Müstair. After a steep beginning, the incline is less severe and then the road even descends a bit down to the junction with the tunnel road from Livigno. I don't like descents in the middle of a pass road because I know I'll have to ride it the other way again in a short while. When I finally arrived at the top of the Ofenpass (2149m) I started feeling tired after all and had to revise my idea of inexhaustible power I had felt when on the Albula. Down sweeping curves it went to Santa Maria where I planned to stay in the youth hostel. The youth hostel was really cool, not much luxury but clean, cosy rooms. The only other guests were also travelling by bicycle: two young women from Germany who had just passed their Abi exam and were now celebrating on a bicycle tour. And another man from Germany who seemed to be a seasoned tourer too. They were all planning to go up the Umbrail and Stelvio passes and then down into the Südtirol/Alto Adige the next day.
In the evening I went to the hotel Stelvio for dinner and to watch the France-Italy football game. France won, and they deserved to win I must say, even though my emotions were mixed. On the whole I was off to a good start in spite of the weather!Back to Contents
The road up the Umbrail has a stretch of almost exactly 3km which is unpaved, but of very good quality and easily rideable on a slim-tyred road bike. The small restaurant just by the Swiss customs house now also has beds but I usually prefer to stay the nights in valleys. I feel I recover better when sleeping at lower altitudes.
At the top of the Stelvio (2758m) I met the two young women from the youth hostel. It turned out they had left the hostel at 5:30 in the morning! After looking at their baggage racks I knew why: they had enough gear to equip an entire boy scout camp. There even was a solid-metal car number plate of their home-town at the back of the panniers! While I personally wouldn't want to travel this way, there is always more than one way to do it and they seemed to be happy enough, so that's ok.
This year I took the little walk up to the Tibethütte from where the view down the hairpin turns and over to the Ortler is a little better still. Last year it had been cloudier and I think I was too preoccupied with actually being there - on top of the Stelvio! - to care much about the view, but this year I really enjoyed it. There was some sort of motorcycle reunion at the Stelvio for there were more than a hundred of them. Some were very old and I was amazed they made it up this mountain at all.
Then I was on my way down this famous one-of-a-kind descent. First there is the hairpin section. After what appears to be dozens of hairpins I looked at one of the marker stones in the corners and noticed that I was still above 2100 meters! The road wound down endlessly until I finally arrived in Prato/Prad (911m) from where I continued down the Vintschgau/Valle di Venosta towards Meran/Merano (320m) and Bozen/Bolzano (266m). This is a spectacularly beautiful, rich, juicy-green valley, lush with fruit trees and dotted with picturesque villages.
I once again made the mistake of trying to follow the bicycle paths. They appealed to me because they were off the main road SS38 and there was no traffic. Unfortunately they almost invariably turned out to be fit only for mountain bikes or ended somewhere in the middle of nowhere. When will I ever learn?
I had a panino in a really weird restaurant called "Zum roten Adler" (the red eagle), which was full of men of all ages playing at cards and talking to each other with much fervour. After this mini lunch I'd finally had it with bicycle paths and took the SS38 for the rest of the way to Meran. Somewhere along I overtook the guy from Germany I had met in the youth hostel in Santa Maria. I had lost so much time on the paths that he was in front of me now. We continued together until Meran, where he stayed for the night. After a quick tour through the town, which looked friendly enough, I carried on towards Bozen near where I intended to find a hotel. My original plan had been to stay in Blumau/Prato all' Isarco but when I got there the only hotel I found was closed for the day and so I continued on a small road leading East, lured by a sign announcing the Pension Eden in 5 kilometres. Shortly afterwards there was also a sign announcing a 20% rate of climb, but I was too far gone by now. The climbing wasn't so bad and the valley was of a quiet, magical beauty. The only sound was that of a mumbling brook and there was green forest everywhere and bizarre rocks. Shortly before I arrived at the small dwelling of Breien there was another sign showing a threatening 24% climb ahead and now the climbing got really tough. Luckily it was also where the Pension Eden was and it was open, friendly and had great food home-made by "Mamma", or should I say "Mutti", as I was still just in Südtirol and the language spoken was German. I was glad I had found the Pension open: I really started to feel the day's kilometres in my legs and I had also failed to replenish my drinking bag a long time ago in the firm (but wrong) belief that I would soon arrive at the day's destination.Back to Contents
I set out late, at 9:20 after a hearty breakfast at Pension Eden, and now learned what the 24% sign really meant: it was unbelievably steep. I knew it couldn't go on like that for very long or I would have ended up on top of Mount Everest. But while it lasted, it was hell. The steep little bugger of a road after 3km finally joined the main road from Blumau to Tiers which now seemed flat to me in comparison. I could see the Rosengarten/Catinaccio in the background and was impressed and fascinated. If this was only the beginning of the Dolomites I was in for something good! I carried on towards the Nigerjoch/Passo Nigra (1688m) on a relatively easy road. From now on, of course, most any road seemed relatively easy to me :-
I tried to ride without using much energy in the hope my legs would recover somewhat from today's initial effort. From the Nigerjoch over to the Karerpass/Passo di Costalunga (1745m) it was virtually flat except for the last hitch of maybe 70m. I rode down into the Val di Fassa and over to Canazei (1465m) where I had a decent Risotto ai funghi for lunch, before tackling the Fedáia pass (2057m). So far I still felt strong and didn't feel very tired when I arrived at the top. I seemed to have recovered reasonably well from this morning and was very confident I could reach Cortina today. The only thing that could possibly stop me now was the increasingly bad looking weather.
For the moment, however, it was time to go on and I rushed down the
East ramp of the Fedáia pass. It was here that I went faster
than ever before on a bicycle, 85 km/h, and without trying hard: this
is the perfect road for a speed record! I'm sure if you know the road well
you can go even faster. I also didn't trust my brakes at this speed and
therefore didn't push it. They are great up to 35 km/h and ok up to 50
km/h. Beyond that, they behave more like speed attenuators. I had also
noticed that the rims got very hot and I have a clear picture of what happens
if a tyre blows right while you're banking into a corner at this speed...
I need to add a little disclaimer here, principally addressed to residents of
lawsuit-happy countries: descending a mountain pass at high speeds on a bicycle is
a dangerous activity and may lead to death or injury. By no means try to
reach speeds as high as those mentioned in this article. Stay below 20
km/h at all times. If in doubt, get off of your bicycle and walk until
you are on a level road again.
Speaking of accidents: farther down the Fedáia in a tunnel there was a large Mercedes limousine with a slight dent and beside it a scooter lying on the ground in a patch of oil. There were also several police and ambulance cars. Yes, the danger is real, also on a bicycle, but what would life be like if you tried to avoid all the risks?
Once down in the valley, my plan was to take the Passo di Giau (2233m) to Cortina d'Ampezzo. Somehow I missed a junction and ended up riding the Falzarego (2105m) instead. This was not a bad trade as the Falzarego turned out to be a most beautiful pass and traffic, while lively, wasn't unbearable. The ride down into Cortina was sensational and my expectations were more than met. The town lies in a valley surrounded by a crown of Dolomite mountains each trying to be more beautiful than its neighbour. The low sun bathed the rocks in warm colours. Now this is definitely World Class Scenery and I'm not easily impressed. I rolled into town, turned left into the pedestrian area and found a friendly hotel in the middle of Cortina. For dinner I had a large pizza and a large beer.Back to Contents
I followed the road down towards Bruneck/Brunico and turned right at Olang/Valdára towards Rasen/Rasun, Antholz/Anterselva and the Staller Sattel/Passo Stalle (2052m). The road from Toblach to Bruneck had heavy traffic in spite of it being relatively early in the day. It was altogether unpleasant. Up the Antholzertal/Val di Anterselva it was very quiet and pleasant. The road looked innocent but was steeper than it seemed. The last part before the pass is a one way road (with directions switching every thirty minutes or so). I ignored the red lights since they made sense only for cars and carried on plodding up the last bit before the pass. After I arrived on top of the pass which is also the border with Austria I took a short break and had a sip from a fountain of alleged healing powers. After this, I dived down into the Defereggertal and towards the Iseltal and Lienz. Thanks to the Schengen treaty and European integration the border controls at the top of the pass were closed and, in fact, looked like relics from different times. In just a few years from now I won't even need to take three different currencies with me anymore (and keep several more in envelopes at home)!
The clouds looked increasingly like rain and it finally started pouring when I got down to the Iseltal. There was a quite pleasant bicycle path which was paved everywhere except for a very short stretch which of course, in these conditions, left me covered in mud from head to toe. I also hit a stone so hard I was sure I had caught a snake-bite puncture but luckily this wasn't so. The bicycle path led all the way to Lienz and on into Carinthia to Oberdrauburg, where I stayed for the night at the Gasthof "Linde", just a short way before town. It was very authentic and it feels like empress Sisi had just left the room, kind of weird, but friendly enough. Dinner was in the kitchen with the other guests. The hotel was also value priced at ATS 280.
Today I felt good and could have gone farther if it hadn't been for the bad weather but I was sure I could make good use of these "unused" resources during the following days. The weather forecast for the next day wasn't exactly encouraging. I was hoping there wouldn't be any rain but someone at the Gasthof even mentioned something about snow down to 1300m ... We will see.
It was also funny to note how different the same language can sound in different places. The people here spoke German - my mother tongue - but it was still difficult to follow them sometimes.Back to Contents
After crossing the Gailbergsattel (982m) I went on down the Gailtal (river Gail valley) to Rattendorf in little traffic. The Drautal as well as the Gailtal were sleepy but quite nice, now that they could be seen at all because of the better weather. At Rattendorf I began the sometimes nasty climb up the unspectacular Nassfeldpass/Passo di Pramollo (1530m). Once at the top of the pass I was treated to a first glimpse of the Julian Alps and an altogether different scenery: on the Italian side, this pass is wildly romantic and picturesque all the way down to Pontebba/Pontafel (561m). The descent was pretty long and fast too. Pontebba was the first town on this trip that had - to me - an authentic Italian flavour. The other Italian towns I had passed through so far had either been in Trentino, where everything looks Austria anyway or in the Dolomites where they had a pretty generic "Alpine" appearance. Down here it was now also really warm.
I continued down the main road to Chiusaforte. Traffic was light, as there was a highway just beside the main road. The whole area since the top of the Nassfeldpass is a sort of "Geheimtip", there also seems to be little tourism. In Chiusaforte I had a late lunch of Spaghetti and green salad and caught up with the latest developments at the World Cup. On Italian TV they were still discussing how the early demise of the Italian team could have happened. After lunch I continued up the wonderful Canale di Raccolana, a narrow valley leading up to the little pass of Sella Nevea (1190m). The whole valley seems to be forgotten by the world, only at the pass there are two "test tube resorts" with an architecture in complete disregard of its surroundings. But just meters after the pass you are unspoilt, wonderful scenery again. The ride over to the foot of the Predilpass (1156m) at lake Predil (959m) was pleasant, descending lightly. Up at the pass, which is also the border between Italy and Slovenia, I made the Italian customs man's day with my Lord Kitchener style cap. I admit it may look funny, but it did serve me well in protecting my head and neck from sunburn. The Slovenian border control, in turn, is the first to want to see my ID card since I left home.
The weather has deteriorated some and it all looks like rain now. Time is also running out, it is already 5pm and I wonder how I'm going to make it to Kranjska Gora today. However, I had taken it into my head to make it there today so after the fast run down towards Bovec I took the turn left before town, Northbound to the Vrsic-Pass (1611m). The whole landscape of the Julians really impressed me so far. They are not as high as the Dolomites or other parts of the Alps, but they make up for it in many ways. The road followed the river Trenta and was climbing very slightly. There were kilometre marks at the side of the road counting down to 0 at the Vrsic-Pass (or so I thought). However, as I entered deeper and deeper into the valley and the marks had counted down to 3km, I knew something was wrong. There were only walls of rock around me and I wondered if and where there was an exit. But as is often the case in the mountains, there was an unexpected exit eventually and the Vrsic-Pass revealed itself to be a mini Stelvio when I saw a sign with the number 50 and the altitude (654m). I now knew I had the brunt of the pass still ahead of me. I had thought/hoped/led myself to believe that I was already at 800 or 900m. Now of course the stern reality hit all the harder. It was also very motivating to find a sign at every turn telling the remaining number of turns and the altitude reached. It was less than motivating that it started to rain in earnest now and it also became very cold, the higher I got. I also was getting tired. It happened for the first time that I had to push the bicycle for the last 500m or so, not because it was particularly steep, but I was simply too exhausted. I guess I would have needed another banana or so :-)
When I finally arrived at the top it was bitingly cold and in spite
of the warm and dry clothes I now put on I was shivering with the cold.
I therefore hurried to get down on the other side, into warmer regions
and a hotel room. The view down the other side, again, was spectacular
and absolutely worth the trouble. They rain had also stopped and the sun
was shining again. On the whole, I was impressed with Slovenia's Alps,
of which I ignorantly hadn't expected much beforehand.
The descent didn't go as fast as I had hoped because of the cobblestone curves. I had to brake down hard before every turn and lost lots of time and brake rubber... At last I did arrive in Kranjska Gora (810m) however and headed into the first hotel to the left (Hotel Lek) where there were friendly rooms, friendly staff and a great dinner of soup, mixed salad, rump steak, potatoes, broccoli and tomatoes, as well as dessert.
This fulminant start was to turn into a long drag for the rest
of the day. First, I fought my way through Villach's tiresome traffic,
then I turned up the lower Drau valley where I was greeted by a strong
headwind.This wind was to be my faithful companion for almost all
of the day. If you have ever been in a similar situation on a bicycle,
you know how absolutely devastating this is for your motivation.
On top of that, there was a bicycle path all the way to Heiligenblut, and, as is usually the case with bicycle paths, only suitable for road bicycles for about 20 percent of the way. The trouble is: you don't know which 20 percent. It is also very scenic, or, put slightly differently, you are led across the valley and back again and up the hills and down again, etc. such that it easily doubles the actual mileage covered.
Once past Obervellach, I lost my nerves and just followed the main road. This was not too bad and I eventually slugged my way into Heiligenblut. I found the youth hostel where a sign told me that it would be open from 5 pm (it was now 7:30). In spite of the sign, the hostel was closed: thank you ÖJHV! Fortunately, there are enough other options and I stayed at Hotel Post, which was friendly with nice rooms, and reasonably priced at 40 Euro.Back to Contents
The ride down from Fuschertorl to Zell am See is just great. The road has a good surface and is steep and wide enough to allow easy overtaking of Dutch tourists who are driving in the mountains for the first time. But it still wasn't so steep I'd have had to worry about my brakes. The curves are narrow enough to be fun but not so narrow that you need to slow down too much. And - this descent lasts forever!
Once down at the bottom of the valley, my spirits rose as the temperatures got more humane and the gales were gone. There was a lot of traffic on the road to Wald im Pinzgau but I didn't experiment with bicycle paths this day. There was only light headwind and my still adrenaline and endorphine saturated body went like an animal. After two decidedly un-energetic days, I felt again the power that is in me and the bicycle. I stayed at Haus Lechner in Wald im Pinzgau (885m) at the foot of the Gerlospass, which has cute rooms and an unconvincing breakfast for 23 Euro.Back to Contents
From Sterzing a well behaved road with few steep sections leads up to the Penser Joch/Passo di Pénnes (2214m). There were amazingly many people at the top. The run down to Bozen/Bolzano (266m) is long and interesting but does have a few unpleasant, unlit tunnels in the lower section. Down here in the Südtirol it was stifling hot, actually for the first time during this holiday. Even though I like warm, even hot temperatures, it was an additional load for my body and I felt sluggish. When I got higher up on the Mendelpass/Passo di Mendola (1363m) it cooled down again. The Mendelpass is even more well behaved than the Penser Joch and I suspect Pantani wouldn't not notice he was going up a pass. I was out of water about half the way up the pass, but luckily there was a fountain with fresh, cool water soon after and I could stock up on water. Somewhere on the way to the Passo di Tonale I stayed in the hotel just to the right when you get into Romallo (733m). This was an ok place, but has obviously seen better times. In the evening I watched the World Cup finals, which, I must admit, France deserved to win, even though my heart was beating for Brazil, myself having once lived in that country for the better part of a year.Back to Contents
I cycled on as if nothing had happened and there was incredible peace and quiet. When I came to the section where last year there had been nothing but a gravel road I saw the new road surface, a perfectly smooth, black asphalt, but still just as narrow as before and much steeper than I had remembered. Getting farther up, I was passed by a motorcycle which had somehow managed to sneak past the police and road block. About five minutes later this same motorcycle came down again, the rider shaking his head at me.
I was getting a bit worried by now that maybe this year it would indeed not be possible to get past the construction works, but then again it was difficult for me to imagine how it should be impossible to go somewhere on a bicycle. At last I got to the construction site and already from far away a worker was nono-ing his finger at me. I rode up towards him and got off the bicycle trying to appear as inoffensive as possible. He told me what I already knew, that passage was forbidden for any vehicle and that I should return. I offered I would carry my bicycle and continue on foot. After some talking and after I promised I would not tread on the fresh asphalt, he let me continue. Phew! I think the workers wore really pissed off at all the motorcycle riders blatantly ignoring the road-blocks and signs.
After I had got past the machines and new asphalt, there was still about a kilometre of unpaved road and then a longer stretch of road that was visibly once paved but in a really bad state, so I think they may fix this too. From a short ways before the tunnel on to the top and down to Santa Caterina the road is in decent shape. I never met any motorized traffic till the top other than two lorries full with steaming hot asphalt and a lost looking car driver coming my way who asked me if it was _really_ impossible to get through by car. I told him as far as I could tell it was impossible for a car, but he tried anyway. The tunnel is almost as scary, by the way, as is the cliff road. It is unlit, and when a huge lorry came my way, its sound amplified infinitely by the rock walls of the tunnel, my heart beat like crazy and I was glad when eventually it passed me without hitting me.
In my admittedly irrelevant opinion it should be easily possible to finish the roadwork this year, but then I already thought so last year. Either the difficulties are greater than I know, or they have some sort of rationing scheme to make the work last longer. I asked at the Hospice at the top of the pass but the woman there didn't know anything or she didn't understand my shaky Italian. However they were renovating the hospice, so I'm sure they expect more traffic shortly or they wouldn't make the investment. Anyway, enjoy the special character of the Gavia as long as it lasts. I think even after reopening it will not be often travelled, because the road will still be very narrow and steep in places. The best thing the Italian authorities could do, in my opinion, is to keep it closed for motorized traffic even after the road has been repaired :-)
I don't know what kind of devil possessed me but when I arrived in Bormio (1222m), I decided I might as well go on as far as Livigno. I did arrive at the Foscagno pass (2291m) eventually, but had to take many breaks, which is usually sign that I had overestimated my forces. The increasingly cold and wet weather didn't help any to better my mood and motivation. The way down into Livigno was good for 80 km/h, especially because I was cold and tired and really eager to get to a warm place: I stayed in the first hotel to the right, the Hotel Loredana, which was cosy and friendly and had a nice bathtub.Back to Contents
Once in Thusis (723m) I began the long leg down the Rhine valley, past Chur and Landquart, where I had lunch in a roadside Pizzeria in an industrial area. Very nice. It was getting dark by the time I arrived at the foot of the road up from the Rhine valley (450m) to Wildhaus (1090m) but felt good and I finally arrived there in pretty good shape, to be welcomed by my wife and two kids.Back to Contents
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After travelling 1450km of Alpine roads, this year I have come a fair bit closer to "discovering" the Alps by bicycle. The big white spot on my personal map of the Alps now is the Western Alps of France and Italy. If time allows, I will ride there next year. Stay tuned...
Also recommended is Denzel's "Grosser Alpenstrassenführer" (ISBN 3-85047-753-3, Verlag Harald Denzel KG, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria, only available in German) which has a description of almost every mountain road in the European Alps and is updated regularly.
For this trip, however, I used a brand new Centurion aluminium road bicycle. At 10kg it is about half the weight of my touring bicycle and I could really feel this on the ramps! It is a beautiful dark green and comes with Shimano 105 8-speed drive train (except for the brakes and derailleur which are Shimano 600), with a 39/53 chainwheel and a 13-23 cog set. I replaced the 21 and 23 tooth sprocket with a 24 and 28 for this trip and found this to be a very adequate set-up for my level of fitness. Just for completeness' sake the rims are Rigida DP18, and I rode on the factory fitted Vredestein Fortezza tyres. These were ok while they lasted, but didn't last very long. The rear tyre was run down after only 4000km and I will try my luck with different tyres next year.
Many thanks to everyone who contributes and thereby makes my life more
wonderful. The least I can do is try and contribute in a little ways myself.
© 1998 and beyond by Christian Gfeller (email@example.com).