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Alps Trip 1994

By Gavin Dixon (, 15 April 1996
Inspired by the epic Alpine stages of the TdF and GdI that I see each year on SBS TV and by the personal accounts of Jobst Brandt, Mark Chung and others on the net, I made a plan for a two-week cycle around the Alps. I flew into Zurich and found a very helpful tourist information clerk at the airport, who arranged a place in the Martahaus dormitory so that I could leave my bikecase etc in their storage room. What follows is an account of the trip. Work commitments caught up with me in the latter half of this year, thus the lateness of this report.

24/7 Zurich-Sachseln.

Followed tram #14 out on the road to Affoltern. At Affoltern took the road to Muri and then deviated left just before the Reuss R. crossing. Quiet road through pine forests on a warm summer's day. Ate lunch at Haagen-Vaas in Luzern, then headed around Luzern See towards Sarnen. Lots of locals out sun-bathing, swimming and windsurfing. Interesting to note that Europeans in general do not swim "freestyle" but instead "breast-stroke" - an unusual way of swimming in Australia. Washed under the local spigot in Sarnen and moved onto the next town, Sachseln, where I got a room at the Hotel Bahnhof. Enjoyed the afternoon sun with a swim in the lake and a long nap on one of the boat piers. Dinner in the hotel with the local youth, who had gathered to celebrate the return of a girl from a year in (guess where?) Australia. We compared the two countries in between beers.

25/7 Sachseln-Andermatt.

I knew this day would be the acid test for whether I could handle extended periods of alpine climbing. Up at 6am and got a good photo of Sarnen across the lake with Pilatus (2129m) in the background. Blew away totally some high- tech mountain biker at the base of the Brunigpass (1007m) after exchanging 'sehr schon velo'. Into the upper Aare valley past Meiringen and Innertkirchen. The Reichenbach waterfall was at full throttle, probably due to the hot summer the high glaciers were experiencing. Turned up the road to Sustenpass at Innertkirchen and the first test of the 28 tooth cog. Got a water refill from a housewife at 1000m and started running out of energy at 1600m. Settled into a numb-like state of pedalling while pondering my fate. Prepared to scrounge food off some road- side picnicers that I could see up ahead but to my dismay find it is a woman picking flowers and a man pissing over the edge. Speaking of over the edge, I began to find it more difficult to hold a straight line - not a comforting thought when the drop to the right is ~ 300m. My saviour turns out to be the Hotel Steingletscher at 1800m. Consumed lots of food and had a good rest in the warm midday sun with a grand view of the valley. A couple of guys (posers/pros) in full Telekom outfits stop that didn't get served for 25 minutes - obviously didn't look bonked enough! Chat to a fast-moving Swiss rider as we power up to the Sustenpass (2224m). Rapid descent past traffic banked up at roadworks. 70km/h average (up to 92 km/h) descent for ~ 10 min through tunnels before finally being slowed by a dump-truck. From Wassen (905m) it was a hot (unnamed) climb up to Andermatt (1447m) in time for afternoon tea at a friend's house that overlooks the village towards the Goschenertal Urseren range and Galenstock (3583m). I laze around in the sun until 8pm writing before a meal of venison (kalbschnitzel) and Barolo red.

26/7 Andermatt-Riva.

Another glorious summer day. Said goodbye to my hosts and proceeded straight up St Gottard Pass (2108m). Took the old cobbled road near the top for a good leg massage and a chat with a rider from Zurich. He had completed his army training at the pass and told me of the large office complexes that are hidden in the mountains either side of the pass. Down in Val Tremola via the good road through the tunnel at speed and on to Val Leventina and Bellinzona for lunch. Mostly downhill so not too taxing. Turned off the main drag at Quartino and travelled down the east shore of Lago Maggiore. Started chatting with a Dutch cyclist who had just come down off the Alpe di Neggia pass and was heading back towards his campsite at Luino. We worked well together powering along the S394 with its picturesque views and short tunnels before enjoying a dip in the lake with him and his girlfriend. After a beer and a good talk I headed further south to Riva and Albergo Riva, where I was warmly welcomed. Pasta, fish and a full bottle of local white while watching a thunderstorm hit the mountains behind Verbania.

27/7 Riva-Biella.

Hot, humid day (temp 38oC). Skirted around the southern tip of Lago Maggiore and across to Borgomanero where I had a talk with some young kids outside a corner store (they found it hard to believe that an Australian could speak Italian). On to Borgosesia via Boca. Stopped at the large chiesa at Boca and had a two-hour siesta under one of the nearby trees. Quiet road to Biella via Valle Mosso with several leafy, twisting climbs. However, judging by the number of roadside memorials the local drivers must use these foothills as racing course. Was going to proceed onto Ivrea but felt like an early shower, so stopped at a cheap hotel in the old centre of Biella - one of the turns on a course used by the local youth for scooter racing. Unremarkable dinner of pizza and beer.

28/8 Biella-Pinerolo.

Another day for frying at 38oC - just like an Australian summer! Great start over the leafy foothills between Biella and Ivrea with a good Milan-San Remo 'poggio type' descent into Ivrea for a breakfast cappucino and pastry. Scorching hot as I crossed the plain to Castellamonte. Stopped at a pineapple stand in Rivarolo and showed the owners how to cut a pineapple (ananas) the Vietnamese way so that it looks like a large helical cog. They were impressed enough to immediately start on more for display purposes - it's little cultural exchanges like this that I enjoy the most. Bypassed Torino via Reale, Pianezza and Rivoli before heading up the Capp. d. Collette (621m) with a view of the hazy metropolis of Torino, as well as the thunderstorm rapidly approaching from the south. Got to Cuminia before the heavens opened up, so sheltered in one of the local bars. Had a good talk with some house-painters, also brought in by the rain. This was one of the areas severely affected by the November flooding. On to Pinerolo (through the puddles), where I meet Frank, a German cyclist who had just done Col. Agnel (2741m). We shared the last 20,000 L room in a hotel/restaurant run by a chinese family right in the centre of the city and comes highly recommended (value for money, not luxury). Prosciutto and melon followed by a pizza was a great way to end a +200km day.

29/8 Pinerolo-Guillestre.

Frank decided to tackle the Pinerolo- Sestriere climb (55km; 1600m gain in elevation) before his 1 pm train from Pinerolo back to Germany, knowing that M. Indurain can time-trial it in 1:33 minutes and that the slowest rider in the 93 Giro did it in 2 hours. I started out somewhat later at 8am and made my way up the valley towards Sestriere and France. Stopped at a bar in Fenestrelle (1154m) for breakfast and watched a few cyclists go by as the morning heat rose. About a kilometre before Fenestrelle is the C. di Finestre turn-off, above which appears to be a brutal series of switchbacks. My original plan was to take this route and then take the road over the C. dell'Assietta (2472m) and the high road to Sestriere. Many maps of the area do not even include this road which made me all the more keen to explore it. However, the Pinerolo tourist office talked me out of the idea with the story that it was largely unpaved and only suitable for trail-bikes. I have since spoken to a French cyclist who claims to have ridden the route and disputes the tourist office version. I guess one must leave something for next time. Frank came zooming down the road from Laux as I made my way out of Fenestrelle - he had clocked 2:33 for the Sestriere climb and was happy with the effort. I watched the time tick past 1:33 just before the small town of Pourrieres (1418m) and I was still 16km from the top. Caught up to a teenage Italian wearing the Banesto gear and we paced one another for a while before he turned off at Traverses. Finally reached Sestriere (2035m) after 2:39 riding time - the experience just adds to my appreciation of professional cyclists in general let alone a certain Basque rider. An exciting descent down to Cesana for a pizza & beer lunch, then up into France and the Col. d. Montgenevre (1850m) in blazing heat with only the occasional tunnel for shelter against the rays. At this stage I remember looking at the top tube and the milky colour of my perspiration - later I realised that this was probably the sunblock cream coming off resulting in mild sunburn. Down into Briancon for refreshments, then up the Col d'Izoard (2360m). The initial climb is relatively unattractive until after the town of Cervieres, where the road snakes up through a pine forest. The small hamlet of le Laus has a good supply of spring water, where I stopped at the pipe across the stream and talked to some French cyclists who were camped nearby with their families. Stopped at Refuge Napolean (100m below the pass in height) for a warm drink as strong southerly winds gusted and light rain fell. One of the patrons inside remembered (with a tear in his eye) being at this spot for the 1986 TdF and seeing Bernard Hinault in yellow for the final time (can someone verify this?). A trying descent on a road full of pot-holes and a good first test of the rain jacket and thermal undergloves. The rain cleared below 1700m and I reached Guillestre (1000m) and le Catinat Fleuri hotel without much further effort by 4:30pm. Ate in grand style from the pizza wagon in the centre of town with a violent evening thunderstorm as dinner-time entertainment. A 160km day with 3.8km of vertical climbing.

30/8 Guillestre-Isola.

Straight up Col de Vars - hard going, especially without a warm-up. The first deer spotted for the whole journey despite the 100s of warning signs. Lots of English tourists at the top (2109m) so didn't stop. Saw the track which Frank had taken from Crevoux via Col du Crachet (2734m). Fast descent beside the rapidly flowing Ubaye river until the picturesque village of Jausiers. Stocked up on raisin and chocolate pastries before tackling the big one - Col de la Bonette (2802m). 24 km of steady climbing with sufficient variety of sites to keep anyone from being bored. Lots of Belgium club cyclists and French youth giving the climb their best shot. One junior stayed with me for a couple of kms before his mum pulled alongside in the family BMW and wanted him to stop for a rest. Lots of 93 TdF road graffiti and even an arrangement of rocks spelling 'Zuelle'. Past some ruins at 2400m before reaching the Col (2802m) and taking the last steep section up to the Cime de la Bonette (2862m). One could imagine the glee in the eyes of the French road engineers when they saw the extra bit of dirt (the Cime) which allowed them to put the argument of the highest Alpine road beyond doubt. It's a real scene at the kiosk - both geographically and culturally - with Italian motorbike riders posing in their polished leathers and us cyclists basking in the glory of having done the climb under our own power. I zoomed down the southern road at breakneck speed through another set of roadside ruins. Amazing views down a valley filled with hairpin turns before Bousieyas (1800m). Stopped at St. Etienne de Tinee for a pizza and beer lunch before cruising into Isola (875m) for an early finish at the Hotel de France. Armand De Las Cuevas made this one of his bases earlier this year while he honed his climbing skills. My room looked westward onto the Cascade de Louch and the sheer walls that mark the base of the Tete de Varelios (2456m). Great dinner of endive salad, roast duck and a half bottle of Cotes du Rhone.

31/7 Isola-Guillestre.

Light, misty rain fell as I pulled out of Isola. A few kms warmup loop back towards St Etienne de Tinee since the road up out of Isola (the lower slopes of Col de la Lombarde) goes straight to 11%. The rain had a number of beneficial effects: very few cars wanted to go to the Isola 2000 ski resort which left the road empty; and the resulting mist gave the route, which criss-crosses the tiny Guerche river, a certain magical quality. I tried to imagine the difficulty Robert Millar had when doing his incredible 200m acceleration past Indurain et al in the 93 TdF on these slopes. Out of the mist and confronted with the eyesore of the Isola 2000 resort. However, this was soon forgotten as I pedalled the last 5km to the Col de la Lombarde (2360m). Above the clouds and tree-line (except for a scattering of weird, stunted pines), the road hairpins every 100m. This would have to be my favourite pass of the wholetrip. Into Italy and a sharp descend over wet roads covered with cow-shit. A few good cyclists attempting this climb from the Italian side - looked like some sort of race amongst friends. Left turn at the T junction and back toward france via Col de Larche/ Col della Maddalena (2000m). By this stage the sky had cleared and I snapped a wonderful shot of the Pic des 3 Eveques from Argentera. The road down from the Col de Larche is long, straight and made for speeding - but I wasn't game enough to pass the two semi-trailers that I caught at Meyronnes. Back up the testing south side of Col de Vars (2109m) and down to Guillestre and the Hostellerie du Queyras for the night.

1/8 Guillestre-Col du Lauterat.

Late start as I had planned a reasonably short day. Powered up the Col d'Izoard past a few posers and hideously under-geared riders (one guy had what looked like a 42x21 low gear and was paying the price). Found a couple of Italians struggling with a flat tire and their stuffed Zefal mini-pump just after Arvieux, so I lent them my Blackburn Mini. A photographer jumped onto the road near the false summit and got a couple of action shots before handing me his card. Down into Briancon for a lunchtime snack and a few cheap phone calls back to Australia (calls made from Europe to oz via a card system are charged at ~ AUD$0.90 per minute cf. ~$6 per min using the French system). Up the long steady climb to Col du Lauterat (2058m) where one of Jobst's favourite stopping points, the Hotel des Glaciers, is to be found. This col is blessed with one of the most spectacular 360o panoaramas - a dozen high mountain peaks, glaciers and the Galibier road. Checked out an interesting mountain garden where I recognised a lot of the plants that I had been cycling past. Dinner at the hotel was excellent despite being cut short by an upset stomach. I woke during the night and had a few bouts of vomitting - all the while cursing the ham crossiant that I ate in Briancon.

2/8 Col du Lautaret-Bonneval sur Arc.

Ate a normal breakfast despite the gastro problems the night before. Made a slow and steady pace (39x28) up the D902 road and I reached the Col du Galibier (2646m) to be greeted by distant views of Mt Blanc once I climbed up to the lookout. Chatted to a mountain bike rider who had just arrived from a Pyrenees jaunt. To me this pass had the most character of all the passes that I climbed - one gets the feeling that it has a great history. Stayed a bit too long at the top and experienced some febrile shivering, so I donned the rain- jacket and screamed down the northern side, averaging ~ 60km/h. Startled by a hellman cyclist who flew past me and quickly disappeared down the road (I hope that is where he went). Interesting to check the cyclists coming up the road and just how many different grimaces the human face can pull. Plenty of club riders from Belgium judging by the Lotto jersies. The ascent of the Galiber from the northern side is like climbing two average height cols consecutively, with a 5 km downhill breather in between. Descending the Col du Telegraph (1566m), the lower portion of the Galibier climb, is a delight with fast cornering on very good roads. Loaded up on bananas at St. Michel-de- Maurienne and headed up the Arc valley in very hot and humid conditions. I found it tempting to take a dip in the blue waters of this fast flowing river but heeded the 'no swimming' signs. Stopped at Lanslevillard (1479m) and cooled my burning feet in the river - the water temperature couldn't have been more than 5oC. By Bessans I was beginning to tire, so I stopped at Bonneval sur Arc (1835m) and got a room at La Bergerie. Ordered a plate of spag. basilic at the local Italian cafe but didn't really have the appetite to finish it.

3/8 Bonneval sur Arc - Seez.

Greeted with a flat back tire and yet another glorious day of sunshine. Sweated profusely up the first 5 km of the Col de I'Iseran (2770m) before the upper valley came into view. Lots of hikers out on the surrounding slopes. Past a small glacier whose lip stops at the road. The last 2 kms is very demanding on both legs and eyes (intense glare). Lots of French pensioners in the souvenir shop annoyed over trinket prices. Down the road towards Val d'Isere and my barbag suddenly jumps off its mount, bounces off the front wheel and (luckily) into the ditch on the right hand side of the road. All this at 65km/h. Nothing broken so I continue down to valley past some very ugly ski hotels, through a number of short tunnels stopping at Seez (900m) at midday. Decided to take the afternoon off and rest, so I booked into Le Vallon on the main drag. Had a late lunch (finally got my appetite back) and slept until 5.30pm. Went across to the village square for some evening jazz, markets and pizza (woeful taste but filling). Picked up the magizine 'Velo' with a full rundown of the TdF, including a great shot of Chiapucci barfing on the Hautacom climb (can relate!).

4/8 Seez-Martigny.

Early start up the numerous switchbacks of Col du Petite St Bernard while still in cool shadows, past a classic-looking hotel (Bellevue?; looks like a good stop for next time). Stopped at the ski village of La Rosiere to post my 35 cards and had an interesting chat to an old Frenchman who can remember watching 'Oppy' (Hubert Oppenheim is a 91 y.o. Australian cyclist who was one of the premier long distance cyclists in 1920s-1930s - he stopped cycling last year) and was convinced that the late 90s will be remembered 'as that time when France ruled the world of rubgy' (Australia is currently regarded as the leading rugby nation, for what it's worth). Over the Col du Petite St Bernard (2188m) by 9am and down to the first Italian tourist shop, at which point I got a couple of good panoramic photos of Mt. Blanc - it totally dominates the landscape. I found out a week later that it was this day that a danish cousin of mine made it to the top of Mt. Blanc after 3 days of climbing. Past a long traffic jam, the cause of which was a semi-trailer that had taken a hairpin turn too tightly and had wedged itself on the inside bank. Turned right at Pre-st. Didier and made my way down the valley to Aosta for lunch. The heat in this city was equal to anything I have experienced in Australia, but with the unmistakable overtones of heavy industry. Found I good cafe/restaurant where I lounged about until lunch was ready to be served - good 2 course meal, beer, cappacino and pastry for 15 000 L (~AUD$12) - such prices will not be found later this afternoon in Switzerland. I was in no rush after lunch so I had a siesta in a small roadside park just above Aosta. The ride from Aosta to Etroubles was a slow, hot grind along a wide road with much traffic. The alternative route that Jobst Brandt takes over the Col d. Ferret must be more fun than this, and is definitely on the cards for next time! Stopped at the roadside trough at Etroubles and dunked my head and helmet for a long overdue cooling down. The road gets more interesting once past the entrance to the Grand St. Bernard tunnel (where virtually all the traffic goes). Reached the high valley, which is reminiscent of the southern approach to Col d I'Iseran, but has a large souvenir shop with other assorted stalls. The last 2-3km up to the pass (2469m) was difficult due to a stiff headwind and encroaching fatigue, but the various ruined buildings along the way gave me something to check out. Uneventful descent down the valley to Martigny. Braced myself for the Swiss cost of living, however, was surprised at getting a reasonable room at the Hotel Post for 65 SFr.

5/8 Martigny-Meiringen.

With another stinking hot day looming and ~85km flat riding between Martigny and Brig, I made use of the excellent train service and arrived in Brig by 11am. From here it was a taxing ride up the Rhone valley past Fiesch, Reckingen and Ulrichen to Oberwald. Lots of energetic hikers and a couple of hang-gliders circling above. A Canadian women at the bus station asked me to look out for her husband, who was waiting for her in Gletsch. Really enjoyed the 4-5km of twisting road below Gletsch, where I found a cyclist fitting his wife's description. The ride up to the Grimselpass (2165m) is not too demanding and offers a great view of the Furkapass and Rhonegletschner across the valley in the afternoon sun. This being the last big pass of the trip, it was time to stop, have a coffee spiked with some liquor and reflect on the full-on adventure take has taken up the last two weeks. The coffee was recommended by a Zurich cyclist who was doing a 2 day trip with a stop-over in Gletsch. A storm was brewing to the west behind the massive peaks of the Lauteraarhorn et al., so I hot-tailed it down the hill towards Meiringen. The impending storm cast an eerie light over the Grimselsee and the waterfall surging into its northern aspect. The long descent with few turns was the ideal setting for an attempt at a new top speed, but only managed to equal the Sustenpass descent with 92km/h. The lowest tunnel on this road has poor lighting and entering it at speed with my Oakleys on was mildly frightening. Spitting rain down to Innertkirchen, where there was no available accommodation, so on to Meiringen. Powered up the Lammi with a local cyclist before Meiringen, where I treated myself to a bit of luxury and got a room at the Park Savauge. Predictably good dinner while the thunderstorm broke outside. Someone at Rewdy's Radsports cycle shop was testing out a zippy time-trial bike in the car-park. They make their own titanium frames and forks with a natural sand-blasted finish for under 2000 SFr - nice to gawk at.

6/8 Meiringen-Zurich.

Last day of the trip. Up the Brunigpass (1007m) and back down to Lungren. Another good day for lolling about the turquoise waters of the Lungrensee, but I resisted the temptation and made my way around to Luzern. One final climb up the Albipass (790m) for a hazy view of Zurich, then one final speed thrill down into the outer suburbs. Made my way to Marthahaus dormitory where I packed my bike back into its fiberglass suitcase, changed into normal clothes and went to the lake for the afternoon. I will not forget those two weeks of adventure for a while. Total distance: 1780 km; Total climbed: 28.1 km

Flew to Copenhagen and on to a relative's farm in Humlebeak for 3 weeks of Danish summer. Lots of farmwork, Some nice cycling around Eskromsee and the surrounding forests. Girlfriend and I did a day trip to Sweden where we cycled up to Molle and the nearby headland (name forgotten, but remarkably similar to my hometown of Byron Bay). Also did a 4 day cycle around the Danish island of Fyn with my girlfriend, cousin, and 52 year old hell woman aunt (I gave her a pair of Gewiss knicks for her birthday).


Technicomps aluminium frame, Shim 105 gearset (53,39; 12-28) Speedplay X2 pedals, Michelin HiLite Road II tyres, Avocet 50 computer. The only bag I took was a Cannondale barbag (black with the solid polycarbonate handlebar mount and internal frame). Stuffed into this was: rain-jacket, spare jersey and knicks, shorts, uncreasable outdoor Patagonia long pants, lightweight skivvy, leather kung fu shoes, thermal undergloves, tire repair items, sunblock cream, chamios cream (important), Michelin maps (v. important), chainbreaker, Swiss Army knife, passport, Visa card and mixed paper currency. Also took 2 Fuji panorama disposable cameras which give surprisingly good photos as long as you have plenty of light. About 2.5kg of bag weight. I estimated ~AUD$100 per day (~US$75) and it turned out to be sufficient. No problems with bike security as long as you are sensible about where you leave it. Most hotels have a garage where the bike can be stored. Beware of any 3 wheel mini-truck in Italy.