Our proposed distances were less ambitious than some of the other tours described on this web site, with an average of around 80km per day, with no more than 2000 metres of climbing. We were planning to travel with one pannier each, and after consulting the useful packing list for suggestions, we ended up with about 4.5 kilos of luggage per person, including a small bottle of Travel Wash that was clearly going to see some heavy action during the trip. We had no hotel bookings, which I was a little apprehensive about, needlessly as it turned out, because every hotel we tried was able to offer us a room. We usually reached our destinations around 4pm.
The flight out from Heathrow was uneventful, and I didn't need to use my carefully rehearsed arguments about why I was not going to deflate our tyres, since they didn't ask us to do it. However, the trouble really started when we arrived in Geneva, where Thea's bike was delivered off the plane, and mine was not. It turned out that British Airways had a combination of computer problems, the after-effects of a strike, and the start of the holiday rush, which had caused a backlog of 5,000 items of baggage at Heathrow.
To cut an extremely long and tedious story very short, after two days my bike had still not arrived, and I ended up borrowing a fine Raleigh touring bike from my friend Piers who lives near Geneva. He is fortunately the same height as me (6'4" or thereabouts), which is lucky, since without his kind offer, we would have been totally stuck until my bike finally arrived 6 whole days after we did. I will certainly think twice before taking my bike on a BA flight again.
After lunch by the lakeside in Thonon, we started off up the main road to Morzine, but quickly took a left turn on the D21 through Feternes, aiming to join the main D22 to Chatel at Chevenoz. This turned out to be a quiet back road, that also climbed a lot further and more steeply than Michelin indicates. After slogging up this road through forest and farmland for a good while, there was a descent to the D22 junction, where we rolled off up the valley towards Chatel and the Pas de Morgins. Stopping for Oranginas in Abondance, there was a large tank of trout outside the hotel, presumably to allow diners to condemn them in person.
The road through Chatel climbs all the way, and we stopped well before the town centre at what was to prove the cheapest hotel of the whole trip (250FFr for both of us including breakfast. YES!). We had dinner later at another hotel in town, with a fabulous panoramic view of the sun setting over the valley we had just ridden up. We were both pretty tired after the first day's ride, but it was great to have actually started the tour, after all the bike hassles in Geneva.
I enjoyed the descent less than I would normally have done, as the headset on my bike came loose on a fast, bumpy, section (a recurrent problem according to Piers). We found a very helpful bike shop in Monthey who diagnosed a chewed-up thread on the steerer, and were fortunately able to fit a headset (Fr: "Jeu de direction") with a lower stack height that worked faultlessly thereafter.
The delay meant that we started off up the climb of the Col du Pillon (1536m) at about midday. The lower slopes are through vineyards, where there was little shade, but after a while you reach the woods. After lunch in Le Sepey alongside some motorcyclists, we headed on up a flatter section, and then tackled the last 4km, which is solid 9-10%, straight up apart from one bend. It was very hot, and Thea says she found it harder than any of the Marathons she's run. The lunchtime motorcyclists were at the bar at the Col - no more than 5-10 minutes ride for them. Some people have it too easy.
The descent down into Gstaad is mostly down a valley through farmland, pure picture postcard stuff. Everywhere, people were cutting hay with scythes. It seems amazing that such a labour intensive activity can survive here, when in England, most traditional farming has long been replaced by mechanisation.
In Gstaad we eschewed the undoubted delights of the 5 star Castle hotel for the slightly more humble Hotel Alphorn, which provided a friendly welcome and huge modern room. We were now in German-speaking Switzerland, and although I've forgotten most of the German I used to know, my bad French seems to work much better with people who can also only speak bad French.
We headed along the quieter north shore of the Brienzer See, with high mountains visible on both sides of the incredibly clear blue water.
In Brienz, we stopped to watch the Brienz-Rothorn railway, with its inclined-boiler steam engines (just like the Snowdon railway in Wales). From here, we took a quiet cycle track into Meiringen. It's worth trying to follow the cycle tracks in this area, because they are well signed, and do a good job of keeping you off main roads. On the outskirts of Brienz, a rock festival was being set up. The headliners on a bill of local Euro-talent were Mannfred Mann's Earth Band. What was this, 1967?
They also haven't read the Firework Code. In the evening, it was the celebration of the Swiss National Day, and the entire populace of Meiringen obliged by wandering around, letting off enormous fireworks in the streets. For a while, it certainly didn't feel like Switzerland, as we dodged projectiles from all directions.
Although the weather on Saturday morning was still overcast, it wasn't actually raining in Meiringen as we set off to climb the Grimselpass (2165m). It was misty, and the maximum visibility all the way up was no more than a couple of hundred metres. Just like in 1993 , it started raining about half way.
At least there was little wind this time, although I could see even less of the scenery (the road follows a river most of the way, so I imagine it's very attractive). Climbing up the last hairpinned section, there was an eerie view back towards the mist-shrouded Grimsel Hospiz, which perches on top of a rocky outcrop in the Grimselsee.
We were wet and quite cold when we reached the summit hotel, and revived ourselves with hot chocolates and soup (and if they hadn't done the trick, the bill certainly would have). The car park 20 metres away on the opposite side of the road was invisible most of the time behind mist and intermittent squalls. There was a middle-aged couple in the restaurant who had chosen this weekend of lousy weather to do the loop of the Susten/Grimsel/Furka, and did not look too happy about it. Thea emptied the paper towel dispenser in the Ladies trying to dry off. Maybe that explains the prices...
I was worried about getting cold on the descent, but it's not very long, and the rain had eased a little. This is the view down into Gletsch, with the Furka road going up, and the Rhone valley road going off to the right.
Leaving Gletsch down the Rhone valley, Thea was momentarily distracted by the sight of some policemen standing by the side of the road, which caused her to crash as she crossed over the old Furka railway track (view the aftermath). Ironically, the police said they were only there because a motorcyclist had come off in the same place earlier, and they had just seen him off to hospital. Thea, although a bit sore, felt able to continue and as we rolled down the valley, conditions improved all the time. The scenery here was quite different from the Alpine farmland we had seen previously. The mountains rise more steeply out of the valley, and it's much rockier.
By the time we reached Brig, the weather was fine again, and we quickly found a good hotel. In the evening, we walked around this attractive medieval town, and had dinner in the cloister of the Schlosskeller restaurant, which provided a great meal in interesting surroundings for a low price.
No climbing today, just a descent of about 200m in the 92km ride. We managed to stay off the unpleasant main road most of the time, as not far after leaving Brig, there was a well signposted cycle track that we then followed on quiet back roads, paved farm tracks, or a path alongside the Rhone itself, all the way to Martigny. The only drawback was the increasingly strong headwind that made the final 20-30km into a bit of a drag.
We set off a little apprehensively up the Col de la Forclaz (1526m) (there are at least three other cols with the same name on my map - what is a Forclaz anyway ?). I had spotted that it climbs 1100 metres in 13 kilometres, exactly the same as Alpe d'Huez. In fact, it turned out to be a harder climb than Alpe d'Huez, because there are three long stretches each of 3-4km, with only four or five bends on the whole climb. The Alpe's "feared" 21 hairpins do at least provide an opportunity for a breather every 500 metres. Although it's hard work getting up, you are rewarded with some amazing views back up the Rhone valley, and the scenery all around the col itself is very attractive.
From the Forclaz, there was a descent to Le Chatelard (1129m) and the French border, and then a short climb to the Col des Montets (1461m). This climb was nothing spectacular, but on reaching the top, there was a terrific view onwards of the Mont Blanc range. These huge snow-covered mountains were very close, and dwarfed anything we had seen so far on our trip. Descending towards Chamonix, we passed several spectacular glaciers.
We didn't go into Chamonix, and had probably the worst cycling experience of the whole trip on the main road down to Le Fayet, which is a motorway in all but name, carrying all the traffic from the Mont Blanc Tunnel to the start of the actual designated motorway. Next time, I would take the back road to Servoz on the other side of the valley, which entails more climbing, but would be far less dangerous.
The final 300m climb up to St Gervais was busy with traffic, and the town itself was crowded with tourists and cars. We found a hotel on the opposite side of the river that was a lot quieter.
Rest day. We took the Mont Blanc tramway up to the Nid d'Aigle and the Glacier de Bionnassay (2400m). There were a lot of serious "alpinists" on the train, equipped for several days in the high mountains. Mountain bikes were *absolutement interdit*, however.
After we got back to our hotel in the mid-afternoon, the mountains were starting to disappear behind threatening clouds, and in the evening, there was a torrential thunderstorm, lasting three or four hours. The TV reported damage caused by landslides throughout the Savoie region.
Refreshed, we set out up the gently climbing road towards Megeve, Flumet, and the Col des Aravis (1498m). This col has three major sections: The first part is through a wooded river gorge; the second along a flat section of open farmland where you can see the mountainside ahead; and then the third has the serious climb, steep through the village of La Giettaz and on to Alpine farmland.
There were a number of other cyclists climbing the road, and we chatted to a woman with a nice Fondriest racing bike at the summit, after taking her picture for her, who explained that the annual international "Cyclotourisme" rally was being held in Albertville that week, and there were 2-3,000 attending it.
From the Aravis, we descended towards La Clusaz, but took a left up the Col de la Croix Fry (1477m), which is only about 2-300 metres climb from that side. The Tour had been over this col in the opposite direction, although graffitti at the top was limited to a rather half-hearted 'Virenque' in white spray paint. We had the benefit of the 10km descent to the west from the Croix Fry, which is much steeper, longer, and prettier, than the side we climbed.
After lunch in Thones, we rode back to the east again, up the main road towards St Jean de Sixt. Thunder clouds were bubbling up all around, and it suddenly became unbearably hot and humid. I had started out wearing my helmet, but had to quickly swap it for my cap as I felt my head was going to explode otherwise. The next five kilometres were not enjoyable, as we were completely drenched in sweat, slogging up a steep side road alongside the main road, that had a loose gravel surface on tar that was melting. We got into Le Grand Bornand and found a hotel before the rain started, but surprisingly it never got really heavy.
We overslept, and only just made it to breakfast in time. Still, we managed to be out on the road up to the Col de la Colombiere (1618m) at 10:15. Again, there were a lot of cyclists out, and as yesterday there wasn't much traffic. The climb from Le Grand Bornand is only 700 metres, it's not difficult, and there are some nice views of the strangely regular rocky peaks of the Aravis. The descent towards Cluses is enjoyable, and it starts with a long straight section (very depressing when you're coming up the other way, I can tell you).
We rode over the 300m Cote de Chatillon into Taninges for some lunch, and then up the valley to Samoens. Once again, there were thunderstorms about as we checked into the hotel. After dumping our luggage, we set out again towards Sixt Fer a Cheval, an impasse at the end of the valley surrounded by a 270 degree horseshoe of mountains. We were following a thunderstorm all the way up, the roads were soaking, and everyone coming the other way was drenched, but we didn't get rained on at all.
The viewpoint at the end was very busy with cars, and we didn't hang around long after admiring the panorama. We rode back down the valley very fast, and arrived at the hotel again just as the clouds opened and there was one of the heaviest and most electrical storms I've ever seen. We were very lucky not to have been caught out in it.
In the evening, the town had hired famous (NOT!) Salsa band "Les Patates" to entertain the tourists. Unfortunately, due to the rain, the free concert was moved into a covered area opposite our hotel. It is without exaggeration that I can say they were the worst band I have ever heard in my life (even worse than Iceland's Purkurr Pilnikk supporting The Fall at York University in 1982): entirely out of tune and out of time, crap music played badly, while we were trying to sleep. I wasn't happy.
Rather than go straight down the main road to Annemasse and Geneva, we turned right just after Mieussy, and took a back road through the foothills, over the Col de Jambaz (1027m) back towards Thonon. The roads were almost deserted, and it made for very pleasant cycling. There's quite a network of small cols and quiet roads in this area that would be well worth exploring further.
After two delicious salads for lunch in the square at Thonon we headed back to Geneva and Ferney, keeping off the N5 as much as we could. We got caught up in the road closures for the annual Fete de Geneve, which was partly inconvenient, but also meant we could cycle safely back towards France down some roads that are usually a bit of a racetrack.
On our final morning, we rode out from Ferney up the Col de la Faucille. I was interested to see if I could beat my previous time of 45 minutes, and was going well until about half way, when I blew up spectacularly, and eventually made it in about 56 minutes. I felt so bad that I had to employ the two bottom gears on Piers' bike, which had been unused in the previous two weeks.
At the airport, I picked up my bike, still in its original plastic bag, and later we both nervously watched the baggage handlers putting both bikes onto our plane. This time, they both arrived safely, and having seen the utter chaos that reigns in the Heathrow Terminal 1 baggage hall, I am not surprised in the least that British Airways had managed to lose my bike for 6 days.
Total 860km/10700m, about four days riding for Jobst Brandt, but ten for us... Despite BA's best efforts, it was a very enjoyable holiday. I'm sure we'll be doing a similar trip in future, although I would choose to go a couple of weeks earlier next time.
I had bought a "Cool Tool" (multi-tool) before the holiday, and found it very useful. The only job I couldn't do was loosen Thea's Shimano brake levers, because the required Allen key wasn't long enough (the incredibly stupid home-brew through-the-bars cable routing implemented by the previous owner of her bike kept making the front brake stick. This winter, it's history).
My bike, which I did not use, is a Raleigh bonded 62cm 531-alike frame with Shimano RSX STI, 46/36/26 and 13-23 7 speed block. Piers' Raleigh 531 touring bike had a mixed transmission with 48/38/28 rings and 12-28 7 speed block. Thea's bike is a 49cm 531 frame with Campagnolo Mirage 52/42/32 with a 13-28 7 speed block (I now wish I had gone for the 50/40/30 option instead).
Particularly recommended hotels, prices for two including breakfast. Chatel: La Chaumiere (250FFr). Gstaad: Hotel Alphorn (110SFr). St Gervais: Hostellerie du Neyer (300FFr)