In those years, all able bodied men had to serve two years in the military or some equivalent, so through ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps), I chose the Corps of Engineers, and Germany for my duty station. I couldn't get stationed in Switzerland, so Germany seemed close enough.
I wrote this ride report to Spence Wolf, whose Cupertino Bike Shop (10080 Randy Lane) was the source of professional racing equipment in our area and served the Pedale Alpini well. Spence bequeathed all his bicycle memorabilia to Peter Johnson, who at a recent 40 year Pedale Alpini reunion returned the many letters, post cards, and photos to their senders. I received this text to go with the photo album and map that I had kept from the ride, a ride that remains in my memory as if it were yesterday, and I think, that is why I enjoy going back every summer to see the same places and stay with the sons and daughters of the hotel owners that I met on that trip.
I got on a train to Frankfurt, where I changed to a train headed for Switzerland and enjoyed the scenery of the Rhine valley as we rolled through Darmstadt, Karlsruhe, and Freiburg. In Basel Bad (D), customs agents got on the train to inspect passports and baggage. When I explained that I had a bicycle hanging in the baggage car, I was told, "no, it's in German customs at Basel Bad" and that when I arrive in Basel (CH), I should take a tram back across the border and retrieve the bicycle.
I pushed off from the ornate 19th century Lucerne train station on my great blue Cinelli SC that felt strange because: 1. I hadn't ridden it in nearly a month, and 2. I had a saddlebag, weighted down with two Vitomatic (brass housing) cameras (color + B&W), spokes, Campagnolo freewheel remover and spare freewheel, and two spare tubulars and tools. Of course I also had bike and street clothing and a rain cape.
I rode along the lake to Kuessnacht and around the Rigi mountain past the Zugersee and to my old stomping grounds in Lauerz and Seewen to visit friends, where I was treated to a lunch, and beer and snacks respectively. The folks were surprised to see me in full size, having last seen me as a little eighth grader ten years ago. I dropped in on my classmate Karl Kaelin the watchmaker in Schwyz, who also invited me to lunch. I could not let on that I had just eaten 20km down the road, and as a growing lad I could handle that fairly easily, having not made a pig of myself earlier.
From Schwyz it's a gradual descent through Ibach to Brunnen on the Vierwaldstettersee (lake of Lucerne) where I visited Heri Naepflin another old schoolmate who runs a hotel in this lovely vacation town in the midst of William Tell country. I was invited to stay, and not being in any great bicycling shape I took the offer, bringing my distance to 40km for the day.
The next morning I started early along the Axenstrasse, that spends a good part of its time in tunnels as it hangs on the cliffs that drop vertically into the deep blue lake. The sun doesn't reach the valley until later, the mountains being so steep. It was along this stretch that William Tell fooled the Austrians who had taken him captive and were caught in a storm on the lake. He convinced them that their only hope was a cove along the cliffs. Here he jumped to a crag and made his escape on goat trails on the cliffs while they were shipwrecked... at least that's the story according to Schiller who "chronicled" these events in heroic prose. Today there is a chapel at water's edge commemorating the event at Tellssprung.
I took pictures with both cameras with some judgment about what I should attempt to capture for my recollections of this adventure. After Fluelen at the end of the lake, I rode through Altdorf where Tell, with crossbow on shoulder and son at his side, stands in bronze in the town square, twice as large as life. From here the valley becomes narrower before the road starts its climb at Amsteg, the end of flatland, to the Gotthard. I ground uphill spritely to Wassen where I stocked up on fresh bread and cheese. Things changed as I headed into the tunnels and up the Susten pass in my 47-22 low gear that had always been good enough for the hills at home. However, the Susten does not let up for 20km and I noticed it, especially in my poor condition.
Having anticipated this, I installed my 14-16-18-21-25 freewheel that seemed to be the right combination as I continued to the summit. The Susten was tough because it is nearly straight and constant. At least 3km of road are visible ahead at all times but usually more. The air was cool and clear on the top as I rode through the long summit tunnel after which the road cuts through huge snow drifts before exposing a huge glacial panorama with Wagnerian grandeur. The descent through this spectacular landscape was exhilarating but was interrupted twice as I had to turn the front wheel around because the tubular glue was melting and the tire was bunching up at the stem.
At the bottom of the hill, in Inertkirchen, I turned south, heading up the Grimsel pass to stop at Gutannen for a grocery store food stop. These roads were all familiar to me from the family car but I had no idea how far or high except that they were wiggly lines on the map that had little meaning for me, having never experienced them on a bicycle. I continued with no plan in mind and found that it was getting dark as I came to Handegg, a hotel with hiker's dormitory. Being early in the season, no one was around, so I parked my bike inside and got a good nights rest using a sleeping bag for a blanket. I thought I had done well with 98km for the day mostly up hill.
I started at the crack of dawn, that doesn't come all that early in the spring, especially between these granite walls. With new life in my legs, the Grimsel felt good even with the steeper sections and hairpin turns. At the summit lake, between huge walls of snow, I met the sun for the first time as I stood on wobbly legs from my empty stomach. The view into the Rhone valley with the backdrop of the much higher Furka Pass was breathtaking, the rim of the glacier catching the early light. I downed a couple of fresh rolls and cheese before descending the series of hairpins to Gletsch, almost vertically below, again with two wheel changes due to creeping tire.
The Furka pass was a narrow unpaved but smooth and firm road and was easy in comparison, but then having eaten probably made the difference as did the fruit I bought at a stand in Gletsch where things were otherwise still pretty quiet in the shadow of the mountain. The Rhone glacier was a lot shorter than I had remembered it but the river seemed to flow as fast as ever with its greenish glacier milk pouring from the bottom of the wall of ice. I posed in front of the glacier for a photo with a volunteer cameraman using my cameras. Above, I rode past the closed Belvedere hotel that had seen its last guests in 1939, and on over the broad summit with all its old auto repair garages for the breakdowns that were routine in the 1930's.
On the descent to Realp I completed a couple of high speed sections and came out of a hairpin turn when the front tire blew with a resounding report. The rim was so hot that I burned my finger as I pulled the wheel out. The rim glue was as soft as honey as I pulled the tire from the rim, holding the wheel by the spokes. On a new tire, I rode down to Realp where the road was again paved and on to Hospental where I headed up the broad new concrete Gotthard highway that had recently been completed from Goeschenen to the summit. This part of the road has no special scenic attractions but to make up for that, the south side is still old paving stones in the Val Tremola with many hairpin turns and a grand view into Ticino to the south.
On the way down the hairpins I blew out my new tire as it piled up against the valve. I put on another tire and being annoyed at the frailty of my tires, something no one had mentioned, I rode down the valley taking no pictures and thinking about what I would do about this state of affairs.
At Bellinzona I dropped in at the train station and picked up my suitcase that I had shipped from Lucerne so that I could have another cut at what I needed in the touring bag. I got out another pair of tires and shipped the suitcase on ahead to Milano, still not sure of what else I forgot. In Giubiasco I found a farmer who put up low budget tourists from time to time and allowed me and a another guy to sleep in his hayloft. I and the hitchhiking student talked about our trips before getting a so-so night's sleep. I had done only 126km that day but decided not to go up the San Bernardino with such bad tire performance.
I started early, heading south toward Milano over the Monte Ceneri pass to Lugano where a golden sunrise bathed the downtown as the shadow of Mt Sighignola from across the lake receded from this corner of the lake. Lugano is surrounded by beautiful chestnut covered hills with cone shaped Monte Bre to the east and San Salvatore to the south, each with a funicular cable car to the top. I rode through the luxurious downtown that was preparing for another tourist day, and headed south along the lake to Melide that by now was out of the shadow of Monte Generoso. I soaked up some rays, washed my face in the clear cool waters as I watched fishermen load their boats.
Both the road and railway cross the lake on an earthen causeway from Melide to Bissone on the way south in the shade of the Generoso toward the Italian border in Chiasso. The valley was still warm from the day before as I stopped for a snack in Riva San Vitale, the little town where I had gone to summer camp years ago. Returning to Capolago on the main road I watched the Monte Generoso cogwheel train head up the mountain on its bench in the vertical cliff before it vanished in the horse shoe arch of a tunnel.
Mr Sieber seemed to be a relic of the pre-war era and lived in this factory of dreams that will never come back. He had piles of excellent tires that were stored well but didn't seem to move out of inventory, judging from dusty idle machinery that made them. He had road and track tires, some of which he said were prized in Australia. Then he showed me his wood rims that he assured me would never melt glue on the steepest descents. We went to a nearby Stella factory that stocked stainless spokes but made primarily umbrellas. Armed with the right length spokes, I rebuilt my wheels with wood rims using Sieber's washers and one inch long brass nipples for the deep wood section.
The whole place was full of fine bicycling equipment like high quality road and track shoes. The track shoes were super light and shaped as though for high heels. The shoes all had solid steel reinforced soles and light weight uppers.
Having ridden only 57km I had much time and energy with which to unspoke my useless Fiamme aluminum rims that I hung on a nail in a dusty corner as I got to work building my first set of wooden wheels. I spent the afternoon tightening and truing up my "new" elegant woods. One of the young ladies in the office that turned out to be Mr Sieber's daughter repaired my blown Clement tubulars that had ripped their stitching from piling up on the stem.
The next morning with tires glued and wheels true, I thanked Mr Sieber for all his help and rolled on to Milano where I stopped at the train station and got rid of some extra clothes into the suitcase. I headed east across town on the via Andrea Doria and via Porpora to Lambrate, to via Egidio Folli 45 where the Cinelli factory is located, producing bicycles, bars, and stems at a great rate. Mr Cinelli's office lies next to a branch of the Lambro river that is apparently a main sewer outfall.
I found a sharp contrast with the surroundings and the buzzing thriving factory that was producing such elegant machinery. Mrs Cinelli briefly mentioned her days at Sieber, and that she had been his secretary for years when a young bicycle racer from the Toscana, who dropped in for equipment on occasion, offered her his hand. Cino looked at my bicycle and how it fit me and said that he would do something about that tomorrow after giving it some thought.
In the morning he had me ride around the yard a few times and then raised the saddle a bit and moved it forward. He put his newest model 360mm extra wide bars with deep reach on a 120mm stem, placing the brake levers in a better position. Down below I got the newest Campagnolo crank spindle and 180mm five-pin Cinelli (Magistroni) steel cranks that finally gave me true running chainwheels in contrast to the previous three pin style. He was disturbed by my choice of wooden rims and tried to get me back on Fiamme aluminum but I didn't take.
Having put back only 48km from Como yesterday, I was determined not to waste that afternoon. I saw a good cross section of Milano on the way back to the train station, visiting the Duomo, the Galleria, and La Scala before heading north to Lecco. On the way I went through Monza and tried to see the Autodromo, but couldn't due to red tape and the fact that it was after 5 PM. I moved on trying to see the Gilera motorcycle factory in Arcore to no avail. Thus I made my way to Lecco where it became dark. I bought a healthy chunk of watermelon and cycled on to Abbadia, where I got supper and room for Lit500 in a little pleasant hotel on the Lago di Como. Day's total 63km.
This kind of mileage was not my size as Faustino [as we called our club leader] can affirm, so the next day I set out at 7AM for something more. Lago di Como was a lovely sight in the morning as I ate breakfast on a small boat dock in Bellano with my salami, bread, and cheese... water bottle well in hand. Of course I saw nothing of the Velodrome or Moto Guzzi factory in Mandello del Lario, so I didn't give it much effort, knowing how elusive these famous Italian factories are. After Sondrio, the bike began to get slow and gradually I found myself in smaller gears as the mountains rose sharply to both sides.
Farther up the valley, I noticed a single set of trolleybus wires overhead that were green with long disuse. I discovered that they were part of the AEM electric works that operated the hydroelectric facilities up here and that during wartime fuel shortage found benefit in running electric trucks. I arrived in Bormio at 3:30 and decided to go to the top in beautiful afternoon sunshine. After a snack at the store I headed up the road that ran out of pavement at the city limit and became a coarse gravel and grey powdery road that, with a little rain, was pretty solid. I discovered that standing up easily caused wheel spin, so I pulled my straps tight and worked on a smooth stroke to keep traction.
Farther up the Braulio canyon the road went through several tunnels for avalanche and rockfall protection. These stone arch tunnels wind along the wall with ventilation holes near the floor that give a little light, and because they are not straight, I could only see where I was going from reflections from the wet floor. Everything was dripping and water rushed in drains under the walls. The amazing part is that these are one lane tunnels in which uphill traffic has the right of way, as is common here. Therefore, downhill drivers had to assess when to enter by watching what went in from below, something that is possible from the lay of the land.
I was discovering why Pirelli named their top racing car tire the Stelvio. This has a special meaning to people who know this road. At the end of the Braulio canyon the road goes up a wall in a series of traverses with tight hairpins to reach the upper Braulio Valley at Bocca di Braulio, that ends at a ridge over which the Umbrail pass from Switzerland joins the Stelvio, about three kilometers below the summit. I stopped for a drink at the chapel at 2300m and put away some more bread and salami for the bump up to the Umbrail, 200m above.
The summit was clearly visible, a mere 260m higher from the Umbrail. The distance wasn't so daunting as was seeing the hotels at the top as though I was looking straight up their walls. Although about three kilometers the setting was challenging, with snow capped peaks on all sides and a small road, a trace in the snow, leading to the top with mostly 10% grade. My legs felt wobbly as I attacked the climb but from the last hairpin, the summit pulled like a magnet and I found new strength. As I crossed the top and rolled to a stop at the wall on the east side I was overwhelmed by the scene of what looks like a 1000m drop, with the road and 22 hairpins almost vertically below, stuck to the wall, with the glacier dome of the Ortler shining in the late sun 3905m high.
I circled around and saw that rain and a cold wind were closing in directly behind me. A man who apparently understood the thrill of riding over this great summit offered to climb the revetment and take an inspiring picture of me standing in front of the abyss, accented by hairpin turns that vanished beneath the stone wall in the darkening canyon. Tour buses that looked like ants were climbing the gorge, the Swiss postal buses sounding their magnificent three tone bugle call.
I bought post cards and headed down the hill that gets up great speed between curves, each of which require almost a full stop. Thanks to my wood rims, I had no problems with melting rim glue. In fact the tires didn't even have the usual glue at the edge and stayed put like new. But braking with wood rims is not without problems. They eat brake pads. I was glad to have a waterproof jacket to keep my wet wool jersey from becoming a freezer. When I reached Prato, I had no brake material left and put on new pads to continue down the valley. I rode on to a strong finish in Laas at darkness with a hearty dinner and a good nights rest at the Gasthaus zur Linde after 200km.
I will always remember this day and the thrill of the Stelvio. A new adventure into a new region with things I had never seen and done.
From here it was a short cruise to Bolzano, where I turned east and up the Costalunga road into the Dolomites, an area of which I had seen exciting pictures. I met a couple of Englishmen traveling on a Vincent motorcycle, a marque with which I was familiar from several years of working on my brother's Vincent Black Lightning. We talked as they made roadside coffee before I headed to Welschenofen and the Costalunga pass. I reached the summit at sundown when the Rosengarten is in its most beautiful colors. Between the azure waters of the Lago di Carezza and the evening glow on the Catinaccio (Rosengarten) it was hard to imagine a more beautiful setting. I coasted down to Pozza where I found a family dinner style place with dormitory accommodations to finish a short but beautiful 102km day.
In the morning I got off early, heading toward the Sella Group above Canazei where the climbs I knew from the Giro d'Italia went over the Pordoi, Sella, Gardena, Campolongo, and Falzarego, and on to Cortina d'Ampezzo, all places I had heard of but never seen. I was not disappointed, in fact, the scenery of the Dolomites is so beautiful I was surprised at every turn. I climbed the Pordoi and caught up to a touring bus in the last hairpins where I raced to the top to a good margin as the bus had difficulty rounding the tight curves.
The Pordoi doesn't have much of a descent to the east but lumbers along, high on the slopes of the Livinalongo, before heading up the Falzarego. By now I was back in the clouds as I climbed the hairpins from Cernadoi. A bunch of boys in a summer school came out to cheer me on as though I were leading a bicycle race. This may not be far from the truth because I met no bicycle tourists, especially none riding a racing bicycle with practically no baggage, so their enthusiasm may have been real. The sun came out as I crossed the summit where I saw an interesting unpaved road heading north called the passo Valparola, something to investigate on another tour.
The descent to Cortina doesn't get going until the end of the forest where a magnificent panorama opens over the valley surrounded by the most beautiful peaks including the Tofane, Croda Rossa, Cristallo, Sorapiss, Antelao, Nuvolau, and Averau, each with its jagged sculptures to the heavens in bleached and streaked dolomite stone. On the way down, an overlook on the cliffs between rough hewn tunnels, gives a beautiful panorama of this whole scene. I rode into Cortina that seemed to be overrun with tourists walking every which way in the midst of dense traffic of drivers who couldn't or wouldn't find a parking place.
The central square is a beautiful combination of architecture and scenic backdrop with a white dolomite campanile with a rich carillon. I rode up through town past the train station where a sparkling blue and white train with chrome trim was about to head off to Toblach where I was headed but by another route. I crossed the tracks and headed up the Passo Tre Croci that starts climbing right in town with a couple of 15% sections. The summit gave a last look across this beautiful valley with the sentinels of the Cinque Torri appearing to guard the Passo di Giau to the south.
After a short descent the road rises again to the Lago di Misurina and the town that boasts that this was the summer residence of one of the Popes. According to post cards, the lake is a reflecting pool for the Tre Cime di Laveredo, three huge spires that lie to the north. At the end of the lake a small bump is marked Passo di Misurina 1756m, from where the road descends at first steep and then parallel to the railway all the way to Dobiacco/Toblach. This time the rain gods decided I should wash my bicycle and sent me a downpour that gradually let up as I progressed down the valley. Dobiacco lies on a flat saddle that descends to Lienz Austria to the east and to Bressanone and the Brenner route to the west. I headed west and rode down to Fortezza Franchese, a great fortress that spans the Isarco river at a strategic narrows.
As I crossed the river under the parapets of the great ancient fort to get on the Brenner highway, I joined a rider who was working hard against the headwind that came down the valley. We took turns pushing the wind as he complained about my low cadence while spinning a gear that his mentors probably prescribed for him. When we approached Vipiteno/Sterzing we had a long sprint that I won by two lengths still in the "wrong" gear 50-16t. As I cruised into the south end of town I came past the military barracks where it was dinner time. I got into an exchange with some troops who were interested in my bicycle and my adventure. They invited me to join them for dinner which was rich and plentiful. The church across the street also had a youth hostel where I found a good night's sleep.
Sterzing, is the bottom of the hill for the Brenner pass and has a large truck stop at the edge of town. It is also the junction of the main north south route and the Passo di Pennes and Passo di Monte Giovo as well as some lesser routes in to the mountains. I headed toward Innsbruck over the Brenner, having never been in that well known city. Although maps indicate it as a steep road, the Brenner has some short steep spots that leave no lasting impression although they could give an overloaded car some trouble. The summit has a classic boarder jam of trucks that look as though they have been there for weeks in customs inspections.
The lake on the summit was clear and only a small spot of snow was left from winter avalanches that nearly fill the summit gap according to post cards. The descent into Davos was uneventful and doesn't offer much scenery but Davos is beautifully situated at the source of the Landwasser river that flows from the Davosersee at the high east end of town. From the lake, it's a little bump over the Wolfgangpass before a long descent to Klosters.
I rode through Klosters to Landquart along the Landquart river and turning east along the Rhine to Chur, Bonaduz and Thusis. Thusis lies at the confluence of the Albula and (Hinter-)Rhine rivers where the Rhine emerges from an impassable narrows, where the Via Mala tunnels through the walls and bridges cross the crevasse of the river less than a meter wide about 50 meters below, invisible in the darkness. Farther up, the road passed through a bore in a rock that would not have been there were it not for a large dam being built next to it. Ultimately, the hole will be plugged and the road detoured over an already completed high bridge. I rode on to Andeer where I found good lodging.
In the morning I headed up to Splugen, a small town at the junction of the Splugen pass that heads south to Chiavenna, I decided that I should see this one, even if I'm not going to Italy, so I rode to the top of this short but beautiful climb. I hope to see the other side some day because even on the map it looks like an exciting road. I returned to Splugen and on up to Hinterrhein at the base of the San Bernardino pass. Here the Swiss Artillery uses the end of the valley practice and where each shot resounds for several reverberations.
I rode the series of hairpins to the top of the San Bernardino under fair skies and cruised along the summit lake that was still partly frozen. From here it's a roller coaster descent to the town of San Bernardino from which a short climb exposes the broadening valley toward Bellinzona. I stopped at the store in Mesocco for some food and rolled on down crossing my earlier path in Bellinzona where I stopped for lunch before heading off to Locarno on Lago Maggiore where I stopped to take a few pictures of the beautiful lakeside park with red cana lilies and palms, and a blue and white Centovalli train along the water, waiting for the lake steamer.
I headed up the Centovalli along the East Melezza river on a tiny dirt road. Meanwhile the train swished by on the railway below on its way to Domodossola. I was surprised at the large cathedral in Re, out in the middle of nowhere, but apparently a noted pilgrimage site. From Malesco, at the summit of the valley, the road descends fairly rapidly toward Domodossola through the canyon of the rushing West Melezza river. I headed north up the valley along the Diveria to Varzo, where it had already gotten dark as I arrived. I found a great dinner and hotel for the night after a suitably long day of fine weather.
The next morning I started early, before breakfast, picking up bread and milk at the bakery and headed up the Simplon, a pass that I had always heard of, both for the famous railway tunnel and the mountain pass. From Varzo its not far to Iselle, the south portal of the 20km tunnel, and where the climbing begins in earnest. The sheer granite walls are huge and make one wonder how the ancients got through here with anything more than pack animals, but there was a road that is only partially visible in places. The road cuts through smooth rock walls and crosses the raging Diveria several times as it climbs in the shadow of the canyon. The summit comes gently as the road levels off in a high valley with a monastery before the last climb to the top.
A great 10m tall granite eagle stands on the summit, across from the ancient and massive summit hospizio, a former St Bernard hostel, that today houses a post office and other public functions. The north side gives an amazing view of Brig, the north portal of the Simplon tunnel next to the Rhone river, while above, the huge Aletsch glacier is just visible over the edge of its giant moraine that curves down the valley. The descent was fairly slow with long sections of 13% on the winding and rough dirt road. I was glad to have my wood rims because I doubt that I would have made it on aluminum with the continual braking. This was the longest steep descent that I rode.
Although it was still early, the daily wind was already blowing up the valley from Lac Leman as I headed toward Sion and Martigny. Below Sion I caught an ancient and overloaded produce truck that I drafted all the way to Martigny. This was familiar territory from family outings but from here I was charting new ground as I headed toward Aigle, Le Sepey, and the Col du Pillion. Having heard the name Gstaad I suspected that this might be a high rent district but the scenery was great. I rode over the pass as it was getting dark, and down through Gstaad to stop in Saanen, where in spite of misgivings, I found a great place to stay with a good dinner after a 205km day.
In the morning, after some overnight rain, I rolled down the valley to Spiez on the Thunersee and along the lake to Interlaken where I got another glimpse of the Eiger-Moench-Jungfrau group up the valley. I rode around the Brienzersee and from Brienzweiler over the Brunig pass. From here it's a short dash down the hill past the Lungern and Sarner lakes to Alpnachstadt where the world's steepest cogwheel railway heads up the Pilatus that stands guard over Lucerne.
I rolled into town, got my suitcase, checked my bike into the baggage car, and headed home after an eventful and wonderful ride that I will retrace next summer when the rest of the Pedale Alpini riders arrive for the Olympics. This time I'll know what to expect and what to take along. Not only that, but I'll be out of the Army and a relaxing civilian.