All that done, I take a short train ride to my friends in Affoltern am Albis and say hello to all the people I haven't seen since last year. Then I put my bike together and go for a short ride to avoid falling asleep from the time change. I use a Carradice 'Nelson' saddle bag (bought at Wheelsmith in Palo Alto) that attaches to the saddle with a QR link pin. The bag is waterproof and is completely filled with the stuff that I have on my checklist for touring.
This year's (1991) tour was a bit different because I attended two stages of the Tour de Suisse and went shopping before departing so that my friend Paul Friedrich from Germany, whom I had met when he lived in Palo Alto, could join me. He arrived in Affoltern 5 days after me to start the tour.
We rode back through Meiringen and Willigen, and climbed the Kirchet (675m) where the Aar River passes through a slot through the rocks in a narrow crevasse. Above Handegg, we climbed to the higher reservoirs as we rose above huge concrete dams of the Haslital water works. Fog reduced visibility to the pavement ahead, and little more, as we crossed the Grimsel Pass (2165m), the usual pleasant view of afternoon sunshine breaking through clouds over the Rhone glacier greeted us as we came through the gap. As we descended to Gletsch, fog boiled over the pass behind us like chilled air coming from a freezer chest, evaporating before it reached the valley floor.
In Gletsch (1759m) it was already too late to head up the Furka, so we headed down to Hotel Rhonequelle abut 3km below, the Gletsch hotel and store not yet having opened for the season. I noticed on my altimeter that the barometer was falling and suspected tomorrow wouldn't be any brighter than today.
The descent to Hospental (1480m) and climb to the Gotthard Pass (2108m) was overcast with light granular snow still falling. As we approached the summit, the clouds got thinner exposing warm skies in the Ticino to the south. Because the new road with its flying hairpin turns was closed for repairs, we descended the val Tremola of granite paving stones to the Fortezza and on down to Airolo, the south portal of the famous Gotthard railway tunnel. We took in a good Italian lunch with pasta, sour dough bread, and good local cheeses before shoving off down the Valle Leontina toward Biasca and Bellinzona.
Between Airolo and Faido (on a 5 km section), my friend, for unknown reasons, made an unfortunate move, by disappearing without a word. I back tracked without success and also spent the next day retracing the route. Although we had arranged to call our friends in the event of accidental separation, he did not call, leaving me with doubts about about whether he crashed on the descent. Fortunately he realized the circumstances the next day and called in with an unclear explanation of what happened, but in any case, he dropped out. I added his story to the other bike rider's explanations I've heard over the years.
I passed the closed Lingotto FIAT plant, with test track on the roof, that is being refurbished as an automotive trade center. The modern streetcars with antique trolley poles and bronze trolley wheels wend their way between ancient buildings on narrow streets paved with 0.5x1.0m red and tan granite plates set at a 45 degrees. The rushing sound of the trolley wheel on the wire is truly a sound from the past for me, reminiscent of four trolley tracks on San Francisco's Market Street in my youth. From Torino it's a long (87km) flat run on route SS20 the Tenda Highway to Cuneo past endless fields of rich cropland irrigated by rivers and canals that descend from the snowcapped mountains to the west.
Although it isn't the real goal for the day, I felt I had arrived when I crossed the high stone viaduct over the Stura de Demonte in Cuneo (587m). This bridge has three lanes plus sidewalks on its upper deck and two railway tracks on the lower deck. A water stop at the great fountain at the train station refreshed me for the short dash up to Borgo San Dalmazzo and on to Robilante on the way to the Tenda pass. This stage, although long, is a rest day as they say in the TdF, because it is all flat after Ivrea. The rolleurs take over and it helps the legs get ready for the next two weeks in the mountains.
The road climbs gradually from Robilante past huge cement plants as the railway crosses high looping bridges and tunnels to reach Limone (Piemonte) where it enters its tunnel to France. The road gets steeper in Limone as it climbs toward the Tenda pass (1871m) but levels off after a few kilometers before entering its tunnel (1234m) to the south. The unwary cyclist may look around for a way out of high mountains on all sides. However, the old road, for which there are no road signs, still goes over the top.
Although the south side of this road has not been improved since the tunnel was built in 1882, the north approach is smooth asphalt that climbs gradually through green meadows (ski slopes), and whose pavement ends abruptly at the border, a kilometer from the summit and where everything turns to rocks. The south side is a steep, one lane (two ruts) rocky road with about 100 hairpin turns, so tight that even a jeep finds them difficult. It is daunting to look down on so many layers of road, appearing mostly as they did a century ago. Fortunately for the bicyclist, the road seldom sees traffic.
Down the gorge of the Roya, where the railroad spends more time in tunnels and bridges than on the surface, the road also dives in and out of vertical granite walls where the village of Soarge hangs on the cliffs above, safe from the highwaymen of old. At Breil (256m) I turned west over the Col de Brauis (879m) to Sospel (349m) for an ice cream at the bar at the junction before heading up the Col de Turini (1607m) that is often the hardest hurdle of the Monte Carlo Rallye. At the top, after a cool sunny climb, I rode back to Piera Cava (1450m) where I have stayed at a small hotel with a view to the sea on previous rides. I enjoyed dinner and wine as the Mediterranean sky turned golden with screaming swifts chasing each other around town while cuckoos called to each other in the canyon.
A 20 km descent to Jausiers (1220m) rolls pleasantly down the narrow and bumpy road that becomes unusually wide near the bottom. I turned north at Jausiers (1215m) toward la Condamine-Chatelard about 13 km up the road, a small place with three hotels, at least one of which is usually open. A huge white shaggy (Pyrenees) dog greeted the guests as I put my bike in the garage. Here, in the narrows of the valley, huge fortifications with connecting tunnels rise from the valley floor up a steep 300 meter high cliff. Today the bullet pocked walls, built for the first world war, are a silent reminder of futility of war.
The morning was brisk and climbing went well although the Vars has a long 10% sections in the upper reaches. The summit opens a panorama toward Guillestre (1000m) at the junction to the Izoard Pass (2361m) to the east up the Guil River in the Queyeras Gorge and the main route west along the Durance River to Briancon. From Guillestre, the road toward the Izoard clings to the cliffs above the barely visible Guil, more than 100 meters below. The road ducks in and out of tunnels, with a glimpse of great snow capped peaks ahead. Finally the valley flattens a bit making enough room for both river and road.
I stopped at the grocery store in Arvieux for lunch before heading to Brunissard where the climb becomes steep for a while. The weather was brilliant, enhancing the contrast between the volcanic landscape where Coppi achieved his great victories and wildflowers in the foreground. A profile caricature of Coppi in bronze, right from l'Equipe of that era, adorns a marble plaque set in a crag in the middle of the most barren section. No words needed. Some nationalistic Frenchman from the same club that put up Coppi's relief, placed a similar but serious image of Luison Bobet next to Coppi's, about 8 years ago... couldn't find another place to put it.
After taking a picture at the summit obelisk, I descended to Briancon (1329m), that is always overrun with tourists and seems perpetually to be getting ready for its ski season. I rode right through, stopping farther up the Guisane Valley in Le Monetier for a snack before stopping at Paul Bonnabel's Hotel de Glaciers on the summit of the Col de Lauteret (2058m). I usually stay here for the night because it's such a great place with magnificent dinners to classical music in a grand dining room with a panorama of glaciers.
Today while riding alone I made such good time that at 16:00 it was too early to stop. Besides, the goofing around waiting before starting the tour and the search cost 6 days. After saying hello, I rode on over the Galibier (2645m) taking in the Panorama des Grande Alps and descended to Valloire (1430m) before going over the Telegraph (1570m), a subset of the Galibier that requires a 140m climb in this direction. I stopped in St Michel de Maurienne, where I found a nice place in the south end of town for a good night's rest.
The summit of the Col l'Iseran (2770m) is a welcome sight and is obviously the lowest feature on this ridge. To make up for that, it has a panorama to the north and south that abounds with white peaks. As I descended toward Val d'Isere (Jean Claude Killy town) the enormity of skiing becomes apparent from the view nearly straight down on, what was a dairy village in 1960 with a couple of hotels for the hikers and climbers who came there. At that time there was the beginnings of a ski industry but now it's a forest of hotels and lifts, with avalanche retainers on all the mountains. As in many resorts, many of its hotels are closed most of the year. Still it is great countryside and a great descent. The pavement does not exactly cater to max speed enthusiasts but it is brisk. The tunnel at the edge of town is lighted and no longer a trap for bicyclists as once.
After the dam at the Lac du Chevril, it's a swift descent to Seez where the Col du Petite St. Bernard heads east to Aosta and the Col du grand St. Bernard. I turned west down to Bourg St. Maurice where, at the edge of town, I headed up the Cormet de Roselend (1968m). The road is pleasantly narrow and untraveled, and begins climbing right away, heading into a forest and away from the flatland weather that had been hot all day. In the upper part, I passed les Chapieux (1550m) in the valley from which we came last year over the Col de la Seigne (2516m) from Courmayeur. It's a hiking trail that is ridable for those who like that sort of thing.
The Roselend summit was bathed in golden late afternoon light as I rode around the lake to the dam (1475m). For a change, I took the Col de Pre' (1703m) into Beaufort (260m), a lovely town right at the entrance to the Defile d'Entreroches, an amazingly narrow and deep gorge below the Barrage de Roselend. Beaufort has great hotels and restaurants among which is a great pizza shop where my favorite is frutta de mare with eight kinds of seafood.
After descending from St Gervais to Le Fayet (560m), only a freeway heads up to Chamonix, but it has plenty of shoulder for bikes even though there is no mention of bikes, one way or the other. Riding up the long aerial ramp, high above the meter gauge SNCF rail line, Mont Blanc was hidden by its lower slopes and glaciers. Although the mountain is steeper on south side, in Courmayeur, although the summit is out of sight the mountain is adorned by large glaciers on all sides.
From Chamonix the road climbs through Argentier and up the Col de Montets (1461m) to reveal a panorama of the east side of the mountain. The road descends through Chatelard (1094m) at the Swiss border before climbing over the Col de la Forclaz (1526m) to Martigny. I found a more interesting route from Finhaut (1300m) to Martigny along the Martigny-Chamonix cogwheel railway. It is a one lane road, closed to motor traffic, that runs through the rugged canyon of the Trient that I discovered from riding the train.
In Martigny the usual 30 km/h wind was blowing up the Rhone valley, and it was hot. To get out of the flats and the heat, I rode all the way to Brig and part way up the Simplon pass to reach cooler air. It was good riding with the hot wind but it required a few stops for ice cream and soda pop. In Ried above Brig, I found a comfortable hotel, washed my sweat soaked clothes and got a good night's rest.
In Riale the road more or less ends but the Pso San Giacomo (2313m) rises steeply up to a beautiful summit overlooking the Val Bedretto in Switzerland. The Swiss don't want another border crossing so the road ends on the summit. With a bit of skill and pathfinderism, the path across snowfields to intercept the Nufenen Pass can be found. Once the route of the descent to the big s-bend below becomes visible the rest is easy if you didn't happen to descend to the wrong place.
The Nufenen or Pso della Novena (2478m) is not much for scenic features but it has a pleasant climb from the south. I took advantage of the steep descent to make good time in spite of a headwind rising from the Rhone valley, the same one that carried me up to Brig the day before. I turned east up the Goms valley to Oberwald and back up to the Rhonequelle where I stayed nine days earlier. Meanwhile summer had arrived and a stream of motorcycles came by as I sat on the terrace with my dinner and tall Swiss beer (58 cl). It was great to watch as the fast guys approached up the S-bend and took the sweeping turn around the hotel. The host was glad to see me again and asked me how many years I had been stopping here because he remembered me from earlier rides. Well, there were a lot of years in between.
Hotel Belvedere, at the Rhone glacier, is also open again after being closed since 1939. Over the summit and on through Andermatt (1444m), I rode over the Oberalp pass (2044m) in clear air, not always present in summer. I met an old car rallye with early 20's and 30's Bentleys, Oscas, Amilcars, Alfa Romeos, Hispano Suizas, BMW's and others that I didn't recognize. There were about 50 or 60 of them, all in beautiful condition. I stopped for lunch in Disentis (1142m) and headed south over the Lukmanier pass or Passo Lucomagno (1916m).
The Lukmanier is a pleasant climb that develops into great scenery and a broad top where today it seemed, judging from the license plates, most of Como had come up from Italy to savor the fresh air. The end of the heat was close at hand with huge thunderheads billowing over the mountains as I rolled past Olivone and down to Biasca in the Ticino valley. At Castione (220m), just before Bellinzona, I turned east and up the Moesa to Mesocco (790m) at the base of the San Bernardino pass. Called Misox in Romansch, this is a great place far from freeway traffic and with a comfortable hotel. It didn't start raining till I was in my room. The host runs the bar and served dinner without a menu, it was all in his head and he presented it with an enthusiasm as though he prepared it himself, and maybe he did.
From this lush high valley the road jerks up in irregular steep runs, the place where Andy Hampsten solidified his TdS advantage. The road crests and descends gently into San Bernardino (1608m) with a beautiful lake, behind which the freeway ducks into the south portal of tunnel. The rest of the hill is on the old Roman right of way and even looks ancient because the road is so curvy and undulating through fields of alpine azaleas (Alpenrosen) and running water. A crystal clear natural lake, with large protected trout, lies on the desolate summit of the San Bernardino (2719m).
The pleasant but bumpy descent on this ancient road levels off in Hinterrhein (1620m) near the headwaters of the Rhein river and the north portal of the freeway tunnel. I recall staying here in 1959, before the tunnel, and found it a serene and quiet place that few people ever saw... except when the Swiss artillery practice farther up the canyon. Today that old road is gone, under the freeway, replaced by a small frontage road for farm vehicles between here and Splugen where the old road is still in tact. Splugen is a lovely town with all the amenities a cyclist could want. I stopped at the large modern grocery store and loaded up on fresh rolls, cheese, sausage, a quart of milk and a large blueberry Yogurt.
The Splugen Pass, the pass that many car drivers and especially bus drivers hate, begins its climb right in town. It has the usual hairpin turns and bridges, but on the south side many of these are in tunnels cut into the granite walls of the Val San Giacomo high above the Liro river. This is also the land of the "cutters" (as in the movie Breaking Away). Granite blocks 2x2x3 meters are cut from the walls and are hauled down the narrow road, on powerful trucks.
The descent was marvelous as always, except that it got sticky hot again near Chiavenna (325m). I didn't mind because I was only going back up from there to the high mountain air in Switzerland. After the border I passed the Bregalia hotel at Sottoponte, that had been closed for 40 years before reopening unchanged. It's a gas to stay in this old 1930's hotel with huge rooms and high ceilings. Night pots, porcelain wash bowls and water pitchers are all still there, although no longer used. I gave it my regards as I headed up the Val Bregaglia of the Mera river. In this part of Switzerland the home language is Romansch although Italian and German are also spoken but the land as a whole is Romansch, an ancient Latin derivative. This helps explain some of the unusually spelled and pronounced names in the region. Romansch is the fourth and least spoken Swiss national language.
The usual summer thunder shower was building up as I climbed the ladder of hairpin turns up the wall of the Maloja pass (1815m). This pass has no descent to the east, because it is a bench with the Silvaplana lake just over the summit, not more than ten meters lower. This is the source of the Inn river that flows east to the Black Sea and gives Innsbruck its name. A super wind was blowing up a storm behind me so I put it in top gear and cruised around the lakes toward St. Moritz. At a wide spot I saw a bunch of bikies looking like serious business. I could tell they weren't just jersey pros because they walked around with purpose, pissed in view of the public and had funny bikes like they were going to do a mean ride.
There were eight riders wearing German national jerseys for whom coaches were getting the bikes off the cars as I rolled past. I didn't stop, thinking of miles to cover before dinner. A few minutes later a four man team swished by me at, what looked like, 60 km/h as they vanished up the road only to be followed a minute later by the other four man team, riding in tight formation. It was great to see bicycles go that fast on the flat even if it was with a wind. Later as I passed St. Moritz they were rolling back to town and waved with a "how'd you like that routine" kind of smile. I waved with a grin of admiration that came naturally.
I rolled on to Pontresina (1805m) where I got a late snack just as the market at the upper end of town was closing at 18:00. Then I rolled out of town on the freshly rain washed road (it rained everywhere but where I was) and headed for the Bellavista curve where the Bernina RR climbs a 7% grade (no cogs) with the Morteratsch Glacier and Piz Bernina (4049m) as a brilliant evening backdrop. I got the picture with a red train in the curve before riding on up to the Bernina pass (2323m) to get a summit picture with the low angle sun, bathing the glaciers in pink, before I took the fast run to Poschiavo and Brusio.
This descent is a gas, and it seems to last forever before flattening out at Poschiavo. I stopped at Hotel Bettoni in Brusio (780m) where Mrs Beti has welcomed me as a regular for many years. Brusio is a steep town trough which the RR wends its way at a 7% grade and finally does a 360 loop on a stone arch viaduct as it leaves town. The straight descent of the road into town is no slouch for speed either.
Ponte di Legno is a postcard perfect mountain village that has been buffed to the hilt for the weekend tourist. Totally restored, it has many nice shops and no phony or cheap commercialism. I ate some focaccia with mortadella and juicy peaches for dessert. OK, now I got to work. I rode straight through town, in spite of signs diecting through traffic elsewhere, staying on the narrow old route that passes under houses and follows the raging Frigidolfo. The river seems near to jumping over its banks, as its clear ice cold water tumbles down its riverbed of boulders.
The road climbs just above the river through a forest of Larch to Apollonia (1535m), were rusty naturally carbonated water flows from a in a small Gazebo. I always take a good drink here, because legend has it that this gives supernatural strength. I have always marveled at my climbing on the Gavia but that is probably more from the thrill of this spectacular road than anything else. Except for the first kilometer, the road is largely unchanged from the unpaved one lane road that it was when I first saw it many years ago. Just out of Apollonia it gets down to the real thing with warning signs and the 16% sign that made the cover of Bike World in 1975. I joined a bikie who is training with some faster friends up ahead. He was more my speed so we rode together. It was about one o'clock and the sky was building up to an afternoon thundershower with a mixture of brilliant sunshine and billowing thunderheads.
I rode ahead to catch a photo of the other rider at the cliff (of poster fame) as we continued toward the summit 3km farther up. It seemed that most cyclists avoid the new tunnel that cuts behind the cliff because it is shorter, steeper, dark and has a curve at the upper end. About 1 km from the top I stuck it in a bigger gear and sprinted for the line as the road flattened out to a 6% grade. The other bikies were waiting outside the Rifugio Bonetta where I drank one of those miniature Cokes (about half a standard Coke bottle) that go for Lit 2500 ($2). The manager gave me a big welcome as always and said, it's on the house. On the wall, under glass was my autographed poster of the road at the cliff that characterizes the Gavia. Lots of Giro d'Italia shots of Hampsten and Others are also on display here.
I took off on the descent to Santa Caterina and Bormio (1217m) looking over my shoulder at the rain that was nipping at my heels. I caught a few drops as I left but the road was mostly dry. After an ice cream and soda pop in Bormio I headed up the Stelvio. The rain hadn't gotten here yet and I climbed with a tailwind under darkening skies. I got up the Braulio canyon and through the first tunnels before... drops. I was working hard, so I was already wet and didn't put on my rain cape. The rain remained a light sprinkle as I passed the hairpins of "serpentine works". Entering the upper valley I could see the road all the way to the top.
The road was deserted as I passed the summit of the Umbrail (2501m) from Switzerland. Meanwhile the rain became steadier but thinner on the last 3km to the top. As I stepped under the awning of a wurst & brot stand, the sky opened up and put the road, that I just ridden, awash. The Orangina, bratwurst and fresh bun tasted good as I warmed my hands over the grill and watched the rain. A quick change into a dry jersey and hooded windbreaker with lining, made me toasty warm while the wet stuff went into a plastic produce bag and into the saddlebag.
In less than a snack break, the rain stopped and "the Road" reappeared down in the "hole" as a glistening black line of 30 hairpin turns, 900 meters below. The Ortler, with a fresh dusting of white, showed its lower glaciers, its head in the clouds. I rolled down to Trafoi (home of Alfredo Toeni the great Olympic skier) and on to Gomagoi and Prato (911m) at the base of the hill. Every time the road came near the roaring torrent of the Solda, I got bathed in chilling fog from the glacier melt. In Laas the Albergo Sole offered a great selection from which I dined generously in appropriate quantity for the day's 4330m climbing.
There is only one town, and beyond that, three hotels. I rode to the last one, and with a great view from the terrace I had a hearty lunch. It was here, about ten years ago, that I rode out of the tunnel just below the hotel to have a school teacher from SF snap our picture and say "Hi Jobst". My friend thought for sure this was a set-up deal because it had already happened twice on that trip that someone I knew greeted us. Lucy Grey had seen one of my trip report slide shows and decided to take her own trip. It was from this terrace that she recognized my inimitable style, as we rode below, and decided to surprise us with a snapshot. I should say, that in those days, bicycle tourists were uncommon, especially ones so sparsely loaded.
Another 500 meters up and through the summit tunnel of the Passo Rombo or Timmelsjoch (2421m) took me to the Austrian border and a descent with the tailwind from afternoon showers. The wind and the 12% grade helps me crack the 100 km/h barrier that Bob Roll told me was first broken for the 7-11 team in last year's Tour de Suisse, also with a wind. As I rolled down the Oetztal toward the Inn river I left the clouds behind and found summer heat in the valley. The bike rolled well to Imst and Landeck (816m) where I turned south toward the Reschen pass and rode to the base of the hill for a rest after a long stage of gradual climbing that afternoon.
The Ortler, Gran Zebru, and their neighbors make an exciting scene and that's where the road goes, up the Stelvio from the east side. I rode down to Prato and tanked up on a liter of soda pop, not wanting to stop for the next 20 km and head up the hill. I picked a comfortable pace that felt good and then shifted down at Trafoi, making as good a time as I did last year. Too bad I never timed this in 1960 when I first blasted up here in fast form. Anyway It took 2 1/4 hours and it felt great. But then I've always been inspired on the Stelvio, one of the greatest roads I have ridden.
The weather was clear and warm and I took some great photos that try to capture the scene but can't. Down to Bormio and up the Pso Foscagno (2291m), (dip to 2021m) and the Eira (2210m) to Livigno (1810m) for a grocery store lunch. Then I went up the Forcola di Livigno (2315m), down to the border (2054m) and up the Bernina pass (2323m). This string of passes goes through a changing landscape from forests to high alpine meadows and finally the rocky glacier crowned Bernina. I rode down to Bernina Suot in late afternoon sunshine having ditched the rain squalls in Livigno as I turned the corner.
From Sargans a bike path leads down to the Walensee and along the lake to Weesen. The lake has a special charm because the jagged Churfirsten (2300m) rise almost vertically from the water where sailboards dart back and forth and bathers take advantage of the pleasant temperatures. At Weesen I headed up the Linth valley to Glarus and the Klausen pass (1948m) with the majestic Glarner Alps that appear to rise to infinity as their glaciers vanish in the haze. At 3614m the Toedi is the tallest, but its high glaciers make it seem even taller. At Linthal (662m) the climb heads into the wall with a couple of narrow bare rock tunnels with one way traffic control.
Above Urnerboden (1372m), at the end of the upper valley, I caught a recumbent rider who had just started from there. He proceeded to tell me why I should get such a vehicle as we conversed for awhile until I realized that an evening thundershower was coming from behind. I left him behind as I hustled over the pass where crowds had watched the TdS hillclimb only a couple of weeks before. The vertical drop into the box canyon of the Schaechental appeared even more abrupt than usual, as the sky turned dark and thunder claps reverberated in the canyon. In spite of hurrying, I got washed thoroughly with a classic downpour on the last five minutes to Urigen (1290m), my stop for the day. Urigen is a favorite because it is so beautifully situated and whose owner Steffan Truschner is a friend whom I first met a few years ago, during his apprenticeship in Swiss pastries at Andre's in Menlo Park.
The rock slide had not yet been fixed (third year) and the detour was still one-way with timed signals. As in the past, I rode up the closed road, carried my bike over the 50 meters of rock pile, and continued up the hill. The sun was brilliant and the snowfields glistened as I emerged from the summit tunnel with its view of huge ice fields. The descent to Inertkirchen is truly a postcard beauty, with tunnels, glaciers, and waterfalls. I sprinted up the Lammi where I ate lunch before hitting last climb out of Meiringen over the Brunig with its short 13% section. Then it was down to Luzern and along the Reuss to Merenschwand where my threadbare rear tire went flat. I patched it and put in a boot to avoid mounting a folding tire for the 5km across the Reuss and up to Affoltern. I got back in time to clean up for a good dinner. Of course I had phoned ahead to say I was coming.
I have about 200 slides from the ride and they compare favorably with others I have made over the years. I like to look at old ones too sometimes, especially the ones from the early 60's.
Ride light, ride far and see a lot.