There's a nice collection of pictures from this tour, by Richard Mlynarik: Jobsting
Hustling my bike and suitcase from the main concourse down the escalators to the platform for interurban trains, I took the S9 to Affoltern am Albis (491m). I was greeted by a downpour of hail and thunder. Drenched, I caught a bus up the hill to my friends the Dierauer's, who have been gracious hosts for my summer tours. I expected Richard to arrive as I assembled my bicycle, however, with his plane two hours late, he arrived during dinner. The big surprise came after dinner while assembling his bike. A bag of essential parts were still on the doorstep in SF, requiring a phone call for innovative air freight.
We rode in an open coach (with roof) and savored the rich ambience of a gear driven steam train through 12% grade tunnels. A shampoo was definitely in order thereafter. The part of the DFB that is running seemed to be in pretty good shape, seen from the train. I'm looking forward to riding the other half of the line through the 1.6km summit tunnel (2160m), past the Rhone Glacier through Gletsch and the corkscrew cog wheel tunnel. (The first work train reached Gletsch in September, greeted by dignitaries and brass band.)
We crossed the Reuss Valley to picturesque Merenschwand in canton Aargau, over a Reuss that was high with runoff from warm spring weather. We took the excellent bike path that parallels the highway most of the way up the valley, crossing the Reuss again at Gisikon to take the main road N4 into Luzern (436m). On the way to the two large redwoods at the Luzern city limits, we passed Schindler Elevators, whose long building is notable for its six external elevator towers and stairwells. Traffic was at midweek density as we dodged trolleybuses on the way to the ancient (re-built after the fire) wooden Reuss Bridge that, with its swans and flower boxes, is the definitive postcard scene of Luzern.
As always, we visited Mrs Dierauer Sr on the Musegg, above the Armory at the city wall. This was the place where I first made the Dierauer connection in the late 1960's through my bicycling companion John Hiatt, who married the daughter of the house whom he met in San Francisco at the UC medical school. We said auf wiedersehen to "mom" and headed off to Hergiswil and Alpnachstadt at the foot of the Pilatus (world's steepest) cog wheel train.
Having made a late start, we chose not to head off to Flueli-Ranft and the Melchtal from Sarnen. We stopped briefly in Sarnen at the stone mason, to spin the half meter diameter granite ball in its granite water bearing, before going to the Sarnersee (469m). The water was running and the granite ball did its thing as we gave it a shove. We stopped for a snack at the far end of the lake in Giswil, and watched the SBB Brunig trains start their abrupt 10% climb up the hill before making our own way up to the Lungernsee (689m) and then over the Brunig Pass (1005m) into the Haslital and Meiringen. There, reliably, we found Sherlock Holmes (in Bronze) sitting on his bench awaiting us as we cruised through town.
Crossing the Aar river to Willigen, we turned off at the Bakery, by the double granite water basins, onto the old road to Rosenlaui. This road is still mostly unpaved and slightly more than one lane wide as it climbs steeply through meadows to the forest where it joins the new road heading into the canyon of the roaring Reichenbach. It is here that Holmes and Moriarty met their deaths over the falls.
Just above the falls, the local water works carries the inscription "Das Wasser ist das Beste." emphasized by a large watering trough with an ample flow of ice cold drinking water. The climb is no trifle as it rapidly gains altitude to finally level off in the high Rosenlaui Valley, where the great Rosenlaui Glacier and the Wetterhorn come into view. We arrived just before dinner at Hotel Rosenlaui (1330m), where Andreas and Christina Kehrli preside. After a hearty dinner with (58dl) cool Eichhof beer and Coup Danemark dessert, we retired to the usual 5th floor "touristenlager" for a good night's rest to the lullaby of the roaring Reichenbach.
Richard had mentioned taking too few pictures two years ago and that he wouldn't let that slip by again. I didn't exactly know what that meant but at the summit we took pictures of the Eiger and the road below before shoving off. After a couple of turns, I noticed I was alone so slowed my pace. I coasted at about running speed waiting for Richard to catch up. When I saw him coming I began to roll again and soon was off by myself. I slowed down again and held that speed until my rear tire blew off the rim with a bang.
The flat occurred in a turn, so that beside a long gash in the tube, I ruined my new tire by sliding. I have always advised others not to do what I did, but because I hadn't had a heat blowout in ages, I got careless. Either let it roll or stop. Anyway, Richard was taking pictures and I wasn't stopping as I should have... next time I'll remember. I put on my spare and got rolling again just before I had to dismount to let the bus go by. Most of the road is too narrow for bus and bicyclist to pass.
The road widens and gains a center stripe just before Grindelwald (1034m), where the BOB railway brings passengers from Interlaken and the WAB takes them up the Kleine Scheidegg where the famed Jungfrau Bahn tunnels inside the Eiger to the saddle at Jungfraujoch. All are cog railways. The weather was mild so we didn't feel the chill from the waters of the icy Schwarze Luetschine that joins the Weisse Luetschine from Lauterbrunnen at Zweiluetschine on our way to Interlaken. The road reaches the valley at Wilderswil where passengers arrive with the BOB (Berner Oberland Bahn) meter gauge train from Interlaken and change to the Schynige Platte 800mm gauge cog train to head up the mountain for a panorama of the Jungfrau group that is too close from Grindelwald.
From Interlaken (563m) we had the usual view, across the large meadow in the middle of town, of Eiger-Moench-Jungfrau, this time peeking out of the clouds. Heading east along the Brienzer Lake to Brienz from whence the BRB steam cog railway climbs through seemingly impenetrable cliffs to the top of the Rothorn (2353m), we ate lunch as usual on the steamer dock where the Brunig railway, the BRB and the Lake steamers exchange passengers. Coal smoke from the original BRB locomotive gave that good steam railway flavor, however, their new steamers are smokeless and noiseless diesel fired replicas.
We continued on past Meiringen, Willigen and the Kirchet (709m) to Inertkirchen (625m) from which, under sunny skies, we took the Grimsel road. The road starts flat before climbing in stages to Gutannen and Handegg (1402m), where the it cuts through smooth granite walls on the way to the lower Grimsel Lake. The entire upper Aar Valley is a massive hydro-electric project; giant cableways provide access to the high dams even when road is closed in winter, equally huge power lines carry power down the valley. There's even a cableway that heads into the wall of the valley into a tunnel to a dam hidden from view.
Where auto traffic takes a one kilometer tunnel, we took the old road that hangs in a notch carved high above the Aar in the slot below. As we climbed above the upper Grimsel reservoir of the Haslital Power Company, the Finsteraarhorn (4275m), the source of the Unteraar and Oberaar rivers, came into view to the west. This year the summit of the Grimsel Pass (2165m) had no snow and no ice on the lake. In contrast, the current Avocet catalog shows me between 10m high walls of snow a few years ago. As I waited on the summit, Richard, in his pursuit of history, took the trace of the old road that was more effort than anticipated.
Under grey skies, the view into the Rhone Valley with Gletsch (1761m) nearly straight below, was especially striking with the Rhone glacier on the headwall, brilliantly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. From the Grimsel, the 266m higher Furka Pass vanishes above Hotel Belvedere at the glacier, 400m above the barren glacial valley whose slopes are swept clean by avalanches in winter. The Grimsel zigzags down granite walls to Gletsch, where not much was happening because cool weather, that was excellent for bicycling, deterred most tourists.
With a cursory inspection of the dormant train station, we headed up the Furka, to inspect the new cog railway crossing and take pictures in front of the Glacier. The Furka summit (2431m) gave the usual view of the Grimsel and its summit lake with late afternoon fog beginning to cascade toward Gletsch, much like the fog that pours into San Francisco.
The road was empty as we crossed the broad summit and coasted down the through Tiefenbach and Galenstock on the way to Realp (1538m). We rolled right through Realp where there was some cleanup work going on at the DFB (Dampfbahn Furka Bergstrecke) engine house after the end of excursions for the day. We breezed into Hospental (1452m), a small village topped by a Roman signal tower, where we stopped for the night at Hotel Roessli. We have stayed here because our old regular, Hotel Sternen, closed.
From the summit we took pictures of the old road, below in the val Tremola, with its stack of hairpins traversed by the trace of the Roman road. After the avalanche shed and long tunnel we came out above the val Bedretto where we rounded the flying hairpin 520m above Fontana. Below, at the Fortezza, bicycles are relegated to the old road of ROUGH paving stones for a gratuitous vibra-massage. The road levels off through Airolo (1165m) before taking a short drop to the Ambri-Piotta Valley. Here the SBB funicular railway climbs at 100% grade to the Ritom reservoir that supplies railway power.
After another descent we traversed the Rodi-Fieso Valley after which the double track Gotthard railway uses two corkscrew loop tunnels and many bridges between Rodi (940m) and Faido (711m) and again with two stacked loop tunnels at Biaschina. Here the same Milano-bound train passed us three times as it took the "long way around" through the tunnels. We rode the steeper but more direct road that just gets steep with a few hairpins to get us to Faido where exploratory bores for a new 50km Gotthard base railway tunnel had been completed and the site was being dismantled. Below Biaschina the valley widens and gradually becomes level. A tailwind pushed us toward the crossing waterfalls in Biasca and on to Bellinzona, where we stopped for a grocery store lunch.
After lunch we took a brief tour through the old city beneath castle walls before joining the main road after Giubiasco, straight to Cadenazzo where most of the heavy traffic heads south to Lugano and shortly beyond, at Magadino, the rest goes to Locarno. We stayed on the east shore of Lago Maggiore (193m) and headed into Italy. Here holiday homes with gardens of sweet smelling wisteria and deep blue and pink hydrangia line the rocky shore of the lake. Although in horticultural circles, it is said that soil ph controls the color of hydrangia, this was not apparent in the many examples of deep pink and blue blossoms on the same bush. Something doesn't add up. This is more complex than it appears.
With a nod from the guard, we crossed into Italy without further scrutiny, after which we passed through Maccagno, a nice place where I have stayed in the past, stopping in Luino at the bancomat for Italian cash. Bancomats are so common even in the smallest towns, that travelers checks are passe. Although the lake was beautifully clear, the cool humid air did not encourage swimming as much as bicycling.
Just as in France, Italy has its right wing and separatist movements that spread their message in graffiti on roadside walls. The Northern League as others, wants to keep their gains from being spent south of the Lombardia, and a lot of other places to boot. Of course the Alto Adige (South Tyroleans) can tell these guys the same thing.
We rolled over the short hill into Laveno from where we took a ferry across the lake to the fancier western shore with its famous resorts. Landing in Verbania at the mouth of the Toce River, whose source and great waterfall on the San Giacomo Pass we were to visit later, although we didn't know that yet. From here it's a small climb through a region of former steel mills to Omegna (298m) where traffic again dwindled to nothing as we rode past holiday resorts and old villas along the east shore of Lago d'Orta, its island topped by a picturesque forested red stone castle.
We turned west beyond the lake, at Gozzano (367m), and climbed a short steep bump to Pogno (461m) where I have traditionally gotten a drink at a four spigot fountain on the piazza. Alas, the fountain was dry so we rode around a few narrow cobbled streets to discover no alternate fountain. A soda had to fill the bill this time as we headed up the road through blooming chestnut forests that cover the entire southern edge of the Alps. A tunnel (598m) breaks though an unexpected summit to descend to Borgosesia (359m). A good watering trough at the tunnel was working and supplemented the earlier fueling.
We stopped just beyond the high stone arched bridge over the Sesia to say hello and have a beer with a restaurateur who runs a great osteria where we had eaten on past tours. Heading up to Valle Mosso we missed a turnoff to Trivero somehow and took some previously unexplored side roads that got us to Mosso Santa Maria and to the high "bridge to nowhere". This is the bridge that crosses a deep ravine between Veglio to Pistolesa (655m) for no apparent reason, the old road having followed the contour of the mountain.
Although it wasn't hot, the humid air denied us the unusually clear view of the vast Po Valley in the golden evening light that John Woodfill and I had from here last year. In contrast, this weather was more like spring and didn't bring the snow we had encountered on most passes last time. I shouldn't complain.
We descended from Veglio to the main road in the valley and climbed a few ridges to Biella (410m), where as in the past we had a little trouble finding the right hotel. The two star ones were full so we settled on a four star, which in Biella was a bargain anyway and offered a full buffet breakfast to boot. We tried to discover what Biella and its apparently prosperous and smartly-dressed citizenry is noted for these days, but found only that it was an old city that had greater days, as is evident from some of the closed industrial buildings that haven't seen any activity in fifty years. We ate dinner in a nearby pizzaria as the rain, that had been threatening all day, finally started pouring. Thunderstorms crashed half the night but let up by morning.
After a brisk descent through hillside villages we passed the federal prison, identified by 10m high powder blue steel fences, just before Ivrea. On entering the city, we cruised around the old castle, whose thousands of swifts can darken the sky, stopping at the bridge over the narrows of the Dora Baltea. We arranged by phone to meet my friend Brian Tomlin whose car we followed to his house so he could switch to his bicycle for a ride through the hills on the way to Torino. We rode through small towns that looked like the Romans had left only recently, so old were the streets and buildings.
Brian mentioned that the hills were full of porcini mushrooms, which made us aware of cars parked in promising-looking foraging locations. We passed through the once magnificent but deteriorating grounds of a large Villa with formal gardens, before Brian turned back to return to work. We continued on this small direct but empty road, stopping before Torino for lunch at a pizzaria that seemed unimpressive from outside but whose gleaming interior, huge solid marble dough rolling counter and fine food attracted a full house of cell-phone-toting lunchtime business people.
As we breezed into Torino we saw a French TGV train heading back north Toward the Frejus tunnel and Modane (F). We took a route through town I hadn't tried before, riding narrow cobbled streets criss-crossed by an extensive streetcar network, before connecting again with Rt N20, the Tenda Highway. Rt N20 heads to Cuneo, 87 km south of Torino, on the southern edge of the Po Valley at the foot of the Maritime Alps.
We stopped for refreshments in Raconigi at the castle and grounds of the Savoias, the last royal family of Italy. The castle is a national museum expropriated from the Savoias who live in exile in France. Two huge stork nests that grace one of the twin towers above the castle were occupied, one by two adult storks and two fledglings and the other apparently only by an adult. This gives hope that storks, almost extinct in central Europe, are making a comeback through public awareness and environmental laws.
Racconigi lies about about half way from Torino (230m) to Cuneo (587m). This isn't the most rewarding mileage but the flat riding is a good recovery from the initial climbing and a good preparation for the hills ahead. The mountains remained obscured by the usual humid air of the Lombardia until we crossed the high stone-arch road and rail viaduct over the Stura di Demonte into Cuneo.
After drinking at the great fountain at the train station, we headed up the road to Borgo San Dalmazzo (641m) and then south toward Robilante (686m). We stopped for the night at the Albergo Ristorante Aquila Riale where I have stayed for many years. The proprietor greeted us with his usual enthusiasm and gave us T-shirts emblazoned with the eagle and Ristorante-Albergo Aquila Riale logo. Park bikes in the store room, shower in the room in the annex, followed by dinner at eight was old routine. When riding on a long tour, the food is one of the great rewards of the day, as menus offer the local specialties.
Although pavement ends at the border and the road levels off a bit, the last half kilometer is again paved now to the top, where the landscape and road change completely to steep and dry rocky mountains. Looking back to Italy, fog and clouds were forming where we had been, while the Alpes Maritimes lay in brilliant sunshine to the south.
The Tende (F) is narrow, steep and rocky on the south side, with 100 hairpin turns to the valley. Because this road was replaced by the tunnel so long ago, it looks much as it did 100 years ago. Sparse grass, wildflowers and olive trees, give the slopes a tint of green. Old fortresses located at strategic vantage points are embedded on ridgetops to the east. Several dirt-bike motorcyclists coming up passed as we rode carefully down the deeply rutted turns. We rejoined the Tende highway, French Rt N204, at the south portal of the tunnel, deep in the rocky gorge of the Roya River where there was no trace of the wind we left behind.
Below, in Vievola, the railway re-emerges only to vanish into a loop tunnel followed by many bridges as it descends to Tende (816m). At times the highway cut through the rock in rough hewn tunnels just above the rushing water. We stopped at a bancomat (ATM) for French money before continuing through the Soarge Gorge. Lunch followed below St Dalmas, in Breil (286m), after taking a lap through this ancient town, whose main street, only wide enough for a small car, bisects the town that lies between cliffs and the river. We returned on the sycamore shaded highway along the river, where we dined sumptuously in a pleasant outdoor restaurant.
Backtracking a bit to the junction with Rt D2204, we turned west up the Col de Brauis (879m), climbing terraced hillsides with olives and figs, and a few villas that seemed not to be occupied. Butterflies were everywhere with cicadas providing a background rasp, and blooming broom dotted the hills. We climbed with a cool sea breeze from the south. Just the same, we stopped at the roadside spring under the willows 2/3 of the way up for a refreshing drink. Farther up, our favorite cherry trees weren't looking good but Richard found a couple of straggling cherries just the same. Cherry pits under the tree at the summit showed that it had had a good crop of which nothing was left before we made the sweeping descent to Sospel (349m).
We took pictures of the main street from the bridge over the Bevera and dropped in on the great ice cream parlor at the corner. This time a large dish of ice cream instead of the hot chocolate of last year was in order, but we missed the innkeeper's engaging tales because he was taking a siesta before running the bar till late.
Heading north up the valley to the Turini Pass (1607m), we took Rt D70, that climbs gradually in the narrowing rocky canyon of the Bevera before climbing in hairpins to the monastery of Notre Dame de Menour straddling the road at a precipitous gap. From here the road levels off through Moulinet (827m), after which it climbs mostly in shade through a pine forest to the summit.
The Turini is one of the main events of the Monte Carlo auto rallye in early spring and apparently some drivers like to emulate that in the summer, as we noticed from the many skid marks and rubber in the turns. In fact some of the skid marks ended abruptly at stone walls where paint and glass gave evidence of failures. We soon met two Porsches in the process of making some of their own skid marks.
The descent to the Vesubie begins in a forest, but soon a panorama of the valley with the serpentine road winding down the mountain opens below. One curve exposes a striking view of la Bollene-Vesubie, a walled village perched on a knoll in the foreground of hills with dry grass, olives, and blooming broom.
We joined Rt D2565 at the Vesubie (503m), where we climbed the gradual rise to St Martin (930m), at the narrows below the Col St Martin or Colmain (1500m). Much of the road was formerly the right of way of the Chemin de Fer de Provence and half the road still uses remaining narrow RR bridges in two places. The former train station is across the street from the supermarket in the curve into town. As in the past, we found room in the Hotel des Tres Ponts, on the steep and crooked former main street. Judging from the atmosphere in the restaurant and the excellent dinner, they are doing well.
We crossed the Vesubie just out of San Martin and climbed the gentle grade of the Colmain. Near the top, the road clings to rock walls between rough hewn tunnels that expose a birds eye view of San Martin before heading into a canyon to the summit. The roundabout and chicanes in front of the ski hotels at the summit hadn't gotten any better but then I shouldn't complain, not having to be there when this place is buzzing with skiers.
The descent starts gradually through lush green meadows bounded by forests before becoming steeper, giving way to dry and sparse vegetation in the Tinee river gorge. The final descent, above the river and Rt D220, traverses a barren rocky canyon with the river straight below, hanging on outcroppings between rock tunnels and bridges. The junction lies in a hairpin turn between walls of dark red rock and blocked to the south by a massive pill box from WWII.
The weather was clear and warm and, once again, we had a tailwind as we headed up the nearly flat route along the Tinee to St Etienne (1144m), at the narrows before the Bonette. Years ago the road went straight up the valley, but after several huge rock slides just below town, the valley became a dead zone with no road. I went through this area the year after it was closed and was impressed with the two to three meter diameter boulders embedded in the pavement from free fall. Now I take the main road that detours over the hill past Auron into St Etienne. The old route is almost completely buried and the bridges are broken.
After a hearty meal with just one beer before the climb, we rolled out of town and entered the canyon that climbs to the Bonette/Restefond Pass (2770). The climb starts in a narrow valley, then goes into switchbacks past some beautiful water falls where clouds of butterflies were drinking. Farther up, the road enters a large gravelly valley after le Pras, leaving the trees below and traversing a sloped "moonscape" of low grass and rocks.
We stopped for a cool drink at a hiking hut, once a hotel, among some old buildings at Refuge de Bosieyas (1200m). Although it is another 16 km away, the summit is visible as a small notch, far above, if you know where to look. For someone who hasn't been there, it seems unreal when you point to it. The climb is long but not steep except for one kilometer past the cliffs above the deserted military barracks.
At the Bonette Pass (2670m) it becomes apparent that the claim of the highest paved pass of 2770m is for the vista point loop that gives the extra 100m to make it the "highest". Having been there and finding the view no better than at the gap, we didn't make the climb. To the south lay the deep rolling valleys whose flanks we had climbed. But before us, to the north, a more spectacular alpine panorama, with dolomite-white rock teeth loomed above steep canyons. The summit is a place of ancient and more recent battles where old military roads abound.
We noticed a dirt road, probably the old Restefond Pass, on the north side, heading west down a valley. Below, as we rolled through a group of defunct military barracks, we came upon a paving project that left some of the curves so deeply graveled that bicyclists had trouble riding, especially up hill. We took it carefully and then coasted briskly to Jausiers (1215m). For some reason this part of the road is extra wide but still its curves make descending a cautious exercise.
At the junction with Rt N902 we turned north toward Condamine where we stayed in the Hotel du Midi. We asked the owner whether she had plans for another dog like the great Pyrenees that used to greet us for the many years we have stopped there, but alas, no more big dogs. The sun set early in Condamine, it lying in the shadow of the steep mountains, whose peaks held on to their golden glow till much later. We got a good night's rest to the sound of the rushing stream out front. Traffic... what traffic? The area was deserted as were most places we visited.
In the cool shade of the mountain that covers this narrow valley until midday, we rolled past the junction where most traffic goes over the Col de Larche (1991m) to Cuneo instead of up the Rt N902, however, we had the road to ourselves anyway. The river passes through narrows just below St Paul sur Ubaye (1470m) where the road cuts through the wall and into a wide tunnel that frames a view of the Col de Vars (2111m) climbing through lush meadows with sparse wildflowers. We bought postcards and a soda at the old sheet metal shack at the summit, that I first saw in the 1960's. The new hotel and snack bar that had burned to the ground two years ago, appeared to be completely rebuilt but without signs of activity.
The descent drops through les Claux (1900m), a typical ugly ski town, before a panorama opens to the Durance River toward Guillestre (1000m) to the north with Briancon in the distance. Our route would take us up the Guil River and over the Izoard Pass to Briancon instead of the direct route. We didn't stop in Guillestre and headed into the Guil Canyon, the Combe de Queyeras, climbing gradually along the crags in and out of bare rock tunnels with the river barely visible nearly 100m below. As usual, river rafters were underway above the dam and the junction at Chateau Queyeras, where our route D902 takes a sharp left up the Riviere Valley while the road to the Colle dell'Agnello (2758m) goes straight.
We arrived in Arvieux (1544m) at the grocery store in time for lunch, Richard doing the honors of hustling up the last hills to get there before 12:00, something that is no longer necessary because closing time has been extended. We had a leisurely lunch before heading up the steep section at Brunissard. In warm weather, with blue skies, we climbed the series of long traverses to the false summit, from which the obelisk at the top is discernable. A pair of sleek white high performance glider aircraft circled gracefully above the stark landscape of rocky spires amidst steep slopes of scree.
We stopped just after the short descent at the Coppi monument and took pictures before riding up the second climb to the top of the Col d'Izoard (2361m). The museum of bicycle racing memorabilia from the Tour de France was open but it seems to be more a promotion for some bicycle brands than a real museum, there being many missing items. As we descended to Briancon (1391m), we were already thinking dinner and the Hotel des Glaciers on the Col du Lauteret.
We rolled through town and up Rt N91 with a slight head wind on its gradual slope at 4% to 5% to the Col du Lauteret (2058m). We stopped at the creek at le Lauzet and got a cold drink of water at the spigot that is hidden from view until you are right on it. This time the Hotel du Glaciers looked as it should, awaiting us with plenty of room. Last year it was busily hosting a huge wedding and was not accepting hotel guests.
Monsieur Dominic Bonnabel (the owner operator) gave us a comfortable room where we cleaned up for dinner and were not disappointed by the fare. In fact the hotel seems to be running better than ever and, in spite of the cool weather, had a few guests. In the morning we discovered breakfast was buffet style with more than enough even for bikies to overload. Dominic may not have the Inspector Clouseau twinkle in his eye and the comedy of his uncle before him, but he runs an excellent hotel.
Here we took photos with and without ourselves in the foreground of glistening glaciers above the long valleys to the north and south. If the glaciers of the Massif du Sorieller (4000m) to the south and the Massif de la Vanoise (3600m) to the north, don't make an impression, the sign against which we parked our bicycles proclaiming their beauty won't help. The air was incredibly clear and the views breathtaking with Mont Blanc clearly visible about 100km to the north.
From here the road descends with mild grades and broad curves to Plan Lachat. Much of this section is visible from the summit and is a common scene in TV reports of the Tour de France. The faster sections between curves allow about 60km/h if you hurry, but this is often translated "accidentally" to 60mph by sports commentators. We exceeded 60 km/h only on the straight steep section into Valloire, in spite of hands-on-the-stem effort. It was here that we met our annual road-blocking heard of sheep on the road in no hurry to break speed limits.
After Valloire (1430m) the climb to the Telegraph (1570m) was pleasantly cool and easy with a light following breeze. The Telegraph, a Roman signal station and early French fortress perched upon an astonishing huge rocky dome, commands a clear view up and down the Maurienne Valley of the Arc. This is a stopping point for many bicyclists who hang out at the cafe after the 858m climb from St Michel. From here the road descends with many hairpins through a pine forest to St Michel (712m) where it joins Rt N6. With pleasant weather and a tailwind, we headed up the valley toward Modane without stopping in St Michel. As last year, the entire valley was under construction for the new motorway to Modane (1057m) where the 12.9km Frejus highway and rail tunnels connect to Italy.
Above Modane, after most traffic had turned off, we reached Avrieux, where the road levels off high above the narrows at a huge fortress on the cliffs above the Arc. Tourists reach the fort across the Pont du Diable, a spindly suspension foot bridge that makes the chasm look even more threateningly deep. Descending to the valley floor we stopped for lunch at Termignon (1300m) just before the hill to the valley at Lanslebourg.
At Lanslebourg (1399m), where the Col du Mont Cenis (2083m) heads south to Torino, we turned north up the Col du Madeleine (1746m), a short steep bump on Rt D902 to the high valley of the Arc. The meadows resounded with crickets that seemed to be celebrating spring. We took the right side of the valley that climbs a little higher than needed but is more scenic than going up the middle of this nearly flat valley. Side valleys to the east exposed views of glacier covered peaks, as we approached the narrows at Bonneval sur Arc (1783m) where we stopped for a snack to take us up the hill.
The afternoon was pleasantly warm, that is if you weren't climbing, but we took it easy on the two traverses of the climb to the first valley. No snow this time and in fact there were plenty of wildflowers and lush grass farmers were cutting to make hay. The road crosses the valley climbing gently to the base of a roaring waterfall at the end of this box canyon, a typical hanging glacial U-shaped valley. In one long zigzag, similar to the lower climb we leveled off at the cliffs above the Gorge de la Lenta into which the waterfall cascades as the road hangs on the ledge between rough hewn tunnels through the rock. After crossing the river again, we were on the final and steepest part of the climb that also has only one reversing curve to the top. The stiff headwind may have helped with cooling but it didn't make the climb easier.
We had our pictures taken sitting on the large concrete and stone road sign on the Iseran summit (2770m). The weather was perfect as we descended to val d'Isere (1840m) where the streets were all torn up for a rebuild. Taking the required detours non-stop through town, we climbed the little bump to the first of the series of tunnels down to the Lac du Chevril (2000m) dam. The face of the dam had a huge portrait of a man's face done in shades of grey on the smooth concrete. After the dam the descent becomes steep and fast, finally leveling out before Seez (920m), at the junction of Rt D902 and Rt N90 to the Col du Petit St Bernard (2188m) and Aosta.
We found a room in the hotel on the right in Seez where I had previously only stopped for lunch several times. The evening was as marvelous as the day had been, as we ate on the terrace of the hotel les Gentianes in the setting sun with a view over the valley and Bourg St Maurice (840m) below. Dinner was delicious as was the eclectic cheese platter followed by an ice cream dessert. Squadrons of swifts made screaming laps around the houses in the golden evening light before disappearing in the tile roofs, one after another, as bats came out to take over the bug catching chores for the night. We also went to our roost as the stars came out. We were awakened after midnight by thunder and pouring rain that lasted into early morning. It was a magnificent day.
The rain got a bit thicker as we rode the high valley and passed Les Chapieux (1552m), where I had turned off to the Col de la Seigne (2516m), last year, on a road marked "Vallee des Glaciers" off to the east beneath Mont Blanc. In today's cool rain a trail leading well above snow-line didn't look inviting so we continued over the Cormet de Roselend (1968m).
The fields were wet and green and cows went about their business turning grass into cheese here in the Beaufort cheese region known for its namesake cheese. We made the short descent to the reservoir of the Roselend dam before descending into the Defile d'Entreroches, a gorge about 1000m below the dam that necks down to a slot through which the Doron River enters Beaufort(743m). By now our shoes were wet, but then it was all down hill from here.
We arrived at noon, so we stopped at my favorite restaurant, la Pierra Menta, the first on the right, for a warming and drying lunch. The dining room opened just after we arrived and filled quickly. My choice was the usual selection, the excellent Pizza Frutta di Mare, with seven kinds of sea food prepared in a wood fired oven just opposite our table. This went well with a large mixed salad and large Pelforth biere. It occurred to me that pizza oven in the dining room wasn't new here while the "demonstration kitchen" came recently to many restaurants in the USA.
We pushed off and turned up to the Col de La Saisies (1633m) at St Pierre with drying roads. In La Saisies, a classically ugly ski town that is practically dead in the summer, the rain picked up again as we descended to Flumet (917m) before climbing to Megeve (1113m) where we took N212 the higher road through St Gervais (807m) down to La Fayet (589m). Here we got on the flying freeway that rises on columns, high above the valley on its way to Chamonix (1037m). It now has a "no bicycles sign" but the approved route was not evident nor is it reasonably equivalent to the old road that serves the downhill part of one way freeway traffic.
Mont Blanc made no appearance except for exposing its lower slopes. In spite of low clouds, it showed large glaciers including the Glaciers des Bossons that reach almost into town. The rain had stopped as we reached the downtown pedestrian mall, so that foot traffic was dense as usual, enough to make bicycling difficult. We didn't want to miss the scene though and toured the main before heading up the hill to Argentier (1257m).
From here the road climbs a set of hairpin turns after which it's a mild grade to the top of the Col des Montets (1461m) and a short descent into the Val Orsene to Le Couteray (1260m). We arrived on dry pavement at the Hotel du Buet for comfortable lodging and a fitting dinner along with a group tour of Americans.
After changing money in Martigny (467m) where at the corner of the val du Rhone the val d'Entremont, the val du Trient, a vortex of winds often blows in all directions. Heading up Rt N9 toward Brig, 82km away, we soon saw the ride up the valley would be a literal breeze. With one of the best tailwinds I can recall, we rolled up the gently rising valley of fruit orchards and vineyards some of which cover sunny terraces to the north. The soil in these vineyards is almost entirely covered with large flat riverbottom rocks that keep moisture from escaping to winds that blow up the valley daily.
We were in Sion in no time and cruised right through Sierre (533m) where we found the produce stand at which I had often stopped for cherries and a soda had become a beer joint -- no fruit. Skipping that, we landed in Susten (630m) for lunch at the old hotel where I have often stayed.
Farther up, where the valley is narrower, almost 500 meters above on the north wall, the BLS railway makes its way through cliffs into the Rhone Valley from the Loetschental after passing through the Loetschberg tunnel on its way to the south from Bern. Near Visp we came upon a loaded wild cherry tree that demanded our attention. I may have given it too much, because later on, on the Simplon, my stomach complained as I climbed. We looked briefly at the elegant main street in Brig (648m) before taking the old Simplon road past the castle to join the main highway.
For some reason bicycling is prohibited from just before Brig-Ried until right after the road back out of that village. The new highway is well suited for bicycling. The old road is still entirely passable but it is steep and far less scenic. We ignored the sign as usual and rode with the same tailwind of before up to the sweeping curve at the end of the long traverse to find that we were sheltered from it on the return run to the Schallberg tunnel that makes the corner into the Gantertal, high above the Salina River flowing into Brig.
Here the wind picked up again and became a hazard crossing the high concrete suspension bridge into Berisal (1520m). Fortunately with practically no traffic we could ride in the middle of the road to avoid being thrown against the walls by the unpredictably turbulent winds. After Berisal we found shelter in the forest and climbed to the upper region above tree line where the road ducks in and out of avalanche shelters before curving around to the Simplon summit (2005m). A huge eagle of granite blocks, a monument to mountain military, gazes to the south here.
The view from the summit to the north reveals the south side of the Eiger in the distance, above a portion of the 23km long Aletsch glacier. After a brief stop for postcards we pushed off with a stiff tailwind that got stronger the farther we descended into the granite Gondo gorge of the Diveria. Here the road was largely in tunnels or concrete avalanche sheds built into the rock wall, between bridges that led to the less difficult passage. That a route through these gorges had been built is amazing, considering the means available centuries ago when this rout was first opened.
Between Gabi (1228m) and Gondo, we crossed the Diveria a few times with gust that appeared to be over 80km/h because while traveling about that fast it was, at moments, windstill. On bridges, crosswinds hit us while the wind blew downstream, or in some cases upstream depending on the shape of the canyon. Above Gondo, a large waterfall, blown from its obvious course, billowed upward in spectacular spray that at times seemed to evaporate in the sky.
Finally, at Varzo (532m) the wind calmed, but was still stiff enough that riding up the Simplon would have been a low gear chore even between gusts. We took pictures of the beautiful slender stone arch bridge that I have photographed often before climbing the slight grade to Crevoladossola (337m). This part of the road was empty because through traffic takes a two kilometer tunnel down to Domodossola.
We turned left up the Valle Antigorio to Crodo, where Crodo Water, a major bottled water brand of Italy, is bottled. Years ago I stayed in Crodo with a friend who confused the words "caldo / freddo" with "cold / hot" and suffered through a cold shower, both faucets being cold when he first opened them. Other than that we had a pleasant stay, so I tried to find the place but alas, Crodo no longer has a hotel.
We continued to Baceno (655m) at the confluence of the Torrente Devero and Toce rivers, where the road splits into the Devero and Formazza Valleys. We found a large comfortable hotel, empty but for a few pensioners who seemed to be long term guests. In spite of the low activity, the fare was excellent. Baceno also lies at the lower end of the German speaking region of the Val Formazza that was settled by Walsers, Swiss immigrants who came over the Gries Pass From canton Wallis.
About ten kilometers up the canyon, a series of serpentines climb to Fondovalle, where at the base of the climb, a new bridge led into a tunnel that was nearly complete. Above in Fondovalle, the same tunnel emerged not more than 1000m from the entrance but 160m higher. At the market in Ponte (1267m) we learned that the tunnel was a three kilometer loop to gain altitude and, by the way, that bicycles would not be permitted. I am sure a high priority among local bikies will be to ride down through it. Architecture, as the names of the towns, in the Val Formazza are more typically Swiss-German than Italian, the early Swiss settlers. Road signs are in both Italian and German or Romansch (the fourth Swiss language).
Besides the granite cutters and road construction, the valley was abuzz with the laying of a one meter diameter high pressure gas pipeline from the north sea to Italy. The work included tunneling and trenching through steep rocky terrain over the Gries Pass (2479m), that today is still only a trail remaining from ancient times as it was when the Walsers came to the Formazza. Fortunately, once completed, careful landscaping will make the pipelines invisible but for small yellow warning signs.
We also got as pleasant surprise from the proprietor of the grocery store in Ponte who told us that the Toce, normally diverted into hydro-power except Sundays, now also flows naturally from 11:00 to 13:00 on Thursdays -- today! Just after 11:00, as we headed upstream, the Toce came to life with a rush of clear mountain water that washed away pipeline construction dirt and filled the rocky riverbed to the level of polish on its giant boulders.
A short distance above Canza we got our first glimpse of white through the trees and then around a curve the entire Cascata del Toce came into view. We took pictures from below before riding to the top, 150m higher, through avalanche 'galleria' built into the wall next to the falls. Several tour busses, that we can probably thank for the Thursday opus, also arrived to take advantage of the mid week show.
From the hotel at the top of the falls (1675m) it's an easy ride to Riale (1728m), a ghost town and former farming village that has come to life with vacationers who rent some of the old houses. Fortunately there seems to be some zoning that keeps new structures from being built. Next year, when the pipeline rests under ground, Riale will, once again, look as it has for more than a hundred years, forlorn and unchanged.
Here the road splits with our route crossing the Toce to climb the rocky walls to the San Giacomo (2313m), a pass whose road ends at the summit with only a hiking trail to Switzerland. The road appears to have been built by ENEL for the dams below the summit although the stonework looks much older than the discovery of electricity. Although smoother than the last time, the road was rocky enough that the two cars we met, descended with great care to avoid damaging their undersides.
Above Lago di Toggia (2191m) that is fed from Lago Castel (2223m), we climbed gradually through meadows of wildflowers to an occasional alarm of a whistling marmot. The summit and border is marked only by an empty stone guard house. Here the road turns into a trail not more than a cow path amidst grass and wildflowers. For the first time, there wasn't a trace of snow, so I thought finding the trail that drops steeply into the Val Bedretto would be easier. From here we could barely see the flying hairpin turn above Fontana near Airolo at the far end of the valley. The slope ahead dropped off so steeply that we could not see our destination, the s-bend on the Nufenen road.
Having a feel for where the trail should be, we veered toward the left near the high voltage lines and followed cow paths. Peering over the edge, it was apparent that we found the right place, although the trail was so steep that it looked more like a small rock slide.
Using the front brake walked carefully down the steep trail/rockfall. Below, as the trail became more civilized, we found standard red-white-red trail markers. Finally we could ride intermittently on the narrow path as we approached the river where, to our surprise, a small bridge made wading through the icy Ticino unnecessary. From here it was a good 800m rise up the concrete highway to the Nufenen summit (2468m). The south side (our climb) of the pass is scenic and varied in contrast to the north that descends into a narrow nondescript canyon with no view except a glance at the Gries Pass where pipeline work was underway.
We dropped into the Goms, the upper Rhone Valley, at Ulrichen (1348m), where we ate lunch before turning right, rolling into Oberwald (1368m) at the base of the hill to Gletsch. Here, as we passed the FO train station, cars were loading onto the Furka tunnel shuttle. We rode up past Hotel Rhonequelle, that had been thoroughly renovated two years ago with no visible exterior change. We climbed the esses into Gletsch as the clouds closed overhead in the evening sky. We passed the great Gletsch hotel and passed the Blaues Haus at the newly installed RR crossing of the DFB where the climb to the Furka begins.
It wasn't far now but still a substantial climb to the glacier where we had taken pictures ten days earlier. When we reached the vista point and Belvedere Hotel, all the concessions were closed and looked as though they had been, judging from the fresh snow that was still lying at the base of the walls. There were no cars or signs of life except a light in the lobby of the Belvedere (2306m). We weren't sure that we were going to find lodging there, but as we entered, the concierge greeted us warmly and assured us that we were in good hands and that the kitchen was ON.
The Belvedere is a landmark of the Alps that jumped from the past to the present in a way one can imagine only here in Switzerland. It closed in 1939 when the road was still a trace in the dirt, auto travel was risky, and the last horse drawn coaches were still around. The auto had been so frail, that on my first visit in 1948, Gletsch, the Belvedere and the summit still had a string of old auto repair shops. These garages were dismantled in subsequent years but the Belvedere remained closed until recently when it reopened to the Jet age and cars that could drive from Berlin to Rome stopping only for fuel. The idea to stop here came to me as we rode up the San Giacomo. I had had the wish to stay in this grand hotel since I first saw it.
Good timing brought us to the Belvedere at dusk and gave us the opportunity to see what lay behind those magnificent stone walls. We got the best room in the house with a view to the valley, the glacier, and the Grimsel summit from which the usual cold fog cascaded toward Gletsch. We ate well.
The Oberalp Pass (2044m) begins climbing right in town, nonstop to the summit lake, around which the road and railway share a long avalanche shed to the summit at the far end of the lake. It was all down hill under clearing skies from here to Sedrun, where the SBB is building an adit for the planned 50km Gotthard tunnel deep below. The huge construction site is served by a steep spur track from the FO cog railway by way of a high bridge and tunnel, both under construction. Although a temporary construction track, it appeared to be built to permanent standards. We watched as railway ties were ferried to the middle of the new bridge by helicopter. This adit will enable boring the tunnel on four fronts. Favorable winds accompanied us down the Vorderrhein Valley to Ilanz (699m) where we took the south side of the valley over Vesam (908m) instead of the main road over Flims (1081m). The small road has practically no traffic and gives a wonderful view of the narrows of the Rhein that today had a backdrop of fresh snow on the peaks above. After Vesam, the road takes a long straight run from to Bonaduz (655m) where we joined the main route up the Domlesch Valley to Thusis and the along Albula River in the Schin Valley to Tiefencastel (851m). We stopped here at a hotel at the edge of town on the Julier road.
At Bivio (1776m), one of several picturesque alpine villages, we passed the junction with the Septimer Pass (2311m), a trail that contains intact sections of the former Roman road that I had crossed on an earlier tour. We rolled over the Julier (2284m) with a stream of cars that we soon left behind while descending into the Engadin. In Silvaplana (1815m) on the shores of the Silvaplana Lake that, together with the Silser Lake, is the source of the Inn River, we turned east toward St Moritz on the shores of the Lag da St Murrezzan (Romansch for St Moritz). Its grand hotels, elegant train station and spacious funiculars that carry guests to the finest ski slopes, are what rightly give it the high class reputation with which the name has become synonymous.
The main road no longer goes through town but takes a cutoff that heads south to Pontresina and the Bernina route where we were headed. A brisk descent through the gorge took us past the St Moritz golf course (1728m) and our road junction. We turned off into Pontresina to cruise the main drag and its fancy shops, and stop at the large Co-op market at the upper end of town. Fortunately stores are allowed to be open Saturday afternoon these days, so we had a good late lunch.
Up the valley, we stopped at the Montebello curve of the road and RhB railway to take a picture of a red train climbing the 7% curve with Piz Bernina and the Morteratsch glacier as a backdrop. It took awhile but since I had decided to stop in Brusio, not far away, the pause had no effect on or stage stop. We got two trains in succession and headed on up the road that hardly seems to climb from here to the Bernina Pass (2230m). After adjusting the summit sign and taking pictures before rolling down the long descent into the Val Poschiavo where, we took a detour through Poschiavo (1014m), once a simple farm town with narrow stone streets. Today, after a substantial rebuild after floods in the 1980's, the town is a model of redevelopment, with fine stone paved streets and a charming central plaza, whose church has elaborately carved woodwork, and many shops and restaurants. From here the road levels off through La Prese and along the lago di Poschiavo to Miralago (962m) after which a swift descent parallel to the Bernina RR took us to Brusio (780m) and Hotel Bettoni for the day's stage.
From Bormio the old Rt N301 to the Pso di Foscagno branches from the Stelvio toward Valdidentro, turns off a half kilometer farther up Rt N38 (at 1397m) than the new road, where most traffic heads for Livigno, a duty free zone. Just before Valdidentro, the AEM (Milano Utilities) road turns off up the wall, to the hydro-electric lakes Lago di Cancano and Lago di S. Giacomo, on an unpaved road with many hairpins and a couple of tunnels in the gap.
The two lakes, one higher than the other, are separated by a dam and are surrounded by vacation cottages that serve the privileged employees of the AEM/ATM utility that runs power and transportation in Milano, much as the San Francisco PUC does with its municipal railway and Hetch Hetchy water and power, high in the Sierra Nevada. At the far end of the upper lake, an inconspicuous road branches off steeply to the west and climbs into the Alpisella Valley to trace a Roman road that still has huge curbstones where they have not been covered with scree from the steep sides of the canyon. The summit is abrupt and heads down so steeply that people who try to get through with a car cannot back up when they realize there is no possibility of passage. I have seen two wrecks of cars that tried and never returned.
The trail down to Livigno is in better shape than it has been in past years but still has a wooden suspension bridge that is too narrow for a mountain bike. It had been on the verge of slipping off into the abyss but some trail work has made it easily passable, largely ridable. Livigno (1810m) has become a fancy ski area besides being an Italian duty free zone. It became that because it used to be cut off from Italy in the winter, having access only through Switzerland. Today this is an all year route while maintaining its customs status.
The valley to the west climbs over the Forcla di Livigno (2315m) before descending to the Bernina road at 2054m. With a little gratuitous climbing, Richard rode to the Bernina summit (2328m) to relive the beauty of this summit that we crossed the day before. Then down to Brusio and the train station in Campocologno just below the circular viaduct, just in time to take the RhB train over the summit past Alp Gruem and the view of the great glaciers. This gave a third passage over the Bernina and a return for a late dinner in Brusio. Meanwhile, with some ant-acid pills my appetite had returned and made for a good night's rest.
As we climbed along the Oglio toward Ponte di Legno, we passed the junction of the Mortirolo Pass at Monno (868m), a much steeper and higher but shorter alternative to the Aprica, that we had taken two years ago. With a pleasantly cooling breeze we climbed to Temu' (1144m) and Silvano Macculotti's hotel, the Veduta dell' Adamello, arriving in time to sit down to the great lunch that is served without menu in this, the non-skiing off-season season. Properly fueled, we pushed on through the center of Ponte di Legno (1258m) following the old main street through the narrows to the Gavia road along the rushing Frigidolfo River.
After a short climb, the road levels off once more at San Apollonia (1585m) above which the river suddenly loses its bite, meandering through meadows in the high Valle del Messi. I drank rusty soda water from both spigots of the Apollonia mineral spring before heading up the "hill" to the Passo Gavia (2621m). The usual signs proclaimed the hazards of venturing up the mountain, including one that said the road was closed; but this time it was true, as a driver of a car tried to explain, because he had been turned back. The difference was that the last unpaved sections of the road were being paved and there was no passing the road equipment up on the cliffs, even by motorcycle. Of course, you can always carry a bicycle, if need be, so we didn't let ourselves be dissuaded. The sign:
Il Passo Gavia è chiuso!even now, held no threat for one who has seen this sign for the last 40 years. We wondered what moved the ANAS (Italian Highway dept) to pave this classic, but then I don't mind, especially the descent to Santa Caterina-Valfurva (1734m), that was a long slow drag before it was paved, the way Andy Hampsten saw it on his ride to victory. We dropped in at the Rifugio Bonetta at the Gavia summit (2618m) for a mini Cola, the only kind up there, before taking the long roll down the high valley to the steep descent. The mountaintops were occluded so we couldn't marvel at the back side of the Gran Zebru and Ortler (3905m) whose glaciers make such a spectacular scene from the Stelvio.
We rolled non stop through Bormio (1225m) a little after 6PM, heading into the Val Braulio on Rt N38 to the Stelvio despite the gathering storm clouds. The cool weather and the late hour left us with a mostly private road. I've ridden this road many times and in all kinds of weather over the years and yet it always presents an exciting experience like none before. The road climbs through sparse pines with a panorama of the Valdidentro and Foscagno Pass to the north before entering the narrows of the Val Braulio, a canyon of nearly vertical walls. After the first few hairpins, the zigzags of the road on the headwall of the canyon come into view along with the snowsheds and tunnels that lead to it. The climb went well with only a bit of headwind at the junction of the Umbrail Pass (2501m) to Switzerland. It is only three km and about 262m up from here to the Stelvio Pass (2769m), that was deserted with hardly a car in the parking lot as we arrived at 9PM in the gathering storm.
We took a few pictures in the gathering dusk before diving down the famous hairpin turns of the Val Trafoi, the hallmark of this famous road. Drops splashed on the dry pavement as we reached the Hotel at Franzenshoehe (2189m), below the twenty or so hairpins, flanked by glaciers to the south and rocky cliffs to the north. The gathering storm made darkness close in faster than usual for the time of day, so we pulled in to park our bikes in the hotel's garage, empty except for a motorcycle and one car. We were, once again, solo guests, savoring private service and a fine dinner. Shortly after bedtime, the storm broke, with the flash and sharp crack of lightning that reverberated in the canyon, while hailstones beat a staccato on the windows.
With this weather this main route, usually full of northerners heading for the sunny south, was a mere trickle. The final descent into Merano (302m) took us past the huge Forst brewery where many visitors were taking the tour. In town we gave the old main street (pedestrian mall), where even the manhole covers have gleaming inlaid script, the usual inspection and rode up the steep old road past the castle at the town of Tirol, joining the new highway up the Val Passiria along the Fiume Passiria.
The sky was grey and tried letting a few drops fall now and then, before we stopped in Saltusio at a large hotel with an awning covered deck for lunch before any real rain began to fall. In fact we were well into the meal before the sky opened up and dumped its reserves. Extending our lunch with a delicious apfelstrudel we left just as the sky cleared and headed to St Leonard (688m) at the base of the Rolle and Giovo Passes. Without stopping, we headed up the hill to the Giovo (Jaufen) Pass (2099m), climbing steadily, at first through forests of larch and blooming chestnut, where the locals gathered porcini mushrooms that were apparent in bulging plastic bags.
About half way up the road breaks into steep meadows passing through two villages stuck on the steep grassy slopes. Though the meadows are steep they are so intensively used/valuable/limited/whatever that we saw a farmer cutting grass with a mower being belayed with ropes from the roadside above. Far above, near the summit, we saw the white Gasthof Enzianhuette, aptly named for the deep blue gentian that abound in these meadows, in both the large and small varieties.
The north descent, that is mostly forested, suffers from the same malady of deferred maintenance that we know from home, and gave us rough ride. Near the bottom we met with new pavement as we rolled into Vipiteno (Sterzing) (948m) where I paid a brief nostalgic visit. This town was once a small road junction with no significant attractions other than some old buildings that are common around here. In 1959, I stopped here to catch dinner with the Alpini soldiers in the 'caserma' at the south end of town. Today these barracks have been renovated to flashy condominiums, barely recognizable as former barracks. The main street is a pedestrian mall paved with hand laid decorative granite in front of luxurious shops.
We headed south down HWY N12 in the Isarco [Eisack] Valley under clearing skies again with a welcome tailwind and no traffic because the parallel Autostrada takes most of it. High above, on the west wall of the valley, the Passo di Pennes climbs steeply toward Dosso, where it heads into the mountain out of sight. We cruised on to the massive Fortezza (742m) that Kaiser Franzjoseph built to close the valley at the narrows. Today the highway, Autostrada and railway do an end run on the west side while a rail line to Lienz Austria tunnels through the fortress. We turned east here into the Val Pusteria on Rt N49 toward Bruneck and the Dolomites. We found a pleasant hotel in Obervintl (756m) where, in spite of a delicious dinner, Richard's digestive tract went sour a few hours later and he spent a feverish night without much sleep. Although we ate the same dinner, I was spared.
I ate the noon menu in the Rifugio while Richard subsisted on some groceries he had brought along from Lonega. Then we headed up the extremely steep road cut in the rock wall directly in front of the hotel. Unlike the heat of three years ago, today fewer hikers were underway under cool blue skies as we pushed up the road that zigzagged up the in the wall in short traverses at more than 30% grade where the insides of the turns were 100% grade. We had the road to ourselves and were not passed by any of the mountain goat like four wheel drive taxis as we pushed, my right hand over the back of the saddle and left on the bars in front of my nose. The front wheel was so light that it wouldn't steer at times. As we got higher, the grade let up so that we could ride for short stretches before Fodara Vedla (1966m) a small livestock village with no facilities.
A short bump brought us to a breath-taking vista over a high plateau, its green covering of low scrub pines contrasting with the brilliant whites and oranges of the surrounding jagged mountains under a sky of deep blue holes in billowing clouds. The peaks are highest to the south to le Tofane (3243m) and to the east to Monte Cristallo (3221m) and Crodo Rossa (3146m). They make a panorama that is so breath taking that it takes a long time to absorb. I am always deeply moved by the Dolomites with their million spires in white and shades of orange and grey reaching into the clouds.
From here, most of the road is ridable to the Rifugio Sennes (2116m) if you try hard. Richard did and I didn't. As we approached the rifugio, we crossed a large football field, in use by many youths kicking balls or just running around as well as by picnickers. In fact this was a hardened meadow, used as an airstrip during the last wars and probably by the park service today.
After an ice cold soda on the deck in the midst of many hikers lunching at the rifugio, we headed down the "road" to Cortina d'Ampezzo. The road showed more signs of use than the last time I was here, although we couldn't guess who would drive up from this side. The road was still a gulch of baseball to volleyball sized roundish rough rock but was graded and not more than about two and a half meters wide. We rode a little and walked meeting no one as we heard the roar of a truck coming up. It was a wide stubby high clearance four wheel drive tank truck with a wide cab over the front wheels. The two men in the cab were serious about keeping their truck on the road that was no wider than their vehicle but so steep that their high flotation tires just held on, kicking some of the big stuff down the mountain. At their speed, fuel at the rifugio must be expensive coming up the long haul from Cortina.
We passed a locked barrier at Rifugio Ra Stua (1668m), after which the grade got milder and the road smoother. We rode along the rushing Aga de Ciampo Croso River with the typical clear water over white dolomite, almost invisible except for the froth in the rapids. After another locked barrier the road was paved but still a restricted road that got steeper with up to 18% the rest of the way to Schloss Hubertus (1450m), where it joins Rt N51 to Cortina (1211m). We had joined two MTB riders who were returning to Cortina and Richard in last position, his attention wavering from lack of sleep and food, did not see the last barrier until the rest of us had taken the detour around the end. The ensuing skid ruined his rear tire but no crash or blowout. We put on his spare tire that was hard to keep on the rim until it clinched with air pressure so we looked for a bike shop as we rolled through parts of of Cortina to no avail.
I had planned that we stop on the Passo di Giau for the night and it wasn't far, except for a little steep climbing that was not too much for this short day. We took a right at the edge of Cortina up Rt N48 the Falzarego Pass (2105m) and stopped at the overlook after the tunnel in the wall for a view of Cortina and its crown of mountains. This is always a beautiful panorama with the gleaming church of dolomite stone in the center and the rest of the town clustered around with flower boxes decorating the houses. The Olympic ice rink was being renovated so there were not mothers working out their daughters today.
We turned south at Pocol on Rt N638 to the Passo di Giau (2233m) with jagged vertical spires of Monte Averau and Nuvolau rising high above the summit saddle. We stopped for a photo opportunity at the top but alas, the mountains to the south and west were in the clouds with an occasional glimpse of glaciers on the Marmolada. We rode down to the Rifugio Piezza (2175m), about a kilometer from the top, where I had stayed on earlier tours. As often on this trip, only three other guests were staying for the night although the dining room seems to attract people from the valley and was well attended. The splendid dining was unexpected for Richard, to whom I had described the lodging as utilitarian, having forgotten to explain that the food was the attraction. Richard's appetite returned mildly and we had a good nights sleep in the empty dormitory.
Considering the difficult descents we had done, this did not evoke pleasant images. We cautiously descended with one brake that had more to do than otherwise because we could not brake hard to stop for hairpin turns and had to brake a lot longer to make up for that. It worked and we got to town but found Cortina has no bike shops. We found only five places with MTB rentals and one with a road bike on display. We made the best of it by riding up to the train station and taking the rails to trails route #208 to Dobiacco. I saw this railroad run when I first came here 40 years ago and again in the first Pink Panther movie. The trail is a smooth graveled road now, with two tunnels and a high bridge over the Rio Felizon near where our trail from Rifugio Sennes joined the main road.
The Trail is well used and has lights in the 500m long tunnel (that isn't straight). Being a former meter gauge railway, its grades are less than 3% all the way over the Cimabanohe summit (1529m). This was once a great train ride and Richard couldn't help thinking that if this were Switzerland it would not have been abandoned and would serve trains rather than hikers. We got off the trail at the summit because descending on the gravel offered nothing we couldn't do better on the parallel smoothly paved highway.
We made good time to Dobiacco (1241m), source of the Drau river on the saddle of the Pustertal that we had left in Bruneck the day before. Turning east toward Lienz (673m) with a favorable breeze, we crossed into Austria and reached town in time for lunch and to find Herbert Zambra's bike shop open. Herb assured us that he could find a brake bolt for our "antique" long reach caliper brake and began to dig in the basement reserve while I rebuilt Richard's rear wheel with a exact replacement Mavic MA-2 that a good bike shop like this had. The dish on the rear wheel was such that nearly all the load was on 18 spokes. So the spoke holes had cracked.
Armed with a working brake, a rebuilt wheel, new tubes and some lunch, we headed off to the Iselsberg (1204m), a steep grunt for the first half and a lovely pass into the Moelltal from the Drau. We looked back for a last Dolomite panorama as we headed into traditional Alpine scenery. A brisk descent to Winklern (958m) and up the gradual grade of the Moelltal to Moertschach (980m) where we stopped for the day.
We climbed under cloudy skies with bits of blue and a light breeze with the pure white pyramid of the Gross Glockner (3798m) visible to the north. The clouds surrounded rather than hid the peaks to give them an unusual character. Being careful to turn right at the junction and avoid a pointless dead-end climb to the vista point parking lot, we climbed steadily through lush, sodden meadows to the Hochtor Summit (2505m) where a pair of eagles circling high above as we emerged from the 200m long tunnel. After a brisk descent to the lake at the Mittletoerl (2328m) tunnel, and a steep climb past gentian-covered slopes to Fuschertoerl (2428m), the usual Glockner panorama was covered by clouds that were closing in as we began the 12% descent. Although the road wasn't splashing wet, we caught a few showers of big drops on the way to the toll gate and wildlife park at Ferleiten.
With the ever present tail wind, we rolled toward Bruck through small towns with displays of wood carvings and rustic furniture, Austrian art for the tourist. We arrived in Bruck (757m) on the Salzach River and passed Zell am See where my friends at Porsche Design were apparently on vacation. Looking down the valley where the main road carries most of the traffic towards Salzburg we saw heavy rain clouds gathering while things looked better in our westerly direction up the Pinzgau Valley. As we passed through the center of Mittersill I called out "Look out for steam trains!" Richard thought I was just making a joke about the non-operating locomotive mounted on pedestal outside the station, but the 760mm Pinzgau railway was celebrating its centennial this week with steam trains, and a fine 2-8-4T locomotive with string of period cars was steaming away at the station.
From Mittersill most traffic heads north and south as we headed west to Wald (867m) at the foot of the old Gerlos Pass. On the way we passed another steamer heading down the valley from Krimml. We climbed the narrow road to hotel Grubl, a great place to stay, to say hello to the Kaisers who run the place and to get a mid afternoon desert before heading up the 17% bump just above. That went OK, but with a grunt, after which the rest of the hill is a piece of cake.
The top of the old Gerlos Pass (1486m) was under darkening skies but dry as we descended past the huge earth fill dam and on through the fancy ski town Gerlos (1245m). With no more than a couple of drops on a dry road, we finished at Hainzenberg (905m) at the Waidenhof hotel, a few km above Zell am Ziller (575m). We stayed here because I had no luck finding good accommodations in the valley on previous trips. The choice was excellent and we ate well while a bit of rain fell outside.
We passed the Oetztal (Timmelsjoch, Pso Rombo) on a high bridge over the Ache River at its confluence with the Inn, and then over the Inn, after which a two kilometer climb took us past the narrows toward Imst. After the descent, we took the shortcut toward Landeck that avoids climbing again through Imst, by taking the turnoff to the Bahnhof and river rafting set-in. Many rafts were in the water and starting as we passed on the bicycle path that parallels the river on the most direct and level route toward Landeck (816m). This time we cold not get back on the highway for long because it was being cleared of rockfall for construction of an avalanche roof. Cars took the freeway but bicycles got a circuitous road/trail that paralleled the OBB mainline that was in the process of being double-tracked and getting a long new tunnel. In Landeck we headed west on Rt N1 toward the Arlberg Pass, turning off at Pians (859m) to head up the Silveretta Road.
The Silveretta Road Rt N188 up the Paznauntal was in great shape and, because it had been a cold summer, was without traffic. The valley is just flat enough that the road runs fairly straight as it climbs. I had first seen this beautiful area before its ski areas were "discovered" when this was a small dirt road although a swift highway today. The character is visually more pleasant than many ski areas with its traditional architecture and a low key commercialism.
We stopped in Ischgl (1377m) for some eats and then, after passing the toll gate above Galtuer (1583m), got some light rain as we started the final climb to the Bielerhoehe (2021m). Only the last two kilometers have some 16% pitches just below the huge earth fill dam that is the east side of the summit. The west side has an equally large and impressive arched concrete dam. As last year, the Silverettahorn (3248m) and Piz Buin (3312m) were lost in the clouds although the glass top "Maid of the Mist" boat was operating.
After the Vermunt intake lake, the road descends into the "hole" winding down the cliffs in a long series of spectacular hairpins to Partenen (1027m) after which the Montafon Valley slopes more gradually toward Bludenz (535m), 46km away. We rode through Schruns and Bludenz but didn't come across any place for the night that we liked, so we kept on riding on toward Lichtenstein, where after dusk we came across a small sign "<- Hotel Stern **" just after the Nenzing (509m) city limits. It was late but the place was full of diners and the host said not to worry, he had space and could have dinner as late as we wanted. While we sat on the covered terrace, the clouds let go with a downpour that made the roof roar, adding satisfaction to the food and drink.
The wide asphalt is a masterpiece of smoothness that attracts roller blades as well as hikers, runners, and bicyclists. Occasional bridges (not for cars) made crossing convenient as we rode toward Sargans (483m) in Switzerland. We stopped at a grocery store in Mels and then took the bike path along the Seez Kanal to Walenstadt (427m) on the Walensee. We rode along the lake to Muehlehorn where we headed up Karenzerberg (743m), a small pass over the corner of the mountain to Mollis (448m) in Canton Glarus.
We kept to the east side of the valley on bike routes from Mollis to Glarus (475m) where we ate lunch in the garden of Hotel Glarus across from the station, stores being closed on Sunday. From here, on Rt N17, there was almost no traffic to Linthal (662m) at the end of the Linth Valley. The Glarner Alps were in their usual magnificence, peaks vanishing high in the clouds, making them appear taller than they are. The highest peak, the Toedi (3614m), framed by the walls of the valley in a canton with almost no flatland, was barely visible in the clouds, high above surrounding peaks.
We started the climb up the Klausen from Linthal along with many motorcyclists and an antique car rallye. Richard took a detour on the old one lane road through the dripping one lane cobbled tunnels while I went through the new straight and long bore that bypasses the whole section. At Urner Boden (1300m) the road breaks out of the forest into a long 500m wide valley with near vertical walls on three sides. After a straight run up the nearly flat valley to Spitelrueti (1400m), the main climb to the top heads into the rocky walls. The valley has a bench, high on the east side, from which many cableways transport milk to the valley in summer.
The late afternoon light gave the climb a warm glow as we rose above the valley on long traverses that turned when they hit the wall. At the Klausen Pass (1948m) there was a veritable crowd of weekend motorcyclists and others taking in refreshments at the restaurant. On the way down to the summit hotel, the Toedi came back into view high above Aesch (1234m) that lay 700m below us in the Schaechental. As the road clings to the cliffs, it passes over the end of the box canyon of the Schaechental giving a vertical view of farm buildings. Across the canyon, the free falling Steubi fall crashes to the valley floor in a cloud of mist (Steubi) after cascading form the Toedi glaciers.
We took the usual extra care along this piece of road, cut into the granite wall, with no functional guard rail between us and a huge free-fall. After we got off the "wall" we blasted down to Hotel Urigen (1300m) where the outdoor tables were full with weekenders. Steffan Truschner, the owner, his wife Karin, and two year old daughter Joel greeted us. We took the usual room, with bath down the hall, in the beautiful annex with carved wooden beams that are colorfully decorated with painted verses. Richard's appetite handmade only a partial recovery, but I had a good dinner after which we both deserved a good rest. I think a day of rest might have done the trick for Richard, but his flight home was just around the corner without a day to spare.
In Altdorf (458m) in the Reuss Valley where we headed toward Erstfeld (472m) where the railway begins its climb with a 2.7% grade to the 16km Gotthard tunnel. One of the famous old crocodile Gotthard freight engines is on display across from the Erstfeld station. A little farther up, we started our climb at Amsteg where the road abruptly begins climbing across a steep stone bridge and into the wall at the huge SBB (federal railway) hydroelectric plant.
From here, in the narrow canyon, the rock walls are penetrated by railway, motorway and highway tunnels and bridges over the roaring Reuss below. Nearly all traffic uses the parallel motorway so we had a private road to Wassen (916m) at the junction with the Susten road. As we climbed, a series of trains rolled by in both directions but not much freight, freight that should be bringing in revenue and taking heavy trucks off the road. In Wassen, Rt N20 the Susten road, starts climbing into bare rock tunnels right at the city hall.
As often, we had beautiful weather with a sky of blue with with white puffy clouds, here on the glacier highway of Switzerland, that climbs much of the way in one long gradual curve along the Meiental. I stopped for a drink at the ice cold stream above Faernigen (1455m) and then at the corner waterfall kiosk, where I put away a couple of colas for the ride up the single pair of hairpin turns to the top.
Passing through the Susten summit tunnel (2224m) exposes a stunning panorama of glaciers and peaks, foremost amongst them the Sustenhorn (3503m) and its huge Steingletscher that spreads ice to the valley far below the road. The ride down the Gadmental is exciting and beautiful, with broad curved tunnels opening vistas to ice fields, with a waterfall that goes over one of the shorter tunnels. This time the section from the curved tunnel above Steingletscher (1865m) to the Hotel parking lot was under construction with as much as a 30 minute wait, making traffic light, because after a flood of cars went by the road was empty in spite of the beautiful weather.
The last piece into the Haslital is fairly steep and starts with curved tunnels above Wyler just before Inertkirchen (625m). After that, we sprinted up the four legs of the Kirchet (700m) to the Gasthaus Lammi where Richard watched me eat and drink a cool refreshing beer. He said he would eat lightly and take the train from Meiringen because he still couldn't keep much food down. So I pushed off alone.
From Meiringen (595m) I rode up the 13% part of the Brunig Pass (1008m) in the shade of the trees, taking a last look back at the big mountains before descending to the Lungernsee (752m) and then from Kaiserstuhl to Giswil (485m) on the Sarnersee. Traffic through Luzern was as dense as any weekend but not as bad as rush hour on a weekday. When I reached home base, I discovered that Richard took the train all the way into Zurich, did a little window and real shopping (the stores in the train station are open) and then finished in Affoltern where next morning he rushed off to an early airport departure.