Copyright © by Milosz Wisniewski
The asphalt ribbon in front of me winds in increasingly narrow serpentines and I can rather sense than see that the next kilometer will bring an end to the climb and my whole tour. Hardly spinning the pedals I reach a wood - covered hill, straighten myself and roll down with no effort. When I pass the sign announcing the entrance to St. Cergue which I left several days before, suddenly I feel a strange drought in a throat and, against my will, few teardrops get out of my eyes. I feel surprised by the emotion, although there is nothing strange about it; just the time passing too quickly after so many months of dreams, games of imagination and preparations for my Swiss Alps Tour.
The adventure has been born in circumstances having a little in common with generally conceived tourism or "communing with nature" pattern; namely, in front of the computer screen in which I tried to find through the Internet links something which could have become a seed of future voyages. And I did - hundreds of pages of stories written by people for whom the Alps and bike were something more than just a holiday idea. They were their drug, passion filling the whole life. Look at such Jobst Brandt, American in his fifties returning to the Alps every year to conquer thousands of kilometers among the mountain giants, paying a little attention to the road's gradient or pave status. As he wrote, climbing the Col Ferret at the foot of Mont Blanc with a bike on his shoulder took him less time than it was announced by the signs devoted to backpackers.
Such stories are extremely infectious, therefore it wasn't long before I have sketched on the map of Switzerland my route of dreams. The idea was even more encouraging for me, as the tour was supposed to run very close to numerous summits which I read about so many times - symbols of pioneer and contemporary alpinism. Thanks to the help of my colleagues from Eurobike - Internet Cycling Club I quickly knew what else I should see, where to sleep, eat and so on...Long months of waiting to start the Great Escape became the biggest pain. And at last...
On the sunny June morning I stand on the hill above Lac Leman and start rolling down to Geneve. The town becomes the first disappointment - streets are gray and dirty, people unfriendly and spoiled by the Swiss welfare. I don't regret leaving it through a dead border crossing. The road, uninteresting at the beginning, starting from Clusez brings the promise of the Alps. At first it is a view of higher hills, from time to time cut across by sparkling waterfalls and somewhere around Sallanches the valley broadens to reveal rocky giants covered with snow caps. This is the Roof of Europe - majestic Mont Blanc, unfortunately attainable via crowded highway.
It is only two p.m. and I give up to the temptation of a side road shortcut through Lac Vert. No disappointment this time as the almost empty road rolls up unveiling next pieces of Mont Blanc massif puzzle. At the top I find a small charming lake crowded with picnic parties and the road down to Chamonix closed for traffic. I cannot enjoy it too far when after two kilometers' descend it occurs that the mountain stream flushed part of the road down into the valley. Now it's the time to check out my climbing abilities. After a light reconnaissance I climb with the bike on my shoulder up a scree slope to the stream, which I jump over, first with my bags finally with the bike. This exercise of survival school's breed seriously strains my vital forces and hardly make it to Chamonix. Mont Blanc, normally visible from the main street of the town is already hidden behind the evening curtain of clouds and I have to wait until the next morning to see its beauty. I decide to change the mood and visit one of the bars to socialize with French folks watching Euro 96 and sipping on their beer.
The weather is still on my side - distinguishing snow cap of the (second) highest mountain in Europe contrasts with the blue sky, looking from where I stand as I could run onto it effortlessly...In my contemplation of the mountain I have a noble company of dr. Saussure, XVIIIth century founder of the prize for the first braveheart to climb Mont Blanc. Citizens of Chamonix, apparently grateful for the splendor that the mountain has brought to their city, built a statue of dr. Saussure and put him along with his guide facing his beloved summit.
Tourists entering the station of cablecar to Aiguille du Midi are greeted by my fellow Pole, count Malczewski whom the romantic onset of his time threw as the first man right onto the top of this rock needle. It's hard not to admire the dare nobleman when the cablecar runs the last meters of its way along the vertical wall. Panorama from the top takes the breath away (helped by thin air at almost 4,000 meters height) exposing the circle of legendary summits: Drus, Grandes Jorasses, Dent du Geant and many more, walls of which have a history of alpinism written in.
With my head still full of recollections and blistering ice I leave Chamonix heading towards the Swiss border. The road rolls friendly, with just few cars, among pine and larch trees to Argentieres from where it climbs with few arches to Col des Montets. Just before the pass a fat marmot whirls across the road - has anybody asked about the touch of nature yet? At the top several hiking paths start their way into Parc Naturel des Aiguilles Rouges. Strangely enough, in Polish Tatras we have one massif of identical name, when translated into French.
The next pass, Col de la Forclaz opens the gate to a different world. First, this is Switzerland again, second, the road I descend along winds among vineyards taking a sunbathe at the hottest hours of the day. Third, I am about to start the only significant flat section of my trip - eighty kilometers of Rhone valley surrounded by the hills hiding skiers' paradises of Nendaz, Veysonnaz and Crans Montana. The valley itself is one of more industrialized areas in Switzerland with chimneys and gravel mine cranes often obscuring distant beauty of the mountains. But I pay little attention to that, since my destination of the day is a place of extreme and exceptional charm. That is Zermatt laying at the end of the Visp valley and at the foot of magnificent Matterhorn. Incredible heat and lack of households during the ride along one section of Visptal force me to check out the accuracy of the legendary clear Swiss water - I drink it straight from the gutter. Dehydrated and hungry I fight the thought of switching onto train and getting to Zermatt this way. Luckily, there is no train station along this section which would test my willpower. The supermarket at St. Niklaus eats my francs in exchange for food and drinks and silly thoughts disappear. The last kilometers between Tasch and Zermatt are closed for most of the cars, the town is serviced by electric vehicles only. Most of the buildings here still look like they did in nineteenth century, when this village laying somewhere at the end of the world became an object of interest for strangers attracted by the surrounding mountains. Most of the peaks surrendered quickly, except the most desired one, magnificent tusk of Matterhorn.
In the evening I pass by the Monte Rosa hotel, the first in Zermatt which back in July of 1865 witnessed the competition between the group of Italian climbers and the man obsessed with Matterhorn, Edward Whymper. The mountain throws its longest shade onto the city at the guides cemetery, shelter for those who never made it back to the valley. Walking among the graves I read the names of Whymper's tragic companions who few hours after the great triumph fell into the abyss. Sadly, I find a Polish accent there as well. Back at the main street, for a long time I can not blend my mood into the blare of bars and restaurants just opening themselves for Japanese-American-German contingent of tourists. Finally I join them in watching French - Romanian duel in Euro 96.
This morning brings the first touch of Italy. After the quick descend from Zermatt I pass Brig and within the maze of roads I find the one which is going to lead me onto the top of Simplon Pass. Once upon a time along with the Gotthard the main route connecting Italy to the North, now Simplon leaves the upper part of the pass open mainly to tourists, while the heavy traffic utilizes the tunnel opening just above Brig.
The heat gets enormous and I am lucky to discover the salvation in a side road, shaded by dense cover of the trees. When it joins the main road close to the huge viaduct coupling the sides of the valley the it gets cooler - the wind brings masses of the air from the snows visible above. They are also the source for the streams which flow over the avalanche covers built atop the road. The summit itself is nice, desolate, with distant views of glaciered mountains. Despite record - breaking speed during descend I notice remainings of the old fortifications, particularly along the upper part of the road. Shortly afterwards I pass asleep border kiosk and enter magnificent rocky canyon. When the valley opens wide again, the heat does not let me continue the ride. I jump into the ice cold river flowing by and wait until my body freezes before getting onto the bike once again.
The last climb of the day is a modest grade ascent leading to Centovalli valley, which gets me back to Switzerland, this time to Italian - speaking Ticino canton. There the road converts into a narrow path carved in a rocky slope, where the cars are in difficulty when passing each other. The landscape changes - now decorated with olive trees, palms and other accessories of Mediterranean climate. In such surrounding I reach Ascona, the town likely to empty the pockets of the traveler much richer than me. I try to bypass the complex of the hotels looking very franc-voracious and when I'm about to head for Lugano in quest for cheaper lodging, I spot the sign "camere libre" in one of the streets adjacent to the lake. In an hour I am ready with my daily washing and bathing procedure (thanks to Bruce Hildenbrandt for the idea!) and tell my hosts - of Czech origin - about how their Prague looks today.
It's twelve o'clock and after riding a road so empty that it could be each biker's dream I'm standing at closed gas station pouring liters of ice cold water onto myself from the public hose. I have still fifteen kilometers of San Bernardino to conquer and I will be in Graubčnden. Before it happens, I have to climb three consecutive steps, each few kilometers long, which smelt streams of sweat from my body. And once again relief comes with some fifteen hundred meters elevation mark, so when I pass along a small lake at the top of San Bernardino I can pack some aged snow under my helmet. From there I can see the further route, gray stripe winding along fresh waters of early Rhine and red - brown dots of Hinterrhein, Nufenen and Splčgen villages. When I arrive to the latter of them I am terrified by the steepness of the climb leaving the village. It looks like a vertical ramp and the first kilometers squeeze me like a damp rag; then comes a reward in a form of almost flat section guiding me along the bottom of surprisingly green valley. In the end I have to climb one of its slopes on the road layered in a bowel shape.
At the top I meet traditional picture - bored Italian soldier stares at me absolutely emotionless and nods his head in approval when I pass the border and immediately get in touch with the holes in the road's surface - buona sera Italia! I move through dead and rusty buildings of Monte Spluga village and start the nerve wrecking descend with never-ending hairpins carved in almost vertical wall. The bends are protected against avalanches by the roofs, which do an excellent job of darkening the surface's appearance. When one of the holes seriously threatens integrity of my bike I wait and let the national vehicle of Italians - three wheel Piaggio truck - pass me by. Then I follow just follow using its headlights when slaloming between the holes, humps and other pleasures of Strada Stadale 36. At the bottom of the valley road improves and I quickly arrive at Chiavenna, where I get to the hotel to ask about the room. Spoiled by Swiss order I leave my bike unattended and the punishment comes at once; when I'm back my bag is open and luckily only two pieces of my clothes stolen.
Heavily angered at Italians and Italy (with unpleasant mood boosted by the presence of the creature with the greatest number of legs I have ever seen on my hotel's room wall) I leave the City of Thieves early in the morning and enter Switzerland through the next sleepy border crossing. Passing by the beautiful village of Bondo I notice deep at the end of a side valley excellent pyramid of Piz Badile. It reminds me about the adventure of Hermann Buhl, one of the greatest alpinists of all the times, who was so charmed with this mountain that he used the bike (and these were years, if I remember correctly, 1940s) to ride from Landeck in Austria to Bondo, then scaled as the first man ever the north wall of Badile, descended back to the valley and rode through the night back to his home. Finally slept in the saddle and was awaken by an ice cold stream that he fell into.
Meanwhile I am on the top of the next pass - Maloja, rather unusual as once you climb it from Italy, there is no descend on the other side. The road runs almost flat, but what a road ! Huge grassy slopes on the left and crystal clean Sils and Silvaplana lakes on the right side with snow capped Piz Corvatsch behind them. Somewhere further in the front there is a famous resort of St. Moritz. It's difficult to believe that this region used to be one of the poorest in entire Switzerland. Now unspoiled nature pays Engadine's inhabitants back with thousands of tourists throwing their marks, dollars, zlotys and God knows what other currencies into the deep safes of local banks.
But I prefer not to visit the splendor of the once Olympic City and turn towards Julierpass. It occurs to be a deja vu - almost identical as the climb of Splčgenpass from the day before, following steep-flat-steep again-uff, the end scenario. And here comes the reward: thirty kilometers downhill along beautiful valley through silent at this time of the year skiing villages to Tiefencastel with its prominent castle. Shortly afterwards I distinguish a valley on the right side leading to another pass, Albula. As it is late afternoon I move it in my mind for the next day. But the first kilometers up the valley among the dark woods are so flat, that I think about trying to reach Albula this evening. However, several steep hairpins say ""cool down boy"", and when the road passes extremely exposed gallery and the valley opens the view on the charming village of Bergčn I have no doubts where to stay for the night.
Before going to bed, though, I entertain myself with a walk among specific painted houses and a visit to local restaurant. Perhaps Swiss cuisine is not very sophisticated (and neither is my stomach) but is certainly nutritious. Beside national specialty, fondue, I am tempted by something closer to our Polish taste, raised on potatoes - rÜsti. These potatoes roasted with cheese, meat, mushrooms etc. have number of varieties close to eternity.
And once again sunny morning awakes my aching after few days of riding body from a deep sleep and shortly before eight I leave Bergčn. I ride through the woods when I can hear a whistle of the train and see the red wagons riding on a gallery towards me. After a moment they disappear in the woods. Suddenly - whistle again and the train is now on the other side passing through the tunnel. I ride to the prominent viaduct and wait. Of course, I don't stay long to hear another whistle and the train runs over my head. Such was my meeting with Rhaetische Bahn, one of European engineering wonders. I still stand on the side of the road turning my head to all direction with the mouth stupidly open when a short "grčzi" from a passing-by cyclist reminds me about further ride.
In Preda I wave goodbye to my train disappearing in the tunnel and encounter next miracles of the landscape. A beautiful lake low down in the canyon, summits obscured by early morning mist and finally the huge saddle of the last part of the valley. When I'm on the top I realize that I have just passed the most beautiful fragment of my tour so far. Just few more glances onto the lowland I came from and I roll down towards La Punt. But something is not right. The rear wheel crooked during the bumpy ride on Italian side of Splčgenpass starts to shake and rattle in a manner well known to those who have ever rode former East German highways. In Samedan I find a bike service shop where the sentence is announced: the spoke ripped a hole in the rim; we cannot repair it and we don't have such rim; you can ride further, but?
What to do? I leave Samedan heading south to Bernina and Stelvio, ascent of which was supposed to be the highest point of the tour. But I am aware that with my funds diminishing I will be in great trouble if something bad happens there. So I look once again at the snows of Bernina and turn back, sad and disappointed. Some day I'll get you...
Now I face a duel with time. It's Friday, one o'clock and I have some three hours to reach a place with a bike shop capable of replacing my rim without necessity to wait until Monday, which would be a disaster for my tight timetable. Without hesitation I choose Davos which is about sixty kilometers far from where I stand, but defended by sheer Flčela climb. In less than hour I reach the base of the pass, first part of which is deadly steep, with 13% incline. When I get my breath back under control during a middle flat part, vicious noises start coming from the chain. I look back and see that one of the links is breaking and I praise my infinite wisdom which ordered me to take a chain tool. In half an hour I am ready to tackle the final steep climb with increasingly strong headwind. Just a short stop at the top to collect another stamp and as careful as possible I descend to Davos. It's four o'clock and I'm happy to be within my time limit, but the problems are not over. All the shops are followers of MTB fashion and they look at my tourer as it was a space shuttle. I waste an hour before I find the shop where the owner presented with my situation finds an old, but complete Mavic wheel and replaces it practically free of charge. As it occurs Mr. Sablonier and his wife are devoted cyclotourists themselves and try as much as they can to help me in trouble. They even find a cheap hotel for me and we go to the bar to chat at rapidly disappearing beers about the mountains, Poles and how Zčlle lost his '95 Tour de Suisse to Tonkov on Albula, which Mr. Sablonier witnessed from Mavic service car.
I say farewell to friendly Davos and ride in surprisingly cold air towards Tiefencastel. It gets much warmer when I have to pass a long tunnel as quickly as possible to avoid getting hit by a car. Around Tiefencastel the traffic gets dense and I first turn north making a detour to Bonnaduz, where I get fed up with four wheeled companions and instead of taking the main road through the Flims Laax resort, I choose another detour to Ilanz. Excellent choice as after some kilometers in the dark woods the view opens on a lovely gorge with Rhine flowing 500 meters below. Yet few more short but steep climbs, villages with enchanting white churches and I'm back on the main road. Fortunately, drivers got tired with a midday heat and traffic is minimal.
I ride up the valley among ample hills and I feel that constant contact with nature at its best has somewhat impaired my sensibility to the beauty. But when I start the ascent of Oberalp, my senses order to at lest turn the head in delight. The views are at the verge of bad taste with meadows, cows and red cars of Furka - Oberalp train scrambling up the valley. When I reach the top I decide to reward myself for the troubles of previous day with a night at the pass. It's slowly getting dark when in the hotel I am joined by a girl named Yvonne, who came here on a mountainbike, and we chat very nicely about pros and cons of vegetarian diet (her) versus meat rÜsti and beer (me), plus I get filled on some interesting details of living in Switzerland.
In the morning I am greeted by Yvonne from her window when I put my heavy gear on to face the cold wind on descend from Oberalp. Despite great weather I feel a bit unsure about coming day. I would love to come to Grindelwald in Bernese Alps where the "King Stage" of Tour de Suisse is coming tomorrow. On the other hand I am aware about the difficulty of three passes of Central Switzerland which I have to conquer in order to come there - in total some 3 vertical kilometers of climbing.
The start due to the night spent at the top of Oberalppass is easy. All the way down, playing the game with Furka - Oberalp train known from someone's trip report - I pass the train first, wait to take picture, train passes me and finally we enter Andermatt simultaneously. The train on the viaduct and I below it. Several flat kilometers and I can see the zigzags of the first part of Furka ascent. Although steep (avg. 10%), due to hairpins it is less tiring than the further part climbing with insupportable straight line to the top.
The summit receives a nice cool blow of the wind and big plasters of snow still cover big part of surrounding meadows. A look down brings a detailed map of the route for the next hour. Zigzags coming down from Furka reach the base of the valley, disappear behind a slope and reappear climbing up the slope to Grimselpass. I feel great now, climbing from Gletsch to Grimsel in half an hour to discover a different landscape. Rocks are green-coloured, lakes have milky and seemingly dead water; dams and wires give the surrounding this specific rocky-industrial look.
Endless descend to Innertkirchen is marked by numerous tunnels and the arms sore from constant braking. Behind the village a minor climb bypassing local tourist attraction - the Aare gorge - and I turn left onto the narrow road leading to Grosse Scheidegg pass, 1500 meters above. Here the unbelievable beauty of surrounding meadows, woods and mountains is mixed with deadly suffering of the climb on poor surface at muscle - ripping grade.
I meet a Swiss cyclist and we ride together. He notices an altimeter on my wrist and keeps asking about the elevation. My answers are greeted with a short "scheisse" and we keep on riding watching the post buses, which on this road take its entire width. At the top I feel endangered by the glacier hanging from a prominent tower of Wetterhorn. Down on the other side small boxes of Grindelwald's houses are shaded by the giant north wall of Eiger wrapping its arms around afternoon clouds. The mountain is omnipresent in Grindelwald; from the streets, on the postcards, pins, folders, beer pads. I descend along twisty road and suddenly on one of the straight sections, at the speed well above 60 km/h I see something which looks like a wire pulled across the road. I squeeze the brakes, close my eyes awaiting the worst and... nothing happens. I believe it was just a kind of a traffic - measuring gate.
In the evening I look through a window in hostel's room and the light at the end of the tunnel of Jungfraujoch train carved in the heart of Eiger glitters brightly on its North Wall. Reminds dreadful stories of the climbers caught by snowstorms in the Nordwand trap, for whom the tunnel was the only way back. Many of them didn't make it, like Toni Kurz who died hanging on the rope just two meters from the tunnel. His, and many others tragedies gave the mountain well deserved "Mordwand" nickname.
Meanwhile, on Monday morning Grindelwald's life is filled with the race. On the occasion of "KÜnigsetappe" everybody can buy a special discount ticket for all the buses going to Grosse Scheidegg plus First cable car. Today I meet my parents and wife, who spend their holiday in St. Cergue while I'm on the tour. From First we walk to Grosse Scheidegg watching the jewels of Bernese Oberland: Schreckhorn, MÜnch, Jungfrau, not to mention our infamous friend Eiger.
The pass is crowded with cyclists awaiting the race's column. And shortly the fair opens - sponsors cars driven as slowly as possible to give hostesses enough time for handing gadgets: caps, bidons, Isostar bags. Swiss people are very pragmatic and watch carefully what is being given to avoid the burden of unnecessary crap in their pockets. The last quarter or two is filled with information on Luttenberger chasing Tietierouk and I can see Austrian powering up the climb to claim, as it later occurred, his first big tour victory. Scheidegg climb has done a big damage to peloton and the riders appear in small groups throughout more than hour. Faresin, Bugno, Berzin, then BÜlts, then Riis and many other famous riders. I wait for two Poles riding in this Tour in US Postal team, but to no avail. The van announcing "Fin de Corse" passes the line and the only emotion remaining is the ride with overloaded bus to Grindelwald. I swear I didn't fear as much when I was descending steepest roads on my bike!
On the next day's morning I play the autograph hunter chasing the riders to get something for my Eurobike colleagues. Despite all the security I am able to catch two American cycling legends. First Andy Hampsten, with whom I chat for a moment and he seems to be surprisingly friendly and straightforward guy as for someone who was winning the greatest tours at the end of 1980's. Since Andy rides for US Postal team now I'm asking him about his Polish colleagues. He says that they abandoned the race on previous they, as they wanted to get some rest before Polish Championships later this week. Hmmm....Then I turn to Lance Armstrong asking him for a specific dedication to Eurobike. And here it is.
A quick look at the start and I'm back on the road rushing to Interlaken. It's difficult to regain normal rhythm after a day's pause and all those emotions. Besides, I'm getting this kind of a machine mode, just turning the pedals and not watching too much around. And so I pass Thun lake, Spiez to stop at last on the top of Jaunpass to get the right mood again. Riding among much lower mountains I reach Gruyeres. This medieval town lays at the border of the land called the same name known for its famous cheese. I walk around a little, finding the place nice and interesting to stay for the night. But the price of the room which I am given throws me with the bike out over the city walls.
I still have some time before the evening comes and racing with the train I arrive at Chateau d'Oex. The city is apparently dead at this time of the year, seems to be more skiing oriented, perhaps visited in the peak of the summer for balloon flights. But this temporary silence lets me spend the night in royal hotel for a very low price (although the word "low" in Switzerland is very relative). The room amuses me with the quartz lamp installed in a bathroom - probably a relict of the times when it was obligatory to come back from vacation black-tanned.
Unbelievable! It's the tenth day of the ride and no drop of rain. I just start climbing up the steeper section of Col des Mosses (since yesterday I am in French speaking part of Switzerland) when I recognize two pink dots further on the road. At first I think there are road workers, but as I come closer I realize that this fluorescent colour belongs to the panniers attached to two bikes. I greet the couple riding on them and we start chatting. They happen to be very exotic as their homeland is New Zealand. In les Mosses I persuade them to ride with me via detour leading along Hongrin lake. It is a picturesque road with limited traffic due to military exercises. However, we do not see any traces of warlike kind and riding a narrow road among woods, meadows and cows ("look, it's like at home" shout my exotic friends slaloming between them) we arrive to the point where the land ends with a thousand meters high wall unveiling absolutely excellent view on Lac Leman and surrounding mountains.
Return to the lowlands starts with a passage through a dangerous tunnel, walls of which give a feel of riding through a cave. Then the road drops in an extremely steep descent to Yvorne, where I leave my friends who will ride to Chamonix, and then Paris, Pyrenees, Spain, southern France, northern Italy and Greece. Altogether five months of vacation...
Road along the lake greets me with a dense traffic and I get an idea to board on a ship at the first city to avoid poisoning with fumes. But at Villeneuve I am fifteen minutes late so I ride as quick as I can through crowded and dirty streets of Montreux and Vevey. Approaching Rivaz I spot the ship coming to the bank, the same that I lost in Villeneuv. Breaking all possible traffic rules I run onto the ship at last second. Now an hour long relax in a light wind and I step back on the land in Morges. Now I avoid the road along the lake and ride the narrow paths among the vineyards and villages sleeping their siesta towards the hills in the distance, at top of which my temporary home at St. Cergue awaits me. Just the last climb and..."the asphalt ribbon in front of me winds in increasingly narrow serpentines and I can rather sense than see that the next kilometer will bring an end to the climb and my whole tour..."