The second half of my whirl around Switzerland certainly did not disappoint. It was necessary to up my game on the bike too. Gone was the endless flat belgian countryside carpeted with corn and the slinky Rhine carving it’s way along the German border. All of this had been replaced by deep valleys flanked on either side by imposing rock faces leading to fierce mountain tops lashed with ice. And it has to be said that this makes for much more interesting scenery!
Leaving Lake Geneva I was accompanied my my very own support crew, aka my auntie and uncle, for the first 15km. They were suprised by my rather old fashioned style of navigation, essentially just follow your nose. But we made it to Evian-Les-Bains successfully in time for a final ice cream before I set off on my own again.
With my support crew
Despite not departing until 11 am I made incredible progress along the Rhone valley helped by a considerable tailwind in the afternoon. I noticed that there was often a strong wind raging down the valleys in the afternoons. This is a real asset when it’s in your favour, but a huge pain, I would later learn, if it’s not. Remarkably I covered 128km, one of my longest days yet.
What followed the next day was definitely my hardest day of cycling so far. I had to make it to the head of the Rhone valley to tackle the daunting Furka Pass (2436m) the next day. I was anticipating a rather easy day along the valley floor so was certainly a little shocked to see the following sign:
19%?! I thought 9% was hard enough. And 12km of climbing. That’s enough to turn the strongest legs to jelly. The first 8km were straightforward enough, the usual routine of zigzagging up the side of a mountain. Then the path turned to gravel. I hate gravel with a passion. Never has there been a more inappropriate road surface for cycling. However I was about to meet gravels evil twin, STEEP GRAVEL. It is hard to walk up a 19% gradient road, never mind cycle up one on a bike weighing 25kilos whilst the gravel swirls around underfoot like some fiendish slippery goo. I resorted to pushing, but my feet kept sliding back down the slope. At one point I wondered if I would be stuck in this river gorge for the rest of time, clawing helplessly at the stones. Eventually I managed to heave Rita out and I nearly cried with joy when I saw the tarmac road again. Tarmac is an incredibly underappreciated road surface, I now make sure I always recognise a good tarmac path when I see one.
Fortunately the views at the top were quite good.
Bottom of the gorge
The following day I was to tackle the Furka Pass. Because of the gravel incident I was a bit behind schedule so had a few kms to cycle in the morning to reach the pass. After 20kms the start of the climb began and I weaved my way through the forest for 4km. I rounded a bend and was confronted with the following view:
The Grimsel pass gave me quite a shock
HOLY FURKA!! I couldn’t stop laughing for at least ten minutes at the ridiculousness of it. Funnily enough I would later learn that this was the Grimsel pass, the Furka was actually longer and higher than the one ahead but didn’t have such a dramatic introduction.
This actually turned out to be my favourite day of cycling so far. The climb was 16km in total and apart from a few steep sections near the top was a fairly amenable gradient. The difficult thing was everytime I went round a corner (which was often) I just had to stop to take another photo of the spectacular view. You can imagine this made the journey pretty slow. Cresting the summit of a climb like that which has taken hours is an incredible feeling. You can probably see from the photos how happy I was!
At the top you could see the Furka glacier which is the source of the Rhone river which I had been following since Lake Geneva
The next day it was time for another pass. This time the very famous St Gottard Pass which separates the German and Italian speaking parts of Switzerland. I later learnt from a warmshowers host that there was a route I could have taken which would have meant climbing only one pass. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time because both of the passes were great and suprisingly different.
This day got off to a bad start. My chain came of 3 times within 500m and Rita could not seem to decide which gear she wanted to be in. All my problems were around using the granny gear too which is one that I could not do without on this climb.
I pulled over and tried to make some simple adjustments to the gears but as soon as I got back on the hill the same thing happened. No fear though. I had been to a bike maintenance course before the trip and we covered this exact problem. If only I could remember what they said…
After hoisting Rita into a rather ungraceful position on some roadside rocks which would let me turn her pedals and the back wheel spin freely, I located the correct dials. A lot of spinning and adjustimg later and I thought I had solved the problem. However I did notice that the two cogs at the back were incredibly gunked up. I tried to clean them with my fingers with no success. This called for a toothbrush. I didn’t have a spare so had to sacrafice mine to the cause and add bad breath to the list of my current smells.
Back on the road and Rita sounded much better. I felt incredibly empowered at overcoming this mechanical problem all on my own! That is until I realised that it may have been cleaning the bike which did the trick…
The Gottard is a very historical pass, used as a trading route between London and Rome in the past. Much of the route is still cobbled which is hard work for the hands. It is also much busier than the Furka Pass, rammed with people at the top and a rather jovial atmosphere. I treated myself to a Rosti at the summit. A delicious kind of potato gratin which I had been looking for all over Switzerland!
With all this excitement I forgot to buy a new toothbrush until the following day. And then in a confusion of plastic bags, I threw it unopened and unusued into the bin. By the time I realised my mistake it was Sunday afternoon and all the shops were shut. It was over 48 hours until I could brush my teeth again.
The downhill from the St Gottard Pass was an absolute dream which lasted for the best part of a day! I actually find the downhill from the summit a bit steep to enjoy that much but the pass lead into a valley which went on and on downhill for ages. I wouldn’t recommend doing the climb in the opposite direction. I would however recommend a cycling holiday in Switzerland. The cycle infrastructure is incredible, route finding an absolute breeze and generally a delight. I promise Switzerland did not pay me to say this. (Although they could probably afford to given the price of the food).
Heading away from the Alps was a bit of a come down (in both senses of the word). Although to ease the parting blow I bumped into two cycle tourers from the US and spent the day with them. Robbie and Mackenzie were 4 months into their European cycle tour, which may lead them out of Europe and has no set end date!
We spent all day cycling together and exploring the fascinating town of Bellinzona which was in the midst of a heaving Sunday market. We managed to find a tour group having a buffet and blended in well enough to help ourselves!
After one final climb we were out of the Alps and nearing Italian soil. I said goodbye to these two in the afternoon as I was off to meet my next warmshowers host Christian who had cycled round the world! This was a fascinating encounter. The trip took him 5 years and his favourite country was Japan where he spent 9 months. Although it was a solo trip it sounded like he spent much of the time cycling with people that he met along the way.
The next day was into Italy. Now I’ve had a few complaints from readers that I’m having too much fun and not enough hardships and my blog is making them jealous. Well Italy will put an end to that. Without a doubt the hardest cycling so far. Italys cycle infrastructure resembles the UKs, i.e. there isn’t much. I had a choice of either really busy roads or cycle paths which were in terrible condition. Does this look like a cycle path to you:
An Italian ‘cycle path’
The landscape was also flat enough to rival Belgium. Normally that would be a good thing but the wind whips over the fields causing headwinds strong enough to reduce you to a crawl. This makes freewheeling impossible, every pedal stroke requires a lot more effort and my legs are certainly feeling it!
That being said if there were no tough days this wouldn’t be an adventure or a challenge, it would be a holiday. And on the upside the food in Italy is great. Compared to the Swiss prices it feels like they are giving it away!
Wild camping in Italy
I have now reached the Adriatic sea and was pleased to find it slightly warmer then the Atlantic. Tomorrow I am meeting my friend Penny who will be cycling with me for the next leg of the journey to Budapest. I’m really looking forward to having a companion for the next ten days or so. Although I may need to make sure I brush my teeth more often…
Happy to reach the sea!