Experiments in Swiss Cycling
Horst Hammerschmidt initiates the author into the glories of Swiss cycling on a rare flat stretch.
When I was in Küblis in 2010 to photograph a mountain bike race, long lines of recreational cyclists at the station were using the train as a lift to higher elevations. After spending the day making multiple runs down to the hub in the valley, they simply boarded another train home. Would it be possible, I wondered, to give up my chase car to cover a multiday cycling race like the Tour de Suisse solely by train and bike?
My Swiss cycling partner Horst Hammerschmidt (seated) and I spent a few days riding speedy loops on bike trails near Zurich. Even without assistance from public transportation, cycling in Switzerland is (unsurprisingly) exceptionally well organized. Regional and national cycling routes are clearly marked, making it easy to find your way. And there's even a luggage-shuttle service that enables pannier-free, lightweight road bike tours that end at a different hotel every night. You leave your suitcase in the lobby each morning and pick it up at the next hotel when you arrive.
The penultimate day of our tour took us over the 8,130-foot Nufenenpass, the highest paved pass in Switzerland. Years later, I watched professional cyclist Peter Sagan win a stage in the Tour de Suisse by speeding over even nastier climbs at an average speed of 21.1 miles per hour—three times faster than I had pedaled my loaded touring bike.
You can't tour Switzerland by bike and expect to avoid hills. But this insanely steep climb near Walensee came on the first day—which was supposed to be an easy 50-mile spin between Rüti and Untervaz, two small villages east of Zurich. It was only a hint of the massive ascents to come.
After a few days we settled into a rhythm of climbing, descending, and amusing Swiss cows. On weekdays, we discovered, the high passes are mostly free of traffic. Otherwise, they are to be avoided, as weekend warriors from around Europe flock to put their motorcycles and sports cars to the test on the beautifully banked curves and butter-smooth pavement.
Passing under the tracks near Lenzerheide before heading up 7,595-foot Albula Pass. The road was closed to motorized traffic for Slow Up, an annual car-free celebration organized by Swiss Tourism and amply supported by beer gardens in a cobbled plaza near the summit. Knowing that we could always hop the train if the terrain proved too challenging or the beer too strong, we treated ourselves to rhubarb tortes and brews before plunging through the chilly mountain air to our overnight stop at Madulain.
After 14 passes in 12 days on fully loaded touring bikes, covering the Tour de Suisse road race exclusively by featherweight road bike with only a handlebar bag was a cyclist's dream.
"What a miserable excuse for a dessert." That's how the conversation started, a chance encounter over the moldering chocolate cake at a diner in southern Argentina. "I can't wait to eat some real sweets," lamented Horst Hammerschmidt, the wiry Swiss cyclist seated across from me. We were both at the tail end of separate multi-year bike tours through the Americas in 2007, and the comforts of home life were starting to seep back into our consciousnesses.
"And I can't wait to speed down a pothole-free mountain pass," I said.
Horst flicked some crumbs off the sticky table, rubbed his palms together, leaned forward, and lowered his voice as if he were about to reveal the secret of the universe: "You know, in Switzerland we have exceptional cakes and perfectly paved roads over our mountain passes."
The following summer, with Horst as my guide, I discovered the 5,600-mile Swiss national bike network, with its 9 national, 53 regional, and 59 local road bike routes. Starting in Zurich, we trundled loaded touring bikes on a 12-day, 525-mile horseshoe-shaped loop over 14 of the country's iconic passes, for a total of 55,000 feet of vertical gain—the equivalent of cycling up Everest twice. Our caloric expenditure was rewarded with cakes, tortes, muffins, and chocolate bars from the roadside cafes that marked the top of most climbs. We dubbed the trip Sweet Passes, and although each winding series of switchbacks made my legs feel like spaetzli, the sweeping descents down pool table-smooth tarmac amply fulfilled Horst's promise.
Four years later, I returned to Switzerland to cover the Tour de Suisse for VeloNews. I'd just driven 5,000 miles covering bike races in Italy and was keen to lighten my carbon footprint, avoid $8-a-gallon gas, and get my cycling legs back. On the Sweet Passes trip, I'd discovered that the Swiss national bike network was neatly integrated with the country's train system, and that for $10 a day I could toss my bike on any train in the country. Would it be possible to cover a multiday cycling race using only Swiss trains and my bicycle? Could I kiss the car uf Widerluege (goodbye)?
I put the notion to the test after the race's first stage, in Lugano, aiming my handlebars north toward Zurich. Rather than chase the race from point to point, I based myself in a small village called Rueti, which had easy access to a train station and feeder lanes to the bike network. From this hub, I'd hop a train to the starting point of each stage and then pedal ahead on the race route until I found a scenic spot from which to shoot the passing peloton. Then I'd either catch a train to the finish or ride the bike trail back to Rueti. The experiment worked through four race stages, eight train segments, and 240 miles of cycling through the glorious Swiss countryside.
Last autumn I returned once again to further refine my Swiss cycling model. Huffing up huge climbs with heavy panniers during the Sweet Passes trip had been a drag, so I wondered whether I could ditch the luggage altogether. I also wanted to stay in a new place each night rather than circle back to the same base town, as I had during the Tour de Suisse. The solution was SwissTrails, a transportation service that shuttles luggage between accommodations along the national bike network. I worked with its founder, Ruedi Jaisli, to plot a weeklong tour ending in a different location every day. I simply left my luggage in the hotel lobby on my way out the door each morning, and it was waiting behind the front desk of my next hotel by day's end. I used the train to portage over less interesting parts of the country. The result was a cycle tour with a side of intelligent public transit support. It was, perhaps, the pinnacle of two-wheel touring. In Switzerland, it turns out, you can have your cake and earn it too.