‘The secret of riding a bicycle is to pedal just hard enough to keep the machine upright, then to increase the speed very gradually, but without becoming too breathless to hold a conversation or to hum a tune. In this way, with a regular intake of water and food, an uncompetitive, moderately fit person can cycle up an Alp, with luggage, on a stern but steady gradient engineered for an 18th century mule.’ (Graham Robb,The Discovery of France)
With this encouraging thought in mind, I recently accepted an invitation to have a go at cycling up some Swiss Alps, despite having steadfastly avoided mountainous regions in the 20-odd years since I first tried cycling holidays; and despite having reached an age when most of the invitations I receive come from retirement homes.
The Moritzersee, seen from Badrutt’s
Was I mad, the family wanted to know. If so, there was method in’t. Primo: the invitation was to St Moritz, which is not merely glamorous but high (1850m), leading me to assume (wrongly as it turned out) that the Alps up which I would cycle ought not to be so very much higher. Secondo: Switzerland in general, and the area around St Moritz in particular, is well served by a railway network that offers the weary cyclist an opt-out on bike-friendly trains; and terzo, the invitation came from the grandest of grand Swiss Alpine hotels, Badrutt’s Palace. Herr Badrutt has noticed that the cycling boom has made its way up the income scale, and would like a piece of it. Happy to oblige.
Another reason for liking the invitation was symmetry. Remember the famous story of how an earlier Badrutt launched St Moritz’s winter season by the brilliant PR ploy of inviting a group of departing summer visitors from the UK to return for the entire winter at his expense? My invitation was only for three days, but times change.
Support team getting ready
In the hotel’s Raphael room (above) I met my fellow cyclists and our guides who announced that their aim was to get us to achieve things we didn’t think we could do. The itinerary they proposed for the next day (below) – about 100km, with more than 2000 vertical metres of ascent – definitely came into that category, so I put my hand up.
‘An early start is essential,’ said the guide. ‘I suggest you have breakfast in your cycling gear.’ This was to be my first experience of cycling in uniform, so I tried it on before bed, for familiarisation with the mysteries of sportswear, generously provided by Rapha – the Badrutt’s of cycling apparel. Looking at the map, I was pleased to find a railway line tracking our route for most of the 30km ascent to the Albula Pass, with several stations where if necessary I could throw in the towel. Against that possibility I put some spare clothes – real clothes, that is – in a plastic bag to give to the support vehicle.
Day 1: Julier/Albula circuit (clockwise)
Approaching the Julier
From Silvaplana – a lakeside village on the valley floor near St Moritz – it’s a 7km climb to the Julier, for an altitude gain of not quite 500 metres. Hard work, but manageable; my French rides had included a few climbs of similar configuration, albeit at lower altitude. The first kilometre is the steepest, and a Parisian journalist I had been relying on for company and pacemaking gave up at the first hairpin. I took no pleasure in this. Having no one to converse with, I may have done some humming of a tune. About half way up I found one of the faster cyclists resting on a grassy bank, taking photos. Good idea: following his example helped a lot.
The guide had coffee waiting for me at the pass; saucer thoughtfully placed on top of the cup to keep it warm. A more powerful stimulant might have been in order, but we were already behind the clock. No hanging around.
The 38km descent to Tiefencastel was an exciting hour’s blast – as advertised, only it took longer than that – but more stressful than I was expecting. This road is no remote mountain backwater, but a busy trunk route connecting mother Switzerland and St Moritz’s high Alpine valley, with onward connections to Austria and Italy. Controlling line and speed through the hairpins required full concentration. I got into a duel with an old-fashioned post bus which belched foul black smoke at me every time it overtook.
I can’t find any photos of the rest of the day. It was all a bit hectic on the way down from the pass, and after that the camera may have run out of energy, like its owner.
Here are the bare numbers of the climb from Tiefencastel to the Albula.
- Length: 30.8km
- Summit: 2,315m
- Elevation gain: 1,464m
- Average gradient: 4.7%
- Max gradient: 10%
On the Graham Robb principle of taking it steadily and being moderately fit – and unburdened by luggage – that ought to be achievable. But in the context of no time to acclimatise and much energy already spent, pedalling hard enough to keep the machine upright proved beyond me. This was a great shame, because the Albula is a far more enjoyable ride than the Julier: a more beautiful valley and a quieter road.
The first few miles were easy enough, being almost flat, but when the climb began in earnest my legs went on strike. A couple of hairpins below Bergün – half way to the Albula in kilometres, but only a third of the way up in altitude – I found the support car waiting for me in a lay-by, exchanged my bicycle for the bag of clothes and awarded myself lunch in a hotel near the station. It was a relief to get out of lycra and feel more like myself again. When the train emerged from a tunnel on the St Moritz side of the mountain, I regretted having let go of the bicycle.
Day 2: St Moritz to the Bernina Pass and back
Above Pontresina; Bernina glaciers in view
After the disappointment of falling short the previous day, an excursion to the Bernina Pass was well calculated to restore the morale. The pass is higher than the Julier, but the climb is more gradual: 20km for 600 metres of ascent, with short bursts of exertion punctuated by long recovery stretches for easier breathing and landscape appreciation. Tunes were hummed and conversations held. The ratio of scenic reward to effort expended is as good as it gets.
What shall we talk about?
Although this pic cleverly avoids showing any, the Bernina road sees plenty of traffic – coaches, bikers, winnebagos galore.
All that said, the last two kilometres are quite strenuous, and we newcomers to Alpine cycling felt we had achieved something on summiting.
Looking good in Rapha
A pause at the pass. These guys came up from the Italian side, which is much tougher.
Day 3: For something different, I borrowed one of the hotel’s electric mountain bikes on the last day and used it to explore the lakeside paths and quiet villages around St Moritz, avoiding the main thoroughfares. Coming from a cycling education in back-country France, I was surprised by the amount of traffic on these mountain roads. There are masses of off-road alternatives to them – to the Bernina, for example – without having to commit to full-on mountain biking on precipitous rocky paths. Next time I might do more on a mountain bike or a hybrid machine better suited to quitting the tarmac.
San Gian’s church, Celerina
Cycling up the Cresta Run was another thing I hadn’t expected to do. Dismounting for the low bridge recommended.
Conclusion: unfinished business. Notes to self for next time.
- Instead of cycling back down from the Bernina the way we came up, roll down the Italian side to Poschiavo or all the way to Tirano (40km), for a slap-up lunch and a beautiful train ride home (hopping out at one of the high stations if feeling bullish).
2. This circuit via the duty-free Italian resort of Livigno is more ambitious. I would do it anti-clockwise, starting with the Bernina. The 4km climb from the border post to the Forcla Livigno – the second spike of the double peak in the profile of the circuit illustrated below – would be tough. Assuming I got that far, I would probably catch the train back to St Moritz from Zernez, saving 30km and 400 metres of ascent.