Those who know me, know that I am not a big fan of using GPS tracks for bike tours. For me a GPS is a restrictive device, you download a track which is usually a route that has been ridden by someone else and then you are more or less committed to following that route. It leaves no room for imagination or for you to interpret the route in your own way. I’m old fashioned, I spend hours looking at maps, I like paper maps. There is something about looking into them trying to join the dots between places in a fun way that gives you the feeling that you are planning an adventure. When I have an idea for a route I use modern technology like Google Earth or the Online versions of the Topo maps to fine tune it and give me an idea of what we might expect once we are out in the real world.
|The start of our tour and the views are already picture perfect.|
Earlier this year I was thinking about ideas for Swiss Alpine Adventure weekends away. I wanted to put together a point to point tour to take some members on and give them a bit of a mountain bike adventure. The tour would have to include all the elements of what I consider to be a good weekend on the bike, something that would make people feel excited to be out on their bikes in an alpine environment, but that would also be as safe as we could make such a tour. I had ridden most of the trails and had a pretty good idea of the area where I want to do this tour, but there were two critical sections where I had not already been and for safety a recce trip would have to be performed.
After checking the maps I decided I was going to do the recce in the opposite direction to how I wanted to do the real tour. The main trails I had already ridden the same direction I would for a group trip and by going the opposite direction we had an easier bail out if the two critical spots were not possible to get through with a bike. With the decision made, I called a couple of friends and on Saturday morning we were on the train with everything we needed for our trip in our back packs.
|Photo stops around every corner.|
A small cable car “gifted” us the first 900m of altitude and from there we had a relaxed 500m climb to get to the start of our trail. It was really nice to be out on the bike with a few friends as we casually wound our way up the mountain taking in the views and smells of spring topped off with snow capped mountains. The first section of trail took our full concentration and had our lungs and legs burning as we manoeuvred our bikes up the first metres of dirt. Soon it flattened out and the trail traversed the mountain sometimes down, sometimes up as it drew an almost dream like line between the dots I had joined on the map earlier. The further we travelled the more excited we got. Any doubts I had about whether I had made the right choice attempting this tour the “wrong” way were gone as the four of us danced around the mountain giggling like schoolgirls and occasionally stopping to take in the view that surrounded us.
|In this part of Switzerland the signed bike routes seem to have a reasonable amount of single trail, there was still plenty of room to optimise them though. This section of road had a perfect single track alternative.|
The open and flowy trail suddenly dropped into the woods and switch-backed it’s way down onto a short paved section of road which would lead us to our next Alp. High fives were exchanged and everyone agreed that if that was the only trail we got to ride all day we were already on a winner.
|Two days of riding trails with in this kind of scenery is a mountain bikers wet dream.|
We slowly pedalled our way to “our” Alp where we decided it would be a nice place to take a few moments to relax in the grass enjoy the scenery and eat something from our packs. Sitting here at almost 2000m at the back of a valley listening to the sound of the river and watching the Marmots playing in the grass was one of those perfect moments in life that you don’t forget in a hurry. It would have been easy just to sit there and take in the scene all day, but the trail awaiting us wasn’t going to ride itself.
|Easy trails flowing across Swiss meadows.|
Our relaxed attitude was destroyed all too quickly as we headed straight into the next section of trail. It went up steeply and with almost no respite for just over 100m of altitude gain. Arno and I dug deep and attempted to ride as much of it as we could while the girls opted for what was probably the more intelligent option of pushing their bikes. Suddenly the trail disappeared under the remains of the winter snow which was still laying in a hollow. With hoots of laughter we took it in turns to (attempt to) ride down the snow until we rejoined the trail again as it continued to undulate across the mountain towards our evenings destination.
Eventually we saw the first glimpses of our destination for the evening and the trail turned quite steeply downhill. The mellow flowy nature of the trail we had ridden all day suddenly became steep, technical and littered with debris from the winter as it made it’s way through a small gap in the cliffs. Each switchback became a challenge in itself as we weighed up the odds of not making a mistake against the consequences of what would happen if we did. The trail provided just the right level of achievable challenge which gave a nice sense of accomplishment with each feature cleanly ridden.
|One of the easier switchbacks.|
Soon we were riding down the streets of Leukerbad to our hotel where a drink, relaxation in the thermal baths and dinner awaited us. Relaxing in the warm water looking up at the mountains surrounding the spa village was the perfect end to a perfect day of riding bikes in the mountains. Sitting there in an outdoor pool surrounded by mountains provided the perfect end to what had been a perfect day of riding our bikes through the Swiss countryside.
|Day 2 and checking the route.|
The next morning dawned with a blue sky and a lavish breakfast at our hotel. We rolled out of Leukerbad quite early with a gentle 400m climb ahead of us. I couldn’t help but think that the mountains in this part of Switzerland seemed to have a striking resemblance to the Dolomites as we gradually made our way up the mountain. We took a quick break to test the lubrication properties of sunscreen as Arno’s chain had started to become somewhat noisy!
|A Swiss Cliché|
Soon we had gotten as far as we could ride. A small snowfield blocked access to the trail we needed to continue on. Crossing with bike shoes was going to be difficult, the thought of crossing with bike shoes and carrying bikes was downright scary. After a few minutes of contemplation we decided to take some rocks and cut the footsteps that had semi-frozen into the snow out a little bigger and then one of us could cross so we could pass the bikes over. The plan worked and soon we were carrying/pushing our bikes up a 1.5m wide bath literally cut into the edge of a cliff. I had wondered if this point was passable with bikes but the path was wide enough to comfortably push the bikes up without any incident.
|Every good bike tour has to have a bit of hiking!|
As we came out at the top of the cliff the trail flattened, became less exposed and was once more ride-able. We stopped off at another Alp to once again take in the view and have something to eat before starting our descent to the valley floor. I had ridden this trail on a previous recce trip to the area a few years ago. Smiling in a way that you only can when you know what lies ahead. We started descending, Arno and I swapping the lead as the trail made it’s way valleywards with the perfect gradient. Each time we stopped we burst into fits of laughter before continuing on for more. All to soon we had the 800m of descent behind us and we had to climb a short distance to our final trail of the tour which would dump us out not too far from the train station in Sierre.
|Looking back at Leukerbad|
Having planned for experiencing some problems along the way with the route we were somewhat surprised (and a little earlier than expected) back in civilisation. We sat in the sun outside a bar and enjoyed a drink while recounting some great memories of an amazing weekend before boarding a train and returning home.
|Picture perfect Alp.|
Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that bring the most pleasure. This weekend was not long days in the saddle, it wasn’t 10,000m of singletrack descending and we didn’t munch many kilometers. It was just the pure enjoyment of making a plan which had a little bit of the unknown in it and going out and riding it for the pure enjoyment without any pressure, time constraints or expectations. The pure joy of joining some dots on the map, calling up some friends and sharing a weekend in the mountains.
We are going to share this adventure with group members in the coming months. In the meantime why not buy some maps, join your own dots and go make your own little adventure.