Posted by: Ian | July 18, 2011

Cycling in the Alps

An article in the current issue of Cycling Plus laments the poor value of some British sportives compared to the European equivalents that inspired them. Last weekend I rode one such event – the Engadin Radmarathon – in Switzerland with my colleague and friend Joerg, who did all of the organising for us. Some of the comparisons raised as criticisms in the Cycling+ piece were valid: for example, I came away with a very usable free jersey, which I’ve never been given at an English event, and there was, I believe, a free pasta party the night before, which you wouldn’t find at home, though we didn’t go it.

But it wasn’t the freebies that are likely to draw me back. Instead, here are my half dozen highlights:

1. Europe

I love being in England, and specifically cycling in England, and even more specifically cycling in central London and the South West of England. But, as a change, continental Europe is great. Before my trip I had a conference to attend in Luzern. The train journey there was relaxing and the town itself is prettily arranged around a lake. Afterwards, in Zurich, before and after the sportive I stayed with Joerg and his wife Janine. They have a lovely top floor flat with a large roof terrace in a 400 year old building situated in the right part of the city. Nearby, there’s both a hipster faux-fixie shop, whose owner felt too refined to quote me for a bike built with any groupset other than Campag, and a Cannondale stockist that you can actually use, where Joerg goes. Here’s a snap of the bijoux bike boutique, where components are cherished in special drawers:

It was evident from what Janine and Joerg fed me that they have fantastic food shops too. Their hospitality brought a warmth to the weekend that made it more special.

We took the car to our event (Joerg drove and we passed Heidiland and Heididorp) but you can do most journeys in Switerland, with or without the bikes, on the trains, which I’ve used extensively in the past and are excellent.

The event itself started in Switzerland and then went in and back out of Italy. There’s a romance to making a border crossing, and there’s no downside when you don’t get stopped to show your passport (and we weren’t).

2. The roads

The road quality in Switzerland is exceptional and makes for very relaxing riding. As with tunnelling, clearing snow and constructing railways, the Swiss have clearly invested in high quality, expensive plant and are determined to use it as often as possible. You can see stretches of road being re-built  as you drive around and it looks like serious work. London recently has quietly benefitted from extensive improvements to the roads. It’s increased my cycling pleasure and I’m very grateful for it but you can tell that the roads are not being re-built so much as re-surfaced. After the Olympics if we end up with the wrong mayor they’ll go to crap again.

A more vivid contrast with the Swiss roads is provided by the roads in Italy. The contrast is comically evident as soon as you make the border crossing, and then again when you return into Switzerland. It reminds me of a time when I took off from Milan airport in the jump seat and the pilot pointed out the runway repairs that had been made only to the strips that the aeroplane wheels actually ran along, leaving the tarmac between and to either side of these strips in an unimproved state.

3. The uphill

Over the 100 km of the ride we made 7,500 feet of ascent, putting it into my top 5 rides for elevation gain since I first got a device capable of measuring this a year or two ago. Given the amount of ascent, and the altitude and the relatively short length, it felt much easier than I might have expected. Sure, by the end of each of the twin peaks at the top of the Bernina Pass I was certainly glad to see the road crest. But the gradients were very steady with no nasty steep ramps, and I never felt that I was getting to the edge of what I could manage.

For a contrast, last year’s Exmoor Beast was about the same distance and covered only just over 6,000 feet of ascent yet it felt far harder and took considerably longer (the Garmin recorded 4:55 for the Beast and only 3:20 for the Engadin Radmarathon).

Also, the main uphill section leading to the Bernina Pass was preceded by a very fast stretch alongside a large lake. Here, notwithstanding the sub-Swiss-quality road surface, we could buzz along at high speed with very little effort. I know of no equivalent roads in England and it’s a total delight, as well as being very relaxing.

However, I certainly don’t feel that I’ve conquered cycling in the Alps. There was a longer distance that we could have attempted that began with our 100 km ride and then went on for a further 120 km, including two bigger passes. Taking this on would have been a different proposition, and far more challenging, I think, than doing a ride of the same length in England. You might say that our event was only a starter Alp taster.

I’m planning on taking my opportunities over the coming fortnight to test out my limits on European passes a little more. Watch this space.

4. The Scenery

There is no need to be defensive about the scenery in the U.K. I love cycling up on Exmoor and the coastal areas around the South West can be as beautiful as anywhere. But Switzerland is special because it’s so Swiss. I’m suspicious of cultural stereotypes but I think it’s okay to assert that the Swiss place a high value on consistency. Their scenery reflects this: because it’s consistent it’s never ugly. Here’s a snap of the Fluela Pass – one that we crossed only in the car – taken the day before the race; it’s rare to see such a panorama without a single chalet:

5. The weather

As people who cycle with me often can testify, I take satisfaction in the changeability of the English climate. The cliche that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing is one that I’ve taken to heart. Even so, it’s nice to ride in the sun and Joerg and I were extremely lucky in this regard last weekend. We started early enough that it was never too hot and, although thunderstorms had been broodily predicted for us over the previous days, we had only fine weather. It was glorious. Not so for the cyclists who continued with the 220 km ride though: they had heavy rain to contend with by late morning. I didn’t envy them on the downhills. Speaking of which…

6. The downhill

The absolute cycling highlight for me was the downhill. The essential shape of the route was a rise from the start up to the top of the Bernina Pass half way round followed by 30 miles of descent. This last 30 miles was fantastic. From the top, where Joerg and I stopped for 10 minutes to take some snaps, we were on our own on the initial steeper section. On the smooth ribbon of Swiss road with clear visibility and few sharp bends we gained higher speeds than I ever can at home. I cleared the second mile after the top in 1:30 – an average of 40 mph – with a max speed of 49 mph. Even our slowest mile of the 30 was completed in well under three minutes.

Soon after the gradient shallowed we started to catch other riders and made our way down to the finish in a chain gang of increasing size. Joerg likened it to a snake that grows ever longer at the back though no larger at the front since only about five or six of us were doing the work to keep the pace up. We completed the 30 mile descent in just over an hour. Whereas we had finished the climb of the Pass with something left in reserve, the only way we could have materially improved our time on the descent would have been to find a faster group to drag us along.

Comparing the event to an English sportive with reference to the quality of the hand-outs misses the point. For the record, the marshalling was superb, and at English sportives it’s often virtually non-existant. It’s like the difference between the Tour of Britain and the Tour de France or the Giro or the Vuelta: at home cycling feels less established and more marginal to the culture.

Back in Zurich Joerg and I switched bikes for a little ride round the roads near to his home. His Cervelo is fantastic. Compared to my Astraeus, which I enjoy more and more all the time, it’s incredibly lively, even more so than my Felt.



  1. […] year I wrote about my ride in the Engadin Radmarathon with Joerg. Last weekend we did it again. Again, we did the 100km loop that essentially goes up the Bernina […]

  2. […] and some innovations – outstanding riding in Corsica, my first audax, the very enjoyable Engadin Radmarathon, a preview ride round the Olympics road race […]

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