The Stone Giant
As if three hors categorie climbs isn’t tough enough, this ride includes the mighty St Gotthard Pass, which mixes steep hairpins with cobbles
Cyclist heads to the Swiss Alps to tackle a ride that takes in not one, not two, but three hors categorie climbs. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, one of them is cobbled too
et’s take bets on the name,’ says Phil.
‘I suppose it beats another game of “I spy”,’ I reply from the driver’s seat. ‘What did begin with “R” by the way?’ ‘Rachel.’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, I saw a woman in a car going the other way and I thought she was probably called Rachel.’ I’m uncertain how best to respond to this information. My thoughts return to Phil’s suggestion, and there follows a considered silence for a few miles while various titles for the new cycling magazine swirl around our heads like winetasting with words. Outside our Skoda Superb, Switzerland slips serenely past. ‘I’m going for Cadence,’ says photographer Paul, finally. ‘I think they might go for something really simple, like Cycling, but someone probably already owns the rights to that,’ I add, rather uncertainly.
‘How about Geoffrey?’ suggests Phil. ‘I like the name Geoffrey.’ Jason, sensibly, sleeps through all this.
That was back in 2012, when socks were a bit shorter, Chris Froome had yet to win a Tour de France, aero helmets were used only by time-trialists, and the as-yet-unnamed Cyclist was still hidden from the world, gestating like an unborn magazine baby in the womb of Dennis Publishing HQ. The following day we would do a ride over the Grimsel, Furka and Susten passes that would eventually appear in the very first issue of the magazine, and although I have done plenty of Big Rides in the 60-plus issues since then, I think that first ride remains one of the most scenically spectacular.
All of which means today should be a pretty good day. If you imagine that first Swiss loop as the top of a figure of eight, then today I’m going to attempt the bottom loop, taking in the HC climbs of the Nufenen and St Gotthard passes, with the Furka the common stretch of tarmac in the middle of the eight (albeit ridden the opposite way today).
As I clip securely into my pedals outside the hotel and weave between the chalets and barns of ReckingenGluringen, with their dark roasted coffee-colour wood, I’m in the company of two others, just as I was on that first ride. This time, however, my companions are locals, and quite intimidating ones at that.
Peter and Simon are both retired professional athletes, one with a background in biathlon and the other with a career in cross-country skiing. They’re modest enough to emphasise their retired status, but if this were a game of Cycling Top Trumps I’m quite certain I would lose on VO2 max, lung capacity, threshold power… in fact, pretty much any metric you can think of.
It’s a chilly, slightly overcast morning as we join the main road and head northeast. A sharp little climb in the town of Munster-geschinen stretches sleepy legs a bit, but as we arrive at Ulrichen just 7.5km into the ride I’m not sure I’m quite ready for the real climbing to start. The Nufenen cannot be delayed, however, and part of
me is buoyed by the assertion from Peter that this will be the most difficult climb of the day. It’s a nice smooth, wide road and although there are a couple of early hairpins, the trees and terrain hide what is to come so my initial intimidation recedes as we settle into a rhythm.
Emerging into the long and straight Agene valley, the fear factor recedes even further as the gradient drops away almost entirely for a kilometre or so. The road beneath our tyres is shiny with water and the cool air seems an ideal temperature to climb through. After a while we take a sharp left-right turn across a small barrierless bridge and I’m aware that the gradient has subtly picked up again. It also looks as though we’re heading towards a dead end as a great amphitheatre of mountains appears ahead, seemingly unbroken. It’s beautiful, but at the moment there is no obvious way out of the rugged bowl.
It turns out that the road is hiding behind a spur to our left, hairpinning its way up to 2,478m, but as we reach the first switchback, clouds are starting to roll in, hiding both the craggy peaks and the road above us. Just as worryingly, fatigue is also starting to build in my legs. Perhaps I didn’t have enough for breakfast; perhaps I’m feeling the effects of grinding a 36/25 ratio (Peter and Simon have sensibly both got full compact 50/34 gearing; perhaps, most crushingly, I’m just not fit enough. Whatever the reason, as the gradient flickers between 8% and 13% (the wide road
It looks as though we’re heading towards a dead end as a great amphitheatre of mountains appears ahead
deceiving to flatter) I know I’m starting to struggle with almost half of the climb still to go.
I grab something to eat from my back pocket as Peter and Simon offer what encouragement they can, although none of us is finding it easy. Thunder rumbles overhead.
A chilly white miasma of cloud drifts in and out, alternately hiding and revealing the surrounding scenery. A glance up from my studied concentration of the top
tube rewards me with a magnificent mountain vista one moment, but a similar glance a couple of minutes later and it’s like someone has turned on a smoke machine.
We’re now at well over 2,000m and it’s getting cold, and the moisture in the drifting clouds is beginning to soak through clothing and make it cling to my skin. My cadence isn’t really worthy of the description at this point, the heavy-heeled pushing down of each pedal propelling me forward a pitiful distance. Only two more hors categorie climbs to go, if I make it to the summit of this one…
Climbs and cobbles
Eventually I do stutteringly reach the top and the welcome sanctuary of a mountain restaurant. I make a clippetyclopping bolt for the loos in the hope of a hand dryer, before swooping on the self-service cafe and its impressive selection of pastries. Half an hour later, after nursing a second restorative hot chocolate, we agree that we should probably get going again, and I don a jacket and rain cape for the descent.
Peter and Simon put on rather more. I look on with a mixture of horror and envy as they slip on hardshell ski jackets and (brace yourselves) waterproof trousers. It’s like we’re going to war and I’ve brought a standard issue rifle while they’ve tooled up with grenade launchers and GPMGS. Just for reference, this is summer.
Re-mounting in the mist, the cold cuts through me and I’m shivering by the second hairpin. My two GoreTex guides disappear almost instantly, plummeting with the assurance you would expect of local mountain men.
The roads weave around each other at frequent intervals like the fast slide and the slow slide at a water park
Below: A left-right to cross fast-flowing waters on a barrierless bridge marks the point at which the ascent of the Nufenen Pass truly begins
Left: The scale of the Nufenen is deeply impressive. It’s a big, bold pass. Note the storm gathering ominously around the peaks. Italy lies just the other side
Below: Descending the Nufenen towards Airolo. Simon and Peter’s waterproof trousers may be sartorially suspect, but Cyclist can’t help feeling a touch jealous during a cold, wet descent