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 - - Contents - Words HENRY CATCHPOLE Pho­tog­ra­phy PATRIK LUNDIN

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.

Happy re­turns

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

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