03 To The Foot Of The Eiger
Have your breath snatched away by this mountain epic that takes you through the foothills of the Swiss Alps
Route Bellinzona to Grindelwald, Switzerland Distance 171.4km
The beauty of riding in the Swiss mountains is that most of the roads appear to have been designed with the cyclist in mind. Although many of them soar to altitudes in excess of 2,000m, they generally do so in comparatively leisurely style, sweeping upwards in huge, extravagant curves and suggesting that Swiss road engineers consider a gradient greater than 10% vulgar and unnecessary – something they would prefer to leave to their counterparts over the border in France, Austria and, above all, Italy. Taken from the 1999 edition of the Tour de Suisse, this route emphasises both the elegance of this approach and the way in which it can tempt riders of all abilities onto some of the Europe’s highest roads, encouraging access rather than laying down a challenge.
It begins in the spectacular setting of Bellinzona, capital of the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. Lying a few kilometres from the northern extent of Lake Maggiore, Bellinzona holds World Heritage Site status thanks to the Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro castles, which dominate the town. Setting out from the northern side of the Castelgrande, the ride tracks the River Ticino on route 2. This can be busy in rush hour, although the nearby A2/E35 motorway, which also tracks the Ticino, sucks up most of the traffic.
At Biasca the route, which has been rising almost indiscernibly since the start, forks left into a narrower valley where the Ticino, the motorway, the main railway line and our course get squeezed in more tightly together. Just beyond Giornico, the river begins to flow with urgency, signalling an increase in the gradient on what is now the Via San Gottardo, the first step towards the fabled San Gottardo/St Gotthard Pass. Approaching the climb, the motorway and railway keep vanishing into tunnels. At Airolo, they disappear altogether, boring through the mountain for 17km.
A main road continues over the pass, but don’t make the mistake of following the road traffic because you will miss one of the most astonishing sections of road in Europe. At the foot of the climb, a sign diverts cyclists off to the right onto the Via Tremola, which winds to the 2,091m summit via 38 hairpins. Stacked up one on top of the next, like the folds of a drawn curtain, the bends instantly capture the eye. However, the wonder of the St Gotthard Pass is not these swirling switchbacks but the road’s surface, which is cobbled all the way to the summit.
Built in the first half of the 19th century to ease passage through one of the most important trade routes in the Alps, the Via Tremola was superseded initially by the main road and then by the motorway tunnelled through the mountain. But the traffic innovations have been to the benefit of the old road: sections that had been covered with Tarmac have been restored, and the flat-topped cobbles renovated or replaced. The result is a unique and totally glorious experience, far smoother than the cobbled Classics in northern Europe. Brilliant engineering also extends to the gradient, which remains at 7-9% apart from one short section 3km from the top, when it briefly rises above 11%.
Climbing towards the pass, the curving patterns of the cobbles and the grass between the stones cause the road to almost blend in with the rocky landscape and scree fields, suggesting that nature has somehow laid this perfect trail. Beyond the Lago della Piazza at the top, with its handful of hotels and restaurants, the cobbles continue for 3km along the Strada Vecchia before the old and new roads combine as they enter the German-speaking canton of Uri on the descent towards Hospental.
This tidy village overlooked by a crumbling 13th-century tower offers a wealth of delights to mountain lovers. A turn to the west leads to the Furkapass, while the route north leads quickly to Andermatt, at the foot of the Oberalppass. Continuing