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

Men's Fitness - - Features | Epic Cycling Routes -

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.

Blind turns

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

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