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towards Göschenen, the road dives into the Schöllenen Gorge, a precipitous cleft where the Teufelsbrücke (Devil’s Bridge) leaps across the rushing Reuss. Legend has it that construction of the original bridge was so tough that the Devil offered to complete it in exchange for the soul of the first being to cross it. The locals agreed but chased a goat across the finished bridge, angering the Devil, who returned to destroy it, only to be thwarted by a woman brandishing a cross.
At Göschenen, the motorway and railway emerge from the St Gotthard tunnel and run alongside the route as far as Wassen, where your turn northwest onto the first ramps of the Susten Pass. At almost 18km, this is the longest ascent on the route. It’s consistently demanding and, particularly over the final half-dozen kilometres, breathtaking in both senses of the word.
After the long drop from the top of the St Gotthard, it’s a shock for the legs to be climbing again, and quite steeply too, on the road out of Wassen. But this is quite different mountain scenery to the St Gotthard. Tracking up the northern flank of the valley above the waters of the Meienreuss, it follows a straight course running directly towards the Wendelhorn and the Fünffingerstöck, with its five jagged peaks.
The head of the pass is visible from some distance away, which can be daunting because progress towards it is not rapid – but the scenery is fabulous, with more peaks and glaciers appearing. Beyond 2,000m, the road switches southwest towards the Stein Glacier and soon reaches the short tunnel at the summit that leads through into the canton of Berne and on to the close-to-30km descent into Innertkirchen.
Built over seven years up to 1945, the Susten Pass was the first in Switzerland created purely for road traffic rather than following a long-established trading and travel route. Thanks to this, it’s beautifully surfaced and engineered. After a few hairpins just below the summit, it flows like a giant slalom course down the mountain. There are long straights and most of the corners are so well cambered that the brakes need merely a touch. Professionals have been known to achieve speeds in excess of 110km/h on these slopes (bear in mind that’s on closed roads).
The route continues towards Meiringen, veering left before the town towards the Grosse Scheidegg. This is another long and quite gruelling climb, so it could well be time for a break. Just a few metres up the climb, there’s an ideal spot for a rest in the form of the Reichenbach Falls. Renowned as the location of the final confrontation between Sherlock Holmes and his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, the falls have a combined drop of 250m, the awe-inspiring plunge of the Upper Reichenbach alone accounting for more than a third of that.
Sound of silence
Back in the saddle, the narrow road climbs alongside the cascading River Reichenbach through thick woodland and past occasional farms. Thanks to a bar on all motor traffic except postal and farm vehicles, it is wonderfully quiet. The lack of traffic does mean the road surface is not as well maintained as the Susten’s, but this isn’t a critical issue going upwards.
As you emerge from the trees and onto an easier gradient, the Schwarzenwaldalp is dead ahead, its lower peak half-concealing the upper part of the mountain as the Rosenlaui Glacier hangs over its shoulder. The road steps to a slightly higher level and passes the Hotel Rosenlaui, before kicking up again for the final run to the summit. Much of the next 7km is wickedly steep.
After one final wooded section, the route ventures into lush mountain meadows, running parallel to the course of the Reichenbach towards the cliffs on the south of the valley. Approaching the summit, the peaks on the other side of the pass loom into view, including the Eiger, its infamous North Face almost permanently in shadow.
Once over the top of the Grosse Scheidegg, the route down is steep but short. Within half an hour you can be sipping a beer in a Grindelwald café and making a start on replenishing your carb levels, all while taking in one of the most world’s most celebrated mountain vistas.
Ultimate Etapes: Ride Europe’s Greatest Cycling Stages by Peter Cossins (RRP £20, Aurum Press) is out now