While packing my bag after stocking up at the supermarket in Grindelwald, someone shouted my name. I looked up and saw James Hayden riding past. It was great to see that he was back on his bike and clearly moving up through the field. We wished each other well and he sped off up the hill at twice my speed.
I was ready to leave Grindelwald to start the big climbs at about 4pm. The problem was that, if I was not to lose a lot of time, they all really needed to be done that evening. If my legs gave out I could probably find somewhere to sleep if I stopped after the first one (Grosse Scheidegg) but it would only be around 7pm – far too early in the day. If I continued, I knew my bivvy kit was not warm enough to spend a night at altitude and I could not rely on finding a hotel.
With this in mind I had been keeping a close eye on the forecast as I was wary of being in the mountains at night in bad weather. A few days previously, rain and freezing temperatures had been predicted for this evening, but the forecast was now very good – about 5 degrees and no rain nor even any wind. So my plan was on – as long as my legs could deliver. I make no claims to climbing prowess and, having done a hilly 100+km already that day, and 1200km since leaving Geraardsbergen, getting up them all was by no means certain.
My plan to tame the climbs involved gears: 34 on the front and 40 on the back giving me a 23 inch bottom gear. The Grosse Scheidegg, is a brute, averaging over 10% for much of the way.
Even in my bottom gear, it forced me to climb at a higher power than I was comfortable with at that stage of the ride. It took me two hours to grind up it, but I did get up it, so I knew I could go on to the next one.
It’s pretty, though!
View from near the top, looking back over Grindelwald
But first I had to descend. This was not fun as the surface was a bit patchy and there were a few twists, so my neck was not liking it. I stopped three or four times on the way down to relieve it. The last section was on a nice smooth main road with pleasant curves, so I enjoyed that bit at least.
In Innertkirchen, the village at the bottom, I spotted a bike shop, so dived in and got a new tyre. I reckoned that fitting the tyre would allow my legs a bit of a breather before taking on the next climb – with the boost of a fully inflated tyre.
As I climbed the Grimselpass dusk fell, then dark. The climb went on for hours, but the gradient was modest and I could ride up comfortably – slowly but at a lower power level than the Scheidegg – which I could keep up all night.
Quite a few people (not racers) were camping out for the night, mostly sleeping in cars. At about 11pm I startled one couple, who were getting comfortable for the night, when I rode past. My German wasn’t good enough to tell them that there would be a few more coming through night!
Approaching midnight I got to the top. Failure to read the small print on my part meant that I hadn’t realised that there was a descent before the Furkapass. There was, but it was pretty straightforward, and I rolled down to the deserted, sleeping village at the bottom and set off up the Furkapass. This was also gently graded but with the odd slightly steeper section.
About once per hour a car would pass. And at one point I saw some bike lights following me, maybe an hour behind. Otherwise it was a pretty solitary night. With no views to see, and riding slowly through night, I spent a bit of time clearing out the backlog of work emails that had arrived since Geraardsbergen. Alas it was mostly spam; there wasn’t even anything remotely exciting in my inbox.
I walked some of the steeper sections – not because they were too hard to ride, but just for a change, to give my feet a rest, and because the speed difference was not very significant!
I almost felt guilty for showing such a lack of appreciation for these majestic Alpine climbs, blunting them with my low gear rather than rising to their challenge! But, for me, that night, they were boxes to be ticked to be able to get on with the ride in the morning. My cousin posted on Facebook saying what a great view there was from the top of the Furkapass. At 2:30am, when I got there, there was nothing to see (just a lot of parked cars – I couldn’t work out what they were doing there at that time). I hope to go back one day to see what it looks like for myself.
I made a bad mistake on the descent from the Furkapass by not putting all my warm gear on. Given I’d brought my warmest stuff with this very descent in mind, this was daft, but, feeling warm from the hours of climbing, merino gloves and down gilet stayed in my bag. My neck got cold and sore, making me stop to rest every 100m of descent. By the bottom I was shivering, so I did stop and put on all my layers.
It was now 3am and I had to decide what to do. There was nothing to stay in Hospental, the town at the bottom, for. The best thing I could do was to climb again, to warm up. But I did not fancy another descent before the sun was up. So I found the sign for the Gotthard Pass; where most riders would go straight on, I turned right, and followed what was a long, straight, gentle climb for a few km. I needed to sleep – both as an end in itself and to kill a couple of hours until morning. I decided that, if I got really warm and found a sheltered spot, I might be able to manage an hour or two before I got cold.
I unrolled my stuff in a blocked-off layby at around 1700m altitude and jumped into my bivvy bag, without even stopping to clean my teeth, focusing only on maintaining my core body temperature. I was off to sleep within a minute and woke, two hours later, still tolerably warm, to see the most beautiful sight of the valley bathed in sunlight with a blue sky!
The prospect of escaping to Italy now seemed irresistable! It was a bold move, that I’d only decided on a few days before the start. Compared with the route I’d planned through Switzerland, it would be 135km longer but save me a massive 3235 metres of climbing. I’d need to put in a couple of long days to cope with the extra distance but the wear and tear on my body would be minimal. And I’d be able to do it in pleasant, sunny weather rather than the rain expected in Switzerland. For a strong climber, it might not have been so clear cut, but for me, it definitely felt like the right decision.