October 27, 2010

A bike ride in Switzerland

Recently got back from a week riding bikes in Switzerland and have to admit something: I totally underestimated the Alps.

When I heard last spring that the Swiss had developed a new 400-mile, nation-spanning mountain bike route, I knew I had to check it out. Then I learned that the organization behind it, Swiss Trails, would haul your luggage for you each day. You book your trip, they make your hotel reservations, send you a custom itinerary with maps, and, kazow, you're ready to go. All you do is show up and ride. Piece of cake. As someone used to doing self-contained wilderness trips, this sounded like a relaxing change of pace. Leisurely, even. 

Which just goes to show how clueless I was about Switzerland. I mean, there's a reason people call places with steep, gigantic mountains "the Alps of ... (insert name of place with steep, gigantic mountains here)."

Mick and I realized this as soon as we stepped off the train in Scuol, a mountain village tucked into a far eastern finger of the country near the Austrian and Italian borders.

"Are we riding over those?" Mick said, pointing up at the snow-covered wall of mountains rising 5,000 feet from the valley floor.

"I have no idea," I said, spinning around and taking in the view, "but we're going over something big."

Of this there was no doubt. Sky-scratching peaks loomed in every direction, so it really didn't matter that I had no idea where we going. One way or the other we were riding over the Alps, and by the looks of things it would be anything but leisurely.

Which ended up suiting us just fine. After a day exploring the environs around Scuol — with its rivers, castles, and centuries-old trail network webbing up mountains at all angles — we set out for a five-day spin on Alpine Route 1.

A trail cut from the walls of a whitewater gorge was the first order of business...

A couple hours of climbing delivered us to S-charl, a ludicrously picturesque village on the edge of Switzerland's lone national park (which, being the only one, is simply called The National Park).

This was the Switzerland I envisioned: fine dining at wooden chalets overlooking the Alps. Never been served an entire trout, though, head and all. That caught me by surprise.

From there it was into the alpine, where we dodged marmots and kept our eyes peeled for grizzly bears, which, believe it or not, have recently made a reappearance in this region of Switzerland, crossing over from a remnant population that has survived in an isolated pocket of northern Italy. This is the most remote and least developed part of the country, and the World Wildlife Fund is working hard to convince the locals that the bears aren't a bad thing. Hopefully grizzlies can make a small comeback in this corner of the Swiss Alps.

We didn't see any of the bruins (which was no surprise, given that there are a grand total of three in the country, and two of them may have gone back to Italy), but we did see plenty of route signs. Every trail junction features a signpost which keeps the users of Switzerland's many biking and hiking routes on track...

After crossing a pass and shooting down the other side, we made our way along cliffside dirt roads into the stunningly beautiful Val Mustair, where a hotel in the village of St. Maria was awaiting our arrival for the night. As dusk settled in the valley, we deviated from the route and plunged down a series of clench-your-brake-levers-and-pray trails that kept us whooping and laughing through the dark all the way to our hotel, where we arrived, utterly spent, only minutes before they locked the doors for the night.

From there, each day went something like this: wake in awesomely comfortable bed in one Swiss village or another, devour tasty and fortifying breakfast, leave luggage at front desk, jump on bicycle with just a backpack and a map, and head for the mountains. We had so much fun romping through the Alps, taking pictures, and exploring side trails, that we almost always arrived in our next village, where our luggage laid in wait, after dark. Plus, the Alps are steep, which is something I didn't fully understand until I got there. (Not quite sure why I didn't realize this — I mean, c'mon, they're the Alps — but I didn't.) So getting over the passes wasn't exactly fast. It didn't help that our second day featured three of them, not that we minded. What with riding like this...


After a good eight or nine hours on the bike, and a screaming descent through tunnels of golden larch that seemed like it would never end, we rolled into Livigno, Italy. (At the day's second pass we unceremoniously crossed an international border with no signs or stations of any kind.) After finding our way to our four-star hotel for the night — in the dark, of course — we met a finely dressed man at the front desk who served us orange juice and cookies. Our gusto in inhaling the cookies might have shocked him, but he stayed professional and directed us to our room.

After a supernaturally great dinner of handmade pasta and multiple pizzas at the local pizzeria, we went to bed dreaming of our next day and the biggest test of the trip — Chaschauna Pass. Early snows had buried everything over 2,200 meters. Chaschauna was 2,600. (For the Americans in the audience, that's 1,300 feet higher.) I really wanted to go for it; Mick wasn't so sure. We'd been debating it for days and had been told repeatedly that crossing it would be impossible.

Until we met the 20-something-year-old chap who guided mountain bike rides for our hotel in Livigno, that is. He said he thought we could make it, which was all we needed to hear. We were going for it.

This is good lesson for us all — whenever you need an affirmation of your plans to do something stupid, ask a male in his 20s!

Photos from Chaschauna and the rest of our trip coming in my next post...


  1. It sounds like an incredible trip. I am intrigued, and might have to look into a similar trip myself. I don't know if it will be feasible, I won't be overseas until February of 2011, and I feel like it might be a bit snowed in at that point.

    It reminds me a bit of a trek I did in Peru in the Huayhash Cordillera Mountains, majestic views and big mountains.

    I really enjoy your writing. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Looks amazing, Aaron.

    What would you say is the ratio of trail to road?

    Looking forward to the next post.

  3. nice photos- especially that first one!

  4. I'll second Shaun's comment. Your photos are really getting good. What are you using for gear?

  5. Bastard! Y'all are ruling Switzerland- the Ouray, CO of Europe.

  6. Thanks everyone. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    CJM: Canon 5D Mark II.

    ScottM: about 30% trail. But we actually welcomed the roads -- super scenic and gave us a chance to chat. Plus, there are trails everywhere that you can duck onto (and they're all on the excellent route maps).

  7. Great photos! I have had this ride on my bucket list for a few years. Thanks for posting your experiences.

    BTW - I posted a photo and link back to your article on my blog. If that's not cool let me know and I'll pull it.


  8. This looks outstanding, I will put this on the "before I hit 40" list, woo!

  9. What happened to the last post? Hope you guys were alright....

  10. Great info on an awesome bike trail. Going to switzerland next month for skiing in Klosters Davos, we will probably go to Scuol nearby. Your pictures are really inspiring. Would like to go in summer to bike.

  11. Aaron, I just came up on this, as I'm looking into bikepacking that route this summer.

    Is that Mick from Gustavus??