Swiss Sailing: A Bike Trip Through the Alps, Sans Facebook
by Adam Perry
for Boulder Weekly 8/29/2013
Shunning social media since the beginning of this year has been an interesting experiment, the effects of which are definitely exacerbated by living in the bubble known as Boulder.
It’s made me feel more isolated but more, well, alive. Social interactions are less frequent — which also has to do with recently quitting my second life as a touring rock drummer to focus on fatherhood and my work as a legal assistant — but, in my opinion, more authentic. Perhaps most intriguing and challenging has been my struggle with the continued burning desire to share, an admittedly addictive behavior that is startlingly different now that my 800-plus Facebook “friends” seem like evanescent memories.
On that note, a good recent test of my will to share without the dopamine-fueled benefit of Facebook was when my boss, a local veterans’ attorney and Boulder High grad named Sean Kendall, generously rewarded me with a week-long bike tour around Switzerland, for which it took about two months to train. Repeatedly, and feverishly, biking from my apartment in North Boulder to Ward, Jamestown, Fourmile Canyon and Denver to prepare myself mentally and physically for the steep, long climbs of Switzerland, I lamented the previously constant experience of sharing a photo and/or brief note on Facebook followed by dozens of “Likes” and corresponding non sequiturs. An internal question paraphrased from Grant Peterson’s great 2012 book Just Ride kept coming back to me: Would I ride as much if I couldn’t post about it on Facebook?
Thankfully, the answer was yes, although a big part of the “yes” was that if I hadn’t logged so many hundreds of Colorado miles training for Switzerland (Lee Hill now haunts my dreams) this article might be about how I passed out on my bike and fell over a cliff in the Alps.
So it was that I arrived in Geneva on July 26 with Kendall, Sean Stewart (our talented young summer law clerk) and our bikes, which we assembled at Genève Aéroport around 11 a.m. I was plenty nervous, having previously undertaken only one bike trip, a four-day, 300-mile ride from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh (my hometown) along the very calm, flat C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage trails. Effectively, traversing the Alps on a steel Bianchi cross bike loaded with about 25 pounds of tools, clothing and camping gear was like vaulting from tee-ball to the minor leagues.
As our first day was brutally hot and humid, reaching the mid-90s, we chose to head for higher elevation after a quick train ride to Vevey along gorgeous Lake Geneva, Deep Purple’s “Smoke On the Water” (“We all came out to Montreux …”) ringing in my head. Time seemed to stop as I marveled at the sparkling blue water, the countless statues along the water (including one of Freddy Mercury), and the gigantic sheer cliffs of the surrounding “foothills” of the Alps, which looked as much like mountains as any I’d ever seen, until finally I saw the real Alps the next afternoon.
With social media such a keystone in my development into adulthood (at least the age that qualifies as adulthood), nearly every landmark we passed along Lake Geneva — from the stunning cliffs to the Freddy Mercury statue — gave me the impulse to tell folks back home about it. But postcards? Emails? Even a blog that several people, rather than several hundred people, might read while I was away? Those seemingly antiquated media presented a true test of my ability to simply enjoy the Swiss experience at face value. And what an exquisite face it was.
In a flash, the short, wide-eyed lakeside ride from Vevey to Montreaux turned into a demanding urban climb up winding streets steeper than any mountain passes I could have trained on in the Boulder area. More pressing than wondering if a hardcore European cycling adventure counted if it wasn’t posted about on Facebook was the question of whether Boulder-trained legs, and bikes more suited for the Front Range, could hold up in the Alps.
Stewart, who brought a carbon Trek road bike with only two chain rings — not a stereotypical touring bike — was presented with a trial by fire: Portions of the Col de Jaman climb from Montreux into more rural parts of French Switzerland threw at us ascents featuring grades of over 20 percent and, because of his “aggressive” gearing and heavy rear panniers, Stewart briefly had to walk.
Despite the severe heat, which literally made pavement stick to our tires and crackle loudly as we rolled, I confidently raced up the extremely steep hills and into the cooler mountain air, helped by the adrenaline of giddily outpacing Kendall, an accomplished longtime bike-tour enthusiast, and my dozens of spring rides up Poor Man Hill above Boulder. The reward — made more fun by hearing, at one point, dozens of young women at a Montreaux finishing school singing Monty Python’s “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” — was a sweeping, breathtaking view of Lake Geneva and the approximately 4,200 feet we had somehow climbed in just 12 miles.
After a Clif Bar and a round of beers we began a sometimes-treacherous 10-mile descent to quaint Châteaud’Oex, where we camped for the night and listened to traditional Swiss music. The downhill portion of our day began with gravel, which stuck to our tar-soaked tires in bunches, and a break to fix Stewart’s flat, thankfully our only of the entire trip. Day one — with a couple of wipeouts and trouble with his rear rack — wasn’t pretty for Stewart, a recent graduate of Berkeley Law, only due to luck and the type of bike he brought, but the rest of our Swiss tour was smooth sailing for him.
The joke was on me, however, as my endurance fell off after my too-eager, adrenaline-fueled rush up the Col de Jaman, and I frequently fell behind the pack. Due partly to inexperience and partly due to subsisting mostly on ham-and-white-bread sandwiches stashed in my panniers while my mates ate a lot of big pasta dishes at restaurants, the rest of the trip found me back to my usual languid, slow, newbie-rider self.
Day two we knocked out 40 miles by lunch, and enjoyed an emerald-blue Lake Thunersee in Spiez. But much of the ensuing diverse ride from Gstaad to the wondrously idyllic Lauterbrunnen Valley was filled with laughter over the alcoholic “Americano” I accidentally ordered in Gstaad and the headache it ended up giving me along the rolling hills that day, although nearly all conversation stopped as our eyes fell upon the waterfall-teeming area that inspired Tolkien’s Rivendell.
The next morning found us waking up in Gimmelwald, a little mountain village that sits at about 4,500 feet above sea level and is easily accessible by the same cable car made famous by James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Every gondola ride is nightmarish to me, but this one was worth it. There is no word besides magical that fittingly describes Gimmelwald (population 150), which has deftly avoided development by claiming acute avalanche danger.
The views from our Gimmelwald hostel (which was built in 1563) featured miles-long waterfalls and mountains that seemed to touch the sky but really turned into glaciers that provided the water for the bottles we filled mid-ride each day. Looking out through mystical fog as the sun fell during our first evening in Gimmelwald, I half expected Lyra Silvertongue to race by on her polar bear in search of a wormhole home. Trying in vain on social media to convey the beauty and mystique of Gimmelwald would’ve been more frustrating than waiting to share memories of the experience after I’d returned to Colorado.
A steady rain from dawn past dusk on day three was sort of a bummer for my boss, whose Olympic-sized goal on bike tours is to bike hard, eat a lot (necessary when you’re burning around 3,000 calories a day) and then bike hard some more. I hope to be half as athletic as him when I’m middle-aged. Still, I was glad for the chance to hike in the pouring rain up to Mürren, take an afternoon nap, and make a bunch of American and Canadian friends over chess and scotch, which both kept me up past 2 a.m.
After exchanging contact information with some fellow hostellers the morning of day four, we rode a slew of serious switchbacks 1,000 feet up to Mürren in under two miles, gazing at the mighty Eiger (elevation: 13,000 feet) before descending to Aspen-like Grindelwald. There, after pastries and coffee, we would face Stewart’s biggest fear: Grosse Scheidegg, which connects Grindelwald and Meiringen in the canton of Bern.
At just 24, Stewart is a seasoned cyclist and runner, with competitive experience in the Front Range and a longtime love of ascending Flagstaff. But climbing 3,900 feet in just six miles, on a carbon road bike with no granny gear and a 25-pound rear load? Insanity. Still, he nailed it, even with the accidental mountain-bike-path detour we took at the beginning of Grosse Scheidegg’s legendary ascent, and the Swiss lager at the top tasted especially good while looking down at what we’d accomplished. A picture of the Grindelwald side of Grosse Scheidegg from the top, maybe with a beer in my outstretched hand, would’ve prompted plenty of non-sequiturs on Facebook.
“It destroyed my soul,” Stewart said of Grosse Scheidegg the next day, after we’d camped in fly-infested Meiringen (known for the waterfall where Sherlock Holmes met his unfortunate fate) and trudged “at least as high as the clouds,” which was Kendall’s answer to how far we’d ride on day five. He wasn’t kidding.
Susten Pass, only part of our day, was a tougher physical and mental test than I’d imagined, forcing me to deal with tired legs; a rambling, negative mind; and generally low energy for about 5,500 feet of climbing in 20 miles, during which my speed probably didn’t exceed nine miles per hour and averaged more like seven. Looking down as I pedaled farther up Susten Pass, it seemed like a dream that I’d climbed so far, as if my suntanned calves couldn’t possibly have taken me to such heights. Plus, those 20 miles were full of sketchy interactions with Ferraris and high-speed motorcycles, sometimes halfway through dark, small tunnels. Not surprisingly, on none of the difficult mountain passes we conquered did the two Seans and I meet other cyclists with full loads of camping gear, though we did see big-haul cyclists down by Switzerland’s lakes and on the rolling hills of the national bike paths.
A necessary off day in Andermatt found us avoiding an abrasive campground owner (we dubbed her “Fraulein”) and greeting Swiss National Day, which celebrates the 1291 inauguration of the Swiss confederacy. Everything was quiet, almost disappointingly so, until the sun went down around 9 p.m. and the gondola we were camping next to rose directly above us and stopped, at which point revelers inside opened a big window and began trading ample-sized fireworks blasts with fellow revelers below.
“Do they not know what fireworks are?” asked Stewart. I wondered the same as professional-looking explosions took place just feet, maybe inches, from the gondola after being shot from below. This went on for maybe two hours, and kept me awake as my gondola-fearing brain wondered how anyone could enjoy partying in a hanging gondola, let alone partying in a hanging gondola while explosions rocked it.
The gondola was found to be miraculously unscathed when we set out the morning of day seven for Furka Pass, another James Bond location (Goldfinger, 1964) where we slayed around 3,000 feet of smooth climbing (watched by dozens of mooing, bell-ringing Swiss cows along the way) before I munched on ham sandwiches and took in my first far-away view of the pointed Matterhorn.
We also got a sad view of the famous Rhone Glacier after climbing the Andermatt side of Furka Pass. The glacier has been shrinking due to the earth’s warming temperatures, and the pictures on postcards for sale at the Rhone Glacier gift shop looked almost nothing like the shrunken — but beautiful — natural wonder that exists there today. Now that would’ve been something worth creating discussion about on social media.
An unexpected forest detour, featuring cliffs that could’ve proved fatal if I wasn’t dumb enough to be confident on a bike in hazardous new territory, helped clock us in at just over 75 miles for the day before taking a mountain train to Zermatt. We camped for just $12 next to the train station, with a clear view of the Matterhorn (which I likened to the watchful Eye of Sauron) and good $1 beer at the adjacent grocery store.
A scorching-hot, windy 75-mile ride to Martigny, though relatively flat most of the way, turned out to be the toughest day other than Susten Pass. I was dead tired, having completed just under 400 miles on the trip — not bad, but not impressive. “Just a warm-up,” in the words of the ageless Kendall, who (along with Stewart) unequivocally kicked my ass after the first day. A Roman-era amphitheatre and the elegant hilltop castle La Bâtiaz made Martigny — with its unique blend of French and Italian culture, and marks left by not only the Romans but Napoleon and his army — an unexpected highlight of our Swiss bike tour. After the unpleasant grind of the ride from Zermatt, Stewart and I left our Martigny campground the next day for Vevey with a vow to cap our adventure in two ways: Jumping into Lake Geneva and spending every last franc jingling in our panniers on beer.
Even drunk-texting and drunk-dialing aren’t as painful in hindsight as drunk-sharing on Facebook or Twitter. Thus, the last night of our trip, with Kendall having moved on to Zurich (with his amazing Soma touring bike, built by Ethan Bontrager at Queen City Cycles in Denver) to spend a few more weeks in Switzerland, ended perfectly for Stewart and myself. Feldschlösschen muscles helped give me the courage to join a group of Swiss youths in using a trampoline to leap off the pier into the swan-filled water, which was as blue as any I’ve seen outside the Florida Keys.
So am I capable, in the year 2013 and beyond, to embark on an epic journey abroad without boasting about it on social media? Sure. If there’s anything you wouldn’t do just for the sake of doing it — especially a feat like cycling through the Alps — it’s simply not worth it. But next time I’ll pace myself better, and bring more Clif bars.