We said Good bye to fizzy, flavoursome and amber, caramel or burgundy coloured beers. The cheeses are no longer called Gouda or Emmental but Taleggio and Provolone, and the espressos are strong and creamy just how I like them. The cherry trees already carry small fruit where the trees in Belgium less than two weeks ago still wore pink blossom dresses. The pistachio ice cream is divine.
We crossed the Alps and arrived in Como.
As much as I’d like to tell you about rides along the lake and up the Ghisallo and Muro di Sormano, I will have to first mention the Vosges mountains and the Alsace and the high mountains of Switzerland along the way. How much adventure can one put into one week of travelling?
Two Ballons and a few Cols: The Vosges Mountains
After a quick sightseeing ride through Strasbourg’s Little France, serious climbing withdrawal let us head straight into the Vosges mountains.
This was all picturesque and scenic and pretty, the villages old, the forests green and the climbing rather harmless fun. Sure, most peaks were called Col and had ski lifts at the top but at no point was turning the pedals painful. All the prettiness levelled out at around 750m and my heart rate hardly rose above 142 bpm.
The Grand Ballon and the Ballon d’Alsace were the two climbs of the region that our “50 Rides before you die” magazine recommended. But instead motorway views, we decided to take in more scenery along the Route du Vin. Who cares whether the 95km drive would take two or four hours, or whether you arrive at your destination that day at all.
We didn’t make it to the foothills of the Ballons that night.
An intermediate stop, another flat(ish) ride, a shopping spree at a local winery to fill up our wine cellar and a wonderful dinner at a local Alsacian restaurant was worth the stop-over in Chatenois.
Even without the right map to find them, we were getting tuned into finding free camp site in little French (apparently the Michelin maps have them marked). France is perfectly set up for Motorhome holidays and almost every village has one of those tiny Motorhome Service Stations, usually blue boxes the size of a small phone booth, equipped with a hole for emptying the chemical toilet and a high pressure hose for cleaning, fresh water for refilling the motorhome tank and sometimes even power. There is also a grit for emptying the grey water and often all this is completely free, or sometimes operated by coins (2.50 Euro). Some are right at the town square in front of the church, others are hidden away and hard to find, but they are always worth searching for because they save you staying at expensive camp grounds.
Finally, a day or two later, we arrived at the foot of the Grand Ballon at Willer-sur-Thur. The climb was yet delayed for another day. A wrong turn during the first ride that resulted in climbing the wrong Col (de Bussang), followed by a rainy afternoon that saw me turn around half way up the Grand Ballon let the anticipation of climbing the two Ballons rise unbearably.
I had mapped out the perfect circuit from Willer-sur-Thur to the Ballon to Alsace, over the Col du Hundsrück, back to Willer-sur-Thur, an opportunity to have lunch at the motorhome and then, leaving the best for last, up the Grand Ballon for a spectacular final. My estimation of 100km was fairly correct. What I didn’t take into calculation were the total meters of altitude gain and how much this would hurt. It looked all easy and straight forward on the map.
And easy and straight forward it was: up the Col du Hundsrück, a beautiful scenic climb, especially with fresh legs, early in the day and with a few other cyclists also up that way enjoying the beautiful weather.
Down into the valley and through a few Vosges villages, it felt too easy. Not much of a climb I thought to myself at the early slopes of the Ballon d’Alsace, almost disappointedly. We passed the big car park with early motorbike riders taking in the peaceful quietness of the lake behind the dam wall. The road wound it’s way gently up the valley in low gradient switch backs. All the prettiness of the Vosges mountains, the flower-dotted grass along the roads, the quaint villages, the melodic French of the girl in the Boulangerie, this all had lulled me into an inflated sense of my climbing prowress.
The road kicked up eventually. How else was it going to rise to 1100m over the course of 10 km? Four kilometre of relentless 10% brought me back to reality. My quads and hamstrings burnt, not used to the amount of lactic acid. The thick Firs forest didn’t give much away and when it finally opened up to a beautiful view over the valley, I was reminded of how hard climbing can be and how leisurely our riding had been over the past couple of months, apart from a short berg here and there.
We grabbed a bite to eat at the ski resort while chatting with a group of Dutch cyclists, also lunching at the chalet. The ride back over the Hundsrück worried me unnecessarily because I made the return trip to Willer-sur-Thur just fine. But the day, and ride, wasn’t supposed to end there. A quick snack and then there was still the Grand Ballon.
Thirteen kilometres of climbing didn’t sound like much, even late in the afternoon and after 1600m of climbing already in the legs. Well fed, rested and full of wonderful impressions of the Ballon d’Alsace climb earlier, the pain of a 10% gradient was already forgotten. I knew the first seven kilometres of the climb because of the rained out attempt the previous day. Tired, and a bit sore, my legs complied and carried me further and further up the road. They even had some Umph when two cocky French guys rode pass without a Hello (or maybe they were German or Dutch, who knows). I stayed on their wheel for the next kilometre or two, just to show them… but it hurt.
Then a left turn and the warning words from Alberto that it was getting steeper from now on. Unlike me, he had gone all the way to the top despite the storm the previous day and therefore knew the climb already. I urged him to show the French guys how to climb but he seemed content to just hang around me and my slow progress from there on.
Time started stretching. Ten percent felt relentless. Distance started stretching. At one point I was convinced there were only two kilometres left to the top. It seemed my legs were only able to muster the strength to turn the pedals for another two kilometres at that gradient. When Alberto said it was four, I almost cried. It became a mental game. I wanted to turn around. But more than wanting the pain to stop, I wanted to be able to say that I rode up the Grand Ballon. So I kept pedalling. Alberto suggested resting for a moment but I was afraid I would never get back on again if I stopped. So I kept going… another 500m, and another after that, and then some more. When I passed the roadside marker that, in white and yellow paint, indicated 1km to the summit, I knew I would make it, even though the road ahead looked stills scarily steep, the slopes to each side bare and wind-swept and the summit further than the indicated distance.
There was still a bit of snow at the summit. A man was selling honey and sweet breads from a little stall. The wind blow cold air over the otherwise empty car park. The French guys were sitting by the road side, bikes in the grass. There short sleeves and bibs made me shiver. Weary and tired from the long climb but immensely happy and proud, we rolled back down to the motorhome. The descent drew the last bit of energy out of me and I spend the night in restless agony, overtired and exhausted. The day with just over 100km and 2600m of climbing made me realise how much training is still needed to complete L’Etape du Tour in two month’s time. Then I will ride 140km over four Alpine mountain passes with a total of over 4000m of climbing.
The high mountains in Switzerland: Andermatt and the Oberalppass
Our next stop on our way South was Switzerland, with stops at Weil am Rhein and Lucerne on the way. This allowed me two rest days to recover properly from the Two Ballons before getting back on the bike in Andermatt for some more serious climbing.
By then I couldn’t wait to get back on the bike but all the passes were still closed due to the long winter and amount of snow they had this year. The girl in the tourist information provided good news that the Oberalppass would open the very next day. It may not the Gotthard, Furka, Susten or any of the other famous passes but – hey – since I had never ridden an Alpine pass before, at the end of the day it was all the same to me.
We went for a little exploratory ride that afternoon, made sure the Gotthard was indeed closed, and settled in for a cool night at 1400m.
The next morning we woke up to the bluest of deep blue skies, bright sunshine and balmy temperatures. I joked that we must have died and woken up in paradise, so incredible was the beauty of the mountains surrounding us. Two laps through the village was all we allowed for a warm-up. Everybody seemed excited about the open pass and we certainly weren’t the first cyclists on the freshly groomed road.
Again the climbing felt easy. The white of the snow glistened in the sun, the crispness of the clean air, this all must have distracted me from the pain. Alberto asked me a few times, whether I was ok. My quietness alarmed him. The mountains so majestic and beautiful, and threatening and hostile at the same time, there was no exuberant joy or bubbly happiness like on other rides in the past few weeks. Here it was just deep contentment and wonderment. I didn’t have words to describe my feelings. And I still don’t, so I will leave you with some photos that will hopefully speak their own language.
We reached the top far too quickly and down we went the other side into Sedrun. Nothing was open at the sleepy village. A local woman explained that it was spring, time to recuperate from the winter season and prepare for the summer tourists. They don’t cater for inbetweeners like us. So we climbed back up the mountain to that chalet half way, where we enjoying a Hot Chocolate and a bite to eat, the only guests.
Back down, we stopped at the bike shop in Andermatt again. Adrian, the owner, had encouraged us the previous afternoon to jump the barrier and ride up the Gotthard Pass. He said it was the best time of year when cyclists had the road to themselves. Of course we could get caught by police and pay a fine and, of course, insurance wouldn’t pay if anything happened, but that was all worth the experience. Well, we contemplated the idea but, at the end of the day, decided to rather return to Switzerland in August, after the Tour de France, and explore all the other passes properly.