It’s those old blokes on bicycles again. Six retired men - four of them newspaper editors - do their 9th exploratory Continental cycle tour. James Clarke tells how, this time, they conquered the Alps.
It was our ninth annual cycle-mounted expedition from Africa to explore Darkest Europe and bring back tales of the natives there. There were the usual six of us, average age over 70. Our peregrinations have become known as the Tours de Farce because we’ve done all sorts of stupid things: cycled 1000 km down the Danube, traversed France, crossed Italy, invaded Spain, followed the Thames from its source to the sea.
This time we chose Switzerland having been assured by the Swiss that their cycle tracks were easy-going. In fact western Switzerland is flat and the cycle trails follow river banks and lake shores. But even if there were hills it wouldn’t matter. Not any more.
A revolutionary bike has made exploring Europe from a saddle an option for anybody who can balance on a bike.
For me, the slowest of the six, hills are anathema. In Catalonia in 2007 my companions waited an hour for me at the top of a hill in a freezing Pyrenean wind. I had a pinched nerve and, as I hobbled into sight, somebody shouted, “James! This is not a race!”
These days I could easily do that hill singing all the way to the top - because I’ve discovered the “E-bike”.
We always hire our bikes in Europe and it was on day one at a bicycle depot near Baden that we first clapped eyes on an E-bike. It was, for me, love at first sight. It’s a Swiss-made battery-powered bicycle that can be used as a normal geared bike but it has two 1.5kg batteries each with a 50 km range. They boost one up hills at 20km/h.
Three of my companions insisted on conventional bikes but for the first time we were able to ride in a peloton and chat. In the past that would have required cellphones. One has to keep pedalling but by occasionally engaging the booster the slowest can keep up with the fastest.
Switzerland has 8 500 kilometres of cycle trails of which 6 300 are easy-going. The country has 63 000 km of well-signposted trails for walking, hiking, riding, canoeing, cycling and skating.
We began our tour by going 170km from Baden to Morges on Lake Geneva - four days of relaxed cycling in chocolate box scenery.
We now had to cross the Alps to the warmer south-eastern (Italian-speaking) side of Switzerland. Up over the notorious passes negotiating steep hairpin bends.
It was easy - mainly because we did this by train. It would normally take a couple of hours to cross Switzerland by train but we chose an adventurous route linking up with the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway - one of the world’s most eccentric and exciting railway systems.
The almost century old Furka Pass railway was closed in 1982 but railway enthusiasts have restored the line and re-purchased the steam engines that had been sold to Vietnam. The line is now run by multi-lingual volunteers dressed in 1920s railway uniforms.
A snowball fight began at Furka station until an armistice was agreed over coffee and schnapps.
Later we rejoined the mainline aboard a luxurious Panorama coach with huge windows. It was a memorable ride down the St Gotthard Pass with its tight valleys and snow-capped peaks.
Switzerland is a rabbit warren of tunnels, an exposition of heroic civil engineering and the St Gotthard rail tunnel has become Europe’s aorta. By 2017 it will provide an even faster route from northern Europe to the Adriatic with trains travelling at 270km/h.
We ended our day’s ride in the warmth of Locarno, an amphitheatre of a town looking down on the palm-fringed Lake Maggiorie. It was difficult shaking off the illusion that we were on the Mediterranean.
Fresh bikes were waiting at Locarno station ready for when we might need them. One can order bikes at any station and drop them off at any station.
We stayed at Lucarno’s Hotel Esplanade set back from the town in large forested grounds - a posh hotel compared with the B&Bs we normally use. It was offering an affordable out-of-season (September) rate.
For our nine days in Switzerland we never saw our suitcases except when we found them in our hotels rooms - all part of the deal we had with Swiss Trails who supplied our bikes, maps, guide books and accommodation. Ruedi Jaisli the big mop-haired proprietor of Swiss Trails organises accommodation from ultra-cheap hay lofts (literally) to hostels and hotels or a mix of each.
Swiss Trails is part of a highly innovative project unique to Switzerland: SwitzerlandMobility. This is a government-backed cobweb of routes for non-motorised traffic such as hiking, roller-blading, cycling or canoeing. The routes interlock with the Swiss Travel System (STS) that has revolutionised tourist travel. The two systems add up to a seamless network of travel modes. Exclusive to tourists it is an open sesame to the network of trails and enables you to leap aboard trains, boats, postal coaches, trams... even with bikes. It’s all so wonderfully Swiss.
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© James Clarke 2011 Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Designed by SKALLIE
A conflab on the Aare River in Switzerland
- note the electric bikes.