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The Alpen Brevet - in for the long haul

Stu Bowers
6 May 2016

If you enjoy punishment, the Alpen Brevet in Switzerland serves up 278km with more than 7000m of climbing.

I wake with a jolt. The sunlight in the clear blue sky above me is dazzlingly bright, which makes it even harder for my eyes to focus as I sit up and try to reboot my senses. Panic grips me – how long have I been asleep?
I glance at my watch, but it’s not much help as I’ve no idea what time it was when I inadvertently dropped off on the warm, sun-drenched verge adjacent to the feedstation on top of the Lukmanier Pass. 

All I can remember is lying back on the soft grass and thinking, ‘Just for a moment.’ Before I knew it I was snoozing gently, letting the efforts of the past few hours drift away.

The last ascent was gruelling, up to this peak at a height of 1,965m. The third of five summits on the Alpen Brevet ‘Platin Tour’ route, it begins just 300m above sea level in Biasca, on the valley floor. It’s a leg-buckling 40km long, and although not overly steep, with gradients mostly between 4% and 6%, it felt like a battle all the way. With fresh legs, things would undoubtedly have been more pleasant – after all, the views
up here are stunning, surrounded on all sides as I am by dramatic alpine peaks – but today the 125km and two previous alpine passes that I’ve already banked before reaching this brute have clearly made a big dent in my reserves.

My Garmin reveals over seven hours of riding time, which means I was two and a half hours on this slope alone. Admittedly, I stopped twice on the way up, once because I felt inclined to submerge my head in a roadside fountain (helmet, glasses and all) to try and cool down. The mercury is well up into the 30s and, with the sun at its highest in the middle of the day, there is precious little shade on offer on the seemingly never-ending road to the summit. My second stop was due to the most evil of cycling foes – cramp – which had taken hold of my hamstrings with its excruciating, vice-like grip, forcing me to dismount and stretch. 

Piano, piano

My strategy had always been to treat this event with a huge amount of respect. I was adamant about keeping my pace very much ‘piano’, as the Italians say, at least until I knew the end was in sight. I’ve never ridden 278km in one day before. In fact, after the Endura Alpen-Traum event I’d completed in 2014 (254km and 6,000m climbing), I had vowed never to do anything like this again. Yet here I am, potentially going even further still and this time there is significantly north of 7,000m of climbing to contend with. 

You’d have to go back a long way in all of the Grand Tours’ histories to find a stage with stats like that. Stage 18 of the 1983 Tour de France is one that is often mentioned as being particularly brutal, but even its 247km between Bourg d’Oisans and Morzine with a total of 6,685m of ascent, falls short of this day’s profile.

I plainly haven’t been going easily enough. Here I am at the 165km mark, obviously a little the worse for wear given I’ve just inadvertently been comatose for what Strava will later reveal to be around 20-25 minutes. Especially as the realisation dawns that there is the small matter of more than 100km and two more daunting mountain peaks, both in excess of 2,000m, still to go before this day is done.

I straighten myself out and look around to see if I can get a hint of how other riders are faring. With some relief I see plenty of tired looking bodies strewn around, sitting on benches or on the grass or leaning on the railings. I go back to the food table for another cup of vegetable soup. My body is no longer coping well with anything sweet, so this super-salty broth is just the ticket. 

Having unintentionally overstayed my welcome here, it’s time I got a move on. Thankfully the only way the road will be pointing for the next 20km is down. It should be just the wake-up call I need.

Strange beginnings

As I roll down the hill, setting off this morning feels like a very distant memory. It all started with very little of the usual razzmatazz that accompanies most European sportives. There was, if I recall, a countdown from 10 given by a guy on a PA system, but the roll out was a somewhat sombre affair as the long line of riders glided its way out of Meiringen town centre. The pace was surprisingly tame too, with none of the usual smashing it along at 50kmh, vying for early position. 

I, for one, was grateful for the fact that most riders seemed content to go steady for the opening kilometres, despite having 15km of closed roads at our disposal. The atmosphere was eerily quiet and the dawn mist clung to the valley floor making the air decidedly chilly. Only the noise of wheels whirring and chains shifting up and down cassettes interrupted the silence. 

The first major challenge of the day came around quickly. With less than 20km covered our wheels were already on the early slopes of the Grimsel Pass. Frequently visited by the Tour de Suisse, it winds its way up to 2,165m and is 26km long, but barring a short spike up to 16% its slopes are gradual and the views rewarding. Its vast natural lakes, now dammed to create reservoirs, made for picturesque distractions from the physical effort. 

In these early stages there was still a large bunch of riders together so I’d sat back and conserved my energy, being sucked along by the pace of the group. As we’d crested the summit the sun warmed the chilly, high-altitude air so it was still all smiles at this point. 

The descent off the Grimsel Pass was invigorating with an abundance of hairpins. The group had splintered considerably by the bottom as we sailed past the turn for the shortest ‘Silver’ route, which would take riders up the Furka Pass on the other side of the valley and on to Andermatt. We continued on down the valley to instead make the junction with the Nufenen Pass and the highest of the day’s peaks at 2,481m. 

Its slopes were fairly steep, around 8% and 9% for long stretches, and slowly the gaggle of riders I’d accompanied up the Grimsel Pass dispersed and I found myself in a group of three, sharing the work as we tried to maintain a modest pace for more than an hour of tough climbing.

Cresting the Nufenen Pass came with a degree of extra satisfaction as I knew from the route map that the ensuing descent would continue for 60km. 

Hurtling through sweeping bends, we enjoyed the thrill of carrying speed with long lines of sight. We passed the turning for the ‘Gold’ route, which would have sent us over the spectacular St Gottardo Pass, and instead clawed our way for another 40km to the town of Biasca. From there, a left turn took us to the start of the ascent of the Lukmanier Pass, which, after a couple of hours of grinding climbing, left me feeling a bit sleepy…

So here I am, barrelling down the descent, still a bit woozy after my impromptu kip, and wondering if I made the right choice to opt for the longest ‘Platin’ route. It’s probably a bit too late to be worrying about that now.

After the downhill, upon reaching the town of Disentis I find myself alongside just one other rider, a Dutchman with whom I’d joined forces on the descent. Now, without the rush of wind in our ears and the pace at a steady tempo, it seems appropriate to strike up conversation. I ask him how he’s feeling. ‘Better than last year,’ he begins. 

He tells me how the previous year’s event had been so cold and wet that riders were struggling with hypothermia. ‘At least we have the sun on our backs today. What about you?’ he asks. I don’t own up to falling asleep at the feed station but I admit that I’m finding it tough. He reassures me that the imminent climb over the Oberalp Pass is quite easy, and after that there’s only one climb to go, then a long descent to the finish. 

That gives me strength, but it’s soon tempered by more cramp, in my quads this time. I reassure my riding companion I’ll be fine and signal for him to carry on. I spot a cafe with tables outside in the sunshine and decide to pull in, take another breather and stretch my sore quads. I order a cappuccino as a caffeine kick to help me up the Oberalp, and I see I’m not alone. Others with the same idea are also sitting under the parasols, stretching their legs, sipping coffees.

Back on the bike, the final reaches of the Oberalp are not quite as easy as my Dutch companion had insisted. There are numerous hairpins as I gain altitude towards its summit, again in excess of 2,000m with the final 5km an average of 7%. Thankfully I have no more cramp, and once over the top the sight that greets me rejuvenates me a little. A sea of mountain peaks surrounds me, and the visual delights offset the suffering. A 20km descent turns out to be a pretty good recovery stint for my legs as well. 

Final showdown

It’s been close to ten hours since I left Meiringen this morning and I’ve got around 230km under my belt as I start to make my way up the first part of the fifth and final climb of the day, and this is no molehill. The Susten Pass looms very large. From Wassen at 900m it rises to 2,224m in less than 20km, with an average gradient of 7.5%. 

I’ve drunk my bottles dry, my pockets no longer contain any sustenance, just some sticky empty gel wrappers, and the sun has long since begun its descent towards the horizon. I am now nervous about not making it to the finish in daylight. I look up to try and glimpse the summit and get a brief glint of bright light from the reflection of the setting sun on the windows of a coach. The top is still a long, long way off, and I can feel those early twinges of cramp again. 

To pre-empt more muscle spasms, I pull over to stretch again. A guy that I’d overtaken a while ago as he was doing the same thing further down the climb goes past, acknowledging me with a nod and a smile. A little later on I pass him again as he is once more easing his muscles by the side of the road. A game of leapfrog ensues as we climb. Each time I stop to stretch out my calves, he glides by, only for me to overtake him again later when cramp attacks his legs.

It’s a slow slog and the top does not seem to be getting closer. With few turns, there are long stretches with no let up at all. I battle my inner demons as they keep trying to persuade me to ask a passing car for a lift to the summit.

Eventually, though, I’m there. By now the last rays of sun have disappeared, leaving the mountainside in shadow. I am shivering violently, a mix of the cold and exhaustion. I fill a water bottle at the feed station and grab a biscuit, but I don’t want to hang around. I pull on my gilet and armwarmers and start my descent. 

There’s a slight sense of euphoria in knowing that I have effectively ‘made it’. There are no more big obstacles, but I have to take care. My senses are not as sharp as they should be and I’m almost on auto pilot as I take the hairpin turns at speed. 

I remind myself to be vigilant. A crash now would be a disaster. My gilet is staving off the chilly air but I cannot get warm. My body feels like it is shutting down and I shiver all the way to Innertkirchen. I’m riding alone, and all I can think about is getting off this bike. 

To my immense relief the valley seems to have cocooned a pocket of warm air as dusk falls, and my body temperature rises in the final few kilometres back to Meiringen. As I roll into town, more than 12 hours after I left, never have I been so relieved to see a finish banner. 

A polystyrene plate of pasta is thrust into my hand by a lady in an apron, and I prop my bike against a lamppost and collapse to the gutter to try and eat it. I stay there, practically motionless for a good while, unable to even get a single forkful down before I give up, ditch it in the nearest bin and stumble back towards my hotel. 

It’s been a day I will never forget and when I see our photographer, Geoff, I tell him, ‘I never want to doing anything like this again.’ 

But then, I’ve said that before.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew with Swiss Air from London Heathrow to Zurich. From there we rented a car and drove to the start town of Meiringen. It takes roughly two hours and very picturesque it is too if you do it in daylight.

Accommodation

We stayed at Das Hotel Sherlock Holmes in Meiringen (Arthur Conan Doyle set the clash between Holmes and Professor Moriarty at the nearby Reichenbach Falls, hence the hotel’s name). It’s a three-star hotel with its own restaurant that caters especially for guests riding the Alpen Brevet with a big pasta meal the night before and an early and plentiful breakfast in the morning. It’s bike friendly too, obviously, but the best part is the location – just a few hundred metres from the start and finish line. The course passes right in front of the hotel.

Thanks

Special thanks to Sara at Switzerland Tourism (myswitzerland.com), who did a lot of the legwork towards making this trip possible. Thanks also to the intrepid motorbike rider who ferried our photographer, Geoff, around for what was a long day in the mountains.

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