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Switzerland's secret climb

Peter Stuart
28 Jul 2017

Deep in the Swiss Alps, Cyclist joins an unlikely riding partner to discover a climb few cyclists have ever heard about.

Andrea Zamboni has just come into view though the haze of the early morning light. He is sitting patiently on his bike at the side of the road, with one leg clipped in and the other resting on a dry-stone wall. Like some permanent fixture of the landscape, he barely moves, his eyes focused on the peak ahead.

I worry that he may have been sitting there for hours.

Andrea asked to meet at the break of dawn in Prato-Sornico, a village part way up the climb to Lago del Naret, our ultimate objective for today.

That involved me setting off alone at 5.30am from the village of Bignasco, about 10km further down the climb, and I’ve been puffing through the darkness and chilly air to get here before sunrise.

As I arrive, the sun has yet to hit us, but it is throwing a warm light over the mountain range to our right.

Andrea has promised it will be worth the early start.

Let me introduce Andrea. He’s a busy man by any standards – a pharmacist, keen triathlete and very fast cyclist by day, and the occupier of a particularly unusual second life: he is ‘Assos Man’.

For over a decade he has invited curiosity and admiration for his ability to strike almost unnaturally rigid poses while modelling Assos cycling clothing in catalogues and websites the world over. 

We met for the first time yesterday at a sportive in the Dolomites, and he insisted that he show me a part of the Alps little known to cyclists, but with one of the finest climbs in Europe. 

‘From here we have 14km up then 3km flat. Then it’s about 10km,’ Andrea says.

He adds with a nervous reservation: ‘The last 10km is very steep, like the Mortirolo.’

Those words cut through me. I am all too familiar with the savage gradients of the Mortirolo, and my quads twitch anxiously on hearing its name.

‘But it is beautiful,’ Andrea assures me.

Undiscovered roads

In truth, we are not attempting the full climb of the Lago del Naret. To make that claim, we should have started way back in the town of Locarno, located on the banks of Lago Maggiore, a huge lake that straddles the Swiss/Italian border, near the celebrity hangout of Lake Como.

Locarno sits at less than 200m in elevation, and the climb takes over 60km to rise to the Lago del Naret at a height of 2,300m.

It’s at Bignasco, where I started from, that the gradient ramps up and it begins to resemble the classic climbs of the Alps.

From Bignasco to the summit is still 33km of climbing, so I don’t feel like I’ve cheated too much by missing out the first part of the climb. 

As we tap our way past the village of Lavizzara, I can’t help thinking there’s something a little surreal about this ride.

Perhaps it’s riding with an icon of cycling cyberspace, or the extremely early hour of the morning, but actually I think that it’s Switzerland itself that is a little strange.

Every treeline, every mountain, every church, every house is so quintessentially Swiss that I feel like I’ve been transported into a model village, a diorama of an imaginary Switzerland.

I almost expect to see a gang of yodellers spring from one of these ancient stone barns, complete with lederhosen and alphorns.

I guess this place doesn’t get much passing traffic, as the road up the valley goes nowhere except to the group of lakes at the top of the mountain.

It was only paved in the 1950s, solely to service the lakes’ several dams.

‘My grandfather worked on the dam,’ Andrea says, shaking me from my reverie. ‘He moved here with his family when my father was seven.’ 

Because the road was built so recently, these slopes lack the history of the great French and Italian climbs.

No famous race goes up to the Lago del Naret. No cycling greats have forged their legends on its slopes.

‘There are people here who say this region is boring,’ Andrea tells me, although I find it hard to agree, surrounded as we are by snow-topped mountains and pretty villages.

‘They should do a Giro d’Italia stage here,’ he adds. While it’s a shame they haven’t, I feel strangely privileged to be riding through terrain so rarely visited by the cycling masses. 

Just after Lavizzara, we hit a cluster of switchbacks. The gradient is a persistent 10%, with agonising blows of up to 15%.

Andrea doesn’t seem to notice, though. He’s climbing with the ease and grace of a helium balloon. 

We push through to a more forgiving incline along a shelf of road hanging over the valley below.

With the sun now sitting over the mountains, the early morning dew and mist creates an almost Amazonian look to the valley below, accentuated by the piercing cries of local birds.

It brings with it a brief relief from the gradient, and I take the opportunity to quiz Andrea on his cycling prowess.

Andrea came 20th at yesterday’s Granfondo Campionissimo, an event raced by many top domestic and ex-professional Italian riders.

‘In Italy, there are people who just train to race granfondos,’ he says. ‘Yesterday they told me some of the top riders earn €20,000. I can’t keep up with them – I work.’

Andrea runs a pharmacy near Locarno, but you’d be excused for thinking he was a full-time athlete too. For a while he nearly was.

He was a top junior, racing in the Swiss national squad. He decided instead to pursue a career away from cycling, although he found enough free time to become a world champion Ironman triathlete. 

‘That’s how I first got in touch with Assos – I was looking for an Ironman sponsor,’ Andrea says.

‘They weren’t interested in sponsorship, but they did want a model.’

Hence Ironman Andrea became Assos Man. It’s only a minor part of his life, though, as he spends almost all of his time running a pharmacy and training for local granfondos.

Our conversation is halted abruptly as Andrea points up ahead. The town of Fusio emerges from the hillside, looking like an ancient fortress.

It reminds me of the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, with colourful chalet-like houses mixed with gothic towers and steeples.

The village has just 45 inhabitants, and it’s a demographic that has changed by precisely 0% over the past 20 years.

We earmark it for a coffee stop on the descent, mainly because there’s little other sign of civilisation on the climb.

We head out of Fusio along a steep ramp that bends around into a rocky tunnel, then we hit a welcome shallow section before the road savagely spikes up to near 20%.

With over an hour and nearly 1,000m of climbing already under our belts, the steep gradient inflicts a savage blow on my lungs and legs.

The higher we go, the more the road twists and turns. It begins to resemble proven epics such as the Stelvio or Gavia passes, only quieter and more unspoiled.

Up ahead I can make out some relief – the reservoir at the Lago del Sambuco.

A shot of Sambuco

Lago del Sambuco is the first reservoir on our climb. It was built in 1956 along with the road we’re on. The water is high and mirror-smooth, affording a perfect reflection of the mountainside opposite.

More importantly, it offers us a blissful 3km of flat road along its length. 

We stop to take in the views. The last of the morning mist has cleared and it’s a perfect day. I’m slightly awestruck and Andrea also seems to be indulging in the moment as I see him pluck a pink echinacea flower from the side of the road.

I realise it may not be a private poetic moment, however, when seconds later he scrunches it between his fingers and inhales it deeply.

‘It’s good for the VO2,’ he tells me.

We continue onwards, and soon enough the road is again tracing a steep path up the mountainside like a rock climber. The only reward is glancing back at the reservoir, which suddenly seems a long way down.

I’m panting frantically as we take each corner, while Andrea is just spinning his legs without any signs of serious effort. But then again, none of this is new to him.

‘When I was 12, we would come here as a family, and I would ride up to the top with my father,’ he says. ‘Over the years I spent a lot of time climbing here. Back then I only had a 42/23 gear ratio.’

Suddenly I feel more than a little guilty for struggling so much with my compact chainset. But my pain is about to get worse.

‘The steepest part is still ahead,’ Andrea warns. We emerge onto a flat plain in the valley, with a low bridge over the river up ahead. We roll up to it, but a barrier blocks the road on both sides of the bridge.

‘Hmm, I thought this might happen,’ Andrea says calmly. The road is closed ahead.

‘It doesn’t matter, we have to get to the top,’ he says, and throws himself around the barrier, hanging over the edge of the bridge as he goes. I do the same, as a large herd of goats watches us with intrigue.

The land of lakes

It’s only a further 4.8km to the summit but it averages 11% and it is like another world altogether. The temperature drops as we approach the 2,000m mark, and snow begins to line the road in patches.

The road is narrow, rough and broken in parts, and there are many, many goats.

We ascend through a series of hairpins, each more savage than the last. It’s been two hours since we left and my energy stores are running low, but there’s no holding back on this incline.

It subjects us to long stretches at over 20%, the type of gradient that has me balancing precariously between front and back wheel while struggling for traction.

It’s stunning but exasperating, and I begin to despair at whether I’ll reach the top.

Even Andrea seems to be feeling the effort. The expression has started to drain out of his face and he’s beginning to resemble a waxwork tribute to his own modelling career. 

The sight of the first lake, Lago di Sassolo, is inspiring not only because of its impressive visual splendour but also because it offers the respite of a brief section of level ground.

Finally I get to sit down from the out-of-the-saddle effort that began 3km ago. 

We continue on, the road steepening again. As I struggle to find a cadence, I ask Andrea for advice. ‘Cadence?’ he responds, ‘For Contador, maybe he worries about cadence. You don’t hit a cadence on this.’

We round the next corner, twisting our bikes from side to side, only to find a blockade of snow, but Andrea simply unclips, throws his bike over one shoulder and starts tramping over the thick snow.

I follow, slithering gingerly across the slippery surface in my smooth-soled shoes.

‘We are close now,’ Andrea promises once we’re back on our bikes, probably sensing that I’m beginning to suffer.

As we clamber across the rocky slopes above Lago Superiore, up ahead the horizon of the road has only sky behind it. I pray that’s a good sign.

A landslide brought me down

We tip over the crest and a grey wall splits the mountain ridges ahead of us. Much to my relief we’ve reached the dam of the Lago del Naret, only there’s a small problem.

A landslide blocks the road to the summit.

I insist that the final road to the top is impassable, and declare that we have reached our highest point, but Andrea has other ideas.

‘No, no,’ he says, ‘we will climb around it.’

He rides straight up to the landslide before taking his shoes off and scaling around its edges, bike in hand.

I should follow but it looks perilous and I don’t fancy the chances of my shaking quads and carbon soles holding up to the rocky surface.

I roll down to the lake instead and watch from afar as Andrea scales the hillside with his bike on his shoulder. 

Only one sweeping hairpin separates Andrea from the top. I can make out his figure as he sprints around it to disappear beyond the wall of the dam.

Just out of sight further on is the Cristallina hut, which sits on the mountain peak that is the source of the Maggia river, which flows all the way back down the valley to Lake Maggiore.

When Andrea returns from his solo jaunt, we begin the descent back down the steep roads we have just climbed. It’s very technical and unnerving.

The ground is uneven and cracked, the inclines severe, and goats keep wandering into our path.

I’m dragging the brakes for kilometre after kilometre, and I begin to get anxious that my wheel rims will get so hot that I’ll blow a tyre.

On one corner, I meet the stare of what I believe to be the alpha-goat of the herd. He has an impressive set of horns and I pray that he won’t charge at me.

Thankfully he gives me a long, aggressive look but doesn’t feel like starting a fight, so he grants me safe passage. 

Once we climb back over the barriers at the bridge, Andrea clips in and begins a masterclass in descending. The lower we go, the smoother and wider the road becomes, with open views of the corners ahead.

I take the full racing line around each corner, revelling in the speed as my confidence grows. I wonder if Andrea is holding back for my benefit as he carves the line ahead, but I’m still at the extremities of my skill to keep up regardless.

When we get back to Fusio, we take the opportunity to stop for coffee at a restaurant set into the hillside at the top of a long stone staircase.

Andrea doesn’t stop for long, though. He inhales his espresso, and scampers back towards the road, eager to get home to his newborn son.

He stops only to shake my hand and tell me sternly: ‘Promise me you’ll climb one day from Locarno, without stopping.’ I nod, and with that he shoots down the mountain like a bird in flight.

Without Andrea leading the way, I’m free to take a more leisurely approach to the remaining descent. Above the town of Lavizzara, I look down at veritable hairpin porn, as a maze of corners stretches out beneath me.

On the way up it was an intimidating sight, now it’s salivating. The descent feels like a different road altogether.

The return journey doesn’t take long. The valley opens up onto the wide road back to Locarno. The slender mountain stream of the Maggio gradually turns into a raging river, and I skirt along it as the road transforms from a secluded winding path to a bigger main road.

It’s busier now, but the sun is still shining, and the mountain views stay with me all the way.

When I make it to Locarno, I’m greeted by a harbour of yachts and the tingle of old Swiss wealth. A warm breeze is blowing off the lake, and I do my best not to collapse on the spot.

The climb to Lago del Naret is a tough one, but I’ll stay true to my promise to Andrea: I’ll return to climb it again.

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