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Big Ride: Shadow of the Eiger, Switzerland

Henry Catchpole
1 Nov 2016

From the falls where Sherlock met his doom, via a spot mountaineering history, we ride through some of Switzerland’s most epic terrain.

I’m sure Sherlock Holmes knew the game was afoot for the final time when he left Meiringen. As we cycle through the main street now, more than 120 years later, I feel certain that, being the uncannily prescient man that he was, he must have suspected that The Final Problem would reach its dénouement on the vertiginous slopes above this small Swiss town. 

No doubt he kept any sense of foreboding out of his chat with his faithful chronicler as they strode through the lower meadows, but having been shadowed by Professor Moriarty all across Europe there must have been a faint feeling of the skies closing in.

 

There is a sense of menace in the grey skies above us today too, although I’m hoping that nothing so sinister as a dip in the broiling depths of the Reichenbach Falls will transpire over the next few hours.

Passing the shop fronts on a quiet Friday morning I gaze at all the delectable climbing equipment in the various outdoor stores, pondering whether Sherlock bought his walking stick from one of them. I don’t know what it is about bivis, boots and karabiners but they make me all magpie-ish. There’s a good bike shop too, but I think we’ve already got enough supplies for today. 

As the last of the glass frontages slips past I realise I’m lagging behind my guide for the day. Brigitte Leuthold lives just down the road and familiarity with the shops no doubt lessens the fascination. The road has been tilting upwards from the moment we left the hotel, so it takes me a fair amount of time – and an uncomfortable number of watts – to latch on to the back wheel of her Scott Addict again. I dread to think how many kilos I’m giving away, but I’m hoping my legs are on a good day.

Holmes under the hammer 

We’re heading southeast out of town, towards Innertkirchen – where I started the very first Cyclist Big Ride a few years ago (see issue 1), but we’re not heading there today. Just a couple of kilometres up the road we swing right onto the narrow strip of tarmac that is Scheideggstrasse. This small road is a dead end (not in the Sherlock Holmes sense) for all traffic except cyclists and the yellow post buses, so it’s wonderfully quiet. 

We begin by looping round via the picturesque hamlet of Geissholz. The lush green slopes are sprinkled artfully with a few chalets, each one replete with window boxes stuffed with flowers. Like most of Switzerland, it’s picture-postcard stuff. We soon leave the wide open spaces behind, however, and begin climbing through dense woodland. The gradient increases noticeably too, ramping up into double figures and forcing me out of the saddle for the first time. Thankfully Brigitte is standing too.

Things ease as the trees recede and the first switchbacks of the day appear. A sign also indicates that we’re above the famous Reichenbach Falls, where Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes do battle with Professor Moriarty, ‘the Napoleon of crime’, for what he thought would be the last time. Of course, such was the clamour for more Holmes adventures that Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect his violin-playing consulting detective a few years later. 

All the same, I should probably be more respectful of this place of literary pilgrimage, but as we pause at the Gasthaus Zwirgi I get distracted by a rank of monster scooters. Their yellow frames and chunky little tyres are so appealing that I can’t resist a quick go.

Apparently there’s a trail that leads all the way back down to the valley but I don’t follow it further than the first hairpin, partly because the scooter’s surprisingly heavy to push back up and partly so nobody thinks I’m stealing it (thereby instigating the sort of comic chase scene normally viewed in stuttering black and white and set to a manically fast piano soundtrack). 

A few minutes later I’m back on my rather better-fitting Storck bike and the road is turning away from Meiringen and into the Bernese Alps. The climb continues its narrow, steep way hovering between 8% and 11% through the trees, but just as I’m thinking that it would be nice if it eased off a bit, the road acquiesces, the gradient diminishing and then petering out almost entirely.

The Reichenbach Stream has been audible to our right for a while but has mostly been hidden from sight by trees. Now it appears in a wide, tumbling torrent alongside us, the roaring white water masking all other sounds. 

We cross over a small wooden bridge and the most wonderful valley opens up in front of us. It would be pleasant and splendidly calming if it weren’t bookended by the dark, pointed mass of the Wellhorn looming intimidatingly at the end like some massive Tolkienian mountain fortress.

What’s more, it seems to show its displeasure at our approach by puncturing the grey clouds above with its craggy peak. 

Wet ’n’ wild

The rain begins to fall insistently almost instantly, and a grumble of thunder doesn’t make the situation any more cosy so we rapidly don our waterproof jackets. Thankfully Brigitte says we haven’t got far to go until we can take shelter and sure enough, after a couple of kilometres the white and green shape of the Hotel Rosenlaui comes into view through the water droplets on the lenses of my glasses.

Apparently it has been here since 1779 and it seems strange to find something so grand so far up such a small road. The splendour of the exterior is actually surpassed by the opulence of the interior and I feel guilty clattering across the beautifully polished wooden floor as we make for a table in a room with a chandelier. Perhaps I’m over-selling it slightly, but as I sip deliciously bitter brown liquid from a delicate bone china cup, it certainly feels a cut above your average coffee stop. 

Eventually it looks like the rain has eased so we amble back out into the fresh air and head onwards. The road rises up for a kilometre, eases for another kilometre and then we reach a large car park and a small, water-powered sawmill that looks like something Heidi might have stumbled across in her wanderings. This is Schwarzwaldalp and it marks the end of the road for cars. But not for us. 

The road hits us with the hardest section of the whole climb just after we leave the car park and it has me hauling on the bars as I try to muscle a 36/25 gear up the sustained 12% stretch. Again the climb gives me a little bit of respite after the hard effort, with the gradient halving for about 500m, before settling into something around 9% all the way to the summit just over 3km up the road. 

Although it’s not easy, the scenery we’re riding through does a very good job of distracting me from the pain. When I look up, the view is now dominated not by the Wellhorn but by the mighty Wetterhorn. It is a mountain with three peaks, the highest of which stands at 3,692m. Winston Churchill apparently climbed it in 1894 aged just 19. 

Otherwise my gaze is focused in the general direction |of the tarmac just beyond my front wheel, though there’s the odd road sign to take in, reminding me to listen out for the hourly post buses, which have horns extravagant enough in tune to rival those in the cavalcade behind a pro peloton. If we do hear one in the distance, Brigitte warns, it’s wise to get off the road and let it pass because there really isn’t much room.

There’s also the occasional cow blocking the road as we climb through the few relaxed hairpins towards the top and they provide a soundtrack of their own from the bells around their necks. At times it’s like the enthusiastic first meeting of a campanology evening class (note the lack of ‘g’ – sadly that’s not a class where you meet up to learn about fluted seatposts and Delta brakes).

The staccato bumps of a small cattle grid mark the top of the pass at Grosse Scheidegg. There is a road that branches off and appears to carry on higher, but just around the corner it peters out into gravel.

Not that it matters because the view is more than adequate from here. To our left the Wetterhorn’s north face seems to distort scale, such is its size, being at once almost close enough to touch yet also dwarfing us in the extreme. Below, the road snakes off through the landscape towards Grindelwald. To our right is the ski resort of First and in the distance is one of the most revered mountains in the world – the Eiger. 

Beneath the wall of death

From this angle, I have a good view of the Mittellegi Ridge and the Lauper route up the north-east face, but it’s the stories of the north face of the Eiger that have captivated me for most of my life.

I remember reading The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer (he who spent seven famous years in Tibet), transfixed in awe and terror at the stories of those who failed before Harrer succeeded in reaching the summit with three others in 1938.

Sections of the climb were named for their grisly legacy. The Hinterstoisser Traverse was so difficult you couldn’t retrace your steps if you hadn’t left a rope fixed in place. Then there was Death Bivouac, Ice Hose, Traverse of the Gods… names to conjure fear. At least 65 climbers have died since 1935 trying to scale it, leading some to call it Mordwand (death wall) rather than Nordwand (north wall). It seems incredible that one of the world’s great athletes, Ueli Steck, scaled it last November in just two hours and 22 minutes.

I actually re-read a short piece by journalist and mountaineer John Krakauer (who wrote Into Thin Air about the 1996 Everest disaster) about the Eiger recently and a couple of sentences in particular struck me as being pertinent to cycling too: ‘The trickiest moves on any climb are the mental ones, the psychological gymnastics that keep terror in check.’ If you substitute terror with pain, then I think it also applies quite handily to cycling up mountains. 

Krakauer also admitted that ‘Marc [his climbing partner] very badly wanted to climb the Eiger, while I wanted very badly to have climbed the Eiger’, and I think that you could probably divide cyclists into two similar categories. Most of us would probably like to revel in the pain, but actually just look forward to having endured it. 

And with that we crest the highest point of our day at almost 1,950m, and knowing that all our climbing for the day is behind us, Brigitte and I set off down towards the town of Grindelwald. It’s a beautiful descent, weaving through colourful flower meadows and past mirror-still lakes. Viewed from afar it must look serene. Up close I’m finding it a little more frantic because the road is rougher than I was expecting and narrow enough that I need to be precise with my lines. On the decline of 11% my speed builds quickly, and when I hear the horn of an approaching post bus I get mildly panicky. By the time the road opens out into a big car park I’m ready for lunch. 

Food for sport

I order croûte (like a Welsh rarebit) with a fried egg on top, partly because spiegelei (fried egg) is pretty much the only German word I learned in a year of studying the language at school and it’s nice to feel I got value from the lessons. While I’m munching on melted cheese, I can’t help thinking that the variation in gradient of our morning’s climb would make for great racing. 

As it turns out, the climb has appeared in the Tour de Suisse on several occasions. The last time was in 2011 on Stage 3, when a Leopard Trek-heavy break was caught and then dropped by ‘The Little Prince’, Damiano Cunego. The Italian looked as though he’d got it sewn up as he descended towards Grindelwald on his own. But one of those in the break was the youngest man in the race, a chap called Peter Sagan. The precocious young Slovakian flew down the treacherous descent in a manner that’s now familiar but still mesmerising. With just a couple of kilometres to go, he caught Cunego, then easily outsprinted him for the win. 

Sated with a hefty number of calories, we remount and continue on somewhat wider roads into Grindelwald. We pass more tempting shops, a picturesque church and the Parkhotel Schoenegg, where I once stayed as a child with my parents and grandparents on a walking holiday.

From here down to Interlaken it’s the sort of riding I dream of: slightly downhill, smooth tarmac and no wind to speak of. My legs are feeling decent and I settle in for a good few kilometres of threshold effort, gripping the hoods with forearms parallel to the ground. Brigitte sits on my wheel and I feel slightly like my effort is being judged. 

‘Come on you weak Englishman, we’ve all got homes to go to. Cancellara could keep this cadence up with one leg tied to his bike, while tweeting in adorably bad English. Gregory Rast would go harder than this on a rest day and he’s not even the second best Swiss cyclist in the pro peloton. Hell, Johann Tschopp could do better in his sleep and he retired two years ago to race mountain bikes…’ is what I start imagining she wants to say. Luckily I realise this is all in my head before I do something ungentlemanly like try to drop her.

There is a brief interlude as we meander through Interlaken (even my fried egg German can extrapolate that to meaning between two lakes – Thun and Brienz in this case) and then I settle back into a steady rhythm somewhere between 40 and 45kmh. Even though the sun is being a little coy, the lake to our right, Brienz, is the most spectacular colour – like someone’s colour-matched the Astana kit.

At 14km long there’s plenty of time to admire the vivid shade of blue, although I keep half an eye out for the dice snakes that Brigitte has told me populate the banks. If you have to stop and change an inner tube along here, be careful when you pick up the old one. Thankfully we don’t see any snakes and we cruise through the picturesque town of Brienz before picking up a small side road that provides a relaxed way back into Meiringen.

At just over 80km it has been perhaps Cyclist’s shortest Big Ride. However, I think that also makes it one of the most appealing. Three-pass monsters with 4,000m of altitude gain are inspiring, but also more than a little intimidating if you haven’t done one before.

If you want a Big Ride to cut your teeth on, to get a feel of high-mountain grandeur, a testing taste of the efforts required on Alpine ascents but without quite such a daunting distance demanded, this is the ride for you. The climb is a proper challenge – at 16km long and with an average gradient of 7.7% it can’t fail to be – but I like the way it always gives you stretches to rest so you can break it down into more manageable chunks. 

Of course if you find it a little elementary, there’s plenty harder in the adjoining valleys to tilt a wheel at on subsequent days, but The Case of the Cobbled Climb is a story for another issue… 

The rider's ride

Storck Aerfast 20th Anni Edition

£3,499 frameset, storck-bicycle.cc

This special edition of the Aerfast (just 200 will be made) has been built to celebrate 20 years of Markus Storck’s company and, if you can afford one, it could just be all the bike you’ll ever need. It’s light enough to go up mountains, stunningly fast on the flat, stiff in sprints and surprisingly comfortable. Details have you drooling before you even get on it, with the beautifully hidden seat clamp (there’s an allen bolt under the top tube’s junction with the seat tube) combining with the chainstay-mounted rear brake to give the back of the bike a fantastically clean look. There are rear-facing dropouts like you’d see on a track bike to allow up to 25mm tyres in behind the sculpted seat tube (helping on the comfort front). The 20th anniversary carbon handlebars are another eye-catching detail, but the most beautiful things on the bike are the cranks. Attached to a huge BB86 bottom bracket and Praxis chainrings, Storck’s own Power Arms G3 carbon cranks are rotating works of art. I even liked the colour scheme.

How we got there

Travel

Cyclist flew from Heathrow to Zurich with Swiss, hired a car at the airport (through Europcar) and then drove the hour and a half south to Meiringen. 

Accommodation

We stayed in the centrally located Alpin Sherpa Hotel in Meiringen. With good wifi and a secure underground car park it was a great
place to stay. There is also a supermarket across the road in case you need to stock up on any last-minute supplies. If you need a bicycle shop then P Wiedermeier’s is just down the street. 

Thanks

Many thanks to Sara Roloff at Switzerland Tourism with help organising our trip, and to Brigitte Leuthold and Christine Winkelmann for their help and guidance while we were in the Jungfrau region. Go to myswitzerland.com for more information.

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