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Sportive: Gruyere Cycling Tour, Switzerland

Sam Challis
12 May 2017

Cheese at the feed stations and a challenging day out on a highly recommended sportive in Switzerland

Switzerland is truly blessed. The geography is stunning, the roads are well maintained, the trains all run on time, the cheese is delicious, and a bar of Toblerone still has the proper number of peaks. Even the Swiss love Swiss brands, which must be why I see so many BMC bikes and pairs of Assos bibshorts on the backsides of the riders around me as we await the starting gun of the Gruyère Cycling Tour.

Given the name of the event, we don’t start exactly where you might imagine. The town of Gruyères, famed for its cheese, is very attractive with a wealth of medieval history, but its solitary, steep, cobbled main road is understandably ill suited to mass participation cycle events, so we actually set off from the larger and more accessible town of Charmey, about 12km to the northeast.

With predictably precise Swiss timing, the start gun goes at exactly 9am and the air is filled with the clicks of cleats into pedals and the buzz of freehubs. Out of Charmey we descend to the valley floor on a wide road.

It’s overcast and cool, and riders shiver as the windchill cuts right through our not-yet-warmed-up bodies. We’re approaching the ride’s competitive element – an 85km timed section – so speed builds quickly among the mass of riders, but despite perfect conditions for a dangerously frenetic start, competitive enthusiasm is capped by a well-drilled unit of marshals.

Fifty moto-outriders will patrol the route today, most of whom have experience in pro WorldTour events.

Regardless of the efficient cordon, however, some jostling for position takes place at the head of affairs, so I drift back through the wheels, more concerned with staying out of trouble early on than being in a position to post a competitive time.

Further back the atmosphere is tangibly less fraught so I’m able to relax and savour the glorious views that, as so often happens in Switzerland, are to be had in all directions.

We skirt the placid Lac de Montsalvens via a sinuous road, the corners affording opportunities to glance ahead and behind at the still densely packed bunch. We follow the lake’s bends and I imagine that from up in the mountains we must appear as one giant snake with glorious multi-coloured scales, slithering through the valley. Or maybe the thin Alpine air has already gone to my head.

With the descent over we barrel into the Saane valley. The landscape opens up – tall pines give way to lush farmland and we can finally see Gruyères, sitting pretty and proud off to our left, perched on an 82m-high hill in the middle of the valley. 

We wind around the foot of Gruyères and suddenly the start gate to the timed section is upon us. It triggers an immediate reaction, permitting many riders to dream of flying around the course, so the pace lifts considerably. 

Quitting the KOM

The moment at which fragile hopes of glory are snuffed out is stretched out over the next hour or so as I watch rider after rider drift back past me, cowed, having gone too hard too early into a headwind and 20km of gentle climbing.

Our increasingly ragged bunch is meandering its way south down through the base of the Saane valley, the saw-teeth of Alpine ridgelines ever-present to our left and right, heading for the towns of Montbovon and Rossinière. 

The latter of the two signals the start of the course’s first proper climb, the Col des Mosses, but for now the gradient remains just on the edge of my attention, never enough to register as a real ascent but requiring a constant application of effort.

It’s enough to create fractures in what is still a huge group of riders, like an Arctic icefield breaking into bergs.

I do my best to stay vigilant because once those gaps appear, the headwind makes them stretch out quickly and there will be little hope of bridging if I end up in a slow group.

Luckily I spot a gap forming, sprint around a couple of weakening riders and find a position in the second group on the road. I end up behind a rider who’s chosen to accent his largely stealthy-black bike and kit with a pink jersey that’s perfectly matched to the shade of energy drink in his translucent bottles.

He may look like a primadonna but his work ethic is anything but – he seems quite happy pulling on the front of our group largely unaided for the next 5km.

We reach the boundary between the cantons of Fribourg and Vaud as the route heads southeast, no longer letting the valley dictate its direction. Groomed, arable meadows are replaced with lumpy, unkempt fields, and pine trees line the winding road, their distinctive smell sharp, sweet and refreshing in the crisp morning air.

Time to climb

The efficiency of the group I’m in means the first feed station is reached in good time, so I pull over gratefully in need of a sugar hit before the Col des Mosses. The usual sports bars and gels are joined, of course, by wedges of Gruyère cheese.

I’m no nutritionist but I’m sceptical of its efficacy as a provider of instant energy, so instead vow to sample its subtle flavours at the event’s end. Ten minutes later I’m thankful of overlooking the cheese as the route divides in the town of Moulins, with those of us doing the full route immediately faced with a 10% ramp to start off the Col des Mosses ascent.

I work through the first few kilometres steadily as the field of riders thins and the road weaves up through land still tended by the farmers of Moulins. I look back and the view is classically Swiss – green pastures dotted with cabins, barns and cattle, complete with cowbells a-clanging.

The idyll is suddenly shattered when a deafening crack whips through the air, quickly followed by several more. I discover I’m pedalling past a shooting range, a common amenity near most Swiss settlements.

Regular training is required of Swiss citizens by the government, so that there is a trained population on hand should the need arise. I up my pace a bit for fear of becoming an accidental target.

After the tough early slopes, the summit of the Col des Mosses is fairly anticlimactic. The gradient simply peters out until the mountain’s summit sign announces the end of the ascent.

It does however reveal magnificent views across a horizon of rapidly clearing skies and snow-capped Alps, and unveils the next section of the route that plunges down through Mosses town.

It’s a prolonged, open descent that affords views down into the next valley, although I keep my eyes mostly fixed on
the road ahead – my Garmin shows my speed topping 80kmh and I have no intention of joining the cows grazing in their pastures to the side of the road.

When we reach the valley floor the headwind returns to consolidate riders into small groups again. The road is largely traffic-free and the surface is all but flawless, so we slip along smoothly for the next 9km until the group’s efficient tempo is rudely interrupted by the start of the Col du Pillons.

It’s a shorter and sharper ascent than the Col du Mosses, with a gradient that immediately goes past 10% and stays there until the summit, which is 6km away and 600m higher up.

Little rings are engaged and the change in body position encourages me to lift my head and take in my surroundings once again. 

We climb along the left side of a steep, forested valley. To my right, over the other side, delicate streams cascade down the mountainside. Far above, cable car stanchions sit quiet and forlorn, naked of the pods that ferry hordes of skiers and snowboarders up to the pistes of Les Diablerets during the winter.

It’s all about the downs

If the descent off the Col des Mosses was fast, it’s easily upstaged by the one from the Col du Pillon. Lines of sight down the flowing road are unobstructed so for almost 15km the speed of the group I’m in barely dips below 50kmh.

We flash by the pretty town of Gsteig and reach Gstaad and Saanen in no time – the gradient lessens but remains negative until the foothills of the Col du Mittelberg so the 10 members of our group rattle out 1km turns, delighting at briefly behaving like pros. 

Gstaad and Saanen give us a brief taste of urban flavour before we hit a hairpin in the road and suddenly we’re back in the countryside again. A short descent delivers us to the base of what promises to be the toughest ascent of the day: the Mittelberg.

Immediately the road shrivels in size and becomes winding and gravelly. A forest of pines obscures my view but I can hear a stream trickling nearby and I can feel the oppression of the mountains that surround us.

Everyone is strangely quiet as we tap out a rhythm up the early part of the climb.

The road switches lazily back and forth over the river, and with each turn I can look back over my shoulder at the view down the valley, which gets more stunning with every metre of height gained.

Not that many riders are paying it much attention – the gradient is nearing 15% and there are still several kilometres to go before we reach the summit. With 95km already in the legs, the climb is really beginning to sting. 

Fields have replaced the forest now, but still my eyes are mainly fixed on my stem in front of me. Riders sit on the grassy banks at the roadside – they’re sensible enough to take a break but I’m too stubborn to get off.

The last section of the climb is 500m of false flat, but it turns out to be the hardest half a kilometre of the whole ride as the end gate to the timed section looms just ahead.

Just as the start gate had done, it stimulates an ill-considered increase in pace. Once over the line, mouth agape, I unclip and stagger towards the promise of energy products and water.

This time I decide to also have some Gruyère cheese, reasoning that the dense dairy product will act as ballast to get me to the finish quicker. It’s 20km to the finish line and the route is nearly all downhill.

Descent into madness

The road down from the Col du Mittelberg is narrow enough to keep corners technical but there are plenty of open, flowing sections that I can really test my nerve on.

I snake through sloping meadows, speckled with late-summer wildflowers – rather than switchbacking straight down, the road takes advantage of the ridgelike mountain range around Abländschen and Schlündi, running along the camber of their shoulders.

Dropping so quickly means the change in temperature is tangible and I go from shivering to sweating in a matter of minutes when the gradient finally peters out for the flat 5km run into the finish.

Here the majesty of the Alps is really highlighted, with mountains rearing up left and right and the road running arrow straight in between.

That pesky headwind reappears and my fellow riders have been dispersed so much by the challenging parcours that I find myself alone. My speed starts to drop along with my energy levels, and the finish in Charmey seems a long way away.

I pass a herd of cattle, and the ringing of their cowbells reminds me of the crowds that line the ski slopes during downhill races on Ski Sunday. It’s strangely encouraging.

They may just be grazing cows, but it feels like I’ve got some roadside support, and with every gruelling pedal stroke my fans are cheering me on to the finish. 

Or maybe I’ve just eaten too much cheese. 

Event info

What: Gruyère Cycling Tour  
Where: Charmey, Switzerland  
How far: 76km or 114km  
Next one: 3rd September 2017 (TBC)  
Price: CHF69 (£56) in advance, CHF80 (£65) on the day  
More information: gruyere-cycling-tour.ch

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