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The Cable Guys: Col du Sanetsch Big Ride

In-depth
16 Apr 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 84 of Cyclist magazine

Words Trevor Ward Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

We are hurtling down the side of a Swiss mountain with no control over our speed or direction.

As we bump and rattle over the lip of a rocky ledge, the valley floor is revealed directly below us. The roads, buildings and trees are laid out like a model village.

It’s a postcard of Alpine tranquility, only spoiled by my stomach doing somersaults at the knowledge there is a thousand metres of thin air between us and the ground.

Neither my co-rider nor I have sat down yet.

We are rigid with a mixture of terror and excitement, as if the slightest shift in our positions will send us tumbling into the abyss.

We manage a quick glance at each other and then our bikes.

They are swaying slightly from the breeze, but otherwise remain firmly hooked to the outside of the cable car we are travelling in.

Descending in a metal and glass box from the summit of the Col du Sanetsch is a nerve-jangling experience, but then this part of the Swiss Alps has always had its dangers.

As far as the earliest tourists were concerned, these high altitudes were full of life-threatening terrors – from avalanches to blizzards – and so best appreciated from ground level.

John Murray’s 1829 guidebook warned, ‘The individual may be engulfed in some horrid chasm… or the precipice may await him, should he escape the other perils so profusely scattered over the peaks of Switzerland.’

The pursuit of risk-taking and actually climbing those fearsome peaks didn’t become a mainstream activity until well into the 19th century, by which time cyclists had also joined the quest for thrills.

American adventurer Elizabeth Robins Pennell rode or pushed her bicycle over the Swiss Alps with her husband in the 1890s and recalled, ‘Half a dozen zigzags below was J.

‘He approached a curve. As he turned it, he leaned right over the precipice.

‘He took his hands off. Heavens, was he falling?

‘No, he was lighting his pipe.’

Into the Valais

I’m riding with Adam Sedgwick, an exiled Cumbrian and non-pipe smoker who moved to Valais in Switzerland to ‘become a ski bum’ and now runs his own cycle-touring company, Haut Velo.

As we begin our ride on a cloudless summer’s morning, he tells me the bike path we are on has hosted some bitter rivalries.

‘There are some hotly contested Strava segments on it,’ he says.

‘The UCI headquarters are just up the road in Aigle, so you occasionally get some big-name visitors.

‘When they’re not on the track or training on the road, they’re burning up the segments along here.

‘You tend to get a lot of ringers in the local sportives.’

Sure enough, when I upload my ride later, I find the name of Olympic Road Race champion Greg Van Avermaet among the local weekend warriors competing for the KoM on a 1.4km stretch of anonymous bike path.

He was clearly being courteous to pedestrians and dog walkers as he only just scraped into the top 10 with a speed of 42kmh.

We exit the bike path on the outskirts of Sion and thread our way through the busy streets.

As we leave the town behind, Adam says, ‘This is it. All uphill for the next 25km.’

He’s smiling broadly, which I find slightly worrying.

I’m destined to remain in the wake of his lean, athletic frame – he was a decent rugby player as well as skier – for most of the climb.

The vineyards are living up to their billing, with bunches of purple grapes hanging within grabbing distance of the road.

But they are just the first of four distinctive types of terrain we will ascend through, says Adam.

The others will be pine forests, Alpine meadows and glacial valleys.

We round a hairpin and the whole of the valley we have just ridden along is displayed before us.

Peeking out from the mountaintops on the other side of the valley is the snowy hulk of the Gran Combin massif, a range of 4,000m peaks.

As we progress higher, more and more of these white-tipped giants will be revealed to us.

Our destination is the Col du Sanetsch at 2,242m above sea level.

Although technically a mountain pass, the road comes to a dead end shortly afterwards.

Built to serve a hydroelectric dam at the far end of Lake Sanetsch, the road gives walkers access to some dramatic scenery, including the evocatively named Sex Rouge glacier.

Its remoteness is rammed home by a local newspaper report – a brown bear has been spotted not far from the summit.

As we pass another farmhouse, Adam points to the neatly stacked logs at the side of the building.

‘That’s impressive,’ he says, as if he’s commenting on the car in the driveway.

‘‘When you’re invited to dinner around here, you don’t judge the hosts by their wine or their cooking – you judge them by their wood stack.’

Tunnel visions

We have ascended above the vineyards and are now climbing through a densely forested section that reminds me of Mont Ventoux in terms of gradient and oppressive warmth.

And just like Ventoux with its Chalet Reynard, we find a welcoming cafe on a hairpin bend as we emerge from the pine trees.

After some colas and coffees, we start climbing through alpine meadows of wild flowers and black cows the size of sheds.

The gradient ramps up through a succession of hairpins before slackening off and allowing us to enjoy a panorama of shadowy ravines streaked by the silvery threads of waterfalls.

We’re jolted from our reverie by the sudden appearance of a bright orange council truck accompanied by boiler-suited workers who are busy trimming the grass verges and sweeping the gutters.

Even paradise needs regular maintenance.

The road continues swirling higher and higher, until the council workmen have been replaced by a sudden blur of brown on the slopes to our right – three marmots sunning themselves on a craggy overhang.

The road levels off and we can see its trajectory.

It heads straight into a black hole in the side of the mountain, with no sign of it re-emerging further along.

‘It’s a long one,’ says Adam. ‘Eight hundred metres.’

‘Please tell me it’s lit?’

His reply is less than convincing: ‘Sort of.’

The tunnel has been carved crudely through the mountain to leave raw, limestone walls closing in at irregular angles.

Overhead lamps provide watery illumination every few yards and there’s a thin, transluscent haze, caused by dust kicked up from the broken, gravel surface of the road.

With the risk of oncoming traffic speeding around the bends I’m out of the saddle trying to get through as quickly as possible.

Although the gradient is negligible, it seems to be taking forever to pedal these 800 metres.

Finally we emerge from the subterranean gloom and back onto smooth tarmac.

I’m half-hoping we’ve arrived at the summit, but I can see the road ahead of us still snaking relentlessly upward.

But just off to our left is a white hotel and we agree the remaining three kilometres to the summit will feel much easier after a stop for lunch.

Cheese, cheese or cheese

The menu of the Hotel-Restaurant du Sanetsch is typical of the region, which means almost everything contains cheese, usually in a melted form over pasta, bread, bacon, potatoes or mushrooms.

I opt for the croute aux fromages et jambon, which is basically cheese and ham on toast.

Even the view from the terrace verges on the cheesy.

We have an uninterrupted panorama of snowy mountain peaks and glaciers, extending from the Obergabelhorn (4,063m) in the east to the Petit Combin (3,663m) in the west.

But the jewel in the crown, instantly recognisable to fans of a certain brand of muesli, is the distant peak of the Matterhorn (4,478m).

Lunch is a leisurely affair, until a flicker of panic crosses Adam’s eyes.

He hastily pulls out his phone and jabs at the keypad before saying,  ‘We’ve got 30 minutes to make the last cable car.’

It’s a distance of 10km so we should be OK. It just adds to the adrenaline buildup as we heave ourselves up to the actual col – marked by a stop for the local postbus service and an information board pointing the way to Sex Rouge.

From there, another breathtaking Alpine vista is unveiled – the road unspools in a series of lazy, inviting arcs down to a shimmering sliver of turquoise cradled between menacing peaks.

The ride down to Lake Sanetsch is short but glorious.

Every twist in the road reveals a new spectacle, from undulating, lakeside pastures to soaring steeples of rock.

At the far end of the lake is the dam where the tarmacked road ends.

To get to the cable car we have to continue up a short but steep section of gravel track.

We make it with 10 minutes to spare.

All we have to do now is pick up the receiver of the red telephone on the wall and order our cabin.

The woman on the end of the line is American, and can see us via closed-circuit TV. She seems excited to see that we are cyclists.

The last cable car of the day duly arrives, and we hook our bikes by their front wheels onto the side of the cabin before climbing inside.

The capacity is six, although in our cycling shoes and helmets we seem to take up all the room.

Going down?

The descent is, frankly, terrifying, mainly because of how steeply the cable plunges to the valley floor.

But it’s a small price to pay for the rare pleasure of being able to ride to a remote, high peak without having to turn around and return the same way.

At the bottom, Margo Cummings, the American from our CCTV encounter, is waiting to greet us with a big smile.

‘Thank God for you cyclists,’ she says.‘You’ve really saved us this summer!

‘Oh wow, you’re on road bikes.’

It turns out that the popular hiking trail on this side of the mountain was recently wiped out by a rockslide, reducing her custom significantly.

Mountain bikers have taken up some of the slack, but we’re the first roadies to use the cable car as part of a circuit.

Before Margo lets us leave, she entertains us with an abridged explanation of what she is doing working here.

‘I was waiting to get married and live happily ever after, but so far I’ve had seven unhappy endings.

‘So I’ve lived in 22 places in four different countries but always wanted to come here because my dad studied at the Lausanne Hotel School and used to ski here.’

We’re now almost 1,000m below the Col du Sanetsch.

Our 25km climb up to it gained 1,700m in vertical elevation, so by my reckoning we’re still owed some downhill.

Thus I’m a little disappointed when the road starts rising again.

Fortunately the climb to Col du Pillon is only 7km long at a reasonable gradient, and the views of the towering rock escarpment and its regular waterfalls to our left are never less than impressive.

At the summit is the cable car station to the Sex Rouge glacier, but that will have to remain a story for another time.

We finally reap our reward with a 24km descent into Aigle. It’s on a wide, smooth road with long, sweeping curves, so our joy – and speed – is unconfined.

There’s a sneaky couple of hairpins near the bottom, but slowing for these simply gives us the time to enjoy endless views of the valley and Aigle’s fairytale-like, 500-year-old chateau.

From Aigle it’s a fast, flat 28km along the valley floor back to where we started, but before we go I insist on a short detour to the outskirts of the town.

I can’t come all this way on a bicycle and not pay my respects to our sport’s governing body, can I?

They might sell postcards.

We dodge Aigle’s rush-hour traffic and arrive at the impressive, spaceship-like building just as groups of fit-looking riders in matching tracksuits are cycling in the opposite direction.

A sign on the door informs us the ‘UCI Gift Shop’ – yes, it really has one – closed three minutes ago.

It’s probably for the best. Elizabeth Robins Pennell had frowned upon such fripperies during her bike ride over the Alps 130 years ago.

‘Everybody called for postcards,’ she wrote dismissively of a group of Italian tourists.

‘They turn their backs on the spectacle of the Alps and let their feelings loose on illustrated postcards.’

Put your feet up

Follow Cyclist’s cable car-assisted route over the Col

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/84swiss. From Martigny station turn right onto Avenue de Fully and cross the River Rhône, where you turn right onto the bike path.

After about 22km turn left between two campsites towards Conthey. Join the Route de Savoie to Col du Sanetsch.

At the top, pass the dam and take a gravel track to the cable car station, where a single fare costs 21CHF (£16.50).

At the bottom, follow the road to Gsteig and turn left to Col du Pillon.

Once over the col, continue to a fork in the road. Bear left on Route 11 to Aigle, and once you’ve crossed the A9 motorway look out for the saucer-shaped UCI HQ on your left.

From here, return to Aigle and join Route 9, which will take you all the way back to Martigny.

The rider’s ride

Lapierre Xelius SL 600, £2,699, lapierre-bikes.co.uk

This is the frame ridden by Team FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot when he won the Alpe d’Huez stage of the 2015 Tour and Arnaud Démare when he won the 2016 Milan-San Remo, so I was curious how it would cope on a long climb while carrying the bulk of a mere mortal.

With an eye-catching custom paintjob and distinctive, curving seatstays, it certainly scored on the aesthetic front.

The latter also scored highly for functionality – allowing a controlled degree of flex that boosted traction and comfort as I regularly alternated between sitting and standing.

Its stiffness and lightness were much appreciated on the Col du Sanetsch, and as well as performing well going uphill it handled beautifully on the descents, making it an excellent all-rounder and tremendous value for money.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew to Geneva with Swissair (swiss.com), then caught a train to Le Châble via Martigny using a Swiss Transfer ticket, which covers a round trip between airport and destination from £117, including bikebox.

Get more details at swisstravelsystem.co.uk.

Accommodation

We stayed a 10-minute walk from the station at Hotel A Lârze in Le Châble (alarze.ch/hotel-mountain-chalet), which offers secure storage and a workshop as well as post-ride sauna.

A double room with buffet breakfast costs from £96pn. This includes a Verbier Infinite Playground (VIP) Pass, which gives free or discounted transport and access to many local attractions.

From the hotel to the start of our route you can either ride – 16km all downhill – or take the train to Martigny (20-minute journey, every half hour).

Guide and bike hire

Haut Velo provides a variety of packages, ranging from guided rides to all-inclusive accommodation. Visit hautvelo.com for details.

Backside Verbier (backsideverbier.ch/en) offers a range of road bikes for hire.

Our limited-edition Lapierre costs 50CHF (£39) a day, or 180CHF (£140) for five days.

Thanks

Big thanks to Adam Sedgwick of Haut Velo, as well as Lynsey Devon and Pippa Twigg at Heaven Publicity for helping get this idea off the ground.

For more information about the Valais region visit verbier.ch.