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Round the Horn: Cyclist Off-Road's Matterhorn gravel ride

In-depth
13 May 2021
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The iconic peak of the Matterhorn provides the focal point for this stunning gravel ride in the Swiss Alps

Words: Stu Bowers Photography: Dan Milner

The moment my alarm sounds I jump out of bed and throw back the curtains. Alas, despite a clear, starry sky last night, I’m not greeted with the view I am hoping for. The Matterhorn is not yet ready to reveal itself.

Today’s dawn has brought with it cloud cover well below the mountain’s immense 4,478m summit, in the process concealing its sharp, pyramid shape from view.

But if you can guarantee one thing about mountain weather it’s that it is unpredictable and can change in a heartbeat, so I may yet get my hoped-for views later on today’s ride.

With that optimistic thought in mind, I head down to meet the others for breakfast.

Border guard

Straddling the boundary between Switzerland and Italy, the Matterhorn is one of 38 peaks in this region towering to over 4,000m, but none of the others evoke the same sense of wonder and intrigue.

Like a child’s drawing of a mountain, the Matterhorn is a near-symmetrical spire rising for over a vertical kilometre from its immediate surroundings. It has become an emblem of the Alps, not to mention the inspiration for the Toblerone chocolate bar.

 

The town of Zermatt, where our ride starts from and finishes, lies about 10km to the northeast. It is chocolate box pretty and its proximity to the Matterhorn makes it a magnet for skiers and alpinists.

It may be used to seeing visitors come and go with skis, ropes, crampons and ice axes, especially in winter, but for those who live here bikes are a way of life.

Zermatt is a blissfully car-free resort. The only permitted vehicles are purpose-built electric taxis that look and sound like little rectangular milk floats. They buzz about town like hi-tech tuk-tuks, moving both goods and guests between hotels and local businesses.

For Zermatt’s residents, however, cycling is the preferred means of transport, and it’s no surprise that the area has invested heavily in promoting and developing its summer cycling scene.

There are more than 200km of purpose-built mountain bike trails, shared hiking trails and ski-station service roads here, and most are perfectly suited for exploration by gravel bike.

The Eggerhorn

‘Blimey, you’ve made an Eggerhorn there,’ laughs Dan, our photographer, as I return from the breakfast buffet with a sizable heap of scrambled eggs piled on toast. I’m expecting today’s route to be challenging, so I’m not taking any chances with calorie deficit.

Joining me today is Chris, a UK expat now living in Switzerland and something of an adventure and endurance cycling specialist, having twice finished the Transcontinental Race and also the Transatlantic Way Race.

 

Chris schools endurance cycling enthusiasts through his website, ridefar.info, and today he’ll be taking the lead for Cyclist Off-Road. He assures me this will be a day on a bike like no other.

It’s early when we roll out of the Hotel Alex in the centre of Zermatt. Much of the town is still asleep as we head out through the back streets – curtains are drawn, shop fronts bare. As we cross the river, the noise of its rushing glacial waters is the only sound breaking the silence.

We immediately begin to feel the road tilt up – Zermatt is surrounded on three sides by steep mountain passes, which means pretty much every way out of town points towards the sky.

It’s eerily quiet as we make our way up the first ascent, a light mist clinging to the tall firs. The rhythmic hum of our gravel tyres on tarmac is soon replaced by the sound of the treads biting into gravel.

This first climb proves quite a rude awakening and my ‘Eggerhorn’ is lying heavy on my stomach. Chris meanwhile, is chatting freely, seemingly completely comfortable in his stride.

As we round a bend I look up from my stem and am treated to an incredible sight. The Matterhorn is now in full view. The sun’s rays are touching the upper reaches of its peak, making it glow brightly, and the light trips around its flanks and into the valley, turning everything golden.

We’re on the shaded north side, where the air is still only a degree or two above freezing even in late summer, so I’m still wearing my thick gloves and extra layers, but the sight of the Matterhorn makes the cold seem less intense, and I know those views of the mountain will only get better once we climb up past the treeline.

The climb continues on its steep trajectory. It’s tough on the legs and lungs this early on, but we’re gaining height rapidly. Thankfully a few switchbacks interrupt the relentless 11% gradients, and by the time we reach the Alpine village of Tufteren we’re already 600m higher up than we were 6km ago.

The tiny collection of houses, packed closely together and with roofs covered by thick slates, looks hardy and ready to deal with whatever winter can throw at it. Our swift rise to over 2,200m is beginning to tell in my laboured breathing and I’m thankful for the opportunity to stop and take a few photos as we now face the Matterhorn head on.

We get some respite when the gradient eases to around 3% for a few kilometres as we continue our journey along the north-facing side of the valley. Once we reach the Blauherd lift station things start to get testing again.

This lift delivers tourists to one of the most photogenic spots in the Zermatt area – Lake Stelisee at 2,537m – a glacial lake with a mirror-like surface that, when viewed from the far side, perfectly reflects the Matterhorn.

Chris warned us at breakfast it was going to be the most challenging climb of the day to get there, because the service road runs directly under the lift’s path and pitches up to 30% in places.

Progress is painfully slow as Chris and I deal with the delicate balancing act of keeping sufficient bodyweight forward to prevent the front wheel from lifting while at the same time weighting the rear tyre enough to maintain traction on the loose dirt.

 

I’m disheartened when I press my gearshift button and nothing happens. I’m already in the lowest gear – 38t chainring and 50t sprocket – and my legs are at their limit. Each revolution of the cranks is a fight to make it round to the next. But on arrival at Stelisee all the toil of getting there is immediately forgotten.

It’s a picture that must have been taken a million times, but the scene is one I would never tire of seeing. We stop for a while to catch our breath and drink in the view.

Above us the trail continues up for around a kilometre to reach the Fluhalp Hutt. At 2,620m it’s a remote hotel and restaurant and a standout feature of the landscape, with the mighty Findel Glacier flowing off the Monte Rosa range behind it.

Its bright red window shutters make it appear like a giant advent calendar and we decide it is the perfect spot for the first refreshment stop of the day. We continue up the trail, intriguingly passing a Japanese tourist coming down the mountain wheeling a suitcase.

We keep to the local fare and devour plates of strudel washed down with coffee while enjoying yet more views of the Matterhorn’s east face. From here it looks almost as tiny as the Toblerone pieces it inspired, but I know that later on, when we’re higher up and beneath its mighty walls of rock, it will be an entirely different proposition.

Light fantastic

As the clouds roll in again so the light changes, softening the shadows and giving the scene a monochrome filter. After our coffee break we head back down the way we came, back past Lake Stelisee, and turn west across the valley to follow a wide forest road that tracks the contours of the hillside such that it never feels flat, but rises and falls subtly enough that we barely notice we’re steadily gaining height again.

With the coming of autumn, the vegetation here is shifting from verdant green to a new palette of golden yellows, oranges and even reds.

The clouds disperse as quickly as they appeared on the approach to the ski resort at Riffelalp, leaving the Matterhorn’s peak wonderfully silhouetted against a blue sky. We are arguably seeing the mountain at its absolute picturesque best, jutting skywards like a jagged tooth.

It has only been an hour and a half since we stopped in the Fluhalp Hutt, but Chris tells me that Riffelalp might be our last opportunity for a while to grab a spot of lunch, and I don’t need much by way of convincing. After all, who could refuse the opportunity to spend a while relaxing in what is now heavenly sunshine, admiring this view?

Refuelling comes in the form of rosti, a traditional Swiss dish that looks a lot like an omelette but is made mostly from potato. Mine is topped with some streaky bacon and a fried egg, prompting more ‘Eggerhorn’ remarks. I’m in no doubt that it’s laden with enough calories to keep me going for the rest of the afternoon.

Back on the bike our route immediately drops steeply downhill. It’s a wide gravel road but the surface is loose and made up of larger chunks of rock, not like the well-compressed, neater dirt roads we’ve been mostly riding on so far. It keeps us on our toes.

‘You know a hill is steep when you can smell the disc brakes of the guy in front,’ says Chris as he pulls up alongside me at the bottom. Sure enough, my disc rotors are literally smoking and have turned a fetching shade of dark blue from the heat build-up.

Back on tarmac for a short while, we pass the ski lift station at Furi. The gondolas passing over our heads are going to the same place we are: Schwarzsee at 2,552m. But while the gondolas are taking the most direct route there, our own climb will take us there via a winding path for 6km, accumulating 700 vertical metres as we go.

The early part is a pleasant gradient – mostly around 7% – but after around 5km we turn left onto the Stafelalp trail, which ascends quickly through a succession of steeper switchbacks with an average gradient nearer 15%.

The Matterhorn’s north face looms large in our view. Being shielded from the sun, a mountain’s north face is often regarded as the most formidable (at least in the northern hemisphere, anyway), and it’s clear this holds true with the Matterhorn – its north face is a dark and foreboding wall of rock packed with snow and ice.

The Matterhorn was one of the most recent Alpine peaks to be first summited, by Edward Whymper in 1865, but it was a further 66 years, in 1931, before anyone conquered its north face.

And just for a bit of additional trivia, statistically it is one of the world’s deadliest summits, having taken more than 500 lives – a fact that isn’t lost on us as we ride upwards in its shadow.

On reaching Schwarzsee we are directly under the Matterhorn’s northeast ridge. Known as the Hörnligrat route, this is the line Whymper took to be first to the summit. As such, our view is the same as the one that would have greeted Whymper’s team as they stood here pondering their fate 154 years ago.

This leg of the ride is another of the out-and-back sections that Chris has included in our route, essentially to get in as many amazing views as possible, and as we head back down I’m not feeling like the extra effort to climb to over 2,500m has been in any way wasted.

Ice, Ice, Baby

Our final out-and-back leg takes us up to the base of the Zmutt Glacier. Being in the shadow of the north face means the scene here is a change from what we’ve witnessed so far.

The landscape feels more dramatic, with vast swathes of moraine criss-crossed with bright blue rivers that rush down from the glacier that clings to the mountainside far above.

We teeter along the top of the moraine ridge, keeping one eye on the rocky path and another on the glacier up ahead. Its sheer scale makes it a sight worth savouring, so we stop frequently to better appreciate the vastness of the mass of ice. In between taking pictures, Chris rummages in his handlebar bag and unexpectedly produces a couple of small round cakes.

‘These are biberlis,’ he says, handing one to me. ‘I eat these all the time when I’m riding. They’re great energy food and much cheaper to buy in supermarkets than dedicated energy bars.’

I can’t help but agree. It has a delicious moist texture, like a soft gingerbread biscuit, and I quickly scoff it down, hoping the sugar hit might do something to revive my flagging legs.

We’ve only ridden around 40km so far but it feels like we’ve done double that. But then we’re on gravel, and at altitude, plus we’ve done close to 2,000m of vertical ascent already, so I decide to stop being so hard on myself.

Besides, we’ve only got a short climb to go before we about-turn and then it will be downhill practically all the way back to Zermatt.

 

Vertically challenged

The trail is fairly technical and demands concentration, but when I can look up it feels like I’m entering a glacial amphitheatre. The seracs and hanging ice of the Zmutt Glacier are somewhat threatening, yet it is also beautiful with its ever-changing aqua-blue tones.

To our right is the smaller but no less impressive Schönbiel Glacier, which also feeds into the valley. I’m somewhat awestruck by my surroundings, encircled as I am by shimmering ice and with the peak of the Matterhorn now a full two vertical kilometres above me. The enormity of the challenge of climbing it is starting to hit home.

A little mountain refuge, Schönbiel hütte, brings us to the end of the trail. The light is dimming and the temperature is dropping fast. It’s time to head for home.

 

We fly back down the rock-strewn trail, and once again I can’t help but be impressed by how well my gravel bike copes with the terrain, which at times feels like full-suspension mountain bike territory.

Once across the Zmutt Dam, we reach our final downhill fling, a narrow trail – little more than a sheep track – that takes us to the small village of Zmutt.

From here the landscape changes again as we leave behind the ominous rock and ice and enter lush pastures dotted with cows grazing in the late afternoon light. This is where Zermatt gets its name – literally ‘Alpine meadow’ – and it’s a fitting end to the ride.

As we head back into town, Chris and I hold a very important discussion about which bar would be a suitable venue in which to celebrate our day’s adventure. Behind us the clouds are moving in again, and slowly, stealthily, the Matterhorn disappears from view.

Mind over Matterhorn

Follow our route in the shadow of the Matterhorn

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/or3/matterhorn. From Zermatt, cross the river and follow the Riedweg trail, climbing almost immediately. Continue on Tuftern trail to Tufternalp and onwards to the Blauherd lift station.

Follow the direction of the lift on service roads and continue all the way to Stelisee before carrying on further up the climb to Fluhalp for refreshments. Descend back to Stelisee and then turn left down a steep descent, before following the forest road west to Riffelalp.

Continue down a steep gravel descent to Furi, then climb to Stafelalp on a forested valley road. After about 5km turn left towards Schwarzsee.

Climb to the lift station for no other reason than to savour the views. Return by the same route to the junction and continue across to the far side of the valley, past the reservoir and climbing up to the Zmuttbach path.

Follow this to the Schönbiel hütte mountain refuge to enjoy an up-close look at the glaciers. Descend on the same path all the way back down to Biel and cross over the Zmutt Dam. Finally, descend on the narrow trail via Zmutt to arrive back in Zermatt.

The rider’s ride

Vielo V+1 UDG, frameset £2,399, complete from £3,499, vielo.cc

I handpicked the Vielo V+1 for this ride, primarily because it’s one of the few gravel frames with a seat tube large enough (30.9mm) to allow the use of a Rockshox Reverb AXS dropper seatpost.

If that sounds excessive, it proved to be remarkably handy a few times, giving me the confidence to continue riding when I might otherwise have chosen to dismount on a steep section of trail.

As with all AXS components, the Reverb post pairs wirelessly to the Sram Red eTap AXS shift lever buttons, making operation a cinch.

Buy a Vielo V+1 now

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Some of the terrain we encountered in the Matterhorn range was pushing the limits of what I would consider ‘gravel’, but the Vielo V+1 sucked up everything I threw at it with impressive assurance.

Its handling and poise were resounding qualities that really stood out for me, not just on the downhills but also when climbs demanded full concentration and a carefully considered choice of line.

The Zipp 303 650b wheels were impressively tough and resilient paired with 47mm tyres. And while I’m on the subject of rubber, the Teravail Rutland tubeless tyres were exceptional, offering excellent grip on a wide variety of surfaces but simultaneously never feeling draggy or too hefty.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist Off-Road flew into Zurich with Swiss, but Geneva airport is a similar distance from Zermatt and it opens up more flight options with many budget airlines.

You can’t drive into Zermatt so the best bet is to arrive by train. It’s around a 3.5-hour trip from Zurich airport, but very pleasurable, especially the picturesque last hour up into the mountains from Visp. Swiss trains are spacious, reliable and immaculately clean, with adequate provision for bikes.

Book flights to Zurich now on Expedia

Accommodation

We stayed at Hotel Alex (hotelalexzermatt.com), close to the railway station in central Zermatt. It’s a beautiful hotel with an authentic Swiss feel.

It has its own spa, so relaxing after a hard day in the saddle is only a slippered stroll from your room, or if you still have the energy there are squash and tennis courts, as well as a fully equipped gym.

It’s a bike-friendly hotel with a secure ski room that doubles as a bike store. And when you’re done riding, the restaurant is superb for a wide range of food choices and has an incredible salad buffet.

Book your stay at Hotel Alex now on Booking.com

Thanks

Thanks to Sara Rohloff and Jasmin Marti of Swiss Tourism (zermatt.ch/en), who were instrumental in the planning and realisation of this trip.

Thanks also to Chris White for doing the route planning and for hosting our ride so expertly. You can check out his bikepacking website at ridefar.info.