Sign up for our newsletter

The Worlds That Wasn’t: Switzerland Big Ride

In-depth
23 Sep 2021
Advertisement

The 2020 UCI World Championships in Switzerland may have been cancelled, but you can still get a taste of the road race route

Words Trevor Ward Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

The hotel breakfast buffet fills me with a mixture of horror and disbelief. Anyone might have coughed over those croissants.

During my eight-hour trip to Valais in Switzerland, it had been mandatory to wear a mask on planes, trains and buses, but it seems that Swiss hotels, apart from an economy-size cannister of hand sanitiser at the entrance, are cheerfully unregulated.

By the time I’ve drained the last of my café au lait with one vigilant eye on the uncovered pain au chocolat, it has been a stressful 20 minutes. Today’s ride up some steep mountains will be a piece of cake by comparison. 

Size isn’t everything

I’m here to ride part of the route of the men’s 2020 Road Race World Championships that was scheduled to take place in September (a few weeks after returning home the event was cancelled because of coronavirus).

I say ‘part of’ because the full distance of the route was a whopping 250km. Deep in the vaults of the UCI headquarters, gathering dust next to Lance Armstrong’s B samples and Gianni Moscon’s disciplinary file, there seems to be a rule printed on parchment paper saying that every World Championships road race has to be tediously long.

The planned 2020 event was no different. The first half would have been up and down the Rhone Valley from the shores of Lake Geneva to Sion before the real action started at Martigny with seven laps of a final circuit including the tough climb to the Col de la Petite Forclaz.

My co-rider Adam Sedgwick, owner of Verbier-based guiding company Haut Velo, has plotted a short but punchy route that includes the Petite Forclaz – 4km at an average gradient of 10.2% – before venturing up some neighbouring and equally challenging climbs the official race organisers have overlooked. It’s a modest 60km in length, yet will pack in almost 2,200m of climbing.

Our day starts in the town of Martigny, where the race’s final 19km circuit was meant to begin. It’s a sprawling mix of the ancient and contemporary, and we warm up by riding past the town’s strikingly designed art museum and Roman amphitheatre on what would have been the home straight of the race.

Then we turn left into a warren of narrow streets where the fighting for position among the peloton would have been fierce as it approached the first ramps of the Petite Forclaz.

For me and Adam it is a more genteel affair, with each of us politely ushering the other forward as the road pitches upwards.

Adam is considerately calling out the gradient as the road twists through a smart residential estate – ‘10… 12… 13… ah, this must be the steepest bit coming up now, yes, 14%’ – while in my head I count down the number of sprockets I have left: ‘Three… two… one… oh shiii…!’

For the final kilometre the road breaks free from the shackles of the town and offers dizzying views down the Rhone Valley. It’s narrow, twisting and steep.

It was an ambitious choice of climb and would have undoubtedly made for dramatic pictures on TV, but in the end the challenge of containing thousands of fans and keeping them socially distanced from each other and the riders contributed to the decision to cancel the event.

The final stretch is on a concrete flyover suspended hundreds of metres above Martigny before it joins the main road.

Turning left would take us up to the Col de la Forclaz and the stunning Emosson Dam where a stage of the 2016 Tour ended (and is well recommended if you have the time), but we stick to the official route and turn right for the descent back to Martigny.

These 6km are extremely fast and straight, with just one hairpin halfway down, and would have witnessed some hair-raising, genitals-grazing-top-tube acrobatics during the race. 

Playing the angles

Back in Martigny with all our own bits and bobs intact, we turn off the official route and start the climb up to the Col des Planches, with Adam warning me to shift to the small ring before we have even reached the junction. ‘It’s 10% average for the first 3km,’ he says.

My chain has barely settled into its new configuration when we are forced to stop at a railway level crossing. Worried I’ll struggle to get going again, I attempt a track stand and for several seconds the train passengers are treated to the sight of a large, Lycra-clad tangle of limbs teetering on the edge of humiliation.

I’ve just got into my rhythm again when the next obstacle appears: temporary traffic lights. The road is being ripped up and resurfaced, and once the lights have switched to green we have to ride several hundred metres uphill through a layer of loose gravel.

We round a hairpin and reach the steepest part of the climb, a section supported by concrete pillars that I’d spotted from below yesterday and taken for a ski jump due to its vertiginous angle.

We double back around another hairpin and just as I’m thinking that all the obstacles are out of the way, it starts raining. Heavily.

Fortunately we have entered a sheltered section of the climb, and it’s so muggy that we don’t bother putting on rain jackets.

The road snakes through what, in the eerie half-light between storm and sunshine, looks like an enchanted forest. For the final 6km, however, the average gradient is 9%, which makes it feel more like a Grimm tale than a fairy story.

At the summit is a cafe. A hot drink while waiting for the rain to stop seems like a prudent idea, but the entire staff appears to have decided no one would be stupid enough to come up here in such appalling conditions and they are having their lunch. So we unpack our rain jackets and start our tentative descent.

Halfway down the rain stops and the mist lifts to reveal a deep cauldron of sheer rock faces and densely forested slopes.

We’re disinclined to challenge any speed records, which is just as well because there are plenty of hairpins to negotiate. We take it in turns to get a mouthful of spray from the wheel in front as we delicately lean through the curves.

Fortunately we can be generous with our lines as we don’t see any other traffic until the bottom, where we are bathed in warm sunshine once again.

We join a main road for a couple of hundred metres before Adam leads us up a single-lane track. ‘You’re going to see real Switzerland now,’ he says, as we ascend into a postcard-perfect landscape of rolling farmland, craggy peaks and wooden chalets.

I’m so distracted by the views that by the time we reach Chamoille I’ve barely noticed we’ve been climbing for almost 3km at an average gradient of 8%. 

Lunch in a time of Covid

We arrive in Orsieres and find a cafe with an outdoor terrace opposite the railway station. Far from being the relaxing affair we’d hoped for, however, lunch turns out to be almost as stressful as the hotel breakfast buffet.

Although the staff are extremely accommodating – providing us with a table that meets optimal social distancing protocols while at the same time providing maximum shade from the strengthening sun – one of their number lets the side down by delivering our drinks with his fingertips clamped to the rims of our glasses like a disease-ridden claw.

At any other time this wouldn’t bother me, but in an age when a high-five can be a death sentence I just can’t bring myself to touch my lips to same glass rim. The drinks are quickly replaced without fuss, but we decide to use a nearby water fountain to refill our water bottles rather than trust the waiter. Our food – the usual Swiss calorific confection of cheese and meat – is very good, however.

Our final climb of the day should feel like a holiday after the savagery of the Petite Forclaz and Planches. We are going up to the Col de Champex via its ‘easy side’, with an average gradient of 6.4% for 9km.

Another classic Alpine scene of soaring mountain peaks unfurls in front of us, and the most distinctive, referred to by Adam as ‘that nipple over there’, is the Pierre Avoi, a limestone pinnacle towering 2,500m over the Rhone Valley.

The road spools gently upwards in a succession of hairpins until we arrive at the pretty resort of Champex-Lac. Its pine-fringed, turquoise-tinted lake is gridlocked with pedaloes and paddleboards, and families are strolling along its shore eating ice creams.

It’s an idyllic location, yet the World Championships organisers had neglected it. It’s no surprise to learn later that one of its residents, Michel Theytaz, former boss of IAM Cycling, is campaigning for it to host a stage of the Tour de France.

Once past the lake the road continues rising for another kilometre before starting its dramatic descent back to the Rhone Valley and Martigny.

There has been a recent cloudburst on this side of the mountain and the roads are glistening ominously, so it’s another cautious descent. By the time we reach a perilously steep section of tight hairpins near the bottom, there are clouds of steam rising from the road surface.

Back in Martigny we finish our ride in the narrow streets of the old town. We’ve ridden a quarter of the distance and accumulated just over half the vertical elevation of the course that the pros should have been covering on 27th September.

It’s not for me to question the politics, traditions and rules that determine the length of the Road Race World Championships, nor why a race in the most mountainous country in Europe contains just one mountain, but after today’s ride I can’t help feeling that quantity isn’t everything. Our ride may have been only 60km but it was quality from start to finish.

Quality over quantity

This highlights course is short but not all so sweet

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/105worlds. Starting on Rue du Levant in Martigny with the Roman amphitheatre on your left, follow the road to the Avenue du Grand-Saint-Bernard and turn left. Take the first left after you’ve crossed the river and then look out for a fork to the right that is uphill. This is the start of the climb to the Col de la Petite Forclaz.

At the T-junction at the top, turn right and follow this road back to Martigny where you will once again find yourself on the Avenue du Grand-Saint-Bernard. Once you’ve re-crossed the river, turn sharp right at the next roundabout. This is the climb to Col des Planches.

At the bottom of the descent, turn right, then take the first left and left again. At the T-junction, turn left. You are now on the climb to Chamoille. At the bottom of the descent, turn left for Orsieres.

Bear right at the level crossing and after about 1.5km you will come to a right turn, which is the start of the climb to Champex-Lac. Watch out for the steep, tight hairpins near the bottom of the descent. After these you arrive in the village of Las Valettes, where you turn left and follow the road back to Martigny.

The curse of the rainbow jersey

Is it jinxed or can this particular ‘curse’ be explained by science?

It used to be just the World Champion’s jersey that was considered cursed, but following this year’s late cancellation of eight days of racing, maybe the event itself is plagued by ill fortune (although at the time of writing the UCI was hoping to find an alternative country to host at least some of the races).

The reality is that the organisers had gambled on the Swiss government relaxing the regulations that banned mass gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Instead, those restrictions were extended until the end of September after Switzerland saw a slight rise in its number of coronavirus cases in mid-August.

The number of countries subject to quarantine on arrival in Switzerland had also increased to 45, adding to the logistical difficulties of hosting 1,200 riders from 80 countries.

But are the rainbow stripes really cursed? Swiss epidemiologist and cyclist Dr Thomas Perneger carried out a scientific study into the phenomenon that was published by the British Medical Journal.

click to subscribe

He compared the results of every World Champion from 1965, when Tom Simpson won the stripes only to break his leg while skiing the following winter, to 2013. 

For comparison, he also included the winners of the Tour of Lombardy during that period, as it was a race of similar length and prestige that took place just a week or two after the World Championships.

He looked at each rider’s performances over three seasons – the season they became World Champion and the two subsequent seasons – and hypothesised three possible explanations for their results.

The ‘spotlight effect’, where the rider was subject to more media attention after their victory, produced no fluctuation in the results of either the World Champion or Lombardy winner, while the ‘marked man effect’, where the rider was targeted by rivals in subsequent races, had a more significant impact on the World Champion than the Lombardy winner. Damn having to wear those pesky rainbow stripes in every race!

But Dr Perneger concluded that the explanation for the ‘curse’ was his third hypothesis, that the World Champion’s apparent dip in form was merely a ‘regression to the mean’.

In other words, the rider’s World Championships victory usually capped a successful season – suggesting the title had been targeted – while in the two subsequent seasons the rider’s form returned to average.

However, Dr Perneger said he could not rule out a curse completely, as his study had not included any data relating to the ‘personal’ problems suffered by World Champions…

How we did it

Travel

Several airlines fly direct to Geneva from various UK airports. From the airport in Geneva there are regular trains to Martigny (a trip that takes around two hours). From there you can catch a connecting train to Le Chable and then cable car (or bus or taxi) to Verbier, where we stayed. Return train fare from Geneva to Le Chable costs around £112.

Accommodation

We stayed at the three-star Hotel Mirabeau in Verbier (mirabeauhotel.ch), which is a 25km ride – all downhill – to the start of our route. If you don’t fancy the climb back, there’s the option of a train or cable car for the return. The hotel offers simple, comfortable double rooms with balconies from 140 Swiss Francs (£118). This includes a Verbier Infinite Playground (VIP) pass, which gives free or discounted transport, including a 50% discount on the cable car when transporting your bike.

Guide and bike hire

Haut Velo provides a variety of holiday and guiding packages, ranging from customised supported rides to all-inclusive accommodation. Visit hautvelo.com for details.

Our bike, a Scott Addict with an Ultegra groupset, was supplied by Happy Sport in Le Chable (happysports.ch). It offers road bikes for hire from 50 Swiss Francs a day (approx £42, or £186 for a week).

Thanks

Big thanks to Adam Sedgwick of Haut Velo for plotting our route, and his colleague Jonas Sundstedt for driving our photographer. Thanks also to Elise Farquet of Verbier Tourism for helping to arrange the trip. For more information about the Valais region of Switzerland, visit verbier.ch. For up-to-date information about the World Championships visit aigle-martigny2020.ch.