Sign up for our newsletter

Seat of power: Switzerland Big Ride

In-depth
10 Feb 2022
Advertisement

From the home of cycling’s governing body in Aigle, this ride takes in the Col de la Croix and a series of suitably Swiss treats

Words James Spender Photography Alain Rumpf

One hundred and fifty clicks east-north-east of where you’re standing, 3,630m above the sea and 2,400 times larger than a football pitch, the Rhône Glacier’s reach across Switzerland and France can’t be overstated.

It’s the reason for the river to your left, and the reason 1,700 cubic metres of water flows into the Mediterranean Sea, 813km away, every second.

In front of you is a much smaller manmade entity, half silhouetted, half glinting under the climbing sun. This is the UCI’s headquarters on the banks of the Rhône River in Aigle, Switzerland, and its reach across the cycling world cannot be overstated either.

It would certainly explain the architecture, impenetrable and metallic, a drawbridge leading to its mouth as if a villain’s lair.

Whether David Lappartient rides his BMX around the pump-track outside is anyone’s guess, but chances are whatever race you last watched or bike you last pedalled was pored over, analysed and sanctioned inside these walls.

The perfect place, then, to start and end today’s ride – at the belly of the cycling beast.

Three’s the crowd

To ride in Switzerland is to expect fine cycling infrastructure, and straight out the traps Swiss town planners have not disappointed. Just beyond the clipped lawns and neat fences of UCI HQ is a well-maintained cycle path that runs south along the banks of the Rhône, trees one side, water gently flowing the other, and not a car to be seen.

On the horizon large shapes are steadily appearing, hazy lumps at first but gradually revealing themselves as triangulated peaks with the occasional dent full of snow.

They may be softer in profile than the Eigers and Matterhorns much further afield, but peaks in this part of Switzerland’s Alps are no less numerous, appearing in row upon row as you swing off the bike path and face them dead on.

The closest rows are turning more vibrant shades of green as you approach, the layers behind still far enough away to retain their lazy shades of purple and blue.

Today there will be no fewer than three significant highs: the Col de la Croix, the Col du Pillon and the Col de Mosses, together aggregating 37km in uphill length and a Toblerone under 2,100m in vertical ascent.

The Col de la Croix is first, and although there are four possible routes up, the best eschews the more direct – and much busier – road through Ollons and instead passes through the quiet vineyards at Bex, whose carved terraces are almost as well manicured as the grass around here is uniformly mown. Switzerland works at its stereotypes and wears them proudly.

• Turn your next ride, hike, or run into an adventure with komoot. Get inspired by tapping into shared community knowledge and recommendations, then bring your adventures to life with the easy route planner.

Mapping powered by komoot

The road bucks steeply through the green and brown-striped terroirs, coils tightly through the village before its hairpins finally begin to relax a little and the going starts to flow. Gradient has become more moderate, breath more controlled.

The air is crisply organic although in September, at harvest time, it will hang with a heavy, sweet-sour musk, and instead of being deserted these roads will be scattered with farm workers taking shade and cracking open younger, cheaper bottles of wine made the previous year.

The village of Gryon is well placed to be your first stop, and if it is, the Boulangerie Charlet, just opposite La Barboleuse train station, must be your destination. Its customers come from miles around to buy its pastries, with the salée à la crème, a kind of sweet-salted baked milk tart, the house speciality.

However it’s worth considering there is still 10km to climb, and the Col de la Croix is very much a steep-medium-steep ascent in arrangement of gradient. Certainly don’t let the next 2km of false flats to the village of Villars-sur-Ollon trick you.

The final section of this pass is the steepest, the road hitting the mid-teens as it crescendos to 1,778m. The previously soft countryside has been replaced by a more Alpine feel that better befits your efforts.

Clusters of conifers protrude from the ground like green bottlebrushes, and in case there were any doubts, the clanging of cowbells has the acoustic fidelity only possible at such height.

Yet despite the altitude and effort gone into gaining it, the road is more draped over the land than hewn into it, and thus the feeling of pedalling is effortful but exceedingly pleasant all the same. 

The crest of the Col de la Croix is somewhat underwhelming, a small white sign to the left declaring its 1,778m height, to the right a car park and high-season cafe. Yet despite the lack of pomp you have still climbed nearly 1,300m to get here, and in so doing ticked off one of Switzerland’s most difficult passes.

Devils and drops

By now, Les Diablerets massif – that word given to gangs of compacted mountains – is both squarely in focus and right beneath your wheels. The surface has deteriorated from the billiard table complexion of the ascent, but it still puts most other places’ blacktop to shame.

The road winds in edifying fashion, permitting itself generous views and even more generous arcs until it arrives in Les Diablerets village, which is distinctly less massive, although mountain-chic quaint.

Six kilometres and a 600m drop later is the valley floor, but almost before you can change gear it’s back onto another climb. This time it’s the Col du Pillon, a regimentally stiff piece of tarmac albeit one much shorter than the Col de la Croix.

Still, the views are more impressive, ushered in thanks to the sheer rock faces that give Les Diablerets its famous Dar Waterfall. You won’t see much of the gushing waters from the road, but a signed trail will lead those with wider tyres and more time to its plummeting drops.

Cable cars overhead point to a ski resort that centres around Glacier des Diablerets or, as the tourist brochures call it, Glacier 3000 – the privatisation of vast chunks of the Alps was de rigeur in the early 1990s.

This cable car links the top of the Col du Pillon with the cable car station at Scex Rouge, which at 2,950m provides panoramic views of some of Switzerland’s tallest and most storied mountains: the Jungfrau, the Matterhorn and the fearsome Eiger. A trip up is a must for anyone staying in the area.  

The pass hovers a moment at its 1,546m plateau before making a fast, straight passage for Gstaad, famously a favourite holiday preserve for the likes of Madonna and the late Roger Moore. As towns go it is gaudy – all boutique shops, five star hotels and glitzy-ringed patrons – but Gstaad still has a certain voyeuristic charm.

Stop for long enough and settle down to one of life’s more expensive coffees and you might just detect a change in tone from smoother French to more guttural German since Gstaad lies in the canton of Bern, and Switzerland counts four national languages.

The following 6km are near-flat for the first time today, so much so that just outside Gstaad is possibly one of the world’s most beautiful airports, the terrain lending itself to a natural runway.

The fact the airport also hosts an annual polo tournament might indicate the sort of people who typically use it, but still, it is a sight to behold, toy-like in scale and perfectness.                 

High-flyers flying is big business in these parts, whether on board the private planes and helicopters that launch from Gstaad or in hot air balloons, which set off from Château d’Oex just a few more kilometres down the road.

The area has a favourable microclimate given its altitude, and often produces just the right wind for air balloon flight – hence 1999 saw the Breitling Orbiter 3 launch from here, beginning the first non-stop circumnavigation of the globe by balloon.

Last up

Just as things containing hot air will rise, so cyclists given a declining road are disposed to fall. The passage from Rougemont to Château d’Oex is such an affair, pedals hardly needing turning until you pass through town and cross the bridge south over the Saane River. Steadily the road tilts; the Col des Mosses has snuck up.

At 1,445m and an average gradient of only 3.8%, Mosses is the easiest climb of the day, and although it briefly hosted the peloton on Stage 17 of the 2016 Tour de France, this climb is perhaps most notable for the village it passes through: L’Etivaz, which is home to one of Switzerland’s most celebrated cheeses of the same name. The cowbells heard earlier belong to its primary contributors, and its smokiness is the result of the way it’s made in copper vats over open wood fires.

When the Tour came through Chris Froome still had more than 500km to cover before reaching Paris, but with little more than 40km to go yourself, soaking up Alpine living should be the order of your race craft.

If that stop is in order, expect anyone serving food and drink to address you in French – you’re long since back in French-speaking Vaud, although most Swiss speak multiple languages including, of course, English.

The crest of Mosses is a muted affair, comprising a car park, a shuttered-up ski school and a flattened road leading towards dwellings and shops of increasing size and number. Happily, though, this is not the ride’s anticlimactic end but instead the gateway to its final 19km descent back to Aigle.

Fairytale ending

The perfect place to rack bikes is the UCI headquarters, closed when you began your ride but now open to the general public and boasting a stunning velodrome – the building isn’t round for no reason – along with a serious bike collection and ‘Hall of Fame’. It is a tick-box must as you’ve come this far, but also spare some time for a detour to Château d’Aigle.

As castles go, Aigle is impressive to behold and typical in its history. Once a stronghold of power for the Barons of Aigle in the 12th century, the 1800s saw it repurposed into a prison and latterly a hospital, and today, returned to the community, it is one of those worthy museums full of artefacts linked to the viniculture that surrounds it.

You can go in for a nose about, clacking across ancient stone floors in plastic cleats, but for most the charm of this castle lies simply in gazing at its storybook turrets from afar. That and its approach.

At Aigle’s northwest foot is a road labelled Chemin du Château, which turns from flat tarmac into a fiercely steep cobbled climb in a blink, and as such is the perfect final test of legs – just be careful of the pedestrians taking the stairs to your right, so steep is this road it needs them.

At the top sits the castle’s entrance, but opposite is something much more appealing – the Pinte du Paradis winery. So take up a seat, take in your surroundings and reach for the wine list.

The home of cycling                   

How the UCI came to be

Strange to think, but back in 1883 cycling power resided in Great Britain with the National Cyclists’ Union, whose championships conferred unofficial world status.

But by the end of the century the NCU had made itself unpopular over rule nitpicking, and so Henry Sturmey, editor of The Cyclist (no relation) and latterly one half of the eponymous hub gears, sought to establish a new governing body, the International Cycling Association.

The ICA too encountered problems when Great Britain argued for multiple team entries (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) to the new World Championships. This put Continental and New World noses out of joint and led to the French, Italian, Belgian, Swiss and US federations setting up their own governing body in Paris on 14th April 1900: the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI.

The UCI has run international cycling ever since, although not without its own share of torrid times. But somehow it has fought off schisms, coups, conspiracies and the rest, and you can visit its headquarters here in Aigle when you’re not enjoying the scenery by bike.

Just add gravel

Proof that Switzerland’s not just about smooth roads

If time permits and you fancy something a little different during your stay, this area of Switzerland also offers up some excellent mixed-terrain riding, and this route out of Villars-sur-Ollon is an ideal morning freshener and is negotiable on a road bike despite its gravel sections.

Start on the Col de la Croix road but after 5km fork right towards Coufin and climb on towards the village of Taveyanne. From here it’s the kind of unpaved roads you’d expect to find in Tuscany, so take this dusty climb up to a height of 1,755m, culminating in the ski town of Les Chaux. Then it’s a fast, sinuous descent on the road back to Villars-sur-Ollon.

Given its proximity and length, the gravel sections of this ride could be shoehorned into the main ride here by leaving Gryon on Route des Frasses instead of Route de Villars, then climbing up to Les Chaux and on to Coufin before rejoining Route du Col de la Croix.

To download the route, go to cyclist.co.uk/117swissgravel.

How we did it

Travel

The most civilised way to get to Aigle is via train. The Eurostar from London to Paris takes 2h 20min and costs from £78 return; the TGV-Lyria from Paris to Geneva takes 3h and costs €29 each way; the train from Geneva to Aigle takes 1h 10min and costs around £11 each way. Including connections, a journey takes a total of 10h 40min. Failing that Geneva is the closest airport and is served by all the major airlines.

Accommodation

For quirky accommodation on the doorstep of UCI HQ, try the Crazy Lounge (crazylounge.ch), where digs are vintage caravans and yurts (with Jacuzzis and Netflix) starting from around £85 per night.

But if mountain living is your thing, base yourself in Villars-sur-Ollon at VIU Hotel Villars (hotelviu.ch) for Alpine-wellness luxury from around £165 per night.

Thanks

Big thanks to Alain Rumpf for organising and photographing this trip. He’s a local resident and an experienced guide, so check out his website switchback.alpsinsight.com for more cycling ideas.

Thanks also to the Vaud and Swiss national tourist boards for their logistical help. See vaud.swiss and myswitzerland.com for details. For more info about cycling in the area, go to villars-diablerets.ch/cycling.