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Swiss rides: Lucerne region

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31 Jan 2018
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From the town of Andermatt, cradled in the Saint-Gotthard Massif Mountains in Switzerland’s Lucerne region, every road points skyward – which is saying something given that it’s already 1,457m above sea level.

In winter this makes it a popular base camp for skiers, but when the blankets of crisp winter snow melt into verdant summer pastures, the area reveals itself as one of the most incredible destinations for cycling in Europe.

Roads are silk-ribbon smooth, terrain awesomely steep and the sheer number of peaks to conquer almost overwhelming.

One could spend a week here and barely scratch the surface. As it is, we just have today, so pointing our wheels west we head out of Andermatt to discover three of the region’s most iconic climbs.

The road out of the town is pleasantly flat, ideal for easing morning-heavy legs into the rhythm of the day. Distant mountain caps promise snow, but on these lower slopes the land glows green under a climbing sun.

Not even a cowbell breaks the tranquility – the cattle have yet to be driven down from their alpine pastures for wintering.

Yet with over 3,000m of climbing on today’s agenda, we know it can’t last, and tapping our way through the town of Realp, our first big test snakes into view: the Furka Pass. 

You might not have heard of it, but chances are you’ve seen at least part of this 11km ascent before, immortalised as it is in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, when Sean Connery gunned an Aston Martin DB5 up the pass in pursuit of a pretty blonde.

Sure enough, we catch sight of a road sign that reads ‘James Bond Str.’, but with a significant distance to cover before we reach the 2,461m summit we daren’t let our own engines idle for long. 

Glacial manoeuvres

If our ascent of the Furka from the Realp side has been clement and fresh, coming back down the other side towards the town of Ulrichen is gnarled and raw.

The summit views are far reaching, with row after row of granite peaks punctuating the sky, but the most arresting vista of all comes a few kilometres further down in the shape of the Rhône Glacier.

In the 19th century the glacier extended far into the valley below, but with climatic change its reach has been steadily curtailed, although its magnificence is undiminished.

On another day we might stop to visit the glacier’s ice grotto – a 100m tunnel into an opaque blue glacial chamber – but with a vast network of smooth tarmac in its lee, a fast descent is our preferred option.

Kilometres tick by rapidly, and in next to no time we’ve railed past the town of Ulrichen, whipped up through a series of conifer-flanked hairpins and broken through into the stillness of the Agene valley beyond.

It’s here where our second big test of the day begins – and statistically, the hardest: the Nufenenpass at an altitude of 2,477m reached by Switzerland’s second highest paved road.

At first the gradient is gentle, but by kilometre three the Nufenen starts to bite back, and by kilometre nine of 14 it has played its hand, a 9% average gradient to the top with spikes in the mid-teens.

Compared to the Furka it lacks a certain beauty, but nevertheless its stark, exposed nature aalends the Nufenen a brutal poetry that’s hard not to admire, even if it is arduous to traverse.

At the summit it’s finally time for a cafe break, albeit of the cocoa-clutching, full warmers and wind jacket type. It may be clear and sunny, but at this altitude it’s seldom warm.

The climb was so quiet and the roads so wide and long that it’s tempting to descend back down the way we’ve just come, but there’s still one more climb to conquer before the day is out, and it promises to be the most stunning of all.

The ultimate road

There are three ways to get back to Andermatt from Airolo, where the descent of the Nufenenpass has delivered us.

One is via a picturesque main road, a second through the world’s fourth longest tunnel, both of which are alluring propositions for motorists and therefore attract the majority of traffic.

That leaves the third way, an ancient road known as the Tremola, all but exclusively for cyclists.

Built in the 1830s, the Tremola boasts 24 hairpin bends that rise to a height of 2,091m at Sasso San Gottardo. That on its own makes it worth a visit, but on top of that, the hairpins are cobbled.

That’s right, cobbled; thousands upon thousands of tightly packed granite setts push the Tremola to the heavens, lending the climb legendary status.

Search the world over and there’s no road quite like it, and we find ourelves ascending some sections twice just for the thrill of descending again on alpine cobbles.

Any cyclist would gladly while away an afternoon here, yet leave the Tremola we must as the shadows across the Ursenen Valley are lengthening and Andermatt is still 10km away.

Although happily, given today’s truly testing terrain, this last piece of our epic puzzle is all downhill. 

Triple-peak challenge

Three of the most iconic climbs the Lucerne region has to offer

• To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/swissrides1

Head west out of Andermatt along Gotthardstrasse, route 19, through Hospenthal to Realp where the Furka Pass climb begins. From the summit, descend 2.5km to the Hotel Belvedere and the Rhône Glacier.

Descend to Obergoms, leaving route 19 for the Leginen road just after the Oberwald train station. At Ulrichen, follow signs for the Nufenenpass, which takes you into the Bedretto Valley.

Follow signs for Airolo taking the Via della Stazione into town, pass Airolo train station then turn left onto Via San Gottardo/route 2.

Follow route 2 west/northwest, where the road segues from tarmac to cobbles for the Tremola climb. The summit is marked by a car park, restaurants and a series of lakes.

Descend on Route 2 north/northeast to Hospental and back to Andermatt.

 

How we got there

Travel

We flew from London City Airport to Zurich with SWISS, whose timetable includes six flights daily. Return flights are around £150, including a bike as part of the luggage allowance. See swiss.com for more details.

Once on the ground, we hired a car from Hertz (hertz.com), where prices start at around £250 for a week’s rental.

Accommodation

The Baeren hotel in Andermatt provided spacious, comfortable rooms with contemporary alpine aplomb.

There are many excellent hotels in the area, but the Baeren marks itself out with exceptional food, a fusion of traditional Swiss and classic Italian cooking that takes cues from its surroundings – expect to see deer and marmot on the menu during hunting season in mid-September.

The hotel has secure bike storage and parking, and prices start at around £95 per night for a single room. For more details, see baeren-andermatt.ch.

Destination

The list of paved peaks in the region is vast. Besides the Tremola (2,091m), Nufenen (2,468m) and Furka (2,461m) passes there’s also the Grimsel Pass (2,164m), Oberalp (2,044m), Lukmanier (1,915m) and Susten Pass (2,260m) to name but four.

Creating your own routes is therefore easy, but if you fancy a supported challenge, check out the 276km Alpenbrevet (alpenbrevet.ch) or the 220km Tour des Stations (tourdesstations.ch) sportives in August, both of which pack in more than 7,000m of climbing.

These are just two in the season-long Ride The Alps series of cycling events which showcase the best of Switzerland's breathtaking scenery and beautiful mountain passes on roads reserved exclusively for cyclists. For more information, see MySwitzerland.com/riderthealps.

 

Bike hotels

You need more than just a lovely room when travelling by bike. A secure storage area, laundry and bike repair facilities, a breakfast fit for an athlete to start the day, a packed lunch for when you’re on the road and advice for tours from like-minded individuals – it’s all available in Switzerland.

From tranquil, cosy mountain cabins to relaxing wellness oases and family B&B hotels, certified Swiss Bike Hotels know what their cycling guests need, and they provide it.

Local tips, maps and route guides are available from the reception desk of every hotel, ensuring every ride will be as smooth as it is challenging, along with recommendations from local guides.

For our trip we were lucky enough to be guided around by Dominik Hug from Bikebuebe (bikebuebe.ch), whose knowledge of the area was only rivalled by his strength on the bike and his patience both on and off it.

That knowledge helped us work around some less than clement weather to still enjoy a dry and sunny day’s riding. See myswitzerland.com/bikehotels for more details.

• Discover more about cycling in Switzerland at myswitzerland.com/roadcycling