Following in the mysterious footsteps of fictional heroes, Black Sheep journeyed to Switzerland to create a fable of our own. We were rewarded with an embarrassment of cycling riches. Wild, rugged landscapes and picture postcard alpine villages.
Each year a sportive called the Alpenbrevet, which describes itself as ‘Europe’s toughest one-day cycling challenge’, leaves Meiringen (the tree-lined town in which fictional hero Sherlock Holmes was laid to rest by author Arthur Conan Doyle) and distributes up to 2,500 entrants across five different sequences of passes. It challenges cyclists ‘bored of doing the Marmotte, Étape du Tour or Dragon Ride to take on the ultimate challenge’. The most difficult comprises all five torturous passes covering a total of 276km and 7,031m of elevation change. No modern Grand Tour stage can match it.
There are five different routes. All lead out in front of the Holmes memorial garden in Meiringen and negotiate the Grimsel as the first pass. 1,572m of climbing over 32 kilometres. The steepest part of the Grimsel Pass hits 16% towards the summit. It’s a consistent, yet charming climb. Cyclists are free to avoid the perils of some of the tunnels by riding around them. To provide a sense of velo variation there are micro-stretches of cobbles. Roubaix it’s not, but fun all the same.
Perhaps the most iconic turn on the Grimsel Pass comes at 1,908m where a huge reservoir wall dominates the landscape. This area was once frequented by Piedmontese merchants bringing wine from Italy in exchange for Swiss cheese – either would be a welcome antidote at this stage. Despite the flickering violet presence of alpine flora, this huge artificial lake evokes parallels with the Hoover Dam. The peaks appear more jagged and the reflection of the sun more unusual. Together with the manmade lake, you could easily be transported to another continent.
“Never measure the height of a mountain until you’ve reached the top.” – Dag Hammarskjöld
On arrival at the summit of the Grimsel Pass, refreshments are finally on offer. Leaving Meiringen with full bidons is essential. Unless you’re brave enough to launch an arm under a waterfall, you need to conserve water supplies until the summit. The pretty, natural lake of Totensee, more cruelly named ‘Lake of the Dead’, provides an eye-catching place to stop and admire the rolling beauty of the mountain range behind. In August, the 3,000m peaks are at their most brown but the 4,000m range still snow-capped and exerting their authority.
Cyclists can begin to choose different parcours. One of the most popular is what the Alpenbrevet categorises the silver route, 132km of riding through 3,875m of climbing and after Grimsel, heading through the Furka and the Susten passes.
The Furka Pass is even higher than Grimsel. Its summit pushes 2,500m with the descent from Grimsel dropping to 1,700m. After a rare kilometre of flat road out of this first pass, the challenge of the Furka becomes immediately clear. It is bold, spectacular and always in your face. Other epic climbs conceal their weapons, their sly gradients allow you to concentrate on the small stretch of road ahead. The Furka Pass lies evocatively naked in front of your weary eyes.
While the Grimsel Pass feels relentless, it is measured. Its switchbacks are wide and relatively infrequent. The Furka Pass flaunts its assets in front of your sun-squinting eyes. Altitude is an increasing factor. Novice alpinists are often told to limit elevation to 500m of ascending a day and gradually build acclimatisation. Commencing at altitude and with a significant climb already notched, the Furka Pass poses fresh questions for the weary climber. The air is thinner, more oppressive, the heart rate accelerates, self-doubt begins to set in and cadence becomes a bigger challenge.
“When the spirits are low … just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin without a thought on anything but the ride you are taking.” – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Susten pass, at 2,224m is possibly the least famous of the three but by no means the easiest. The climb is similar to Grimsel, winding but with long elevated stretches and almost completely exposed to the sun. Descending down to 900m means it’s a drag up and in the late afternoon the traffic builds and tourist buses hog the roads. Whereas the Grimsel and Furka passes provide wide vistas and a reminder from where one came, the Susten is more introvert. The mountains appear domineering, imposing and significantly higher. Steinsee, the lake at its summit, provides a beautiful panorama and welcome reward for the last stretches of climbing.
The three passes individually are incredibly challenging and together provide a trilogy hard to better for any grimpeur. They perfectly embody the roots of Swiss history and culture. Despite the effort, the doubts, the oppressive heat in the summer months, the frequent risk of storms or snow even in seemingly milder times, these are roads paved in legend and achievement.
The Furka Pass is the fourth highest road in Switzerland and among the top twenty in Europe.