UPS AND DOWNS A CYCLING JOURNEY ACROSS THE ALPS
UPS AND DOWNS A CYCLING JOURNEY ACROSS THE ALPS
This book could not have been made without the help of:
LHÍ supervisors: Dóra Ísleifsdóttir, Eric Wolf, Halli Civelek, Snæfríð Þorsteins, Þorvaldur Óttar Guðlaugsson Gunnlaug Guðmundsdóttir, Alastair Flynn, Dagmar Trodler, Davis Resneck-Stoner, Ian Watson, Jón Cleon, Sönke Holz Kría Cycles and the Icelandic Mountain Bike Club And of course all the people who contributed to making my stories during this bicycle tour.
Ups and Downs: A Cycling Journey Across the Alps (2013) Design, text and photos by Michael Tran Image of Landjäger sasuages on p. 37 from Spoony’s bike blog <http://blog.spoony.ch> The source for the profile graphs are from Google Maps/Earth and www.geocontext.org by Krystian Pietruszka
Printed at Litróf, Reykjavik, 2013 Paper: Munken Pure Rough, 120 gm Typography: Veneer, Brandon Grotesque
â€œA man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.â€? Homer, The Odyssey
This book is a selection of notes from my bicycle tour from Paris to Munich through the Alps in 2005. My notes are supplemented by graphs, photos and illustrations in order to provide the reader with an insight into my thoughts and experiences during this tour as a lone cyclist. Nineteen stories have been written to correspond to each day of the trip. Each story begins with a gridded page that replicates the original pages of my journal. The visual elements in the book have also been colour-coded to correspond to the countries that I passed through. Yellow refers to France, red to Switzerland, white to Austria and green to Germany.
CONTENTS & ITINERARY PART I
Paris – Chamonix day 1 The Curse of Day One, p. 14 2 Facing the elements, p. 18 3 Bike tourers who talk to cows, p. 22 4 Into the darkness, p. 26 5 A glimmer of hope, p. 30 6 Rest day, p. 34 7 The calm before the storm, p. 38 8 13.8 km of hell, p. 44 9 What goes up, must come down, p. 60 10 The king of the mountains, p. 70
* Map not to scale
Maschwanden – Munich day 14 Local assistance, p. 92 15 A nothing day, p. 96 16 I eat, therefore I am, p. 98 17 Unplanned festivals, p. 102 18 The bike touring cocoon, p. 108 19 Munich, p. 112 Oktoberfest, p. 122
Chamonix – Maschwanden day 11 Business in nature and other excesses, p. 76 12 The story of the time that I didn’t jump into the lake, p. 78
13 Bike paradise, p. 86
tour data LEISURE NUMBERS
BY COUNTRY France (8), Switzerland (6), Germany (4), Austria (1)
DAYS ON TOUR
Distance 90.1 km (90.1 km)
BY COUNTRY France (752), Switzerland (406), Germany (280), Austria (42)
TOTAL DISTANCE (KM)
LONGEST DAY (KM)
SHORTEST DAY (KM)
TREK TOURING BICYCLE
HIGHEST PASS (M) Col du Galibier (Day9)
Col du Galibier, 2,646 m
LARGEST CHANGE IN ELEVATION (M) (Day 9)
Col du Telegraph, 1,566 m
Alpe d’Huez, 1,990 m
Col de la Faucille, 1320 m
DAYS OF RAIN
Col du Lautaret, 2,058 m
MOST CONSECUTIVE DAYS WITHOUT A SHOWER
BUGS SWALLOWED ACCIDENTALLY
PASTRIES EATEN (recorded) 2 Pain-aux-raisin, 2 Quiche, Flan, Pain-au-chocolat, Sugar man, Cherry strudel, Apple strudel, Apple crumble, Austrian zopf, Sweet roll, Sugar roll
BY COUNTRY France (181), Switzerland (123), Germany (71), Austria (10)
MOST PHOTOS IN A DAY Annecy (Day 7)
NUMBER OF OTHER BIKE TOURERS ENCOUNTERED English (3), Scottish (1), Polish (1), Swiss (1)
PHOTOS PER DAY
FASTEST AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
SLOWEST AVERAGE SPEED (KPH) AVERAGE BY COUNTRY France (17.8), Switzerland (18.6), Austria (21.3), Germany (21.2)
TOP SPEED (KPH)
Oberjoch pass, 1,178 m
Schönau pass, 1,068 m
Brünig Pass, 1,008 m
Col de la Croix, 1,732 m Col du Pillon, 1,546 m
Col de la Forclaz, 1,526 m
Col des Montets, 1,461 m
STEEPEST ROAD (Day 14)
PERFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUGS USED.
NUMBER OF TRAINS TAKEN Paris – Melun (57.4 km) Annecy – Grenoble (107 km) St. Gervais – Chamonix (24 km)
It was a glorious spring day in Paris and the best place to be after work was outside a bar to enjoy a few drinks. Indeed I was doing this and I was joined by my good Bavarian friend, Dr. Wild, so called because he holds a doctorate degree and his family name is Wild. I was wondering out loud where I should cycle during my holiday in September. He asked me whether I had ever been to Oktoberfest and my reply was an embarrassing, “Nie”. Consequently, ambitious plans were con cocted, perhaps not helped by our intake of alcohol, and it was agreed that I would ride my bike from Paris to Munich in time for the opening of Oktoberfest 2005. On the other hand, Dr. Wild would take a plane and meet me in Munich, hopefully with a victory beer at the finishing line at Marienplatz, the historic square in the centre of the city.
Furthermore, every summer I had watched in awe on television the Tour de France competitors race up the Alps amongst a backdrop of spectacular mountain scenery. Why not put myself to the test and see what it is they go through? On the top of my list of mountains to climb was the infamous Alpe d’Huez. The road to the summit is 13.8 km long and features twenty-one switchbacks (or hairpins) at an average gradient of 7.9%. Many times in the Tour’s history, this ascent has contributed to deciding who eventually becomes the winner of the race.
The only problem that I could foresee was that a direct route from Paris to Munich was around 850 km and with roughly 18–20 days of leave planned, this would equate to about 50 km per day through somewhat placid countryside. This did not seem challenging enough so I thought I would take a detour through the Alps to make it a bit more inter esting. The year before, my usual bike touring buddy, Stretch, and I had gone over the lower parts of the Pyrenees on our tour of France, Spain, Portugal and Andorra. I enjoyed my first taste of mountain climbing and tackling the high Alps seemed rather enticing.
The journey would be the toughest test that I had faced on a bicycle. It would seriously examine my mental and physical abilities and ask vital questions of my character and outlook on life.
As it turned out the trip would be somewhat of a beer pilgrimage. In order to deserve the delicious and fantastic beer at the end of the journey in Munich, I would put myself through much suffering.
On y va! Los geht’s! Let’s go!
Fully-loaded bike tourers carry camping equipment, food, spare parts and tools. This burdens them with extra weight but their self-sufficiency allows them to take a more flexible itinerary as they do not need to rely on others for their meals or accomodation.
MELUN – BUSSY
Melun (alt. 54 m) 0 km
90.1 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
4:35:13 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
The Curse of Day One
The first day of a tour is always dreaded by bike tourers, or at least me because I begin my tours rather unfit and disorganised. The only preparations that I had made for this trip consisted of drinking lots of beers and buying the necessary Michelin maps for the regions that I would be passing on my way to Munich. I had no idea how I would get to Munich other than that I would go through the Alps. My initial plan was to get to Geneva as quickly as I could so that I could spend as much time in the mountains as possible. The passage to Geneva would hopefully provide the necessary and suitable training that I sorely required in order to cross the Alps. In terms of starting this tour from Paris, I have learnt from previous experience that riding out of big cities is a highly stressful and uncomfortable affair that should be skipped. One can begin their grand tour from a famous landmark, for example the Eiffel Tower, but from there you should ride your bike to a train station in order to get out of the city and avoid the bustling traffic and confusing mazes of roads. The priority should be to hit the open road as soon as possible to get a sniff of that fresh country air, have the wind in your face and stretch your legs for the arduous day ahead. With this in mind, I took the train 50 km south east to the small town of Melun on the outskirts of Paris. However, no matter how well you are prepared for your tour, you, or at least I, will always be a victim of the Curse of Day One. The first sign of this occurred when I immediately took the wrong turn when leaving the train station. A mistake like this can be costly but I trusted my instincts that told me that I was heading in the wrong direction. Aside from this little blip, the rest of the day went surprisingly well, perhaps too well. The terrain was predictably flat and calm next to the river Seine and I felt excited at the challenge ahead of me. Of course, it was not until late in the day around 7pm that the curse finally hit. Bussy (alt. 132 m) 90.1 km
France / 15
I got a flat tyre. That was a good indication that I should probably call it a day. Early evening is the time that I begin looking for a place to camp and preferably it will be free of cost. My eyes begin to scan the land for trees, which will be perfect cover for my tent and bike to hide behind. My map indicated that I was beside a relatively large forest called Bussy so when I saw a gravel path disappearing into a wall of woods, I duly followed it until I managed to find a clearing of sorts where I could set up camp for the night.
At this point, I should warn you, as an inspiring bike tourer, that the Curse of Day One does not end just because you stop riding your bike.
It just so happened that I had bought a new MSR Whisperlite camping stove that was recommended by Stretch. The Whisperlite is supposed to burn fuel at a very low noise level so this has its advantages in that it will not draw attention to me as I sneakily camp in the woods. However, due to my lack of organisation I had misplaced the operating instructions to the stove. Usually, when I travel with Stretch, he is in charge of the stove and cooking and I am his kitchen hand, whose primary task is to do all the slicing and cutting of ingredients for him. I used to watch him with glee because I was so hungry after a long day’s ride so I did have some idea of how to operate this stove.
The user is supposed to pump the fuel cannister a few times to enable the liquid gas in the tube to flow towards the stove and get ignited by a lighter or matchstick. Perhaps due to my lack of confidence in myself, I pumped the cannister twice as much as I should have, which led to a searing flame flying out towards my eyebrows. I managed to duck out of its way just in time. The next ten seconds involved me frantically trying to dowse this flame before it burned down the forest. So, lesson one, burning down the forest that you are trying to hide in is not of great benefit for a calm night’s sleep nor is the associated screaming that may draw attention to your presence. Thwarted by my lack of survival skills, I gave up on using the stove and instead I dined on cold chicken and bread and retired to my cosy sleeping bag in my tent and muttered, “Damn you curse of day one! Damn you!”
16 / France
France / 17
bussy – seigny
Bussy (alt. 132 m) 0 km
127.2 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
6:23:53 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
Facing the elements
I wake up to a glorious new day. The sun is out, the birds are singing and I am excited about what adventures today will bring. The Curse of Day One is lifted and surely things can only get better from here. As I pack up my belongings, I sing out loud the Feeling Good lyrics by Nina Simone: It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life. For me. And I’m feeling good. At the start of each bike tour I kind of know what I am supposed to do but I cannot quite remember all the specifics. It’s a bit like when you start a new job and you don’t know your way around. When do people take their first coffee break? Where do I get more staples? For bike tourers, the questions that we ask of ourselves at the beginning of a tour are: Where did I put my knife? How did I pack my pannier bags so well yesterday? How did I survive my last bike tour because this is bloody hard going?
The thing with bike touring is that your last memory of it is when you were at your peak fitness towards the end of your last tour. That was when you were feeling on top of the world. Bike touring? Pff... That’s a piece of cake. 100 km a day? No problems.
Seigny (alt. 230 m) 127.2 km
France / 19
But all the pain and challenges of touring quickly come flooding back like repeated slaps to your face. I get reminded of life on the open road and how bike tourers are constantly subjected to all the elements of mother nature who couldn’t care less how terribly unfit and unprepared I am. It’s a war out there and she is going to throw everything at me until I kneel down and beg her for mercy and even then she will show no mercy and just continue to kick me while I am down. There will be days when I am roasting under the sun like pork crackling or it will rain for such a long time that I feel like a raisin on a bike. My shoes will be so waterlogged that they feel like bricks and it will make me wonder whether it wasn’t worth me carrying a pair of Dutch clogs for such horrendous days. Scorching heat, ice cold winds, beating rain or hail and tough terrain. It really can be a test of survival.
If you ride long enough you may even find that when you spit or blow your nose, there will be black stuff in it from the pollution and when you shower, you will find that you are standing in a black puddle of dirt and grime from the long day’s cycling.
20 / France
Whereas a tourist in a car will see the land and quickly pass through it, a bike tourer feels it and ends up being shaped by it. We go slow enough that we feel all the nuances of the road and get the time to appreciate some of the scenery that we pass. There have been count足 less times that I have stopped on the side of a road to take a photo of something that I thought was amazing that I definitely would have missed if I had been driving. It is for this reason that bike tourers have the ability to describe well certain sections of a road and feel an affection for it. But of all the challenges that a bike tourer faces, none is more challenging than being totally
seigny – beaune
Seigny (alt. 230 m)
Dijon (alt. 219 m)
108.2 DISTANCE (KM)
20.0 AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
5:24:43 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
Bike tourers who talk to cows
“Can I help you? You do know that it’s rude to stare? Please don’t jump over the electric fence and maul me to death.” You are probably thinking that I am having a terrifying encounter with wild dogs or even wolves but actually, I am talking to cows. Aside from horses, cows may be the animals that I am most frightened of. That’s right, cows are ahead of snakes, lions and bears. I think it is because of their gigantic bulging eyes. They look like they could just pop out at any second and fly straight into my mouth. Then the cow would sneeze and I would be covered in their mucus and last and not least, to finish me off, the cow would just shit the hell all over me. As we are on this subject, I should take the opportunity to dispel the myth that people often say or think when I tell them that I am on a bike touring trip,
“It must be lovely to ride your bike in the countryside and get all that fresh air?” I say bollocks.
Beaune (alt. 219 m) 108.2 km
France / 23
But back to the situation at hand. It is day two and I am already speaking to cows and that is not a very good sign. We bike tourers tend to be a lonely lot so we often resort to making conversation with ourselves or with our physical surroundings. How are you feeling today Michael? I feel shit. Damn you steep hill! Damn you bumpy road!
But the most conversation, if you can call it that, is reserved for our best friend and nemesis, the wind, who we have a love/hate relationship with. When the wind is behind me I like to mutter, “I love you man!” but when it is from the front or lashing at me from the side so that it either tries to blow me off the road or into traffic, I am often heard screaming, “Damn you wind! Damn you!” However, the real battle during the first few days of a bike tour is trying to get accustomed to the loneliness and I admit that at this point I was feeling pretty low. There’s not much that I can do. There is no one else riding with me to give me a little encouragement. I have to battle through it, entertain myself by talking or singing and to believe in myself and what I am doing.
Am I too old for this?
To combat the loneliness I listen to the radio the whole day. As I am in the countryside there is a severe shortage of choice of stations and I am usually forced to listen to 80s music or local music like the accordion, which after a while really really gets on my nerve. Nevertheless, it is rather pleasant to have something in my head other than my own voice and the tired gasps of my breathing.
I used to do 100 km per day easily.
Why am I struggling now?
STILL DO THIS? Although it is only the third day of the trip it feels like an eternity because I haven’t really met anyone other than the girl working at the bakery who smiled through gritted teeth whilst saying, “Thanks, goodbye!” but thinking, “Please don’t come back because you stink.” She would be right because it has been three days since I showered. Therefore, you can understand the slight elation that I felt when I was finally heading back to some form of civilisation. I had reached the wine region of Burgundy and I had a brief walk around Dijon before cycling south to Beaune past all the vineyards and making camp at a municipal campsite. Yes! People. But first, before I faced anyone, it was imperative that I take my first hot shower of the trip. It is funny that such a basic and daily activity that is usually taken for granted suddenly becomes one of the most exhilarating and amazing occassions for a bike tourer. It feels like the best shower that I have ever had in my life. The water massages my muscle and cleanses my skin and as it disappears down the drain, it has turned black from washing all the gunk from the last few days on the road. Feeling like a new and respectable man now, I then hunt down unsuspecting victims for a chat.
Hey cat, do you want to be my friend? I’ll give you some food!
Hey you, do you want to talk? I’m doing a bike tour. Not interested? Let’s talking about whatever you want to talk about!
France / 25
beaune – lac vouglans
HOW THE HELL THIS ROAD? 13% HUMANLY POSS
Beaune (alt. 219 m) 0 km
103.7 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
5:28:47 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
Into the darkness
It is a baking hot day in the middle of France. I had arrived in the town of Lons and decided to take a late afternoon rest break. It was one of those days when everything under the sun is baking hot making the roads look like fresh deformed liquorice coming out of the machine. After my rest, however, I faced a minor problem of getÂ ting out of the town. There was only one road out and it was at a 13% gradient, the likes of which I had not faced so far on my trip. As I slowly rode up to this section of the road, I craned my neck upwards but I still couldnâ€™t see the top. As I got closer, the road rose above me like a tsunami wave of black asphalt, which was on the verge of crashing down and wiping me out.
AM I SUPPOSED TO GET UP % GRADIENT. IS IT EVEN SIBLE ON A BICYCLE?
Lons (alt. 255 m) 76 km
Lac Vouglans (alt. 453 m) 103.7 km
France / 27
When you are riding your bike, you are always aware in which gear that you are riding in and how many gears that you have left before you reach your highest or last gear. Much like mountain bikes, touring bicycles often have a third chainring, often referred to as granny gears, to help you get up steep inclines. On this particular climb, I went straight to my granny’s and one by one I went up my gears to find one that I hoped I could keep spinning. My legs were turning frantically but I was barely moving up the road. It felt like I was riding on sand and very soon I reached my last gear. If I can’t get up the hill in this gear, I’m going to fall over. Each turn of the pedal became a grind and soon enough I began to panic. My brain wasn’t quite in sync with my legs, which were
doing their own thinking and just pedaling manically. In the meantime, lactic acid is build ing up and turning my leg muscles into a goo. Now I’m really in the shit and I begin to wobble and when this happens it is practically over because the last thing that I want to do is to swerve into the middle of the road and get run over by a car. And so, I bite the bullet and do the logical thing and get off my bike and start pushing it up the hill. Even this is barely manageable and I am forced to put my head down and strive forward blindly. This is probably good because the passing drivers cannot see my face as they laugh at me and say, “Ha ha, look at that loser. He couldn’t even ride up the hill.” If someone had offered me the choice of walking my bike up this hill or dragging a giant boulder naked down the main street in my hometown, I think at this point in time I would have chosen the latter. Head down in shame, I continue to push on up the hill.
Even cars are struggling to get up this road and those that are going down it are constantly braking so that they do not go too fast and burn up like a space shuttle reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Just to make matters worse, as I neared the top of the hill I came across in disbelief a farmer who was herding a group of cows across the road. I had never realised why there is a cheese in France called, La vache qui rit (The Laughing Cow) but I soon got a hint. It first started out as a giggle but it soon became a cacophonous roar of laughter as all the cows teased me, “Ha ha! Silly bike tourer has to push his bike up the hill.” On this murderously steep road, my hopes of successfully riding over the Alps were beginning to set like the late afternoon sun. If I couldn’t get up this measly hill, what hope was there of me getting up Alpe d’Huez? Sure, I can make excuses like it is the end of a long hot day but fear and uncertainty began to dominate my thoughts. In situations like this, it is like a little piece of my bike touring ego died on that hill that day.
However, this was the least of my worries as night was approaching and I was basically stranded on a mountain with barely any streetlights. I had no idea of where it was possible to make camp for the night and all I could see was an endless wall of trees lining the road. Exhausted, I pedalled on through the darkness hoping that drivers would be able to see me in time with their headlights and swerve around me. Eventually, a small lane veered off the road into what was maybe a vehicle rest stop. There was a small clearing with a grassy patch and in fairly desperate situations like tonight’s, as long as I could pitch my tent it would be good enough for me so I make camp and retired for the night. On a lonely mountain top, cars passed by throughout the night, and I twitched at any small sound that I could hear. However, the main sound that rang in my head was the failure of today - the road out of Lons. But as they say, it’s not failure that defines you as a person but how you recover and react to it.
France / 29
lac vouglans – GENEVA
Lac Vouglans (alt. 453 m) 0 km
100.0 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
6:13:21 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
A glimmer of hope
Before I set out each morning, I check my Michelin map in order to figure out a rough route for the day towards an intermediate destination. It seemed that if I were to reach Geneva that day, I would have to pass over the bulk of the Jura Mountains. To indicate steep roads of at least 9% gradient, Michelin uses a little arrow (>) on a map. The route that I was intent on taking would lead me through several of these steep sections and culminate in the mountain pass overlooking Geneva called Col de la Faucille (1,323 m). Despite the failure of the previous day, it is not in my nature to choose the easiest route. I like to do it the hard way and this goes with everything in life, which is a detriment most of the time. If I was indeed using the first few days of my tour for training I might as well suck it up and work on building my mountain legs.
Respect the mountain. Let the mountain come to you. Relax, breathe. Go slow, get into a pedaling rhythm. Itâ€™s all about rhythm.
Geneva (alt. 385 m) 100 km
The first big challenge of the day was conÂ firmed when a sign on the side of the road indicated a 10% climb was ahead. I took a deep breath, put my head down, and went to work. Somehow, I got into a little zen zone and steadily made my way up the road. After a while, before I even realised what was happening, the road began to flatten out and I wondered whether that was the end of the steep section. Was that it, I wondered? This climb was supposed to be as difficult as the road from Lons. Did something happen in my sleep last night?
France / 31
As is usual, I reflect on the day’s riding by writing in my journal but I had to be a little more critical about myself this time. I had to go back to basics and learn from my previous bike touring experiences. It wouldn’t be the first climb that I have had to walk up and it wouldn’t be the last. The points that came to my mind were: Respect the mountain. Let the mountain come to you. Relax, breathe. Go slow, get into a pedaling rhythm. It’s all about rhythm. The self-coaching seemed to work and the oddities of the morning continued as I reached the top of the mountain. There was something surreal, almost mystical about this place that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. As I rolled along quietly on the mountain road, a cute Swiss village revealed itself out of the fine mist and riding out of it came a guru figure. He was a skinny middle-aged man with a long grey beard on a vintage racing bike. He resembled Gandalf the wizard on wheels. He seemed to be completely relaxed and unperturbed by all the steep roads that surrounded the village. What was this place? Had I reached the Shangri-La of super cyclists? On the contrary, as I continued on the road and descended the mountain I passed a completely different looking cyclist. He resembled a Swiss financier with his black tights, reflective sunglasses, slick combed-back hair on a carbon-fibre bike that shouted out to all who could see it, “Damn you! You could never make enough money to buy a bike like this.” I waved hello to him but he didn’t wave back. Jerk. What is this place, I again muttered to myself? With this morning’s surreal experience behind me, my confidence was growing and my ego was slowly becoming rehabilitated. I became eager to tackle the last big climb of the day, which would take me past the ski village of Mijoux and up to the mountain pass where there is a great viewpoint overlooking Geneva and its surrounds. This climb again posed no problems and in fact I think I even enjoyed it. As I stood there enjoying the view, I noticed a few bicycle tourers coming up the other way from Geneva. It turned out that they were English and had ridden directly from the airport. I need also mention that the average age of these Englishmen was probably 55 years. After witnessing three men thirty years my senior climbing up a mountain on their first day, and my good performance on the bike this day, a flicker of hope was lit inside of me that I could cross the Alps. Any self-doubt or excuses that I might come up with to deter the attempt were well and truly extinguished.
32 / France
France / 33
Sometimes we need to step away from what we are doing in order to realise our accomplishments despite the setbacks that were en countered on our journey. After five days of continuous riding from Paris (Melun) to Geneva averaging 105 kilometres per day over hilly and sometimes mountainous terrain, I had the opportunity to take my first rest day in Geneva. The physical and mental toll of the initial part of my journey was now taking great effect. My legs felt like deadwood and my head was light. When I walked around Geneva to take in the sights, I felt like a dazed and confused sailor who stumbled from place to place on his weak sea legs. Luckily, I had the benefit of staying with an ex-colleague and friend, Tobias Kienes from Austria. It was great to have a familiar face around and I could relax somewhat. My stay also marked an important event that would greatly influence my whole journey. Tobias presented me the special gift of semi-dried sausages. I was rather surprised when he made the offering as they looked like any other preserved sausages in vacuum wrap. They did, however, look a little peculiar. They were rectangular in form and resembled nuclear fuel rods rather than some thing nice and juicy that you put in your mouth. “I got my brother to send these to me especially from Austria,” he said with a proud grin. “What? They don’t have sausages in Switzerland?” I replied. “No, not like these ones. Smell them,” he ordered as he shoved the package under my nostrils. You would think that anything vacuum-sealed in plastic would be im penetrable. This is how stinky cheese and fish is packaged so that they can be transported in people’s luggage. But Tobias was right. A quick whiff of the packet brought a rich smell to my senses and I let out a sigh of surprise.
France / 35
“See?!” he said with an even bigger grin. ‘These are called Landjäger. It means ‘country hunter’ or ‘gamekeeper’ in German.’
What are in these sausages? Radioactive cows? How many calves did this bull sire until three hundred Spartans were able to defeat it and put it on roast? Or was this the meat of a mythical creature? Part cow, part pig, part tiger? I thanked Tobias for the gift but he easily ascertained that I did not truly understand the significance or power of the package that he had given me. He too was about to set off on his own adventure, heading into deepest darkest Switzerland to find a river that bore his namesake, Kienes, and of course he was taking some Landjägers with him. Therefore, just before we parted, he put his hand on my shoulder, looked deeply into my eyes and said,
“Michael, do not underestimate the power of these sausages … ”
36 / France
France / 37
Geneva (alt. 385 m)
GENEVA – Séchilienne
Annecy (alt. 443 m) Grenoble (alt. 217 m)
67.8 DISTANCE (KM)
Séchilienne. (alt. 366 m)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
3:36:23 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
The calm before the storm
The objective for today was to arrive at the foothills of the high Alps. I left Geneva and rode south to Annecy. Even though it was only a day’s break and my legs still felt tight, it was a joy to be back on the bike, although something bizarre did happen. Midway through the ride to Annecy I became rather perturbed by how slowly I was riding. There was no headwind and I was feeling pretty good physically so there was no reason for my progress to be so slow. It became such a distraction that I actually stopped on the side of the road to check whether there was something wrong with my bike. As I did this, I looked back from where I had come and realised that I had been riding up a hill the whole time. It wasn’t very steep but it was a clear uphill nonetheless. Did the ride over the Jura Mountains change my perspective on what constitutes a steep road? Accordingly, I got back on my bike and continued until I came across a sign indicating that I had reached Col du Mont Sion (786 m). Although it was not a particularly challenging pass, it was still an achievement and a notch to add to my belt. For the rest of the morning, I walked around the lovely town of Annecy before catching a train to Grenoble. I had decided that I would try to reach somewhere that was within a day’s ride from Alpe d’Huez so that I could attempt the climb the next day. Alpe d’Huez is one of the most infamous climbs in the annual Tour de France cycling
race. Although it is far from being the highest mountain that the racers scale, it is greatly feared for its steep ascent. It is known for its iconic 21 switchbacks or hairpins that takes riders 13.8 km up to the summit at an average gradient of 7.9%. Certain sections reach as high as 13% and each switchback is signmarked to help drivers or cyclists know what stage they are up the mountain — to perhaps consider quitting. To conquer Huez was one of the main objectives of my trip and if I were to succeed, it would become one of the greatest highlights of my touring career. Many professional competitors in the Tour de France have been broken on this climb and have had to retire from the race. And here I was trying to do it myself but with an extra 12 – 15 kg of luggage. I told you that I like to do things the hard way didn’t I? The road from Grenoble towards Alpe d’Huez meandered along a narrow valley. The air was still and crisp and I could feel a little tension in the air as if there was a storm brewing on the horizon. Nonetheless, I could almost describe the valley as pleasant and tranquil if it weren’t for the menacingly tall dark mountains on either side, stooping over the road. They blocked out the sun so that I spent the afternoon riding in their intimidating tshadows. These rocky figures resembled sinister sentinels who looked down on me with disdain. Through the winds I heard them whispering to each other and finally to me,
France / 39
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GO H AND COME
HOME DON’T E BACK France / 43
Séchilienne – Meije la grave
Séchilienne (alt. 366 m) 0 km
86.3 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
6:30:43 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
13.8 km of hell
The moment of reckoning had come. The day that was to define my whole trip had arrived. I was sitting at a rest stop at the base of Alpe d’Huez in quiet contemplation of the magnitude of the challenge that I was about to undertake. For this very reason, it was not helpful when a local man turned up on his bike and exclaimed,
“You going up Huez with all this luggage?” “Err … yes.” “Putain!” he shrieked with follow throughs of Gaelic spit as if his mouth was a geysir.* Unperturbed by our initial introductions, we continued to chat but only in stop-starts as if he was observing or witnessing the last moments of my life. A short time passed until he looked directly up at the blazing midday sun and then to his watch as if the time for the gunslinging showdown in Texas town had arrived. Without word, he stood up abruptly, shuddered and gasped, “I fear for you,” before hopping on his bike and disappearing into the the horizon. So what does one do after such an encounter? Well, of course you still go up the mountain to prove him wrong. The defining moment of my tour is now. I have ridden all the way from Paris to do this. I can’t just ride away from it because I happened to come across the town looney. And so, with a deep breath, I too hopped on my bike but headed in the opposite direction as the town looney, towards the monster they call Alpe d’Huez.
Meije La Grave (alt. 366 m) 86.3 km
The path to the start of the climb is dotted with signs clearly indicating where the road to Alpe-d’Huez starts. It is as if someone mounted these signs as the last warnings to cyclists to indicate that there are great amounts of pain and suffering ahead.
A conservative translation would be ‘Bloody hell!’
France / 45
And so, with a deep breath, I too hopped on my bike but headed in the opposite direction towards the monster they call Alpe-d’Huez. I ignored all these signs and as I began the climb I couldn’t help but wonder that perhaps the Putain man was right after all. Alped’Huez does not gently ease you into the ascent, it begins with the biggest and baddest sections as if to quickly get rid of the weak. The image of the black tsunami wave reared its ugly head again and thoughts of self-doubt came flooding back into my head. I rattled the gears frantically hoping that I would find a gear that I could keep going but predictably I ended up on the last gear. If it gets any steeper than this I will be doomed and I have only just begun. I know that there are twenty-one switchbacks so my goal is broken down into stages and as I make the first turn, I plead, “Please let this be the first switchback,” but of course it isn’t. I crawl up the road at 5-6 kph and when you’re going that slow it’s almost as if you can see time itself as if you were the operator in the film, The Time Machine (1960). Flowers on the side of the road wither and die and then bloom again as the seasons pass and you powerlessly witness countless other cyclists passing you up the mountain. I am forced to really reach deep into myself and remind myself, one pedal at a time. Rhythm, control, breathe. Suddenly, I catch the first glimpse of the first switchback, a small sign printed with the number twentyone. There is a small respite as the road flattens out to turn back up the mountain but I again end up facing a wall of seemingly insurmountable road. The ride is the most intense workout that I have ever done. 46 / France
France / 47
Switchback number 20 passed and the ascent is still unrelentingly steep. Huez will not let me relax. It slowly crushes you into a pulp unless you fight back. The road is so steep that my handlebars are practically pushing into my chest to slowly squeeze all the air out of my lungs. My knuckles go white from gripping the handlebars, which I feel like I am holding on for dear life. If I let go, I will simply fall to my instant death. There is nothing for me to do other than to grit my teeth, put my head down and look at my front tyre. I can feel every tiny bump and see every speck of dust on the road. There is no point looking up because all there is to see is depressingly steep road ahead. Every pedal is a grinding struggle and I cannot help but entertain the thought of quitting. But what would be the consequences? Could I face my friends again? Could I look Stretch in the eye and tell him that I quit on Huez? What would I tell fellow bike touring friend Davis? I had an amazing story going and I just quit. The shame of it all. This is when selfmotivation techniques go into overdrive. I openly will myself on with shouts of, “C’mon! You can do it! Damnit! C’mon!” 48 / France
Switchback number 20 passed and the ascent is still unrelentingly steep. Huez will not let me relax. It slowly crushes you into a pulp unless you fight back. As sweat pours down my face, thoughts of dehydration slip into my mind. It is a cloudless day and the thermometer is straining towards 30 degrees - perfect for a day out at the beach but instead I am toiling up a brutal mountain climb. Will I die on this ride? Headline: Australian dies on Huez, embarrassingly, he didn’t make it to the top. C’mon, I will not surrender.
Switchback 19 passed. What is my pain threshold? How far am I willing to push myself? My hands are now aching from gripping the handle bars so tightly and my back is sore from being hunched over in the same position for such a long time. The sun’s rays are pounding me with intense heat, not only from above but also from below. The asphalt is baking hot and the heat reflects off it right into me. Because I am riding so slowly, there is no air flow cooling me down and I feel like a hot potato slowly moving on a conveyor belt and getting cooked alive.
Switchback 18 passed. Sweat drips down from my helmet into my eyes, which momentarily blinds me and if it wasn’t difficult enough riding up this road, doing it with one hand swaying all over the place while the other hand wipes the sweat from my eyes makes it all the more difficult. To add to the hellish experience there are no tall trees on Huez to give you respite from the sun. It is just a ruthless mountain. One long punishment. There’s nowhere to hide on Huez. It’s just you and the mountain.
Control, France / 49
Michael, get to that tiny tree with a crooked branch up there,
OK, If I am going to find a way up this merciless mountain I would have to devise a strategy. The only idea that came to mind was to create tiny individual goals. I would spot anything on the side of the road and make it my goal to reach them.
then after that, get to the tiny bend in the road.
Suddenly, I pass a British couple who are resting on the side of the road. My goodness, there are other people doing this ridiculous climb and I am doing better than them. And theyâ€™re not even carrying any luggage.
Now get to the bit on the road where there is a big crack on the concrete barrier â€Ś
To counter this ebullience, one of those ultra fit 70-year-olds overtook me but somehow I managed to keep up with him.
Steady on Mike.
Respect the climb. Respect Huez.
15 France / 51
And so I let him go and returned to my own pace as the British couple also overtook me.
Hmm... I think Iâ€™m getting into a rhythm. I decided that I would only take a rest break when I manage to get the switchbacks down to single figures.
14 52 / France
10 France / 53
8 Short breather â€Ś
54 / France
Wow! I’m really doing this. I’m going to make it!
France / 55
YES! After 2.5 hours, Alpe-dâ€™Huez and my fears were finally conquered. I felt extremely proud of myself but soon after the accomplishment a strange thought entered my head.
Give me more.
56 / France
France / 57
WHAT GOES UP
MUST COME DOWN
MEIJE la grave – ST. GERVAIS
Meije La Grave (alt. 366 m)
Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne (alt. 533 m)
69.2 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
4:19:27 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
What goes up, must come down
After the feat of yesterday, my radar for this day were two other famous Tour de France mountain passes, Col du Lautaret (2,058 m) and Col du Galibier (2,646 m). I could not quite believe that I had spent most of yesterday going at a measly speed up mountains. Alpe d’Huez took me two-and-a-half hours to climb and after rac ing back down its 21-switchbacks, I spent another couple of hours (~25 km) riding relatively steep uphill towards Lautaret. As my tactic for getting up Alpe d’Huez was rather successful, I decided to employ it for this climb as well. There was an advantage for this road as every twenty metres or so there were traffic (snow) sticks on the side. Therefore, depending on the steepness of the road, which determined how many sticks that I could see at one time, I set the minor goal of reaching a certain number of them. For example, I could maybe only see five sticks ahead of me so as I passed each one, I would shout out loud. One stick, two sticks, three sticks, four sticks, five sticks. Reset. One stick, two sticks, three sticks, four sticks. Reset. One stick, two sticks … and so on for the whole of the afternoon. All this mountain climbing ended up deforming my buttocks irrev ocably. When you are going up steep climbs the most economical way is to sit in a relaxed position rather than say standing up, which uses up a lot of precious energy. When your buttocks eventually feel the constant pressure of being squished into your saddle, you will eventually stand up on your pedals and shout out, “My arse is grass.” This saying doesn’t make any sense but it does relieve the pain somewhat. Partly due to the matter that my arse was grass and that it was late in the day and I had no information as to whether there was any kind of accommodation at the top of Col du Lautaret, still another 10 km uphill away, I decided to camp in the village of La Grave. This was not the worst place to stay since it was underneath the Meije glacier. It just seemed like the perfect way to reward myself for the day’s hard riding and that is to wake up to the stunning scenery of a glacier the next morning.
France / 61
In the morning, I continued on the same road as the day before. It was relentless uphill climbing for another 10 km. One stick, two sticks, three sticks … until I reached the mountain pass, Col du Lautaret (2,058 m). Lautaret has fine views and is a three-way crossing point where you can either go west and return to the town of Le Bourg d’Oisans at the base of Alpe-d’Huez, descend towards the east to the town of Briancon or, as I in tended, to continue upwards another 8.5 km (avg 6.9%, 585 m elevation) to the next mountain pass of Col du Galibier (2,645 m), the 10th highest paved road in Europe. From this point onwards there is a great sense of cycling history, particularly at the monument erected for the first director of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange. Many passing tourists lay a wreath. Spectators often line the road here to cheer on the racing cyclists
and paint encouraging phrases onto the road. I felt like I was adding to this grand history in my own humble way, by simply riding there. The extra climb to Galibier did not seem so intimidating as the lessons of mountain climbing in the last couple of days had truly been learnt. You really have to play the role of the tortoise and pace yourself up the moun tain because you never know what you’ll be greeted with up the road. When I reached the summit this time, I felt another wave of euphoria. Although the climb was not as difficult as Huez, getting up this high on a bike is a pretty awesome feeling. Another difference was that I took it in with a group of other riders. We all congratulated each other and took photos but quietly we all knew that the hard part was yet to come — the descent.
Sneakily, Galibier had a nasty surprise of a 12.1% gradient as the final climb to its summit.
To get my point across quickly and suc cinctly — descending a mountain in the Alps is a major stress and requires as much concentration as an ascent. Firstly, the top of these mountain passes are chilly but they get even colder on the descent as you are riding so fast. I once read that Tour de France competitors have been known to demand newspapers so that they can shove them down their jersey to stop the wind chill getting to them. Secondly, it can be terrifyingly scary. From the top of Galibier down to the next town of Valloire is about 18 km of continuous downhill. This may ini tially sound like fun but for half the time you are actually applying the brakes. After a while this becomes extremely tiresome on your hands, which adds to the pressure of putting on the brakes when you really need it.
So why am I constantly braking? So that I am not going too fast that: —— I ride off the mountain on a turn; —— I am unable to miss a pothole or a pebble that can make me crash at speeds of up to 70 kph or more; —— I hit the back of a car or truck because I am able to descend faster than these vehicles. —— I crash because I accidentally swallow a fly or have one splatter into my forehead or sunglasses.
France / 63
64 / France
France / 65
When I eventually I made it down the mountain I found myself in an awful industrial area with highways and factories. Sometimes in situations like this, rather than struggling through horrible scenery, it is just easier to catch a train and continue your trip from a nicer region. Accordingly, I checked my guidebook and map to find out which towns near the Swiss border had a campsite where I could stay over for the night. As it turned out, I took the train to Saint-Gervaisles-Bains, a village down the road from Chamonix and Switzerland. However, by spending half the day in or around trains, I slipped out of my daily food purchasing routine. An aspect of a bike tourer’s routine that I have not mentioned is the cultural differences of a country that you need to realise in order to survive. One of the important pieces of information that you need to quickly get your head around is the opening hours of shops. In France, especially the countryside, shops and bakeries not only close early in the evenings, they also tend to close for up to two hours at lunch time.
Every day, I compromise on the amount of food that I carry. Less weight = faster bike tourer.
This way, I need to go to the shops everyday. As I was on the train, I completely forgot about my food supplies and when I fin ally arrived in the evening at St. Gervais, it was pitch black and all the shops had already closed.
Consequently, I found myself in the nightmare scenario of being a tired and hungry bike tourer with little food. To compound the problem, there seemed to be no signage for where the local campsite was located. Luckily, I found a passing local and he happened to give me some very clear and good instructions because I was practically riding blind down roads with no idea where potholes may be. To my relief I finally spotted the camping sign. Under the cover of darkness I rode into the campsite, immediately set up my tent and belongings and got straight into cooking. At this point, I was on the verge of starvation and shockingly realised that I had nothing to eat other than couscous. I desperately rummaged through my bag in case I had a misplaced can of sardines or tuna. This was when I felt something plastic, foreign and unusual in my bag …
It was at that very moment that I realised what Tobias had had in mind when he gave me the sausages. They were to be treasured and eaten only in the darkest hour. I hurriedly boiled the water for the couscous, chopped one of the sausages up into bite-sized pieces and flung them into the pot. I was trembling with excitement, and after each mouthful I could feel it slowly move down my throat
before settling in my stomach. I must have been more starving than I thought because I could feel a tingling sensation rippling through my body as the food or at least the nutrients rapidly flowed out from my stomach to every extreme of my body to rebuild my tired and aching muscles. That night in St. Gervais, I became a believer of the power giving qualities of sausages.
France / 67
Credit card bike tourers carry the bare minimum. They purchase their food from shops or restau足足rants and stay at hostels or hotels. Their light weight enables them to travel faster but they need to plan their tours carefully in order to find accomodation each evening.
Maschwanden, SWITZERLAND My tour entered a new phase today. I had reached my goals of climbing some of the most famous Tour de France mountains and hereon in my next challenge was to ride across Switzerland. This seemed like a daunting task as well as the country is known for its moun tainous landscape. Perhaps it was because I still had a buzz from last night’s sausage still coursing through my veins but I felt that I could take on anything that Switzerland had to throw at me. In a way, I was happy to seek pain and the route that I was to take from Chamonix to Martigny, Switzerland would take me over two mountain passes. Excellent.
CHAMONIX – VILLARS
Chamonix (alt. 1,034 m) 0 km
89.8 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
6:07:21 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
The king of the mountains
I am always excited about entering another country and making judgements based on my first impressions. What are the roads like? How are the signage systems? How bike friendly are the roads and drivers? Are people friendly? And what’s on the radio? The change also means that I need to switch maps and this is a significant act that symbolises my good progress on the tour. Through France, I had gone through two or three regional maps but Switzerland is so small that I only had to use a national map of the country.
It was on my way to Martigny that I happened to run into my first bike tourer on the Forclaz pass. It is always a momentous occasion not unlike olden times when two gallant wandering knights ran into each other. We find this fascinating because each tourer travels differently and this means that we always size each other up. What kind of bike are they riding? How much luggage do they carry? Which pannier brand are they using? How crazy are they? In addition, the questions that we ask each other are always the same.
Where are you going? Where did you come from today? Where are you going today? Got any advice? I only wish that there is a universal secret bike tourers handshake that could be used in our daily lives. We might be at a party or in a business meeting and two strangers would make this handshake to instantly reveal their love for bike touring. Whatever this handshake would be, it should end with a little nod of the head to insinuate, ‘Respect to you bike tourer’.
Villars (alt. 1,353 m) 89.8 km
As it turned out, the tourer on the Forclaz pass was Polish and he was one of those people who are happy to lug around a de facto kitchen pantry with them. These tourers either buy in bulk to save money or still want to eat what they eat at home. In this case, he told me that when he rode in Sweden the year before, he carried 10 kg of rice with him. Why would you do that? That is just crazy to me. My luggage weighs about 12 – 15 kg and the maximum amount of cous-cous that I carry is only 500 g at a time.
Switzerland / 71
Anyway, I had met a nice guy, the weather and roads were fine so all in all Switzerland seemed like a great country. I was making good progress over the mountain passes and it seemed that I had finally gotten my mountain legs. As I went through Martigny, I was flying along at 30 kph but of course this seemed all too easy. The goal of the day was to get to a town called Gryon, but I hadn’t counted on having to make an Alpe d’Huez-esque fourteen kilometres of intense and relentless steep climbing in order to get there. With Alpe d’Huez at least the switchbacks are numbered but in all other situations, there is nothing for you to do other than to stay patient, relax and pray that the steep road is coming to an end. Soon enough I began to realise how high I had reached as ski lifts and cabins began to appear. There were no signs for camping. In these situations, the question that you always ask yourself is,
72 / Switzerland
can I camp in that wooded area there or will there be something better if I keep cycling? Fortunately, something popped up as I continued riding along in this densely wooded area. A very large field appeared, a great view of the surrounding mountains was revealed, and I just knew that it would make a splendid camp. Therefore, I decided to walk up to the house next to this field and ask the owner whether I could camp on his or her land. The worst that can happen in these situations s that the owner (generally a farmer) says no and then you cycle on. To date, my requests have never been denied, and the places I have camped include a horse farm and the inside of a farmerâ€™s garage. The spoils of my effort was that I enjoyed possibly the best free camping I have ever had on a bike tour. There I was eating my dinner and sipping my earl grey tea on a warm September evening under a clear starry sky listening to the breeze and the odd noises in the valley.
I had my mountain legs, I had my sausages, I had a great view and a camping spot. What more can you want in life, really?
Switzerland / 73
I’M THE OF T MOUN
E KING THE NTAINS
VILLARS – INTERLAKEN
Villars (alt. 1,353 m) 0 km
108.6 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
5:29:00 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
Business in nature and other excesses
I enjoy camping a lot and the best version is always free (or wild) camping. The ability to see a beautiful place and then be able to pitch your tent and enjoy it for yourself is fantastic. However, there is always a cost that comes with free camping. There is no place to take a shower, but this can be postponed because you are not regularly meeting the same people on your travels. However, what cannot be postponed is the business of number two.
place nearby to ease yourself in peace the next morning. Secondly, unless you’re the Polish guy I met the previous day, you don’t need to carry rolls and rolls of toilet paper with you. You just need to remember to constantly refill your collection every time you use a toilet. Lastly, you need to keep your toilet paper in an easy-access location so you don’t accidentally do your business in your pants while you’re looking for it.
On this day, as I had graciously been allowed to camp on someone’s field, I did not want to inconvenience my hosts early in the morning by knocking on their door to stink out their toilet. So I did the next-best thing and went into the woods on the outskirts of their field and did my business there.
This business may even be taken more seriously than others. I’m not going to name names but one fellow tourer returned from his business one time and proudly exclaimed, “Three sheets! How’s that for efficient?!” Right, back to me. Once I had taken care of business I emerged from the woods non chalantly as if I had been busy looking for truffles. As I started packing up my gear, the lady of the house invited me in for breakfast.
This activity of business in the wild requires a bit of practice but if you frequently free camp, it soon becomes routine. Firstly, when you are searching for a free camp you not only want a place where you will be comfortable and undetected but also some
Wow! Did I already mention that this might be the best free camp ever?
Interlaken (alt. 568 m) 108.6 km
Switzerland / 77
Free food is always great but when you are a bike tourer, it is doubly great. When I entered the house, a feast had been prepared for me by my host. She was originally from Finland and had moved to this place twenty years earlier. On the table was bread, cereal and an assortment of jams on offer. I duly got stuck in. It is times like these that you remember that there is good in the world and that people are a generally
nice lot, except for me of course since I had just pooed in their backyard. As I tried to hide my guilt, we made small talk. This is a town that most likely I will never come back to, these people I will never see again. Likewise for these people itâ€™s not every day that a bike tourer comes by and camps in your field so you might as well ask him what heâ€™s up to. It really is these small moments on my trip that I savour and tell others about.
So it was about this time on my trip that I really began to indulge. I was feeling great both physically and mentally. I thought that I deserved anything and everything. I want more mountains. I want more food. I want to see more. My body was getting a lot of exercise and producing a lot of happy chemicals. As a bike tourer you begin to get
addicted to cycling and being on the road. When I arrived at the small skiing village of les Diablerets and walked into the bakery to see a delightful cherry strudel, I can say, I want this, because I can. I am going to have two sausages for lunch because I can. All these calories will just be burnt off when I ride my bike.
Of course, each tourer’s indul gences come in different forms. For example, Patrick, a Swiss bike tourer who I met on the way to Interlaken, offered me a joint. Well that would certainly calm the nerves and take the pain of mountain climbing away.
Switzerland / 79
INTERLAKEN – LUZERN
Interlaken (alt. 568 m)
76.3 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
3:42:35 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
The story of the time that I didn’t jump into the lake Ed and I were sitting on the bench in silence transfixed on the turquoise blue lake (Lungerersee) below us. If you look up the phrase ‘picture perfect postcard’ in the dictionary (or in these days wiktionary), the photo of the view that we were seeing will be there. On this day, the Lungerersee was glistening in the sun, a ring of mountains encircled the lake and one rather prominent sharp peak popped its head above all the rest from behind. It must have been 27-28°c and a jump into this beautiful lake to cool off was very inviting.
Conditions were perfect. It would certainly make a good story.
Luzern (alt. 435 m) 76.3 km
Switzerland / 81
It just so happened that I had ridden north from Interlaken. When I had reached the top of the Brüning pass (1,005 m) and set up my camera to take a photo of myself, another bike tourer arrived from the east. This was Ed and since he was from Scotland, he called himself, ‘The Mad Scotsman.’ I was not going to disagree in case he really was mad. Ed had come from the Furka Pass (2,431 m) and done his fair share of climbing battles. We both agreed that Brüning was a pretty
82 / Switzerland
easy climb and since we struck up such a good accord and that we were both planning to reach Lucerne that day we decided to meet up again for lunch. As Ed was credit card touring (i.e., he was staying in hostels and carrying much less luggage) he travelled much faster than me, so we decided to ride separately and meet at the first cafe that we came across in the next town. After more chatting over coffee, we decided to find a place next to the lake, Lungerersee, to have our packed lunch.
As we were enjoying our lunch, our discussion somehow got into the realms of philosophy. I will never know how this came about but it probably stemmed from our mutual appreciation of bike touring. The courage to go out and do something is what matters in life. And I’ll never forget what Ed said to me that day,
“You’ve got to have stories. When you’re a grandpa with grand children, what are you going to tell them? If you don’t have stories [to tell] what do you have?”
I had never heard such a perspective on life before and I completely agreed with Ed. So based on his philosophy, would we have the courage to leap four to five metres off this viewing platform into the presumably icy cold mountain fed lake below? I don’t know what Ed was thinking but for some strange reason, I wasn’t so concerned about not knowing the depth of the lake or how cold it was or how I could possibly climb out of the lake and back to shore. I just didn’t like the thought of having to find my towel in my
saddle bag and then having to dry myself and find dry underwear. You could say that I was just plain lazy. Or maybe subconsciously I did n’t want to ruin this pristine memory of this beautiful view? Ed and I will never understand why we didn’t have the guts to jump in that lake that day but strangely it is a story that I will never forget.
Switzerland / 83
IF YOU HAVE ST WHAT YOU H
U DON’T TORIES, AT DO HAVE?
Luzern (435 m) 0 km
26.9 DISTANCE (KM)
LUZERN – MASCHWANDEN
Maschwanden (407 m) 26.9 km
20.6 AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
1:17:48 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
Ed remarked that he was going to see a Swiss guy who he had met earlier at a Bicycle Trade Show and that I was welcome to come along. This person was named Phil and he had start ed his own bike design company in a tiny nondescript town called Maschwanden in the middle of Switzerland. There was no reason for me to take this detour, which ended up being my slowest and shortest riding day, other than to see what adventures it would bring and what I may learn from a local.
As it happened, we passed a silly town called Root (Australian slang for ‘shag’) and I saw perhaps the most amazing sight on my whole trip, which will forever be etched in my brain. It wasn’t a mountain, a beautiful lake or a stunningly attractive local girl. It was simply the sight of a group of a dozen school kids (probably aged 7 – 8 years) who were riding their bicycles home together with the beautiful Swiss mountains as a backdrop. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was indeed bicycle paradise. How would I have turned out if I had been brought up here?
Switzerland / 87
88 / Switzerland
The other unpredictable event that happened as a consequence of tak足 ing a chance to come to Maschwanden was that we ended up going to Zurich for a meal. There was no chance that I would have come to this city as I had lost all interest in seeing another big place on this trip. Our host, Phil, took us to an old armoury that had been convert足ed into a restaurant. You can imagine the pleas足ure that I got when Phil told me that this restaurant is famous for its sausages by the metre. My imagination went wild. How many metres could I eat? Are the sausages served from a fire hose drum and you just pull it onto your plate and eat it until you are full? And what is the kitchen like in this restaurant? Is the cook dressed in armour and grills the meat skewered on a sword? Do they freshly kill the animals in the back? Do we get little daggers to cut our meat? The evening turned out to be a lot of fun. Our food was served on a plank of wood and accompanied with traditional Swiss r旦sti and beer.
Switzerland / 89
Supported tourers barely carry anything. They travel extremely fast as they have the luxury of a vehicle that transports all their food and luggage to their next destination. If they are lucky, their support staff may even give them a massage at the end of the day.
Munich, GERMANY As I said my farewells to Ed and Phil, it quickly dawned on me that I still had a mission to accomplish. Munich was actually not all that far away and in some ways I could almost smell and taste the Oktoberfest beers. As a consequence, for the first time on my trip, I began to seri ously think about Munich and it became my sole focus, especially since I had arranged to meet Dr. Wild there in five day’s time.
MASCHWANDEN – APPENZELL
Maschwanden (alt. 407 m) 0 km
105.6 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
6:02:50 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
I was flying. Absolutely flying across the canton of St. Gallen at 35 kph without even breaking a sweat. The beautiful countryside beside me was just a green blur and even the cows were mooing in surprise as they saw a red and yellow figure flash past them. How was I doing it? I was slip-streaming a local farmer in his tractor and carefully making sure that I wouldn’t go too fast and end up underneath its large rear wheels with
its imposing black treads - especially if he suddenly braked. Of all the help that a bike tourer can get from locals, providing a break from the wind is perhaps the ultimate. I must have been behind the tractor for what felt like half-an-hour and I was able to save precious time and energy for the gruelling afternoon ahead. The reason was that at the town of Watwil, I had a decision to make concerning the route that I would take to Appenzell.
Appenzell (alt. 796 m) 105.6 km
Switzerland / 93
The option was to either take the larger No. 8 primary road, which would have more traffic but be flatter or take the smaller No. 888 local road, which would be much quieter but involve a number of steep sections up to gradients of 14% - for goodness sakes, it was so steep that Michelin had to use double arrows (>>) to indicate this. I chose the latter as I had been deprived of some tough climbs since the Bruning pass and afterall I was the King of the Mountain and therefore I shouldn’t shirk away from any mountain top conquests. The ride took me into deepest darkest Switzerland if that is at all possible to say. I really felt that I was off the tourist beaten track and that I was in a region that only locals would visit. The landscape was beautiful with gentle rolling hills dotted with stereotypical wooden Swiss cottages. When I finally arrived in Appenzell, I had trouble finding a campsite and decided to rely on local assistance again. Upon passing a farmer’s residence that overlooked the town below, I duly stopped and got off my bike. I pulled out my German phrase book and knocked on his door and with the worst pronunciation possible, I somehow got myself another great camp from a local. The farmer had a few kids who were very curious about what I was doing at their place. They stood there and watched me cook my dinner on my camp stove. Relying on a combination of expressions plucked from my phrasebook and hand signs, I managed to communicate to the farmer and his family that I was riding to Munich in order to attend Oktoberfest. I couldn’t figure out if he was laughing with me
I couldn’t figure out if he was laughing with me or at me but a short time later, his son came out and gave me a beer. or at me but a short time later, his son came out and gave me a beer. I wondered why I hadn’t done this more often throughout my trip but if I did, perhaps I wouldn’t have made it this far. Bless the stranger in the tractor and the family Enzler. I shall always have fond memories of my time in St. Gallen and Appenzell.
94 / Switzerland
Switzerland / 95
Appenzell (alt. 796 m) 0 km
42.3 DISTANCE (KM)
APPENZELL – BREGENZ
Bregenz (alt. 397 m) 42.3 km
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
1:58:53 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
A nothing day
Arrived in Bregenz just before 2pm. Setup camp. Walked around town. Drank coffee. Wrote postcards. Charged camera. Checked internet. Looked for sausages. Ate sausages. Went to sleep.
Austria / 97
BREGENZ – OBERTSDORF
Bregenz (alt. 397m)
76.5 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
3:55:01 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
I eat, therefore I am
Have you ever wondered why it is that it is the skinny guy who always wins the eating competitions? I’ll let you in on a secret. It’s because the skinny guy is a bike tourer. The amount of food that we consume would be unhealthy if it weren’t for the fact that we ride some many kilometres each day. Actually, it’s kind of like what everyone in Oberstdorf was doing except they were bike tourers and thus did not have a bike tourer’s body, if you know what I mean … It was on this day that I stopped at the town of Thalkirchdorf and threw a tantrum because there was no shop. I became furious at this village. How could they not have a bakery here? In a cloud of disgust I continued on the next town and entered the first bakery that I saw. When I entered, a large round bread caught my eye and I instantly knew that I would have to order it. When the girl at the counter passed the bread over to me after I paid, I nearly dropped it as it was ridiculously heavy. What do they put in German bread? Lead? Is that how Germans are so tall? The bread must have weighed close to a kilo. It was the densest bread that I had come across in my life. My Swiss army knife barely cut through its hard crust and I did not look forward to carrying this heavy bread on my bike. As I was still fuming about the last town, I felt that I had to take it out on this loaf of bread. Generally, this bread could probably have fed a family of four but it would have to do for one hungry bike tourer. I must reveal to you now that we bike tourers develop the bottomless stomach.
rtsdorf (alt. 846 m)
If a fast-food restaurant wanted something different to name their biggest offering, instead of XXXL, they should really use bike tourer size.
Germany / 99
At the end of a long hard day, there is nothing more that a bike tourer looks forward to than a big warm dinner. If a bike tourer was really desperate, I think that he or she would be prepared to slay a horse, eat it and then sleep in its bed. On rainy days, we are forced to eat inside our small cramped tents and this forces us to lie on our stomach and eat our food as if from a trough. From day one we train our stomachs to hold more and more food. It doesnâ€™t matter how big the meal is, we will finish it and then ask for more. At the beginning of a tour I feel that I eat so that I can cycle but soon enough this changes to cycling so that I can eat.
A large part of what a bike tourer thinks is a good meal is the quantity of it. And once dinner is over, the very next thought that enters my mind is breakfast. That crunchy muesli in sweet milk just makes us drool to sleep.
Germany / 101
There is nothing I like more on my travels than to find myself in the right place at the right time to enjoy a local festival. It is something that you cannot plan for unless you are an organisation freak who spends countless hours on the web and even then you wonâ€™t be able to catch every single event. As it happened, I found myself in the town of Oberstdorf the night before the much anticipated annual cattle drive where all the townsfolk dress up in traditional garments, cows included, in order to celebrate the return of the cattle from their lovely summer pastures in the mountains. Oberstdorf is a popular skiing and hiking town in southwest Germany and is a relatively big detour for a bike tourer as it is located about 14 km from the main road to Munich. I was here because another Bavarian friend, Max, suggested that I come here as his mother operated a Bed & Breakfast (B&B) in the town. It is hard to resist an opporÂtunity of meeting local and learning about the region so I took him up on the offer. The reward was free accommodation and the experience of the cattle drive.
Germany / 103
Gertrudeâ€™s B&B turned out to be a relative palace for a tent-sleeping bike tourer. I had the luxury of the whole two-storey house to myself but of course I kept all my belongings in one neat little bundle in the corner of the room as if I was still staying in my tent. Waiting for us at the B&B was Gertrudeâ€™s partner and we had a spaghetti bolognese dinner together. However, they had to promptly leave soon after as they had another engagement so they left me bike tourer sized-leftovers. Fantastica!
As it turned out the thunderous noise was the sound of the cattle coming down the mountain.
104 / Germany
The following morning I was awoken by what seemed like an army training exercise. Horns were being blown, men were shouting some sort of instructions and there was a thunderous rumbling in the mountains. I quickly got up and had breakfast before making my way to the festive area. This was not difficult to locate as I was told to look for the large white tents in the middle of the field. When I got there, there were already hundreds of people dressed up in lederhosen drinking beer and playing music.
As it turned out the thunderous noise was the sound of the cattle coming down the mountain. I could not help but feel a little uneasy about the prospect of thousands of cattle rampaging down the mountain to pillage and plunder the quaint town of Oberstdorf. It would be like the last scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when Gandalf the wizard leads a charge of Rohan horse riders down the mountain to obliterate the orc army who were laying siege to Helmâ€™s Deep. You just have to replace the image of the horses with menacing cattle.
Germany / 105
Eventually, the thunder turned into ringing due to the bells which were tied around each cow’s neck. Once the cattle reached the valley, they were rounded up and sorted so that they could be returned to their owners. This process involved funnelling the cattle into a narrow pen whereupon large strong men took each cow to the right paddock. The cow’s of course did not enjoy this and most of them provided some level of resistance. Now, if my job was to handle large beasts, some of which have nasty horns and weigh at least 5 – 6 times my bodyweight, my choice of clothes would be a little more functional than say impy shorts held up by suspenders, a thin t-shirt and a cap, although it does have a feather in it. But then again, who am I to argue against hundreds of years of tradition?
106 / Germany
I spent the whole morning watching the festival was a terrific experience. However, I was mostly absorbed and took greatest pleasure in watching an old man whose only job it seemed was to poke the cowâ€™s bum with his stick. I donâ€™t know how he got his job but none of the strong men were particularly perturbed by his actions even though it was infuriating the cows even more and making their jobs even harder. Perhaps he was a legendary retired cow herder or simply the brother of the head of the festival but this hilarious sight was certainly worth my ride all the way from Paris.
Germany / 107
OBERTSDORF – SCHWANGAU
Obertsdorf (alt. 846 m) 0 km
76.5 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
3:43:56 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
The bike touring cocoon
It all begins innocently enough as youâ€™re in the bike touring groove. Your daily routine is automatic and you are feeling so terrific that you feel like you can go anywhere you want with your bike. The bicycle empowers you and you feel complete freedom. It is the place that I feel most comfortable now as my body is operating at peak performance. I feel like one with the bike and even my backside is molded perfectly to my saddle. Most imÂ portantly, through the regular activity of cycling my body is constantly producing a load of happy chemicals or drugs that become addictive. Now, when I stay at a place to sightsee for too long, I soon feel agitated and long for the open road. Once I am on my bike again and pedaling, my body begins producing drugs again and my mood improves. So there is the problem that the whole point of doing my trip is to see the sights but the place that I am most happiest now is on my bike riding.
Schwangau (alt. 791 m) 79.3 km
Soon enough, I begin to be consumed by the need to bike tour and increase your determination to get it. You really enjoy your conversations with yourself and your bike and begin to lose the need for human companionship and limit it to only superficial exchanges at the shops. I cannot say that they were wrong because for bike tourers it is a fine line between complete happiness of our trade and complete madness and the cause of this state of mind is that when you do bike touring long enough it becomes your life â€” your only focus. I have met some tourers who are in the midst of multi-year touring and they have completely lost their way and how to behave in social settings. In a way, you become an outsider with a transient lifestyle that very few can relate to or understand.
You just want to be left alone to ride your bike and another of your favourite places becomes your tent.
Therefore, staying in hostels become a real nuisance as I have to share a space with another stranger. On the contrary, when I am snug and tight in my small tent, I feel secure and content with my own thoughts. It is as if the tent acts like a womb or cocoon and it becomes a place where I feel most protected. Now, as my tour was on the verge of ending and I had no more mountain passes to climb, I felt the insatiable urge to get one more little adrenalin hit.
Germany / 109
I had arrived at the fairytale looking Neu schwanstein Castle, which sits atop a rugged hill, soaring above the surrounding coun tryside. This castle was commissioned in the 19th century by King Ludwig II who was also known as the Mad King. Accordingly, I felt that I should do something out of the ordinary as I too was going a little mad. To the bewilderment of the crowd of tourists around me, I rode up the very steep walking path towards the entrance to the castle. This was maybe the closest experience that I would ever get to a Tour de France
mountain top finish experience — except that the spectators weren’t exactly clapping and cheering me on. Instead, they were more concerned with hurriedly parting away either side of me on the narrow path to let me through. I was rather surprised at their quick reaction but it seemed that they were terrified and deeply affected by the stink and sight of my dirty laundry. I had left my underwear and socks tied to to the top of my pannier bags to dry. And you wonder why I wasn’t meeting more people along my trip.
Germany / 111
SchWANGAU – MUNICH
Schwangau (alt. 791 m) 0 km
124.2 DISTANCE (KM)
AVERAGE SPEED (KPH)
5:22:37 HOURS ON THE SADDLE
I woke up this morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with the single thought of reaching Munich by the end of the day. I estimated it to be around 130 km away and I was intent on getting there as fast as I could by taking full advantage of all the muscles that I had gained on my trip. In a way, it was a day to celebrate the end of my tour by getting one last terrific high on my own body’s happy drugs. As added motivation, I decided to dedicate the day to my buddy Stretch who I know would have wanted to do the trip with me. As I dressed myself that morning, I felt like a knight preparing himself for a defining battle. Zipping up my top, putting on my gloves and helmet was akin to putting on armour. And of course getting on my bike was like mounting my warhorse. The way that I was thinking was in stark difference to the early days of my tour. I was brimming with confidence and the question was no longer whether I’d make it to Munich but when. However, despite my new found faith, I did have some vulnerabilities. For the last twelve days or so, since I departed Grenoble and made my ascent up Alpe d’Huez, I had been riding in the mountains in near solitude. In some ways, I thought that my situation was not unlike the viehscheid in Obertsdorf, when the cattle come down from the mountains. One day, a cow is enjoying themselves in the alpine pastures and the next, they’re driven down the mountain in order to return to their real life in the paddocks. They are suddenly subjected to the chaos of crowds of people who are shouting and pushing and one particular annoying guy who is poking you in the bum with a stick.
Munich (alt. 518 m) 124.2 km
Germany / 113
There are a series of re-adjustments that one needs to make when they return to their life pre-bike-tour. I would have to reduce my food intake and reintegrate into society by reawakening my social skills. It is a bit like the film, Planet of the Apes, where Charlton Hestonâ€™s character, Taylor, understands what the apes are saying but frustratingly he is unable to speak. Sometimes it is nice to sit and observe rather than forcing conversation.
Munich was getting closer and closer and I could almost taste the beer.
114 / Germany
But today was not a day to go too deep into one’s own thoughts. It was necessary that I would move quickly so as to not arrive late in the evening in a big city such as Munich in order to begin my search for accommodation. Upon leaving the campsite, the first 30 km or so the terrain was still quite hilly, almost as if it was a gentle re minder by the mountains that I was still in their domain and that I still needed to respect them. However, once the hills disappeared, the scenery opened up into agricultural farmland and it became rather flat all the way to Munich. With the spirit of Stretch with me, I changed my posture to the drop handlebars, increased my cadence and powered on at a fantastic speed.
Soon enough, farmland gave way to suburbia and highways began appearing. Bit by bit, the surroundings became denser and denser with housing until signs no longer indicated directions to Munich but to the Zentrum. The realisation that the end of my pilgrimage was nearly at an end gave me another burst of energy to ride even faster. My thoughts soon wandered to what delights that Dr. Wild and I would get up to in our time in Munich. We were both connoisseurs of beers and sau sages so meeting at Oktoberfest was somewhat the mecca for us. I was nearly trembling with excitement now.
Germany / 115
As I got closer and closer to inner Munich I had to reduce my speed considerably to adhere to the traffic rules. The last thing I wanted to do was be this close to the finish and suffer a horrible accident. Soon enough the biggest hint that I had almost reached my final goal appeared when I rode under one of the old fortified gates that used to be a part of the wall surrounding medieval Munich town. My imagination went wild as I envisioned trumpeters and drum足mers stepping forward on the balcony blowing their horns and beating their drums. Beside them would be maidens waving their handkerchiefs with delight. Townsfolk who were performing their daily routines suddenly parted to either side forming a clear path for me all the way to the central square of the city. Finally, when I arrived at Marienplatz the Rathaus-Glockenspiel bells rang endlessly in celebration of my arrival and fireworks sprang out from all corners into the sky.
116 / Germany
Germany / 117
VICTOR Now, where can I get my first beer and sausage in Munich?
118 / Germany
Germany / 119
MUNICH – OKTOBERFEST
19 1,482 DAYS
Ups and Downs is an exercise in visual storytelling. The book is a graduation project from the Department for Graphic Design at the Iceland...
Published on Apr 19, 2013
Ups and Downs is an exercise in visual storytelling. The book is a graduation project from the Department for Graphic Design at the Iceland...