Roadtripping Switzerland


Few mountain ranges are more synonymous with road cycling than the French Alps – the Col du Galibier, Col d'Izoard, Alpe d'Huez, to name but a few of the Alps' most famous climbs. But the Alps extend well beyond French borders and into several neighbouring countries, not least Switzerland.

In the latest installment in the CyclingTips Roadtripping series, Swiss local Alain Rumpf tells the tale of how he and his crew set out to conquer some of Switzerland 'classic' road climbs ... as well as a true hidden gem of the Swiss Alps.

Swiss MPU

As the days were becoming shorter and the temperature was starting to drop in the Swiss Alps, I did not feel the normal urge to head to the mountains for a late season cycling adventure before winter.

It wasn’t that I had lost my love for cycling. But after completing the Transcontinental Race, with a new house to move into and a baby coming soon, I had other, good, priorities. I was just happy to escape from time to time for a short ride in our beautiful neighbourhood. Then came an email from Andy at CyclingTips:

“We are looking to shoot a piece in Switzerland highlighting some of the lesser-known climbs, and a few bangers like the cobbled Gotthard Pass. Would you happen to have any riders available to shoot something over the next month or so?” In other words: would I be interested to ride and shoot Roadtripping Switzerland?




“The Swiss Alps are not on every rider’s bucket list. But they should be …”

Long days on the bike with friends, exploring and revisiting beautiful landscapes, sharing stories … CyclingTips’ Roadtripping series brings together what I love most about cycling. This, in Switzerland, my home country, where I have been riding for the last 32 years.

The Tour de Suisse is part of the UCI WorldTour but it does not have the same profile as the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France. As a result, the Swiss Alps are not on every rider’s bucket list. But they should be, and CyclingTips was giving me the opportunity to show the Swiss Alps to the world. Or, at least, to the world of passionate cyclists.

It did not take me long to say yes. I could even pretend that I would combine Roadtripping Switzerland with some scouting for an upcoming tour I was planning for Grand Tours Project, a cycling holiday company founded by Aussie Keith Tuffley. I am not sure that Keith believed me, but he let me go. He too understands the need to bike …

Now I just needed partners in crime. “I am planning a last trip to the high mountains before winter. We’ll ride cool bikes. Are you in?” It came as no surprise that many friends said yes to the invitation, and in the end Jen and Graham were available at short notice. Snow (and a baby!) were coming soon, so we could not wait any longer.






Graham, a Canadian, lives near Lausanne. His Instagram is pretty rad and whenever we ride together, we keep leap-frogging each other to try and take the best shot. We rarely beat Strava PRs, only photo PRs.

We have a great community of cycling friends around Lake Geneva and get invitations to ride every weekend in the summer. My wife Lillie met Jen on one of those rides and they became great friends.

Jen is from the UK and had been training for the Haute Route this year. Unfortunately, she was unable to attempt that challenge after being sidelined by a hip injury. Roadtripping Switzerland was not quite going to make up for her big goal of the year, but she happily found space in her hectic schedule to join Graham on our late-season adventure.

Now that I had put a dreamteam together, the next step was to pick our destination. Not an easy task. Between what I have ridden in Switzerland and what I still wanted to explore, I could do a weekly issue of Roadtripping Switzerland for a full season.

To try and make a decision, I asked myself: “Where would I take a visiting cyclist if they had only two days in Switzerland?” Easy: on the first day we would have to ride some of the classic climbs. On the second day, we would explore a hidden gem. That was it. I had a plan.


 Day 1: the classics 

Swiss Large MPU


We all met in Ronco Bedretto, in northern Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Four languages are spoken in this country: I live in Romandie, the French-speaking area; the biggest part (63%) of the population speaks German; the canton (province) of Ticino speaks Italian; and Romansch is the language spoken by around 40,000 people in the eastern part of Switzerland.

The kitchen was closed when we arrived late evening at our hotel so we snacked on Gruyères cheese (from Romandie) and Graubünden dried meat (from the Romansch-speaking area) in the lobby while discussing our route for the next day.

We would do one of the most classic loops in Switzerland including St Gotthard (2,106m), Furka (2,436m) and Nufenen (2,478m).

We woke up the next morning to thick and threatening clouds. I checked the radar while sipping my doppio espresso and it wasn’t looking too bad. Maybe some rain in the morning, then better as the day went on.

The rain started just as we were leaving, and stopped a few kilometres after Airolo on the way to St Gotthard. This climb is amazing. Firstly, because most of the traffic goes either through a tunnel or on the main road to the pass. Cyclists ride on the old road, also called the Tremola. Secondly, this road is cobbled.

It is never too steep so it does not make the climb overly difficult. Just a bit slower, and much more fun over this old Roman road. Thirdly, the Tremola features some amazing sets of switchbacks.






While the rain had stopped that was only because it had started to snow. July and August are normally fine for riding in the Alps but October is a tad unpredictable. Our Roadtrip was going to be epic. Good! We all love this kind of ride … afterwards.

Unfortunately we could not see the famous Tremola switchbacks through the clouds, and we were happy to reach the top where the weather was starting to clear. Coffee and Ovomaltine were ordered to warm us up.

Every Swiss kid (myself included) was raised with Ovomaltine. It looks – and tastes – like hot chocolate. But its original formula, only available in Switzerland, contains barley malt, milk powder, cocoa powder, whey protein, egg, yeast and honey. No wonder Fabian Cancellara is so strong.

Next on the menu was Furkapass. We were now in the German-speaking part of the country. James Bond drove over Furkapass in Goldfinger (1964) and as one might expect, there was a car chase. A sign commemorates this episode, and I think Jen would make a great James Bond girl — in cleats.





Fortunately, the MeteoSwiss weather app was right and the sun uncovered the magnificent hues of autumn in the Alps: green on the valley floor, gold on the early slopes, dark at the top and white on the peaks.

It was a bit nippy again at the top, so we only stopped briefly to enjoy the view of what must be the highest concentration of switchbacks in the world. On one side of the valley, the road to the Furka Pass. On the other side, the road to the Grimsel Pass.

Time was ticking so we had to continue our way down to the bottom of the last, but not least climb of the day: the Nufenen, the second highest paved pass in Switzerland after the Umbrail in eastern Switzerland.

Coffee and funny biscuits were much needed in Oberwald before this monster.




It’s a big climb: 1,108m in 12.8km. There is an average gradient of 8.5%, but with some long, seemingly endless straight sections that dabble above a 10% gradient the Nufenen is a real challenge. And that’s not to mention the fact we were at the end of a long day and at high altitude.

We got to the top with the last light on the peaks in the distance. The cold and savage beauty of the mountains was all around us. Gotthard, Furka, Nufenen: the Swiss classics had not disappointed us.

The loop is under 100km but don’t underestimate it: with close to 40km of climbing, it is a big ride.


 Day 2: The Hidden Gem 


“We knew we would get wet. The only question was: when?”

For the second day I wanted something truly special; an amazing climb nobody had heard of. For that I turned to Will, my climbing guru. His blog Cycling Challenge is a reference for any cyclist who wants to get off the beaten path and well worth a visit if you’re looking for inspiration before a trip to the Alps.

When I launched a survey online asking people to vote for their favourite climb in Switzerland Lago di Narèt got just one vote – Will’s. It was enough for us to go and check it out.

The climb is located in Valle Maggia above Locarno in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. It is the most southern part of the country, on the southern face of the Alps. The weather here is usually warmer and sunnier than elsewhere in the Alps; perfect for spring or autumn rides.

But this time MeteoSwiss did not give us much hope — we knew we would get wet. The only question was: when?

It is possible to leave from Locarno at an altitude of 200m, but the real climb starts in Bignasco and it only gets steeper 10km up the road in Peccia at around 800m of elevation. From there, there’s another 1,450m to climb over 20km. Yes, we like our mountains big in Switzerland.





We made it on dry roads until Lago del Sambuco after 20km of climbing. Then it started to drizzle. Then the fog came. And then the rain; a cold, bitter rain. But no snow this time – only some on the roadside.

We took no pictures at the top, because there was nothing to see – we were trapped in the fog. Will says that “the top half is easily the highlight”. When the fog would lift ever so slightly, uncovering this hidden gem of a landscape, we definitely saw the potential.

So now we are forced to go back and ride it again some other day, to see it with our own eyes. There are worse things in life.

Our adventure ended in the best possible way – with a great meal full of local produce. On the way down we stopped in Grotto Pozzasc in Peccia where we enjoyed some minestrone and polenta cooked over a wood fire.

Roadtripping Switzerland was a wrap. I drove back to Romandie with Jen while Graham continued his journey to Tuscany where he was taking part in L’Eroica. Yes, the dude has a tough life. We did not have the best weather, but it made for great pictures and, of course, great laughs.

Our last big cycling adventure of 2015 lived up to its promise. Another epic for the memory banks, and we are now ready for winter.

You can follow Alain (aka A Swiss With A Pulse) on his Instagram. If you are planning a cycling holiday in Switzerland, his company, Grand Tours Project, is organising a Switzerland Explorer tour next summer. You can contact Alain for more information.

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