Text: Keir Plaice | Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith | Video: My Media Sydney
From the Rhône’s upper reaches in the shadow of the Alps to its first resting place at Lake Geneva, Valais extends westwards around the river’s great valley, which runs parallel to the Italian and French borders in the south of Switzerland. In the east, quiet roads wind through meadows patched with cottages clustered around slender, white steeples. The grassy hillsides give way to forest then rugged, snow-blasted peaks wherever you look up. In the west, terraced vineyards rise from the river towards the high mountains, 45 of which top out at more than 4,000 metres in Valais. The Col du Grand-St-Bernard, Simplonpass, Furkapass, and Col de la Forclaz are among the many legendary cycling climbs in the canton. Smaller side valleys, some populated, some secluded, lead from the river towards higher elevations, while the main valley floor offers mostly rolling terrain, so all options are open when you’re planning your routes.
Begin in Goms, in the German-speaking east of the valley. Besides the clanging of cowbells and the odd tractor, its villages are almost silent, but their inns are sure to offer you a warm welcome, with plenty of fish and game and local Raclette.
You’ll appreciate a soft bed after taking on the Furkapass. From Oberwald, the climb rises for 17.7 kilometres at an average grade of 6%. The Grimsel and Nufenen passes are also nearby. But, if you’ve had enough of the cols, the riding in the valley is lovely too. There’s nothing better than an easy spin through the pastures after an Alpine epic. And you may want to save your legs for the days to come. There is plenty more climbing around.
From the resort town of Crans Montana, drop down through the vineyards to Sierre, which lies at the bottom of the valley on the French-German language border. From there, climb up to Salquenen, home to one of Switzerland’s most exceptional wines.
Though rarely exported, the wines from Valais can be stunning. The relatively high cost of production in Switzerland precludes the Swiss from making mass-market plonk, which means the country’s growers and makers remain, for the most part, small and independent and can focus on creating characterful wines from small parcels of land. Since Valais is one of the driest and sunniest parts of the country, with vines that are some of Europe’s highest, at over 1,000 metres in places, its wines achieve great density and richness. A glass or two goes down pretty well with lunch.
From Sierre, ascend the dramatic road to Leukerbad, with its famous thermal baths, which have been in use since Roman times. The village is nestled below impressive cliffs at the top of the Leuk valley. Your tired legs may appreciate a soak.
Your legs will need the respite if you want to ride the route of a stage of the Tour de France – as we were lucky enough to do, in the company of FDJ rider, Valais-local Steve Morabito.
When the Tour visited the canton in 2016, Ilnur Zakarin soloed from the break to win stage 17 on the final climb up to the gorgeous Émosson Dam. The 184.5-km stage began in Bern and traversed over to Valais, where the finale began in Martigny. First up was the Col de la Forclaz, which averages nearly 8% for 13 kilometres, before the road continues on into France in the direction of Chamonix. Right before the French border, there’s a turnoff, where the climb to Émosson begins. At over 8% for 11 kilometres, with views of Mont Blanc, it is sure to take your breath away.
The dam is an engineering marvel. Overlooking the Mont Blanc massif, 1,965 metres above sea level, it curls across the sky between mountains, with a large reservoir behind it. It works in tandem with a smaller dam higher up. When energy demand is high, the upper reservoir releases water, which falls through a series of underground turbines to produce power. Then, when the demand for electricity is low, the turbines are reversed and water is pumped back up through the rock from the lower reservoir to be stored above for later use. The Swiss genius for integrating modern infrastructure into age-old landscapes is rarely on better display. It’s what the Swiss do best.
And it’s also what makes cycling in Valais so exceptional. The roads of the canton merge flawlessly into countryside that’s as varied as it often is staggering. The region is a cycling nirvana – for hard-core grimpeurs and bon vivants alike.
Valais, in the southwestern corner of Switzerland, shares borders with France and Italy, and is blessed with monumental alpine scenery. The Rhone valley runs through the canton, with numerous side-valleys branching off it. The iconic Matterhorn looms imposingly over the Mattertal valley, and whilst it’s Switzerland’s most famous peak, it’s far from the only one – in Valais alone, 45 mountains exceed 4,000m in height.
With these countless cols to climb, it’s little surprise that the region is a wonderland for road cycling.
Find out more here.
If there’s a region of Switzerland that you should bring your road bike to, it’s probably this one.
Some of the memorable riding in the region includes the following:
- The famous Furka Pass
- The route from Leuk – Varen – Salgesch
- The Tour de France stage route from 2016, culminating on the remarkable Émosson Dam.
In August, check out the inaugural edition of the Tour des Stations.
The Trophy of the Dams series comprises multiple cycling routes culminating at massive dams, like the Émosson Dam featured in the article above. The Grande Dixence stage of Trophy of the Dams is especially spectacular, reaching the tallest gravity dam in the world, and the biggest dam in Europe.
Buy the kit
We’re producing a limited run of the Discovering Switzerland kit, as worn by Keir and Dave throughout the series. Made by Cuore of Switzerland, these kits are both stylish and comfortable for long days in the saddle.
To pre-order or check out the items, visit the CyclingTips Emporium. The order window will close Monday 2nd April.