Words: Alain Rumpf | Photos: Etienne Van Rensburg & Alain Rumpf
It’s no secret that the Swiss Alps are home to a multitude of beautiful climbs. But while many such climbs get the recognition they deserve, others go largely unheralded. Such is the case with the Grosse Scheidegg.
Join local rider and tour guide Alain Rumpf and photographer Dan Patitucci as they tackle a tough but stunning 140km loop, starting and finishing in the lovely town of Thun.
Welcome to my backyard: Switzerland. This is where I’ve been riding since I fell in love with cycling when I was 12. As a kid, I raced all over the country and kept exploring it on my bike after landing a job at the UCI. For 20 years, I managed stuff at the pointy end of the sport and thought that changing the (cycling) world was the coolest, most meaningful thing I could ever do.
Then I lost my job and made a late career change to become a bike bum. I rode the Transcontinental Race and became a guide, a writer and a photographer; riding and inspiring people while living a simple life in the mountains. This, I found out, turned out to be way more rewarding.
So let me summarise why, in my unbiased opinion, riding in Switzerland is as close to cycling nirvana as you can get. First, the country is covered with a tight network of quiet and well surfaced roads. Smooth-as-a-baby-bottom-type roads. Those roads will take you through an unexpected variety of terrain for such a small territory: pristine lakes and rivers, rolling hills in the countryside and challenging climbs amongst snowy mountains.
In short: Switzerland matches anything that France, Italy or any other popular cycling destination has to offer.
The Grosse Scheidegg, nestled in the Bernese Alps, is the quintessence of the Swiss riding experience. It’s a tiny road, it’s closed to motorized traffic at the top, and it has dramatic views on some of the most prestigious peaks in the Alps. But the climb is steep: you have to earn these views.
Dan Patitucci is an expert on the Grosse Scheidegg. A leading mountain sport photographer, he lives at the bottom of the mountain near Interlaken. He runs, skis, and rides on it all year round. I met Dan in the Dolomites in 2010 — we became instant friends and have shared many adventures on the bike ever since.
So when I got the opportunity to host an episode of Scott’s The Escape, I did not need to think twice. I would climb the Grosse Scheidegg, and it would be with Dan.
The loop we rode on a warm summer day starts in Thun, on the shores of the Thunersee, one of 7,000 lakes in Switzerland. On the way to the Grosse Scheidegg, Dan took us up to a spot only known by the locals: the Beatenberg. A lesser-known climb, it offers fantastic views on the Thunersee and the Bernese Alps. It offers a decent warm-up by Swiss standards.
Back down in Interlaken, we stopped for coffee before riding along lake number two: the Brienzersee. Its amazing turquoise and emerald colours are attributed to glacial particles and it is one of my favorite places for a relaxed ride. Because Switzerland is not just about climbing mountains.
A few more kilometers on the flat and we arrived in Meiringen. The town was made famous by the Reichenbach Falls, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional hero Sherlock Holmes dies – or does he? It was now time to start the Grosse Scheidegg.
A sharp right turn onto a narrow road took us straight into the heart of the matter: the gradient rarely goes below 9% for the first 6 km, offering glimpses of glaciers and rocky peaks.
The road flattens before Rosenlaui. At this point, you’d already think it’s an astounding climb. But the best is yet to come. After Schwarzwaldalp, motorized traffic is no longer allowed. No cars, no motorbikes and no campervans. If you’ve climbed popular alpine passes during summer, you know that this is a dream.
All you’ll see are the views, cows, cyclists, hikers, and the famous public service PostAuto buses. These won’t kill you, but they won’t stop either. So if the road is narrow, which is almost always the case, you’d better hop on the side when you hear their distinctive horn in the distance every half hour or so. You’ve been warned.
The final switchbacks beneath the mighty Wetterhorn (3,692m) are the part of the Grosse Scheidegg I prefer. Less so when I rode it with Dan: a week of guiding in the Alps had tired out my legs, and I was struggling to stay on his wheel. But I still outsprinted him to the top. Once a racer, always a racer …
We stopped at the top to enjoy the stunning vista of the most famous north face in the Alps: the Eiger. But, as is often the case in the afternoon, clouds were building up and it was time to get off the mountain.
The descent into Grindelwald is where Peter Sagan first showed the world he was not just a sprinter. In 2011, the Slovakian rider was part of an early breakaway on a Tour de Suisse stage that went over the Grosse Scheidegg. Damiano Cunego attacked from the bunch, bridged a two-minute gap and reached the top first. He thought the stage was his but Sagan went on a now-signature, hair-raising descent to catch him and sprint to victory in Grindelwald. A star was born.
We were not as fast, but we enjoyed the twisty road and continued past Grindelwald towards the Thunersee. We rode back along the water and finished with a beer in Thun. It had the unique taste of an epic day in the mountains shared with a friend. Then… the rain started.
Just another day in the Alps.
The route starts in Thun, a small historical town 30km east of the Swiss capital of Bern. Immediately the rider faces a steep 7km up to Heiligenschwendi followed by a short and technical descent to Sigriswil. Here the second climb of the day — 12km long with 650 vertical metres — starts to Beatenberg.
After a fast descent on wide roads to Interlaken, the road is mainly flat along Lake Brienz for the next 30km. Next comes the climb of the day to Grosse Scheidegg. The road rises up 1,325 vertical metres in less than 15km, before a technical descent to Grindelwald and then goes further downhill on the main road to Interlaken.
The last 25km are lumpy until you reach your start location after 142km with 2,990m of climbing.