Raid Switzerland 2011

Report by Doug Driscoll

On 18th June 2011 14 riders (12 VCC) headed off to the Alps for their annual pilgrimage across the mountains:

Mark Antcliffe, Gavin Bench, Paul Cackett, Nick Coe, Mark Drinkwater, Doug Driscoll, Frazer Harper, Steve Kay, Leigh Marmon, Gareth Morris, Matt Pumo, Matt Reader, Paul Roberts, Marek Siwicki

Using a format that we have refined over the years: We simply hire a van to take the bikes & luggage down to the start whilst everybody else flies out and back, and have a nice kind driver (Nick Coe this time around) to follow us around on our stripped down racing bikes. Various duties (route planning, hotel bookings, map printing etc.) are all shared around to help keep costs to a minimum – unlike Matt P & Marek’s choice in wines!

I had 2 objectives in mind with the route: 1) The Galibier (celebrating its 100th anniversary in the Tour this year) and Alp d’Huez (because several riders hadn’t experienced the delights of those 21 hairpins) and 2) To head into Switzerland and discover what the Swiss Alps have to offer.

As the route planner I decided (back in January) to kick off from Grenoble because it is an Easyjet destination - and it is a great starting point for the Alps - and because we are all cheapskates! We then waited for about 5 months for the flight details to come up, only to then discover that Easyjet actually only covers the ski season :-{ So, a last minute panic and I booked us all onto a flight to Lyon and found a bus service to get us to Grenoble.

All went well and we met up with Nick & Gavin who had driven the van down just in time to get our bikes assembled before we headed off for dinner. Another faux pas was having a hotel right in the center of town and nowhere to park the van. I ended up driving for about 20mins until a found the only parking space available on the not-so-nice side of Grenoble. Hoping the van would be safe I then spent another 20mins trying to find my way back to the hotel. Would I ever find the van again the next day?

Day 1: Grenoble to Valloire

Fortunately I did find the van. It still had 4 wheels and the dodgy locals I had seen hanging around the area the previous evening were all passed out on the sidewalk. Phew!

We started with a tricky ride out of Grenoble (mostly the wrong way down one-way streets) and then a busy but gentle climb up to Le Bourg-d’Oisans for elevenses. This town is known for being at the base of Alp d’Huez and is also the start village of the Marmotte sportive. A nice little town packed with bike shops displaying all sorts of carbon eye candy. Then we started the real riding: 50km - up all the way - to Col du Lautaret (2,057m) for lunch. A popular stopping point for cyclists and spectacular views already.

After over-indulging on a totally overpriced lunch we then went straight up the south face (the easier side) of the Galibier (2,646m). This was a bit of a shock to the system - hitting that kind of altitude on the first day - and this gave several riders the opportunity to enjoy their lunch again on the way up. And what a summit! There is a drama about the Galibier that is unrivalled anywhere in the world. Tour graffiti, cycling monuments etc. The ultimate cycling mountain top?

The descent on the north side gave all of us a heads-up on what faced us the next morning. Yes, we would be riding back to the top via the north face – just as they will in the Tour this year.

Valloire (our hotel stop) sits at the foot of the Galibier but since we had only done a measly 2,431m of climbing several riders decided to keep on descending all the way to the foot of the Telegraphe (1,566m) just to get another 1st cat mountain in before tea. Another motive for this was that we would be riding all of the climbs of the Marmotte sportive the next day – except the Telegraphe. Well, one wouldn’t want to miss out would one?

Day 2: Valloire to La Chambre

What a tough one! Having organised the route I started receiving some nasty death threats by the end of this day. The Galibier was not too bad - given it’s reputation (nice fresh legs at this stage) - but after a 50km descent down (with some up bits!) to Le Bourg-d’Oisans it was time to face the mighty Alp d’Huez (1,850m). What a classic climb! 21 hairpins – all labelled with former TdF legends. A brutal start (15%?) but that did mean highly rewarding views within the first couple of hairpins.

I have to confess here that I was relegated to the van at this stage (complaints about my bad back, old age and all that) so Nick was scrambled onto his bike to uphold VCC honours. And uphold our honour he did indeed! Just 6 months after a horrendous crash and fears that he may never be able to ride a bike again he stormed up there – reminiscent of Marco Pantani (in 36 mins was it?).

Lunch at the top and an opportunity to ‘talk up’ our performances. Paul Cackett (the VCC mountain goat), being the gentleman that he is, chose to wait at the bottom for everybody to regroup. This opportunity was of course not to be missed! A 10mins head start by some left Paul with some choice words. Fortunately publishing standards prevent me from elaborating further here.

We then took a tricky back-road down from the Alp – down a nicely resurfaced bit of road (one inch deep gravel!) to the foot of the Glandon (1,924m). Now here was an interesting situation. 8 of us had ridden the Glandon before – mostly in the Marmotte – but with it usually being the first climb of the day none of us had any recollection of what an absolute brute it is! This was not helped with me standing by the van telling everybody that it does get easier – when it actually just kept getting harder :-{

Do you remember that episode in the TdF (c1910) when the organisers took the riders over the Tourmalet for the first time? “Vous-etes des Assassins!” they shouted at them. Well, that was polite compared to the abuse I was receiving.

Still, a very nice descent took as to our seedy little hotel in the seedy little town of La Chambre. We had already started a scoring system by this time for who had chosen the best hotel. Mark D got the short straw here because this was actually the ‘only’ hotel in La Chambre. However, that didn’t prevent us from reminding Mark about what a great stay we all had :-) One memory is several of us asking for a ‘decaf’ coffee after dinner. “Non problem!” said the old hag [apologies: I meant waitress]. Next morning of course none of us had slept a wink because we were all bouncing off of the ceiling all night!

Day 3: La Chambre to Bourg St-Maurice

Nick was up at the crack of dawn (literally) to reconnoitre the Madelaine (1,993m) for us before starting his driving duties. All those of us that had the ‘decaf’ coffee the night before heard the clack clack clack of his cleats heading off to get his bike at around 6:00am. “Easy” was Nick’s verdict so off we all headed in high spirits after the previous day’s experience of the Glandon. And it wasn’t too bad! Distance to-go posts with altitude and gradient for the next 1km – every km – is always a big help. We rode the south face whereas the Tour went the other way last year. So plenty of TdF graffiti to read. This always adds to the atmosphere of the climb.

When we got to the top, Nick had erected a VCC banner hence we all stopped for a photo shoot. A nice touch! It was then a downhill blast all the way to Albertville when I fortunately spotted a little sign saying left for Albertville whilst doing around 80km/h in the wrong direction. Several metres later I eventually managed to stop and scramble back up the hill to stop everybody else and direct them. Got to Albertville a little too early for lunch so we got started on the next climb straight away: Cormet de Roseland (1.967m). A 40km climb but fortunately we found a nice place for lunch half way before the climbing really started. A nice 3 course meal and then we started to pay the price for our over indulgence (again!). That was the last time however!

Several of us had ridden this climb during our ‘Raid Alps’ epic a few years earlier and had very fond memories of how beautiful it was. Not this time though! The sun had abandoned us and the stunning turquoise reservoir at the top was ... well not so stunning. The water level was very low leaving more gravel on display than turquoise water. It had also started raining by the top so no time to hang about and admire the scenery. Capes on and heads down to Bourg St-Maurice.

Finding the hotel turned out to be a serious challenge and since we were all split up over the last climb, it was every man for themselves. I think I took 5 calls in all from lost souls (wet, cold and starting to feel sorry for themselves) saying “I’m lost. Help!”.

A great hotel though. Steve had quickly risen to top of the leader board on hotel choices, but there was some resentment to this verdict because it was mostly down to the waitress in the slinky silk outfit. We had dinner in a restaurant a 15 mins walk away and we were eating outside (under a canopy thank goodness) when a nice thunderstorm got under way. This did put pressure on Steve for how he was going to get us all back to the hotel without getting wet and several totally unhelpful suggestions were put forward.

Day 4: Bourg St-Maurice to Champex-Lac

This was another of the ‘big days’. Straight up Petit St-Bernard (2,188m) in the morning. A busy start but quickly opening out to a nice gradient and a nice climb - up until 5km to-go. Then we rounded a corner straight into a headwind where it started raining and started getting cold. This used to be a major French-Italian border crossing and there are some remnants of that history at the top, but we had no intentions of stopping to look. Cold, wet, windy and we wanted to get down the other side ASAP. Our first wet descent which meant slow progress, grit grinding into our rims and numb hands what with the cold and constant braking effort. We eventually found a little bar just over half way down and we just had to stop. And a very sorry sight we all were. Shivering away and feeling very intimidated at the fact that the weather had turned nasty and we still had the ‘big’ St-Bernard (2,469m) to come.

Since we still had some descending to do and we were still freezing there was some frantic rummaging around in the back of the van as everybody started digging out their winter gear. Overshoes, gloves, long legs etc. Eventually we got going and heads were down all the way to lunch simply to try and get warm.

To avoid overeating again before the next big climb – and because it was raining and we just wanted a quick stop - we pulled into a pizza take-away dive in Aosta. Unsure how many pizzas we would need we decided to have 4 big ones to start with and order more if needed. Then along came 4 of the biggest pizzas I have ever seen! Oh dear. Thanks goodness we had Marek and Gareth with us else 3 of them would have gone to waste!

We then set off and were greeted with a sign saying 33k to the summit – up all the way to 2,469m. I chose this pass because it is one of the classics and it didn’t disappoint. The first 10km are grim – all main road with lorries smoking us out – but after that the main traffic heads off into a tunnel whilst we took to the mountain road. The rain started to ease by this point but most of continued with our winter gear because it was still pretty cold – and would only get colder. When you first see the road zig-zagging it’s way up into the sky ahead it is very intimidating! Make no mistake: This is a serious mountain pass. The size of the surrounding mountains were on a scale we had never experienced before – on any trip. As our American colleague would say “awesome man!”.

Over the top, little desire to stop again, we started an amazing descent down towards Martigny. Fairly straight, lots of tunnels and very very fast! Over half way down we then had my little ‘bonus climb’ off to the left (confusing for many as we had to turn off to the right?) up to Champex-Lac (1,470m). Normally this would be a lovely little climb. Just 10km, not too steep and a beautiful village at the top alongside the Lake. However, at the end of a day like this one and with the rain coming down in buckets once again it was not much fun. We were a bunch of very tired cyclists that night. And I started getting the the death threats again!

Day 5: Champex to Ulrichen

I labelled this one as a bit of a rest day. No major climbs and the plan was to take a leisurely ride along the Swiss Rhone Cycle Route. One of the problems I found with trying to plan this route is that there are very few quiet back roads in central Switzerland. One therefore has to put in a lot of miles on busy roads to get to the serious mountains. My cunning plan was to use this cycle route - which is mostly traffic free - and runs alongside the Rhone most of the way.

Well … my cunning plan wasn’t quite as bad as some of Baldrick’s, but it wasn’t perfect. A lot of the path was fairly bumpy (thus upsetting Marek who was sporting his sleek deep section rims in preparation for this ‘flat’ day of riding). It is also easy to get lost and we made a small error at one point which left us dirt tracking it for a while. There was clearly some hunger to just hit the main roads and blast on to the hotel.

Nearly time for lunch and the damn weather broke on us again. Rain capes on and head down to lunch in Sion. This one took a while but we were in no big hurry. By the time we left the sun had come out (hooray!) and we returned to the bike trail. All good fun for the next 10-20km and then the main traffic headed off through another tunnel such that the remaining journey was quiet enough to return to the roads. The 1,000m of climbing for the day then hit us all at once. Ouch! This wasn’t in the plan for my ‘rest day’.

The last 20km were into a headwind and it was a long long drag. A few of us were getting very tired. Very strange scenery in that part of the country. Pleasant but a bit sterile. The houses are very spread out and there just doesn’t seem to be any town life. Or any life at all thinking about it. Our final destination at Ulrichen was no different. We headed out for a drink in the evening only to find out that the whole town had closed for business from about 6:00pm. Still, we did find a bar at a hotel where I am told I discovered every flavour of Schnapps they had to offer! I reserve judgement as to whether there is any truth in this claim, but must admit that I did have a rather sore head the next morning.

I should add that there were some negative vibes going around at this point that the last day (4 major climbs) was all too much. There were plenty of cop out cuts available and I recall there were only 2 definites for the full route.

Day 6: Ulrichen to Brienz (the last day!)

Sadly I was relegated to the van again. Maybe I really did finish off all of the Schnapps they had at that bar the night before :-{ However, spirits elsewhere had risen thanks to some blue sky and the promise of a nice day. All but one agreed to go for the full route ... and what a great decision that was!

So, straight up the Nufenen pass (2,478m) from the hotel. A very picturesque climb but pretty steep. Fortunately all had fresh legs and it wasn’t raining! A photo opportunity at the top and we then headed down to Airolo (back in Italy again) for a coffee before tackling the St Gotthard pass (2,108m). This again is one of the classics and is most famous for having 14km on cobbles! This is an absolute ‘must do’ climb. Hopefully you can see some of our pictures that show the fantastic switch backs all the way up. Very similar to the Stelvio that we rode a few years earlier.

Once you got to the top there is a beautiful lake and a monument. There were plenty of high fives and woo hoos at the top of that one!

Straight down the other side (main road now) and then left up the Furka pass (2,431m). Another big one, but this was the last major climb of the trip so no excuses. This is actually the road they used to film The Italian Job. Remember the bus hanging over the edge? We didn’t see it so I assume they have recovered it by now. The gaps were starting to open up by this point and I was a little concerned that I had only half explained to people that we would have lunch at a café just ‘over’ the other side of the summit. Fortunately everybody made it OK. A bit of a tourist trap but well worth stopping just for the fantastic view you get overlooking the Grimsel pass – our final pass of the holiday.

Some very expensive sandwiches and then people started dashing off to tackle the Grimsel pass (2,165m). Only 6km from this side so nothing too scary. However, we had just had word from Leigh who was riding ahead that the conditions were atrocious on the descent and there had been a motorcycle fatality in one of the tunnels. So a little extra gear was retrieved from the van and off we set for the final run.

This is the point when I suddenly noticed that the fuel light was flashing and I had no idea how long it had been flashing nor what range it implied. I therefore decided not to ascend the Grimsel pass but descend the other side until I found a petrol station. All worked out OK but it meant I was 30mins behind the riders when the calls started coming in. “It’s 3C up here, blowing a gale and about 3m visibility. Help!”. I rushed to the top and picked up Nick. I also had Paul R in the van so it was now a full house. The descent really was awful and we then came across Gareth waiving us down with a blow out. The poor guy had only been stopped for about 5mins but what with the wind and cold it was a bad situation. And we had no space in the van! I got Gareth in the van to keep warm whilst we swapped a back wheel out for him and then sent him back out to face the elements. All credit to the guy: Not a single complaint!

A bit of a hold up getting through the tunnel (they were still scraping up bits of the motorcycle rider) but then a clean run down to Brienz – a lovely town alongside Lake Brienzersee near Interlaken.

A festive last night was had – even more so I hear for 2 of the party that headed off at 2:00am to discover what Interlaken had to offer! I had to drive the van back so headed off at 5:30am – and they still hadn’t got back. Took me just 6.5hrs to drive to Calais and I was back before the guys that were flying home. All credit to modern vans!

Conclusion

We loved the Swiss Alps. There is a magnificence about them that exceeded anything we have experienced before in the either the French Alps, Pyrenees or Dolomites. And we barely scratched the surface of what Switzerland has to offer. Next year? Stay at a base camp for a few days to save changing hotels? I for one will be back there again. Shame it is so damn expensive though!