French and Swiss Alps

I started from Nice in early June 2013. At that time most of the highest passes of the French Alps were still under deep snow, so I had to keep a bit west of my original plan. Perhaps for the best, since this was the first time I did bike touring, and the Alps are highest close to the Italian border. My strength climbing up, and skills cruising down high passes were very limited.

My first real pass was Col d’Allos. It was a real thrill when I realized I was strong enough to climb passes that figure in the Tour de France! I’m sure I broke a speed record going down to Barcelonnette.

Close to the summit of Col d’Allos

Later on I arrived in Briançon, which is perhaps at the center of biking in the french Alps. From there you can reach most of the famous passes within a day or two of biking.

The valley from Briançon to Col du Lautaret is gorgeous

I also climbed Col de la Croix de Fer, which for many years was the toughest pass I’ve ever done. There were long stretches of 10% where I was just about to give up and push the bike, but fought myself all the way to the top.

My bike at the top of Col de la Croix de Fer

It was raining when I reached Cluses further north, so I took a day of rest. This is also where I could have died in a car crash with two lesbian women on our way home from a weird local nightclub.

Later on I biked east into Switzerland and then south, going from Altdorf to Andermatt.

South of Altdorf in Switzerland

The next day was my 50th birthday, which I spent biking over the St Gotthard pass. On the way down I filmed this video with my GoPro.

Me going down the St Gotthard pass

Next day I came to the stunning Lugano lake at the border of Italy. I will never forget it.

Lake Lugano in a haze

In Italy I took the ferry from Menaggio to Bellagio, then the epic climb to Madonna del Ghisallo, a small chapel dedicated to the official catholic patroness of bicyclist! I wish all bicyclists get to see this place. Outside the chapel is a slab of stone with inscribed names of people who have died while biking. Inside, up by the ceiling, are crammed row after row of famous bikes, for example the bike Francesco Moser used when he beat the one hour world record. I don’t have a single religious bone in my body, but that was as close as a religious moment as I’ve ever had.

Inside the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel, Francesco Moser’s bike to the left

Close to the chapel is a bicyclist museum. Lots and lots of bikes, but also this photo of famous Italian biker Fiorenzo Magni, who since then has been my absolute favorite bicyclist. What are the chances of beating this guy in a finishing sprint? This photo still cracks me up every time I see it!

Do you feel lucky, punk?

Here is an incredible incident from his life as a bicyclist (from Wikipedia):

In the 1956 Giro d’Italia, stage 12, Fiorenzo Magni famously broke his left clavicle and still managed to finish second overall. At the hospital he refused a plaster cast and refused to abandon the Giro in the year of his announced retirement. Magni continued the race with his shoulder wrapped in an elastic bandage. To compensate for his inability to apply force with his left arm, he raced while holding a piece of rubber inner tube attached to his handlebar between his teeth for extra leverage. Since his injury prevented him from effectively braking and steering with his left hand, Magni crashed again after hitting a ditch by the road during a descent on stage 16. He fell on his already broken clavicle, breaking his humerus, after which he passed out from the pain. They put him in an ambulance, but when Magni regained his senses and realized that he was being taken to the hospital he screamed and told the driver to stop. Magni took his bike and was able to finish the stage in the peloton, which had waited for him. Of the evening that followed Magni said “I had no idea of how serious my condition was, I just knew that I was in a lot of pain but I didn’t want to have X-rays that evening”. Just four stages later, the infamous 20th stage of Giro ’56 dawned where Luxembourg’s Charyl Gaul would execute his legendary mountain stage victory in Trento, haunted by snow and ice over the Costalunga, Rolle, Brocon and Bondone climbs. That day 60 people abandoned the race, and Gaul went from 16 minutes behind to winning the 1956 Giro; Magni, despite his injuries, placed second, 3 minutes and 27 seconds behind Gaul.

Tour details (grading from 1 to 5)

  • Time of year: June to September
  • Difficulty: 4 (but can be made harder or easier depending on route)
  • Duration: 2 weeks
  • Scenery: 4 (more beautiful closer to the Italian border)
  • Comments: Make sure your trip doesn’t collide with the Tour de France, and check in advance if the passes are open.
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