A recumbent trip through the Alps

Part 1: Lake Constance-Lake Geneva, Switzerland

Day 1, Amersfoort-Netterden (103 km)

It's a slightly overcast day with some drizzle when I leave Amersfoort on my heavily loaded Wizard recumbent. I cycle via Arnhem along the national bike route LF4 heading to the German border town of Emmerich. In Emmerich I hope to catch the early morning slow train to Southern Germany the following (Satur)day. Yes, a slow train because the dirt cheap Schönes Wochenend ticket (35 DM plus 6 DM for my bike) is, considering the price, a very good alternative to an intercity train or bus (300 DM or more for a round trip).

I plan to catch a slow train as far as possible into southern Germany and start my bike trip around the Bodensee (Lake Constance) at the Swiss border. In Switzerland a brand new network of cycling routes has been completed this year. I've got a copy of a fine overview map (1:301.000) which shows all the sign posted routes and I plan to explore the new bike network. This holiday also offers a good opportunity for testing my new recumbent in the high mountains. An earlier trip this spring in the hilly region of the French Vosges was a great success, but the passes of the Alps are something completely different...

Between Arnhem and the Dutch/German border I encounter a commuter, riding a Baron recumbent with fairing. Once in Emmerich, I purchase at the train station a "good weekend ticket". The ticket clerk gives me a print out of all the places where I have to change trains, even the location of platform numbers are indicated! The slow train connection turns out to be not that bad at all: departing 7:30 AM I will reach Radolfzell (at the Bodensee) at 9 PM!

I jump on my recumbent and as I cycle back to the Dutch border, the rain pours down on me. In Netterden I find the farm campsite which I had already located in an ANWB guide book. After the showers have passed by, I pitch my tent and watch the boring final km's of a stage in the Tour de France, again ending in a mass sprint.

Day 2, Emmerich-Radolfzell (train)

Get up early for I have to catch the 7.30 train to Koblenz. The train station in Emmerich is just a few km's away from the campsite. The train journey goes off pretty well. The slow train to Koblenz unfortunately has no compartment for bikes, but the train is almost empty and my recumbent can be parked in a small space reserved for a single bike, wheelchairs, luggage buggies etc.

In Koblenz I have to wait nearly an hour for the next train to Mannheim, departing around noon from the same platform. I'm lucky I don't have to worry about carrying the heavily loaded Wizard to another platform! The next train is a modern commuter train with a separate compartment for bikes. No high doorsteps with narrow doors, you just roll your bike on and off the train, perfect! In the train I chat with other cycle tourists. They all seem to be travelling on a dirt cheap Schönes Wochenend ticket, departing early morning, escaping the wet and cold Northern European summer hoping to find some sunshine in the south.

It's a pleasant journey past Koblenz, a very scenic stretch along the Rhine river where I cycled this spring. The next stage Mannheim-Offenburg is very boring, the train old and crowded. Near Karlsruhe a group of drunk hooligans get on the train, accompanied by a nervous team of policemen with dogs. It becomes scenic again on the last stage between Offenburg to Radolfzell, a pretty train ride through the Black Forest. It's already past 9 PM when I finally pitch my tent in the dark at a crowded campsite beside the Bodensee.

bicycle sign posts

Excellent sign posts

Day 3, Radolfzell-Buchs (124 km)

A beautiful sunny day when I head along crowded bike paths to the pretty town of Konstanz, where I make a phone call back home. Crossing the Swiss border, I continue my way for the first time on the brand new Swiss bike route no. 2: Rhein-route. The excellent marked route follows the borders of the lake. Although I'm in Switzerland it's still pretty flat country and the bike paths are crowded with bike tourists. After a short detour through Austria I enter Switzerland again, having to undergo a passport control at the border. I'm riding through the flat Rhine valley and it all just looks like home, except for the mountain ranges rising steeply above the valley floor.

In Buchs I find a local campsite, a pretty and small terrain with very friendly staff. When I'm messing around trying to dry my laundry on my tent ropes, the warden offers me a drying rack!

At the campsite I meet several other cycle tourists. A Dutch couple cycling part of the Benjaminse route Amsterdam-Rome and an Ozzie making a pilgrimage from Dublin to Jerusalem. The Australian guy lives in Canberra and to my surprise he knows Lenore and Denis through their local bicycle club!


On my way to the Walensee

Day 4, Buchs-Urnerboden (109 km)

Heading to Sargans, I'm accompanied by the Australian cyclist who is heading to Chur and a bit disappointed he didn't meet any other bicycle tourist on his trip who would like to join him on his pilgrimage. Beyond Sargans I head west to the Walensee. Steep rugged and nicely folded rock formations rising high above the northern lake shore, gorgeous!
I'm also deeply impressed by the Swiss national bicycle network. They've done a pretty good job and seem to have invested lots of money. I even cycled through a separate tunnel for cyclists! After following the Lake route (no. 9) for a while, I'm now following the Alps panorama route no. 4 through the Linth valley heading to Glarus.


Test riding a LWB recumbent at Urnerboden

Apart from a nasty little climb now and then, cycling here is pretty relaxed, just follow the signs. The route designers have selected a great number of traffic free gravel and sealed back roads. Beyond Linthal, where I buy some food, the fun is over and hard labour has begun: the first ten km of the Klausen pass. Within 21 km an elevation difference of 1350 meters. And with a temperature of 35 C in the shade climbing is not funny at all. I have to make a few stops, so to speak, to admire the views. But there aren't any views here between the trees.
I feel relieved when I finally reach the flat valley of the Urnerboden. Beyond the village I can see the road climbing higher and higher up to the pass. I've had enough climbing for today and decide to camp somewhere in the scenic valley. A man passing by assures me free camping isn't any problem here although it's officially not allowed. He also tells me he saw another recumbent rider behind me! The cyclist turns out to be a Swiss guy on a long wheelbase recumbent. We exchange some experiences and he even lets me try his bike. The position on his bike is very upright, it's more sitting than lying down, but the bike feels very stable. The Swiss guy has great difficulties handling the Wizard. He's planning to climb further, hoping to catch the train back home tomorrow in Altdorf.

After the pleasant break I look for a nice camp spot and find one beside a stream. I tap some drinking water at a nearby farm and try to wash myself in the icy cold stream. After a beautiful sunset I pitch my tent and hit the sack. At this elevation (1300 m) it cools down fairly quickly after sunset.

Klausen pass

On top of the Klausen pass

Day 5, Urnerboden-Altdorf (46 km)

Klausenpass (1948 m)
Elevation difference (H) 1350 m, length (L) 21 km, grade 6,4%; index (H2/L) 8,7

After a good sleep (I was only woken up by some animal stumbling around, maybe a deer) I continue on my way climbing the Klausen pass. After the village the road winds and twists its way with marvellous views. Apart from the fact that a lot of other cyclists on light racing bikes are catching up to me, climbing is now a feast compared with yesterday's torture. The temperature is still pleasant in the early morning and in the many hairpins I can take a deep breath for the next steep sections coming. The average speed is 8,5 km/h, considerably higher than yesterday. On the pass people almost seem to form a queue to take a photo of my recumbent. An American guy on a motorbike is keen to take a photo of me. His son owns a recumbent as well, constructed by himself. After a short break on the pass I put on my wind jacket and helmet and am ready for the long descent to Altdorf. I manage to catch up with some cyclists who overtook me in the climb. A recumbent is remarkably faster downhill. Alas my highest gear is 56x13, not enough to achieve any speed above 50 km/h. However, with a maximum speed above 70 km/h I feel much more secure compared with my old touring bike. Due to the lower centre of gravity the road-holding is much better, although I'm still very cautious, not daring to race at high speeds through the hairpins.
I'm also a bit scared that my rims (small front wheel in particular) will get overheated due to the frequent braking, but luckily nothing bad happens.

In Altdorf I decide to look for a campsite very early. Heavy thunderstorms are forecast for the afternoon and with this heat (in the valley it's >30 C again) I'm not willing to climb another difficult pass today. On the cycling menu I have the choice of either the Susten or the Furka pass, but I haven't decided yet which route to take. The camping warden at Altdorf totally agrees with my quitting so early during the day and assigns me a sheltered camp spot between some cottages. (Later I read in the travel accounts of the Zaanini's that they camped here last year as well, also between the cottages!).

During the thunderstorms I watch, in a sauna like TV room, a live report of an exciting TdF stage. A great mountain stage trough the Pyrenees in which Dutchman Michael Boogerd proves he's one of the better climbers of the peloton.

Susten pass Susten pass (2224 m)

Day 6, Altdorf-Meiringen (85 km)

Susten pass (2224m)
1300 m elevation difference, length 18 km, grade 7%, index 9,5 (same as Alpe d'Huez)

I finally decide to tackle the Susten pass, heading to Meiringen. Again sunny and hot weather. Sitting on a terrace eating ice cream I see an older couple cycle by on loaded touring bikes on their way to the pass. When I'm cycling I see them again, a few hundred meters ahead of me. Under normal conditions I would be able to catch up with them, but this time I lose them out of sight! Again I find climbing in this heat a torture and too many times I have to make a stop. Although I'm very thirsty I cannot drink too much, feeling the water sloshing in my stomach.

After gaining some altitude, my climbing skills on a recumbent are improving. The scenery is overwhelming with glaciers in a rugged landscape. When I reach the top of the pass the couple is already prepared for the descent. Before we descend we take some photos for each other. For me the descent does not last very long, one km further down I take a longer break on a spot with a spectacular view of the Stein glacier. A little bit further I take another break, a traffic light forces me to wait more than 15 minutes because of road constructions. Finally I'm able to feel the power of gravity. Passing some slow cars I manage to reach a speed of 77 km/h, a record! In Meiringen it has started to rain again and I find a nearby camping place in the Aare valley near Balm.

Day 7, Meiringen-Stechelberg (64 km)

I'm again on Lake route no. 9 beside the deep blue Lake Brienz. The bike route has some pretty steep sections, especially around the forest roads near the Giesbachfälle, a beautiful waterfall. In Interlaken I leave the Lake route and make a left turn into the Lütschine valley.
I make a little side trip to view some Alp giants, like Jungfrau and Mönch. When I am trying to shoot a picture, my camera refuses to work. I'm sick of it, this is the 2nd time it has happened to me. In Lauterbrunnen I buy another instant stretch camera, but the quality turns out to be poor. Because of the heavy contrast the Jungfrau isn't visible at all in the photos :-(
Anyway, from the campsite in Stechelberg I enjoy the pretty views of the 4000+ mountains. In the evening I make a phone call to friends who are living in Glion (above Montreux) and make an appointment to meet them at the weekend.

Day 8, Stechelberg-Gstaad (103 km)

The weather is now overcast, the heat is gone. I follow the shoreline of Lake Thun to Spiez and the km's fly by fast. The road climbs again into the Simmer valley. After Zweisimmen the bike route follows small back roads with a few short but very steep climbs. On one grade, I guess it must be 20-25%, I have to shift into my lightest gear (18x28!). Some drainage gutters, crossing the road diagonally, derail my small front wheel and almost cause a fall. Luckily I'm riding slower than walking speed and riding a low recumbent so I'm able to put a foot on the ground in time.. With all those gutters on the road I think it's wiser to walk the last meters to the top.

Around Gstaad my admiration of the bicycle network is decreasing again. I miss a sign and get completely lost in the foothills around the city. Instead of descending I'm wandering around in the Alms high above the winter resort.

Day 9, Gstaad-Glion (74 km)

Col du Pillon (1546 m), Col de Jaman (Montreux-Glion, altitude gain 400m in 4 km)

From Gstaad there are a number of possibilities to reach Lake Geneva. The easiest way is to follow Route 9 until Montbovon and from there catch a train to Les Avants. From Les Avants it's down all the way to Glion. From Montbovon I can also cycle further and try to cross Col de Jaman via a gravel track, but I seriously doubt this track is manageable. The other (lake) side of the pass I've done once on my Giant touring bike and is paved.

After Montbovon I can continue cycling on route 4. My map however shows a horrible number of arrows (meaning severe climbs) around Lac de l'Hongrin so I opt for a road with less resistance. Via Gsteig I will cross the Col du Pillon (1546 m). This pass is not very difficult from the east side. On top of the pass I encounter a lot of people on racing bikes, who seem very interested in my recumbent and fire a lot of questions. The most asked question is whether I constructed the bike myself or bought it.

In the long descent to the Rhône valley I try to catch up with a guy on a racing bike. I consider the winding road too dangerous for racing so I finally give up. From Aigle I follow a long and dull stretch over the dike along the Rhône until I reach Lake Geneva.
In Villeneuve I meet Peggy and Paul, who are selling some of their old stuff at a flea market in the burning sunshine. I leave my luggage in their car and cycle to their house in Glion, only a few km's away, but what a hell of a climb to get there. Without luggage the first kilometres with 10% grade doesn't seem to cause any trouble. Then a sign warns me of a steep section of 20%. I have to pull out all the stops and exasperatingly slow (5 km/hr) I enter the village. Near a tap on the village square I'm forced to stop and take a break. After eating an ice cream I continue my struggle and cycle out of town, the road is still pretty steep. After a few hairpins I turn into a private road, a sharp bend to the right and steeper than before. I hardly manage to stay on my bike and am happy I am not carrying any luggage. After the hard labour I enjoy the great views of the lake from the balcony of the guest room, I can't imagine a better place to stay!

< Back to the index

Part 2: The French Alps >