Cols of the Swiss Stage

Tour de Suisse logo smallIn June last year, at the end of my Giro d’Italia 2015, I rode an entirely ‘Swiss Stage’ including the Gotthard (Tremola road), the Furka and the Grimsel.

You can read a report on that stage here – it offered some of the most stunning views I have encountered so far and I am determined to get back there for more, during a longer stay.

Read moreCols of the Swiss Stage

Grimsel Pass


The Grimsel pass (2,165 m, summit sign 2,164 m) connects the cantons of Valais to the south and Bern to the north; it crosses the continental divide between the Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea.

It ‘meets’ the Furka pass at Gletsch and is part of the most famous routes – or round trips – of the Alps. It can be combined with the Furka and Susten passes (north loop), or the Nufenen, Gotthard and Furka passes (south loop). More info on the various loops on the pages of the Alpenbrevet.

I cycled the Grimsel from Oberwald as part of the ‘Swiss Stage’ at the end of my Giro d’Italia 2015 – report here, pictures here (Google+).

Oberwald / Gletsch

Grimsel Oberwald profileI deliberately descended to Oberwald to be able to take on the ‘full’ length of the Grimsel. It has the first 6+ kilometers – until Gletsch – in common with the Furka pass. If you come down from the Furka, the ‘natural’ route would be to turn (right) in Gletsch.

From Oberwald, the Furka is 12.1 kilometers long, with an altitude gain of 797 meters, or an average of 6.6% – the second half, from Gletsch is slightly more difficult at 6.8%, but the views are such, that you’ll hardly feel it 🙂

Leaving Oberwald, you’ll ‘pull’ yourself out of the bottom of the valley through a tree covered area over a distance of about 4 kilometers (average around 7%). Once you pass a short tunnel, the view opens up and you’ll see the Grimsel switching left to right in front and above you.

Some 1.5 kilometers further, you might be lucky enough to see the train go through the spiral tunnel, before you take on the final stretch to Gletsch. By the time you’ve reached Gletsch, you have climbed 389 meters, averaging 6.3% over the 6.2 kilometers – the extra distance from Oberwald to Gletsch is certainly not a freebie.

Once you leave Gletsch, the part with the most jaw dropping views awaits you. From switchback to switchback, you’ll see more of the Grimsel and the valley towards Oberwald, but the Furka climbing up the slopes on the opposite side is also a spectacle to watch. The combined view of two major passes winding up a high mountain, is something I have not experienced anywhere else so far…

At the summit, there is a restaurant – aptly called ‘Grimselblick’ – and a real tourist attraction, the Crystal cavern and Marmot park. I didn’t bother to go in there, but the summit was crowded with Chinese tourists when I got there – must really be some attraction then…

Meiringen / Innertkirchen

Grimsel Innertkirchen profileThe ascend of the Grimsel Pass from the north (officially) starts in Meiringen (595 m), but up to Innertkirchen, the elevation is negligible (30 m).

In Innertkirchen, the road to the Susten Pass goes to the left, but the Grimsel continues towards Guttannen, located at 1,057 meters.

Entering Guttannen, you’ll have gained 432 meters, over a distance of 8.4 kilometers or an average of 5.1%. Other than the painfully steep, but very short section at 12%, this is a good warm up 🙂

The total length of the climb from Innertkirchen is 26 kilometers, with an elevation gain of 1,540 meters (5.9%). As usual, this average doesn’t mean a lot: the final 10 kilometers the average rises to 6.9%, but that’s only because of the near flat section(s) – the rest of it throws between 8 and 10% at you…

Beyond Guttannen, the road passes a pair of short tunnels to Handegg (1,378 m) – if you’re interested, this is where the lower station of the Gelmerbahn funicular, the steepest in Switzerland, is located.

Past Handegg, you’ll go through a series of hairpins and a long tunnel (850 m long, which at 8, 9% will take you a while to pass, but it’s well lit) to the Räterichsbodensee reservoir. Less than 2 km further on, you’ll reach the Grimselsee reservoir and the Grimsel Hospice (altitude 1,980 m).

When I came down from the summit, I was so stunned by the view from a little higher up, I stopped the descend and just wanted to sit down and stay there. So, as you’ll be climbing through the final hairpins, you’ll have chance to enjoy those while actually moving 🙂

As mentioned above, there is, among other things, a restaurant at the summit.

Furka Pass


With a summit at 2,429 meters (CBB: 2,431 and summit sign: 2,436), the Furka Pass ranks as 4th highest pass in Switzerland. The pass connects the cantons of Valais and Uri.

It’s part of the most famous routes – or round trips – of the Alps. It can be combined with the Grimsel pass – which it ‘meets’ in Gletsch – and Susten passes (north loop), or the Grimsel, Nufenen and Gotthard passes (south loop). More info on the various loops on the pages of the Alpenbrevet.

I cycled the Furka from Realp as part of the ‘Swiss Stage’ at the end of my Giro d’Italia 2015 – report here, pictures here (Google+).

Realp

Furka Realp profileAs I came descending of the Gotthard pass, I turned towards Realp in Hospental. The ‘Furkastrasse’ starts there and the flat section of about 5 kilometers offers some stunning views of the surrounding mountains and gives you a bit of (extra) recovery – or can be used as a warming up – before the climb starts.

The official part of it, is 12.3 kilometers long, with an elevation of 893 meters, or 7.3%. As soon as you leave Realp, you’ll be passing the 2,000 meter mark within 6 kilometers, averaging 8.4%, but with several stretches well over 10%.

Some 2 kilometers in, you’ll pass the ‘Bond Street’ sign: it’s the spot where Bond was shot at in the movie Goldfinger and it offers a nice view over Realp and the valley behind it.

After the first demanding half, you’ll have some 3 relatively easy kilometers at 6%, a short steep section, followed by the last third of the climb. As this is a near ‘straight’ up until about 500 meters from the summit, you’ll quickly curse at the wind if it’s not in your favor. I know I did…

There’s a nice restaurant called Furkablick just before the summit; the restaurant at the summit was deserted when I was there and it looked ‘out of business’. The one that is open, does honor it’s name, because if you can sit outside, the view is fabulous.

Oberwald

Furka Oberwald profileFrom the west, the ascend of the Furka is 16.5 kilometers long, with 1,063 meters of elevation gain (6.4%). Just because it’s 4 kilometers longer, it’s ranked as slightly more difficult than the ascend from Realp.

I beg to differ, but to be honest: I didn’t climb the whole thing, just the part up to Gletsch. And because the wind was howling at – and against – me most of the second half of that 6.2 kilometer stretch it has in common with the Grimsel, I didn’t particularly enjoy it anyway.

Still, the views along the river/stream Rhône and the train track – I even saw a train going up – are breathtaking, as you can see the Grimsel switching left to right above you. However, the views get even more breathtaking when you get higher up…

From Gletsch, you’ll climb in a near straight line – at just over 6% average – to the other side of the valley, where the steeper (8.3%) hairpin section takes you past the hotel Belvedere. This might well be a place you’d want to spend some time, if only to take a picture of the jaw dropping view on both the Furka and the Grimsel.

After the hairpin section, another more or less easier straight at a 3% average takes you to the summit. As mentioned above, the restaurant located there seemed out of business, but just a little further, the Furkablick restaurant is serving refreshments with a view 🙂

Gotthard Pass


The St. Gotthard Pass (Italian: Passo del San Gottardo) connects south and north Switzerland. Other than traversing the Gotthard tunnel, you can travel the new Tremola if you want to enjoy some of the views from within your car or on your motorcycle, while not losing too much time.

However, that also has some (long) tunneled sections and the far more interesting – and better cycle-able – road is the old Tremola between Airolo in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, and Hospental in the German-speaking canton of Uri.

With a summit at 2,106 meters*, the Gotthard Pass doesn’t earn a high ranking in the European list of ‘highest passes’, but the old Via Tremola is a more than fair compensation.

The Tremola road is Switzerland’s longest memorial road construction. It snakes up the slopes of the Val Tremola as a light-coloured ribbon from Airolo and offers impressive views.

In the most spectacular section, the road climbs up 300 meters over a 4 kilometer stretch, incorporating no less than 24 hairpins, each with its own name. The Tremola road today still largely retains the appearance of the reconstruction completed in 1951.

I cycled the Gotthard’s Tremola road as part of the ‘Swiss Stage’ at the end of my Giro d’Italia 2015 – report here, pictures here (Google+).

* Paula took a picture at the only ‘official’ sign I could find at the summit that featured altitude – it read 2,091 meters, like on the profile pictures below. I think the road past/around the Lago della Piazza rises a couple of meters more, before the descend starts, so the highest point might be on the other side of the lake and not near the Guex memorial…

Airolo

Gotthard from Airolo via TremolaFrom Airolo, you have the choice of taking the old or the new Tremola road – while the latter can be cycled, it’s also the ‘fast lane’, meaning lots of traffic, passing at high speed. Plus, there are a couple of tunneled sections, one of them quite long, that will not be enjoyable.

Your best option is the old Tremola road, if only for the spectacular cobblestone section(s) and the breathtaking views along that road. This climb is 12.7 kilometers long, with an elevation gain of 932 meters (7.3%).

After the relatively easy start, you’ll only have a short moment to catch your breath when passing the Motto Bartola intersection, with the entrance/exit to the new/main road.Gotthard view on old Tremola road

The steepest stretch is in the middle of the main hairpin section, but here you’ll enjoy an ever more spectacular view, so it won’t hurt that much. Or, you might even get off your bike to take in those views and shoot a picture or two 🙂

Once at the summit, you can pay a visit to the Gotthard museum there, or have a break at the ‘ospizio’. You may also take a short ‘side trip’ back over the new Tremola road, where you will have a fantastic view on the old road, just before the entrance to the gallery/tunnel, as seen in the picture to the right.

Hospental

Gotthard from HospentalThe ascend from the north officially starts in Hospental, but you may start out of Andermatt, or even further (and lower) from Amsteg.

From Hospental, the climb is 8.6 kilomters long, with 610 meters of elevation (7.1%).

This side offers nothing special – besides the grandeur of the landscape – and follows the main road. It’s only at some three kilometers from the summit that cyclists can leave the main road and take the old cobblestone road.

It’s worth avoiding this ascend during the weekends in the summer/holiday season, as traffic can be pretty bad and the road is used as an alternative to the weekly traffic jams before the Gotthard tunnel.

Umbrail Pass


A little side-trip into Switzerland during the Giro of 2011: the Umbrail Pass, which connects to the Stelvio (from Bormio) just after its summit. Report on that stage here.

Profile of the Passo dell'Umbrail from Santa MariaAt 2,501 meters it earns a top 10 spot in the list of highest paved passes in Europe and it is the highest paved pass in Switzerland.

With an average grade of 8.5% it’s far from easy, but it’s a nice, steady climb, with beautiful views and it is not too busy with motorized traffic.

The steepest part is actually right at the start, where, after a series of hairpins, you will be rewarded with stunning views of the Müstair valley with Santa Maria in it.

The two kilometer unpaved section in the middle was actually not too bad, especially if it did not rain – probably it was more difficult in the descent, like during the Dreiländergiro*. However, since a few years, the entire pass has been paved, so this problem does no longer exist…

Because of its open character, the wind may be an annoying factor in the upper part, were the road is fairly straight, almost “meandering” like a stream. Just past the summit, you’ll end up on the Stelvio – you can then climb the final, difficult, kilometers up to the summit of that (CBB), or descend to Bormio.

Note that including the remainder of the Stelvio will increase the overall average grade to a staggering 9.4% over the full distance of 14.6 kilometers…

A combination (loop) with the full length of the Stelvio – from either Prato or Bormio – is harder than it looks. From Bormio you would first climb the Stelvio, descend to Prato and then circle around via Sluderno to Santa Maria for the Umbrail – this is the most obvious option.

Counterclockwise from Prato, with the Stelvio first and the descent to Bormio is also possible, but getting to Santa Maria that way is much more challenging. You will first have to get over the Foscagno, take the bike-train through the tunnel Munt la Schera (now prohibited for cyclists) and then get over the Ofen pass.

Obviously, you could also just ascend the Stelvio from either side, descend the Umbrail to Santa Maria, turn round and get back up again 🙂

Picture gallery on Google+

* Link to the German pages, as the English pages on the site of the Dreiländergiro are often outdated…