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Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Walk in the Woods

Monday, August 25
Zermatt to Ulrichen

We set out on a bike ride this morning but part way through the day, a hike broke out. Just one of many new (to me) aspects of bicycle touring wrought by the rugged Swiss topology. The lay of the land? Pretty much vertical. As the week progresses, I come to see that the engineers here have yet to eye a piece of the landscape that doesn't look like a building site, a roadbed or a good place to lay railroad tracks. When they do encounter a particularly obstreperous stretch of real estate, they simply tunnel under it or run a cable car over it.

It is raining as we wind our way through the narrow streets of Zermatt. We pass the train station and make our way to the northern edge of the city before getting out on the "open road." Zermatt is more or less car free although we encounter a few delivery trucks on this stretch. The ban on cars ends at Tasch and things get a bit busier. Bob leads us onto a secondary road which, in addition to having no traffic, allows us to bypass a construction zone in which cars and trucks are backed up in both directions. By now my feet are soaked; I was glad it wasn't cold. As we enter Visp, I think. "That wasn't so bad. What's all this whoop-tee-do about riding in Switzerland?" It was, of course, downhill all the way. Whoop-tee-do was coming.

We load our bikes on a train and bypass the busy corridor between Visp and Brig, getting off in the small town of Moerel. It's here that Bill, Bob and I set out on one of the white roads - secondary roads marked by white lines on our maps. We start climbing right away and quickly come to a sign that promises "10 km, 19%." Bob has stopped to check things out on his GPS. He soon calls out, "Do you know what this road.....?" the rest of the sentence trailing off as we round the first switchback. We don't know, so we keep going. Bob, we realize later, doesn't follow us.

On the "White Road" Above Moerel
It is, at first, a great road, winding around through the small farms that adorn the hills. Soon, however, the pavement gives way to a hard gravel surface. Not too bad. Then, a looser gravel as the road narrows to, let's call it a path. It's about here that I ride past a tree with a crucifix nailed on it. I wonder, is this where you pray that you'll make it to the other end or where those coming from that direction give thanks that they've arrived? Oh well, it works both ways, I suppose.

Time to Reflect...
After crossing over a short bridge, we are at the bottom of a really steep stretch of two narrow lanes of wet cobblestone with grass in between. Time to walk. Although I'm not sure the barometric pressure VDO computers are accurate on short climbs, Bill reports that his reads 24% at one point. At the top, we are able to ride on a bit more but finally have to dismount for good as the surface morphs into deep, loose gravel on a series of very steep descents and climbs.

You might think that this is a big disappointment, us being on a bicycle tour and all. But it was, in fact, a very enjoyable hour as we walk in deep woods, look down on crystal clear pools in the stream flowing through the valley and come across a stone bridge. The plaque here says this was once an important route over the Albrun Pass to Italy and while the exact date of its construction isn't known, it is likely it was built in the 1600's.

A Walk in the Woods
Eventually we reach another paved road and are once again on the bikes, headed now for Ausserbin. When we arrive, I ask a couple about finding a store where we can get something for our lunch. They tell me there is a market in the building just behind us. And, it being between noon and 2 p.m., it is, as are all such markets, closed. So we ride on. It is not until about 2:30, some 7 hours after breakfast, that we are able to buy provisions in Reckingen. We sit on the steps in a small square (it was round, actually) across from the church; cheese, bread, a peach and chocolate milk. I decide right there that I am not setting out on the road again without some food in my pack. We also get the chance to fill up our water bottles at a fountain near the church. Everywhere we go, we find clean water in the town fountains. I seldom get into my second water bottle.

Cool Water
It is only a short ride to the hotel in Ulrichen, where we will be for the next two nights. That's it. A rainy descent, a train ride, a white road (that degenerated into a "gray" road), a walk in the woods and a late lunch. And this is only the first day of the ride.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

It's a Long Way!

Thursday, August 21 - Sunday, August 24
Travel to Switzerland
Weekend in Zermatt

Bill found himself lost on a ride through Switzerland a few years ago. I know this is hard to fathom, but it did happen. And I know you'll think I'm making this up, too, but his situation was so desperate that he actually stopped and asked for directions. When he explained where he wanted to go, the wide-eyed response was, "That's a LONG WAY!"

It has been a long way from that first ride up Bliss Road. The path has run through Washington, Idaho, Montana and Colorado, not to mention the many miles ridden on the rural roads around La Crosse. Now I'm ready to board my flight to Chicago. From there, it is on to Brussels, Zurich and, finally, Zermatt, Switzerland. It's a long way. And I added considerably to my biking experiences during the two weeks of the tour in Switzerland. Miles, meters and adventures. I'll share just some of this in my Swiss Ride posts. Let's get started...

Travel just isn't what it used to be. I settled into my seat on the American Airlines flight to Brussels, this entailing getting out my iPod and headphones, a book, my journal, a few crosswords and Sudokos clipped from the paper, a pencil and a pen, all to be stuffed into the seatback pocket which already contained my Diet Coke. Just after buckling my seatbelt, one of the gate agents approached; he told me they were trying to accommodate some standby passengers and asked if I'd mind taking another seat. I had to drag my backpack out from under the seat, re-pack the aforementioned items and repeat the settling in process at my new seat. The things you have to put up with these days. Oh. Did I mention that my new seat was in business class?

Zermatt is, in fact, a long way from La Crosse. But after a mere twenty-four hours, 4 airports, 3 planes, 2 trains and 1 electric-powered taxicab I was tucked away at the Hotel Europe.

Saturday brings the opportunity to assemble my bike ~ during which time I discover I have left my pump at home !#$@#!& ~ and explore the city before the tour riders come in later in the day. In the course of my ramblings I visited a church with a small cemetery planted on the slopes behind the building, A pathway wound down through the rows of gravestones. There were switchbacks at the end of each row. We are definitely in Switzerland!

It can be pleasant strolling through the stillness of a cemetery. At the same time, it provides opportunity for reflection - knowing that there are stories of real people behind the names chiseled into the cold, gray stones. In many cases, part of the story is told in the epitaphs, such as the one that reads, "Died on the Matterhorn." On the grave of a young man from New York are written the words, "I chose to climb." He died trying to scale the Breithorn. Ice axes adorn a few of the graves. Poignant.

I Chose to Climb...
As sobering as the experience was, I reflected that I would not be scaling sheer rock walls and was somewhat further encouraged that none of the burial sites were marked by twisted bicycle parts.

At about 2 p.m. I spied Bill and Bob pushing their bikes up the narrow, crowded street leading to the hotel. My ride had, in a way, started. That evening I was finally able to meet Laurenz, Corinne and the other riders of their "Switzerland at its Best" tour: Art and Pat, Chris and Paula, Earne, and Bret and May-Yee (who were leaving the tour here). Aranka, Laurenz and Corinne's wonderful little dog, also made an appearance. We enjoyed an excellent meal in the hotel restaurant which, I was to see at breakfast on Sunday, provided a post card worthy view of the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn from the Church Square in Zermatt
On Sunday, it was up to Gornergrat on the cogwheel train, "The Matterhorn Railway," one of the many marvels of Swiss engineering experienced during the tour. The burnt orange train sped up the really steep slopes, the only sound being the quiet hum of the powerful electric motors. And yes, I did wonder what sort of fail-safe system they had for the brakes.

We were soon in the bleak, rocky heights about 4,300 feet above the station in Zermatt. There wasn't much to see from the top, only sweeping panoramas of the alps and glaciers in the high valleys, all against a deep blue sky.

At Gornergrat
After a walk around Zermatt and a frustratingly unsuccessful search for a jersey I had seen at a bike shop (they only had a few smalls), we meet for dinner and a review of tomorrow's riding. Unlike the Cycle America tours, this isn't a discussion of THE ROUTE, but a review of the many options available. We spread out maps, get suggestions from Laurenz and riders who've been here before (everyone but me) and decide, more or less, on what we'll do. We then retire to our rooms to pack up and, in my case, wonder what riding in Switzerland will be like.

It's been a long way. And now it's time to ride.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bad News, Good News

The Swiss ride is over and I'm home safe, but just a little bit short of sound. I look like I was thrown from a third floor window onto a rock pile. Two crashes, one a nasty one on the last day, have left me scraped, bruised and, in the case of my collar bone, broken. More about this "bad" news as I write about the tour in the next week or so.

Good news? It was a unique, wonderful, awesome, unbelievable, fantastic ride. Very different from Washington and Colorado. Switzerland is so, well, European. Great roads for riding, breathtaking vistas, big passes, scary downhills, new views as to what rolling rural country means. Add to all of this a great small group of tour riders and you have the makings of an unforgettable two weeks. MUCH more of this good news in the next week or so, too. Stay tuned...