African Connection links are now in the sidebar to the right, just below the My Travel section.

Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Time Off

Saturday, August 30

An option / off day in the Swiss Ride. My option: take the day off and visit friends Max and Helen in Sargans. It was a two hour train and bus ride from Steinegg. It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, not one second of it spent on a bike.



And now it is another bit of time off, this time from adding posts about the ride. I am off for Uganda* at 12:45 p.m. on Thursday. We are returning to visit the church in Tororo, the Aturukuku Primary School and the mission in Mbale. I'll return to La Crosse on November 2 and will pick up on the Swiss Ride posts when I get re-settled back at home.

* Read a little about the Uganda work in this old post on the 14 Percent Ride blog: Click here.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Friday, August 29
Bergun to Steinegg

The day starts with a drop down from Bergun along the route of the long, late climb on Wednesday. It had to be one of the more enjoyable descents I've ever made. Steep enough to be challenging but not so much so that you couldn't enjoy the indescribable scenery. This is just about as much fun as it is possible to have on a bike. I think, "I am SO glad I decided to make this trip." The descent carries us around Frisur where we ride past a golf course. Somehow it just seems out of place here. After crossing the highway that runs from Tiefencastle to Davos, at Surava we meet Laurenz, taking the opportunity to shed and store in the car some of the clothing that was necessary during he cool descent.

Riding from Bergun to Surava brings us down almost 400 meters. Now, we start a climb of almost 600 meters as we head north towards the city of Chur. The challenge here wasn't so much the climb itself, but the view from the top. Somewhere past the high point at Parpan, I was able to look out and see Chur. Not so terribly far away. But a long way DOWN. Looking at the map later, I estimate that we had to drop 600 meters in about 7 or 8 kilometers, almost 5 miles with an average descent of around 8%.

On the way down to Chur
It was a tense downhill run, although a stop light at a construction area provided a chance to stop and regroup. Shortly after passing this point, I made a "rest" stop. Starting back downhill, I found I could not get my left foot clipped into the pedal. Luckily, there was a turnout on the right side of the road and I stopped, finding that dirt in my cleat was the problem. As I dealt with this issue, Laurenz came by in the car, stopping briefly to make sure I was OK. He was followed shortly thereafter by Bob, who pulled in just as I was ready to continue on with the descent. He took off and I followed. As we made our way down the road, I looked up and saw Bob's jersey. Written across the back, "Death Ride." Not needing that kind of encouragement, I passed him to find myself right behind our trailer that was following Laurenz down the hill. I pulled in behind and followed him all the way into Chur, finding this to be a really good way to descend. I could easily keep up with the car, so I could ride in the middle of the lane and not have to worry about traffic behind me. We meet Corinne in Chur and she suggests we swing around through the old town, a suggestion we accept. After walking our bikes through the cobblestoned neighborhood, we ride in to the Bahnhof where we catch a train to Maienfeld.

Old Chur
Bill is particularly excited as we get off the train in this town that declares itself to be Heidi's Heimat ("Heidi's hometown"). I never do really figure out the whole story, but we get pictures of him in front of the map of the area and later at a Heidi-themed gift shop.

Any friend of Heidi's...
Maienfeld is a nice town and we ride up (I do mean UP) from the train station to a quiet square, get lunch at a convenience store and sit on the steps just outside the Heidi Shop. I only ate lunch at a restaurant once, and today's meal was typical of the on-the-road arrangements that work much better. A large slice of Ementhal ("Swiss") cheese, a piece of bread, fruit, a chocolate drink and, today, wafer cookies.

Soon it is back on the road as we continue up, past vineyards planted behind rose festooned rock walls and into the forest on the hills above the valley.

VIneyards above Maienfeld
The road goes down quickly once we pass through an archway that is part of the military facility we ride through. At the bottom we come to the border with Liechtenstein where we stop and take a few pictures. Upon reaching Vaduz, we cross the Rhine using an old wooden bridge and ride north on a paved trail on top of the dike on the Swiss side of the river.

Bridge at Vaduz
In spite of a headwind, we make really good time on this what is likely the only flat stretch of riding in the country. The river is, however, not so picturesque here and I am glad when we get off and head west into the hills again. After wandering around the small town of Ruthi for a bit, we head out to the appropriately named - for this cow covered country - town of Moos (I am not making this up) then through a deep cut with a sign promising 10% grades ahead, a promise kept. The road tops out at Freienbach, then falls back to the level of the river at Oberriet. This would be a good thing except we need to get over the hills to the west to reach our destination and we are still going north, parallel to the Rhine. So, up we go again. As we approach Eichberg, there is a sign pointing to a lane running off to the left. It says Hard. "And this road isn't?" I think.

It's a narrow country road, that just keeps going up. I think it will never end. As is almost always the case, the route is scenic; however, as the afternoon progresses, I realize I'm spending more time looking down at the asphalt. At what would turn out to be about three quarters of the way to the top, Laurenz comes by in the car and pulls over. He gets out, looks at me, turns around, reaches into the car then comes over an offers me an energy bar. I guess it shows. He says, "I don't suppose you want to sag on in to Steinegg." I agree so he rides off with the admonition to stay hydrated.

Climbing Again
There is a top, of course, in this case at the town of Eggerstanden. I know we are not too far from Steinegg and think this is going to be one heck of a descent. However, we are in Steinegg in a relative flash, not having to descend anywhere to the level of the river where we started the climb. A welcome end to long day.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Of Chocolate and Chimpanzees

Thursday, August 28

And here I'd thought I had finished a big climb early yesterday evening. It was only a rise of 1,700 feet from Tiefencastle to Bergun, but, as noted in the last posting, it sure seemed like one mean climb. It just so happens, however, that Bergun is not at the top. On this route, that honor belongs to Albula Pass, getting over which will require another 3,100 of small ring riding. Not being able to come up with a plausible reason to do otherwise, I start up.

A Climb Worthy of a Trophy, it Seems

On the way to Albula
Early in the climb I see that, already for the third time on this tour, my wireless VDO computer has taken off on a trip of its own. The rate at which the scenery is passing by tells me I am climbing at my normal (read "slow" here) pace. The computer, however, has me climbing at a breathtaking 40 km/hr. When I stop and plant my feet firmly on the ground, the computer reports that it is still wandering around the countryside at a respectable 12 km/hr. Perhaps it has found a new dimension where the energy expended in climbing over Swiss mountain passes can be recovered and used for further exploration. If this is the case, I want to be let in on the secret. But I posit that it has simply gone crackerdog again. As frustrating as this is, I figured out earlier in the week that the altimeter function is not affected when this happens. And, since I was forewarned about this behavior, I had a backup wired computer to report distance traveled and ride time. But still...

You Can't be too Well-Equipped
The road, which is about 1 1/2 car widths wide, climbs up the narrow, steep-sided valley with a series of switchbacks. There are sections built above stone retaining walls and we cross a few stone bridges. There is no shortage of rock here and it seems, not surprisingly, to be the road-building material of choice.

The Road Up
Albula Pass is 14 km from Bergun, that with the 3,100 feet of eleveation change making the average grade about 7%. There are, of course, sections of lesser grade and some that are steeper. It does not seem a really difficult climb, yet I struggle a bit ~ perhaps lingering fatigue from yesterday? Anyway, I reach the top and find Bill and Bob at the obligatory top of the pass restaurant and gift shop. Bob tells me that I should have a sticker on my bike for the passes I climb. This is the first I've heard about this. He then gives me one that he had purchased for me. As much as anything, I appreciate it that he bought it before I actually got to the top. I suppose he thought I would actually make it. Anyway, "Thanks Bob. I don't care what Bill says, you're an alright guy!"

At the Top
We go over the pass and head down towards La Punt, this requiring negotiating a herd of cattle in the road near the restaurant. It is not unusual to get above the tree line on rides over the mountain passes, but we have yet to get above the cow line. The descent is a pretty steady 8% with a number of sharp switchbacks. For the second (and, it would work out, the last) time in the ride, my back starts to act up, so I stop twice to stretch. There is also a fair amount of traffic on the road, and I pulled off two more times to let large (as in as-wide-as-the-road) trucks go by. From La Punt, we head off to the southwest. Destination: St. Moritz.

Arriving in St. Moritz
I am, at best, underwhelmed by St. Moritz. Instead of a picturesque village with sun-darkened wooden buildings draped over high mountain landscape as I had imagined it, I see a good sized town with relatively uninteresting architecture. There are the big name designer boutiques, of course; I think about strolling into the Prada or Gucci shops in my tights and day-glow yellow jacket, but decide against it, not wanting to put a wrinkle in the local fashion business, so to speak. What a place. There is even a Prada Exclusive shop. Is that doubly redundant or what? Then there's BVLGARI. Spell check, please! I notice right away that there are no prices on the products displayed in the windows. Clearly an effort to not offend the target customers (a group I am clearly NOT a part of) by implying that they might actually care how much the items cost. And try finding something simple here...like a cup of hot chocolate. Chris and Paula report that they went to the Hanselmann Kaffeehaus for just this reason. They only had to pay $15 a cup. Yikes! You can buy a lot of Hershey's Kisses for $15! But you do get some extras for paying that much, like getting to enjoy your chocolate in a setting without the bother of customers in tights and day-glow jackets cluttering up the premises.

And then there was the chimpanzee. Right there in the main square. I wonder who it was that offered up the idea that nothing says "Stylish Swiss Mountain Town" better than a bigger-than-life, anatomically correct, carved wooden chimpanzee? Probably the same guy who figured out that you can charge much higher prices for products labeled BVLGARI than you could command if you used the clearly more pedestrian but correctly spelled Bulgari moniker.

Swiss Mountain Chimpanzee
None to soon we find the hauptbahnhof and board the next train back to Bergun, with me bidding auf Wiedersehen to St. Moritz for the first and, I suspect, last time.

* Notes, disclaimers, clarifications, and such
My back twitched once coming down Grimsel, but that did not amount to anything. Descending the south side of Albula, I was pretty uncomfortable. But, as noted, this was the last such incident.

Bill never said anything bad about Bob. Well, hardly ever.

I do know about the BVLGARI thing.

In addition to the monkey, there were a giant fiberglass yellow dog and other equally incongruous works of (art?) (decorating?) St. Moritz.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Going Underground

Wednesday, August 27
Ulrichen to Bergun

Rising up over Grimsel pass was quite the experience. And, as I was here on a TOUR, it seemed that I needed to be sure and pursue all of the opportunities. So today, I decided to start out in a tunnel. UNDER Furka pass. In a train. Seriously, did you see the picture of Furka in the last post? While Bill, Bob and Earnie would choose to go over the pass, I was happy to join the rest of the group in going from Ulrichen to Andermatt by rail. There would be a pass, of course. There's always a pass. Or two. But not Furka. Not this year.

Waiting for the Train in Ulrichen
I'd ride with Chris and Paula today and, as it turns out, Laurenz as he led the way out of Andermatt and up Oberalp Pass. This was a really nice ride. A good road climbing through rolling hills under a brilliant blue sky.

On the Climb to Oberalp Pass
There was, however, this tunnel. Nothing at all like the one between Ulrichen and Andermatt, but I did that one in a train. This one, on the way up to Oberalp, was not so long, but it curved around enough that you could not see the exit when you entered. And when you enter from bright sun wearing shades, well it gets dark in a hurry. This was about as disconcerting a feeling as I have had on a bike. There was just enough light to make out the walls of the tunnel allowing me to stay in the right lane, but you could not see the surface of the road at all. For some reason, I found it very much like floating across a fluid surface. It was not so long before I was in far enough to see the exit. While this helped, I had to get very near getting out of the tunnel before I could get a glimpse of the surface and feel stable again. I do not think this tunnel had a bypass, but I was sure that when I got to the next tunnel, I'd be looking hard for a away around it.


After pictures and coffee at the top of Oberalp, it was back down along the main road through a number of picturesque towns, one of which provides the setting for a leisurely lunch at a restaurant with outdoor seating...my only restaurant lunch of the tour. Paula was feeling poorly, to say the least, but decided to ride on as we were approaching a must-see part of the ride, according to Laurenz. We get off the main road at Iilanz and start climbing up above the Rhine Gorge, Switzerland's Grand Canyon. The road wound up through forested hillsides, occasionally breaking out onto a section hung right off the sheer walls. Every turn provided a different look at the Rhine falling away as the climb continued. At the top, the road turns sharply away from the river and descends through tall, dark pines. Back and forth around numerous switchbacks we go until we finally reach the lower level where a mile-long straight, moderately downhill run carries me to the outskirts of Bonaduz.

Road Above Rhine Gorge
As I get to the edge of town, I am treated to a demonstration as to just how much the Swiss do not want vehicles to collide with trains at crossings. With bells ringing and lights flashing, the crossing gates drop. Stepping out of the pedals, I notice that the cars coming up behind me turn off their engines (well the drivers turned off the cars' engines, but you know what I mean). They know something. We are there for several minutes and still no train. A few more minutes. Then, distinctive red cars of the Swiss Rail train appear around the corner, roll through the crossing and continue on into the town of Bonaduz. Every car on both sides that was there at this time could have crossed the tracks three times. Slowly. And still have beaten the train by a comfortable margin. Better safe than sorry, though. I just hoped I wasn't going to be late for the train from Bonaduz.

Laurenz had suggested the train at least as far as Tiefencastle, as he said the road was busy and less interesting. From Tiefencastle, the choices were to continue on by rail to Bergun or get off and ride the remaining 17 kilometers. Earnie, who I met as I rode into the small station, and I decide to ride from Tiefencastle. Chris and Paula, who made the train only because it stopped when Chris raced up and pushed the "Open Door" button, decide on the train option, Paula still not feeling at all well.

Laurenz might have mentioned that we could opt to ride UP from Tiefencastle to Bergun. I don't know. But I do know - now - that it is an up sort of a ride. We climb and climb, the road getting steeper as we go. As I push up, I think, "If I had known, I'd still be on that train." But I didn't. And I wasn't. So climb it was. At one point, my chain came off and got stuck behind the inner ring. I freed it up without any trouble, but once back on the bike I'd lost the "rhythm" and found the climbing even more difficult. And it was getting late. And the road kept going up and some concern about being able to finish the ride enters my thinking. I do ride all the way to the top though and after stopping in town three times to ask directions, I pull up in front of the hotel with every bit of 30 minutes to spare before dinner.

Bill and Bob? Well, they did Furka and Oberalp (as did Earnie, by the way) then decided to take the train a few stops down the line. It didn't quite work out as they had planned, though, as they somehow ended up in Chur. Chur NOT on the way to Bergun. The backtracking required to recover from this detour ate up a lot of time and, in the end, they railroaded all the way to Bergun. Not that there is anything to regret here. Did you catch the Furka AND Oberalp thing?

Would I have really taken the train from Tiefencastle? Probably. I did know that there would be some climbing to get to Bergun, but it was much more of a challenge than I had figured on. But making that climb at the end of an already long day was a turning point, of sorts. I think Bob had the explanation, saying, "When you did that ride, you proved you COULD do it." He was right. I do not lack confidence, but thinking maybe you can't finish a climb is a weight that you have to carry up the hill. If you can shed that weight, the climbs are easier. My climbs got easier after this day.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Grim Ride

Tuesday, August 26

"You only get one chance to do something for the first time," was my theme in writing about my first tour. The more I ride, the fewer chances there are for really unique "firsts," but I had suspected riding in Switzerland would provide a fresh assortment of such experiences. Today, a named Swiss mountain pass. But only one.

On Monday evening, Bill suggested that we take the train to Wassen so we could ride over Susten Pass then return to Ulrichen via Grimsel Pass. For the record, Laurenz wasn't so sure this was a good idea. And he was looking at me when he suggested we might want to consider something a little less ambitious. Bob tried to talk us out of this plan, too, but he was just worried about the dog in Wassen. He knows about a DOG in a small town in south-central Switzerland!? Well he does keep a bike in Switzerland just for his European rides.

At breakfast Bill admits he was "up all night" thinking about the plan and opines that maybe a simple ride over Grimsel Pass might be sufficient. Having never done any Swiss mountain passes, I say that this sounds good to me. OK, so Laurenz's hesitation to endorse the double-pass trek might have had me just a little concerned. So Grimsel it is...

It is a simply beautiful morning as we ride out of Ulrichen. We follow the main road, which has very little traffic at this time of day. We ride through two small towns and around one tunnel before we start the climb toward Gletsch. When I reach the first of several switchbacks, I look down and see an elderly farmer in a field just below the road, his long white beard swaying as he swings his wooden-handled scythe through the grass. The Swiss, it would seem, do not like tall grass and will send out entire families to manually mow it down ~ if they aren't otherwise occupied tunneling under the Alps.

Swiss National Pastime
The road goes up through forested hills and eventually winds around to hug a steep slope. The road is narrow and without guardrails, the example I now realize, followed by the Colorado highway department for constructing mountain roads. Coming around one of the curves, I get the chance to glance up towards the end of valley to what looks like a sheer rock wall with a road winding back and forth. This was, I realized, the final climb up to Grimsel Pass. I think that doing just this one pass is going to work out to be a really good idea.

First Glimpse of Grimsel
After negotiating a triple switchback climb after the tunnel, I pull into Gletsch and meet up with Bill. There isn't much of a navigation issue here...one way goes north, right up the aforementioned road and the other leads out of town to the east and on to Furka Pass. Up we go. It is a pleasant surprise to see that the road is wider and lined with guardrails almost all the way up. It is an enjoyable ride with each switchback representing a significant altitude gain and each providing another spectacular view. Near the top, the road approaches a glacier that is the source of the Rhone River. From this vantage point, you can also see across the valley to the next mountain on which is hung the road climbing up to Furka. This image would affect my riding plan for tomorrow.

Road to Furka Seen from Grimsel
Once more, I catch up with Bill and we sit outside an enjoy a coffee on this clear and still comfortably cool morning. After the short respite, we ride on, pausing to take photos of the lake reflecting the snow covered mountains and a herd of sheep with which we share the road.

At the Top of Grimsel
Soon enough, we start down the other side of the pass. The plan is to go to level of the lake backed up behind a large dam where we'll find the hospice (a hostel type hotel) perched on a rock. Bill and the other riders scouting routes with Laurenz last year had spent the night here.

North Side of Grimsel Pass
We turn around and head back to the top for the REAL reason we decided to ride over Grimsel: to have a bowl of goulash soup and a big plate of pommes-frits at the Grimselblick restaurant. And a fine lunch it was.

Lunch at the Grimselblick
After this pleasant interlude, it is time to go down. It was actually an interesting ride, the many switchbacks providing the chance to slow down and actually enjoy the views out over the valley. At the first of these, I see Pat and Art, their Bike Fridays leaning against a low stone wall as they sit on top, enjoying the view towards the glacier and, further on, the road to Furka Pass. I am quite impressed at their ride up this challenging road on these small bikes. As it seemed throughout the two weeks that I was with the tour, they were just plain enjoying themselves. After a short exchange of pleasantries, including a report on the state of the goulash at Grimselblick, I'm off again.

Soon enough, it is through Gletsch, then the cobble-stoned tunnel and finally back to Ulrichen. It is only a bit past noon. There is the post-ride beer, of course, then Bill and I are off to a nearby store to look for bicycle cleaning supplies. My language skills are good enough to sort out the options, in a general sense, and we are quickly back at the hotel getting the bikes scrubbed for tomorrow's riding. We have decided to replace the brake pads, too. For me, this is will be the first replacement since I purchased the bike three years ago. The pads are worn down to near the "wear" line, so it is time. By this time, Bob has come back from his trip up Nufen Pass and he lends a welcome helping hand.

While we are working on the bikes, we see a large group of all-dressed-the-same riders from Italy, who we surmise have come across at Nufen. They re-form their group at the store and are then off in the direction of Gletsch; perhaps another pass or two today? I have no regrets about the choice to tackle Grimsel. Or maybe I do. In hindsight, perhaps a little more time on the bike would have been OK. Not a second pass, but some exploration of the other roads in the area? Maybe next time...