Cycling in Switzerland: Set your own pace on a Swiss sportive
The new Etape Suisse takes a more relaxed approach to the Alpine cycling event. Susannah Osborne pedals off on a preview
Sunday 03 August 2014
Every cycling event has a clutch of competitive riders barging their way to the front and racing to the line. And I'm usually one of them. Imagine my annoyance then, when after around two hours of meditative tapping on my pedals, focused on being the first to the 2,315-metre summit of the Albula Pass (one of the highest roads in Switzerland), a mountain biker riding at 25kmph overtakes me.
"What?" I shout impulsively at the rider. But my annoyance soon turns to laughter at the comic speed at which she's going – it's like watching Dick Darstardly's Mean Machine fly past. "She's got an engine on that," I pant, which, as it turns out, isn't too far from the truth.
This September sees the first Etape Suisse, an Alpine sportive that aims to welcome cyclists of all abilities and their families, including those who prefer to use electronic, or e-bikes to get to the top of the mountain passes – as well as those who prefer not to ride at all.
For the purists, who want to do it the traditional, two-wheeled way, there are two options: an 80km One Pass Tour and a 120km Two-Pass Challenge. Think of them as "hard" and "harder", if you will. Compared with other cycle sportives, such as the mammoth Marmotte or the Etape du Tour, the vertical challenge and the distance covered in the Etape Suisse are relatively low. but that's the point: the aim of this sportive is to leave you nicely tired, rather than brutally shattered.
Back on the road and I'm still a little put out that I've been knocked off my podium, nevertheless the scenery goes some way to make up for it. Winding its way towards the Engadin Valley, the Albula Pass is a breathtaking road with views to rival Italy's Stelvio, or France's Col du Glandon.
We started our first climb just outside the village of Tiefencastel after a meandering descent from Davos – a town better known for hosting the world's brightest economists than Tour-winning cyclists, but one with masses of two-wheeled potential. While passing lush meadows peppered with bright, wild mountain flowers the gradient is initially relatively shallow. Here the road runs parallel to the stunning Albula Railway, a Unesco-approved narrow-gauge route that spins up and over the pass through a series of loop tunnels and viaducts.
It's at this point that some serious hairpins start to wind the gradient up to 12 per cent on the road. I find my granny gear and we roll on, skirting a deep gorge between the villages of Filisur and Bergün before entering the Albula Valley. Once we're in the valley the ride gets a little easier but the scenery is no less dramatic; there are lakes, forests and centuries-old hamlets – the original film version of Heidi, a silent movie, was shot near here. Nevertheless, it's still a 10km grind to the top, which forces me to dig deep into my mental reserves.
The summit is a patchwork of snowy banks and rusty-brown alpine tundra where the motorised cyclists are relaxing in the midday sun looking fresh as daisies. The dead straight road cuts through the imposing landscape taking on the appearance of an airstrip before it funnels you down into the lower Engadin Valley in a series of fast, tight, winding hairpins.
From here, we roll along the flat valley bottom to lunch at Hotel Cadonau, a 450-year-old hostelry pitched just above the River Inn and below the high mountain passes of the Graubünden region. Under a cloudless summer sky, I dip a toe in the spring-water organic pool. It's one of those places that makes you want to sell up and move to the mountains.
And it's here that cyclists can decide to have a quick fuel stop, courtesy of Anton Mosimann (this is a luxury ride, after all), or to put the bike to bed and settle down for a long, lazy mountain lunch and get a bus home. It's not about quitting, though. This is where the Etape Suisse is a little different; you don't have to do anything, other than enjoy the experience.
Those that do want to get back in the saddle can tackle the Two-Pass Challenge and head to the 13.5km Flüela Pass, which starts with a series of steep ramps. It's a tough opening ascent from the town of Susch to the summit at 2,383 metres and is a fearsome climb, with the jaggedy summit of Flüela Wisshorn dominating the views.
The drop in temperature makes the thrilling descent a little chilly and in the absence of a newspaper to stuff down my top pro-style, I have professional cyclist lend me a long-sleeved jersey instead (I've spent the day riding with members of the Wiggle-Honda women's cycling team, the one that Laura Trott rides with, who have spare kit.)
We've been spoilt with one of the best day's weather I've ever had in the Alps. Back in Davos the late afternoon sky is still cloudless, and the sun still delicately warm. With social events and spa treatments on offer it's been a great day for the non-cyclists too. In the four- and five-star hotels of Davos the talk at the end of the day is of the physical exertion of the ride but also of the beauty of the Alps, something that everyone at the Etape Suisse has experienced.
Ultimately, this is a pick-and-mix weekend of cycling, socialising and relaxing in a stunning location, where everyone is welcome. It might not appeal to the cycling purist but there are plenty of lung-busting challenges already out there, where the chances of being overtaken by a giggling cyclist with a motor on her bike are zero. And that's the point; the Etape Suisse takes a lighter approach to cycling.
Susannah Osborne travelled as a guest of Swiss Tourism (MySwitzerland.com) and Davos Klosters Tourism (davos.ch). She flew with Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com), which departs to Zurich from Birmingham, Heathrow, London City and Manchester. Train travel was provided by swisstravelsystem.co.uk, which offers a range of travel passes.
Etape Suisse (EtapeSuisse.com) takes place from 5-8 September 2014. Packages start from £1,400 (£1,250 per non-cyclist) for three nights of four-star accommodation, including breakfast, two evening meals, and return transfers from Zurich (excluding flights).
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