‘If you can ride a bike, then it’s easy,” said my guide, Hans, before taking off down the snowy slope on a wooden contraption that looked more like an oversized child’s toy than a grown-up’s bicycle. It had handlebars, it had a saddle, but in place of wheels it had chunky in-line runners, and it was missing something I generally find useful when riding a bike: brakes.
I pointed my own, identical vehicle down the piste and hoped for the best. I wobbled. I shrieked. And then I found my balance and discovered how to slow down by dragging my feet on the snow. That was all it took: I let myself go and hurtled along, laughing in complete delight because riding this thing – this velogemel – was quickly proving to be the most fun I’d ever had while getting down a mountain.
It’s only here in Grindelwald, the village at the foot of the Eiger, in Switzerland’s Jungfrau region, where you can test-drive a velogemel. An alternative to the toboggan, this wooden bike-sledge (vélo is French for bicycle, gemel means sledge in the local dialect) was invented here in 1911 and this remains the only place in the world where it is made. Modern snow-bikes may exist in other mountain resorts, but the patented velogemel is a pleasing oddity unique to this village of 4,000 people.
It was created by a local, Christian Bühlmann, a woodcarver and sawmill owner who was left slightly disabled by childhood polio. Needing an easy way to visit customers (and, so the unofficial story goes, to get back from the pub at night) he found the humble sledge uncomfortably low, so he set about creating an alternative. His invention – patented as a “steerable sport sled with in-line runners” – was handmade in his carpenter’s shop using ash and maple. It was soon adopted by the Grindelwald community, and proved a useful vehicle for farmhands, delivery men and the local postie.
You may still see residents scooting about on a velogemel today, though in the past half-century it’s been used more in leisure activity than as a mode of transport.
The design hasn’t changed since it was first built, according to Markus Almer, a carpenter at Bühlmann’s old factory which still makes the velogemel today. Around 70 are sold per year, at Sfr500 (£330) each. Though they’ve experimented with added extras over the years – suspension springs, a padded saddle – all upgrades have been emphatically rejected in favour of the original design. Preserving tradition is paramount, even if it does mean the rider gets a rather painful bottom.
In 1996, another tradition was born. To celebrate Grindelwald’s 850th birthday, the tourist office staged the Velogemel World Championships, a light-hearted event which claimed its international status thanks to the participation of visiting foreigners (the velogemel has been sold to Americans, Norwegians and Japanese, among others). Though intended as a bit of fun, the event proved seriously popular and since then, on the first Sunday in February, around 150 racers compete on a set course for a top prize of ... a brand new velogemel.
The exact length and location of the course varies depending on snow conditions, but it’s usually held around Bussalp, a beauty spot in the Grindelwald-First ski area, accessible by public bus from Grindelwald village. I hopped on to the Bussalp bus with Hans Schlunegger, a retired Swiss national skier and coach who organised the event for many years. Why Bussalp? “Because it’s on the sunny side of the mountains,” Hans replied with a grin, “and it has a good bar to finish at.”
When the bus deposited us outside that bar, I quickly saw what he meant. The sunny terrace of the Bergrestaurant Bussalp sports a panorama that’s simply bragging: opposite, the region’s renowned Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau stood tall, while the streets and houses of Grindelwald lie in a puddle of snow in the valley below. A better location for a post-race beer would be hard to find.
Above here is the Faulhorn, from whose summit, at 2,680m, it’s possible to slide all the way down through Bussalp and on to Grindelwald village, a descent of 15km and 1,630m in altitude. It’s claimed that this is the longest sledge run in the world, in a region that boasts 90km of them.
Being a velogemel novice, I was to embark on a less daunting 5km section of this route, starting from Bussalp. After a very brief briefing by Hans – “put your inside foot down to brake around corners” – we were off, wobbling around hairpins, careering past smiling walkers and, most satisfyingly, overtaking sledders, their classic toboggans appearing much harder to steer than the intuitive velogemel. The only hitch came on patches of ice, when my feet failed to find traction to brake and churned up snow and slush – and the velogemel’s lack of suspension became bum-bruisingly obvious.
We finished our run at a café tucked in the trees at Weidli, one of several oases in this organised wilderness where hikers and sliders can refuel with hot drinks and Swiss snacks. We toasted our velogemel success with a mug of rum-laced tea called schlittlerpunch – “sledger’s punch” – while watching others screech to a stop in front of us. Their exuberant expressions mirrored my own. I was a child at Christmas with a new toy and I couldn’t wait for the coach to whisk us back up to Bussalp so I could ride my velogemel down the mountain all over again.
Aspen Hotel (00 41 33 854 40 00; hotel-aspen.ch) has double rooms from Sfr320 (£221), half board.
Velogemels can be hired from Grindelwald train station and various sports shops for Sfr15 (£10) a day.
The Rubi Holzbau & Sägerei carpentry can be visited on request.
The Velogemel World Championships take place on 2 February.
For information on all the above, see: velogemel.ch
Grindelwald Tourism: grindelwald.ch