Switzerland: Try the sledge that thinks it’s a bicycle - Skiing - Travel - The Independent

Switzerland: Try the sledge that thinks it’s a bicycle

Caroline Bishop hits the slopes of Grindelwald to test her balance on the pleasingly odd velogemel

‘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.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Grindelwald is three hours from Zurich airport, which is served from the UK by Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com).

Staying there

Aspen Hotel (00 41 33 854 40 00; hotel-aspen.ch) has double rooms from Sfr320 (£221), half board.

Riding there

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

More information

Grindelwald Tourism: grindelwald.ch

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week