Tag Archives: The Alps

Beginners’ Guide: Cycling In The High Alps Of Europe

IMG_0995I’ve had a bit of experience cycling over the Alps – in 2010 over the Gotthard Pass (in Switzerland) at 2,091m and then in 2013 over the Tende Pass (just north of Nice on the French-Italian border) at 1,871m. They were both memorable days of cycling and I can highly recommend them. I didn’t do that much research into the climbs before attempting them but perhaps next time I should. Paul Bramford of Forever Morzine has contacted me about a new resource that he has made available online: “It is the only online resource of its kind, and answers all the key questions about cycling in the Alps in Europe for the first time. It’s content is invaluable for any Alpine first-timer.Here is the link if you fancy checking it out. I also like Paul’s photo competition. I’m tempted to enter with a few of my own shots: Back Camera IMG_0985 Back Camera

Colmar To Rome…In A Trailer

Rachel, an artist from Grand Junction, Colorado has been in touch. Ever the teacher, my answers are in red;

Love your blog Thanks! and I’ll have to get the book when it’s ready! Know any publishers? My husband, son, and I are considering doing the section from Colmar to Rome next year at a VERY leisurely pace. My son will be 5 years old at the time and we will have to pull him in a trailer. We’ve never been to Europe, but done some week-long trips in the States and he did great! I guess the question is, Is it crazy? No Is it possible (if we get in great shape) to pull a trailer over the Alps? Absolutely. The Alps are no longer the formidable edifice of rock that they were a few centuries ago; mankind has tamed them somewhat with long switch-back roads, tourist amusement opportunities at the passes and trains (should you opt out at the last-minute) that go through them rather than over the top. Don’t over-emphasise how fit you need to be. Clearly it’s not recommended for anyone with a heart condition but with a reasonable level of fitness and you’ll be fine. Don’t over-do the training, especially if, as you say, the pace will be leisurely. Did you ever encounter families camping and cycling? I did, yes, at the campsite in Bellinzona just after having gone over the top of the Alps. I seem to remember they were Swiss and doing a circular tour which involved going over rather than through the mountains. Both mum and dad had a child in a trailer behind them. They were having a great time! Trailers are becoming increasingly common in Europe so you wouldn’t really stand out from the crowd. Also, we considered breaking the route to connect over to the Cinque Terre and then back through Tuscany…any thoughts on that? Go for it! I’ve never been to the Cinque Terre (although I have eaten lots of pesto sauce :) ) but have heard nothing but good things about the area. I have visited coastal towns in Italy a little further north on previous trips to the country and they were stunningly beautiful, clinging as they do to the cliffs. Just bear in mind that the Cinque Terre coast is famed walking country mainly because there are a lot of ups and downs so that might be a factor with bikes and trailers. That said, by the time you have been over the Alps, they will seem very trivial indeed!

Hope that answers your questions Rachel. If it doesn’t feel free to get in touch again. Good luck and let me know if you do make it over to Europe; you won’t regret it. The picture by the way is one of Rachels and you can visit her website by clicking on the image itself. I sense another art-related post coming up after this one. Watch this space!

Canterbury To Venice: Alpine Advice

If you wake up at 3am and can’t get back to sleep, what do you do? Check your emails! And here is one from Hannah;

Dear Andrew,

Firstly, thankyou for your website it has come in extremely useful helping me plan a similar route! Thanks. It’s a pleasure.

My friend and I are planning to cycle from Canterbury to Venice in a week’s time. I am having difficulty in planning a route over the Alps. So did I; too many hills to choose from. I know that we want to stop in Luzern and Milano and go via the St Gotthard pass, (ah! you have made the big decision then)however I have a few questions regarding the pass as I’m relatively new to long distance cycling! Me too, compared to most. Best tactic: make it up as you go along.

Does this route avoid tunnels? I was told cyclist weren’t allowed through tunnels in the Alps. Good question! It depends what you mean by a ‘tunnel’. If you mean the very long ones that whisk you under the Alps, you still have the option of taking the train before you get to Andermatt, but I’m going to assume that you don’t want to go through a very long tunnel and that you mean short tunnels instead, the ones that any road in any mountainous area is bound to go through. The road from Lucern to Altdorf skirts around Lake Lucern and once you have crossed the lake at Beckenried, there are a few gallery type tunnels that are cut into the rock. Once you start to climb up towards th St. Gotthard Pass, the route is more or less tunnel free, especially if you choose to take the old cobbled route (recommended) on the way up. It’s a similar story on the way back down and again, I would imagine that you would choose to take the old cobbled switchback road rather than the main road that speeds you down to Airolo. In essence, don’t worry about tunnels. There will be a few short ones but I never saw any signs banning cyclists from them. It would be difficult to do so as the higher you get, the fewer road options there are. After Lucern it’s either the road to the pass or… the road to the pass.

Also we are planning to average 50 miles a day for our trip with a few rest days in between. I noticed that for this part of your trip you covered a lot of ground between Lucern and Como. Was this due to necessity or would it be possible to stop more frequently during this leg? We are planning on taking a tent to enable us more freedom. Good idea to take a tent. There is a campsite in Lucern – a couple of kilometres south of the town on the eastern side of the lake. The next place I stayed was in Andermatt but that was a long day in the saddle. There is a campsite in Altdorf (although I didn’t of course stay there) but not one that I know of between Altdorf and Andermatt. Andermatt has one – next to the entrance to the cable car on the far side of the town – but after that the next place to camp is Bellinzona unless you choose to ‘wild camp’ on the mountain (probably not recommended). If you can afford to stay in hotels or hostels, that may increase your options – you could stay in the hotel at the pass itself(expensive?) and there are plenty of hotels in Airolo.

Also I have not yet bought any detailed maps for the route yet. I wanted to wait until I had a rough idea of where we were going until I invested. Do you have any recommendations for good cycling maps? I used the Michelin 1:200,000 maps. See this post on the website and you will be able to read my logic for choosing them. Another good resource for cycling across Switzerland is the excellent website you’ll find here. It has very detailed maps and also suggestions for accommodation – you’ll be able to check on campsites and hotels – but also a very handy profile of the route as it crosses the country. You’ll be surprised just how flat it is before you arrive in Altdorf.

Any advice you could offer would be much appreciated! I hope what I have written above helps you. I’ll also email you the section of my book (as yet unpublished and which doesn’t appear here on the website) where I talk about cycling from Lucern to Bellinzona. Any feedback on what I have written would be useful and if you happen to know anyone who is a publisher of travel literature, let them read it too!! Good luck with your trip and if you have any further questions, just get in touch. Bon voyage!

Through Or Over The Alps?

Atoosa writes;

I’m really interested in this route and want to start cycling from Milan to
North. I’d like to know how did you pass The Alps? did you go with [the] train?

No I didn’t – I went over the top! You would be doing it in the opposite direction of course but if you followed the same route as me you would cycle from Milan to Como to Bellinzona in Switzerland then up the valley to Airolo, over the Gotthard Pass and down to Andermatt and onwards along Lake Lucerne and northward. I recommend the route; much better than a tunnel! You won’t regret it. Good luck!

The Alps, Security, Water & The Ciclopista Del Sole

Sounds like a new surrealist film? No, just a round-up of the topics that have fallen into my inbox this week. Read on to find out more…

I was wondering what crossing the alps was like? writes Henry Ulmann… Excellent! If you follow the Eurovelo 5 / Swiss National Route 3, you will cycle around Lake Lucerne and, up to Andermatt and then over the Gotthard Pass itself. The hardest bit is getting to Andermatt with some tortuous switch back roads. You can camp in Andermatt (head for the cable car entrance and the campsite is there on the other side of town). Andermatt to the pass is, by comparison an easy ride and will only take you an hour and a half. Coming down the other side, you have a choice between the old cobbled road and the new one. I took the old route and broke a spoke which was annoying so if you do the same check your bike before you set off!

Tom Whitlam writes; I emailed you earlier in the year in regard to the route. I have booked the flight now but am thinking of doing it backwards. I just had few questions about the trip itself: I’m planning to do the trip independently and wondered if you  ever wild camped? I didn’t wild camp; Western Europe is not that wild and I think you will find that most places you visit have a campsite, hostel or (perhaps at the last resort) a cheap hotel. If so, do you have any tips ( best places, where it is legal, did you put bike in tent, how to keep it secure) if not other options? Initially I was a little bit worried about the security of the bike but after a while became a lot more relaxed about the whole thing. I took a cable type lock with me (in addition to a D-lock) that I wrapped around the bike at night and also around the pole of my tent. If someone were to interfere with the bike, the tent would have been shaken. It never happened although if it had, I’m not quite sure what I would have done… When going through Italy did you encounter any toll roads? How did you face these? Do you pay the normal fee? I never came across any. I think you will find most toll roads in Europe (not sure where you are now) are only motorways so you can’t go on those anyway. In regards to getting a hold of water and food – I’m doing the trip in July, so it is going to be extremely hot, hence I will probably be drinking 4-6 litres day if not more. Is it quite easy to get water, did you just buy it from a shop etc? Good question! The best place to fill up (for free) is at a cemetery and you will pass lots of these en route. Never miss the opportunity to fill up your bottle at their tap which is usually at the gates to the graveyard. Please excuse any silly questions; I’m quite new to the whole idea of touring but can’t wait to get out there. They aren’t silly questions; they are the kind of questions I was asking before I cycled the route. And for the record, I still see myself as a newcomer to the whole touring business. Good luck!

Anne Prieels (from Belgium?) writes; I just found your web page and the soon to be road book for EV5! We are leaving Brussels by train on 27th August down to Italy (either Venise or Milano) with our bikes – yes it is possible! We are 6 (2 adults and 4 kids 7-10-12-14) and we plan to go down to Sicily, then continue to Africa.  We estimate it to 2 months (average with kids 30Km/day) We are trying to find out the nicest way (knowing we travel with kids) to go through Italy.  When I mentioned the EV5/7 or alternatives, a friend of mine, leaving in Rome told me the old pilgrim route was not usable by cyclist (small paths), but told me about the Ciclopista del Sole. I still can not find out if there is one map/guide detailing this route till the end. I see you have been digging into this to produce a book, do you think it could be ready by our departure?  How far are your with your chapters regarding Italy?  Do you go up to Napoli? could we get a draft version? Thanks a lot for your feed back.

Thanks for getting in touch Anne. You will find precious little information available about the cycle routes in Italy. The Via Francigena – the pilgrimage walking route – is, I imagine, not suitable for bikes (although it has been cycled – see this book by Paul Chinn). The routes on the Bicitalia map (click here to see it) are very aspirational. I did not find any route map or indeed any signs. I picked my way from town to town as I travelled south making the route up as I cycled. Which was no bad thing. The roads, especially in the south of Italy tended to be quiet and very nice for cycling. As far as my own book goes, I have just arrived in  northern Italy and am currently writing about my brief visit to Milan before I cycled along the canal to Pavia to stay with online contact Simone. Once I have finished the Italian part of the journey I am more than happy to email you what I have written but please bear in mind that my book is a personal story about my own trip with whimsical tales & sarcastic asides. It isn’t a ‘turn left, turn right’ kind of book. Read the sample chapters that I have so far put online to get a taste of things to come. And good luck with planning and then cycling your own route south. Where I stopped, you will continue… Bon voyage!

The Saint Gotthard Pass

Yesterday’s practical pilgrimage day got me thinking about crossing the Alps again. The Via Francigena crosses the mountains at the Great St. Bernard Pass. The Eurovelo 5 crosses at via the Saint Gotthard Pass. I have just found a useful website all about cycling in the Alps. Its called Cycling Challenge and has a section for each of the big climbs, including of course the St. Gotthard Pass. Quoting from the website:

If you like cobblestones then I have the road for you. The St Gothard Pass (2108m, 6915 feet) is in central Switzerland and an important link between the German and Italian parts of the country. There is an autoroute through a tunnel and another paved road over the pass to handle all the considerable motor traffic. And for cyclists, the old/ancient cobblestone road has been perfectly preserved. This is truly cobblestone heaven. The last 3 kms of the north side is cobbled, but it’s the south side that is truly amazing. Almost traffic-free, well-maintained, hairpin heaven – and cobbled for most of the 14 kilometres and 1000 metres descent to Airolo.

Cobblestones? It will be like cycling back in Yorkshire! The bike in this picture looks suspiciously like a Ridgeback Panorama….

Alpine Downs and Ups

Do you ever want to scream? Today is one of those days. I live in a flat where I pay a communal charge and it has just been increased by 500% from around £90 to just under £430. Now this is clearly an error but it annoys me that it wasn’t spotted by the people who sent out the letter. That would be a steep increase for anyone’s budget, let alone mine as a modestly paid teacher. You could almost call it alpine. Which brings me to another steep increase; one shown in the graph. Not a cross-section of my trip as I cross the Alps, but the number of visitors to this site. You can’t miss the Mont Blanc peak towards the right. That was yesterday and I think I was under cyber attack from someone who lives in London. Repeated visits to the site within a matter of minutes. And then it happened later in the day. And again even later. Result, 256 visitors of which probably 200 were the same person. It is a bit like the cyber attack by the Russians upon Latvia a couple of years ago albeit on a very small scale. Very bizarre. The real Alps are on the right and as soon as I see them my serenity returns. One of those cyclists will be me in early August, worries about hideous communal charges and malevolent cyber attacks forgotten as my bike winds up the mountain passes of Switzerland. The picture, as you can see, is from the Macmillan Cancer Support website. I ripped out an advert from a free newspaper earlier in the week advertising the charity’s “Alps Cycling Challenge” from the 15th – 19th September 2010. I’m not sure that I will have recovered sufficiently by the middle of September to take part and I am certain my boss would raise an eyebrow if I wanted another few days off work to go cycling again but if you are free and fancy a challenge, more details are on their website.

Sanoodi Eurovelo 5 profile

My first rough attempt at a route for the Eurovelo 5 is now on my Sanoodi profile – click here to see it. I’d like to refine this is the months to come but the basic profile of my journey is here. Can you spot the Alps?

Traffic Jams in The Alps?

I sometimes wonder how many people have cycled in the past or are planning to cycle in the future from the UK to at least northern Italy. It doesn’t take long to find other blogs. Here is another: Oli Robbins, who cycled a fairly direct route from Essex to Venice last July. He has some nice videos of what looks like a damp alpine crossing. He did it very quickly – 1,900 kms in just 11 days. The video shows him arriving at the Col du Grand St Bernard.

News from Stuttgart & Cumbria

I mentioned a few posts ago that I might contact a couple of people who I know who may be interested in meeting me en route to Puglia in the summer. One of those people was Claus, my friend in Stuttgart. I trained as a teacher with Claus in the UK nearly ten years ago but we’ve stayed in contact ever since and I’ve been over to Stuttgart a couple of times to pay him a visit. That’s him on the left. Despite being a languages teacher like me, he is also a talented muscian and you can listen to some of his music by clicking here. He often brings students over to the UK, to London and Brighton so I’ve also spent a few days with him and a bunch of German teenagers around the streets of London. He got married last summer and it’s a pity I wasn’t able to go back over for that. Anyway, I emailed him yesterday about my plans and he is up for meeting in Strasburg which is only about 100 kilometres from his home town. I’ve never been to Strasbourg and I want to make it one of my days off, perhaps even splashing out on a hotel for a couple of nights. Anyway, he comments that my “….plan to cycle all the way down to Italy sounds intriguing. Wish I could do something like that, but my wife doesn’t accept any accommodation with less than 4 stars:-)”. I’ll hopefully see him in May when he brings his students to London again.
Jim (see yesterday’s post) has also got back to me and he writes….
“Hope the training is coming on well and you are getting in some miles. Are you planning on camping and taking your kit? The last major tour I did was with 2 big panniers and a bar bag. Camping sux in bad weather but gives you a lot of scope to push the distance a bit as you are not as tied to stops. Keep it light. My biggest day ever with full kit was 125 miles and it hurt. 70 miles is a lot more comfortable and sustainable and should give you time to recover, eat and have the odd beer (most important for morale). The info on all the Eurovelo routes is sketchy at best on the web sites. Are the maps any better or are they hoping you make it up as you go along? Is it signed? Is the terrain mainly tarmac? If you ever get up to Cumbria, give us a bell. Some hilly rides might prepare you for the Alps.”
Thanks for that Jim – lots of questions! Here are the answers:
Camping & kit: yes and yes (but thanks for the advice). I’ve done a fair bit of camping in my time so I know what to expect. In addition, I just think it is a no brainer compared to being stuck in a hotel if the weather is half decent which it probably will be as I head south in July and August. Interspersed with the occasional night in a hotel it’s the best option.
Distances: I need to get 80 miles under my belt every day although that is an average and obviously there will be places where that distance will be tough, for example on the way up the Alps (but not on the way back down!).
Eurovelo, maps, signs & terrain: Yes, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that the Eurovelo routes are more aspirational that real and the chances of them being signed for more than just short parts of the trip is, I think, quite low. That said, following cycle routes too slavishly can hold you back and I quite like the flexibility of making up my own route while following the basic Eurovelo 5 route. As for the terrain, it will be mainly tarmac or well kept tracks. I hope!
Not sure whether I will be able to take him up on his offer of hospitality if I chose to use the Cumbrian Fells for Alpine training. I may have to do that on the relatively flat Chilterns and hope for the best when I get to Switzerland!