Le Grand Tour: Day 51 – Ritzingen To Andermatt Via The Furka Pass (54km)

CURRENT LOCATION: Gotthard Camping, Andermatt

I did it! I arrived in my spiritual cycling home, Andermatt, a little earlier this afternoon after a lengthy, strenuous, exhilarating and ultimately beautifully satisfying climb to the Furka Pass. I’m now celebrating with the best CHF5 bottle of wine that the local Coop could sell me accompanied with some good old bread and cheese. This is what cycle-camping is all about!

I shot some amazing video today but whether you actually get to see it today is another matter altogether. I’m currently trying to upload day 50’s video; Switzerland has many, many things to be proud of. Alas its mobile phone network network isn’t one of them… If only they could put  in the time and commitment that they have done over the years with chocolate, watches, banking secrecy… I digress. 

The first 15km today were standard Swiss cycling stuff. I continued my quest along the valley on a flat ride that took me as far as Oberwald. It was here that the Swiss route 1 cycle path (otherwise known to you and me as the EuroVelo 17) coalesced with the main road, the wonderfully named Furkastrasse. I had a nice ‘conversation’ immediately prior to setting off with a girl who was perhaps 3 or 4 years old. She was Belgian and we bumped into each other outside the supermarket in Oberwald where I was stocking up on Toblerone and… well, Toblerone. Her interest in my bike and what I was carrying fascinated her. Via her sidekick translator (her father) I answered her questions and it was all rather cute. We even compared bells. Her bike was about as cool as kids’ bikes get. There’s a picture of it in the gallery below. She even had a belt drive. Very popular on children’s bikes in the Low Countries according to her linguistic advisor. She was impressed with my tent but less impressed with the fact that I was about to climb to the top of the nearby mountain. It was at this point that she started asking her parents when the English bloke was going to clear off so that she could crack on with getting some action in on the local swings. I think… (it was in Dutch.)

Not disheartened but my abilities to impress a three-year-old with my cycling efforts, I cracked on with the climb. The first hour or so was a little unpleasant with the traffic, which included a good number of articulated vehicles whose drivers should know better but once I arrived in the small settlement of Gletsch – it was no more than a collection of abandoned hotels and a church – they mercifully turned left and headed north in the direction of the Grimselpass to deliver their loads to the needy people of Interlaken. After a short pause to do some serious praying at the church (even we non-believers feel the need to harness Godly powers when needs be), I set off on what seemed at that moment like an unattainable feat. Namely to cycle the length of the road that I could see in front of me winding its way up the cliff in the distance to a point of seeming infinity. 

I had been preparing mentally for this moment for many months. It really is a case of mind over matter. One turn of the pedal at a time. Patience. Forcing oneself to cycle slowly. Keeping the mind focussed on the job in hand. And occasionally shouting abuse at drivers who come too close. At least none of them were driving articulates trucks… 

There were a number of cyclists on the road. Most were the Lycra brigade. They ignored me. Then there were the eBike crew. I ignored them, especially as they overtook. I had modest respect for the bikepackers and even had a few conversations with a future president of France (he was at one of the top political ‘écoles’ in Paris and was heading to Milan for a four-month internship). Let’s hope he remembers me when I rock up at the Elysée Palace in 20 years time asking to camp on the lawn. I passed nobody – and nobody passed me – who was cycling with four panniers. Perhaps we are a dying breed in these days of light touring. Or perhaps most are quite happy to enjoy the cycling and jump on one of trains as far as Andermatt. I can see the attraction.

After a pause near an another abandoned hotel where both me and Mr Future French President agreed that the chap running the snack bar was extracting the piss by charging CHF7 for two pieces of bread with a slice of processed cheese (and CHF4.50 for a bottle of Coke), I was (to extend the metaphor a little too long) within urinating distance of the pass. It did, however, get much steeper in the final section so all my energies were needed to get to the summit at 2,436m. The highest point to which I have ever cycled. 

The man selling food from his van was far more reasonable with his prices so both me and Monsieur le Président indulged with a bratwurst mit brot. He’s never going to be allocated any Michelin stars for his efforts but it hit the spot followed by the consumption of the Toblerone bar. Job done. 

Well, almost… Shortly before arrival in Oberwald earlier in the day a strong wind had started to blow. I’d never thought that wind might be an issue. Bad weather, yes. My fitness, yes. The gradient, yes. But not the wind. And in fairness it wasn’t. Until the descent from the pass in the direction of Hospental and finally Andermatt. I donned my rainproof jacket not against any rain but against the wind and, with a road that was far less protected against the vertiginous drop to my right (just a few bollards usually) set off rather gingerly. When you do get to see the video, you’ll be able to see that descent in all its glory, albeit at speed (and with a pause to pay homage to the place at which Sean Connery stopped his Aston Martin to look down into the valley in Goldfinger and get shot at…). The long road into Andermatt itself, which should have been freewheeling joy, was a tiresome trudge but I didn’t mind. I’ve been looking forward to my return to Andermatt for many months and to get here finally is a joy.

I’m back at the campsite I stayed at in 2010 (and as described in ‘Crossing Europe…’ when I first encountered Claus Zimmermann). Nothing much has changed. In fact nothing has changed at the campsite. But the town itself seems more upmarket. Perhaps it’s been the influx of all those visitors who came as a result of reading my account of the place all those years ago. 

Or perhaps not. But it’s good to be back.


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