The possibilities for riding a bike in Switzerland are endless. Mountain biking, enduro, road…you name it and there is a marked trail or cycling path for it. For this post I’ll focus on some of the road riding around Valais.
I was staying in a Swiss town called Brig at the bottom of a wide, flat valley in the aptly named Valais canton in the southwest part of Switzerland. The valley was carved by glaciers and runs from Lake Geneva. It includes fifty mountains that are over 4000m tall, including the popular ski resorts Saas Fee and Zermatt that lie in offshoot valleys. The stunning Aletsch glacier is the east and is the largest in the Alps (see post). With it’s high mountain passes, glacial lakes, and stunning scenery Valais is a true cyclists paradise.
For road cycling, terrain ranges from monster climbs that seem to go on forever at high altitude, to buttery, flat roads on the valley floor. Brig is an ideal training base for these reasons. It’s possible to ride forever on flat roads for easy rides or fast time trialling workouts, or build strength and endurance with long mountain rides. You have all possibilities right on your doorstep.
Notable Road Rides
1. Furka, Nufenen and Gotthard Passes- 120km loop
These three passes conveniently lie in a loop. If you were to do all three in a day you are looking at a 120kms ride with 5000m of ascent. This goes under the category: incredible feats of endurance. I wasn’t so ambitious. I got the train to Andermatt and then rode up Furka and then down to Obergoms, which is at the bottom of the mountain and where I recommend you stay if you plan to break it up. It was late in the season and it was gently snowing. There wasn’t a soul around and I may have seen only a couple of cars. It was totally spectacular and my pictures don’t do it justice. I get chills thinking of the experience being all alone up there surrounded by the mountains and feeling so small. Of the three climbs this was the most scenic and epic for me.
The next morning I tackled Nufenen and Gotthard passes. Nufenen pass is a tough climb that averages 10%, but there is a nice restaurant at the top and of course the views are stunning. Since it was November I put on my down jacket and as many layers as I could carry in my little pack on the bike and made the descent heading towards the Gotthard pass. You start in a rocky, lunar landscape and then enter a lush, tree lined valley- it was beautiful.
Climbing the cobblestones of the Gotthard pass is one of those bucket list cycling items people like to tick off. But these ‘charming’ cobblestones are a real pain to be honest. I felt like I would need to visit the chiropractor after the bumpy ride to the top, and the freezing descent on the Swiss side turned into a boiler going up on the Italian side. Had I stopped for a pizza before tackling this one I may have finished in better spirits-you are in Italy after all! On that note, coming down Gotthard heading back to Andermatt there is an amazing little restaurant serving hearty local dishes. This simple dish of pasta with ‘cheese of the mountain’, crispy onions and apple sauce (somehow it works!) was one of the best things I have ever eaten. You will have earned it!
Difficulty: If you take your time anything is manageable, but you need a good base of fitness to do the loop in a short period of time. 10/10
Ride Map here.
Head towards the world famous ski resort of Zermatt and the Matterhorn, then take a detour towards Saas Fee. This ride take you through the heart of the high Alps. Head to Visp from Brig then to the village of Stalden. It’s a flat nice ride, although the cyclist path ends when you turn from Visp. It’s not too busy, but once you get to Stalden the real fun begins; the cars disappear, the road steepens and you start climbing to Törbel. The view over the surrounding valleys is incredible with Saas Fee ski resort serving as the backdrop to the climb.
The traditional Valais black-nosed sheep fill the pastures along the climb, and while they may look cute my feeling is they are ill-tempered little beasts who like to stare at you judgingly as you suffer on the way up. But if you ignore the sheep and keep going the environment becomes something magical, and without doubt, this was one of the most beautiful climbs I have ever done in my life.
Ride length approximately 70kms round trip
Restaurant at the top: YES!
Maps and more information here.
3. The Simplon Pass (Cyclists Route)
Brig lies at the foot of this monster pass that was built by Napoleon and crosses the border into Italy on the other side of the mountain. Although it’s not too steep with average grades at 6%, it goes on and on and on…starting from Brig it’s 20kms to get to the top of the pass which lies at 2005m. It took me over 2 hours to reach the top, so bring food/isotonic cause you will need it. But your sweat will be rewarded with sweeping views of the Belalp, Rosswald and Bettermeralp terraces across the valley (see post).
When you start from Brig it’s possible to take the old road instead of the busy highway. Follow the signs for Simplon and you will get to a fork in the road with one green sign for the highway and a blue sign for Simplon to the right. Take the blue sign to the right and you will be rewarded with a 7km climb on a car-free road through quiet forests, that winds it’s way up the valley.
Eventually the cyclists road ends as it merges with the main pass road. Exercise caution here because there are large trucks carrying goods back and forth between Italy and the only thing scarier than an Italian driver is one behind an 18 wheel transport truck. But the speed limit is 60kms/hr, the road is wide, has 2 lanes and a good shoulder to remain relatively safe
A partially exposed tunnel starts around the 14 km mark and while not a pleasant experience, is wide enough to facilitate respectful passing distance from cars. It’s best to have a light attached to the back of your bike for this even though the tunnel is partially open and lit with natural light. The best option is to just stop where the cyclists road ends and enjoy the view of the bridge. But if you must….
The tunnel runs for 4kms and once you come out you are on the homestretch where espresso and plum tart awaits you. There are a couple of basic restaurants at the top, but remember to bring cash. The place I visited didn’t accept credit cards.
An impressive (and slightly menacing) 8m tall stone eagle is perched at the top of the mountain. It was erected during World War II as a reminder that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Restaurants and water stops: yes
Notable sights: the stone eagle, Ganter Bridge
Degree of difficulty: 7/10
Round trip time from Brig with coffee stop: 3-4 hours
Things to bring: isotonic/food (estimate 250-350 calories/hour), bike light, rain jacket, glacier gloves.
CAUTION: Lots of traffic after the cyclists route ends. However on Sunday no commercial trucks are allowed on the road so that would be the day to do this.
This ride has the best of both worlds: a super fast, flat section on cycling paths with an epic climb through remote wilderness. Ummm YES PLEASE!
24km section along the valley floor to the village of Turtmann, and then climbs 21.5 kms with 1273m ascent up into remote alpine forests though a high valley passing a few pretty villages.
The 24 kms stretch to Turtmann is a joy on the dedicated cycling roads that run along the valley floor. Just follow the red signs marked Grand Tour 1 and it’s easy. Part of the cycling route is unpaved but the gravel is fine and smooth so it was no problem on my TT bike.
Once you get to Turtmann cross the bridge near the railway station and head towards the big mountain in front of you- your work soon begins. The road is pretty steep to Oberems village and then flattens out a bit, but be warned: after you pass the village of Oberems there is no place to stop for food or water and the road leads to a dead end in the middle of the mountains- there wasn’t a soul around. It was serene and peaceful but also a little unnerving feeling so exposed in such a harsh environment. So bring adequate clothing and nutrition because this one is also a beast- you will ascend 1273m over 22 kms.
Restaurants and water stops: only until Oberems, but there is a nice bakery attached to a cheese shop at the base of the mountain along the main road in the village of Turtmann.
Degree of difficulty: 8/10
Road trip time from Brig one-way: 3.5 hours. I took the train back to Brig from Turtmann because of poor weather, but you can easily spin back on the flat roads in less than an hour.
Things to bring: lots of nutrition because there aren’t many options once you start the climb, glacier gloves, rain jacket.