It is the season of the road cycling Grand Tours. Hundreds of the world’s best cyclists compare their strength and endurance day after day making huge distances and climbing great mountains. Their inspiring performance should not only pin you in front of the TV but also make you follow their example and make your own Grand Cycling Tour. Here is the story of my Grand Tour in Switzerland. The first part was about the Alps, followed by the Jura and the Lake Geneva, and now the final episode comes with the crossing of the 2005 m (6578 ft) high Simplon pass to Italy.
We started about the same time at 8 in the morning with my girlfriend, she was cycling to the meeting point of a mountain hiking trip, my plan was to reach the Lago di Maggiore through the Simplon pass by riding 250 km (156 mi). We said good-bye and I was off towards Montreaux on the lakeside. It was a calm ride in the yet cool morning along the calm lake surface, in the shadows of the mountains, passing the Chateau de Chillon again, saying hello to Mr. Mercury in Vevey-Montreux again. I turned off the known road at Villeneuve into the great valley of Vallée which was bordered by the best vineyards and the greatest mountains of Switzerland. I had some backwind and the road was flat, so I enjoyed the speed so much that I didn’t stop until 100 km. I sat down at the main square of the ancient city of Sion with a bottle of water and a sandwich and prepared for the great climbing breathing deeply from the fresh air of that has been breathed by people living there since 8000 years ago. Surrounded by the Alps, lying on the side of the Rhone the city carries the heritage of Celts, Romans, French catholic and German protestant ages. But the size and age of the ancient city’s monuments are dwarfed by the million years old monuments of the nature, between which the city was built. The Jungfrau and the Matterhorn are only the most known peaks of the many 4000ers surrounding the valley. No wonder Vallée got rich and famous from the pilgrimage to these natural wonders.
It wasn’t a time to look around but I had a glance of the old castle of the city before I left towards Brig. I was expecting some elevation that time, but the road was still flat, I was only at 600 m (1968 ft) high when I arrived to Brig, which was like arriving to the bottom of a wall while I was planning to go up on the stairs. I got confused a bit as the main road was leading to a tunnel, which I didn’t intend to use, but I couldn’t really find the way up on the hillside, so I started to ask people. Finally at a petrol station I succeeded to set up some communication using the mixture of my bad german and even worse french and the man explained me that I have to go that way and „pedalieren” a lot to while he was showing to the direction of a smaller road then pointing along the serpentine going up the mountain and making a buzzing sound. Then I smiled. The road immediately started with a 7% steep rise which did not change until the top of the pass. I had to climb 1400 m (4593 Ft) that I calculated to take about 3 hours using the thumb rule, which sounds ok, but in that heat it was the most challenging 3 hours of that week. It was almost unbearable, plodding upwards with a 10 km/h (6 mi/h) speed drinking and flushing a huge amount of water to keep my temperature down and my blood pressure up. It was not something that I could maintain with a moderate speed, I had to stop several times to rest and fill my water bottles and still I got more and more tired. It was the 9th hour in the saddle and I was so exhausted that I couldn’t reach the next parking lot, so I laid down on the concrete base of the guard rail and ate an energy bar. I could have fallen into sleep then, but the trucks passing about a meter by me convinced me that this is not a place to camp, so I continued my climb. Finally I spotted the pass, it was still far, but its view gave me a new power and I finished the last section in a better mood. The air was cooler up there and the view was stunning. The 2005 m (6578 ft) high pass was surrounded by mountains of double height, the mountains that formed a natural border for centuries were still tough to overcome.
I was dreaming about coke and ice cream all the way up in the heat, but when I arrived I didn’t want it any more. In the shadow of the mountains the temperature dropped and I just wanted to get down on the other side and have a rest in a lakeside camping. It was 6 PM and according to my plan I had to ride 30 km (19 mi) to Domodossola, where I wanted to camp. I started to roll down on the other side. The descend was brutal. In a few moments I accelerated to 60 km/h (38 mi/h) when I leaned forward, and back to 40 km/h (25 mi/h) when I stood up in the saddle, it was a funny way of controlling my speed. Fortunately the road quality was as good as all the way through Switzerland and there was no significant traffic, so I started to enjoy the breakless rush. On a straight section I reached the 88 km/h (55 mi/h) speed first time in my life. The wind almost blew off my head, I was cold and my fingers hurt from the strong grip, but it was amazing to rush down with the river on my side into that deep canyon after the hours of climbing in the heat. I crossed the border to Italy and suddenly the road quality changed, and not to its advantage, so I slowed down and had a little rest, which I used to change the glass lenses to transparent ones as the canyion was dark. After that I enjoyed the moderate descend into Italy. It took about an hour to reach Domodossola and I stopped at a shopping mall to buy some food. After the weeks in Switzerland the prices seemed to be ridiculous, although they were still higher than at my home in Hungary. I bought coke, ice cream, melon and sandwich, and I started to have a small dinner in tha parking lot. While I was eating I spotted a guard and asked him with my broken Italian where did I find a camping. His answer was shocking. There was no camping in Domodossola at all, the next one was 30 km (19 mi) away at a small lake next to the Lago di Maggiore. It was the 11th hour in the saddle and every part of my body screemed against going further, but I had no other choice than to ride another hour. I didn’t hurry any more, especially as I was not sure of the direction, so I frequently asked the locals to point me to the lake. The Italians were very nice and open. It was good to see smiling faces and about 9 PM I finally arrived to the camping on the lakeside and after a swim and shower I jumped into my hammock and fell asleep.
The last day I woke up lazily. Milan was less than 100 km (63 mi) away and my train was at 9 PM, so I had plenty of time. The first 30 km (19mi) ran along the Lago di Maggiore, the huge North-Italian lake drinking the cool water running down from the Alps. The lakeside was covered with resort towns, rich palaces looked down on the clear water surface spotted with little islands. The road was full of road bikes, I’ve never seen so many cyclists outside of race. Teenagers and elders, amateurs and professionals were represented similarly and everybody was nodding or saying ciao to each other. At the end of the lake I had a rest and ate an ice cream, which was perfect as every ice cream in Italy. The little beach was full of people swimming, playing and sunbathing. It was 10 AM and the temperature rose close to 40°C (104°F), so I sat under a sunshade and enjoyed the rest. Milan was close and the end of my journey was coming with it. I was not much enthusiastic about the last section. Leaving the mountains, leaving the lakes and entering a large, hot plain didn’t sound that attractive. The only thing that saved a bit of my morale was the other cyclists. I succeeded to speed up and join one of the groups, so despite my overweighted bike, I was able to go with them for a couple of kilometres. Navigation wasn’t easy because most of the Milan signs directed to the highway, which I obviously couldn’t use, so I always had to find an alternative way that made me zig-zag a lot on secondary roads. Finding drinking water was harder in Italy then in Switzerland before. There were rarely public wells, mostly I was forced to get to a shop to buy some drink. No wonder that the originally 90 km (56 mi) long section became 105 km (66 mi) and it took more than 5 hours to arrive to Milan.
The city was very strange at first. I was instinctively looking for some river that would point me to the centre, but there was nothing like that as Milan is a huge city spreading over a large plain without water or mountains. I was circling in the suburbs without a clue until finally I got a map from a hotel and found my way inside the downtown. It was around noon and all the restaurants and café were closed for siesta. So I bought some fruits and drink in a shop and got into a city park to have a rest. The heat was unbearable, but the shades of the trees and the fruits I ate made it pleasant. I read for an hour or two – a thin book from Murakami was my treat for the silent hours that I carried all the way with me – and I waited for the siesta to end. In the afternoon I watched the city. Milan is very rich in arts and landmarks like the cathedral, the castle and the Da Vinci museum. It is also a typical italian city with its noises and its beauty aged by that kind of abrasion that is the character of nice old ladies, who still possess a mature variant of their unbridled beauty of youth. After visiting the most important sites I sat in a restaurant and ordered a pizza and finished it with an espresso, the two things I never miss in Italy although I generally don’t drink coffee. Then I went to the huge central train station of Milan, which was already full of the unfortunate people fleeing from the wars in the Middle-East and North Africa. We were similar in some way, tired after a long journey, seeking the shades of trees in the heat and water to drink, all our luggage hanged on ourselves and we were waiting for our train. Only it was a sport to me and I was on my way to home, while they were forced to leave and travel to the uncertainty. The journey home was long and uneventful. I started to write down my experiences . It was no Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, but it was my Grand Cycling Tour. I remembered what the waiter exclaimed when I told him about my journey: ‘la madre di biciclette’. For me it was.
Take care and ride strong.