Wednesday, January 25, 2017

2016 Bicycle Tour of the Alps

July 6th to July 16th
11 days
15 mountain passes
18,000m of climb

To remind myself to do something crazy once in a while.

Many thanks to my wonderful wife for taking care of the kids while I was away.

Day 1, July 6th

    This is way harder than I thought.

Thoughts kept racing through my mind.

    This is even harder than the army. 

It was the first riding day of the tour. It wasn't going well. Arturo and I lost our way riding from the hostel to the Luzern train station. Piaw and Arturo were clearly faster than me. I must keep up. I didn't want to be last and lost.

    What have I gotten myself into?

The plan was to ride from Luzern to Sarnen, climb 1500m to Melchsee-Frutt, ride to Engstlenalp, then Meiringen, and finally climb 700m to Rosenlaui. We had already booked our stay at Piaw's favorite Rosenlaui Hotel. That was the one day we wouldn't call it a day because we were too tired.

    2500m climb...

Luzern to Sarnen was flat. The gravel and dirt trails didn't bother me. Then we started climbing.

    8%... 10%... 12% grade?

My usual training route was flat. I didn't know what to expect. I also didn't know how to climb.

    My heart rate is too high.

If I pedalled faster, I would overwork my heart. If I pedalled slower, I would overwork my legs. No speed was right. Yet, Piaw and Arturo were way ahead of me. I wasn't fit enough!

Piaw must have sensed my pain. When we regrouped at the Stockalp water fountain, he suggested that I take the cable car up to Melchsee-Frutt. Game over already? "No, I'll keep riding, " I replied.

Piaw and Arturo took off effortlessly. Soon, I couldn't see them anymore.

    My heart rate is still too high.

I had to slow down.

    14% grade?

    I can walk my bike faster than I can ride. 

"My legs are cramping," I reluctantly messaged at about 1500m elevation.

"Ride down to Sarnen NOW!" Piaw screamed back instantly.

Oh, that's what plan C was. I must reach Sarnen in time to take the train to Meiringen and catch the last bus up to Rosenlaui. I rapidly descended 21km back to Sarnen. Sarnensee looked pretty on the way down.

    What about tomorrow?

I was hungry. Dinner at Rosenlaui was awesome.

"Tomorrow, we'll get you lower gears in Grindelwald," said Piaw.

Day 2, July 7th

The next morning, I ate a huge breakfast. Perhaps I didn't have enough energy the previous day?

Somehow, I managed to climb 600m to Grosse Scheidegg without being left behind. The weather was great and the view was awesome.

The bike shop at Grindelwald didn't have what I needed. Piaw made a few calls and we rushed to the Riem Bike in Interlaken. I got there at noon. They were going to close for lunch. But Piaw and Arturo had charmed them into helping us before I got there.

The mechanic carefully replaced my 30-39-50 crank with a Deore 22-30-40 crank, adjusted the derailleurs, added spacers and shortened the chain. He took the bike for a ride and adjusted it some more. I was impressed.

Piaw's Independent Cycle Touring book advised against equipment changes right before or during a tour for good reasons. I had not used clip-in and cleats before. But I was desperate. Piaw said it would feel like I had added five pounds of muscle. Besides, my trekking pedals were half platform and half clip-in. If I couldn't make it up Rosenlaui that afternoon, I might as well pack up and go home. I bought new shoes and cleats. It was a small price to pay.

Pedalling didn't feel that different for the rest of the day. We hugged the southern shore of Brienzersee and rode east into the valley for Meiringen. It was mostly flat. We visited Aareschlucht and went to Lammi restaurant for my "first dinner", a full meal of delicious homemade sausages and fries. I was hungry even though I had been eating the whole day.

Piaw was the first to head up the hill to Rosenlaui followed by Arturo. I followed behind spinning at 90rpm in the lowest gear. Soon, I was all alone. The bus had taken the same route up the hill the previous day. It was going to be a relentless climb at eight to thirteen percent grades until it plateaued after crossing a bridge three quarters of the way there.

Half way up, Arturo shouted to me from the side of the the road, "Fountain!"

I was so focused on the climb that I had not seen the fountain or Arturo standing next to it. Finally, the bridge came into view and I was relieved. May be this could work after all.

Day 3, July 8th

The third day was the real test. We were descending to Innertkirchen in the valley to mail anything we didn't need for the rest of the trip. Then we would climb 1500m to Grimsel Pass. This alternate valley and mountain pass pattern would be the template for the rest of the trip. We were going to climb as many mountain passes as the weather allowed.

Despite muscle aches in unexpected places, I was feeling more optimistic. At breakfast, I loaded up on ham, cheese, bread and coffee, almost as much as Piaw. My training rides were much shorter and less intense. Eating wasn't an issue during the ride. Then I recalled that I was cold on the first day, which was a sign of low blood sugar. But I had no appetite, not even for chocolate because I probably didn't have enough salt. I reminded myself to eat more and add salt tablets in my water bottle.

We stopped for a supermarket lunch just two hours after breakfast, after only 400m of climb. Piaw and Arturo had figured out that that was the last supermarket before the pass. We ate more bread, ham, cheese and chocolate. We also picked up salted peanuts, which increased my appetite.

As usual, Piaw and Arturo went ahead, up Grimsel Pass. I stuck to my strategy of spinning at 90rpm at the lowest gear. But it wasn't working. It still required more effort than I knew was sustainable. After all those changes, something was still not right. 1500m up Grimsel Pass was more than what I climbed each of the first two days. Eventually, I made it there far behind Piaw and Arturo. But my relieve at reaching the pass was short-lived.

"Piaw had booked us a room at Hotel Tiefenbach," said Arturo. "It is on the other side of Furka Pass."

What pass? That meant descending 400m and climbing another 600m! Oh, that would make it at 2100m day!

    Stop calculating!

    Don't think.

    Eat more chocolate.

I was cold and only probably partly due to the colder weather at the pass. I promptly ate all my remaining chocolate. It was only 600m more. I did 700m at the end of the day before.

    Stop obsessing with numbers.

   Just keep going.

The little voice in my head was back.

Day 4, July 9th

"You look like a hamster in a running wheel," said Arturo.


I was spinning at 90rpm. Many cycling articles on the internet said that spinning at 90rpm was better than mashing the pedal at 60rpm. That was how I rode when I trained. With 22 teeth chainring and 36 teeth sprocket, my speed was just 7 km/h. I was like a hamster, spinning fast and yet not make much progress. Arturo climbed at around 60rpm.

The fourth day turned out to be an easy day. We climbed 600m to St. Gotthard Pass, taking the scenic old cobble stone road. This was followed by a long 75km descent to Bellinzona, an 1800m drop from the pass. The temperature in the valley was around 35 degrees Celcius. Piaw and Arturo looked roasted and were happy to go visit main castle Castelgrande instead of riding. Then we climbed 150m to our B&B at Grono for cooler weather. None of the places we stayed at had air-conditioners. It made sense to stay at higher elevations.

Day 5, July 10th

Each night, during and after dinner, Piaw and Arturo would discuss the pros and cons of possible routes for the next day. Mostly the forecasted weather would be the dominant factor. I would listen but sometimes got lost as they switched between German and Italian names. But I would always try to figure out the magic number, the total amount of climb.

For the fifth day, the plan was go over San Bernardino Pass and may be Passo dello Spluga. May be? Yeah, right. That would be 2300m of climb. This was almost as hard as the plan for the first day. I couldn't simply repeat what I did the last two days. It was time to try something else.

I went up three sprockets and slowed down my cadence.


Suddenly, I could keep up with Piaw!

A slower cadence allowed me to focus on pulling and reduce the pushing. It also magically reduced the load on my heart.

Still, I wasn't convinced that I could last the whole day. I kept my effort at sustainable levels even if I could have gone a bit faster. When I finally reached the hotel at Campodolcino after climbing 2350m for the day, I thought, may be I would be able to complete my tour after all.

That night, Piaw's wife didn't ask me if I could keep up.

Day 6, July 11th

By the sixth day, I was accustomed to the daily routine.

Piaw and Arturo had toured this area at least twice before and were familiar with the routes and passes.  I would have never done this on my own the first time. Now, I knew what to expect. As long as I followed my checklist, I figured I could make it through the day. The 3.5 hour 1400m climb up Maloja Pass didn't feel too tiring. My muscles had stopped aching. I was really enjoying the tour.

During our supermarket lunch at Silvaplana, we had to decide whether to head to Bernina Pass or Zernez. With Piaw's style of touring, we did not book any lodging in advance. We did not even know which way we would be heading. We could change our plans at the last minute depending on how we felt and what we thought the weather was going to be. We decided to go over Bernina Pass (700m climb), Livigno Pass (200m climb) and head for Livigno. It looked far on the map. Zernez didn't look any better. I had better keep some energy in reserve just in case.

All morning, I had been trying to optimize my pedalling stoke. If my legs were properly coordinated, the strokes would feel smooth and it took less effort. Less energy was required and I can go further on the same amount of food. It was all about reducing wasted energy. Accelerate slowly. Minimize spikes in effort. Relax my shoulders. Bend the elbows. Hold my entire body steady. Don't rock left and right, or forwards and back or up and down on the seat. Try to be as smooth as possible. Any extra movement was wasting energy. I had become a machine. Engine efficiency was my goal. As I got more efficient, I climbed faster.

As we went up Bernina Pass, the sky darkened and it threatened to rain. A strong headwind made the climb even harder. Another two hours of riding to Livigno didn't look enjoyable. Fortunately, right there, half way up Bernina Pass, we came across a nice newly renovated Gasthaus & Hotel Berninahaus. We were glad to be done for the day, after just under 1800m of climb.

That evening, after speaking to Piaw, I replaced the stock Shimano brake pads with Kool Stop salmon colored brake pads, something I should have done before the trip. It would come in handy during the next few days.

Day 7, July 12th

The climbs were warm. The passes were windy and cold. The descends were cold but got gradually warmer. The valleys were warm or hot depending on the elevation. Mostly, it had been sunny. That was all about to change.

The headwind we encountered the day before had disappeared but the sky was filled with thick clouds. I felt cold. The climb up Bernina Pass and the short climb up Livigno Pass weren't hard enough. I kept my jacket on while I climbed. On the descent to Livigno, it showered both rain and hail. My fingers were cold even with long-fingered covered gloves. I was glad when the rain stopped and the clouds cleared as we approached Livigno.

The salmon brake pads competently slowed the bike down from 50km/h at nearly full brake pressure during the wet descent. The stopping power was confidence inspiring. The Shimano pads did not stop well in the wet at normal speeds on flat roads. Thank goodness I swapped the pads.

Livigno is a valley at 1800m, flanked on the east and west by mountain ridges. In winter, Livigno turns into a big ski resort. The town has many shops, hotels, restaurants and bike shops. We stopped at a few bike shops to fix Arturo's bike and look for rain gear. My hiking jacket and hiking pants were supposed to be waterproof. All I need were shoe covers. The shoe covers were expensive and looked clumsy. We didn't buy any. Besides, the sun was out again.

After going through Munt la Schera Tunnel, we climbed Ofen Pass. The weather at the pass had turned cold, dark and misty. Not much could be seen through the mist. We chatted with a nice German touring cyclist who was on his way home after an eleven month trip.  My jacket and gloves barely kept me warm until I descended 800m to Santa Maria Val Müstair. It rained in Schluderns as we reached the tourist information centre.

Day 8, July 13th

The show Top Gear declared Stelvio Pass to be one of the best driving roads in the world. It is highest mountain pass in Italy and Switzerland at 2757m. The pass looked spectacular in the show. I was looking forward to it.

The skies were blue and the sun was out. But it was still cold at the hotel. I had worn two shirts and a pair of arm coolers. Half an hour after starting, the sun seemed hot enough that I put on sunscreen while wondering if the extra shirt was necessary.

The switchbacks along the climb were numbered in reverse order, starting from 48. The turns were the gentlest part. At turn 22, elevation 2188m, we stopped at Berghotel Franzenshöhe. It has started drizzling and we were hungry. I grabbed a hot Gulaschsuppe and coffee to warm up.

My hopes of getting good views from the pass was dashed. The rain has gotten heavier and the fog has rolled in after our slow lunch. It was too early to stop and the weather forecast for the next day was not good. We decided to climb the pass and hope the rain wouldn't turn into a thunderstorm.

I wore my jacket and headed up the mountain in the rain. An older cyclist on a mountain bike followed me closely after I overtook him. He looked like he was at least 60 years old. After I reached the pass, before I could head into some shelter, he tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to his flat front tire and promptly walked away!

I was in no mood for small talk. All I could think of was a nice warm hotel. It was raining, very windy and very cold. I added waterproof pants, long fingered gloves and a helmet to whatever I was wearing. After our mandatory pass signboard picture, we took off for the descent to escape the cold.

Three tops, two bottoms and two pairs of gloves couldn't keep the cold out. On the climb, I had not realized how cold it was because the exertion was keeping my body warm. On the sweeping high speed descent, with idling muscles, rain and 50km/h relative winds, I could hardly control my fingers and my teeth were chattering. The Italian road was also lined with potholes and I was worried about losing traction hard braking before the hairpins. This was the worst descent ever.

One hour and 1500m later, Arturo and I safely reached Bormio. Piaw, with his superior descending skills, had already booked us a hotel room. After checking into the hotel, the weather cleared up. We went for an evening stroll through the nice old town of Bormio and visit the local castle.

Day 9, July 14th

I wasn't worried about the climbs anymore. I was more worried about descents in the cold.

It turned out that I had been losing weight. The large breakfasts, three course dinners and continuous snacking throughout the day weren't enough to fuel the rides. We were probably burning more than 6000 calories a day.

I had lost an inch around my waist and lost strength in my upper body. That was why it always felt cold. At the end of the day, I would feel even colder because of low blood sugar.

Riding out of Bormio, it looked like the cold descents were over. The sun was out again, poking through the gaps of white clouds. It had snowed the night before and the mountains were partly covered with a thin layer of snow. It was absolutely gorgeous. As we climbed Gavia Pass, it got sunnier but barely warmer. At the pass, I ducked inside Rifugio Bonetta to take a look at a poster of Jobst Brandt and to warm up.

With the two pairs of gloves, two shirts, a jacket, riding shorts, pants and even a Buff headwear under the helmet, I still felt cold under the glaring sun. I didn't warm up until we reached the pizza stop near Ponte di Legno. It was 30 degress celcius.

After lunch, we climbed Tonale Pass, down past Malè and headed north east towards Bolzano. I was starting to feel cold again. Lunch and chocolates weren't enough. It was hard to estimate how much to eat when I didn't know when we were going to stop for the day.

    Food. I need to eat.

We were still discussing where to stop for the day when I saw a hotel with a gelato sign. I promptly stopped and bought a chocolate gelato.

Eventually, we found a hotel with great restaurant reviews in the small apple farming town of Brez. Locanda Alpina had the best food on the tour.

My part of the tour was coming to an end. I had to make the morning flight on July 18th from Zurich. Zurich was 300km west of Brez. The next day would take us east past Bolzano to Canazei. That was over 400km away. I needed a convenient place to take a train to Zurich.

Arturo and Piaw were planning to ride further east to Cortina d'Ampezzo towards the Austrian Alps. There were no trains from Cortina d'Ampezzo. The only feasible route was to ride to Dobbiaco early 17th morning to make a bus connection and then make a number of train connections. I could not book the tickets in advance and bike tickets might be limited on some trains. There was little margin of safety. Canazei was the furthest I should go. At worst, I could backtrack to the big city of Bolzano where there were many trains to Zurich via Innsbruck.

Day 10, July 15th

This was the last whole day we were riding together on the tour. The 15km ride up Mendola Pass was easy. From the pass, we could look past the glacier carved Val d'Adige south of Bolzano and see the Dolomites on the other side. We had booked a room 85km away at Hotel Aurora at Alba, 2km south of Canazei in the Dolomites. We were going to descend into Bolzano and climb back up to 1700m. The vastness of the distance suddenly dawned on me.

Bolzano was hot, which was great. We had our usual bread, prosciutto, cheese and espresso lunch in the outskirts of Bolzano, skipping the busy touristy center. Then we climbed up to Karersee. Karersee was a touristy little lake with views of some Dolomites peaks in the background. After walking the lake, I had cravings for sausages but I passed because the touristy food didn't look good and we weren't climbing much anymore.

We went up Passo di Costalunga and took our obligatory pass photo. As we headed down to Canazei, I started to feel cold again! I was wishing I had grabbed sausages earlier. It would be another one and half hours of riding before we reached our hotel in Alba around 6pm. We just had another ten hour riding day.

Day 11, July 16th

I had been to the Dolomites a few years ago and had stayed in Selva di Val Gardena right before the Sellaronda bike day. The Sellaronda bike route was a loop around the four passes Passo Sella, Passo Pordoi, Passo Compolongo and Passo Gardena. I had driven the route and the views were great. I had never thought I would be riding there.

On this final riding day, we had decided to ride 800m up Passo Sella. Traffic was heavy because it was a Saturday. This was my last mountain pass climb and would be for a long time. At the start of the tour, I felt I had to catch up with Piaw and Arturo as I lagged behind. Now, I took it easy and enjoyed the climb. The morning was cold especially in the shade of the mountain. The pass, at 2240m, was windy and even colder. The view was as awesome as I had imagined.

A few pass photos later, we descended 400m to the crossroad with the fork to Selva di Val Gardena. This was where we split. After a group photo and a quick farewell, Piaw and Arturo turned right towards Passo Gardena for the rest of their tour. I was now on my own.

I slowly headed down to Selva with the heavy Saturday traffic. Selva was crowded with tourists and cars, like when I was there the last time. Originally, I had been looking forward to having some pizza from a place I had visited before. But I was too cold. I stopped at a crowded bakery in the center of town and bought a doughnut and a slice of pizza. Then I sat outside the bakery and watched people go by.

The last leg was a fast descent through Ortisei to the Ponte Gardena train station.

My tour was over.


Trains departed from Ponte Gardena to Brennero hourly. From Brennero, I walked across the border into Austria and took a train to Innsbruck. At Innsbruck, I immediately went to the ticketing office to buy next day train tickets for Zurich. To my horror, there was only one bicycle slot left! That train would reach Zurich after 7pm. Luckily, I had a margin of safety.

My wife had booked me a hotel room in Innsbruck within walking distance of the train station. The hotel was new and had secured parking for bicycles. I checked in, stored my bike and went to the room to wash up. By the time I left the hotel for a walk to old town, most regular shops had closed. Nevertheless, I walked all over town, found the touristy areas and had an awesome burger with local beef for dinner.

The next day, Innsbruck was flooded with tourists. The shops were open and I shopped for toys for the kids. Then I discovered the free Innsbruck Promenade Concerts at the Imperial Palace. I would certainly be bringing the family here for a vacation.

I was strongest about two weeks after the tour. A few months later, the three pounds of weight and the inch I lost during the trip were back. So was my upper body strength. Whatever my body optimized for during the trip wasn't sustainable in my normal routine.

Six months later, memories still come flooding back whenever I go for my training rides.

Check out Piaw's trip report for the whole tour.

More photos from Piaw.


Day 1
  • 83km, 1240m climb.
  • Luzern, Sarnen, Melchtal, Stockalp, half way up Melchee-Frutt, Sarnen, train to Meiringen, bus to Rosenlaui
Day 2
  • 86km, 1640m climb.
  • Rosenlaui, Grosse Scheidegg, Grindelwald, Interlaken, Giessbach, Meiringen, Rosenlaui
Day 3
  • 60km, 2090m climb.
  • Rosenlaui, Innertkirchen, Grimsel Pass, Furka Pass, Tiefenbach
Day 4
  • 116km, 840m climb.
  • Tiefenbach, St Gotthard Pass, Bellinzona, Grono
Day 5
  • 86km, 2350m climb.
  • Grono, San Bernardino Pass, Passo dello Spluga, Campodolcino
Day 6
  • 78km, 1780m climb.
  • Campodolcino, Maloja Pass, St Moritz, Pontresina, Berninahaus
Day 7
  • 87km, 1020m climb.
  • Berninahaus, Bernina Pass, Livigno Pass (Forcola di Livigno), Livigno, Munt la Schera Tunnel, Ofen Pass (Passo del Forno), Santa Maria Val Müstair, Schluderns
Day 8
  • 58km, 1850m climb.
  • Schluderns, Stelvio Pass, Bormio
Day 9
  • 107km, 2270m climb.
  • Bormio, Gavia Pass, Tonale Pass, Brez
Day 10
  • 99km, 2260m climb.
  • Brez, Mendola Pass, Bolzano, Karersee, Passo di Costalunga (Karerpass), Canazei, Alba
Day 11
  • 44km, 770m climb.
  • Alba, Passo Sella, Selva di Val Gardena, Ponte Gardena


  1. Hahaha. The route around the Brienzersee is *not* flat. That you might think so now shows that the tour recalibrated your expectations for what's flat. :-) Similarly, the headwind up the Bernina pass was only "stiff", not "strong." But getting cooked before the climb made it seem worse. But it was a good thing we stopped at the Gasthaus. It would have been a mad rush into Livigno, which wasn't an appealing town anyway.

  2. I had to check the dictionary for this one.
    Isn't "stiff wind" stronger than "strong wind"?

  3. I made up the difference. It was around 10mph, not enough to truly affect climbing.