Mon 22nd July.
Passing the Alps and the worst storm I’d ever witnessed.
I got back on the highway which didn’t last long before it transformed into a more spacious road. I heard a loud ping from the back wheel but I couldn’t stop to investigate. When I did I discovered it was a spoke that had broken. This was the first sign that the bike was giving in under the demands. I couldn’t fix it now but now had something else to do the next time I stopped in a city for a few days.
The first few hours took me through some beautiful areas that were deep down into the rocks, mountains towering over us providing a cool shade. Streams of water ran below which added to the atmosphere that I was somewhere special.
There were spots for coaches to pull in and the area was popular with tourists looking around. I stopped to take a photo, looking down at a rock formation a hundred feet below.
I carried on through the rocks passing people enjoying themselves and admiring the rock formations. It had a strong, soothing identity and made me extremely happy that I had chosen to cycle through the mountains, rather than go by train from Munich.
I stopped in a small town at a Volg supermarket for yogurt, ice-coffee and bread. I sat outside and enjoyed the food, while listening to the ladies there talking Swiss-German to each other. A strange language I was yet to fathom. There was a dog outside, I tried to make friends with it, but it didn’t seem interested.
The expansive fields and long paths in the countryside made the day feel long, tiresome and never-ending. I stopped occasionally, progress was good as I came up to another rocky ascend, arriving at a small lake. There was a small metre reading installed in the rock, reading 1400, 1401m, 1402m. I checked with the GPS and it was accurate. 1400m behind me, 600m to go. The ascend was steady and pleasant, never feeling too difficult or steep. I turned over a good pace and never felt tired.
I got passed another expanse of fields before seeing the next challenge, a zig-zag road that went directly up over a mountainside. It’s demoralising to see the next hour of cycling laid out in front of you, but when you get to the top and look back at where you started it always feels worthwhile.
Before I made the climb I saw a group of farmers, perhaps volunteers working the fields. I’d heard farmers were paid by the government to keep the land in order and looking good, primarily for tourism. Hence any part of Switzerland is usually maintained to a high standard given this budget. The evidence from what I’d seen seemed true as all the fields for miles around were always spotless, trimmed and a natural green depicted on postcards. Switzerland was something of a utopia for reasons like this.
I began climbing, using the normal methods, breathing in rhythm with the cycling and moving at a rate I can handle in an easy gear. I only stopped once or twice indicating that I was in decent shape.
At the top the terrain changed, it was very different to anywhere else I’d been here and reminded me of the Moors in England, marsh-like and dramatic, yet relaxed. It had been sunny when I started the climb, but up here there was grey clouds and drizzle. I put on my coat while a few other cyclists passed me, with greetings.
This terrain carried on for an hour and having learnt to be patient with climbs and to keep moving rather than wish it was over in a hurry, I did it at a steady rate.
At the top of I knew I was at the last pass of the trip. No more sluggish climbs for hours on end, man against hill, pulling kilograms upon kilograms of weight up a hill, via a crank, chain and wheels.
The views were incredible as I’d come to expect from Switzerland and the pass was home to a few crystal clear lakes. As usual there was a lodge serving food and coffee and a car park for tourists and locals that had driven. I noticed a bus service that diminished the sense of accomplishment. Something that a few hundred people would cycle across a year, locals could pay a handful of coins and get a regulated service to do the same.
But I was elated knowing that two days of climbing was over.
I didn’t have anything from the lodge and looked around taking in everything at this altitude. I would have gone for a dip, but I didn’t want to leave anything unattended and it was very cold up here.
My body temperature dropped to the climate at 2000m and sadly I began preparing to for the downhill.
I couldn’t have planned it better for a final pass, an end to the stunning scenery I’d got to know and love on the trip. The views were the most spectacular I’d seen anywhere and after the first few turns and having dropped a hundred metres, I stopped and took it in again.
I already knew how or why people develop strong bonds and this was a reminder, a note to myself to jog that memory should I ever forget. Part of me promised to come back and do a similar trip in these parts again in the future. The miles and miles of downhill through layers mountains was phenomenal. Neither pictures or words could do it justice.
Every minute put into going uphill was paid back. Turns, slopes, steep hills that made my eyes water and racked up high speeds. Few cars were on the road meaning I could relax and enjoy it without having to think about others. The adrenaline rush of going downhill always beats most feelings you go through on a trip like this.
I dropped a few hundred metres and reached a flat area, with a small climb, then met another steep drop, with twists and turns lasting an hour, dropping me into the Swiss-Italian region. The pass was the signifier of the Italian speaking domain, and like that the Swiss-German I’d got used to hearing wouldn’t be heard or seen again here.
The towns I went through looked and felt completely different. People were sat outside, eating, drinking and playing cards. Groups of old men together laughing in the sun, Venetian style balconies on the buildings. I couldn’t believe it was so different from the majority.
The temperature had shot up too, I didn’t notice it at first, but once I stopped at a shop, the heat swooped in like a punch in the face. It was a humidity I hadn’t witnessed on the trip or ever to an excursion in Europe. It was around 30ºC and I had to keep moving to remain at a normal temperature
At Bellinzona I stopped for internet and ice cream. I spoke no Italian and attempted to order in Spanish, hoping they would pick up the similarities, but English prevailed.
Even in a fast-food restaurant with air-conditioning, it was a sweltering heat. It was nice to be somewhere warm, but I had a growing concern about what might happen after hours of cycling, or what camping would be like.
Which brought me to my next dilemma. It was too late to leave the city as there was a highway for about twenty miles which I couldn’t do in this heat before camping. I saw a campsite on the way in, but after looking at the maps of the city I noticed a few public parks that I could sneak into for the night as I did in Vaduz.
I went out on the prowl, aiming for the river as experiences told me there would be footpaths and ample camping opportunity. I found some potential, before finding a local park that was perfect. I marked out a good spot and noticed the river which was accessible by path. It was called ‘Fiume Ticino’.
I decided to have among Swiss nature. Went down to the rocks, stripped down and hopped in. Washing in a river was amazing, it felt like I was living a truly nomadic lifestyle, relying on nature for washing, cleaning and replenishment. I kept an eye on the bike while I was cleaning and got back up to setup camp.
I cleaned my teeth as I was in no rush to camp, then took my time putting the tent up. The tall and dense trees masked sky and what it was doing. A few minutes passed and I heard an aggressive wind sweep through the trees at the other side of the park. The leaves bristled as the wind howled through the many trees in the park, sounding like the static of a television.
The wind crossed the park in seconds and blew the groundsheet up off the floor, causing me to dive on top, pinning it to the ground on all fours. I grabbed a pannier to weigh it down and decided to wait for the winds to settle. Oblivious to the storm ahead.
Then within a few minutes of the winds keeping their pace, came the torrential downpour. I realised this wouldn’t leave quietly and I was in for the long haul. I had to erect the tent as quickly as possible and get in.
Within thirty-seconds, I was drenched, as though I’d be dropped in the river again. Thick heavy raindrops covered everything and shortly after came the thunder and lighting. There was a range of mountains to the east and another to the south, both of which were conducting thunderstorms, each releasing claps of thunder and flashes of light a few seconds about, often overlapping.
The two storms began to merge overhead in what felt like a fight between Gods, drowning the meagre city below. The tent wasn’t up yet and with the storm came a quick darkness, illuminated every few seconds by a flash of light.
Everything was drenched, but I had got the tent up in a panic. I locked my bike to a tree in the rain and covered it with the bike bag. After throwing my panniers in the tent I hopped in and thought the one good to come of this was no-one would bother me through the night.
I inflated my useless mattress, got into my soaked sleeping bag and listened to comedy podcasts to lighten the mood.
The storm last for about two hours as I lay their listening to it, I drifted off and had one of the best nights sleep I’d had in days, with the rain pounding the tent.