My summer vacation this year was a trip to Switzerland, with a side trip to the Netherlands to visit some friends who live there, and a side trip to Barcelona to spend time with friends who were vacationing there. Switzerland was the main part, though.
The trip was organized by my alumni association, so most of the time there was spent on planned activities in the area surrounding Interlaken. But, since I was extending the trip, I decided to spend some days mountain biking – it seemed like the right thing to do since I was in the Alps.
The planning started while I was still at home, and discovered that the Swiss Rail system allows you to reserve bikes that can be picked up at the rail station, or at bike shops nearby. This seemed wonderful, but turned out to be unnecessary, and in fact, not conducive to good riding. Foreshadowing, da-DUM!
For my first ride, I initially planned to do a simple ride from Interlaken up to Grindelwald village. Based on what I read, it sounded like this would be a gradual climb, mostly on gravel and pavement, but with a fun downhill back into Interlaken. It seemed OK, but then when I saw the route from the train window a few days prior to my planned ride, I realized it was going to be BOR-ING!
Since I had noticed a downhill flow trail at the top of the first cable car in Lauderbrunnen, during one of the group outings, I thought I might want to ride that instead. But, I had already reserved a hardtail (bike with a shock only on the front fork), through the train system reservations and I didn’t know if I could cancel it or where to get another bike.
When I went into the bike shop, I first spoke to an older gentleman, who took one look at my middle-aged, soft-in-the-middle self, and declared that I should absolutely not try to ride the downhill flow trail – that it was for “professional riders only.” I had seen the trail, and had seen that it was rated Intermediate, so I pushed back and said I could probably ride it with no problem. He then suggested a couple of rides that were clearly so boring that just hearing about them made me want to go to sleep. I mean, seriously – he wanted me to spend my vacation time riding back and forth on a one-mile section of wide gravel road.
Finally after some sighing and barely disguised eye-rolling (on his part, not mine), he turned me over to a younger guy, who spoke more English and was less patronizing. He suggested I climb up a road from Grindelwald, to Grosse Scheidegg (a pass), then ride the trail back down. He made it sound fun and not too painful.
So, I took the bike, caught the train to Grindelwald, and started the climb. From the edge of the village, I saw a sign saying it was 12 km to Grosse Scheidegg. By reading the elevations listed for Grindelwald and Grosse Scheidegg, I surmised that it would be a 3000’ vertical climb. So, 3000’ over about 7 miles. Not too bad. And, truly, as I pedaled along, I thought “well, this isn’t so bad. I might be able to do this.” Then the road got steeper. And the horseflies started biting. Since I started taking vitamin B12 daily, mosquitoes don’t bother me, so I didn’t think to wear bug spray. Apparently horseflies don’t care about vitamin B12, but they did care about the backs of my thighs, which they found very tasty. The sun beat down. It was apocalyptically hot.
I managed to climb about the first 700 vertical feet, at which point I came to a hotel, with a parking lot and a bus stop. I looked around and realized that the very narrow paved “road” beyond the hotel, which appeared to be nearly straight up, was my route to the top. I checked the time and realized I wouldn’t be able to make the whole climb and descent (at my very gradual pace) and get back to Interlaken in time for the evening lecture, which I really wanted to hear.
So, you can probably see where this is going – I took the bus. Along the way I saw people on road and mountain bikes, and on e-bikes, some going up and some going down. I also saw people hiking on the road, which I don’t understand at all. Why go to the trouble to get there only to walk along a paved road?
Within 30 minutes I was at the top. I had a snack then got on the bike and looked for the trail. I was looking for signs that implied bike trail (e.g.: signs with a picture of a bike), but couldn’t find any, and, not having mountain biked in Switzerland before, I didn’t really know what I was looking for. So I started down the road.
As I went along the road, I saw someone in the distance, bumping along on a mountain bike, in a manner that suggested they were on a trail. It looked fun. It also looked as if the trail would intersect with the road soon. So, I kept my eyes peeled, and finally saw the trail, with red and white painted rocks marking the way. I then remembered the bike shop guy telling me that I was going to take the red and white marked trail, so I dropped in.
The first section was fun. Then I crossed the road and hit a section that was a long, curving, steep, cobblestoned run. Imagine a curved grand staircase that goes on for about a quarter of a mile. Then replace the stairs with large cobblestones. I started down it, and made it partway, but then I started to feel as if I would go over the bars at any moment and break my teeth on the rocks. I got off and walked that section.
This was a recurring theme for the rest of the ride down to Grindelwald. Ride for a bit, start to feel that over-the-bars feeling (no matter how far back I got on the bike), hear the mental drumbeat of “teeth/rocks, teeth/rocks” and get off and walk for a bit.
Tune in next week for another installment, in which I learn the Spanish word for “danger.”