The mountains of France and Italy are already assured of legendary status by the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia respectively - from the 48 switchbacks of the Stelvio, to the lunar landscape of Ventoux. Every passionate cyclist has heard of them. But what about Switzerland?
But what about Switzerland? Any pro cycling fan who has watched the Tour de Suisse – one of the key warm-up races for the Tour de France – and the Tour de Romandie will know the country has some of the best riding Europe can offer, even if it flies under the radar at less than 18 per cent of the size of Great Britain.
And the Swiss cycling community has picked out the country's greatest climbs for Grand Tours Project, highlighting those must-ride ascents.
The whole country is a cyclist’s paradise. There are endless options: from flat rides and rolling hills in the north to the 16 paved passes over 2,000m in the Swiss Alps. The country’s cycling route network is made up of nine national and 123 regional bike routes using mostly small, perfectly surfaced roads with little traffic, so you can get away from the crowds of other popular European cycling destinations.
So, where should you ride in Switzerland? Here are six of the best climbs the country has to offer – as voted by the local cycling community for Grand Tours Project. Those which, as a Swiss native, I have ridden and fallen in love with at first sight (or pedal stroke).
It was little surprise to see the south side of Gotthard Pass, also called the Tremola, top the vote. The 7.3-mile climb has an average gradient of eight per cent and while most of the traffic goes through a tunnel (the fourth longest in the world) or the main road up the pass, the Tremola is the old road, dating back to Roman times, and the top five kilometres are cobbled. The Paris-Roubaix of the Alps… but with Swiss-style cobbles: that is to say, they are nice and smooth.
And if that’s not enough to add this climb to your bucket list, it also features a series of incredible switchbacks. So, forget about your Strava time on this climb: you’ll stop many, many times to take pictures.
There’s a restaurant at the top, so have a break and order an Ovomaltine. At first sight, it looks like hot chocolate. But its original formula, only available in Switzerland, contains barley malt, milk powder, cocoa powder, whey protein, egg, yeast and honey. No wonder Fabian Cancellara was such a strong rider.
Furka Pass (2,436m)
Go down the north side of the Gotthard Pass and take a left in Hospental: you are now climbing the Furka. The fourth highest Swiss pass is famous for its big views and the stone pillars which line its many switchbacks.
As you leave Realp, don't forget to stop at James Bond Street. Agent 007 drove over the Furka Pass in Goldfinger (1964). As you might expect, there was a car chase over the beautiful road and there’s a sign to commemorate Bond’s visit. On two wheels, you’re facing a climb of 7.4 miles at an average of seven per cent from Realp.
The descent of the other side of the Furka is pure switchback porn: below, the road winds its way down to Gletsch, and in the distance you’ll see more switchbacks - those leading to the Grimsel, another pass that leads to the province of Bern.
Once you’ve done the Tremola and Furka passes, why not add the Nufenen and make it a loop? You’ll climb 3,150m in just under 100km and tick off three of the best climbs in Switzerland in one (long) day.
But beware: the Nufenen (the second highest paved pass in Switzerland) is a beast: it climbs 1,108m in less than eight miles. While this makes an average of 8.5 per cent, there are several long sections above ten per cent – making this a real challenge at the end of a long day in the mountains.
Once you reach the top, get ready for an exhilarating descent into Airolo. Order a panini (or two) and an espresso to fuel the ride home.
Some will argue the eastern part of Switzerland, Graubünden, is the best place to climb in the country. You have the Umbrail, the highest pass in Switzerland at 2,501m and then just three kilometres more from the top of the famous Passo Stelvio over the border in Italy.
There’s also the Albula, which features regularly in the Tour de Suisse. The lower slopes are nothing special, but the real climb starts in Filisur, 23km from the top. The gradients are generally pleasant, and you start by passing through a series of authentic villages where houses are decorated with typical drawings called sgraffiti. Then, after Bergün, you ride under several UNESCO-listed railway bridges. This is Switzerland after all.
The landscape changes again as you reach the top, where the road is dominated by huge, red rocks. Watch out for the cows on the way down to La Punt: you may find some walking freely on the road.
Col de la Croix (1,778m)
If you have to do only one climb in the French speaking part of Switzerland, this is the one. It’s not very high, but its southern side starts low, at 450m in Bex, and that means that you climb more than 1,300m in 22km: more than the famous Col du Galibier from Valloire.
Villars-Gryon, 14km into the climb, hosted a Tour de Romandie stage finish in 2016. After losing ground the day before due to a mechanical, Chris Froome bounced back and launched a risky attack 38km from the finish to win solo after dropping Tejay Van Garderen in the final kilometers. It was great having the WorldTour stars in town, but they crushed the Strava leaderboard and us locals now have to scroll way down to see our times.
The upper part of the climb is a cross-country skiing trail in winter. Once the road is cleared in May, it becomes a cycling heaven; there’s very little traffic apart from the dozens of cyclists who come to test their legs on this local giant.
Col du Sanetsch (2,242m)
You know how cyclists hate dead ends. They like loops, or going from A to B. But the idea of coming down a mountain via the same road you climbed isn’t so unattractive.
I shared the dislike for dead ends until I discovered the Col du Sanetsch, which looks like a dead end on a map. In fact, this is a true hidden gem, and a monster: more than 1,690m of climbing from the Rhone Valley, where it starts in the vineyards.
Think of a climb of the magnitude of the Stelvio, without the relentless traffic that somewhat spoils your experience on this legendary pass.
The upper part of the climb can’t get more Swiss: green pastures, typical chalets, cows, high peaks… you can even see a glacier not far from the top. There’s also a very dark tunnel, so bring lights with you. And it’s not really a dead end. There’s no road down the other side, but there’s a cable car! Hang your bike on the hook outside of the gondola, pray that it won’t fall down (it won’t), and enjoy the view as you descend along a vertical cliff to Gsteig, near the famous resort of Gstaad.
Once there, why not climb some more mountains? You can get back to the Rhone Valley via the Col du Pillon and the northern side of the Col de la Croix. And if you do, stop at the Grand Tours Project chalet as you descend into Villars-Gryon. We’ll have an Ovomaltine and talk bikes.
For more information on cycling in Switzerland, visit MySwitzerland.com.
About the author
Alain Rumpf is Chief Cycling Officer of Grand Tours Project, which creates unique and challenging adventures to celebrate the culture of cycling on the most beautiful roads of Europe. Learn more at www.grandtoursproject.com.