Climbing out of the saddle to round the final hairpin, the summit of the Grimselpass finally comes into view. After what has felt like 26km of near-constant climbing, the gradient has tailed off, and the burning sensation in our legs starts to fade with the realisation of what we’ve achieved. A quick look over the shoulder brings the last 10km flooding back – the snow-capped switchbacks and numerous reservoirs can be spied down below – while the lush, tree-lined valley from just an hour ago is merely a distant memory, but definitely one that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
You get this feeling a lot when riding in Switzerland. Each road has its own story to tell, and each is urging you to write your own on it. Not literally of course – although some still bear the graffitied hallmarks of the Tour de Suisse – but figuratively, with the country’s endless flow of quiet, silky smooth roads just asking to be ridden.
We went to Switzerland in search of the country’s best cycling roads and certainly weren’t disappointed with the results. Our journey took us to the cantons of Lucerne, Bern, Valais and Vaud, and each was unique in what it offered to cyclists. The variety of terrain was simply stunning – from rolling countryside and multiple mountain passes, to a relaxed lakeside ride through Mediterranean-like vineyards – and, with just a day in each location, it really felt like we only scratched the surface of this cycling paradise.
As can be expected of Switzerland, the infrastructure was as fantastic as the riding, with each hotel geared up to welcome cyclists. Throw in some brilliant weather and it’s amazing the country isn’t the European cycling destination of choice. Move over cheese, chocolate and clocks – there’s another ‘c’ that Switzerland deserves to be famous for.
Lucerne - rolling countryside in picture perfect Switzerland
The medieval city of Lucerne is the perfect place to commence our Swiss cycling adventure. The canton’s namesake city has a small centre with fairly quiet roads, while the old town is jam-packed with historical architecture. The centrepiece is the Kapellbrucke - an iconic, winding wooden bridge that crosses the Reuss river. It dates back to the 1300s and makes for a brilliant starting point in our search for the country’s best roads.
A short ride west towards the town of Kriens, and the hustle and bustle of the canton’s city soon opens up into lush, rolling countryside. On taking a left onto Hergiswaldstrasse, the road’s gradient starts to creep up. The glass and steel structures are left in the valley below, replaced by fields, alpine woodland and Swiss farmhouses that could easily be scaled up cuckoo clocks.
The ‘rolling’ description of the day’s parcours is fairly loose. Some sections stretch for 5-6 km at a time with an average gradient hovering around the seven per cent mark. But that is matched with similar descents, the highlights of the region being the snaking switchbacks down to Malters and the winding rollercoaster road from the hamlet of Rengg into Entlebuch below.
"The hustle and bustle of the canton’s city soon opens up into lush, rolling countryside. The glass and steel structures are left in the valley below, replaced by fields, alpine woodland and Swiss farmhouses"
From here, it could have been easy to spin back towards Lucerne, but given the quality of the morning’s riding, we knew that the canton of Lucerne easily had more to offer, and heading out of town on Glaubenbergstrasse, we were glad to have continued our exploration.
The road is 16km of twisting climbs and wicked false flats that follow the babbling river Rotbach towards Lucerne’s border with the neighbouring canton of Obwalden. Riding along in the valley, flanked either side by the peak of the Schimbrig to the right and Schlierengrat ridge to the left, there are almost too many stunning, mountain-filled views to take in.
The sound of rubber rolling on tarmac is only broken by the clang of cow bells, while the only traffic we encounter on our way towards the canton’s edge is of the bovine variety. As we pass, the cows give us a funny look, oblivious to the fact that they are standing on one of the best cycling roads in the whole of Lucerne.
At the summit of the final climb of the day, we hop off of our bikes and look back down the valley at what we’ve accomplished - the road snaking its way out of sight behind the tree line in the distance - the legs now suitably warmed up for what is to come in the mountains of Switzerland.
Bern - mountain paradise on the Grimselpass
The canton of Bern is the second largest in the whole of Switzerland, and at is centre is the Swiss capital. Far away from the big city though, in the region’s most south easterly point, lies one of the most famous roads in the world.
The ascent of the Grimselpass from the town of Innertkirchen is 26.5km of pure climbing bliss (if riding up mountains is your thing), with an average gradient just shy of six per cent. Popular also with petrol heads, the twisting and trying Grimselstrasse takes you from 600m above sea level to the 2,164m summit, and past some of the most epic views in the whole of Switzerland - and the country is spoilt for choice. But just because it’s popular with motorised two- and four-wheel machines, it doesn’t mean cyclists can’t pit themselves against an immense climb, too.
Staying overnight midway up the climb, by the Handeckfallbrucke rope bridge, it would have been easy to make this our starting point for the day, but that wouldn’t be true to our task of covering as many of Switzerland’s best roads as we could.
Bombing down the near constant descent, with speeds approaching 75kph, the thought quickly dawned on us that we would soon be making our way back up this very road, albeit at a much slower pace. On reaching the foot of the climb, we turn around and start to make away back up the fir tree-lined asphalt.
"Our legs have already started to numb thanks to a handful of breath-taking kickers, but they are merely an amuse-bouche for what is to come"
Around an hour and 14.5km in, we pass our hotel and into the unknown. Our legs have already started to numb thanks to a handful of breath-taking kickers, but they are merely an amuse-bouche for what is to come. The trees open up to reveal a vast clearing, and with it some respite before the gradient cranks up in earnest.
The road follows a similar pattern up to its summit - tight, testing switchbacks are followed by false flat before it’s repeated all over again. The legs grow more and more weary and the air gets thinner with every metre climbed.
Although this may sound like punishment, it really isn’t, with stunning scenery on hand to take our minds off the aches and pains - this is why we ride our bikes up mountains. Dams, reservoirs, waterfalls and snow-lined apexes are on the menu, and our urge to find out what amazing view might be around each corner helps the remaining kilometers fly by.
A hot drink is the reward on reaching the summit, with the balmy summer temperatures of the valley making way for a breezy chill atop Grimsel. And with that, we have two options - a rewarding descent back to the hotel, or down over the pass and into Valais. On our mission to find more of Switzerland’s, there’s only one option.
Valais - daredevil descents and epic climbs
If we thought the mountainous Grimselpass in Bern was epic, then the neighbouring canton of Valais appeared to be partaking in a bit of one-upmanship. Our first taste of Valais comes atop the Grimselpass as we make our way across the border from Bern into the neighbouring canton.
But before we go any further, we just have to stop because of what lies in front of us. There, for as far as the eye can see, is what can only be described as a cyclist’s playground. Daredevil descents? Check. Snaking switchbacks? Check. Epic views? Triple check. Whoever designed the road off the backside of the Grimselpass, which meanders its way around cliff edges like the Rhone river in the valley below, must surely have been a cyclist.
The downhill ride into the hamlet of Gletsch is fast and furious. The straights are long and kinked, keeping the mind focussed as we quickly gather speed, but the switchbacks soon creep up. Cornering focuses the mind even more, the road bending back on itself as the gradient picks up in the apexes, but an easy ride doesn’t make a fun one. We’ve earned this descent after our ride on the Grimselpass and we’re enjoying the white-knuckle ride.
"Daredevil descents? Check. Snaking switchbacks? Check. Epic views? Triple check. Whoever designed this road must surely have been a cyclist"
After a quick pit stop in the foot of the valley to catch our breath, we cross the Rhone river and start our journey up the Furkastrasse (better known as the Furkapass). Three hairpins come thick and fast, and it’s clear that, although not as long as Bern’s Grimselpass, today’s ride will be as brutal. The Furkapass itself rises to 2,431m, with an average gradient of six per cent over 10km from Gletsch, although you can climb all the way from Andermatt back down in the valley if coming from the opposite direction.
A false flat follows (the gradient yoyo-ing between one and five per cent) for close to 3km, and then the real fun begins. Film buffs will recognise the road from a car chase in 1964’s Goldfinger, but fortunately the snipers have stayed at home during our ascent.
Seven switchbacks stand between us and the summit finish at the top of the Furkapass, and each is as energy sapping as the last. Melting snow from the peak of the Furkahorne has formed into numerous, gushing waterfalls, each providing a welcome but all too brief spray as we inch our way up to the summit.
As we round the fifth corner, the finishing point comes into view in the distance, and the lactic acid drains slowly from our legs as summit-fuelled adrenaline kicks in.
The Rhone glacier is a jaw-dropping backdrop as we power our way up the final 150m of climbing, and the view back across the valley to the ride's starting point in Valais is a worthy reward on reaching the top of one of the most beautiful - and brutal - roads in Switzerland.
Vaud - slowing down the pace in Geneva's lakeside lanes
After three days of riding some of the best rolling countryside and mountain passes that Switzerland has to offer, it is only fair that we give ourselves and our tired legs a break on the flatter terrain of Lake Geneva to finish our Swiss adventure.
The northern coast of the lake is flanked by the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Valais, while France lays to the south. With the mid-summer sun beating down, the whole region has a very Mediterranean feel to it – quite a contrast to the German-influenced areas that we had spent the previous three days exploring.
Setting off in an easterly direction from the vibrant town of Rolle, we hug the lakeside road and the kilometers tick by with ease. It has been great to test the legs on some of Switzerland’s toughest terrain, but the more relaxed gradients of Lake Geneva are a welcome change of pace.
"With no set route on the agenda, and the sun hanging high in the sky, we delve into the maze of narrow, twisting lanes to explore this beautiful region"
We dip onto the cobbled streets of the medieval settlement of Saint-Prex, but it’s not long before we are back on the road in search for some wineries. The lakeside soil and warmer climes provide ideal conditions for growing grapes and with less than two per cent of Swiss wine drunk outside of the country, it’s a rarity to see it in the flesh.
After a 30km spin around the shoreline and we reach the village of Chexbres. The landscape is marked by vineyards for as far as the eye can see, the green shoots glistening in the midday light. With no set route on the agenda, and the sun hanging high in the sky, we delve into the maze of narrow, twisting lanes to explore this beautiful lakeside region.
While we’re not scaling mountains, that’s not to say that the roads surrounding Lake Geneva are entirely flat. As we explore the network of small villages, we soon come up against some of the steepest gradients we’ve faced in the whole of Switzerland. Unlike the previous days’ mountain passes though, these short ascents are more reminiscent of the kicker climbs that are common in the UK and are over before we’ve really got going.
On making our way back west to our hotel, it’s hard to think of a better way to conclude our search for Switzerland’s best roads. As well as being the perfect spot for a ‘rest’ day location, the canton of Vaud in the heart of the Lake Geneva region has enough on offer to be considered as a cycling destination in its own right. Like all of the other spots we’ve sampled in Switzerland, the roads are absolutely perfect for riding, while the lakeside views are spectacular, too. Switzerland truly has it all.