Biking in Switzerland

The Western Passes

Col du Grand Saint Bernard
(2,469 meters [8,098 feet]

Martigny is an uninspiring city nestled into a narrow crook of the surrounding mountains at a right-angle bend in the Rhone. The only reason for finding yourself in Martigny is because you have come from Lake Geneva or points farther east and are planning on launching climbs up into the clouds. There's no need to plan on any extra time. Your sights should be set on one of the two mountain passes within easy reach to the south.

The Col du Grand Saint Bernard is the more ambitious challenge, especially when tackled from the north. Think of it this way: Martigny is at 467 meters (1,532 feet). Fifty kilometers (31 miles) away at the top of the pass, you will be at 2,469 meters (8,098 feet). That's more than 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) of climbing!

The road up is quite busy for the first 35 kilometers (22 miles) and passes through long enclosed galleries. However, the last eight kilometers (5 miles) of the climb—once the major traffic is diverted through the tunnel—and the summit area are a joy. The views take over, the hairpin turns in the road edge you closer, and the sometimes 11 percent grade keeps you focused. On the far side, 13 kilometers (eight miles) of glorious road drop back to the main drag and 18 kilometers (11 miles) more leave you in the famous Italian outdoor hub of Aosta.

Col de la Forclaz
(1,526 meters [5,005 feet])

If the above numbers are a little too daunting, try the Col de la Forclaz. With an elevation change of only 1,059 meters (3,474 feet) over 16 kilometers (10 miles), this is a good pass to warm up on. Not only will you settle into the rhythm of a relatively busy road as it wraps around sharp turns and up past vista after vista, you will get a first taste of stiff gradients. The latter half of the ride averages at about 9 percent.

When you reach the pass, if you plan on continuing straight down (nine kilometers [5.6 miles] to the French border and then 21 more [13 miles] back up through the 1461-meter [4,792-foot] Col des Montets and on to Chamonix), don't forget to look behind you. Otherwise, turn around and head back down to Martigny. It will take you only 20 minutes to cover the distance you slogged up for more than an hour!

For those who do continue on to France's most famous winter resort, if you can find a ride through the famous 11.5-kilometer-long highway tunnel under Mont Blanc, you will end up on an Italian road that 43 kilometers (27 miles) later also leaves you in Aosta.

(2,005 meters [6,576 feet])

One hundred or so kilometers (65 miles) east of Martigny, in the valley at the other end of the Walliser Alp massif, is the pleasant city of Brig. Once again, this is no more than a jumping-off point for a high-pass climb, but this time over the Simplon. There are 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) of climbing over 25 kilometers (15.5 miles), but, despite what you may have heard, this is a relatively easy climb.

Coming out of Brig, make sure you get on the small but visible logging road that hairpins steeply up the rock face to the right of the main highway that sweeps out in one dramatic hairpin to the left. The smaller road is a tougher climb, but you won't be fighting trucks for air. When the roads recombine, the mellow grade steadily pulls you up to the cool chasm-spanning bridge, through a series of long enclosed galleries, and then up to the crest.

The drop down the other side is just as gradual and allows for real speed since you can almost always see a good length of the road ahead. It's 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the top of the pass down to Domodossola and 35 kilometers (22 miles) of more rolling valley riding to the shores of Lago Maggiore.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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