Biking in Switzerland

The Central Passes

The three one-day Alpine Star loop rides hitting the best of the Andermatt-area passes are as follows:

Loop A
This 105-kilometer (65-mile) thigh-buster includes about 3,060 meters (10,037 feet) of climbing.

From Andermatt, you head south to the 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) and 674-meter (2,210-foot) climb up the easier and less-dramatic north side of the 2,109-meter (6,918-foot) St. Gotthardpass. Heading down the 26 hairpin turns of the cobblestoned southern side will give you a taste of what the Loop C climb is like. This is the "old" road down the Val Tremola and can be tough on the constitution. The "new" road is paved in the modern smooth fashion and treats you to some dramatic and impressive "flying hairpins" or sharp road turns where the road is elevated above and over the hillside. This road is off limits to bikes toward the bottom of the southern slope, but neither road sees too much heavy traffic as most of the cars and trucks stick to the highway tunnel.

Whichever path you take, if you can pull your eyes from the road's 15-kilometer (10-mile) and 1,000-meter (3,280-foot) drop, look out to your right. That distant ribbon of exposed tarmac headed up the high valley is your path up toward Nufenenpass.

At the bottom of the steep descent, you turn west toward the 2,478-meter (8,128-foot) Nufenenpass. This is the highest pass of the seven in the Alpine Star. It is also Switzerland's highest through-road. Coming from the east you have almost 1,200 meters (3,950 feet) of elevation gain to cover over 23 kilometers (14 miles). It's a long slog without much in the way of scenery to inspire you. That said, just as you looked at what lay ahead when you were on the St. Gotthard, take a moment as you approach the acme to look back at what you have covered.

The 13-kilometer (eight-mile) reward on the far side of the pass brings you back to some impressive vistas. When you hit the base of the valley (along the Rotten Rhone), you are only 37 kilometers (23 miles) east of Brig, the jumping-off point for the Simplon Pass.

To complete this loop of the Alpine Star, turn right and head up toward Gletsch. (If you are losing steam, there is a car train that follows a tunnel to Realp for a connection to Andermatt.) The short bit of road from Oberwald to Gletsch is particularly excellent, especially when you come around a bend and see before you the steep switchbacked road up to the Grimsel Pass. From Gletsch, the town at the base of both the Grimsel and Furka Passes, you head back east up and over the Furka. It's 31 kilometers (19 miles) from Gletsch back to Andermatt. Eleven of those kilometers (seven miles) are a 691-meter (2,266-foot) climb.

Loop B
If you thought Loop A was tough, this beast covers 125 kilometers (77.5 miles) and sees more than 3,500 meters (11,480 feet) of elevation change.

From Andermatt, turn north and follow signs toward Interlaken (and Innertkirchen). It's more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) up and over 2,224-meter (7,295-foot) Sustenpass, considered by many to top the list of most spectacular Swiss passes. The grunt up the eastern slope is easier than its partner on the west, but the views and high-elevation glacial treats are stunning. If it's a sunny day, be careful on the descent. There are numerous tunnels and, if your sunglasses are on, the light-to-dark contrasts can be abrupt, especially when you are moving fast. Two hints: Stick to the tunnel at the top . . . and check first whether the road is open—the Susten has been closed as late as July.

At Innertkirchen, turn south along the Aare River toward Gletsch on the far side of the hefty Grimselpass (2,165 meters/7,101 feet). It's a long 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) to the top of the Grimsel, but there is nothing like cresting this pass. To your right (west) you have excellent views of the local Alpine lakes (the Grimselsee is the nearest and largest). Straight ahead you can see about 425 meters (1,394 feet) down the six kilometers (3.7 miles) and six hairpins to Gletsch and the road flanking the Rotten Rhone toward Brig. But out to your left is a blood-draining look at the worst of the Furka. The best lies ahead, but you already know this from having done it on Loop A!

The Furkapass (2,431 meters / 7,974 feet) is an 11-kilometer (seven-mile) 691-meter (2,266-foot) back-breaker that is also psychologically daunting. As soon as you crest the Grimsel, you see the full length of the Furka stretching across the valley and then up a stack of four steep switchbacks. The views are gorgeous, but the feeling that the saddle is never as close as it should be has broken more than one resolve. Once you hit the top, Andermatt is a swift 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) away.

The Furkapass is also of particular importance to river lovers. The retreating glacier visible to the north is the Rhonegletscher, the melted runoff of which begins the course of the great Rhone River, the very same waterway that puddles into Lake Geneva and then sweeps south through France to the Mediterranean Sea. The source of another great European river—the Rhine—is just a short distance to the east.

Loop C
Loop C is the longest of the three day rides, demanding 158 kilometers (98 miles) from strong lungs that will also have to gasp up a total of more than 3,200 meters (10,496 feet).

Oberalppass (2,044 meters [6,704 feet]), coming from Andermatt, is one of the easiest rides of the Alpine Star. Just 11.5 kilometers (seven miles) east of Andermatt, the approach road winds up 610 meters (2,000 feet) on a well-graded road paralleling a set of Alpine railway tracks. Pause near the top for a look behind you at the eastern side of the Furkapass, the challenge you have mastered on both Loop A and Loop B.

After 32 kilometers (20 miles) along the baby Rhine, turn south toward Biasca, 62 kilometers (38.5 miles) and the 1,916-meter (6,284-foot) Lukmanierpass away. The road on the south side of this pass as far as Dongio is particularly scenic although not always downhill (especially at the end).

In Biasca, turn back north (a turn left and south would drop you 40 kilometers [25 miles] to Locarno on the shores of Lago Maggiore or 60 kilometers [37 miles] to Lugano pressed up against the waters of Lago di Lugano). A pleasant 34 kilometers (21 miles) up 838 meters (2,749 feet) is the town of Airolo at the foot of the southern slope of the St. Gotthardpass. Along the way, another stretch of gorgeous road dazzles you. About eight kilometers (five miles) north of Faido, you squeeze through the Gola del Piottino at the narrowest point of the canyon carved by the Ticino River.

You're now 27 kilometers (16.5 miles) from Andermatt, but you have a 15-kilometer (10-mile) and 1,000-meter (3,280-foot) climb along the way. Take your time over the bumpy cobbles of St. Gotthardpass's Val Tremola.

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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