Biking in Switzerland

The Eastern Passes

Loop 1
This first loop is a simple 145-kilometer (90-mile) ride via the city of Davos that takes in both the Fl|ela and Albula (or Julier) Passes.

This loop can be done in either direction and presents different challenges (and perspectives) each way. For example, a counterclockwise assault beginning with a pedal down the Upper (Ober) Engandin Valley to Zernez sends you up the Fl|elapass on its easier eastern side (957 meters [3139 feet] in 14 kilometers [8.5 miles]). The 1108-meter (3,634-foot), 17-kilometer (10.5-mile) zoom down to Davos takes you through great and green scenery.

The road from Davos along the Landwasser River is essentially flat until you reach a long tunnel. The old road around this tunnel is gravel, but you will be much happier on it than caught in the car-packed darkness. The road climbs and then drops some to the Albulapass turnoff, after which you have almost 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) of elevation gain on the long (26-kilometer [16-mile]) and awesome north side of this rocky and rugged terrain. Since most of the cars and trucks go over the heavily trafficked Julier Pass, the Albula road is a small, scenic, quiet alternative. If you would prefer the security of passing vehicles on the Julier, it could be your route back from Davos for an additional five kilometers (three miles).

Loop 2
Loop Two is a long, reaching route that dips briefly into Italy. The 175-kilometer (108.5-mile) run tackles the low Maloja Pass before grappling into the upper reaches of the Spl|genpass and returning via the Julier (or Albula) Pass. If you have no intention of returning to St. Moritz, a westward sweep after the Spl|genpass pops you over the Passo del San Bernardino to Lago di Maggiore.

From St. Moritz, point your tires southwest to the low (1815-meter [5,953-foot]) Meloja Pass. Actually, coming from St. Moritz, it's basically a flat run along a string of lakes all 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) to the pass. Then, fortunately for you, the next 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) are steadily downhill through the Val Bregaglia to the town of Chiavenna at the foot of Spl|genpass and only 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Lago di Como.

Unfortunately, Chiavenna is also 1,780 meters (5,838 feet) below and 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) distant from the top of the pass (2,113 meters [6,930 feet]). This is a body-stomper that begins right out of Chiavenna and is most impressive about halfway through when a series of closed galleries and tunnels carved into the face of a steep wall sit one atop another in a true demonstration of engineering derring-do.

From the pass (and your return to Switzerland), it's a beautiful downhill scream to the town of Spl|gen (through more stacked, enclosed galleries) and a right turn back toward home. Stay off the new road and enjoy the scenery for 25 winding kilometers (15.5 miles) down to Thusis. Tiefencastel and the road up to the Julierpass are 13 kilometers (eight miles) to the east. The road up the Julierpass (2,284 meters [7,492 feet]) is very busy—perhaps the busiest in Switzerland—but still takes you for a fine 1,434-meter (4,703-foot) and 35-kilometer (22-mile) ride to the saddle. From there, it's 13 kilometers (eight miles) back to St. Moritz.

At Spl|gen, if you are prepared not to return to St. Moritz, turn left toward the Passo del Bernardino (2,065 meters [6,773 feet]) and further distant Lago di Maggiore. The pass from the north is easy since you are coming at it from the high side. In Nufenen, if you are not in a rush, stay on the small bike path to the north of the main road. The summit area is surprisingly green. After the hairpins at the top of the descent, it's a long and flattish ride down to Bellinzona and the lowlands around the lake.

Loop 3
This last loop is a montser of a ride, completion of which will earn you whatever personal climbing title you think you deserve. From the Pass dal Fuorn up over the Pass Umbrail at the highest border crossing in Europe and then around to the Passo del Bernina, you have 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the best alpine scenery around. Side trips into Italy can increase your mileage and the total feet climbed if you dare to tackle the Stelvio and Gavia high passes, or the lower divides at Foscagno, Eira, and Livigno.

From St. Moritz, you head out on the same road you followed on Loop One, except that at Zernez you turn right. The next 22 kilometers (13.5 miles) are an uninterrupted uphill slog 685 meters (2,247 feet) to the exposed Pas dal Fuorn (also known as the Ofenpass). From there it is a swift 14-kilometer (nine-mile) drop into the Val M|stair and the little town of Santa Maria.

Here you have a big choice. Seventeen kilometers (10.5 miles) due south is Switzerland's highest pass, the Pass Umbrail (2,501 meters [8,203 feet]). The road is steep (sometimes up to 14 percent) and does not always have a tarmacked surface. It will kick your butt and leave you on the downside of the Italian Passo dello Stelvio, two kilometers beyond the pass. The other option you have is to continue down the Val M|stair, into Italy, and then to Prato allo Stelvio. You are now faced with the famous and relentless eastern approach to the Stelvio, complete with 44 total hairpins (up and down), 12 to 14 percent road grades, and 1,842 meters (6,042 feet) of climbing. No matter what road up you choose, the 1,500-meter (4,920-foot), 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) scream down the western grade to Bormio is a blast.

From Bormio, you have another choice as to how you want to hit your last pass, the Passo del Bernina (2,328 meters / 7,636 feet). The long road home stays for 41 kilometers (25 miles) in the pleasant Val Tellina as far as Tirano and then begins the long, uphill assault. This is not a difficult climb, but it follows the main traffic drag. From Tirano to the top of the pass, you have 34 kilometers (21 miles) of open road heading up a total of 1,878 meters (6,160 feet).

However, if you are looking for something 15 kilometers (nine miles) shorter, more scenic, and less crowded, in Bormio, turn right toward Livigno and the Foscagno, Eira, and Livigno Passes. You won't get the full brunt of the Bernina, but this is a tough road with ups and downs enough to make it hurt. From the top of the Bernina Pass, you are only 23 kilometers (14 miles) from home base in St. Moritz.

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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