I love the Alps. I love hiking there, and I love biking there. Climbing for hours, fast descents, gazing at peaks and valleys. We're on vacation in Davos, and today is bike day. On the menu: a 120 km loop on the Albula and Flüela passes. About 2700 meters of climbing. It will be challenging, but I'm alsoconfident that I can make it.
Giving myself the chance to be slow, I start early. This will also avoid at least some of the heat of the day. With the recent heatwaves, even at 1550 m of elevation, it has been very hot.
From Davos to Filisur
The ride starts all downhill. Well, mostly downhill. Filisur, at the bottom of the Albula, is 500 m lower than Davos, but doesn't mean that getting there is all coasting. I have two options to get there: Follow the main road or weave in a gravel segment. This early in the day, traffic on the main road probably wouldn't be bad. There's a hitch though: The road goes through the 2.7 km-long Landwassertunnel.
The gravel route instead follows the old path through the gorge of the Landwasser instead. We hiked that trail earlier during our vacation and so the choice is easy. The landscape is stunning: a deep gorge, waterfalls, and glimpses of the bold route of the railway with its tunnels and bridges. And with my 2.25" slick tires, the road is fun to ride. I am very happy with my choice of route.
As I said, it's not all downhill to Filisur. It would be if I were a proper mountain biker: I could keep going down a trail that follows the gorge. But again, we hiked that section of trail, and it clearly is much too technical for my bike and my skill level. And so I merge back on the road just as emerges from the long tunnel, near the railway station in Wiesen. his involves a good bit of climbing up to and through the village of Wiesen before I then reach the final descent toward Filisur.
|Church in Wiesen|
Albula Pass (2315 m)
German pass rating website Quaeldich.de gives the western approach to the Albula pass 4.7 out of 5 points for its beauty. I had also seen parts of the road in the distance from a hike and it looked stunning. And so my expectations are high. And yet, the experience is even better! It's a long ascent, divided into two main sections: The lower section to Bergün goes through a narrow portal in the gorge. Vertigo-inducing drops are on my right. I pedal up to where river, road, and railroad make it through a narrow opening in the rock. The morning sun still low, I make it through this section in the shade and with pleasant temperatures. But the sweat stains on my jersey and top tube are already sizeable anyway.
When I reach Bergün, at 1350 m of elevation, it is high time for breakfast. Buns from a bakery, a banana, and a bottle of coke: The breakfast of grimpeurs. I take in the almost overpowering Swiss scenic-ness of the town square: Narrow, sometimes cobbled roads, a fountain, century-old wooden houses. And a sign toward the pass.
It's hardly 8 am and I have already climbed a lot. But the second section still leaves almost 1000 meters more to climb to the top. For a while longer the road criss-crosses the railroad route. You can often hear but rarely see a train. Is it to your left? Above you? Below you? In a tunnel? Hard to tell. Only once do I catch a glimpse of train in the distance.
My bike has a MTB triple drivetrain, which I am very thankful for. It allows me climbing away in whatever low gears I have, soaking up the sigh of ever-taller mountains around me. A few times people in cars or on e-bikes wave or yell at me: "Chapeau!" "Respect. I don't know how you do this." Maybe one's brain is more receptive to these encouragements in an exhausted state, but I really, really appreciate these.
Speaking of an exhausted state: Just as I near the top of the pass I hear strange noises behind me. When I turn around I see a man on an e-bike. But that can't be the source of the noise, can it? No, behind the e-biker is a man on roller skis riding up the road! And he is catching up to me! Eventually he passes me, and when I get to the top of the pass, I see him next to what appears to be his bike... What an encounter.
Why does the Albula have 4.7 stars instead of 5? Maybe because the actual top of the pass is quite as spectacular compared to, say, the Stelvio. Rather than a pronounced pass height with views on both sides, the Albula flattens out. Don't get me wrong, it's still beautiful, but rather than taking a break at the café on the pass I continue down to La Punt, now in the canton Engadin.
This side of the pass is shorter and steeper. Before the start of my vacation I had noticed that the bearings of my front wheel felt rough and slightly loose. In normal riding this wasn't noticeable, but in fast turns I can feel the grinding. Nothing too disconcerting, but it makes me moderate my speed just a little. Bummer -- I hate braking.
The character of the ride changes. La Punt is in the Inn Valley, and for the next 30 kilometers I follow the river. Sometimes on the seemingly very popular Inn bike route, sometimes on the parallel road. The elevation profile is downhill, which gives me an opportunity to recover a bit. It also makes the now noticeable heat and sun more bearable.
But nothing lasts forever: I'm aware that the turn out of the valley and up the Flüela pass must be near. And I'm low on water and food. Unfortunately all the village fountains (which are very common in the area) in Zernez are dry and I must have missed the grocery store. No biggie, I think: There's still one more village, at the very base of the pass.
Susch indeed has a working fountain. A fellow cyclist had just stuck his head underwater to cool down. Susch also has a grocery store. A grocery store, however, with the not uncommon extensive lunch break from 11LI arrived there at 11:37 am, that is, 7 minutes after they had closed for their lunch break. The food left in my saddle bag consisted of nothing but a bag of fruit gummies. In our first week of vacation I had already ridden the Flüela pass, out and back, from the other side. So I have a rough understanding of what was ahead of me. With the water issue resolved, this seems doable. I stuff a handful of sour peaches into my face, dip my hat and sun sleeves into the cold fountain, and say my goodbye to the other riders. Compared to them, I have it easy: Just about 35 km to go, compared to their 120 km.
Flüela Pass (2383 m)
The pass starts hard right out of the gate: A set of steep switchback takes you out of the village, the grade frequently above 10 percent. Now the road straightens and the grades relent. Unfortunately I am also leaving behind the trees and the shade that they provide. The other cyclist had warned me: You will be in the full sun for the whole descent. Yes, I could feel it. My bike computer shows the temperature: 44°C. On the one hand, it's obvious that it's not actually 44 degrees. But in my mind I nod: Yes, it does feel like 44 degrees. Again, I am grateful for my low gears. Just keep pedaling. I budget my water: Some goes into me, some goes onto me for additional cooling. At least I'm not the guy I pass now: Fully loaded with four panniers on his bike! I say hi, but he's too focused or exhausted to respond.
The road steepens again. No switchbacks -- just straight up along the side of the valley. The sour peaches consumed at the bottom all seem to have been burned up in my body. I need to stop. There aren't many pull-outs, but the one that appears next offers a fantastic view of a side valley and its peaks and glaciers. I'm above 2000 meters now, which means the air is thinner, but I also have climbed more than half of the pass. A construction site with one way traffic provides another rest and sour peach opportunity. I'm not the only one who's running hot: A car pulling a trailer is stranded on the road, steam or smoke coming from under the hood.
The pass itself only becomes visible once you're already very close. Here it is much more busy than it was at the Albula. Signs admonish you that the benches are only for paying customers, and absolutely no picknicking! While the prospect of an espresso or beer seems promising so does the upcoming descent. After the obligatory photo, I press on. As I stop for a quick photo of the beautiful valley ahead of me, I chat with some fellow Swabians in an RV. They say they passed me multiple times on the pass, and that I made it up there real quick. That's certainly not how it feels to me, but once again I'm elated by the short interaction.
Now it's time to get into the valley. From my earlier ride of the this side of the pass I know that the descent is not technical and the pavement is good. Perched low on my top tube I get as aero as I can. What took an hour and forty minutes to climb takes 26 minutes to descend. I made it!
|Celebratory generic can of beer in the park|