The Alpenbrevet. A wonderful, wet day in the Swiss Alps.
I was keen to try a new event this year and get back to the high mountains after the lockdowns. I’ve done a load of Marmottes, a couple of Maratonas so took aim at the Alpenbrevet in Switzerland. There were 4 routes to choose from, Bronze 64km+2140m, Silver 108km+3200m, Gold 212km+5080m, and the bonkers Platinum 268km+7090m. Of course I was drawn to the Platinum route but then I woke from my nightmare and sensibly decided Gold would be just far enough. After all I didn’t want to put myself into such a state I couldn’t enjoy a beer in the evening. Travelling with two mates, Nick and Paul, it was a 4 day trip. We drove London to Andermatt in one go. Next day went out for a short ride, well actually ended up doing 3 hours up and over the Gotthard Pass, because this climb wasn’t on the Gold route and I HAD to ride it. WHAT A ROAD!! After the driving the day before and probably a bit long in the saddle on Friday we were all already tired before ‘race’ day. Getting up at 4.30am on Saturday, we drove the 30 minutes from our hotel to the start, got directed into the auxiliary car park on the outskirts of town and in the cold and dark built our bikes and made last minute decisions on what to wear. Thankfully it wasn’t raining yet but rain had been forecast all day, only light rain, but light rain in the high mountains is not the same as light rain at home, it can quickly turn into something much worse. I opted in the end for a single warm base layer, my Assos ‘Gabba’ style wet weather jersey with arm warmers and also took a rain cape strapped under my saddle which is where I hoped it would stay.
As dawn broke over the mountains we set off at 6.40 to moderate fanfare as we pottered through the centre of Andermatt and then headed for the first climb, the Furka Pass. Unlike the Marmotte were the event kicks off as if fired from a gun, or the Maratona where you spend the first climb fighting through the hordes, the start was relatively sedate with our small group lined out tapping along at a steady tempo. With only 1000 riders on the Gold route, half of which were up the road there wouldn’t be a great deal of company today once the peloton stretched out so I made sure I appreciated being in a group as we hit the slopes of the Furka. Rising high over the Urseren valley, through ‘James Bond’ corner (Google it) and onto the summit the climb is tough to begin with but then eases over the second half. I steadily began passing most riders in front of me being careful not to go too hard but still applying a little pressure. I didn’t feel great but I didn’t feel terrible, however I did have one problem. My pedals were making the most horrendous noise. A few weeks back in Spain they had begun to squeak so when I got home I stripped them down filled them with grease and they were fixed, or so I thought. Half way up the Furka, the squeak came back, with a vengeance. It became so loud people 50 metres away were turning round to see what the god awful noise was. It was ruining my rhythm, I began to catch riders just to get away from them so I could be alone I was that embarrassed by the ear splitting sound. The summit of the Furka was relief not only to the legs but also ears and I enjoyed the long incredibly fast decent in silence but once on the flat the noise came back. GGGRRRR.
Moving onto the toughest obstacle of the day, the Nufenen Pass I was ready to throw the bike in a ditch and again just did my best to ride isolated so I didn’t ruin other people’s day. This meant pushing on a bit too hard at times, and holding back a bit at others. I stopped a few times for pictures (research for a future guide, of course!) and thankfully it was still dry but then, about 3 kilometres from the top the first drops of water began to fall. I immediately stopped, extracted my jacket from under my seat, put the long gloves on and wrapped up. The rain was still light as advertised as I crossed the high summit but rolling over the top the view ahead was ominous. The first few hairpins were visible but then the road vanished into cloud that had consumed the entire valley. Hitting this cloud was like someone pulling a bag over your head. At 70kph and little more than a few meters visibility and in increasingly hard rain this decent was quite the experience. There was a fair bit of last minute breaking as corners simply arrived out of nowhere which tested my RIM BRAKES ON OLD CARBON RIMS to the Max, a test they passed with flying colours I must add. About 10km down and to add to the now torrential rain the road was also covered and I mean covered with cow sh*t. I started trying to dodge it but before long that became futile so then the main aim was to avoid ingesting any as it sprayed up from my wheels. A short while later I arrived at the reason for the abundance of fresh dung, a herd of cattle being driven along the road followed by angry cyclists and even angrier motorcyclists. One gentleman on a huge Harley decided to be a complete dick and push his way through, colliding with both a cow and a rider wrecking the cyclists back wheel in the process which all but resulted in a mass brawl. In the midst of the commotion an option to get around presented its self and those of us paying attention grabbed it and escaped the chaos. Welcome to Switzerland!
At 80km I arrived at the second feed stop in Airolo. Soaked through and shivering with the cold I was seriously questioning my life choices. Was I having fun? Was this really what I wanted to be doing at 49 years old? What did I have to prove? Question after question raced through my head including, was I going to bail? I wandered around, grabbed some cheese, a glass of coke, some more cheese, had a wee, what do I do? I Face-timed my wife back in England to moan, and she told me to get on with it, so I did. I was this close to taking that short-cut back over the Gotthard Pass but no, slapped myself round the face and after much procrastination pressed on. Of course the moment I did continue I immediately regretted it as riding solo into the valley, in the dire weather I just got colder and colder on the eternal descent to Biasca and the base of the third of the four giant passes.
Losing bucket loads of altitude and catching a few riders by the time I reached Biasca I was in a neat little group and together we turned north to start the Lukmanier Pass. With 120 km in your legs, shaking with the cold there’s not much worse than seeing a sign that says 36km to the summit. Yes, THIRTY SIX. F-me this was to be a mind killer. At least it was warmer now the wind factor had been removed and there was even a bit of banter in our tiny group, mostly moaning about the noise my pedals were making. Along bike paths, up and over a handful of steep ramps and longer drags the kilometres ticked by one by one until the next feed was reached. I stuffed a few gels in my pocket, filled my bottles, downed a glass of coke and ramming some cheese in my cheeks rode on, now alone again steadily chewing the fine Alpine fair as I went. On and on and on this climb went, my jacket un-zipped flapping in the wind as it wasn’t really cold on the way up but I couldn’t be bothered to take it off. I could write plenty about the climb but I’m going to blank the experience from my mind apart from the last three kilometres which were nice and shallow and it was good to pick up some speed into the huge tunnel that crossed the summit and began the next very long decent. Oh, and I have no idea how but my pedals miraculously stopped making their noise, maybe they had filled up with water which had lubricated them, but whatever the reason I was now free from the constant torment. The instant I began to drop down the warmth vanished and on soaked roads it was just a matter of staying upright to make it to the last feed at the base of the last climb. On this descent my Wahoo decided it had had enough of the rain and had a fit so I had to do a restart which lost me a few kilometres but by now I was past caring about details like that. The last feed was tiny, there were a few more riders there, all looking battered. Another bottle filled, another glass of coke and MORE cheese, this time with some bread rammed in the cheeks it was back on the road.
A huge physiological weight had been lifted now though with the knowledge that there were now just over 32 of the 212 kilometres left, 20 kilometres up and then a 12 kilometre drop the other side. Suddenly, and for the first time since the start I felt almost alive, the rain had just about stopped, there were even some patches of blue here and there and I set off with a sense of positivity on the shallow lower slopes of the Oberalppass. Once through Sedrun though this sense of optimism had well and truly worn out and the next 10 kilometres were just a grind. Riding time was coming up to 9 hours, I couldn’t face anymore sugar, or cheese and was now ready for it to end. The relief of passing that last summit with its wonderful red lighthouse was tangible and I let out a scream and punched the air with delight. All that was left to do was enjoy the last descent, press on though town and give it my best sprint across the line. I didn’t stop to sample any post ride whatevers though not for a second, I was now cold again and headed straight for our car to begin the recovery. Like at the end of all big rides I was too hungry to eat and too thirsty to drink. I shivered in the car, peeling off layers of wet clothes and scrambling for anything warm and dry. Once the 5th layer was applied I started to come round and then Nick, who had ridden the Silver route arrived from hanging out at the HQ. With two home that left one on the road, Paul. He’d been sending WhatsApp messages of his progress throughout so we knew he was alive but he was going deep. This was by far the furthest he’d ridden and it would be a another three hours before he arrived, utterly broken but elated after what was a truly heroic effort. Once we were all dry we drove home as dusk fell passing the still steady stream of riders yet to complete the challenge then for the third night in a row filled up on magnificent pizza washed down with a very good Swiss red wine and a few beers.
What a day. The weather made is hard, my pedal noise distracted my climbing but I posted a half decent official time of 9:30:19. It’s not a race but that was the 31st best of the day from the 1079 Gold starters with the best being 8:32:32 so I was pleased with that effort. A little about the event. The Alpenbrevert has been run for (I think) 37 years and is Switzerland’s largest cyclosportive. There is a strict 3000 rider limit. 500 on Platinum, 1000 Gold the rest Silver and Bronze. It wasn’t cheap, far from it, so I expected the same sort of experience as the Maratona but no, it is far more basic. There is NO huge goodie bag, no town filled with banners and razamatazz. Upon finishing there was no medal or certificate and the minimal finisher bag contained a single water bottle and a small cake. There was no free recovery food so we ended up buying a single sausage for £7. (Switzerland is VERY expensive). On this front it’s a bit of a let down but the feed stops on route where good, signage, minimal but sufficient and the route, well that was mind-blowing, what I saw of it from between the clouds. Oh and the pedal noise. After watching a few Youtube videos and reading a few forums it turns out the Time Xpresso 12 titanium pedals I bought last Christmas are FAKES! Instead of a needle bearing inside to hold the axle they just have a plastic bushel and it was this making the noise. GGGRRRRRR.