Brent Graves – President & CEO
Last month I mentioned some epic rides, and regardless of the type of riding you do, I bet you have had some epic rides as well. It seems most of us use similar elements to define a ride as epic. While one or two of those elements might make a ride memorable, it is usually a combination of elements that makes a ride truly epic. Weather is almost always an element on epic rides. Charging on in extreme heat, cold, rain, and/or wind is a cornerstone of the epic ride. Crashes, getting lost, and running out of daylight or food or water can also help earn epic status. Overarching the elements is just plain suffering – whether a function of the weather, course, pace, mechanicals, or unforeseen hurdles, a ride just cannot be epic if one did not feel accomplished and maybe even fortunate to have finished. A ride back in June 2009 with three buddies (let’s call them Timmy, Bama, and The Kid) is likely my most memorable epic ride.
The plan was simple: drive south an hour or so and ride roads over three famous Alpine passes in Switzerland. But as the saying goes: The best laid plans of mice and men… The planned route was to cover the Susten Pass (7,415’), Grimsel Pass (7,100’), and Furka Pass (7,969’) while starting and finishing in Andermatt. The Furka Pass is famous for its spectacular switchbacks, proximity to the Rhone Glacier, and the switchback-nestled Hotel Belvédère https://www.amusingplanet.com/2018/11/hotel-belvedere-iconic-swiss-hotel-at.html . But for me Furka is truly iconic for it was the setting of a James Bond car chase (“discipline 007, discipline”) in the movie Goldfinger. Photos of the switchbacks stepping up to the top of the Furka Pass make it the poster child of Alpine climbs.
With sunset after 9pm, we approached the day with a laid-back mindset. We got rolling mid-morning with the sun shining and temperatures in the 70s. Up and over Susten was uneventful, and it was gloriously beautiful in the valley on the other side. We stopped for lunch at a quaint roadside establishment, and I urged the others to order real food like my hearty Rösti. We made it over Susten in something like 1 ½ hours, so Quick Math said we’d have about three or so more hours of riding left. But Quick Math doesn’t work in the Alps.
As we made our way up Grimsel, our differing levels of fitness separated us further and further apart. The temperature started to go down, clouds moved in, and the wind picked up. As we gained elevation and rain turned into sleet, I did not feel too uncomfortable as the climbing generated a lot of body heat. When I reached the top, I was drenched with sweat and looking for shelter while the others were still on the climb. The few businesses appeared to be closed, so I pressed my back into a doorway on the leeward side of a building. Then in only minutes I became really cold.
Eventually I spotted Timmy approaching in the frozen fog (I guess at the elevation we were in a cloud) and called him over. I told him I was turning into a popsicle, and he asked why I had not gone inside. I was incredulous when we turned the corner and found the front door unlocked. I guess my brain was frozen — Certainly the Swiss couple thought we were crazy Americans for riding in such conditions in summer kits. While nursing our drinks, I was hoping Bama and The Kid would be awhile so that I could thaw out some more.
The descent from Grimsel was the most painful I have experienced in my life. The snow banks were about a meter high on each side, and the road was covered with a sheet of nearly frozen water. Descending at 30-40 mph felt like being struck continuously by thousands of frozen shards that was the spray coming off the wheels. I was shaking so violently that I was concerned about staying on the road. At the bottom it felt as though I had survived a near-death experience.
So we’re standing at the bottom of the Furka Pass, and it’s now about 8pm. I tell the guys “we gotta go NOW” as we strain our necks looking up to the Hotel Belvédère. Within minutes it was clear that the The Kid was done – like leave-me-here-to die done. Timmy and I forged on and Bama literally started pushing The Kid up the climb. Darkness began setting in as I approached the Belvédère with Timmy some switchbacks behind and Bama and The Kid nowhere in sight. When we were at the bottom the Belvédère looked to be at the top, but alas, we just could not see that the climb continued on and on past the hotel.
At the top of Furka I pulled over to wait for the others. I stood flat against the road bank soaking wet in the dark. I can only imagine what the occupants of the car thought when their headlights illuminated this frozen idiot standing alone in the dark at top of the Furka Pass. About fifteen minutes later Timmy arrived. It seemed his extra thirty pounds were keeping him warmer than I was. We concluded our best bet was to descend back to Andermatt, get the van, and drive back up to find Bama and The Kid. Alp passes don’t have street lamps, but the sky had cleared and the moon was bright enough for us to distinguish road from non-road. However, it was not bright enough for the few speeding oncoming cars on the single lane road to see us. So we had to literally jump off the road when a car approached.
As soon as we changed clothes and climbed into the van, Bama and The Kid rolled up. I think it was around 10pm, and we were beyond starving and craving a meal in a warm place. But that was not to be because Switzerland’s roads are not dotted with 24-hour fast food restaurants like in America – usually a good thing. I cannot remember much of the drive home, but I suppose we were all lost in thought of the epic ride we had just survived. Maybe because Time softens the pain, but man I’d love to do that ride again.