Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tour de Suisse


(A shorter version of this article was published in SPOKES, May 2007)

In 2002, I was one of 17 strangers that met to cycle across the United States. In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined that I would meet about half of this group again in June 2006 to cycle Switzerland. Our 5-week Tour de Suisse included side trips into Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, and France. We hiked, ate, saw cows, castles, cathedrals, and watched the conclusion of one stage of the real Tour de Suisse cycling race. We even climbed the Tour de Frances’ famous L’Alpe-d Huez just weeks before the professional riders.

Switzerland is a great country for cycling—as evidenced by the many Swiss and international cyclists we saw. It has a great series of well-mapped and marked national bike routes. However, it is not for those who like flat land cycling. Switzerland has a lot of long and tough climbs with their related “white-knuckle” down hills. Thankfully, Monte Rosa its highest elevation at 15,203 feet was not on our hiking or cycling itinerary.

Switzerland has 3 official languages: German, French, and Italian. While most of the folks that we met spoke German many also spoke English. In this multilingual nation “Swiss” is English, “Suisse” is French, “Schweiz” is German and “Svizzera” is Italian. We called our tour of Switzerland, “Tour de Suisse,” after the professional cycling race. Because most of us only spoke a few words and phrases of German and French we were thankful that the Swiss were eager to speak English.

How We Met

In 2002, we started out as strangers but after cycling, camping, and eating together for 3-months as we crossed the United States we became friends. Like most such groups we promised to stay in contact and even shared pictures and Christmas cards. To our mutual surprise, an exchange of emails brought many of us back together for subsequent cycling trips including the Canadian Rockies in 2004, New England in 2005, and Florida to New York in early 2006.

One of the participants on the Trans American trip was Hans-Peter from Switzerland. He returned to the United States in 2004 to renew friendships and participate in the Canadian Rockies trip. It was during this trip that Hans-Peter (or as we call him HP) suggested that we go to Switzerland for our 2006 reunion. While most of us said yes, I don’t believe that any of us thought more about the offer until we started receiving email messages outlining proposals for our 2006 Tour de Suisse.
Getting There

Most of the group flew from Newark into Geneva with a change of planes in between. However, Joe (one of our strongest cyclists and the one with a GPS) and I flew directly from Dulles into Zurich to save our bikes from the additional handling of plane changes. The reality of our trip did not sink in until we landed and had to figure out the logistics of getting our tired bodies, bikes, and gear from Zurich to the small town of Schmitten where our host lives. We were quickly surprised with the number of people that spoke English and were willing to point us in the right direction. It did not take long for us to make our way from the airport terminal, to the collocated rail terminal. (This was a surprise; just imagine having Dulles Airport and Amtrak’s Union Station collocated!) We took the train to Fribourg (a large city just a few miles from Schmitten) to meet HP with his van. When we arrived in Fribourg, neither Joe or I had any Swiss coins for the pay phone and could not read the phone’s instruction on how to use our prepaid international phone cards. We must have looked lost when a friendly Swiss asked if he could help. He used his cell phone to call HP for our pickup. Despite the jetlag, it was exciting to be in a new place with thoughts of the awaiting adventures.

Swiss Hospitality

For the first 2-weeks of our tour we invaded HP’s home. Some of us slept in bedrooms vacated by he and his wife’s grown children and the rest of us slept in a community room. We shared cooking and clean up chores but were thankful when Monique (HP’s wife) took over the kitchen duties. While the house was crowded it enhanced the camaraderie felt by all.

This is probably a good place to describe HP and Monique’s home. It was constructed 20 years ago by HP and five other families. The six families designed the building to provide individual homes with the benefit of group living. The six units are contiguous—like town homes. The exterior is modern and each family got to design their interior layout. The interior of HP’s home is comfortable and utilitarian—tile floors, block walls, and concrete ceilings. HP’s first floor was open with living room, dining room, and kitchen. A half bath was next to the front door. The second floor had 3 small bedrooms and a full bath. The third floor was HP and Monique’s bedroom with a private rooftop patio.

The 6 original couples still live there and share a common area that runs under their individual units. At the front of the building is a party room where we slept. Next is an indoor bike parking area, a storage room for ski equipment, and a laundry room with 2 small washing machines and a scrub tub. Behind the laundry room is a drying room. It is large with many clotheslines running its length and a dryer fan that is turned on at night (what efficiency!). Further back is the bike workroom and the bomb shelter. When the house was constructed, national law required that bomb shelters be included. It is currently being used for storage and it provided us with an additional toilet and cold water shower. However, it did feel strange to walk past a foot thick concrete door to go to the bathroom. Outside is a shared carport under the patio. Here each family had space to park 2 small cars and more bikes.

In addition to a large yard and garden, the families recently built a wood-fired brick pizza oven and an outdoor eating area. We cooked pizza several times and often discussed replacing our back yard charcoal grills with brick ovens. (As we toured Switzerland, we saw that these ovens were common fixtures in many backyards.) As long as I am on the topic of food we did not have fondue the country’s best-known food. However, on several occasions we did have raclette, a traditionally French cheese dish that is very popular in Switzerland. Raclette is a type of cheese that is prepared by rotating the cheese wheel under a heat lamp and when it is warm it is shaved onto boiled potatoes. Another staple that we enjoyed was fresh bread. Every morning Carl (the only member of our group that used a mountain bike) would cycle to the bakery and bring back several warm-loafs of hearty-bread for us to enjoy.

Getting Acclimated

The itinerary for our first 2 weeks in Switzerland was focused on overcoming get lag, getting acclimated to the climate, and discovering the difference between hills, pre-Alps, and Alps, before we got into serious cycling. Living in Northern Virginia my training did not even meet the definition for a Swiss hill. I wondered what was in store for me as I thought about cycling the Alps.

In addition to the hikes, bike rides, and site seeing HP had a few welcoming surprises. After dinner on our first night a local 12-member chorus sang for us in German, French, Italian, and English. Two nights later, as we sat on the patio to enjoy a few of the local Swiss beers, 4 alpenhorn players emerged from the woods behind the home and played for us. (Alpenhorns are those long wooden horns that are seen in Swiss tourist commercials and in US television ads for cough drops.) Like most of the people we met on this trip, the Alpenhorn players enjoyed socializing between songs.

During the first week we generally spent the mornings touring and the afternoons hiking or cycling. Our first outing was walking tour was the city of Fribourg where HP hired a guide to show us the sites. The city was founded in 1157 and is located on the Sarine River. As expected, we saw old churches, buildings, and the city’s original castle and defense walls. The Cathedral of St. Nicholas was constructed between 1283 and 1490. Yes, it was completed before Columbus found America! During this week we visited several other old cities including Bern (the capital of Switzerland), Thun, Murten, and Ostermundigen. While in Murten we watched the conclusion of a triathlon at a lakeside park. We went to Ostermundigen, a small town outside of Bern primarily to visit Velo Plus a great bike shop that does not sell bikes but rather bike accessories—from day tripping to major adventures. Even though their web page is in German it is worth checking out (http://www.veloplus.ch/).

At the conclusion of our 4-hour walking tour of Fribourg, HP gave us the first inkling that he was the Swiss Energizer Bunny. While the others were recovering from jetlag Joe and I joined HP for an easy 19-mile ride through the countryside and over some small “Swiss hills.” We cycled bike routes that are roads no wider than our bike trails and with very little motorized traffic. I also learned another thing about HP on this ride. He likes to cycle fast and flies down hills requiring us to stay close or get lost. However, following too close was very risky. HP would often “stop on a dime” to point out something, share local history, or tell us a story. The first time he did this we nearly had a 3-bike pileup.

HP, an avid hiker promoted all our hikes and bike rides as being easy. I just didn’t remember him as being such a strong athlete during our rides in the United States. However, he kept moving and we tried to keep up with him. Our first hike was to La Berra-Torryhubel. This 4.5 hour hike was offered as an “easy warm-up hike” to prepare us for the more difficult hikes later in the week. The first hour we hiked on a steep rocky road before moving onto a trail. This is when the hike got more strenuous. We crossed snowfields and even had a June snowball fight—not to serious because we were all so tired. It took 2 hours to reach the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain we met several mountain bikers who cycled up the other side. While their assent appeared slower than ours did, they flew downhill. Hiking and cycling in Switzerland is greatly aided by the numerous signs along the trails. Signs are even found on the tops of mountains. The signs on the bike tails show distance in kilometers and the signs on the hiking trails show distance in the hours.

After the hike we stopped at a café for coffee and ice cream. Stopping at cafés was to become a ritual way to celebrate all our adventures. Swiss cafés are located at the bottom, top, and in the middle of every hill, pre-Alp mountain, and even in the Alps. Cafés are also located at every intersection and there are several even in the smallest of towns. Depending on the time of day and the occasion we ordered meals, coffee, ice cream, and/or beer.

The second easy hike was to Castle Grassberg. It was a 10-mile hike that took us several hours. While the total climbs were only several 100 feet, they were very steep and on rough trails. However, 2 of the trails were surfaced with cobblestone laid under Roman rule. The castle dates to the 1400s and its walls arched from one cliff to the other. During our exploration of the castle (actually castle ruins) we all climbed into an area where defenders were able to see over the cliff and shoot arrows through a narrow slit in the exterior wall. As we all stuffed our bodies into this cramped space HP opened his backpack and brought out 2 bottles of Champaign to celebrate our reunion.

The Hike to the Top of the World

Our final hike was a 2-day event. I should have suspected that perhaps this “easy” hike was not easy when most of our group decided instead to visit the city of Lucern. Furthermore, HP asked his friend—Hērebert (pronounced “Harry Bert”) to join us because of his experience on the mountain. Only Joe, Edgar (our German cyclist), and I went on this hike. Our goal was to climb 2,000 feet to Augstmatthorn that is over 6,000 feet above sea level. HP said that the hike was easy because it had a technical difficulty of only 2 on a 6-point scale—which sounded ok to me.

The hike up Augstmatthorn was both wonderful and very scary. We drove up the mountain gaining several thousand feet of elevation before we actually started our hike. We hiked across snowfields, areas of loose rocks from a past rock slides, and quickly climb above the comfort of trees and bushes. The rocks and grass were wet and slippery and the exposed earth was mud. Hērebert estimated the slope to be 36 degrees, (which is very steep in any language) and our path along the ridgeline was no more than 2 feet wide. On the ridgeline we could see across Lake Brienzersee to some of the famous Alp mountain peaks and below to the city of Interlaken. However, on either side of us we had 1,000-foot drops down to the tree line. If we fell there was nothing to stop us for a long way down. The elevations and terrain did not seem to bother HP or Hērebert who acted like they were on an afternoon stroll through the park. In fact, HP would jaunt off the trail to take pictures of our climb. While I kept moving I was scared, really scared! It must have been apparent to HP and Hērebert that Joe and I were becoming tentative climbers. While they kept assuring us that we were completely safe, I couldn’t process his assurances nor could I adopt the easy way that they moved farther up the mountain.

Eventually, HP and Hērebert decided that we better turn around before the hike got difficult. Neither Joe nor I voiced any concern and felt that we had the stamina to continue. However, it must have been apparent that we didn’t have the mental capacity to do so. Edgar didn’t have any difficulty with the mental part but rather his hip was very painful and he was becoming less steady. To retrace our steps meant that we had to go down this 36-degree 2-foot wide trail that was a 1,000 feet above the trees. That was scarier than going up! Joe sat down while Hērebert tied a rope around my waist and his. He followed me down the “worst part” and said that if I slipped off the path he would jump to the opposite side of the mountain and then we would climb back to the path together. Hērebert is 71 years old and weighed less than me, but strange as it sounds I was comforted by his assurances. When Hērebert climbed it was like he was in a Zen state. He always smiled and just moved at a slow steady pace with precise steps accurately placed. In fact as long as I could follow him I could climb but despite his apparent slowness I could not keep up. Furthermore, while the rest of us used 2 walking sticks, Hērebert did not use any! During the entire climb, his one collapsed waking stick was always held between his hands behind his back.

Once we got off the mountaintop (from about 6,000 feet to about 4,000) we stopped at a café (yes they are everywhere). HP went to get the car and we had coffee with schnapps. Later we drove to within a mile of our planned nights lodging—a hiker’s hut—and hiked the rest of the way in. The hut hung out over the cliff with just a very narrow path to it. Similarly narrow paths lead along the cliff to the outhouse and to the water source (in opposite directions). The view from the hut was fantastic. This location provided additional views across Lake Brienzersee to the famous Eiger and Jungfrau peaks. Joe and I cooked and HP and Hērebert went for water. We had the easier job. To get water they had to strap on backpack water tanks and crawl along the cliff via a hand cable to the cave were water was gathered. We just had to cook on a wood stove that luckily Edgar knew how to operate. Once we got the fire going it was easy to put together a meal with the supplies that we carried all day in our backpacks. In addition we found out that the key to the hut also provided access to a wine and beer closet. After today’s hike no fee was too great to discourage us from having several beers and wine with dinner.

The next morning rather than hiking directly back to the car we hiked up the other side of the Augstmatthorn peak. It was still quite an adventure with some serious steep climbs. During one break several Ibex—a wild goat that lives in high-altitude mountain pastures—walked right by us. While they ignored us their long curved horns looked like they could push a bulldozer over the edge of a cliff. We also saw other climbers that looked like they were out for a “afternoon stroll.” Seeing the ease that others had on this mountain made me feel like a real flatland wimp.

The Main Event—Overview

Before starting our Tour de Suisse we plotted our itinerary on Swiss bike maps (www.swisstravelcenter.ch). Switzerland has 9 national bike routes that allow travel all over the country and many interconnecting local routes. (I purchased the national map but more detailed maps are available for each different sections of the country.) Most of the bike routes are in rural areas with very little traffic. As expected, the closer we cycled to urban areas the level of traffic increased.

Our route circumnavigated Switzerland in a counterclockwise direction starting and ending in Schmitten. The solid line (see map) shows our bike route and the dotted line shows where we used Switzerland’s excellent train system to avoid the congested area around Zurich. In addition we made extensive use of the trains to take side trips that were not on our bike route. Swiss trains are bike-friendly and a large bike symbol is painted on the train cars that are designated to carry bikes. In addition to the train we also crossed several of the lakes on ferryboats. The longest boat ride took several hours when we left Lindau, German and returned to Switzerland.

Our itinerary provided us an opportunity for great cycling, historic sites, picturesque vistas, and immersion into Swiss culture. Since the most of the rest of the world uses the metric system our maps and itinerary showed distances in kilometers and climbs in meters. It did not take long for us to adjust to this system and a few guys changed their computers from miles to kilometers.

Our Tour de Suisse Begins

After spending almost 2 weeks getting ready we were finally underway. To say that we were excited was an understatement! We left Schmitten early in the morning heading south before we started our counter clockwise circumnavigation of Switzerland. Our first day’s ride was 68K with a climb of 550m. Having run a number of 10K races I knew how to convert the 68K ride into 42 miles (km x .62). A 42-mile ride is an easy ride at home. However, HP kept telling us that distance alone is not a good indication of a day’s ride in Switzerland. Only after figuring in the climb of 1,815 feet (meter x 3.3) did I get a good indication of what lay ahead.

We went along Lake Gruyere and through the town of Gruyere were we stopped to see the town’s castle. From there we had most of our climb to get to our first night’s stop in Montbovon. From what I could see, this town consisted of the hotel, train station, and grocery store (the café was part of the hotel). This was our first night in commercial lodging and our first in an old European style hotel. The showers and toilets were located down the hallway. Dinner that evening was in the hotel and the next day’s breakfast was included in the price of the room. Most of our lodging costs included breakfasts that ranged from just coffee and bread to ones that included meat, cheese, and cereal,

Our First Pre Alp Climb

Leaving Montbovon we were faced our first pass--Lac du Hongrin. Less than 100 yards from our hotel the route made a sharp turn up the mountain. We climbed 2,550 feet of elevation over 12-miles distance to conquer this pre-Alps pass. The road was very narrow as it wound its way up hill and through tunnels cut into the mountain. During most of the time I was in my lowest gear and wondered what gear I would use when we got to the Alps? However, as with any good climb we were rewarded with a great 11-mile downhill. This road was much wider allowing my fast friends to fly by me as we descended. After our decent into Aigle, Joe, Ray (our most senior cyclist who was always off exploring on his bike when the rest of us quit for the day) and I took the train to Mauntaux to see the Castle of Chillon that is located in Lake Geneva. We then took the bike route from Novell to Martigny but struggled to find our hotel in the city. Joe’s GPS and my asking directions eventually got us to our there.

The Race

Cycling to Brig was one of our easier rides of only 56 miles and a relatively flat terrain. We were between the mountains and enjoying the change of pace from the prior climbs. Because we wanted to see the Tour de Suisse stage that ended in Sierre we cycled through this city but with plans to return by train later in the afternoon. Our hotel in Brig—our first large city—was similar to what one would expect in the United States. We were on the 7th floor and our rooms had their own bath and telephone (many of the places we stayed did not have telephones in the rooms and only a few had public telephones in the lobby).

After seeing the Tour de France on television I expected a large crowd when we got back to Sierre. However, not many folks lined the race route and we were able to sit at a café until the last minute. Before the cyclists came the route was inundated with sponsor and vendor vehicles as they raced to the finish line staging area. It was like a circus with many of them pulling to the curb and handing out free stuff--matchbox cars, “Go Suisse” banners, and sports wallets, to the waiting crowd. We were standing at the 500-meter sprint mark that went down hill to the finish. When the race leaders got close we went to the street to take photos as they flew by. These lead cyclists must have been doing 40 miles per hour when they passed. We waited another 10 minutes before the peloton arrived. Steve Morabito, a Swiss cyclist won this stage. After the race we took the train back to Brig for dinner at a café in the town’s square. While we were eating a fife and drum group came into the square to play and parade. The next day was a religious holiday in Switzerland and this group was practicing for the event.

The Matterhorn

We had several choices for our first layover day. Bob and Jamie (a father and son team in our group) went to the thermal baths and had a great time. I wanted to see the Matterhorn. As a young teenager I read an impressionable book entitled Third Man on the Mountain. It was a coming of age story of a boy that climbed the Matterhorn as part of his transition into manhood. The town of Zermatt is located at the foot of the Matterhorn. To get there we took a cog railway train that is specially designed to climb hills by connecting to a toothed third rail. The Matterhorn was spectacular as I imagined. A tourist train took was available to get closer but it was so crowded with tourist it had little appeal. Joe and Ray, 2 of our more adventurous cyclists, found a chair lift and got very close to the mountain and avoided the tourists. Before leaving Zermatt we saw a large parade that was part of the religious holiday. The parade was made up numerous groups dressed in what I imagined to be traditional costumes from different periods of Swiss history. It was a rather somber event with solemn music and demeanor. We did not find out much about the holiday and HP told us that its meaning was difficult to translate into English.

Our First Alp Climb

Because of heavy traffic along the bike route heading out of Brig, we took the train to Niederwald. From there we cycled bike route 1 that was mainly a trail. We stopped for lunch at Oberwald before climbing up Furkapass—an 11-mile uphill with almost 5,000 feet of climbing and lots of switchbacks. It took me hours to get to the top.

Near the top I noticed that the sky behind me was getting black and a storm was quickly moving my way. I pushed but I was not fast enough. Perhaps I should not have stopped to photograph the Rhone Glacier and the elevation sign at the top. The storm hit just as I was ready to head down the mountain. The wind was very strong blowing me all over the road. If I wasn’t wandering into traffic I was being pushed to the outer edge of the road where I could not see the bottom of the cliffs. In addition to the wind, the rain, lightning, and sleet made me cold and more fearful. After several attempts to go down the mountain I gave up and moved to the inside of the hill under an overhang. There I put on my rain gear and huddled for inspiration. As the weather got worse my nerves got shakier.

I heard two voices coming from some place within me. One telling me that I was a wimp and all I need to do was relax my body and pick up a little speed. Then I could cycle down the mountain. However, the other voice said that if I tried to cycle down the mountain I would go over the edge and my body would never be found. I never did figure out which one of these voices was rational and which was irrational but I decided to put out my thumb. In no time at all I loaded my body, bike, and fears into the back of a car for a four-wheeled decent down from Furkapass into the town of Andermatt.

Some Unusual Lodgings and Free Beer

So far on our trip we stayed in old hotels, modern hotels, and in Andermatt we stayed in a former officers quarters at a military hospital. When the military determined that the building was no longer needed for its officers it was turned into a bed and breakfast. However, the next night’s lodging was even more unusual. We cycled to Valendas and stayed at the farm of Sonja and Brono Walther. The farm is called “Schlafim Stroh” or “sleep in the straw” because the barn was the B&B. While the straw was fresh mattresses were also available for the less adventurous.

Before dinner in Valendas a group of us went to the café for beers. After we had several beers we noticed that the other patrons went wild watching the World Cup soccer championship. When Portugal scored their first goal we were given free Portugal beers. We quickly learned that the café owner was Portuguese. It only took Portugal one more score to win the game which meant that we got another free round of beers.

In Linthal our lodging was an active troop quarters, similar to our National Guard Armory. Since the troops were not practicing we were allowed to sleep in their barracks. In Schaffhausen we stayed in an old château that was converted into a youth hostel. As you can expect some of the younger guests asked why us “old” guys were staying at a youth hostel.

If It Is Tuesday, This Must Be Germany

Our trip to Lindau, Germany was truly an international experience. We ate breakfast in Switzerland, lunch in Austria, and dinner in Germany. Like going into Liechtenstein 2 days earlier we passed into Austria and Germany without any notice. Not only were the borders open we did not see any signs telling us we went from one country to another.
Lindau is an island resort town in Bodensee Lake. We cycled along the lake past crowded beaches and parks in the middle of the afternoon. What amazed me most was the number of bicycles that were on the bike path and parked nearby. It was impossible to count but I won’t be surprised if I saw 10,000 bikes!

Heading back to Switzerland we took a 3-hour ferryboat ride that first went up the German side of Lake Bodensee before crossing to the Swiss side. Unlike entering Liechtenstein, Austria, and Germany, when we docked at Schaffhausen we had to go through Swiss checkpoints and show our passports.

Before leaving Schaffhausen we cycled to the Rhine Falls. To get to the falls we crossed the Rhine River and traveled about 2 miles downstream. The falls are very impressive and reminded me of Niagara Falls. According to one guidebook the Rhine Falls are regarded as the most attractive in Central Europe. For some distance above the falls there are rapids which make the total descent of the waters about one hundred feet. We enjoyed the falls from a series of outlooks that started at the top of the falls and descended to where the water crashed to the bottom.

Always Another Pass

Today we again split into two groups. The larger group cycled Klausenpass and Jack, Dick and I cycled Pragelpass. Jack and Dick have cycled together for years and were friends before our Tans Am trip. The group that chose Klausenpass started climbing as soon as they left the troop quarters in Linthal. To start our ride up Pragelpass, we took the train to Glarus where we picked up the route to Pragelpass. The train gave us time to wake up and have some breakfast. While both climbs were similar in length and altitude gain, Klausenpass is the more famous pass and very popular with cyclists. The climb over Pragelpass was on a very rural route with little traffic. Our climb was 12 miles long with lots of 8 to 12 degree grades. About half way up we were blessed with a plateau where we cycled for several miles along a lake before climbing the rest of the mountain. Jack, like HP is fearless on downhills, but Dick shared my caution as we cycled another white knuckle down the other side. I felt I made the correct choice of passes after my friends told me about Klausenpass. If I missed a turn on Pragelpass I would have likely landed in a cow pasture but the other pass reportedly had those endless drop-offs that I do not like. At the bottom of the mountain we cycled to Brunnen where we caught a ferry to Breckenried. From there we cycled to Stans and took the train to Giswil.

Leaving Giswill we did our final Alp pass—Gloubenbuelenpass—a climb of nearly 4,000 feet as we cycled into Schangnau. However, it was easier than Pragelpass and we cycled only 36 miles for the day. This pass was a fitting conclusion to our Tour de Suisse. The next day was our final ride as we headed back to Schmitten. The ride was 49 miles with less than 3,000 feet elevation gain. We broke into four small groups and at least two of our groups lost the route. I was riding with Jack and he stopped several cars and figured out an alternative route for us. It wasn’t long before we met Joe, Dick, and Ray at a roadside cafe. They also lost the route and chose the same alternative. The five of us met the other two groups a few miles short of Schmitten so that we could cycle “home” in a triumphant parade. We arrived just before it started to rain and took a victory lap in HP’s front yard before giving him a “Gatorade” bath with our water bottles.

On to Southern France

By this time most of us were exhausted and were looking forward to easy layover day before heading to France. We had clothes to wash and needed a day to stretch out and nap. However, we also had to clean our bikes and pack then into the trailer, shop for the group meals and some travel food, and organize our gear for an early departure. HP had rented a small bus and trailer for our 200 mile trip from Schmitten to Bourg d’Oisans, France. After the freedom of cycling at our own pace, being in the buss for 6 hours made us feel like sardines in a can.

France was much different from Switzerland. The climate was much warmer and the land was relatively dry. Of course the weather only made the beer taste much better. We stayed in a B&B just a few miles from the famous Tour de Frances’ l'Alpe d'Huez climb. The town seemed to thrive on tourism and cyclists. One resident told me that the population was about 12,000 until the Tour came to town and when the population swelled to about 2 million. He said that people literally slept along the route to save their spot to see the race.

Our climb started early the next morning. l'Alpe d'Huez is about 9 miles in length and has 21 switchbacks up to its summit of about a mile in altitude. While no crowds lined the route for us we were cheered on by other cyclists and a few passing cars. I must have climbed the hill in record time because I beat Floyd Landis to the top by about 2 weeks. Actually, I managed to creep up to the top in about 2.5 hours. At the top I was told that Lance Armstrong climbed l'Alpe d'Huez in about 39 minutes—the time it took me to get back down. While most of us went downhill on the same route, Bob and Ray decided to continue on and go down the other side of the mountain before looping back into town.

The next morning we again loaded our bikes and bodies in the trailer and bus for a 150-mile trip to Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, France. Our new lodging was very different. We had semiprivate rooms on the second floor of a 2-story stone building shaped in a square with a large courtyard in the middle. The temperatures were hot (very high 90s) most days but the rooms were not air-conditioned nor did they have ceiling fans. The facility was a music retreat center and the first floor rooms were used for practice. A Scottish chorus, a classical guitar quartet, and other musicians enriched our 4-day stay. Our lodging included breakfast and dinner. The dinners were served family style and include and endless supplies of wine.

We had several interesting cycling options but the highlight of the stay was the mile-high climb over Mont Ventoux. While most of the group took this challenge I chose to cycle to some nearby towns and be a tourist. In addition, to the big climb we took several full and half day rides in smaller groups. My most notable memory of southern France was its smell. We were surrounded by fields growing lavender. Many cyclists have difficulty “smelling the roses” but none of us had any difficulty smelling the lavender because we did not need to stop as it filled the air.

Before leaving southern France we drove to Avignon to see Le Palais des Papes or in English the Palace of the Popes. According to the tourist brochure the palace is "both a powerful fortress and a magnificent palace. “ It was the seat of the 14th century Christian world and housed 9 different Popes.

On July 4th we headed back to Schmitten with an all day buss ride of 350 miles. The next day was spent packing and saying goodbye to old and new friends. Early on the following morning most of us boarded trains headed to Zurich and Geneva for our flights home. While we all wanted to go home it was very difficult leaving.

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