October 29, 2018
I’m writing this piece on the way back from a family vacation in Tuscany with my wife Lillie and our son Ben. A perfect week of riding, eating, laughing and relaxing in the beautiful Tuscan light. This reminds me that I was not so relaxed at the same time last year: I was rushing to wrap up a big project for Switzerland Tourism and Grand Tours Project, which I shared on ALPSinsight a few months ago.
I had all year to do this job, which only meant one thing: I spent all year doing other work and I ended up in a mad dash to take pictures of a bunch of cycling loops before trees would lose all their leaves and snow would make many roads unrideable. Not to mention that photos of a freezing cyclist wearing booties, leg warmers, a thick jacket and big gloves are not ideal to promote a destination as a cycling paradise.
Fortunately, the weather was on my side and I was able to shoot all I needed on a final road trip across Switzerland in October with my friend and model Luca. And it actually worked out brilliantly: the riding was fantastic and the photos were amongst the best I had ever taken.
Which makes me wonder, why is cycling in autumn so awesome? Well, the first reason that spring to my mind is that you enjoy every ride as if it was the last one before winter. You have this feeling that every mountain you climb might get covered in snow soon and the next time you’ll be here will be in the spring. Although you need may warmers and a wind breaker when you start your rides and on downhills, you’re still wearing a short sleeved jersey and bib shorts… but you have this inner fear that this might be the last time your arms and your calves will be exposed to sunlight this year. Soon, they will inexorably turn to this pale, chicken like look you’ll be ashamed to sport when warm weather comes back in a few months.
But autumn is not just the last bit of decent riding before winter. In the Alps, it is also a special season that’s better than any other time of the year. The summer heat is behind and the air is crisp; it makes climbing a much more pleasant exercise. Also, holidays are over: the traffic is minimal – no more of this endless procession of motorbikes, camper vans and cars that spoils every ascension of popular Alpine passes during summer. In autumn, everything is quiet and it’s like you have the mountains for yourself. It is a great feeling.
“There’s also the fact that you’ve had all year to ride” says Lillie. “You’re fit enough, so nothing is extraordinarily hard and you’re not training for something. You’re just doing it for the pleasure of riding.” Autumn is the training for nothing season. You forget the watts and the Strava PRs. It’s freedom.
The photographer in me will also say that autumn is a feast for the eyes. In the Alps, summer is green and blue. Autumn is that too… and more. The yellow and the red of the trees. The whole spectrum of browns on the high pastures, the white on top of the peaks. Nature is putting on a last show before winter and the low light is way more picturesque than the harsh sun of July. In other words: autumn is the best time to pimp your Instagram feed with beautiful images.
So, the end of summer is not the end of cycling season. There’s autumn, and it’s right now in Switzerland. We’ve just experienced an incredible few weeks of warm and dry weather, which made for fabulous riding. The first cold spell just hit us but this won’t last and we can look forward to more long rides before the weather turns yucky for good.
Looking for inspiration? Here is a selection of loops I designed and shot for Switzerland Tourism that are great to ride in autumn.
The climb to Schwägalp (1,278m) offers great views on the Säntis, the highest mountain in the Alpstein massif of northeastern Switzerland (see headline picture). And the descent to Urnäsch is super fun, especially on a quiet autumn day. But my favorite part of this loop is the SuisseMobile bike route between Ebnat-Kappel and Neu Sankt Johann in the beautiful Toggenburg valley. Quiet roads, farms and cows: it can’t get more Swiss than that.
Vaud Jura Tour
The Jura is the ‘other’ mountain range of Switzerland. It may not be as famous as the Alps, but it offers great riding on quiet and scenic roads. Especially in autumn, when the high passes get a bit chilly at the top. This loops links two popular climbs in the canton (province) of Vaud: the Col du Marchairuz (1,447m) and the Col du Mollendruz (1,280m). On a clear day, you can catch a glimpse of the mighty Mont Blanc (4,807m) on the other side of Lake Geneva.
Tour of Lake Lucerne
Lake Lucerne is one of the most visited places in Switzerland, but it is not known as a road cycling territory. And in summer, the busy roads might indeed be a bit intimidating. But once the tourists are gone, the shores of Lake Lucerne become much more inviting. This was the last loop we rode and shot with Luca last year. And we finished the project on a high note: a beautiful light, great views on the lake and surroundings peaks… and a boat ride between Beckenried and Gersau.
Have you ever heard of the Mont Ventoux of Switzerland? The Mont Chasseral (1,607m) shares several features with its French big brother: there’s a big antenna at the top, it’s a dead end and it offers a view for miles in all directions. It’s part of a challenging loop that takes you above the haze that can cover the lower parts of Switzerland on many autumn days.
I live close to this loop, which I can often ride late in the season when most high alpine passes are already closed. I love the quiet road up the Mittelberg pass (1,633m) near the famous resort of Gstaad – a great hub for discovering the western part of the Swiss Prealps. As you ride through Pringy, take a right and climb to the medieval village of Gruyères to taste its eponymous cheese.
Are you looking for more information on cycling in Switzerland? Give me a shout, I’ll be happy to help. This may include taking you for a ride on my favorite roads… you’ve been warned.
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