The best cycling climbs in Switzerland

Story by Alain Rumpf

Nov / 11 / 2015

If you ask your cycling friends about their favorite climbs in the Alps, you are sure to fire a passionate debate. Mont Ventoux, Galibier and Alpe d'Huez may be mentioned by the France experts, while Italy lovers will shoot back with Stelvio, Gavia, Giau and many more. All of these climbs have been magnified by the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. Great champions won - and lost - epic stages on their slopes. For that reason, they are every cyclist’s dream, or pride if they have ridden it.

But what about Switzerland? The country’s major races, the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de Romandie, are part of the UCI WorldTour; they have a rich history and have been won by some of cycling's biggest stars such as Chris Froome, Sean Kelly, Eddy Merckx and Hugo Koblet. But they don’t have the aura of the Tour and the Giro, and this reflects on the reputation of Switzerland amongst cyclists. Few Swiss passes will show up on a google search for the best cycling climbs in the world. At least not on the first page, and who goes beyond the first page of a google search these days?

Of course I have my own ideas of the best climbs in my country. I spent a good part of the last 32 years of my life riding up and down Swiss roads and my job is now to design awesome bike tours in Switzerland. But I wanted to know what other cyclists think, and for once google would not tell me.

So I did my own research. A few weeks ago, I set up a survey on SurveyMonkey, then emailed it to friends, posted it on my social media accounts and on some relevant Strava groups. The question was simple:

"What are your 3 favorite climbs in Switzerland?
Those you have ridden, or are dreaming to ride"

I listed the main Swiss passes and left a space for respondents to add their own suggestions. Within a few days, 100 people cast their votes and the results were the following:

1. St Gotthard, 40 votes

2. Grosse Scheidegg, 30 votes

3. Albula, 23 votes

4. Col du Sanetsch, 20 votes

5. Grimsel, 19 votes

6. Col de la Croix, 17 votes

7. Susten, 14 votes

8. Klausen, 13 votes

9. Furka, 13 votes

10. Nufenen, 12 votes

11. Umbrail, 9 votes

12. Splügen, 8 votes

13.Bernina, 5 votes

14. Col du Grand Saint Bernard, 5 votes

15. Mittelberg, 5 votes

16. Pragel, 5 votes

17. Lukmanier, 4 votes

18. Ibergeregg, 4 votes

19. Julier, 3 votes

20. Flüela, 3 votes

21. Maloja, 3 votes

22. Glaubenbuelen, 2 votes

23. Mollendruz, 2 votes

24. Gurnigel, 2 votes

25. Marchairuz, 2 votes

26. Porte de Culet, 2 votes

27. Glaubenberg, 2 votes

28. Les Agites, 2 votes

29. Oberalppass, 1 vote

30. Ofenpass, 1 vote

31. Lago di Narèt, 1 vote

32. Col du Lein, 1 vote

33. Mont Tendre, 1 vote

34. Verbier, 1 vote

35. Männlichen, 1 vote

36. Chasseral, 1 vote

37. Col des Mosses, 1 vote

Here they are on an interactive map (who does not like maps?)

Let's take a closer look at the top 3 voted climbs.

1. St Gotthard (Tremola)

Unsurprisingly, the big winner was St Gotthard (2,091m). Its south side, featured above on famous photographer Jered Gruber's Instagram, is a dream. The fourth longest tunnel in the world takes away most of the traffic from its slopes, and what is left of it stays on the main road. So where do you ride? On an old cobbled road that dates back to Roman times, also called theTremola. But the Tremola cobbles are not the Paris-Roubaix cobbles. We are in Switzerland after all. The road is well maintained and the cobbles are nice, square and mostly smooth. It’s never too steep, so riding on the cobbles is not hard’s just a little bit slower, and nothing but pure fun. The Tremola also features some incredible sets of switchbacks. OK, enough said. St Gotthard is truly the number 1 climb in Switzerland, and you can climb it with us on our Switzerland Explorer tour.

Above: When cobbles meet switchbacks

2. Grosse Scheidegg

It was nice to see Grosse Scheidegg (1,962m) come in second. It proved to me that those who participated in the survey were real experts.

"I would happily put either side of Grosse Scheidegg
on any top ten list of great Alpine cycling climbs. »

These are the words of Will, who runs the excellent Cycling Challenge blog. Will is an inspiration. I am lucky to live in the Alps and I barely ride on the flat but even I drool whenever he publishes a new post.

I have only climbed the Grosse Scheidegg from the west side from Grindelwald in the Berner Oberland. It was during the Swiss CrissCross, an adventure across Switzerland with my friends Dan and Janine Patitucci.

Three kilometers from the start, the traffic is limited to bikes and buses. It is steep, relentless, and the whole climb is dominated by the famous Eiger North Face. I don’t think it can get any more Swiss than that. If Heidi was riding a bike, you would meet her on Grosse Scheidegg.

In 2011, the Tour de Suisse climbed from the east side on a stage that finished in Grindelwald. Peter Sagan won after catching Damiano Cunego on one of his signature, hair-rising descents.

3. Albula

Coming in third, the Albula (2,315m) is one of the passes that gets to the region of Engadin in Eastern Switzerland. From Filisur, on its northern side, it is a long (23km), beautiful climb and it’s never too hard. There are several beautifully preserved villages along the way where you can stop for food and drink. My favorite section is after Bergün, where the road goes under Albula Railway bridges which are listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Albulapass features in Mountain Higher by Daniel Friebe and Pete Goding as one of the lesser known mountain roads of Europe - this is my bedside book. It was one of the (many) highlights of a tour in Switzerland that Keith and his wife Yvette did in September 2016, which inspired us to include it in our Switzerland Explorer tour.

Above: At 2,315m, the Albula is the 10th highest paved road in Switzerland

My own favourite climb in Switzerland is a dead end

I have a lot to say about the other climbs in the list so I won’t get into the details of each one of them. But I’m happy to see my own favorite climb in Switzerland (and in the world) came into fourth position: the Col du Sanetsch. Technically, it’s a dead end, which generally makes it unattractive for cyclists, but for all the wrong reasons. OK, so you can’t make a loop and it’s looks weird on Strava. But no road down the other side generally means little traffic, and therefore calm, relaxed riding. And the Sanetsch is not really a dead end as there is a way down, just not by road... but by cable car.

The climb starts all the way down near Sion in the Rhone Valley, at 530m. The first part meanders through the vineyards, then you’re in the woods for a while until a series of switchbacks take you to the top section overlooked by rocky peaks. Want more? Click here for an amazing series of more than 100 pictures by Jered Gruber, featuring his wife Ashley. The Col du Sanetsch is a monster: 1,690m of climbing over 25km. That’s roughly the same as the classic side of Passo Stelvio, but without the cars and motorbikes that make riding it in the summer months a not so fun experience. Once at the top, you descend to a beautiful Alpine lake where you reach the end of the road and the cable car.

Today I paid my annual tribute to my favorite climb in the world

A photo posted by A Swiss With A Pulse (@aswisswithapulse) on

The cable car will to take you down to Gsteig, near the famous resort of Gstaad. From Gsteig you have many options. The shortest loop back to the Rhone Valley is over the short Col du Pillon followed by a gentle descent. You can even add the Col de la Croix (number 6 on the list) if your legs are still feeling good. If you do, give us a shout: Grand Tours Project is based in Villars-Gryon, halfway down the other side.

The Col du Sanetsch is part of our Western Switzerland and Le Tour de France trip. No doubt it will also feature in future tours!

What are your favorite climbs in Switzerland? Head to our Facebook page and let us know.

You can also join us on our Swiss tours. We’ll ride many of the climbs featured in this list, and some more hidden gems. Sign up to our newsletter below to receive our updates.