Ride & Watch the pros: the best of cycling in Switzerland

Story by Richard Haynes

Photos: Richard Haynes, Grand Tours Project

Dec / 29 / 2016

The Tour de France visited western Switzerland in July 2016. A wonderful opportunity to explore this beautiful region and watch the pros from the roadside. Switzerland Tourism organised a contest with the Daily Telegraph with two spots in our Western Switzerland and Le Tour de France trip as a prize. Richard was one of the lucky winners - here is his story.

Imagine this, you get a telephone call from your old boss and best friend in the Fire Service asking if you wanted to have a trip to Switzerland for 4 days, watch two stages of the Tour de France and ride one of the routes. He had won a prize in the Daily Telegraph but for all sorts of reasons was unable to go, did I want to go instead? I of course said yes.

Next day I received telephone calls from the Telegraph and Switzerland Tourism and I was going. I discovered that I could also take a friend with me and offered the second place to Michael a member of "Sotonia" my local cycling club with whom I regularly cycle with. We are both in our 70's and were somewhat apprehensive about what was to come.

A very early start from my home, a coach trip to Heathrow and a short plane ride to Geneva got us to Switzerland. We then had a very comfortable and enjoyable train ride along beautiful Lake Geneva to Bern. Alain, head of Grand Tours Project, met us at Bern Railway Station and took us to meet the rest of the group - Sharon, Andrew and GP, 3 young and very fit cyclists from California. Our apprehension increased, would we be able to keep up?

We travelled by tram to watch the finish of Stage 16 of the Tour de France in Bern and soaked up the atmosphere and the excitement of the thrilling sprint finish.

That evening we enjoyed a very pleasant meal discussing the following days ride at the Hotel in Schwarzenburg, finishing off a very long day.

The following morning after an early breakfast it took Vaughan, the Grand Tours Project mechanic, very little time to finalise the setting up of the Scott bikes we were to use. We had previously sent our personal measurements and bike details. A 30 minute car ride through the spectacular Swiss countryside, enhanced by the early light given by the low sun, took us back to Bern to start the route of the following day's Tour de France Stage 17.

As soon as we got on our bikes we were very impressed with cycling in Switzerland, very good roads, signage, cycle provision and the consideration given by other road users. The route took us up a long rolling gradual climb through the valleys towards our first summit, the Saanenmöser climb.

My apprehension was somewhat diminished as I was pulled along in the group. I recorded 35 degrees centigrade on my Garmin. We made two short stops to recharge bidons before getting to Boltigen where we enjoyed a picnic lunch in the shade. I had done some 35miles averaging 16.2 mph which I was very proud of given the long pull up the gradient. I think the ride was made easier not only by the other members of the group doing the pulling but also by the beautiful countryside with the continuing vistas of mountains and prospects of the valleys ahead at every turn.

Now the real climb began - 10 miles to the top. I knew that I would not be able to keep up with the rest of the group on the climb so told Alain that I was happy to go up at my own pace and meet him at the top, which I did. It was arduous in the heat but given the views from the top well worth it and I found on my return home that I am near the top of the Strava leader board for my age group for the climb, which surprised me.

We did not wish to hold the rest of the group up unnecessarily so when arriving at the mini bus support it was agreed that Michael and I would put our bikes in the bus and drive to the top of the Col des Mosses where the group would reassemble.

The ride to the top continued to be a delight and at the summit we decided to do the descent down to Aigle. To me this was a truly memorable ride, one I am unlikely to ever repeat - over 11 miles downhill averaging 26 mph with constantly changing views; rock faces, glimpses of the valley floor, snow topped mountains on the horizon, vine and apricot tree covered slopes, beautiful sweeping bends with a couple of sharp ones to keep you on your toes - it was sensation overload.

That evening we drove to Villars where Grand Tours Project is based and enjoyed our meal alfresco overlooking the Rhone Valley.

The view from the hotel in Villars

The following morning, having had a very good night's sleep, I was pleasantly surprised that I had no ill effects from the previous days exertions in the heat. The fast group from California had the ambition of seeing the conclusion of Stage 17 from near the finish which meant an ascent of both the Col de La Forclaz and the climb to Finhaut-Emosson. I realised that this was beyond me and Alain recommended that I spent an hour in Martigny and then ascend as far as I wished above the vineyard line to where I would get some shade.

I did as advised, had two enjoyable cups of coffee in the square in Martigny and then braved the sun and heat and started the ascent. There were hundreds of cyclists from many nationalities on the climb, on E-bikes, mountain bikes, retro bikes, high end carbon bikes, all adding to the atmosphere and expectations. I was overtaken by some but overtook others. I had three short breaks on the climb where there was some shade just to cool down before starting again - this time I recorded 40 degrees on my Garmin. I found a bend about two thirds up the climb which I realised would remain in the shade and give me a good view of the ascent by the peloton. There was a real party atmosphere on the bend; crazy Norwegians up the road waving flags and giving encouragement to all the cyclists continuing further up the col, a car with amplified music being generated which added to the atmosphere. Next to me was a young family from Holland who kept me updated as to the progress of the race and gave me a bag of the Tour de France throwaway goodies for my grandchildren.

Above: Watching the Tour from the Col de la Forclaz

My memories include seeing the two leaders, the breakaway, Peter Sagan on his own but still looking fit and then the peloton being headed by Team Sky with Chris Froome well protected.

Once the broom wagon had gone through people started to descend and I joined the other cyclists making the descent down the very steep and winding old road down towards Martigny.

An essential stop at the water fountain was made to top up my bidon with ice cold water.

I then rode into the centre of Martigny, was lucky enough to get a table next to the big screen where I watched the finish at the summit whilst enjoying a well earned beer. Over the years I have seen 4 stages of the Tour de France but this was the best by far.

Grand Tours Project made the trip so special by altering the arrangements to suit individual riders performance levels; stamina, speed, climbing ability and despite our original apprehension we never felt pressured.

I would like to thank Bill my ex boss for giving me his prize, the Daily Telegraph for organising the competition, Switzerland Tourism for funding the prize and making all the arrangements and last and by no means least Alain and his team for varying his programme to suit my very special needs and making the whole trip so enjoyable.

Richard Haynes

Check our list of tours in Switzerland and join us on the road.

Above: Cycling in western Switzerland: the Col de la Croix

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