The Gotthard Pass

On my trip by bike to Venice I come across my fear opponent today: The 2'106 m high Gotthard pass! Actually, the Gotthard pass should have been opened only next Thursday to Ascension Day. But because there was record-breakingly little snow this winter, it was already opened the day before yesterday on Friday, almost a week before. So I was lucky – or not, because then I would have had a good excuse to take the train through the Gotthard tunnel. So now there is no excuse! At six o’clock my alarm clock rings, I get ready and pack everything. Shortly after seven o’clock I sit in the saddle and it goes off!

My bike on an old bridge

Shortly after the departure just before Wassen I pass a beautiful old bridge. I know the view from Wassen very well from the train, because this makes here within the mountain two hairpin bends and thus drives a total of three times past Wassen to gain height and to enter directly behind Göschenen the old 15 km long Gotthard tunnel. Just like the train, I also have to drive two big hairpin bends in Wassen. Three times past the striking parish church of St. Gallus. Two times below, one time above. Here in Wassen also the Sustenstrasse branches off, which leads over the 2'224 m high Sustenpass. Not my direction and besides even higher than the Gotthard pass, so I prefer to follow the Gotthard road.

Great view of “Hinter Neiselen

From Wassen to Göschenen there are still a few meters of altitude and by now my panting drowns out every train that struggles up here. But there is something that keeps my spirits high: The unique area, the nature, the great view. And there are residents everywhere. Even in places where I wonder how they get there at all. Let alone how a house can be built there. I try to distract myself from my burning legs as best I can and force myself to enjoy nature. At least it is still comparatively cool, because I started early. That helps!

Then, all of a sudden, I’m almost on the highway. Right next to me, the A2 rushes past, I can virtually reach out my hand and almost reach the cars. A tangle of streets and connecting roads, on- and off-ramps. A whole dozen roads close together. It is the entrance to the 17 km long Gotthard road tunnel with the last possibility of departure and, in addition, still many roads, in order to be able to divert the vehicles with a closing of the tunnel. What would it be nice if I could drive through the Gotthard massif in the tunnel. But I’m not fast enough for the highway, so I continue along the Gotthard road.

Göschenen

Through Göschenen it goes now already noticeably steeper uphill. Unfortunately, there are no open stores here, otherwise I would have bought some food for the road. That must now wait until Andermatt. Barely ten kilometers and I should be there. Then I treat myself to something to eat and drink. But first I have to get there! Behind Göschenen it goes on with the loops. Always a piece straight ahead, then two or three serpentines. Whereby it is not less steep straight ahead than in the serpentines. Unfortunately, after Göschenen one has to take the main road. With a painted bicycle lane.

After about two kilometers you reach directly in the bend of a serpentine a bike path that no longer leads along the road. The newly built and in the summer of 2019 after five years of construction opened bike path! I was looking forward to it, I no longer have to ride on the main road. Because steeply uphill on a busy road is really no fun!

Designed landscape

The beginning of the new bike path was immediately super-steep, certainly over 20%! From the road you have to gain in a 180-degree turn in a few meters so much height that you can continue above the gallery for the railroad, which is above the road. That was quite intense. Fortunately, it is soon a little less steep, but still extremely exhausting and every few minutes I have to take a little break. This bike trail is not for beginners! Rather something for e-mountain bikers. I would have liked the path definitely less steep, but then with more switchbacks.

In addition, there are signs everywhere that you should not stop: Danger of falling rocks. How do they imagine that, a more than 2,000 m high pass with slopes between 10 and 20% on a packed bike without stopping to drive up? Every few meters there is such a sign and I feel totally fooled every time. At least the builders have considered to create a rest area for cyclists and hikers with barbecue and firewood in the so-called Bäzkehre. Here you are allowed to stop, right?

After some very exhausting kilometers I reach the Schöllen Gorge. The first thing to see is the Suvorov Monument, erected in 1898. It commemorates the fallen soldiers of the battle that took place in the gorge between Napoleonic troops under Claude-Jacques Lecourbe and troops of the Russian Tsar under General Alexander Vasilievich Suvorov on September 25, 1799, during the Second Coalition War. The ground on which the monument stands does belong to the Russian Embassy in Bern and Russia also erected the monument. However, Russia refuses to maintain it. In the 1980s, the municipality of Andermatt stepped in. When I drove past it, I noticed blue and yellow color blobs. Apparently an attack with background of the Russian invasion war in the Ukraine. Even here in the mountains at almost 1'500 m one is caught up by it.

The Devil’s Bridge(s) in the Schöllen Gorge

After the monument, the Devil’s Bridge comes into view. There is a funny legend about its construction in 1830: The devil offered the people of Uri to help them with the construction, provided he received the soul of the first person to cross the finished bridge in return. The clever people of Uri sent a goat across, which made the devil so furious that he immediately wanted to destroy his work. But a pious woman carved a cross on the big stone that the devil wanted to throw. The chunk missed the bridge and fell down the entire Schöllenen Gorge. Good for me, because the hiking and biking trail goes over the said old devil’s bridge. For the cars on the Gotthard road, a new bridge was built directly above it and the railroad also has its own track in the background.

From here it is only a short distance to Andermatt. It’s even quite relaxed, because Andermatt is on a small plain. I’ve been on the road for four hours now and I’m totally exhausted. Therefore, I do not drive past Andermatt on the main road, but decide to drive through the town and look for something edible. Luck was with me, I found a bakery with outdoor seating. I was not really hungry, but I had to eat something now and not only when the stomach pinches. Because then it is already too late and I still have some altitude meters ahead of me.

Three quarters of an hour later I continue freshly strengthened and with refilled water bottles. Until the next village, Hospental, still relatively flat. Then a sign warns me already (“rises 630 m on 9 km”) and it goes again in the slope. My Garmin shows me 13%. But it helps nothing, I have to go up there. Directly on the main road. Without bike path. Without bike lane. Between speeding cars and life-weary motorcyclists. I don’t have enough stamina, so I continue as before: Ride a few hundred meters, then take a short break. That’s how I manage the probably most dangerous six kilometers of today.

The old Gotthard road on the north side, with cobblestones and the remains of snow

Then I reach the old Gotthard road. Almost everyone continues on the new Gotthard road to the pass, because it is excellently asphalted. The old Gotthard road is very uneven and consists of cobblestones. Only a few cars drive along here and almost no motorcycles. After the last few kilometers, this road is like paradise on earth for me! Well, almost, because I still have to go higher and it is not less steep. But I now no longer have a bad feeling when I stop every few hundred meters to catch my breath, give my legs a break and drink something.

The pass road was opened only two days ago. For this, there is surprisingly little snow to see. Only off the road a few small spots in the shade of some rocks. When I rode the Gotthard Pass from the south on my e-bike in 2019, I had walls of snow two meters high right next to the road. This year, there’s nothing. Nothing at all. Supposedly it was the winter with the least snow on the Gotthard since measurements began. A real pity, because the snow would cool down. Instead, the sun is burning. I have hardly any energy left and drag myself in hundred meter pieces further up the pass. I don’t know where the watts come from that make me climb meter by meter.

Then I also run out of water! Fortunately, I can already see the wind turbines that stand at the top of the pass, so it’s not far. Shortly thereafter it is done: I am on top! At 2'106 m above sea level! With my Gravelbike! With luggage! Without engine! Almost thirty kilometers in about nine hours (including breaks). But I made it!

My bike on the Gotthard pass

Of course, I first make a few proof photos, then I treat myself to a sausage and a whole liter to drink at a stand near the parking lot! That goes also fully purely, not a drop remains over. I make a really long break. But after about 40 minutes I see how the sky darkens. A thunderstorm is coming up. That always happens very, very rapidly in the mountains. So quick up on the bike and off the mountain!

My plan: Downhill I might be faster than the thunderstorm and I can ride away from the rain. But there are two problems: The Tremola, the old Gotthard road, also consists of cobblestones in the south and is anything but flat. Secondly, there are many more switchbacks on this side, so it’s accordingly much more back and forth instead of away from the thunderstorm. Nevertheless, I am determined to make the best of it. My luggage is well secured and I’m not riding a road bike, but a gravel bike. With the wider tires and the carbon frame I get along with the road much better than the other cyclists here at the pass.

Me on the Gotthard Pass

So off I go, plunging into the descent! It vibrates, it shakes. Downhill I get faster and faster, before each bend I have to brake extremely down. I feel sorry for my gravel bike. I feel sorry for my brakes. I feel sorry for my butt. I feel sorry for my hands. But I ride as fast as the conditions allow without taking too much risk. I count a total of 37 hairpin bends, then I have asphalt under my tires again and reach Airolo – dry!

But Airolo is not my destination for the day, I have reserved a hotel room in Bellinzona. At least I know the route and I know that it goes downhill from Airolo to Biasca for about 40 kilometers. On asphalt and only with a single serpentine with two hairpin bends. So here I can quickly make a lot of distance. Without stopping I rush through Airolo. And then it happens: After a good ten kilometers I feel the first drops. First a few, then more and more. Finally thunder and lightning. Just then I pass the sports field in the village of Rodi, where a marquee has been erected. There I seek shelter. Hardly inside, heavy thunderstorm rain starts outside!

Eagle monument on the Gotthard pass

I look around: It has benches and tables. One side of the marquee ends directly at the clubhouse with toilet and water. So I use the forced break and follow the call of nature. Then I drink something, recover on one of the benches and only 15 minutes later the spook is already over. What a luck: Just in time shelter found, everything important done and in principle no time lost. In a good mood I get back on my bike and continue. It has now become much cooler, although still quite warm. The road steams, almost like in a sauna, and in addition I still get wet below. But it’s okay and doesn’t bother me. The main thing is that I’m making good progress!

Exactly one hour I am on the road again, when shortly before Biasca another thundershower comes. Again full program with torrential rain, lightning and thunder. Again I am lucky, again a clubhouse. This time not with tent, but with canopy and a bench under it. The toilets are unfortunately locked. But I was just now and I have enough water. Again, as before, it takes just 15 minutes and I can continue. Of course, the road is now again very wet and I also feel the first signs of moisture in my bike shoes. But it is still okay, it is warm. So warm that it steams again from the road and makes it hard to breathe. I reach Biasca and continue without a break.

The Tremola (old Gotthard road) in the south

The 40 kilometers down from Airolo were a dream that was unfortunately over far too quickly. After all, the road to Bellinzona doesn’t go uphill, but along the valley as if ironed flat. I still have about 20 kilometers to go to Bellinzona. That’s a number that motivates me. It should be manageable in about an hour. Then I still have to pass through Bellinzona, my hotel is on the southern edge of town. That’s maybe an additional five kilometers. No big deal.

Without big problems I reach Bellinzona. Then it starts to rain again. But fortunately there is no thundershower, it only dribbles lightly. I keep my fingers crossed that it won’t get worse and that I can reach the hotel without further delays. So I get the last out of my oppressed body. Oppressed. That sounds so pathetic. But for me it fits. The muscles scream, the legs burn. The thing that gives me power now is the fact that I’ve made it over the Gotthard pass and the hotel is almost in sight.

Then I arrive. Finally. After 14 hours. Seven of those hours on the move. Over 100 kilometers and almost 1,400 meters of altitude. There is nothing to eat now, the restaurant is closing. But since the hotel is located on a highway service area, I get something to eat and drink in the Marché there. That goes also quite fast into my stomach and suddenly I become so tired that my eyes fall. What an effort today. Off to bed…

Overview of the route

More details about the route and some photos can be found as always at Komoot and at Strava.

Yours
Marcus

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