Bikepacking the Immaculate Swiss Alps - Part 1

Words & Pictures: Mateusz Birecki

7 days, 7 countries, 960 kilometREs and 16,000 meters of vertical

You stand there and wonder where the red line is. Am I about to cross it? Are five Passes unrealistic?

You feel the last four mountain passes have already been an achievement. 3,600 meters of climbing over 110 kilometres.

You've never done it, much less while bikepacking. You look at the road sign - "Wassen 48 km" - It seems so little.

Yet, something screams at you from deep down, you know perfectly well you still have 3-4 hours of riding ahead of you. Uneasy riding. Because although Susten is the easiest mountain pass you have faced today, 30 kilometres and over 1000 meters of elevation will not climb itself.

Your legs will do it. Or your mind will do it, because your legs slowly start to refuse to cooperate.

Climbing on your bike you leave the market square in Innertkirchen and head for the final climb.

For dreams and for satisfaction. The kind that only Switzerland can give you.


Why Switzerland?

Exactly, why? While most might choose the Dolomites, Tyrol or the French coast of Nice, you are headed in a direction that seems foreign and inaccessible.

And why is it not accessible? Because Switzerland is expensive!

I love Switzerland. For the space and magic of the mountains. For climbs that are difficult but so wonderful I don't have time to think about their slopes. For the green grass in the meadows, for the grazing cows and their ringing bells. Marmots who run away whenever I want to take a picture of them. For the chamois gracefully defeating the rock walls. For the chocolate that tastes special here. For fondue, the smell of which can be felt even in the smallest village.

For the happiness it gives me. Just so pure.

Every good adventure starts in Prague

Being Polish, the Czech Republic has always pleased me. Because it was right there, at your fingertips. Because you could get dumplings, Kofola, or buy Lentils or Kastanks.

Because after work, I could go to Rejviz or to Pradziada. Over time, I began to get to know our southern neighbors more and more deeply. To cross them from the Stone Mountains to Šumava two years ago. Back then, the only Czech stop was Prague.

It is not by accident my Strava profile reads: Czech and Switzerland fan. I love both countries. So I couldn't help but connect them during #MySwissTour.

Preparing to leave, I wasn't sure of anything. Will I ride from home, or will the plan I came up with 2 days earlier work, to shorten the ride to Prague by starting in Jelenia Góra? I couldn’t miss the chance to ride into Prague on the heaviest route of all my trips so far.

I have 20 kilos packed under my saddle. You can feel it on every jump and with every crank stroke.

But September demanded I pack everything I might need. I had to expect everything from the Alps. An unexpected storm like on Mont Ventoux, or a blizzard. Frost and bitter cold. I took more layers than I would have needed under other circumstances. I took a down jacket instead of a sleeping bag. Thick winter gloves and waterproof socks instead of a tent.

I preferred to carry more than regret it later. And yes, hotels were an expensive solution, without any exaggeration.

Prolog: Jelenia Gora to Prague
Distance: 168.2km
Elevation: 1941m
Riding time: 7h 40m

Prague is a day's ride (260km) from Warsaw. Well, two for the less experienced, but I had done this ride before.

I could do it all at once, but this time I chose a shortened version, from Jelenia Góra. Knowing the next day at 5:00 am I’d take a train from Prague, I prefered to do this leg fresh.

I get off the train in Jelenia Góra, 160 km from Prague.

The long cycleway stretches all the way to Jakuszyce allowing time to warm up on this cold and foggy morning. There’s so many clouds around I can forget about taking in the view of Śnieżka.

This first climb is actually the most difficult and although the road to Prague will be hilly, the worst will be behind me. The bike feels far different than riding empty. You feel every muscle five times more, and every step on the pedals shows a power output in my computer significantly higher than usual.

Although the kilometres go by slowly, time passes quickly. I haven't noticed myself and I'm already in the Bohemian Paradise. Though I'm really just grazing the surface on this ride, once again I’m promising myself to return for more exploration.

Taking pathways I reach Mlada Boleslav, a city that would never have been if it were not for Skoda. It is here that the most popular cars in the world are produced. I take in the gems hidden in the history of this brand through the glass windows.

Time does not stop and the weather is not very favourable. The head wind tires not only the body, but most of all the mind. And I must keep moving.

I get to Prague just after 4:00 pm, having a lot of time to rest ahead of my early train tomorrow.

I visit the Charles Bridge, which two years ago, when I was passing it at 6:00 am, seemed to be much more attractive.

Day 1: Lausanne to Lausanne - sightseeing ride (Plus train from Prague)
Distance: 3km
Elevation: 40m
Riding time: 8m

I’m up before 5am, ready for a 1000km train ride from Czech Republic to my destination, Lausanne.

Why, you ask, a train and not a plane? A plane would be much faster. But the train has one decisive advantage - you don't have to unpack anything.

And so, after a long journey through Munich and Zurich, I reached Switzerland.

Why Lausanne? This town connects all my visits to Switzerland so far. I’ve experienced wonderful sunsets over Lake Geneva, and torrential downpours that left me freezing.

This time in Lausanne I get off the train, and cycle a short distance to my hotel.

The weather greets me with a drizzle. As if Switzerland misses me. Because I missed you so much!

The weather is kind. The sun is shining and the temperature does not let you think for a moment that Autumn is just around the corner.

Day 2: Ride from Lausanne to Zermatt, via Montreux, Aigle, Tasch
Distance: 186km
Elevation: 2000m
Riding time: 8h 30m

Towards the most beautiful mountain in the world

The night passes quickly and I’m eager to start my Swiss adventure as soon as possible. It’s Sunday morning, when the streets are still empty and I meet only runners as I head towards Montreux.

Instead of taking the lakeside road, I chose the mountainous wine trail. The Lavaux vineyards are the largest density of grapevine in the Helvetian country, and the delightful brick terraces on the slopes of the hills are under UNESCO protection.

After Montreux, I stop to photograph Chillon Castle. A group of local masters is catching me, the gentlemen in their prime have just set off for their usual Sunday round. The pace is quick, but at the same time acceptable to my laden Lord Titan. So we commute together to Aigle, the seat of the UCI (International Cycling Union).

Here we say our goodbyes and I follow the cycle path along the Rhone further into Switzerland. The weather is kind. The sun is shining and the temperature does not let you think for a moment that Autumn is just around the corner. On the contrary, it's about 30 degrees in the valley. I did not notice, as I arrived in Visp.

Here I turn to attack my goal of the day, a final climb to Zermatt to see the sight I’ve been chasing all day. The road looks narrow and crowded, not intended for cyclists.

But what the hell, here we go! Finally, I’m in Täsch, from where Zermatt can only be reached with a special pass, and not by petrol cars. Yes, Zermatt is exhaust-free and the characteristic electric cars are a famous symbol of this town.

After all this, there is also him. I came here for him. I wanted to see him from the moment I put a frame with his image in my kitchen.

Matterhorn. Considered the most beautiful mountain in the world. 

Day 3: Zermatt to Munster-Geschinen
Distance: 100km
Elevation: 1500m
Riding time: 5h

On the way to dreams

I start the next day early, although I'm in no hurry to leave Zermatt. Before breakfast, seeing the mountain shining in the sun outside, I go for a walk in search of the best angles to capture it.

This is probably the most beautiful time to photograph the Matterhorn. While everything seems to still be asleep in the shadow of the Alps, it already shines with light against the blue sky.

I’m ready to make my first climb for the day. The Staudamm Zmuttbach is a hydroelectric power plant located at an altitude over 2,000 meters. This reservoir is surrounded by the second-highest gravity dam in the world (285 m high).

This is my first visit at such an altitude on this trip, although I know tomorrow I aim to get even higher, and to repeat it five times in a single day. That’s why I treat this day as a chance only to relax and enjoy the scenery.

I leave Zermatt a moment after 12:00, still looking at the Matterhorn shining in the sun.

The descent to Visp is pleasant, although tiring due to a warm headwind. The temperature does not help, and it rises every minute. It is hot and stuffy. Exactly not like I prepared for the September Alps.

I reach the small hamlet of Münster-Geschinen in the commune of Goms, from where I have a perfect panorama of the typical Swiss valley below.

An early night awaits ahead of the main challenge of my tour. A chance to test myself against some of Switzerland's finest climbs.


You can read part 2 here

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