Bike Cycling through the scenery brings it up close and personal

SWITZERLAND BY

January 03, 1993|By John F. Kelly | John F. Kelly,Contributing Writer

When I told my friends that I was taking a biking tour of Switzerland, they looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

"Biking? In Switzerland? In the Alps?" they asked, incredulous. "Are you crazy?"

I'll admit the thought did cross my mind. I wondered if the hills would be too steep and the distances too long. I also wondered if I could handle eight days of group togetherness. Once I got to Switzerland, I relaxed. It's a scenic tour of Swiss lakes with

relatively short rides of 20 to 40 miles a day through gently rolling countryside.

The trip was described by the sponsor, Travent International, as an "easy ride for beginning and intermediate cyclists," with one important proviso: Some riders might need an occasional shuttle. The description was accurate.

A couple of novice riders in our group of about a dozen used the van on busy stretches of road; others opted for trains or ferries on days when the grades were steeper (and the distances longer) than usual. All in all, though, the tour is structured so that even the most inexperienced rider can enjoy biking in

Switzerland.

Day 1: Lausanne

After two days of sightseeing in Bern, I am on the train to Lausanne. From there, I'll catch the metro to Ouchy, a lakeside suburb, where I'm to meet the rest of the group.

We have drinks at 2 p.m. in a pleasant garden behind the hotel that overlooks Lake Geneva. Our group ranges in age from Carolyn, a Kansas City marketing executive who's in her mid-30s, to Bunny, a 60-year-old former professional football player who now operates a sports medicine clinic in Florida.

Our co-leaders are Laura Thompson and Nicole Copel, both in their 30s and both experienced cyclists. After introductions, they fit us to our bikes, supply us with helmets and bike flags, and lead us westward for a short practice ride along the shores of the lake.

Dinner is at 8 p.m., a five-course meal with wine that lasts until well after 10 p.m. Over dessert, we're given a briefing on the next day's ride. Our destination is Zermatt.

We'll ride part of the way and take the train the rest of the way. I'm in bed by 11 p.m.

Day 2: Lausanne to Sion

Breakfast this morning (and most mornings) is a buffet with melons, berries and crusty Swiss bread and rolls. No eggs, but plenty of cold ham and cheese and fresh orange juice. Swiss coffee is strong -- and virtually undrinkable without milk.

After breakfast, Laura and Nicole pass out a thick packet of instructions for each day's ride. The first leg of today's trip is along a busy road to Montreux, about 30 kilometers east, where we'll tour Chillon Castle. We're given the option of biking it or taking the ferry and avoiding the traffic. Lou, who's from California, and I decide to ride. The others opt for the hourlong ferry ride to the dock at Chillon.

The tour of Chillon takes about an hour and includes a mandatory trip to the dungeon and the hangman's room (complete with trap door to drop lifeless bodies into the lake). Parts of the castle were built by monks in the ninth century, but it attained its current form under the Counts of Savoy, who acquired the castle in 1150. Byron commemorated a visit in 1816 with his poem, "The Prisoner of Chillon."

From Chillon, we ride to St. Maurice along bike paths borderinthe Rhone River. At St. Maurice, we can take the train to Visp and then on to Zermatt via cog rail, or bike into Martigny, another 17 or so kilometers, and catch the train from there to Visp and then to Zermatt. A third option is to bike to Sion, another 25 kilometers, and take the train from there to Zermatt.

I've set a leisurely pace all day and still feel fresh enough to ride on to Sion. The Rhone is on my right the entire way. The river, like some others in Switzerland, is a curious chalky shade of gray-green. The color, I'm told, is caused by silt from the glacier runoff, not pollution.

If I have any problem on the tour, it's sometimes following Travent's directions. Generally, they're accurate. But they can be confusing, especially when you're on poorly marked back roads or bike paths. "The second road on the left" may actually be the third, if you count a small lane. Distances, too, often seem greater (or less) than indicated.

Day 3: Zermatt

No biking today. Yesterday, I checked my bike through to Kandersteg, a small city south of Interlaken. At Sion, we catch the train to Zermatt.

Zermatt is a mecca for skiers in winter and hikers in summer. No cars are permitted in town, only electric carts and horses and carriages. Drivers park their cars in a huge lot halfway up the mountain and take the train the rest of the way. The hotel where we're staying is delightful. My room faces the Monte Rosa, a huge, ice-capped peak that is even higher than its sister peak, the legendary Matterhorn.

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