If there was ever a group of trouble makers, it would be the the five guys I accompanied into the Swiss mountains for a ride. Fortunately for the world, deviant behaviour in this group is classified as sneaking away during the work week for a pedal and climbing the most amount vertical meters in shortest distance possible. 3,661m of climbing in 86km? Trouble.
One by one, we gathered on the train from Zurich to Meiringen and not ten minutes from the station we were climbing on 9%, just like that. The group split quickly but naturally and easily. Edward and Gideon were up the road, naturally our leaders given their physical shape, Jon and Mark were rehashing race experiences, and Jim was off the back hunting for coffee already. I hung in the middle, grinding through my warm-up time before setting off to do some intervals. When the time came, I slowly pulled through and away from everyone.
The road was narrow and, true to anyone’s imagined version of a mountain road, blind corner after blind corner, the road continued to weave and hair-pin towards the summit. Completely focused on my effort, suddenly, as if emerging from the trees like a wild animal, I came face-to-face with a Post Bus. The city-sized bright yellow local bus practically hung off both sides of the road and honked it’s comical sounding horn at me as it approached at full speed. I unclipped and jumped off the road onto the two-foot wide shoulder of grass between the road and the edge of the mountain. The bus slowed down, out of necessity, and as I leaned my handle bars away from the vehicle and it gingerly moved forward. With one arm touching the wimpy wire fence that marked the edge of the cliff, the other could have high-fived the driver.
It was sunny on the bottom slopes but as I climbed, the warmth of the sun was offset by the crisp mountain air. Under the effort, I could feel the cool air dry my throat. In between efforts, each bead of sweat felt like a tiny ice cube. Two more Post Bus encounters later, I turned a corner and entered a Swiss postcard. Snowcaps in the distance in towering sublimity, thick forest, and a green pasture complete with bell-collared cows. Whether it was the cold, a welcome distraction from my interval or the intense beauty, my legs kept churning but the world seemed to stop. I couldn’t even hear my own stressed breath, just the melodic ding of cowbells cutting through the crisp mountain breeze.
A few moments to myself, some pictures and a lick from a cow, I redressed and rejoined the group. We rode to the summit together and enjoyed our first accomplishment of the day.
After a leisurely sunny outside lunch with a view of the famous Eiger, the conversation turned to the second mountain we had planned to climb: the Männlichen. The Männlichen was 13.5km with an average gradient of 9%. The ski station summit peaked out at 2200m. Some of the boys had ridden three mountain passes the day before, some were full from a double lunch, so there was talk of cutting the ride short and taking an earlier train stop. The discussion went round and round the table but it really came down to one question: if we bailed on the climb, could we live down the train of shame?
Oh man was I in trouble. I was an hour into the Männlichen, where was the flippin’ top? I had passed all the houses, the cow fields and gone under two ski lifts. I had passed alphorns, ridden above the tree line, and I still could see no summit. The gradient was relentless, the cold was rendering my fingers useless and eventually my brain began searching for an out. Where was Jim when I needed a coffee stop?! Fifteen minutes of simultaneous soul searching and pedalling later, a tiny house-like structure emerged above me. The ski station perched seemingly among the clouds was like a beacon, both of relief and what loomed ahead.
Later I was told I looked like I was pedalling in slow motion. It wasn’t pretty but I was clawing my way up the climb. I would rise closer to the ski station and then the road would serpentine me away, only to hair pin me back on track at a ridiculous gradient. This was the Disneyland rollercoaster line of climbs.
Finally, after a vicious final 500m, I turned the last corner. I was overwhelmed with the view. I pedalled over to the viewing spot, propped my bike against the summit sign post and stood there in silence just taking it in. There was no doubt in my mind this was the hardest climb I had ever ridden. There was no doubt in my mind this was the best view I had ever climbed to. “Go stand next to your bike,” a stranger with an English accent finally broke my silence as he gestured for my camera. “I’m a cyclist too and I know what you just accomplished,” he said.
One by one we gathered at the top. Each of us in awe of the view and the demand of the climb, ignoring the pending icy chill the descent would bring. After downing an overpriced cup of tea, the six of us headed down the mountain and, chasing the daylight, pushed the speed to make the train home.
Loaded up with bakery and beers, we piled onto the train home. We swapped photos, recounted the coffee stops and compared average speeds. Over the 87km I had covered, my average speed was just over 16km/hr and that included the flat and fast 20km at the end! I had climbed 3,661m. It was the longest shortest ride ever. No shame on this train.