37 Switchbacks

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The First Switchback

Twenty-seven! My eyes were wide with excitement while my brain attempted to engineer the vertical asphalt marvel with no less than 27– twenty seven– hairpins. I had to go. I didn’t care that it was raining. I didn’t care that it was cold. I had to climb this road.

Down to the valley, along the bike path, past Neville (the donkey I always stop to feed), and right, not left like normal, at the thermal baths outside of St. Maurice. To think this epic (and I use that legitimately) climb was here the whole time and I had always opted to turn the other way. Not today. Nestled in the time trial bars, I turned right, excitedly waiting for the road to force me to sit up.

“On y vas!” “Allez mademoiselle!” A group of young men cheered at me. I must have passed the invisible start line and, sure enough, two hundred meters later there was the first hairpin. Twenty nine? A small faded red plaque on the stone wall claimed the corner as number 29. Were there two more switchbacks than I thought?

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Around the bend I steered, immediately seeing the next hairpin. Twenty eight. The road got steeper. Twenty seven. Twenty six! Then twenty five! The corners came fast, one right after another. I was quickly gaining altitude and, as if my slow-moving quads weren’t enough to confirm it, the icy-blue river on the valley floor looked small enough to step over.

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Up into the forest, the sides of the narrow road were crunchy with fallen needles and chestnuts. Eighteen. Fourteen. At times I could see the road I had just ridden below, folding on top of itself but, with the towering trees and misty conditions, I couldn’t quite see where the top was. Ten. Six.

In preparation for winter, the roads were lined with snow poles. It was already cold enough to reconsider riding a bike. The higher I climbed, the closer the snowy peak of the adjacent mountain looked, the more I thought about the pending freezing, technical descent and that maybe it would be sensible to head home. With four kilometres at 11% and twenty six switchbacks done, I just couldn’t stop before the summit. But where was switchback two?

I had passed number three and the road had turned flat. Given the climb’s unofficial name on Strava was “Morcles 27 Switchbacks”, I started to wonder if the last two corners were a reality. I decided to keep going until the road was convincingly downhill. Emerging from the forest minutes later, I saw what I assumed was the small mountain village of Morcles and…a little faded red sign on the corner of the bend ahead. The raised road took me over a small stream and around the corner as the gradient kicked back up to over 10%. One to go.

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Happily, I reached “one”. The most switchbacks I had ever ridden on one climb. Twenty nine in total. I was excited, knowing I would remember this Swiss road for a long time but happiness quickly turned into curiosity. The road continued. The road continued up. Were there more switchbacks? It might have been 12 degrees in the valley but it was much colder up over 1000m. It was still raining and staring down into the valley, every logical reason begged me to head home but…up.

Accepting a ridiculous bargin with myself, I initially just went around the next hairpin–thirty– to scope out the road. The tiny road twisted through Morcles and then continued into the misty forest. Back into the grind, I started counting up instead of down. Thirty one. Thirty two. Thirty three!

The road, bumpy from tree roots and spotted with leaves, twigs and seeds, was even narrower. It was also lined with snow poles and the notion they would even consider snow ploughing a road like this seem ludicrous. I could see the road continuing above me. Thirty six. Thirty seven. Suddenly I was connected to a bigger road. Was this it? I could go left or right. The slightly uphill right was a dead end (I confirmed), left seemed to be flat, perhaps ever so slightly downhill. With the clock ticking until I had to be home and only visual confirmation that my icy cold feet were still attached to my body, I gave into the thought that 37 had to be it. I put on all my extra clothes, positioned my sopping wet gloves over the brakes and headed down. Thirty six, thirty five, thirty four…

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The “top”.

In the midst of a dreary autumn Swiss afternoon, I was completely frozen, completely soaked through, and completely excited. Thirty seven! Until I got home. I eagerly uploaded my ride to Strava, zooming in close to see the insane amount of individual switchbacks on the map. No way. My red line stopped but the road kept going. The road kept going up. I instantly started to count. Thirty eight, thirty nine, forty…”Forty seven!” I screeched out loud, in an uncontrollable mix of sheer wonder and disappointment at the realization that I had climbed up 37 of the 47 switchbacks only to turn around. Suddenly, 37 switchbacks just didn’t seem enough.

37-switchbacks

 

 

 

 

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