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Bivio - a Wee Swiss Gem

04 September 2018

Words by Dave Mitchell
Images Dave and Ditte

Rush hour, downtown Bivio.

Beyond St Moritz where all the beautiful people hang out and the bike shops are full of carbon and titanium shiny stuff, a lonely mountain pass (Julierpass) leads to the train-less settlement of Bivio. Bivio does what it has done for centuries - a bit of farming, a bit of skiing and a bit of accommodation on the surrounding hills (hotels and apartments). The town's two ancient churches sport elaborate golden wind vanes and dueling bells. They take it in turns to wake up the whole valley every morning at seven am. Our 80's apartment looked a mishmash of roof lines and cubic confusion. The architect may have employed the 'mad women's breakfast design philosophy' when he ran out of his own ideas. But to someone's credit it features two underground carparks, a swimming pool and a lift that goes up 10 levels on a 45 degree angle. An unusual sensation at first, like an oval chain ring. Inside the apartments are great - comfy and spacious, confirming the centuries' old adage “you should never judge a tyre by its patched inner tube” or vice versa.

Savignon Up.

Bock in uncomfortable pose.

Yet another free lift and bus pass came our way with the lodgings - covering from Bivio to Savignon, where the summer lifts take your bike skyward. A series of forestry roads and single trail undulates downhill from Bivio's lofty 1800 metres to the lifts, but a bit of navigation is required to join the dots. A large powerful earth dam is plonked halfway down the valley creating a impressive lake and perfect lunch spot for us. We checked out a couple of adventure rides from Somtgant, picked a ton of wild raspberries and emptied a one litre ice-cream container between us, before hitching a ride back home on the free bus. We had scored some superb technical traversing and descending, just when our legs needed a rest day. 300m up for 2100m down.

To Savignon

Savignon Ridge-line. 

Dam, cows.

The climb from Bivio up Septimerpass provided access to a number of great rides. It was an important alpine crossing during the days of the Roman Empire, and in the middle ages was a trade route from the Bodenlake area to Chur. Its great advantage is its north-south orientation and relaxed topography. Archeological findings from the old road used by Roman soldiers date back to 15BC. A hospice and chapel were built at the top of the pass in 1000AD, but little remains. Many dry stone walls from this era have been restored on both sides of the pass, and yes the road does eventually lead to Rome.

Map check, Septimer Pass. 

 We accessed the geologically unique Lunghin Pass from Septimerpass, a gnarly climb to 2700 metres. Black single trail drops to a large alpine tarn and eventually down to Silvaplana via the edge of lakes Segl and Silvaplana. The pass is the top of three unique river systems. The Inn flows into the Donau and out to the Black Sea, the Eva Dal Sett goes into the Rhine and out to the North Sea and finally the Maria trundles into the Po which then flows into the Adriatic. Nowhere else in Europe does such a feat of juggling occur.

Dodgy weather on the way up to Lunghin Pass

Lunghin Pass first drops.

The afternoon was building up to a big bad black thunder storm. Fork lightning pierced the sky and its brother, sheet lightening, sent magnesium bulb flashes through the confusion. Heavy rain drops started to fall like stair rods, thick and straight. We returned via the old Roman Road, which still exists in the form of dry stone retaining walls and short sections of cobbles. It was surprising to see so many walkers caught out with no rain deer, ah gear, and a long slog home. The wind wasn't kind to the few with umbrellas. There is little shelter in the European high country except for cows.

Rain deer.
Glorious uplift.
Mystic Bok, closest we got to seeing a real one.

Pass Suvetta.

Thanks to the heavily tattooed owner of a large Swiss hotel chain we scored an “all you can eat” one day buffet to the Corviglia's 'lifts six pack'. In a rather obscene and out of character show of gluttony we zoomed up to Piz Nair at a lofty 3057-metres, early as. We rode the outstanding Pass Suvretta in stunning clear weather, its lake a mirror of contemplation. Bombed the rocky descent to Alp Suvretta, found a side trail that climbed to a low pass and finished off on a short flow trail to the Signal Lift trail head.

To Alp Suvretta.

To Marguns.

Signal up, then traverse to Chantarella and catch the cable train and lift back up to Piz Nair. This time we rode around the base of Piz Nair on some cool single trail and then back down to the train station via some very nice non-flow trail. Yes you guessed it back up to Piz Nair for the last ride of the day. This endless traverse roamed along the bottom of a series of stunning 3000+ metre peaks to Marguns and then off the map. Lots of gnarly climbs and technical descents ensued with a final single track switchback downhill to the valley floor at Samedan. Phew. We had virtually ridden all day for less than the price of a cup of coffee and covered most of the adventure trails. For 710 metres of climbing we received 4200 metres down, a kings ransom for a single presta valve cap. We just had to figure out, where we'd parked the van, thank our host in Russian and head home.

Septimer Pass.

To pass Forcellina.


On a subsequent trip we carried, pushed and rode our bikes from the top of Septimer Pass to the pass Forcellina. It was a hot and sunny day, and we welcomed the cool breeze blowing at the 2600 metre top. The second pass of the day, Forcetta de la Valetta, came after a very rocky and marginal descent -  then traversed along an undulating balcony perched high above a beautiful U shaped valley. We could just make out the cows grazing and farmers turning the newly cut hay on the valley floor below, their dogs barking in wild jubilation.

Balcony trail.

More balcony.

Flowing to Bivio.

The descent was a boneyard of loose rocks and large boulders, left behind by a once mighty glacier a millennium ago. We both cleaned the path through it, gnarly to say the least, by sheer skill or luck. "That will put hairs on your chest" I breathed heavily to Ditte. A saying my Father often used (referring mainly to the contents of a large glass jar of pickled onions or a big block of very smelly blue cheese). "Mitchell, if you had any less hair on your body you would be a jelly fish", Ditte said. "I was a women in past life", I replied. "Well it sounds like you are spiraling down to a swamp dwelling leech in the next one", she said. It was time to change the subject to bicycle components, a topic on which I may just have the higher ground.


The bottom.


The second pass came after a couple of false summits and the track down from it was a complete mystery with no reviews, not even in Latin. It dropped faultlessly down to a beautiful lake following a narrow single trail almost all the way back to Bivio. Our nut bread was waiting at the tiny local shop. With a yogurt and carton of milk crammed into my bulging back pack we headed home debating whether to take the stairs or the Pythagorus elevator.


By now we had become familiar to the Roman ruins whilst biking up Septimer Pass and for the second time, pass Forcellina. Our tour then dropped us abruptly into the Juferhein Valley on a crazy switchback trail that plummets 500 metres from the 2600 metre saddle, while the contour lines hold hands. With breathing heading anaerobic, shoulders and leg muscles burning, it was a relief to gain the smooth fast trail on the valley floor. The bottom section was so tightly switch backed that only a unicycle or clown's bike would have cleaned it without defacing the landscape with an enduro straight line.

Above Juferhein valley.

The view.

We gave that trail a purple rating, for its massive loose boulders, epic drops and ridiculous corners - one tougher than black. We rode down to the village of Juf, which just happens to be the highest inhabited community in Europe at 2111 metres. To our surprise, the cafe and restaurant were full. It transpires you can drive there on a sealed road from the other end of the valley. We filled up on water, admired a barn surrounded by precisely cut winter firewood and headed up towards the missing link, Stallerberg Pass and its mysterious mines. This proved to be a carry virtually all the way on a good firm steep trail with hardly a metre of pedal worthy terrain.

The Swiss way.

Stacks of balancing cairns marked the very top where a cool breeze made for a welcome respite from the hot windless ascent. From the pass a 100% ridable trail preceded us down the lower slopes of the 3078 metre Piz Supare to a large meadow and wetland rim, which was probably once a large lake. It flowed without any technical hurdles. The second phase was far steeper, decending from the rim with stunning views to Julierpass down to Bivio and the surrounding mountain ranges. It was market day in Bivio as we dropped into town, a more craft than produce affair, their stalls lined the narrow back streets and tiny squares of the village. We grabbed an ice-cream and relaxed in the shade of an old building ironically built before Europeans had discovered NZ.

The Topo.

Good drainage.

Rock garden.

Bivio had proven a great riding base and wild-life spotting spot. A snake in the grass instilled mutual surprise, lizards, marmots, large spiders, sky larks, crows and the odd raptor cruising the thermals came and went. The elusive big horned bock remained invisible to us and merely a rumor or town bonnet sculpture. Cows, sheep and goats were the principal bucolic protagonists and most enthusiastic bell ringers.


Ditte and I handed Switzerland back into the capable arms of the Swiss. Their regulation neatly cut hedge rows and beautifully mowed lawns, military stacked precision wood piles, village shooting ranges (and the most heavily armed and skilled population in the known universe), eye wateringly expensive American fighter jets (that struggle to get out of first gear without leaving Swiss air space), their constant and endearing referenda that finally gave women the vote in 1972 (just after the first human walked on the moon), and their immaculate infrastructure - especially the trains.

More infrastructure.

We were heading to the wild west of Europe where random describes most things, especially the driving. But on reflection NZ could take a leaf out of the Swiss tourism guide book. Make it expensive and everyone wants to come just to see what they are missing out on. As a bonus it keeps the polluting riff raff in tiny vans out.

Pyramid ball god.

It's interesting to note that throughout the known Universe without exception, all civilization that have invented the bicycle and gone on to embrace the internal combustion engine have become extinct within 300 earth years. Those that developed the full suspension mountain “E” bike have become extinct even sooner. But they had lots of fun roaming every inch of their planet, until the tyre goo dried out (because of global warming) and the wheels fell off.

An extract from “Zen and the Art of the Bicycle”

Imminent extinction.