This was our fourth foray into the united cantons of Switzerland, this time choosing the Graubunden area in the south east of this mountainous kingdom. A Swiss mountain biking couple, Maxine and Bernard, who work in St Moritz had recommended its quieter trails and rugged beauty. We would hopefully catch up with them for a ride.
We really came to Switzerland to ask the age old question that has haunted humanity immemorial. Is Switzerland the true home of mountain biking and is it their national sport, like rugby is to New Zealand? We all know Switzerland is the mechanical watch capital of the world, Swiss army knife central and its bank accounts hold a special place in the lives of the rich and famous, criminal under world, dictators, despots and the world's politicians. With US6.5 trillion or 25% of all global cross-border assets, who could argue. But let's face it, none of the above require much participation, skill or fitness.
First stop Davos - boasting over a thousand kilometres of bike trails The Single Trail book and accompanying Davos Klosters Single Trail Map are things of wonder - just like the view from our compact but Swiss-Army-Knife-practical apartment. It overlooked the town and a bunch of impressive mountains whose names all end in 'horn. A smattering of snow amongst the receding glaciers could be glimpsed at the far end of each valley. Above the pine forests lurked single trail, high meadows and locals who crafted sensational cheeses and quenching beer. It's come along way from being a mere ski town.
Ditte and I were camped up for the month of July, with a rental van for the bikes, a discount 'lift, bus and train' pass to and a ride-a-day to keep the gnomes away. The trail network and general popularity of mountain biking has exploded over the last couple of years. Our first few outings proved the point with two local Davos sporting events packing the lifts like gears in a Rolloff hub.
But surprisingly there was plenty of space on the trails for us all. We started from Weisfluhjoch at 2662 metres for an intro ride back down to Davos. The trail took the narrow ridge top, then sidled on perfect singletrack to the tree-line where rocks and roots dominated, and white horses roam.
Subsequently Jacobshorn at 2590 metres gave us a long rocky downhill in the high meadows and a chance to refine our suspension and bike setup as we struggled with the thin air.
Rocks and lake
There are a vast array of tracks from the tops. They start out rocky, covering clean open ground that's invariably covered in deep snow over winter. Below is summer pasture, herbs and blueberry fields. Then conifer forests shedding pine-needles and root extrusions into the rocky trails. These proved slippery early-morning, but soon dried as the sun clawed its way into the sky.
This thumbs-up climb follows the Fluela Valley next to the Fluela River. It alternates between smooth and rocky, before eventually crossing the main road by a quaint church. A group of inquisitive cows had been pondering a local funeral until we showed up and took their attention.
Dodging cow pats and their fat horned producers, we commenced the steep switchback climb to Pischa Station at 2483 metres. We rode along the clear rocky skyline to Hureli and commenced an incredible downhill.
Stunning satellite views down the very steep terrain to (Lake) Davosersee unfolded as we followed the narrow balcony trail through rocky outcrops, stunted pines and high flowering meadows. Sheep and carefully mowed pasture comprised the lower slopes to the water's edge. The lake was a mirror to the becalmed sailing boats, dog walkers and snow capped mountains. Finally we crossed the railway line and headed home.
Switzerland in general, and the Graubunden region in particular, is a giant collection of awesome model train sets. There are massive spiral viaducts, bridges, tunnels that take your breath away and rustic century-old stations dotted throughout. We could hear their whistles, the regular clicky clack of Thomas the Tank Engine and the station master's announcements from our apartment. The mountain narrow gauge played host to to a fine array of old, new and ultramodern all-electric models. Red and silver was the favored colour.
We rode this iron rail back from a few long rides and found the train spent more time in tunnels than under the clear blue sky. The special bike caboose had roll-on bike rails with their own seat belts and a section for those who prefer front wheel hanging. We'd just relax and marvel at the long dark tunnels and occasionally watch the world go by.
On one of our longer rides via the craft beer capital of Monstein, we plummeted down a loose and very steep section of switchbacks in a deep wooded gully to meet the Davos Grand Canyon. Blasted out of solid rock, a remarkable old road hangs on a limb above the rushing water below.
The water descends rapidly having, over the last few millennia, cut deeply through the sheer rock faces. Jagged tunnels and ingenious cantilevered stonework take the road all the way to Wiesen Station, where a remarkable stone arch road bridge crosses a yawning gap. In the same canyon the train scales two ginormous nineteenth century hand-built viaducts as it descends towards the historic town of Bergrun. Swiss ice cream and an Olympic size water dispenser reside there. We indulged in both before hopping on the train back to Davos.
We collected our fair share of remote alps and passes on our travels - Duncanfurgga, Sella de Ravais, Alp Funtauna, Scalettapass, Latschuelfurgga, Strelapass, Weisner Alp, Alp da Crusch to name but a few. Most clicking above the 2500 metre mark and proved unpronounceable to this kiwi as we roamed over much of the valley, from Bergrun in the south to Klosters in the north.
Ditte on the other hand with her school girl German had no trouble with the lingo, map reading and shopping. The odd thunder storm kicked about on a few afternoons, but generally any rain was light and fell overnight - nicely dampening the dust to improve the riding.
Hail storm retreat
We also ticked of a number of the guide book routes, rolling a dozen or so under our Maxxis Minions. Much needed rest days involved catching one of three lifts in the valley, still riding some uphill but enjoying the mostly down. A guilty pleasure like Swiss chocolate.
We've always marveled at the vast array of mechanical Swiss time pieces in the shops and the no expense spared maintenance cost when these precious symbols of obsolescence swallow too much fluff. Just like our old moggy going to the vet with fur balls. Food is about twice the price of NZ and surprisingly this includes dairy products - cheese in particular - and chocolate. It's all great quality though and their eggs display a uniformity of weight, shape and colour indicating that the Swiss may have cracked the clockwork hen, but which came first? A question often proffered at their national poultry academy conference.
No moving lips
Even in Switzerland
Bells are a must on the trails as most are shared with runners, walkers and trampers. Pass them with care and respect. An active trail maintenance crew based in Davos looks after the vast network of singletrack - building water controls, shoveling slips and restoring worn sections of track.
So what does the trail crew hope for the future? Sandra Gredig, Trail Crew Coordinator, says
"Respectful bikers on our trails. What we hate seeing are bikers who do not care about nature. For example, people who take bends too sharply, often lock their rear wheel or just ride straight across a meadow. Deeply rutted and eroded trails feels like a faded love story for a biker. So protect what you love: Ride smoothly and do not brake with locked wheels. And if you go easy on the trail, you are also treating your bike with care. Share the love! Or in other words: We love bikers, who live by the code of conduct".
"Don't leave any traces behind: treat unfavorable terrain with respect and avoid the trails after heavy rainfall. You will be leaving behind traces that harm the trail. Locked brakes are not a show of riding skill."
A lot for Ditte and I to live up to, and rightly so for the privilege of riding some of the best Swiss single trail.