25 September 2018
According to family folklore, my Great Grandfather was New Zealand’s honorary Swiss Consul between 1926 and 1933. Perhaps it is therefore genetics that keep drawing me back to the Confoederatio Helvetica, although it’s more probably that my wife and half of my daughter are Swiss and we have family to visit.
Switzerland’s geographic footprint is smaller than Canterbury's, but it is an astonishingly diverse country overflowing with history. It boasts four official languages - German, French, Italian and Romansh. Although none of these are the most commonly spoken language which is Swiss German.
My Swiss German is pretty average at best and my in-laws have only a rudimentary grasp of English, so my presence at family gatherings is not always critical. As a result I’ve done a bunch of cycle touring and mountain biking around Switzerland over the past ten years - exploring almost every precisely manicured corner of the country and utilising a staggering array of mountain uplift. But there remained an annoyingly large gap in my Swiss Mtb repertoire...
Graubünden / Grischun / Grigioni is the largest canton by area and is the only one where Romansh is one of the official languages, rendering my Swiss German more useless than usual. It has recently been catapulted into mountain bike consciousness with the inclusion of Lenzerheide in the World Cup circus and host of the 2018 World Championships. To drive the argument home, Danny MacAskill and Claudio Caluori have been recruited to promote the canton as a biking destination. All this promotional activity appears to have successfully attracted bike tourists and there is plenty of bike-friendly infrastructure on the ground.
I’ve previously spent time in the more accessible parts of Graubünden - including Chur, Lenzerheide and Arosa - but the more remote nether regions and valleys of the Swiss National Park remained an elusive mystery to me.
Enter stage left, my wife Sonja. She was busy organising our biennial family visit and after significant input from me (“somewhere I haven’t been please”), a quick chat with her brother and a glance at Instagram she settled on Val Müstair as a suitable destination for a week's sojourn during our month long Swiss holiday.
Describing the Müstair Valley as remote needs the qualifier “by Swiss standards”. Exceptionally good roads lead in from three directions, but that’s all. No trains, no chairlifts of note, no gondolas and no airport. There is a great bus service, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Val Müstair forms part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and is jaw dropping-gorgeous. We established base camp at the village of Müstair - which is about as far east as you can travel in Switzerland before needing your passport and an Italian phrase book. It is also home to the Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair that I’m told is pretty old but my interest in ancient European buildings faded some years ago due to an architectural overdoes whilst cycle touring. There could easily be a massive story deviation here recounting local history and the legacy of mountain bike tracks from WW 1, but I won’t inflict that on you!
As previously mentioned, there is no mountain uplift in Val Müstair. If you're not keen on a bit of huffing and puffing then DON’T GO! However, if 600m of pretty casual climbing and carrying in exchange for 2500m of descent is your idea of a good time then READ ON.
Hang on, “600m up for 2500m down with no gondolas… what the, how the…?” Remember that bus service mentioned earlier. Yep, a scheduled public bus service with 16 bike trailer that slings you 1000+ vertical meters up the valley. HOW GREAT IS THAT. Catching an early bus (7am) is worthwhile - mountain bike access is restricted on some trails late morning/early afternoon and, more importantly, the bus/trailer combo avoids battle with the constant stream of expensive sports cars traversing the alpine passes.
There are three roads out of Val Müstair: down (east) into German speaking Italy; up (west) over Ofen Pass/Fuorn Pass which cuts back into Switzerland; and up (south) via the Stelvio Pass to Italian speaking Italy. If you’re a petrol head or attentive roadie you’ll be familiar with Stelvio. Top Gear called it driving heaven and rates it the best road in the world, while the Giro d’Italia makes regular visits (twice this year in stage 16). The Poste Auto buses service both passes. You’ll be happy you caught the bus once you reach the top as they are insanely busy - rendering parking a car virtually impossible, especially at Stelvio which is basically a continuous traffic jam. However you quickly leave the throngs to enjoy lonely alpine descents with only the distant purr of Ducatis and Lamborghinis to remind you of the mayhem left behind.
We (my extended Swiss family plus my good friend Malcolm who joined us at short notice) booked a holiday house for the traditional European Saturday to Saturday stay. This allowed us six full days of riding plus a sneaky half ride on the day we arrived. Val Müstair is a real Forest Gump box of chocolates. A different ride in a different valley every day and each one completely unlike the last. From Ofen Pass we rode the not very steep but highly technical Fuorcla Sassalba to Pass da Costainas - which was an absolute minefield of baby head rocks; the slightly pedestrian but unbelievably beautiful Val Mora (claimed to be the most beautiful valley in eastern Switzerland); and circumnavigated Munt da la Bescha through to Alp Champatsch for an amazing local wurst washed down with cold beer. All three rides were stunning in their own right and all three fed into unnamed but amazing singletrack to return home.
At Stelvio the alp metre was turned up to 11 with two of the best rides of my life. The first was Piz Umbrail where, after climbing 500m to 3033m, we descended to about 1900m on some of the most epic alpine trail one could hope for. Not too tech, not too flow, just awesomely fun and awesomely beautiful. And after all that awesome, there was another 600m vert of sweet forest-singletrack to get home - which was true of all our rides that week. The trails are named after the high point but they forget to mention the mad singletrack hidden in the trees below.
Our final ride was truly the stuff of dreams and Tom Wolfe. After an early bus ride to Stelvio, we dropped down the glacier-lined Tibet Trail into Italy. Using a combination of Trail Forks and a topo map we managed to descend 1300m on 100% fun singletrack to Trafoi. From there we hijacked the only available chairlift (remember we’re in Italy, not Switzerland). This required holding our bikes for the 18 minute ride up. The 600m lift advanced us about half way up the next hill, but nowhere near our final high point of Piz Chavalatsch (the eastern most edge of Switzerland). This took another couple of hours - partly or mostly due to the large lunch and beer found at the top of the lift. From there our descent started on yet another WW1 trail that fed into yet more amazing alpine singletrack and ended with the usual cherry on top of fabulous forest trails. From Piz Chavalatsch we enjoyed uninterrupted views of almost every other peak and trail that we had dared to explore that week, not to mention the stunning vistas east towards Austria and northern Italy.
Val Müstair is the closest thing to New Zealand style riding that I have found in Switzerland. By this I mean very little infrastructure to get punters on top of hills and therefore almost deserted trails. The riding alone is worth the airfare to Europe. We're absolutely heading back for a reprise. There's heaps of new terrain to explore and many trails that need to be repeated. Once the local options are exhausted, we'll give the surrounding valleys of Switzerland, Italy and Austria a nudge.
A few tips for anyone keen to head in that direction themselves:
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