This is the story of a week of Mountain biking in central Switzerland, wakeboarding on the lakes and general catching up with old friends is a great way to spend a week-long holiday. Most people’s mountain bike trips to Switzerland are based in the ski resorts in the south west of the country, that’s for good reason as some of the biggest mountains are found there. For those looking for something a bit different, here’s details of four big mountain rides that I’d recommend any one to try in central Switzerland.
The first day is always a test of fitness and the ride out from Luzern to Küssnacht goes well. Even the first climb up to Alpelti at 1031m, although a long, sweaty and unpleasant affair is cleared without a need to stop and recover. From the car park at the top by the restaurant, the route for today heads off along trails to the north and south. I choose the latter and set off anticlockwise around Rigi Klum.
Swiss mapping is very different to the British equivalent and even with two maps and plenty of signposts, there’s a good degree of difficulty following the trail. It means getting lost, climbing up to bits that turn out to be the wrong way and general faffing about soon eat up time and energy. It it soon discovered that an altimeter is an invaluable aid in navigation, as it allows comparisons between position readings and marked altitudes for junctions on the route.
With time running short before I need to meet up with my hosts and having failed to find a vital piece of trail, I decide to cut my losses and start linking up offroad sections of wooded singletrack, cliff face trails and pathways through alpine meadows as I descending back down the mountain to Vierwaldstättersee. From the road that encircles it, I have to ride around the lake to Brunnen, where I then take the train North through Goldau to Zug. From Zug, Chris has sussed out a cross country and partially offroad route back to Luzern and having been couped up in an office all day he and the others are ready to leather it on the way home. I’m trying to keep up and as we ride back into Luzern as the light is fading. It’s been a good days riding.
After assessing the map, the day starts with a forty-five minute ride out from Luzern to Malters. Finding the right road that leads up the mountain, proved to be a bit of bother, but eventually it’s found and the journey begins. Climbing, as on everyday, marks the beginning of the route and the road rises upwards to Reid and then onwards to Fuchsbael. After following the road up the Eigental valley and around the mountain in the shadow of Pilatus for sometime, the tarmac ends and a gravel off road ascent up towards Stafel begins.
Just before reaching the fire road switchbacks on the climb up, I ride into a Swiss military roadblock. The officer in charge bangs on for about five minutes in Swiss-German before I manage to get a word in edgeways and explain I don’t have a clue what he’s saying. Fortunately he speaks English and explains that there is some live ordnance that they are in the process of defusing up ahead. I can’t ride any further, but if I stick the bike in the back of one of their trucks they’ll give me a lift through the danger zone. Sounds like a good plan and it’s a chance to rest from what has been non-stop climbing since I set off this morning.
Disembarked from my military transport nearer to Stafel, the real climbing begins with the slog up to Trockenmatt, a climb that becomes pretty boggy and wet near the top and reminds me of riding in the Peak District. At the top of the climb, a boulder strewn fire road traverses the ridge and provides a fast if bumpy descent down to Stafeliwëng. A sharp but brief climb follows up to the highest point of the ride, Risetenegg (1408m), where the top part of the climb becomes unridable and it’s time to push and carry your way to the top. From the summit riding is a bit up and down hill on the way back to Malters.
Some on and off road descending follows Risetenegg and the road and trails snake their way down and around the slopes towards Blattiggraben, from where another short, sharp climb carries you back to higher ground with some of the most spectacular views of the ride. The scenery in Switzerland is stunning at all times and in summer you really appreciate the topography of the terrain and the restrictions it inflicts on Swiss agriculture.
The descent down Unter Blattig is a brakes off high speed dusty blast on farm tracks almost all the way down until you roll into Schachen and then cross down to the Emme River, which has a singletrack path running parallel with it almost all the way back to Luzern. This is a great way to cruise back as there are enough swoops, bends and turns to make things interesting. The route itself is only 40km, but with the ride to and from it you’re probably not far off doubling that distance and most of it’s offroad.
“I’ve got this route lined up that I’ve been wanting to do for ages. It’s a lovely little number. We’ll get the train out there and then ride all the way back”. Chris was enthusiastic about the longest route listed in the guidebook – with 88 km, 2,666m climbing and with an estimated 9 hours to complete, this is going to be one badass ride.
It’s an early start and we’re off to the station to get a train out to Flüelen (435m). The weather is fantastic and it looks sure to be another scorcher in the 30s. From the station it’s time to ride across the valley and from Seedorf begin our attack of the Gitschital valley. The gradient is punishing from the start and we know there’s a long way to go. Chris, his girlfriend Suzy and I just sit down, engage the granny ring and just try and spin our way uphill.
The views back down the valley and out over Vierwaldstättersee are stunning and it helps break the monotony of the climbing to stop and take some photos. The road is hewn from the flanks of the mountain and the higher we climb the steeper the sheer rock face to our right becomes and the greater the drop to the left becomes – there’s no barrier, if you were to ride off the edge, it’d be good night – Elvis has left the building.
After what seems like an age of switch back ascending on the road the tarmac stops abruptly. From that point on we’re onto loose gravel climbing. Not far into the off road portion of the climb the trail disappears into a very long and very dark tunnel. Fortunately after a bit of investigation we find that there’s a light switch on a timer and the weak light from the ceiling provides just enough illumination for us to get through by.
More time passes and we emerge past the tree line and carry onwards into the higher meadows. To some surprise we spot a gathering of about twenty people down in the fields beneath us cutting the summer hay. It’s a shock because we haven’t seen a soul all morning and now there’s a big group of people half way up a great big mountain.
At a point where a waterfall creates a stream crossing the double track trail Suzy has a bit of a moment with her new bike and almost comes a cropper. We don’t tell her, but her fall to her left is lucky not to send her over the edge into oblivion. Once she’s calmed down, we sort her and her bike out and head upwards once again.
At Gitschitaler Boden (1309m) we find a small group of people outside the mountain hut doing various things. We get some funny looks, but are left wondering quite why that guy was hoeing a gravel path for weeds when the surrounding area looks like an unkempt wilderness. The gravel path soon becomes a bit much as the gradient approaches 1:4 and we’re soon off and pushing. Even at altitude it’s still hot and looking back down the valley the weather looks like it might be changing. We press on and take the trail off to the left climbing up the valley side towards Alp Distleren (1526m).
From here things are definitely unridable. The gradients well over 1:4, the path either loose gravel or boulder fields and only red and white alpine trail markers painted onto rocks along the way mark the path. At this point we’re carrying the bikes and I’m regretting having bought a full suspension bike that can’t be carried over the shoulder. Suzy’s struggling so Chris and I are taking turns to carry her bike up too.
There are a few hairy moments. After crossing a scree slope, Chris loses his footing and almost falls several hundred metres down the mountain, only being saved by a quick grab at some vegetation. Ten minutes later we’re negotiating Chil Laucheren at 1820m, a pass that requires climbing gear in winter. We don’t have any gear, so we’re doing it with bikes over our shoulders in SPD shoes. It’s a bit iffy, but after some climbing achieved by wedging the bikes against rocks and bushes we’re over and onto a small, relatively flat plateau, where a new mountain hut is being built.
Shortly after having stopped to restore our energy levels with some fruitcake, we are amazed to hear the distinctive sound of an alpine horn being practiced, which causes some amusement. We set off again with more climbing ahead, something that is made worse by the fact that there’s still a long way to go and several false summits ahead. The section along the ridge to Angistock (2044m) proves to be reasonably ridable which make a nice change from pushing and carrying. The view in all directions from here is amazing.
A brief descent follows and drops us down into a cirque full of scree, and higher above it a snow field, directly beneath the Surenenpass. This proves to be a hard lengthy and unpleasant slog, as Suzy is struggling with her bike, so Chris and I are relaying bikes and kit up the mountain and as we scramble up the last section to the top, the weather finally turns and we start getting rained on and whipped by the wind. After a brief celebration at reaching the 2291m summit (mostly comprising of huddling in the leeward side of the pass and scoffing some more energy food and putting on any spare few layers) we began the much awaited downhill.
I take off and itâ’s sometime after I stop that Chris and Suzy reappear. She’d taken a tumble again near the top lost a lot of confidence and then walked much of the tricky off-camber section, made greasy by the rain. The descent was a reasonable ride all the way down, which is good as it helps keep us warm and focused. We’re soon blasting down singletrack and broader sections of trail, feeling that we have definitely earnt the assistance of gravity.
As we descend we pass a couple of mountain huts and a few walkers. As the singletrack ends we’re onto double track and then hardpacked access roads. On one of these Suzy’s bike decides it wants to lie down for a minute and the front wheel washes out on a slippery a galvanised steel water drainage channel. It’s the third big fall of the day and this one was at high speed. To our relief Suzy is okay, but her lid has taken a big impact. After a brief interlude we saddle back up and ride on.
As we hit the tarmac a few kilometers above Engleberg the combined effect of rain, spray from the road and the wind chill are taking their toll. We are wet through and thoroughly chilled. The prospect of a warm train journey home as opposed to a couple more hours on the bike is not a difficult decision to make. It was an ambitious plan, but we were defeated by big mountain weather.
Near Schwand Not wanting to miss up on some great riding and some hard earnt downhill, the final ride of my trip is a return to Engleberg (1000m). The train ride from Luzern to Engleberg is all uphill and makes you appreciate that you’re not having to ride up it! The ride for the day is on the north side of the valley and starts from Fellenrütistr and climbs on tight tarmac switchbacks all the way up to Flüematt (1444m). From there offroad doubletrack trails lead off up to Ristis (1606m) and then traverses the mountain side up to Rigidalstafen before swinging left and making the final ascent to Brunnihütte (1860m). Whilst not offering as much vertical gain as other routes, it can all be ridden and provides a great sense of achievement. After lunch on the mountain top wonderful singletrack descending follows down to Spisboden (1330m) before continuing down to Schwand and Zattenbadell, where the trail enters the forest. From here various trails create a descent down to a crossing over the railway line and then over a wooden bridge to cross the river. Once over this the trail down valley begins, which is a flat out forest track descent. The trail crosses the river a few times put it’s basically a case of hammering it down valley all the way to Stans and Lake Luzern, before following its edge all the way home. A great way to end a great holiday of riding.
Info and thanks
Big thank you to Suzy Launchbury and Chris Thorne for putting me up and keeping me entertained! No thanks to crappy photo development services.
If you can get a copy of it, Vital Eggenberger’ guide book entitled “Mountainbike-Erlebnis Zentralschweiz” is thoroughly recommended. In my experience it’s very hard to get hold of in the UK (ISBN: 3-9520797-4-X). For mapping, then SwissGeo is the equivalent of the Ordnance Survey Get-a-Map service, allowing you to look at detailed maps on-line.
Engleberg has a big Mountain biking scene in summer including a downhill course and a cable car to get you up the mountain. There are a number of bike routes listed on the tourist office website, but you’ll need to use some translating software if your German is shonky like mine. Try Altavista’s Babelfish.