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Switzerland 1963

Words/images from John Wilcockson

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Fifty years ago, my brother Dave and I toured the Swiss Alps

The small red, white and blue box was part of a package mailed to me by my sister Heather in England. She’d been sorting through my older brother Dave’s belongings after his sudden death last year, and was sending me items she thought I’d appreciate. This box had “Ilfochrome” printed on the top and a handwritten “Switzerland ’63” in the subject line. Also in the package were picture postcards sent home from bike tours, including the “Switzerland ’63” trip Dave and I took in September that year—exactly 50 years ago! Inside the box were two-dozen color slides, each of them captioned, that brought memories floating back: memories of bike touring, memories of Dave, memories of Switzerland ….

The story of that Swiss trip really began the previous winter. I was taking a degree course in civil engineering in London and had to decide which work-experience job to take in the summer. Most of the placements were in Britain, but a few were on the Continent—and I’d never been out of the country before. I could have picked jobs in the Netherlands, Germany or Scandinavia, but the one that caught my eye was in a place I’d never heard of: Rorschach, Switzerland.

I looked it up in my atlas and saw that it was a harbor town on the southern shore of the Bodensee (a.k.a. Lake Constance), not far from the Swiss border with Austria. The job would be in the building department of a textile factory helping to design apartment housing for immigrant workers. It didn’t sound too exciting, but it was in Switzerland, a place I’d always wanted to visit: a fairytale land of cuckoo clocks, cowbells and cheese, with an alpine landscape made famous by such mythic characters as Sherlock Holmes, Heidi and William Tell.

So Rorschach it was. My application was duly accepted, and I began planning my first overseas trip. After studying maps more closely, I also saw that Rorschach was not far from the eastern part of the Swiss Alps, and I’d be able to take weekend bike trips into the high mountains. When I spoke about my plans with Dave, he said he’d be able to take time off work in September and join me for a holiday when my summer job was over.

Dave and I didn’t do much cycling until our dad died in 1961. Dad was a national official with the Veterans Time Trial Association and competed in the group’s amateur time trials every summer weekend, always riding his bike to and from the races. The death certificate read “Hypertension” as the cause of his sudden collapse at work on a Saturday morning. He was only 49.

His legacy included two custom bikes: a steel-blue Claude Butler that fit my brother perfectly, and a crimson red Frederick, slightly smaller, that Dad raced on. Although Dave was more into cricket (we grew up together imitating the styles of our heroes, imagining we’d be cricket pros one day), he was a great sport to join me on weeklong bike tours we took on Dad’s bikes all over England, into the Welsh mountains and around the Scottish Highlands. Switzerland and its 8,000-foot road passes would be a much tougher challenge.

But first things first.

I was due to begin my summer job on Monday, July 15, and as I was just getting into bike racing (and didn’t drive or own a car) I decided to ship my suitcase to Switzerland and ride there, with a saddle bag strapped to the Frederick. When I saw that the Tour de France would end the day before my start date, it seemed natural to plan my itinerary via la route du Tour. That proved to be a perfect way to open my summer adventures, first crossing the English Channel to intercept the Tour in Normandy before riding south to see the race in the Pyrénées, and then heading across the Massif Central to watch three stages in the Alps—including the memorable sprint finish between Jacques Anquetil and Federico Bahamontes in a rain-soaked Chamonix that would clinch the yellow jersey for the French legend.

The next day, July 11, when the Tour peloton left Chamonix to the west on its journey to Paris, I left the French mountaineering town to the east, over the Col des Montets into Switzerland. From that southwest corner of the country, I’d ride the 400 kilometers to the northeast corner via Lucerne. It proved to be a great couple of days on roads much smoother than those in France, rolling through pre-alpine terrain that lived up to all my expectations, especially the frequent, beautiful lakes and distant views of the snow-peaked Alps.

I arrived in Rorschach on the Saturday afternoon. And after three weeks on the road, riding 200 kilometers a day and sleeping in campsites and youth hostels, it was a relief to settle into a small apartment, unpack my shipped suitcase, take a stroll to see the boats in the harbor, find the office where I’d be working, and have dinner in a quiet neighborhood restaurant—which I’d frequent every Sunday evening on my stay, always ending with a slice of nusstorte, the region’s delicious caramel walnut pie.

I also had to grapple with the oddities of Schweizerdeutsche, the dialect of German they speak in this part of Switzerland. It helped (just a little) that I’d taken a few classes of German in high school, but I found that the best way to communicate (when my work colleagues didn’t speak French or English) was to smile and use some of the idiomatic words they used, such as grüezi (“hello”) and merci vilmal (“thanks very much”).

Having ridden my first time trial, criterium and short road races in England earlier that year, I’d looked into entering some races while I was in Rorschach, but there were few events for beginners, and they were too far away to reach by bike. So after work most days, and on the weekends (starting with a couple of hours on Friday evenings), I thoroughly explored this little-known part of Switzerland. I soon discovered it had great natural beauty and exciting back roads.

I rode northeast along the shores of the Bodensee to Schaffhausen to see the spectacular Rheinfall, where the Rhine River rages over a 75-foot cliff in a 450-foot wide cascade that’s the highest-volume waterfall in Europe. I circled the lake into Bavaria in West Germany (this was 26 years before the Berlin Wall fell) and visited Lindau, a medieval island town famed for its harbor lighthouse, Bavarian Lion statue and 12th century church. I went east into Austria as far as the ski resort of St. Anton, getting a taste of that country’s homey blend of pine forests and chalet-style villages. And besides short loops south into the intimate green hills of the Appenzell canton, my longer weekend trips took me to the narrow Wallensee lake at the foot of the spectacularly steep ridge called Churfirsten, and way south to St. Moritz in the Engadine valley.

After these weeks of invigorating rides, and with my work-experience job over (it proved better than I expected), I was ready for my summer’s pièce de résistance: the Tour de Suisse I’d been planning with my brother. We’d start the ride in Basel, at the northwestern corner of Switzerland, from where the Rhine flows north and becomes the border between France and Germany, and then make a counterclockwise loop around the country.

I was waiting for Dave with my bike in the Basel train station at 8 o’clock on the Monday morning when he arrived from England. “It poured with rain coming across the Channel,” he said, “but the sea wasn’t too rough. And there were only two others in my compartment on the train from Paris, so I got plenty of sleep.” That was just as well because we were soon headed south out of the city on a scenic route through the hills of the Jura to Neuchâtel. It was a fairly easy 130 kilometers on a day when, according to one of our postcards, “the weather is very warm with clear blue skies.”

Neuchâtel, in the French-speaking Romandie region, proved a good choice for our first night, a lakeside town of 30,000 people that’s the center of the Swiss watch-making industry. We walked through the medieval streets, which seemed to have an ancient water fountain on every corner, up to the massive 11th-century castle—from which Neuchâtel takes its name.

Exploring towns is one of the delights of Switzerland that, unlike neighboring countries, has been unaffected by major wars, and so most of its historic buildings are well preserved. But a bike tour around the whole country doesn’t give you much time for long visits, so we pushed on down the western shore of the Neuchâtel lake to another old walled city, Yverdon, and then headed southeast on quieter roads that saw us slogging up short climbs to hilltop towns and back down through truly green countryside to Gruyère—where one of the country’s best hard cheeses originated.

Dave was coping well with all this cycling, even though his main summer exercise was playing two cricket matches each weekend for his club team—he had strong arms and legs as the team’s opening bowler, which entails running hard to gain delivery speed six times per over and bowling countless overs. During our easier moments on the bike we’d talk about the English cricket season: he told me that the West Indies defeated England in a thrilling Test Series, but “our” team, Surrey, finished a poor 11th in the County Championship. I’d talk about following the Tour de France for the first time, suggesting that he come with me in a future year.

I’d designed our Swiss tour so that we wouldn’t hit the highest mountain passes until the end of the first week and included two lesser “warm-up” climbs on day three. These were the Col des Mosses and Col du Pillon, both around the 5,000-foot mark; not high by alpine standards but both of them twice the height of the highest pass road in Britain—and even higher than our tallest mountain, Ben Nevis in Scotland.

Neither the Mosses nor the Pillon was that steep, and Dave coped with them fairly well. These roads took us close to the 10,000-foot peaks of Les Diablerets—which included our first view of a glacier—before we descended through the tony ski town of Gstaad, and down into Interlaken. Sited between two finger-shaped lakes, Interlaken has a population of only 5,000, but it’s world famous as the gateway to the spectacular Bernese Oberland, home of the world-renowned Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch mountains.

We’d spend most of the next two days exploring the area and its deep glaciated valleys to get the best views of its many glaciers, waterfalls and high peaks. Our overnight stop was at the youth hostel in Grindelwald, a mountain village at the end of a 20-kilometer climb from Interlaken. The bonus for reaching our destination was seeing the incredible proximity of the Wetterhorn, a stunning snow-tipped mountain that sparked the mass exploration of the Alps after English mountaineer Alfred Wills climbed the 12,000-foot peak in 1854.

We had more modest goals, but marveled at how climbers scaled these giant mountains—particular the North Face of the Eiger, which we saw in full view on our descent from Grindelwald early next morning. The Eiger (a.k.a. the Ogre) was first climbed on its western flank in 1858, but it took another 80 years (and many deaths) before an Austrian-German party led by Anderl Heckmair made it up the near-vertical 5,900-foot-high North Face.

We had even better views of the other famed peaks, the Jungfrau (the “Virgin”) and the Mönch (the “Monk”), when we turned left into the Lauterbrunnen valley. There are said to be 72 waterfalls cascading down the walls of this U-shaped valley, and we photographed the most spectacular one, the Staubbach, which has a free-fall height of 974 feet, said to be the tallest such dimension in the Alps. For a better look at the 14,000-foot Jungfrau and nearby glaciers, we walked up a steep path, one of the thousands of well-marked hiking trails that crisscross Switzerland.

It felt good to be back on bikes that Friday afternoon, to coast back to Interlaken before riding alongside another lake to Brienz—where the intricately carved, miniature wooden chalets are made for Lötscher, the only remaining Swiss manufacturer of cuckoo clocks. The last stop on our invigorating day was the youth hostel at Meiringen, which as Sherlock Holmes fans will know is the town where the fictional detective stayed in 1891 with Dr. Watson on their quest to capture master criminal Professor Moriarty. And where, after walking to the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes and Moriarty fought their assumed fatal combat in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, “The Final Problem.”

We saw the falls (nowhere near as tall as the Staubbach) but didn’t see Holmes, though we did meet up with an Englishman on his trail: a school friend of our sister’s, Chris May, who was reading economics at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Following our two days of sightseeing, we next tackled one of our more ambitious rides, going over two giant alpine passes, the Grimsel at 7,100 feet and the Furka at 8,000 feet. On topping the 26-kilometer, 6 percent climb to the Grimsel summit, I wrote this on a postcard to Mum: “Our superb weather is continuing. Today is very clear and sunny, but there is a very strong wind blowing down the pass.” That cold wind had us both putting on wool sweaters (which Mum knitted) before we stopped at the observation platform to admire the amazing panorama: from the snow-capped Dammstock peak in the north past the still-impressive Rhône Glacier (it has shrunk considerably over the past 50 years) to the zigzag turns of the Furka Pass.

We needed those sweaters on the 5-kilometer drop to the Rhône River, but we soon took them off to climb the much steeper Furka, which is 11 kilometers long with some nasty 11 percent pitches. Back in 1963, the road passed close to the glacier, the source of the Rhône that flows more than 800 kilometers through Lake Geneva and south to the Mediterranean. We stopped to look at the glacier’s crinkled ice from the legendary Hotel Belvédère before continuing up the final switchbacks—on a dirt road back then, where the wind kicked up the dust as we rode separately to the bleak summit, with a blazing sun starting to set behind us.

On the southern horizon was the famed St. Gotthard Pass, which we climbed on its smooth granite cobblestones to a 7,000-foot summit, where stagecoaches passed in the mid-19th century. On this sunny Sunday in the mid-20th century, Dave and I witnessed a caravan of vehicles almost as anachronistic. Before descending a series of tight hairpins known as the Val Tremola windings, we were confronted by dozens of East German-built Trabants chugging up the steep, twisty road. It must have been a Trabant collectors’ rally because the Trabant, although roomy for its 11-foot-by-5-foot footprint, was powered by a funky two-stroke, half-liter engine and wasn’t the type of car you’d expect to see making a long drive through the Alps!

Our longish Sunday ride, due south into the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, ended just before Locarno when the first rain of our trip stopped us early. The sun returned the next morning on a busy road to Lugano, where we decided to spend most of the day next to its intensely blue lake. In a postcard, we wrote: “This place is similar to Torquay with lots of English people.” Torquay is a popular seaside resort on the southwest coast of England that boasts a few palm trees—just like Lugano. We were even able to buy English Sunday newspapers in the Swiss town. The Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph may have been a day late, but it was still fun to catch up with what was happening at home. Dave was pleased that “his” team, Tottenham Hotspur, was doing well in the new Football League season, and beat Blackpool 6-1 that weekend.

It was nice to just relax for a few hours, but after leaving town on the next leg of our trip we forgot that we would be heading into Italy—and it wasn’t until we crossed the border that we realized we had no lire (credit cards didn’t exist back then!). We didn’t feel like returning to Lugano in the dark, and the night was warm, so we just wheeled our bikes across a field to the top of a small hill and slept under the stars in our youth-hostel-issue sheet sleeping bags.

We left our grassy “bedroom” at dawn, and upon reaching Menággio on Lake Como we exchanged just enough cash to get breakfast at a lakeside café—with real Italian cappuccinos! It was a thrill to briefly ride on roads where the Tour of Lombardy would be contested in a few weeks’ time on our way back north toward Switzerland. The border came just after Chiavenna, where we began climbing another monster alpine pass, the 32-kilometer-long Maloja.

There was little traffic on the smooth road that glided up a forested valley besides a creek before reaching a series of switchbacks, with 10-percent grades, above tree line. The Maloja is an unusual mountain pass because once we reached its 6,000-foot summit there was no descent on the other side. We were at the top of the Engadine valley, which hosts the source of the Inn River, whose waters flow east to the Danube and eventually to the Black Sea. We stocked up with some bread and cheese at a roadside store and then stopped to eat a picnic lunch and take photos at the first of several lakes, the Silsersee, surrounded by high peaks, including the 13,000-foot Piz Bernina.

We didn’t continue into glitzy St. Moritz and down the valley because I’d been there on one of my earlier weekend trips that included climbing the challenging Flüela and Albula passes. This time, we took a third way out of the Engadine, turning left on the main route north over the 7,500-foot Julier Pass, which the Romans once used to reach northeastern parts of their empire. This is also the area where the fourth official Swiss language, Romanche, is still spoken.

The remainder of our day, another 70 kilometers, was nearly all downhill, as far as the upper Rhine valley. We would stop at ancient stone water fountains to fill our bottles, a nice feature of riding in Switzerland, and hear cowbells clanging from herds on the high alpine meadows. We then skimmed the so-called Heidiland—birthplace of Heidi, the fictional heroine created in 1880 by Johanna Spyri, whose books have sold more than 50 million copies and spawned dozens of films—before continuing to the west.

After crossing one final mountain pass the next day, the 6,700-foot Oberalp, we passed through Andermatt for the second time on our tour, and then headed north through the spectacularly deep and rocky Schöllenen Gorge where, in 1799, Napoleon’s army fought a fierce battle against the Russians at the ominous Devil’s Bridge. The descent ended just before Altdorf, the village where in the late 14th-century Swiss folk hero William Tell was said to have fired a crossbow to hit an apple on his son’s head and save them both from being executed by a Hapsburg overlord. Tell later killed the foreign official—a deed that’s said to have been a catalyst in establishing the first Swiss Confederation.

As for our journey, we had another full day of riding to get back to Basel—where we had time to see some barges on the Rhine and visit the city’s renowned zoological gardens before Dave caught his train back to London. I didn’t join him because I wanted to do three more (very long) days of riding, through Strasbourg, Liège (where on a night of heavy rain I slept on the sheltered concrete forecourt of a garage!) and Ghent, to reach Oostende and a cross-channel ferry back home.

A couple years later, Dave did join me on another of my bike trips following the Tour, and I played an occasional game of cricket for his club team. Dave stuck with cricket all his life. Last year, when I was heading up Mount Baldy to a stage finish of the Amgen Tour of California, I got a voice mail from my sister saying that Dave was in a coma after a freak accident in a club cricket game. He was bowling one more over when the cricket ball (which is heavier and slightly smaller than a baseball) came straight back at him from the batsman and struck him on the side of the head. He never came out of the coma.

I miss Dave. But, thanks to my sister going through his things, I have some wonderful memories, including those hidden for half a century inside a pale, red, white and blue box.

Twitter: @johnwilcockson