9. Andermatt – Bellinzona – Across the St. Gotthard

Andermatt in the morning

Today it is quiet in Andermatt. It’s Monday and all the partygoers of the yodel party have left, leaving the Main street, which had such a special atmosphere in it yesterday, empty and deserted. The Swiss are known for their cleanliness and it shows here; there is not a single piece of paper on the street.

I leave Andermatt on my way to the top of St. Gotthard and I know there is no more delay. Today it will happen and as I turn into the road to the next village Hospental I feel a cold wind in my face. Finally no more high temperatures but enough cooling for my efforts. After Hospental the sign appears with the important announcement that the top is still 9 kilometers away. No idea what’s ahead of me but with an average speed of 5 km per hour I should be there in 2 hours.

Several hairpin bends follow and that is a bad omen for the gradient. I notice that I have to do everything I can to keep a good pace. There is no one around me and I have to do it in silence. In difficult moments it is useful to have a number of aids; such as songs with a certain rhythm that matches the tempo you want to follow. Today I choose “Ride like the wind” by Christopher Cross and it helps wonderfully. I manage to get through the hairpin bends well and see somewhere in the distance a number of windmills appearing, which I suspect are on a plateau. I use them as a target to cycle to. The road has changed into a wide winding snake that folds itself along the mountain side and because beautiful asphalt has recently been laid here, I “fly” over the road and reach the windmills within an hour.

When I look ahead, the coat of arms of the Canton of Ticino is on a stone and the old route over the Gotthard lies in front of me. This road is made of small stones and therefore there is less grip. The road is even closed in bad weather. Fortunately it is now dry so I can continue my way. But this old road is tough and difficult to climb. It takes a lot of energy for me to move forward, also because the road is getting steeper. In my opinion, the weight of the pack starts to count. Bicycle tourists regularly pass by with e-bikes at high speed, which doesn’t motivate me. I lie fairly flat on my handlebars and do my very best, but realize that with a full pack such a mountain on cycling is very heavy and that this is my toughest test ever in the sporting field. Bystanders at RVs and vans cheer me on with unintelligible exclamations such as those heard during alpine skiing, passing motorcyclists give me a thumbs up and a road worker also contributes: “Schwer, eh?” (Heavy, eh?). After another bend I suddenly see the “Albergo san Gottardo” in the distance and then I know for sure; I made it!

At the top!

After a photo under the sign “Gotthard-pass 2106 m” I first relax with a cup of coffee and immediately notice that I have arrived on the Italian side of Switzerland; the stall holder addresses me in Italian. Around me are motorbikes, cars and a number of e-bikes. One of the e-bikers approaches me and compliments me on my achievement. He estimates that I am one of the last to do this without an e-bike and I have to agree with him. Almost nowhere in Switzerland are cyclists  still riding regular bikes. Intuitively, this gives my performance even more shine, but the motivation to do this again on a regular bike with a pack is not there.

Val Tremola

For the descent to Airolo I choose the Val Tremola; a notorious road for its steepness, crumbling boulders and slippery pebbles. I consider myself lucky that it is dry and I can take the spectacular section with its many short hairpin bends. The road clings to the rock wall like a high coiled snake and it is dangerously steep. The road is only separated by some posts and a small row of stones.

The section to the next place Airolo takes almost half an hour. I decide to continue driving and zoom further in a long descent of about 5 hours to Bellinzona. During this section I notice that this is another part of Switzerland. It’s messy, there’s a lot of garbage on the street and there is nowhere a water source to refill my water bottle. And again I have a warm wind against which the advantage of a descent is largely negated. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon I reach Bellinzona and I understand why this was an important city for the historical rulers. The narrow passage of this valley was completely locked with 3 castles against attacks from Switzerland. That ultimately did not help, but the castles still hold the old town in an iron clamp. I can see this clearly from my hotel on the 7th floor.

Castles in Bellinzona

I notice that today’s efforts and the writing of the travelogue in the evening are starting to take its toll and I therefore want to go to Milan as soon as possible to rest. Fortunately, tomorrow the stage to Como is on the program.