Cycling up a gear in the Alps

Car free roads make cycling around Gstaad in Switzerland a breeze
Car free roads make cycling around Gstaad in Switzerland a breeze
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The lightest of bikes might be steep in price, but they make short work of a climb. Coming down is another story...

This marvellous slow train was taking me to the chic village of Gstaad, 3,000ft above sea level and best known as Switzerland’s winter playground for the well-heeled. But for this September weekend, it was home to a road bike test weekend hosted by cycle manufacturer Scott.

I’d intended to do some serious miles on my bike ahead of the trip but a few turns around Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh had been the extent of my preparation so I couldn’t help feeling a little bit fraudulent when I turned up at Scott’s temporary HQ in the centre of Gstaad and was handed the best among a stable of excellent bikes. It was a Scott Foil Premium – a bike, I later learned, that sells for a quid shy of £9,400, considerably more than I’ve ever paid for a car, let alone something you’ve actually got to pedal. It had full carbon everything, and Shimano’s very best brakes and electronic gears. I strongly suspected such a machine would be wasted on someone of my limited ability, but I was grateful for any advantage.

The dozen or so other cyclists who assembled on what was unfortunately a wet and quite cold Saturday morning ranged from a couple, Juan and Martina, who’d originally been planning a walking trip but chose the test weekend instead, to lightweight, Lycra-clad veterans of the road. The test weekend was sold as a package: bike hire, guide and minibus support, and hotel accommodation.

Our guide for the day was Ruedi and our plan was to do the Four-Finger Loop, one of ten rides mapped and described in the Gstaad Roadbook.

With waterproof jackets zipped up against the constant drizzle, we set off and almost immediately left the village behind. The road was flat, narrow and virtually free of traffic. In fields either side brown and white cows grazed, the huge bells around their necks clunking out flat notes as they munched rich green grass.

And despite the rain, I was having fun on the Foil. Crikey, it was quick. Nervous of crashing such a machine on wet roads, I was more cautious than those ahead of me when going into bends. They would pull ahead. But that just gave me the excuse to click through the electronic gears, put some modest power through the pedals and catch up by enjoying the acceleration that nine grand buys.

Soon enough, though, the road turned up a long, steepish climb: I’m guessing about 15 per cent. Once again the Foil came to my rescue, its lightness allowing me to haul my 13-stone bulk up the road without having to get out of the saddle, though not without effort.

Heading on, the road undulated through chocolate-box countryside. Every building we passed was chalet-style, clad in wood and with a big overhang on the roof, whether it was a home, a barn or a garage. Cars were few and far between and their drivers gave us plenty of room.

Heading back to Gstaad to complete the first of the four loops that comprise the ride, we whizzed down a straight hill in rapidly falling temperatures. By the time we got to Scott HQ we were cold, and glad to get the chance to thaw out.

We were out again shortly. It was still raining, but at least felt warmer. The road kicked up straight away, and it was time to get out of the seat. I’d had mixed feelings about the Foil’s unfamiliar electronic gear change, as the controls were a little difficult to operate with full gloves on, but under pressure they performed well, shifting into lower gears without the pedal speed that would have been needed by a manual derailleur.

Once again the roads were more or less traffic-free, and the scenery breathtaking.

Having gained most of our height early in the loop, we began a descent on a curving, wet road – something I did cautiously given the Foil’s carbon-rimmed wheels. They’re wonderful things for going fast on, but even good brakes don’t bite on them as well as they do on metal rims. Sorry, Scott, I’m not worthy of your steed.

Back in Gstaad, we decided there’d be no more cycling that day. Instead we agreed to go back to our hotels to get showered and changed before meeting up for a trip to a restaurant run by Swiss chef Robert Speth – host of the Chesery in Gstaad – at the Golfclub Gstaad-Saanenland. I can’t comment on what it’s like to play golf there – though the views were fabulous – but the food was well above par.

There was time later in the afternoon to explore Gstaad. The slogan for the village is Come Up – Slow Down, and when I was there, admittedly in low season, there was certainly a relaxed – some might say sleepy – feel to the place. The village essentially consists of a pedestrianised main street, the Promenade ­– which is home to cafés, art galleries and designer label shops – and hotels, all within a few minutes’ walk of the centre.

My own hotel was the warm and welcoming Arc-en-ciel. It may look like a traditional chalet, but is modern inside, with pristine white bedrooms and a thriving restaurant and pizzeria catering for guests and the many visitors coming to sit in to eat or pick up takeaway pizzas from the wood-fired oven.

After another pleasant night in the Arc-en-ciel there was more cycling on Sunday. Sadly the weather had not improved. This time I was loaned a Scott Addict, which came with disc brakes. Sure, it wasn’t as fast as the Foil, but it was no slouch, and I liked it more. It was comfortable, with non-electronic gears of the kind I was used to, and had reassuring stopping power.

Our route was low-level, as the descents on the originally planned ride were deemed too hazardous in the wet. Inevitably, though, there were hills, and it was here that the electric bikes chosen by Juan and Martina – who’d found the previous day’s demands too much – came into their own, sailing serenely past us.

Once again the countryside delivered view after view. Despite the rain – the first since July, they said – a good time had been had by all.