August 26, 2012
With the new fashionability of the timed Gran Fondo/Cyclosportif in North America, event organizers need to find that special feature that will attract cycling enthusiasts, such as the presence of pro like Ryder Hesjedal in British Columbia or a brutally hard course or a great jersey. But looking across the Atlantic, sometimes just riding in the most beautiful scenery on the planet is enough. At least that’s what participants in the Swiss-modest Gruyerè Cycling Tour held every August should feel entitled to believe.
|The view from my little rental chalet in Charmey|
Oddly enough, in multilingual Switzerland the name of the event is in non-official English but you can expect French to be the primary language when you line up at the start in Bulle, with Swiss German in strong evidence as well. The Gruyerè Region is located about 60 kms south of Berne, the nation’s capital and of course includes the famous cheese town of the same name, although one will simply pass through Gruyerès on the way to the finish line.
Registration is accomplished online and while not inexpensive does include a special jersey for the ride. The rules require that all participants wear the jersey during the ride (although there were scofflaws to be seen). I was planning to ride with Dan, a friend from Zurich, and was pretty sure that I would lose him in the first ten minutes among all those blue/white/red jerseys. Spendthrifts can also buy matching bib shorts.
|Dan's train arrived in Bulle ONE MINUTE LATE!|
The evening before the Sunday ride you can go to the Espace Gruyerè, a large multi-function hall in Bulle and pick up your jersey, start number with timing chip. Organization is excellent (we were informed of our start numbers by text message on Saturday afternoon) and we quickly had our cloth start bags, which included the aforementioned items as well as a very green water bottle promoting Canton Vaude, the French-speaking province in with the Gruyerè Region sits, a reflective band and some brochures. Saturday also sees a children’s event and a ride for the mobility-impaired.
The Espace Gruyerè also housed a cafeteria and a number of exhibitors selling familiar brands such as Trek, Pinarello and Polar. The Swiss Cycling Federation had a stand to encourage membership but had a few things to sell too, including Cancellara Bouillon which, to our disappointment, contained no Fabian DNA to make you go faster but was just a $19 container of dehydrated vegetable stock.
Switzerland appears to be going through a boom time in cycling, certainly due partially to the omnipresence of the Great Fabian, who appears on Trek advertising as well as a campaign to encourage helmet use. One of the brochures listed all the various similar cycling events, both timed and not, taking place in the country and this coordination, which did not exist only a few years ago, shows the rising interest.
|Dan fondling a new Trek and drooling.|
Returning to our little chalet in Charmey, we were discouraged by the pouring rain that began in the evening and continued relentlessly through the night. In the morning it was cool but the rain had stopped and the grey clouds looked to be breaking up.
|Home sweet home, for a week|
Registration can take place on Sunday morning but everyone was ready to leave when the starting gun went off precisely at 9:00. Although the Gruyerè cycling event is timed, it is quite different from other sportifs in that the timing is not the overall time spent on the course but just a particular section of the course. The shorter 85 km route’s timed section was an uphill stretch of 9.3 kms, while the longer 125 km route had timed sections totalling 22.44 km, also uphill. The purpose of only timing only these sections was to prevent the kind of mad and dangerous dash at the start of many gran fondos as thousands of riders attempt to force their way to the front before the first climb.
|The masses await the start in a very relaxed manner.|
As we left Bulle en masse, it seemed pretty fast to me but a walk in the park compared to the Italian ride I had done in May where cyclists were colliding in their haste. The Swiss riders were careful when overtaking and the first challenge, a 1.2 km long tunnel that ran downhill at high speed until it emptied out in a traffic circle, was very well-managed. Of course, I lost Dan immediately as we jostled for position but I never lacked for company during the day. And everywhere we rode there were escort motorcycles and flagpeople at intersections to ensure the safety of participants.
|In Broc, an old house and arched bridge|
Soon the road headed up and as expected the group began to break up as we rode through the villages of Broc and Charmey, where small groups of people stood and cheered us on. To our right across the valley one could see the impressive fortress of Gruyerès high on its ridge. There was a steep section after Broc but this was not going to be the big challenge for the day, judging from the profile. After Charmey, we rode a marvellous section of flat road, surrounded by the lush green fields and rugged hills of the region. Although Gruyerè lacks the drama of the High Alps it is nonetheless stunning, with the beautiful landscape, near-flawless roads, picturesque villages and flowers everywhere. The sun was starting to break through and all were enjoying the ride.
Well, until we came to Im Fang and the first of a number of sections of road construction. This was the worst as it required everyone to walk their bikes through loose gravel. Soon enough we were on smooth pavement again and then the road turned south and we found ourselves on a very narrow road that began to climb noticeably. It got narrower and narrower and steeper and steeper: we were now on the big ascent of the day, the Mittelberg. The road was only as wide as a single car and was closed to traffic although the odd official vehicle as well escort motorcycles passed us. This was the first time section and we would climb more than 560 m in the 9 kms. I rode with some Quebecois, and then an Englishman living in Zurich and heard other languages and accents around me. While the climb was hard, the scenery was distracting us and the sun had now come out for our glorious summer outing.
As we approached the top, people were standing and cheering loudly and with a final little sprint I crossed the timing mat to bring me to the first food stop. There were masses of riders there but compared to the German food stops at events there the selection was a bit limited, with bananas, some fruit jellies, oranges and water and some energy drink. There was also a great deal of Gruyerè cheese in single-serving packages and I stuffed my jersey pockets full.
Now I was thankful I had brought my rain jacket and long-fingered glove liners as we began to descend. The ride down from the Mittelberg, again on a road the width of a single car (so small it does not appear on my large-scale Michelin map), was an amazing high-speed experience through Swiss forests and alongside a little stream. Down, down, down we zoomed, surfacing again at Saanen. Here the route split, and those heading on the 125 km stretched continued south to Gstaad while the rest of us rode west towards Chateau-d’Oex and the direct road back to Bulle.
|Me, wearing the Official Jersey|
Although the road is marked in red on my map, it is definitely suited for cycling and with the majority of the climbing behind us, it was time to go into time trial mode until the next food stop at Les Moulins and at 60 kms. Although we had to stop several times to allow what must be the world’s slowest train to cross the road, we made excellent time, including chasing and passing escort motorcycles, on the flat/downhill run that brought us through Gruyerès proper and then back in Bulle and the finish line. My transponder was removed from my start number and I retain the number (which is personalized with your first name) as a nice souvenir.
After taking my bike back to the car, I walked back to the Espace de Gruyerè and took advantage of the facilities to have a shower and get changed. There were lots of families and friends at the finish, cheering on the cylists who continued to ride across the line. I used up some of my Swiss Francs and bought two beers but before I could get started Dan rolled up so I passed one to him. The longer route he had done included two more climbs, but neither was as hard as the Mittelberg but I was still impressed he had completed his ride so quickly.
After looking around at downtown Bulle and finding a light meal (and $4 ice cream cones that were worth every penny), Dan took his train back to Zurich. Just as he left, he received another text message giving him his results for the time section and his standing. Talk about Swiss efficiency!
|A storefront sign in Bulle|
I rode 88 kms for the day and climbed 1200 m, according to my GPS. I apparently placed 66th in my class for the Mittelberg climb and suppose I would have done better if I had not stopped to take photos. I have to admit that for me the big attraction of the Gruyerè Cycling Tour is not how fast I can finish it since this is the kind of ride that, on a fine summer’s day, you never want to see end.