the Alps : parts of France, Italy and Switzerland
or not toux Ventoux, that is here the question
If you have heard of the tour de France, you have heard about Mount
Ventoux. It's part of the holy trinity of famous stages, next to cols de
Galibier and Tourmalet. Epic duels have been fought here, Armstrong and
Ulrich being the most recent. This is also where Tom Simpson fell off
his bike 1967 and died due to doping. When cyclists get too close to
this mountain, it seems they just have to go up it. I knew something was
up, when I got close. Swarms of racing cycles filled the air, almost all
ridden by older males.
It's an unusual mountain, but not really a pretty one. It's a rather
formless, very large blob. Cycle racers have called it a wart, an
abscess, an upside down witch's bathtub and a "sputum of God".
If you are familiar with the mountains of Colorado, "lone
peak", far from the rest of the San Juan mountains, could be a
starting point in comparison. The best view from there can be obtained
during the cool clear months, not in the haze of early summer.
When my route went right past the turnoff up Ventoux, I naturally
assumed that I would ride up it. First I needed to get water. Since all
the stores were closed, I asked for some water at a bar. I got some
unfriendly remarks that I didn't understand in addition. At a nearby
table a drunk started yelling Ventoux, Ventoux, Ventoux, like an out of
control spectator at a race. I also needed a room for the night. Very
few people answered the door, and the ones that did, won't win the town
a hospitality price. The lowest price, on this particular day, for a
small private room was 38 Euro. The tourist office was still
closed for the afternoon and therefor wasn't any help. The pressures of
tourism were high here, and I didn't want to add to them. So for me, the
answer to the question posed above was not to Ventoux. Instead I
finished the afternoon, riding through pretty old villages, and a
fascinating church sitting on a rock in Peirrelonge. There would be
other monuments to the tour de France. Around here you really couldn't
circumride them, even if you would want to.
Just a few French
Alpine passes come in all shapes and sizes. Many climb high above the
treeline. On top, there is a summit station next to a parking lot, where
they sell postcards and the crowds congregate. But those came later.
Today I rode 3 passes that fall into a completely different category. A
small road winds through forest and farmland. The small strip of
asphalt detours around large trees, that have been here before the road
- what a concept - as if a tree was that important. Here it still is.
Finally, the black patched affair points upwards. Switchbacks wind up a
face, becoming longer and longer as the road exits the confines of the
valley. On top a single bench invites to rest and a brief glimpse above
the trees. The pass crosses from one wooded valley into another. That's
a short description of "col de Perty", in the Barronies
region. These are alpine foothills, between the large breadloaf mountain
of Mt Ventoux to the west, and the jagged peaks of the higher alps to
The pass of the following day, cd Festre, was only 100m higher,
but what a difference. It belong to the "western limestone
alps", a region that has geological similarities with the Italian
dolomites. Limestone and dolomite form the majority of impressive cliffs
around the world, and that includes this region. Roughly the same
altitude as yesterday's ridgetop crossing, brought me to the highest
point, where one U shaped valley merges into another U shaped valley
down the other side. Crumbled limestone walls towered to the sides of
the top of the pass.
Another day, another pass. Actually, in this case it was another day,
another 3 passes, each one very different from the one that came before.
We start, not with breakfast, but with dessert, a small pass that is
difficult to find, but worth finding, col de Parquetoute. On first view,
by lamplight of the night before, the thin squigly line representing a
road on a map, from Corps to "St. Michel en Beaumont",
ended half ways in between the two. It was not until I looked at
the map again the next morning, under vastly improved light conditions,
that I discovered the squigly line continuing under the map labels, down
The exceptional light conditions now shone on the real thing too. The
Grand Tete l'Obiou could take it up with any Teton in Wyoming, when it
comes to turning heads. It pierced the sky with its classic triangular
glaciated horn shape, that everybody associates with the Matterhorn.
Adjacent, the canyon walls from where I had emerged yesterday, looked
like mildewed pages of a 1000 meter thick book that had been soaking in
the rain, sort of like my guidebook after the first 2 days in France,
just a lot bigger of course. I thoroughly enjoyed that squigly line to
St. Michel en Beaumont. The only traffic traversing up this partially
wooded hillside were delivery trucks. I was on a 2 meter wide path,
climbing to around 1300 m. There were only 2 signs along the way,
pointing to the pass. No signs at all were on the main road down in the
valley. I saw only one bike on the pass road. The ride down the
other side made me understand once again why V brakes were invented.
Instead of a few free miles of coasting, you get sore hands from
all the breaking as reward for the tough climbing, with some worn out
brake shoes thrown in. The little, sensationally scenic pass was as
perfect as it can get on a biketour. But it wouldn't have worked for a
biker race. You can only get 2 bikes around a switchback at a time.
Getting a whole peloton through here would be like trying to get mashed
potatoes through a needle's ear.
Pass No 2 for the day was perfect for a bike race. It started where
pass no. 1 ended. I was now in the haute alps. The climb started
gradually, between vertical walls of dark rocks of the Valbonnais range
on one side, and the Oisan range on the other. Apparently they had a
bike race here. The names Verenque and Armstrong, amongst many others,
were still painted across the road in bright white letters, from last
year's Tour de France. I don't think I could be a bike racer. I'd be
staring up the walls, in awe of the 1000 m water cascades, tumbling down
over thousands of different sized steps, while I was supposed to suffer
up the pass, with a look of pain on my face. Of course there are other
reasons why I couldn't be a bike racer, but that's the one I like to
mention first. Col d'Ornon does not crest a ridge, but follows a long
valley, much like col Festre from the day before. Yet I could not think
of a more spectacular pass than this one. Just when you think that it
can't get any better, you look closely at the vertical crumbled walls,
and see villages sitting half ways up, villages that have roads to them,
villages that could theoretically be bicycled to. Maybe it can get even
more dizzying, vertigo defyingly spectacular. However I wasn't about to
find out. I was on a schedule now.
The reason I was on a schedule, at least for the next couple of days,
was this : A few telephone calls told me that I had an offer to visit
family friends, Hans and Ina in the Lago Maggiore region in Italy.
However, if I was still going to meet them there, I should be there
within 3 days. This way they would still be there. In order to shorten
my route, I made a trade in my deck of cards that represented all the
passes I wanted to bike. No, not really, just because old Dubiyah has to
make every arab he wants to kill a card in a deck, doesn't mean I have
to be equally gun slinging, obnoxiously arrogant. But I did make a
switch. I traded out "col croix de Fere" which I expected to
be as free of traffic as as the last two passes. I traded in a pass that
looks straight as an arrow on the map, but in reality resembles more a
squashed, twisted telephone cord, col du Lautaret. I thought it would be
somewhat inferior in pass cycling quality. It turned straight west on a
busy N road. At the top of this pass, perhaps the most famous Tour de
France pass joins the route, col du Galibier. It climbs another 2000
feet above Lautaret. I knew that pass from a ride 10 years earlier. This
time I would descend Lautaret without going over Galibier. I hoped 2000
feet less altitude than Galibier would be a comparatively moderate
Lautaret had a little more traffic than Ornon, a few more cars, and a
lot more racing bikes. Some cyclists branched off to the Alp d'Huez
climb, others entered vertical walls crowned by glaciers somewhere far
behind in the Ecrins mountains. Yet others rode up the pass like me. At
the base, Bourg d'Oisans was advertising ist major role as stage stop in
this years Tour de France, with discreet little flags flying between the
window shuttered gray 3 story buildings. And there was all that road
graffiti again, still left form last years tour. Lautaret is a
stair step canyon leading from a V shaped gorge, with a half dozen long
tunnels, to tundra above the treeline with glaciers blazing in the sun.
It would have been a major climb, if had started at the beginning of the
day. Starting it in the afternoon after surprise pass 1, and then
col d'Ornon, it turned out to be the longest day of my tour so far.
Lautaret was not only 2000 feet lower than Galibier. But it was also
2000 feet higher than the previous pass, d'Ornon.
There are enough passes in the western alps that any number of rides
through them are hardly likely to include any of the same passes. There
is one exception, a route that is often referred to as the "tour
d'haute alps". The route description is very succinct. Start at the
Mediterranean or somewhere near Chamonix. Ride as close to the Italian
border on French territory on paved roads to the other location. When I
rode this route 9 years earlier, I was convinced that it would forever
remain the most spectacular succession of passes on well
maintained smooth pavement I would have the pleasure of riding. This
time the passes were much lower, and now I think, at least as
scenically interesting. The lower pass approaches through narrow
canyons, add a variety of forms and shapes, fauna and flora, incised
canyons and tunnels, villages clinging to the cliffs or clustering
around a church tower in the valleys - a whole other side in addition to
the lunar landscape above treeline.
It just goes to show, whatever the most recent tour is in this area,
that's the one you like best, because it's what you can remember the
most vividly. We can't help but live in the present. So if you
ride over passes in the high western alps, you will be sure they are the
greatest bicycle passes around - I'm reasonably sure - and they
will probably be all different from the ones I mentioned. What is
beauty anyway, besides an image on the reverse of your cornia, an image
and feeling in your head, that only you have, without proof that it
resembles anything in other heads ? Okay, I'll stop now. Anyway, this
area deserves to have the most famous bike race in the world, even if it
were only to focus on the spectacular bicycling that is possible here.
At the end of a long, satisfying day I rolled into Briancon, at the
base of col du Lautaret. The town of Briancon has worn many hats during
its long life. The key to all this activity is its location. It is
located at the junction of two choice alpine valleys, the Durance and
the Guisane, as well as one of the oldest and most important passes into
Italy, col Mt Genevre. The Galls settled it. The Romans fortified it to
protect it. This road was important in holding the empire together. This
Roman artery lead from Milano over col Mt Genevre to the Lyons area. In
the middle ages, Briancon changed into the defensive capital of a loose
federation of mountain towns. Today the valleys of the Durance and
Guisane make Briancon a hub for ski and mountain resort traffic. Ski
valleys radiate out from here like spokes on a wheel. Other things
radiate out from here too, wilderness valleys, ridges to glaciers. Due
to this popularity Briancon is not really a town. It's a city, the
highest city in France.
Briancon has a whole series of castles perched on hills like bird's
nests. But they are not touristically exploited, they're not featured on
postcards, taken at night with the moon as background . You have to
climb past the RV parking lot up to the ruins, and you still can't get
across the moat to the city walls, at least I couldn't. It seems they
don't need the money from the castle entrance fees. Far above, more
walls surround a citadel, built by Vauban, a civil engineer under Louis
the fourteenth, who was to fortifications what the Beatles were to pop
music in the 60s. Apparently you can visit them, but only as part of an
organized tour. After all, the main business here is of a different
nature. This is a hub ski resort with yet more ski resorts stretching in
every imaginable direction.
There was one more alpine pass on the schedule before my lake
vacation. Col de Montgenevre crosses the mighty ridge forming the border
between Italy and France. I already mentioned the ski resorts along it,
and the Romans who pioneered the route. What else is there ? Let's see.
- It is also a stunning weather divide. Whatever the weather is on one
side, if it's windy you can count on the opposite weather on the other.
It's the ascending and descending wind phenomenon that's at work here.
In my case, descending French air made the mountains glow in the early
sunlight, fantastic light for taking pictures. Ascending Italian air
clad the villages in consistent haze that flattened all the mountains to
cut out shapes, more challenging light conditions.
I had one more day to get to Lago Maggiore. It would be a long ride,
the closest thing to a race yet. All those Tour de France reminders
lining the road put me in the right state of mind. I was looking forward
to an exhaustively satisfying day of riding, without the customary long
hotel search after it. When I woke up that morning, I already knew where
I could spend the next night. It was a luxury that I now appreciated
much more. All I had to do during the day was ride and eat, without
having to reserve energy for an unpredictable hotel search.
Everything during this day was a race, starting with breakfast.
Everything had to happen while the the sun was on its way from one
horizon to the other. The first task was to follow the Po river out of
Torino. Highways corkscrewed me in the wrong direction. But people
sent me back, in the right direction, adding a pleasant "bon viagio",
"pleasant journey" to their directions, expressed in rich sign
language. An advantage of a real bike race is that they clear the road
of cars, a luxury I didn't have. The heavy traffic had a numbing effect,
not only on me, on the drivers too. They sat motionless in their cars,
resigned to their confinement. In the beginning of the day, I rode far
to the right. As the day progressed, I was riding more towards the
middle of the lane. That was my way of becoming traffic numb. Being
passed by a car was the rule, not the exception. The time spent not
being passed was less than the time being passed. By the end of the day
I was under the impression, the whole area between Torino and Oggebio is
really really one big train, a train of cars, loosely coupled together
by invisible rubber bands that snap tight and loosen, only to snap tight
Another difference with a real bike race was that I did my own
grocery shopping - on my own time. Lance Armstrong has his personal
cook. I have my personal camping stove. I could save considerable time
by shopping quickly, shopping competitively. Selecting a store with a
short check out line was the most important criteria. But the traffic in
the supermarket check out lines was proportional to the traffic in
the road, and here passing was illegal.
My big break came when I found a Liddle grocery store, opening at 2
pm . Generally everything is shut tight for the afternoon, but under
European Union rules some changes have started to appear. In
bicycle racing, psychological factors often play a decisive role, and
this race was no different. A store, ready for business in the
afternoon, is something Italians are not accustomed to. I, on the other
hand, had experience with supermarkets that are not closed for the
afternoon siesta, and could use that to my advantage. While Italian
shoppers wandered around befuddled, not knowing what to think about
business at such an odd hour, I stormed through the yogurt,
bread and deli isles, opening a break between me and the pack. Even
before I could ask for Mortadella, I had built up a significant lead
over my shopping competitors. Relying upon the last resources of my
sprinting abilities, I leapt to the cash register, just as it was about
to open. In this last stage of the sprint, I was lacking good
competitive shopping form, as my cleats sounded like tap dancing on the
supermarket floor, and reverberated back from the cereal isle. As I paid
for my groceries an exited through the door, I felt like Eric Zabel, who
had just won the green tricot for the best 5 km sprint. While sleepy
Italians were still standing in line, I could be consuming already.
Maybe that's a little melodramatic. But the point is, I was in a hurry !
After that thrilling sprint I even had a few kilometers of good road,
road good to digest food on. The Po Valley on this June day was a hazy
windy plain, and without the help of a strong back wind, I would have
never made it that day. The lake came into view around 5 pm. I was
pretty sure now that I would make it to Oggebio before dark. But I was
exhausted. I couldn't think of any new curse words to describe the
traffic situation. That's how tired I was. It turned out to be 113 miles
since the beginning of the day, and the finish line was a gray wall
fronting a noble lake with small lettering saying "Via Ed.
Lago Maggiore has attracted holiday villas of the nobility for
hundreds of years. They live in villas, hidden behind the hedges along
the busy road. Other houses stand high up on the hills, to gaze out over
the hazy lake between the cypresses. The area has been landscaped by man
in every detail, parks with mediterranean plants that need the
moderating temperature found next to the lake, carefully crafted stone
staircases through the woods, fancy old villages of Bartholomeans,
Patricians and other nobility.
Today these are the vacation destinations of Europeans from hundreds
of kms away, who race to their retreats from all directions, through the
Gotthard tunnel from the North, on expressways from Milano and Torino
from the South, in order to gaze at the lake and its twinkling lights
after the sun has gone down. Here the condo ownership assemblies are
conducted in Italian and German. Owners are deeply involved in trying to
find out where the property management fees go, to the Mafia ? They want
to know the implications if the town wants to build a yacht harbour in
front of their villa complex. They have long debates about the placement
of hedges and plants on their balconies. Will they get enough
water ? They get into feuds with their neighbors on the plant placement.
Carefully manicured landscapes like this evolve only with major personal
Hans and Ina had made it their pride to restructure the interior of
this place into a modern living space. Say goodbye to the hedge, digging
its roots into the balcony walls. Welcome the potted plants
beautification project. Out came the wall between the kitchen and living
space. In went the hardwood kitchen furniture. Hans was very interested
in my tour also, and likened my satisfaction at the end of the day to
his own, after completing a renovation project. You can see you've done
something. He can usually sit on or under his accomplishment, while I
have to look on a map. But they're both physical work. In one case you
use your hands, while in my case the other two extremities play the
leading role. Then we settled into talking about people who we have all
known for years, but didn't know the other knew. That's what ties
together the families of friends of friends of families of friends of
friends. I may have forgotten one set of families or friends. After two
days of rediscovering that I could still produce complete sentences in
my first language, German, I had four days during which to explore the
area on bike by myself and water the plants in the evening, while Hans
and Ina returned from their vacation property to their home to the
A cynic might say that Lago Maggiore in June is just a big traffic
circle. Sometimes it seemed, like visitors and inhabitants alike, are
constantly driving on the single road around it, unless they're stuck in
a traffic jam on it, in which case they're standing on the single road
around it. Cause for the first 3 mile traffic jam I encountered, was a
car that had managed to roll over on its side, at a steep turnoff
from a hill town. But I also learned the advantages of this large
traffic circle around the lake, and that's the businesses located along
it. Supermarkets in Verbania and Stresa have a selection of products
that is larger than anything I have seen in the US, and at much lower
prices, using the 2003 Dollar Euro conversion. Weather you want to buy
the juiciest vegetables, the latest electronics or a car, there's an
establishment hiding behind a stately hotel, where you can do so. And of
course there's culture, all sorts of culture, even my kind of culture.
Billboards along the road advertised my favorite jazz musician
performing my favorite Jazz musician's Jazz music. even if it did happen
several months ago. I always thought this music was not widely
appreciated. Least of all did I expect to find it performed here, a
series of pieces called "across the wide Missouri sky" by Pat
Methany. But this music fit this elegant shore with its flowerpots on
columns, manicured gardens on island, just as well as the austere beauty
of a large sky with a few clouds.
To get away from all that traffic, even during high season like June,
all you have to do is turn off it. My favorite ride lead up the Canobina
valley. The road enters an incised v shaped canyon. The Piedmont map
shows villages Tafimina, Socraggio, Falmenta, Gurro and others directly
on the road. Reality has a third dimension, height, which the map lacks.
In reality these villages are rows of houses, perched high up on cliffs.
Each town is at the end of a series of switchbacks of a narrow band of
asphalt. A few cars drive up and down them, giving short blows of the
horn before each of the countless blind turn. Hardly any people visit
these perched towns . I was beginning to think that a bike with
suspension is totally superfluous in this area, because asphalt goes
everywhere, no matter how steep, no matter how narrow, through tunnels,
over a few feet wide path clinging to the rocks. That's when the
asphalt ended. A few miles above Gurro a smooth dirt path leads to yet
more smaller clusters of houses sheltering below a serrated edge of a
mountain. I didn't push much further. I wanted to keep the rear rim in
working order. But this would have made a great mountain bike ride.
Valleys radiating away from this lake offer climbing inducements by
the dozen. Wherever you are, if you're in the mood for a climb, look for
a manmade structure to your liking above. Look for a chapel above the
Valle Maggia, a steeple above the Canobina valley, or a whole village
far above Lago Maggiore. There are more chapels and hill villages around
here than anybody can count, and most all of them have paved paths to
them. Even 1:50000 hiking maps don't show all the clusters of houses
perched in unlikely locations. You just have to go see for yourself.
Once you've located a worthy goal in the hills, look for a nearby path
with a traffic sign limiting the weight of vehicles to 3 tons or less.
You won't be disappointed when it comes to the climbing workout. You may
be disappointed if you are expecting a high speed descend down the other
side. All of these are out and back rides, steep and curvy, really more
like a paved hiking path. You could never string these paths together
for a through going tour. All this makes you wonder about the viability
of bicycle touring in this area. The best biking here is of the
"out and back" variety, unless you want to ride around the
lake. When I returned to the lake I passed another traffic jam.
This time 2 buses had met in opposing direction at a turn. The road
clearly was not wide enough to accommodate both buses at the same time.
They hadn't figured out yet which one was going to back up for at least
a hundred feet or so. Somehow the 3 miles of traffic would have to find
a way to back up too.
If you are trying to extract factual information from my emotional
ramblings, let me add that my experience is limited to the 4 hottest
June days of one of the busiest summer weeks of the year, on the west
side of the lake.
Is it getting
hot in here, or is that just me ?
This part has nothing to do with bicycling. I needed a rest, the
weather was just too hot. If you are primarily interested in the route
description, you will want to skip ahead to the next section.
As somebody famous once said, his name escapes me, "wherever you
go, there you are". Consequently - there I was. It also
seems, that wherever you go, temperature records are being broken on a
yearly basis. Locarno reached 35 degrees c the first time this early in
the year, since 130 years. A milky blue haze enveloped the lake and its
villas. One day I bike climbed up the west side until the towns below
disappeared into the milky lake. After that I needed a few rest days. It
was too hot.
After the heat of the day had passed, Hans and Ina's favorite place
in Lago Maggiore was on the veranda on the roof. A place on the roof was
an important part of each residency. Up here, you could feel
oppressingly hot summer days change to comfortably warm nights. Then you
could watch the lights twinkle over the lake, enjoy a beer or a
glass of wine, and have a little talk with the neighbor on the other
side of the chrysanthemums. In the process, the placement of the
remaining roof plants would come up, and before long, that was the only
conversation topic - and an emotional one it was, owing to the pride of
ownership felt by each resident.
It was a beautiful spot up there. But after Hans and Ina left, I
found a spot I liked even better - in front of the TV. Before you call
me a brainwashed idiot, let me explain. I know many intelligent people
who have given up owning a TV, much less watching one. But you can learn
from your TV, especially a TV you have just met, or more appropriately a
foreign TV. Just like people in foreign countries tell you foreign
opinions, so do foreign TVs tell you foreign reports and viewpoints. My
positive history with television goes back to when I was 14, and it
taught me how to understand English. Before that, I had studied it in
school as a foreign language, even though the school would deny this,
and I had my doubts too. But after sitting in front of an American TV
for three days, I could figure out where sentences started and ended,
then even where words started and ended. Before too long I would get
hints about the meanings of these words and sentences, and soon after I
understood phrases like "send check to", "void where
prohibited by law" and "call toll free now".
The TV in Hans and Ina's Lago Maggiore property was connected to a
small single satellite dish and received at least 20 or 30 stations in
many languages. Roughly a little more than half were publicly funded.
But private channels broadcast publicly over satellites, just like the
public channels. It's a paradox, that here you can receive CNN, in
addition to several 24 hour European news stations - for free - while
Americans have to shell out substantial amounts to their cable or
satellite companies for just part of the service from US corporations.
This Lago Maggiore TV was multicultural, so to speak. It could talk
American, then Italian, then Austrian, English, Swiss, Plattdeutch and
Bavarian. Every province of Austria, Switzerland and Germany offered its
own independent coverage of world events.
After channel surfing for a couple of days, a few stark differences
in the news coverage became obvious. The time was the middle of the Iraq
invasion. CNN interviewed heads who expected American victory parades
amidst cheering Iraqis. On the other side, non American news stories
reported about deaths, Iraqi citizens and US soldiers, and speculated on
the large difficulties, that lay ahead for the region.
That was not the only fundamental difference in opinion between the
two worlds, at least as far as portrayed by the media. This one regards
what the weather is going to be like a hundred years from now. A global
rise in temperature is reported as a widely accepted fact, on non US
media. Scientific evidence is said to be "overwhelming".
Extreme climatic events, such as the heat wave I was currently in, are
tied into indirect association with this. Contrast this with what Mister
Dan Rather said just a week ago (Nov/2003), on his American CBS Evening
news : "A large part of the polar ice cap has melted. - Why,
remains a big mystery". Dan Rather and the entire corporation of
CBS news are so baffled by the fact that polar ice has melted, that they
can't even manage a question regarding the reason. For them it's a
"mystery", and mysteries remain mysteriously unanswered.
Otherwise they wouldn't be a mystery anymore.
The media happen to be in accord with their respective governments.
The Kyoto agreement may be nothing but a recognition of the problem, one
that tries to do something about global warming, without substantially
achieving anything. But it is a recognition that the world has a
problem. The only major countries that are not signing it are the Soviet
Union, Australia and the US (Nov/2003). The Bush regime maintains that
more study is necessary before it knows, that it is indeed getting
warmer in here. Dan Rather and Dubiyah Bush are of one mind.
Those are the two major different viewpoints my TV told me about. But
here's the clincher. When English SkyNews criticized Bush war policy in
Iraq, Norman Mailer was talking. You remember him ! He is an American
author. When connections between the Bush government and the gun
industry was the topic, Michael Moore was the guest. You've heard of
this Michael Moore - the American director who produced the most popular
documentary ever, measured in terms of movie ticket sales. The film is
about the the Columbine Massacre, the American gun industry and its
connections with Bush. "Bowling for Columbine" is a smash hit
in cities all over the continent, not a cult hit - a popular hit.
American SUVs have been criticized for being environmentally
irresponsible, and a profit windfall for automobile companies. An
American organization has tried to purchase commercial time on
television with that message (even though I can't remember its name
right now). All major US networks refused to carry the anti SUV
commercial. The source for this is information is also
"foreign". American networks refused to accept money for a
paid message, even though they would have been paid at the same rate as
by the SUV manufacturers - on a per minute basis. If this is a free
country, whose freedom is it ? Corporations pay for many more minutes of
commercials than this anti-SUV organization does. It's corporate
freedom. All dollars are created equal, and if you pay more you get
As of November 2003, the pentagon restricts media access to Iraqi war
wounded to those soldiers that have a "good attitude". A sick
humor qualifies as good attitude, like when a soldier commented
cheerfully that his leg was reported awol. Military personal like the
ones that came back from Vietnam are nowhere to be seen on US media. The
pentagon makes sure of that. Again, the source for this is
So, why can't you hear these Americans on US media ? Instead US media
tells me that Rush Limbaugh hates the world and is high on drugs. The
weather channel tells me that tomorrow it's going to be 25 degrees
warmer than average in Cutbank Montana, and that the network's official
policy statement is that "more study has to take place before it
can be said that the earth's temperature is warming up". It
tells me that Santa Claus just left the North Pole, and to ask my doctor
if a drug called Celebrex could do something for me.
Of course it's not completely one sided. The other day CNN even
interviewed Michael Moore for the first time, about a year after his
documentary became the most seen documentary ever. But what do you
expect ? Compared with other US news corporations, CNN is still
considered "left wing", as FOX viewers and AM listeners will
testify. AM right wing hate radio has given a whole new dimension to the
idea "screaming, out of control idiot". FOX news shows
have raised propaganda to a whole new level, never achieved by Radio
Moscow. When Americans are killed in Iraq, FOX shows "movie
tone" news reels from the 1940s, post WW2 pictures of chaos,
brought under controls by victorious Americans. FOX viewers are lead to
believe that Saddam Hussein is "just like" Mussolini. They are
lead to believe that Iraqis shooting at American soldiers is "just
like" post WW2 europeans rioting for food supplies. FOX television
gives new meaning to the plea "just the facts, please".
They preface each news show with the line "FOX news, always fair
and balanced". The concept that this will convince the viewer is
the same concept that somebody will buy something he doesn't want, just
because his TV tells him to. It's the same reason why advertising works,
on some people anyway. The concept is that repetition convinces, not
reasoning. The FOX corporation rents your ears, and hopes you aren't
paying any attention, so that you'll repeat everything it tells you.
They hope that over the years you have heard enough commercials that you
have learned to obey them. Nowhere else in the world are viewers as
conditioned by commercials as in the US.
It's interesting to note, that demagogues like Rush Limbaugh owe
their "freedom of expression" to an earlier republican, Mr.
Reagan. Before President Reagan signed a bill, political AM radio talk
shows would have been obliged to provide an "equal amount of
time", for "opposing viewpoints", a concept that has
disappeared from the AM air waves completely, and is on its way out in
other media markets. The "Great Communicator", as Reagan is
known, is partly responsible for the sad state of communication today.
But the source for the facts behind this last piece of information is
not "foreign". It comes out of the US, the public broadcast
service, or PBS. Just like there are a few celebrated individuals left
that have not become absorbed by corporate induced mainstream stupidity,
there is still one news organization left in the US that represents a
balanced view, and that is PBS, and specifically a program called
"democracy now". Paradoxically PBS is organized much more
along the lines of a "free station", that was broadcasting to
my Lago Maggiore TV. It's at least partially publicly funded, and not
exclusively dependent on corporate commercial sponsorship. The program
"Democracy Now" is crowded out of large markets, like Denver.
Even the predominant PBS station in Denver, KCFR, which broadcasts news
24 hours a day, does not carry it. But you can hear it on small
stations, like KUNC north of there, or KDNK west of there. If you are
looking for fair news coverage in the US, you have to dial hard. But
it's there, in between the screaming idiots.
US corporate media has been at its best when its government has been
at its foulest in domestic terms. Just take Nixon and his various break
ins for example. Without media investigations he would have remained
president. But when it comes to international affairs, public interest
has always been lacking to economically justify good reporting for
corporate media. Mr. Q. Public just isn't that interested. They can't
risk jeopardizing corporate sponsors in order to shed some light on what
the US role was in overthrowing the Alleende regime in Chile, or if they
do nobody cares. Corporate media never tried to shed light the reasons
for Reagan's support of right wing rebels in various South American
countries. If they have, it has not receiced much attention. They don't
hang on to the fact that Dubiyah told Americans he would go to war to
destroy weapons of mass destruction, when there aren't any. Support
independent public radio, since the government won't, or listen to short
wave radio ! Getting a government that supports free media financially
would be the best solution. But there is little hope of that.
the braids of
Sankt Gotthard Pass
A few days of rest were just what the doctor ordered. And for our
next trick, we will perform a second south to north crossing of the
alps, without ever having crossed them from north to south. A look at
the map will corroborate this statement. But the explanation lies not in
the 4th spatial dimension, but this : The alps are a sort of horse shoe
shaped structure. When you ride north with an easterly component, you
manage to traverse the horseshoe twice with a straight line.
Much of this narrative has been about finding small roads to bike on.
This time I picked the biggest red line splotch on the map, the most
prominent north south axis of traffic through Switzerland, an old
historic crossing that accommodates strands of traffic like a braided
rope, the Sankt Gotthard pass route. Cycling over Sankt Gotthard can be
an emotional experience, if you can get excited about things like
riding a bicycle over a pass in the first place. But if you've read this
far down, you probably can. What makes the whole thing so different than
most bicycle pass routes, are the various braids of traffic, and how the
bicycle switches between them. Seen as a whole it's perfect as a bike
route, except for a few places, which I will point out.
We'll proceed in orderly fashion, from south to north. One can think
of the north end of Lago Maggiore, where the Swiss town of Locarno is
located, as the very beginning of the southern approach to the pass.
After about 10 miles you can bid farewell to the stream of cars, which
from here on prefers the expressway. This newer road is usually high up
on stilts, unless it's hiding in a tunnel somewhere. Other traffic
engineering is even more interesting, the track kind.
So for one paragraph, let me take off my complimentary Campagnolo
cap, I guess these days I should say, my 150$ aerodynamic cycling
helmet, and put on my railroad cap. An engine with its 20 flatbed cars
passed below a bridge I was standing on. Two minutes later another one
emerged from a tunnel 100 meter above, in order to cross the valley on a
modern bridge, 20 flat bed cars behind an Re 4/4. Surprise - it was the
same train. Yet 20 seconds later, another train, okay, I'll cut to the
chase, the same train, yet further up, this time crossing a bridge below
the expressway, which itself burrowed into a tunnel like a ray.
The trains were circling themselves ever upward at incredible rates. My
own traffic free sideroad required several switchbacks, to get to the
next vantage point on the tunnel. The same spectacle was repeated again
later. The rail line does several complete 360 degree circles to gain
altitude, mostly in tunnels.
Airolo (1175m) is the town where the real pass road starts. The next
morning I was ready for it. One day and about 70 miles had passed since
I left Lago Maggiore. Here the automobile traffic disappears into a long
tunnel below knots of flyover roadways. The train route also
prefers to go through the mountain. But if supposedly, all of the car
and train traffic goes through the 15 km tunnel, why were these masses
of cars al of a sudden appearing next to me, just when the switchbacks
started, and the road climbed above treeline. I thought the tunnel had
been blocked with one of its famous catastrophic accidents. Apparently
everybody was here to seek the peace and isolation of the mountains. But
there was more to it. In the myriad of trails, snow sheds and roadways I
saw yet another narrow road. Its switchbacks were cemented to the
mountain side with brick walls . It was narrow and cobblestoned,
reaching ever upwards - and it had bicycle traffic on it. I soon found a
connecting path to it. A fellow cyclist told me that it indeed went to
the top of Sank Gotthard. When we reached a barricade, he assured me
that this didn't represent a problem. It was there to keep the cars and
motorcycles out. We were now on the former Sankt Gotthard road, a
completely different engineering venture than the later routes. These
are short switchbacks, turns following one another very closely, perfect
as a bike path, even if it is partially cobblestoned. From the bottom
you can see all the switchbacks stacked on top of one another, tightly
packed together almost like a newly packaged shoelace that's just
slightly undone. From the top the same description applies, but the view
is even better, since you just negotiated each turn of the shoelace,
propelled solely by muesli power.
On top of the pass (2108m), the various traffic braids that decided
to go over the mountain meet. The result is a lot of noise, a big
parking lot, a Cafeteria, people who seem to be transported here from
the city centers, complete with their mascara, out of place handbags and
high heeled shoes. A museum and a bookstore concentrate on the role of
this pass as a location for a hospice, and have little if any
information on the complex traffic engineering that has taken place on
this route to this day.
The separate bicycle route also goes partially down the north
side. But here it contains a few dirt sections. Since, generally
speaking , a dramatic difference in speed can be achieved with a
bicycle, on the downhill portion, I elected to share it with the cars.
The first part of the decent is scenically similar to other central
alpine passes. The alps here are crystalline hard rock. The faces are
less vertical than in the western limestone alps. A few kms past
Antermatt (1447m) the southern decent enters the Schollenen Gorge, the
section of the route that historically has been the most difficult to
construct a road on. The Hoellenbruecke (hell bridge) is an adventurous
remnant of an earlier road construction. You can cross it on a bicycle,
but this time it won't contribute much to the goal of actually getting
down the gorge. Cycling here requires strong nerves, at least it did on
this busy summer weekend. This is one stretch, where cycling with new
age music on the walkman to relax doesn't completely do the job. The
valley becomes so confined, that it can only fit one single narrow 2
lane road. I was chased through a tunnel, whirled across a bridge with
glimpses of Goessenen and glacier capped peaks behind it. The road
shoots through a snow shed only to dump you out on the top of a toilet
bowl shaped landform, switchbacks descending into the depths. It only
seemed right that all the cars should descend into this large toilet
bowl, never to emerge again. But I had to go down there too. Actually it
was all very thrilling. Of course, this being Switzerland, there were
many cyclists on the road, traffic or no traffic. At one point I had
counted just about 50 percent women cyclists. Then I knew, beyond the
shadow of doubt, that Switzerland was the most advanced civilization I
had cycled through.
The very bottom of the northern approach to the pass can be placed
near Altdorf. There, or a little up the pass, you can also find evidence
of the latest traffic engineering battle on this route, the Gotthard
Basis Tunnel, a huge project that will will take many years to complete.
Not far from the rail yard of tunneling machinery stands a museum
locomotive from early Gotthard rail crossing days, an old
"crocodile", an electrical locomotive that uses mechanical
means of power transfer between the engine and the axles, the way steam
Altdorf almost touches another lake, the northern counterpart to Lago
Maggiore on this route, Urner Lake. With so much excitement in one day,
it hardly registered when I arrived at a lake, ringed by glacier capped
peaks, amongst other things. The other things were rail lines, villages,
bike paths, and more braided paths of traffic engineering. That
night in Sisikon, on Urner Lake, I dreamt of traffic - braided traffic.
I dreamt of bike paths doing circus tricks, like entering a mountain and
spiraling upwards to emerge 100m higher on a bridge, like I had seen the
trains, or propelling the cyclist through spirals like a roller
coaster ride. The complex traffic engineering wasn't over yet. It was
still at its high point. The next morning I retraced my route along the
lake to appreciate it more fully.
The cyclist on the western edge of Urner Lake encounters his own
private tunnel bore holes, tunnels that contain bike paths without car
traffic. Some tunnels are relatively dark, except for a few
strategically placed lights. Others have majestic windows hewn into the
rock, from which you can gaze in amazement at the opposite vertical
shore. Again these are the remnants of earlier road constructions. At
other times, the bike route follows the present road tunnel bore hole.
Here the bike path is usually raised above the car traffic, the same way
a sidewalk is raised above the street. This gives the cyclist added
security. You also ride through show shed overhangs, some elegantly
cantilevered against the mountain, others tilted up on a round columns
with a planted forest on top. A heavily used train line comes in and out
of view below on the same shore.
The bike path along the Urnersee is an exercise in transportation
engineering. It's a suite for bike path and mountain. It's not the kind
of path that athletically steps over the mountain, but an elegant path
whose smooth surface slices through the mountain. It's a concerto for
automobile engines and motorcycle revving noises. The moments of silence
between the movements are rather short. Unfortunately my appreciation of
the civil engineering marvels was clouded by a nasty leaky tube, and a
pump that only seemed to function marginally. But I did finally persuade
the tube to hold some more air in it.
Urner Lake is only one arm of a larger lake with two arms and two
legs, Vierwaldtstaettersee (or Vierwaldtstaetter-Lake). My route
continued with a bend of the Vierwaldtstaettersee to mere hills instead
of peaks, while most of the traffic continued along a different route to
Zurich. Here the biking became merely pleasant and relaxing. Here the
path didn't have to drill through holes in the mountain and jump across
deep canyons any more.
paradise meets corporate tax paradise
From Vierwaldtstaettersee it was only a handful of miles to the next
lake, Zuger See. Here you are already out of the rugged splendor of the
alps and surrounded by pleasant, lower hills. Still, the abundance of
bike paths made this seem like the promised land. You would think the
entire country was out on bicycles, just roaming around. There were
racing men in shorts, and men in creased pants on their way to a bench
to read the paper. There were women with baskets on the back, and sleek
racing girls passing them. Young children rode bikes of all imaginable
wheel sizes, accompanied by their parents or out on their own adventure.
Some couples rode mountain bikes. One couple rode a side by side tandem,
towing a trailer. From the mundane to the exotic, from young to old,
cheap to expensive, it was all here. The entire crossection of the
population was represented by cyclists. The grounds were covered by a
uniform concentration of them, moving around in all imaginable
directions like random brownian motion, yet guided by little red signs
with bicycles on them, pointing to all corners of the universe.
At the southern end of the lake, in Cham, a stationary bus served as
free bicycle renting agency. All you had to do was leave an id, and a
bicycle was given to you free of charge for the day, courtesy of the
town of Cham. If for some reason you didn't manage to bring it back the
same day, you were asked to pay 5 euros. Cham can probably afford this.
This region of Switzerland is the most famous Swiss tax haven. Corporate
headquarters housed in unmarked condos line the lake. The only evidence
of their presence is the wealth generated here, instead of where they do
business. Still, isn't it nice that they invest a little of their tax
income in a great bicycle trail network, instead of adding a dozen lanes
to the expressway ?
One cyclist on Zuger Lake was as generous with her time, as Cham was
with its bicycle rentals. Catching up with a random rider who just
happened to be closest to me, I asked her how I might get to Otterbach.
The last collection of signs, a veritable tree of pointy bicycle
markers, but none contained that name. - So many sings, still none of
them said "Otterbach". She indicated we were heading in that
direction. She rode an old rusty bike with worn tires. The bike could
have rusted while standing in a garage. The tires could only have been
that worn by riding on them. She pedaled the old bike with cleats and
leather cycling shoes. Except for cycling shorts, she wore regular
street clothing. When asked if she biked a lot, she showed off the back
of her hands which were burned.
From her I learned a little more about the mountain biking, back
there at that other lake, the one only 10 km distant, yet looking so
different, Urner See surrounded by its glaciated peaks. She told me
about her mountain bike ride around it, on the trail of Switzerland.
Apparently it is quite nice, except for about 900 steps at one point. At
that point a cycling map indicates. "some steps" and suggests
the upward direction. Carrying your bike up 900 steps is apparently
deemed preferable to riding down them, according to Swiss mountain
We had ridden about 15 miles to my turnoff to Otterbach. When we got
there, she decided to show me another 5 miles of the route in that
direction, because it was Sunday, her husband was at work anyway, and
she wanted to ride some more. Call me crazy, but this is what I picture
paradise to be like. You don't even need a bicycle club. The world is
one big bicycle club.
Time for the statistics again. After exiting France, I spent another
10 days in the alps. Of the 450 miles accumulated during that time,
about 250 belong to day rides from Lago Maggiore.