Home, James

the Alps : parts of France, Italy and Switzerland

toux Ventoux or not toux Ventoux, that is here the question
Just a few French alpine passes 
Biko Maggiore
Is it getting hot in here, or is that just me ?
the braids of Sankt Gotthard Pass
Cycling paradise meets corporate tax paradise
Signs of the Tour de France are everywhere
There are so many great passes in the alps, it's hard to pick between them
a few observations about the weather
Can a pass be a great cycling route and a major traffic artery : Yes ! Case in point: Sankt Gotthard Pass
Switzerland - Velo Country, full of velos and veloists

toux Ventoux 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

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 east.

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 to Valbonnais.

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 climb.

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.

Biko Maggiore

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 again..

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. 53".

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 involvement.

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 north.


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 more.

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 "foreign".

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 engines did.

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.

Cycling 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 biking maps.

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.

Home, James


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