Tuesday, September 13, 2016

2016 Tour of the Alps: Hotel Tiefenbach to Grono

Sweat poured down my face, off my chin, and onto my Garmin Edge in huge drops. They would evaporate and leave white stains all over the GPS unit, but as soon as one evaporated another would come down to take its place. At last, I saw the object of my desire: "A water fountain! And it's even under shade!" I cried. We stopped and I put my head under the faucet and rinsed my salt-stained face. I looked at the temperature on my Garmin Edge. 39C. 102F. I was cooked. I looked at the faces of my companions. They didn't look any better.

The day had started beautifully. The descent of Furka pass in the morning was, as predicted, easy and mostly traffic free. The flat section between Realp and Hospental was also windless.
It was so cool that we didn't even need to stop for water at the restaurant at the bottom of the Gotthard pass to refill. The night before, we'd looked at both the maps and the weather forecast. On the one had, we could take the high route: Oberalp pass, Tiefencastel, Albula pass. We had done that in the 2014 tour and it was gorgeous. The alternative was the 2011 route: St. Gotthard and San Bernardino. The nice thing about the 2011 route was that it offered me an opportunity to ride Splurgen and Maloja pass, both of which I had never ridden before. "Why did we go the high route last time?" "It was going to be raining on the St. Gotthard side last time." This time, the weather forecast was about the same on both sides (just a couple of degrees difference). Nevertheless, Arturo had never ridden the St. Gotthard pass, so the southern route won out. But I was about to find out first hand how unreliable the forecast could be, and that the Chur side gave you plenty of options as to the elevation of the lodging while the Bellinzona side had a long approach that denied you a chance to sleep high.
It was a Saturday, and we got a huge reminder when car after car went past the intersection where the St. Gotthard road started. We waited for the bulk of the traffic to pass, but there was still a lot of traffic passing us as we rode up the mountain. It was sufficiently annoying that by the time we got to the intersection where the old road cobblestone road went up to the right while the new, faster road went through a long gallery on the left that there wasn't much of a debate: "The old road will have better scenery anyway!" declared Arturo.
It was my first time on the cobbles, and it was surprisingly pleasant. First of all, climbing on cobbles isn't nearly as uncomfortable as descending on them would be, since speeds were much lower. After 10 minutes, Pengtoh declared he loved cobbles: "You guys will actually slow down so I can keep up with you!" Soon enough, we reached the summit.
At the top of the pass, Arturo thought about visiting the museum, but I looked at the weather and noted that it was going to get hot in the valley. So we started the descent right after the summit picture. The Gotthard descent on the Airolo side is a video-game like affair: a tunnel, followed by galleries, followed by a flying hairpin. Now, my 2010 descent of St. Gotthard was particularly fast, since I was on a tandem. Doing it on a single felt slow by comparison. Nevertheless, it's still thrilling. At about 1000m, there was an intersection where the car road (with a "cars only sign" clearly marked) split off with the official bike route. From past experience, however, I knew that the bike route sucked, and so at that intersection directed both Arturo and Pengtoh down the equivalent of a freeway. Despite the fact that we were obviously breaking the law, none of the car drivers gave us a hard time about using that road --- it was one of the few place in Switzerland where the law was flouted more often than observed.
From Airolo, it was a straight shot descent down along the main road. The traffic along the main road got annoying quickly, but we found the bike path which then took us off the main road and allowed us an easy rolling descent into Biasca, where we found supermarkets, bought a picnic lunch, and then had lunch next to the bike path under some shade. It was already getting very warm, near 80F. We ate lunch and used our smart phones to look for lodging. We didn't want to stay in Bellinzona if we could help it --- the low elevation guaranteed heat, and hotels with air conditioning were not in our budget. Up the valley was our best bet --- the mountains would shield the valley villages from the afternoon sun, so those would cool down first, giving us a good night's sleep, even if daytime hours were going to be hot.
Booking.com turned up a Kathy's Bed&Breakfast in Grono. The reviews were fantastic, and ti was far enough away from Bellinzona that it wouldn't be in the city proper. We knew that there was no problem getting to Grono in time to checkin, but there was a risk of arriving too early. Fortunately, neither Pengtoh nor Arturo had been in Bellinzona before, and it had 3 castles, which meant plenty to see.
Nevertheless, by the time we reached the outskirts of Bellinzona, we were all cooked. "This is even hotter than Singapore!" I said. "It's not as humid," responded Pengtoh with a smile. This was his training weather, and he was finally in his element. He'd even brought arm coolers, while I'd foolishly left mine at home, since I found that they'd only worked for me when I was moving fast enough to evaporate sweat, which didn't happen when climbing. Well, today I wasn't climbing and was sweating profusely.

We stopped for ice cream, but the blast furnace that greeted us when we exited the shop was unwelcomed. Well, I'd promised castles, and so had Arturo lead us to the main castle in town, where we walked along, visiting as many shady places as possible. Even the elevator shaft with no views was preferred to being out in the sun.
At 5:00pm, we left the castle for Grono, and were now only riding into an oven instead of a blast furnace. As we left Bellinzona, however, we could feel the air cool down significantly as we entered the shadows of the mountain. In Grono, we were a little perplexed by where the town was, but Kathy was waiting outside her B&B and spotted us as soon as we rode into her sight!
Dinner was at the pizza restaurant 100m walk away. The pizza was excellent, and Kathy demonstrated why she had a near perfect set of reviews on booking.com. She not only made reservations for us, but also agreed to prepare breakfast for us the next morning at 6:30am! She didn't need much convincing, clucking sympathetically once we showed her the picture of me cooling my head in the water fountain earlier that day. We did not want a repeat experience of cycling in a blast furnace the next day!

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