Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2016 Tour of the Alps: Thoughts

This year marked my 7th tour of the Alps. There's no sign that I weary of the European mountain roads and their amazing facilities that enable you to ride with a minimum load, eat well, and sleep with a roof over your head every night. Further more, on every trip I discover new roads, or new ways of getting over passes I'd done previously.

Cycling is an amazing sport: if you tried the same level of effort when backpacking or running, most likely you'd be too sore to continue the next day. But because cycling is gentle on your joints, you can expect to get stronger over the tour, provided you eat and sleep well. Over the years, here are a few tips I've learned:

  • In the mountains, winds build over the course of the day. If you're facing a stiff headwind at the end of the day, don't bother fighting it. Find a place to stay, and in the morning the wind will be gone. There's no point fighting mother nature --- you won't win, and there's no point even if you did those extra miles.
  • Weather should determine your route. Last time, we did the northern route to Chur because of rain in the southern route. This time, we should have kept the northern route to avoid the extreme heat. Now, I don't regret finally getting to ride Splurgen and Maloja pass, but boy, those hours in the heat were not fun at all!
  • AirBnB is viable if you can plan a head a day or two. It's not viable, however, in the touristy areas in the Alps, and only more viable in populated cities. As such, while I endorse AirBnB and use it a lot, the rest of the time you're better off with or in Europe.
  • Surprisingly, gives you the same or better price than just showing up at a hotel. I don't know why that is, so in general, it's better to use When a hotel owner quotes you a more expensive price than, don't hesitate to point it out --- they'll give you a discount, and both of you save the cost of the commission.
  • I'm not sure I'd start a tour from Frankfurt again. The train transfers were painful, and the ride back was only OK. Zurich is still the best starting point for the Tour of the Alps, though Geneva is probably also very good. But the reason to start from Zurich (or thereabouts) is Rosenlaui: I book Rosenlaui at the start of the tour because it's a destination worth planning ahead for. But while the start of the tour is fairly predictable, the end of the tour isn't (where I ended up riding during the last 2 days of the tour was nowhere near what I would have predicted!), and so if Rosenlaui is a must-visit (and believe me, it is!), then Zurich ends up being the place you start your tour in.
  • Don't mix up your feet and meters when telling your friends about the expected elevation gain on the trip. It's funny after the fact, but during the ride it's not funny at all.
  • In countries where train transfers are cheap, feel free to use them to skip flat boring parts or headwind. In expensive countries (e.g., Switzerland), you have to ration those transfers. Keep in mind that usually trains save you only 50% of the time you'd otherwise spend riding, so the real cost is the opportunity cost of riding the train when you could be riding the bike.
  • There's a risk in writing a tour report like this in over-dramatizing the difficulty and level of challenge on an independent cycle tour. Yes, we had tough challenging days, but remember that we chose those tough challenging days. I've had people come up to me and say, "I'm in no way ready for one of your tours." After talking to them I discover they've done a challenging ride like the full 100 mile Sequoia century. If you can do the Sequoia century, you can do this ride! And if you can't, do your own independent tour --- when you determine where you go, where you stop, and when you stop, the days can be as hard or as easy as you like. Yes, my days got longer when I was on my own, because I like to ride a lot. But the flip side of it is this: any time you feel like stopping on a tour, you can! It's fun, not tedious, boring, or hellish. My idea of a hellish ride is one in which I have to do a ride because someone else said so, or because someone wrote it down without knowledge of the conditions I'd' be facing. On a tour like the ones I advocate, you'd never be placed in that situation.
But most of all, there's no place like the Alps. If my photos look pretty, keep this in mind: in no way can they be compared to actually being there. You need to go. Stop making excuses. Go.

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