Counting Switchbacks – a Mind Game for Cycling Over the Alps
On our journey from Amsterdam to Venice we must cross the Alps. Of course we choose the lowest pass, but even the lowest pass is a demanding climb.. on tandems pulling trailers. But there is a mental trick to conquering this ascent; counting switchbacks.
“Number seven. Number seven. Over to number seven, ” Matthew shouts. It’s only minutes since we passed number eight, and yet, forever. Since then the lactic acid in my legs has burnt faster than a Sunday footballer with every sluggish revolution. I feel like a sweaty bloke as I use my T shirt to wipe the sweat from my forehead. It runs into my eyes, stinging like an insect. I mop it with baby wipes and the chemicals in them sting some more. Several flies have tried to land on my skin and each attempt to swat them wobbles the bike. Adrenaline mixes with sheer determination as blood pumps fast around my heart. My arms tense as fingers try to grip on to slippery handlebars. Bloody hills.
A late start
We deliberately began the climb through the mountains late in the day as the weather was so hot. But we spent the morning getting into position, pushing up sun coated hills and pined plains. A final leg up to the town of Pfutz had us cycling in the midday sun up a steep hill, the kids primed for a swim in the open air swimming pool. But it was over too soon. It was time to make for the border.
The climb wasn’t so brutal at first. Fifteen kilometres of gentle hills took us into Switzerland. Empty winding shady roads, and long spooky avalanche tunnels made cycling a pleasure. In the settlement of Martine, four officials stood outside their border post and wished us a good evening. I wondered what they did with their time now apart from watching cyclists go by. A kiosk offering money changing lay abandoned, a memory of past customs. We crossed another line, back into Austria. No one marked it; we hardly noticed it.
Metre by metre
And then, a sharp left and the real match began. Us against the mountain. Two puny cyclists up against a giant. After two hundred metres of climb I panicked; Matthew and I couldn’t sustain this level of effort over the next three hours in the evening sun. We would burnout, crash down, noses in the dust. Ninety kilos of weight pulling us back down the hill. This load should need an HGV licence. And then, the voice of reason and experience.
“The switchbacks are numbered” said Stuart. “Stop and count them as you pass. Or pause every fifty metres of climb for a rest.”
We threw away the milometre; distance no longer of importance, and concentrated on the altimetre. Metre by metre, switchback by switchback, we worked our way around an Alp. Matt and I had a game. He had the instrumentation and I had to guess our height. I lost 18-4. In my head it was always higher. In between guesses, I could hear the sounds of cicadas, the squeak of handlebars, my own breath, and Matt humming the Star Wars theme. Each breath forcing my body to push onwards and upwards, through pockets of humidity and pine.
Countdown to the summit
“Come on, come on. Number one. That was the last switchback. Yay!” Burning legs, slipping fingers, hot tyres crawling up the road. Then up and over. It’s suddenly dark. There’s a hotel, but it seems inappropriate somehow. We spot a football pitch, and make for it in the twilight. The tent goes up faster than we did, next to the pitch. I lie awake, thirsty, adrenaline still pumping, thinking of switchbacks and passes, and the goal we just achieved, me and my eight year old son, on an Austrian mountain in the fading light.
“It was just a hill, stupid,” I whisper into his ear.
But he’s tipped downhill into a deep sleep.