Vienna to Menton: Climbing is not a crime
A transalpine adventure to escape confinement...
We are not all “connected cyclists”. Watts, data, virtual rides, that stuff just doesn't do it for everyone. During confinement, we lost the wind in our face, we missed the morning drizzle, the pleasure of riding together and sharing an espresso before going home.
We were worried about the people living in the town, locked between four walls, with a view of only the building opposite. But the truth is, we mountain people had no more access to our beautiful playground than anyone else.
Confinement reminded me of my urban roots. I grew up in the city, at a time when skateboarding was prohibited. Back then we had the same problem, we could look at our favourite toys, but we couldn't use them.
“Skateboarding is not a crime”
Perhaps you know that slogan created by a popular American brand? Well, twenty years later, I made it my own, but this time it’s all about the bike. During confinement I watched hours of bikepacking videos, The Great Divide, all of the Morton brothers films… just like back then with the videos of my skating idols.
And then this idea came to me.
“What if, once released from confinement, I went to discover the Alps by bike? The Alps, the real Alps, from Austria to the Mediterranean… from Vienna to Menton via Italy, Switzerland and ending on more familiar French roads."
Having grown up in the North of France, a region famous for its cobblestones, I have always been dying to go and see what is happening beyond our borders, to climb the dreamy mountain passes of our neighbours. This project would allow me to answer a question which has nagged me for a long time…
What is a climber? Why do we climb?
In front of my computer, I studied the Alps and traced a long deconfinement exit route, and so it was born: "climbing is not a crime".
I made a few simple rules:
- Do not put myself in danger
- Ride without assistance
- Do not shorten or simplify my route
- Use a bivvy bag as much as the weather allows it
I divided the route into stages, incorporating detours to see the big cols and to try and understand what attracts me so much about this practice.
Austria : Vienna – Klagenfurt – Zell am See – Lienz
Italy : Villabassa – Cortina d’Ampezzo – Val Gardena – Bolzano – Stelvio – Bormio – Livigno
Switzerland : Saint Moritz – Coire – Bellinzona – Andermatt – Interlaken – Château d’Oex
France : Châtel – La Clusaz – Bourg Saint Maurice – Briançon – Vars – Isola – Menton
Bike : Look 765 gravel RS
Wheels : Corima
Pedals : Look X Track-en-rage Plus
Groupset : Shimano GRX
Clothing : KATUSHA Icon collection for comfort and endurance
LE GRAND DÉPART
7am, the adventure begins from Geneva, Switzerland. I load my Look 765 gravel RS onto the train, this bike has been tailor-made for my project. A GRX groupset to be able to grind when the terrain demands it, light, robust Corima wheels, wide tires to pass on the road or on the trail, with panniers allowing me to live two weeks in complete autonomy.
I change trains in Zurich and walk along the lake. It's barely noon but getting to the start point of my trip seems to be taking forever, this journey is eating at my brain.
I cant close my eyes. I can't rest. I can't even digest. The stress pumps me full of energy.
Initially, I had planned to leave Vienna the next day, but I'm just not in the frame of mind to stroll and see the sights. So I get on my bike and leave the capital as soon as I arrive at the station at 6pm.
The first kilometres are a succession of major roads through the city. It's hectic. But luck is on my side: I meet a French cyclist and she helps me to quickly get out of there. We separate and I join a long national road, straight and flat. The night falls quickly and I decide to take my first meal at a gas station, sitting at the foot of a pump.
NIGHT OF 12 JUNE.
It's midnight. I've summited my first col and I'm in Semmering, a familiar station to any biathletes and cross-country skiers that might be reading this. The temperature is mild and I feel lightweight. My equipment is in good order, I have already found my rhythm. I ride for about three hours before spending a short night on a bench. So far, this trip is as I imagined it to be.
I am awakened by the birds at 6am after a deep but not very restful sleep.
First lesson of this trip: listen to nature, respect the rhythm of the sun, get up early and enjoy the freshness.
I ride two hours before finding my breakfast in a "traditional Austrian bakery". But I do not see a bakery. Where is the pain au chocolat? Their croissants are stuffed with sausages!
It's a hot day and the road ahead of me is long. A 5pm, I've covered 320km and I am already far from the capital, here in Klagenfurt. That evening, I sleep with a work colleague. A bed, a shower, it seems like a real luxury after the previous night.
Rested, I walk along Lake Klagenfurt. I have a meeting at 11am with an expat named Johnny Hoogerland, a ex-professional cyclist withdrawn from the peloton after a short career.
Johnny Hoogerland: from Batavian beaches to alpine lakes. Route of a (not) spoiled cyclist
A Dutch climber! It still seems strange but... I discovered Johnny on one of the worst days of his career.
Then a Vacansoleil rider, wearing the polka-dot jersey during the Tour de France, he joined a breakaway that could feed hopes of a final victory. But fate decides otherwise.
At kilometer 171, towards Tagenac, a French television car throws two riders several meters away off the road. They end up falling into the barbed wire... bad luck for the polka dot jersey. The memory we have of the champion is mainly about this bad luck he suffered.
I couldn't go to Austria without meeting Johnny, it would have left me feeling "unfinished". Like me, he comes from the flat country, and like me he likes to climb. I follow his news with interest through social networks, accounts due to his rides alongside Marco Haller of Bahrain Merrida. As I expected, as a good Batavian, he gives me a warm welcome, his words are frank and we remember the events that marked his career. More than sport, we talk about passion and the ex pro gives me valuable advice for the journey to come.
At the start of the afternoon, I hit the road and then it starts - the rain makes its appearance. I try to convince myself that it will only be temporary, but I finish the afternoon in Seeboden, rinsed, saturated, after my day "of 5 lakes".
The rhythm of the day is rain. Eight hours of rain. Long, windy and cold, on a steep road. This was this first truly alpine stage.
The day before, Johnny had warned me: "You will see Greg, Austria is steep, really steep".
Johnny wasn't wrong. These aren't roads, they're walls! The wind punishes me, hammers me. I arrive in Zell am See, tired but for the first time proud of myself. When we're a long way from home, we have to search deep inside ourselves, dig really deep, to draw resources we don't even know that we have. I spend almost two hours washing and drying my things in order to leave the next day towards the Glossglockner.
9am, the clouds are low, the rain is heavy. It takes me more than two hours to get to the top of the first monument of this trip, and I'm not even able to enjoy its magnificent setting. It's grey and humid with very dense fog during the climb before switching to another valley towards Lienz.
Another col awaits me, this time through the forest. Its gravel sections break the monotony of the road. Concentrating on technical parts allows me to forget the long heat of the day. Physically, I have to dig deep into my reservations, but I have a goal: to leave Austria, rally Italy and Villabassa.
I don't know yet but this evening of couch-surfing will be the best part of the adventure. In Trentino, the family that welcomes me come from the mountains. Polyglots, we exchange in French, English, Italian and I take this opportunity to learn some rudiments of Tyrolean.
5am, there is a knock on my door.
“Hey Greg, come with us, we have a local surprise!”
Bruneck lake: one of the most beautiful Italian lakes! It's much smaller than the lakes in Lombardy, this little one looks more like a Fjord. I hadn't even spotted it while preparing for the trip. The locals swim here all year round, winter through the ice and summer in 15°C water. An unforgettable experience. Before leaving for my trip, I dreamt of sharing moments like this!
Time to hit the road again. A few kilometers and it reappears: this damn rain! So heavy that it deprives me of experiencing the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, distinctive symbols of the region and the gateway of the Dolomites by Cortina d´Ampezzo.
The sky is grey and the air is heavy. At the start of the afternoon, I have already climbed 1500m before even reaching the first switchbacks of the Pordoi. Of the entire climb, it stopped raining for just 30 minutes. From the top, I see a curtain of rain which I must dive back into for a further 2 hours.
It is only in Val Garderna that I find the sun again. I am literally frozen. I eat whatever I can. Lots of sugar, whatever I feel like, anything that will go in my mouth. The road is not over yet, the heat of the sun gets me going again, but I have to stay in control and limit my efforts, because tomorrow is the Stelvio.
After three hours of riding in "the apple valley", it's off to the most beautiful climb of this trip: the Stelvio. This col has had me dreaming since I started cycling while working on the Tour de France. I discovered its story alongside Stephen Roche then other greats of this sport (Luc Leblanc, Bernard Hinault, Raymond Poulidor).
The Stelvio is unanimous. The Stelvio is a monument. I experience it, savor it and it doesn't taste bad.
No rhythm, shortness of breath, tight throat, I'm at the end ... I dug very very deep to ride this heavily loaded bike to the top, but it was worth it - the summit is a gift.
Yesterday at Pordoi, I read the commemorative plaques, there is no need for souvenirs here, history is everywhere. The scenery is a treat. This road is a masterpiece.
The day before, I found rest in Bormio. The city is warm, welcoming, with everything that you expect from Italy. But it's time to leave Lombardy. Switzerland is waiting for me.
Rallying Saint Moritz was not supposed to present any real difficulties, but I've never felt so cold. Three hours of climbing in the rain with any icy wind at the top, icy like the "welcome" from this region. I arrive at the station and I can't move my fingers, I'm hungry, I'm cold, I can't take it anymore. Given the option, I would take a return ticket to my bed.
Thirty minutes in front of a convenience store trying to recover a bit, people look at me without helping me, those looks are hard to bear. It takes me some time to get back on the road and forget this episode. But the day is not over, I have to climb the Julierpass then ride for three hours with the wind in my face to sleep at Chur. There I only found a youth hostel cleverly nestled above a nightclub, the only accommodation within my budget.
I imagined this project during confinement, a confinement spent inside, while outside was perfect sunshine, an ideal temperature for the bike. Locked up, I looked at everything and I imagined myself in the best conditions.
From dream to reality: the weather is a hazard that is part of the game. It is up to us, cyclists, to accept it and play it and always try to get the best out of it. Riding eight hours in the rain is a guarantee of freshness, at the risk of hypothermia. Riding in the sun, the heat, after what I had been through, was synonymous with breaking point and renewal in the blink of an eye.
I must admit,I am disappointed not to have seen the Glossglockner, the Tre Cime. But if the trip had only been warm and sunny, surely it would have been less of an adventure.
After a cold shower, Switzerland offers me respite under the sun, allowing me to climb the San Bernardino pass. Easy day for a special night. When bike-packing, it's hard to plan ahead, my itinerary allows the possibility of mechanical issues and physical glitches; so when I can't sleep in my bivvy bag, I book my accommodation at the last minute. Gold, in Grisons, bivvy bags are strictly prohibited and they aren't joking. That night I only found one AirBnb far from Bellinzona where I was originally supposed to stop. On top of everything else, they give me a very cold welcome.
The host does not understand me or my plan and ultimately does not approve of my trip. He installs a screen in front of the door to my room and tells me that he is with family, I am therefore banished to my room with access to the bathroom only with prior authorization by text message.
I, who dreamed of the bivvy bag, the great outdoors and warm meetings, I am served!
Aquila, Oberalpass climbed, I join Andermatt for two nights where I couchsurf at Sevrin's place. Sevrin is a Swiss musher (driver of a dog sled) who spends his life between the Swiss mountains and Alaska. A fantastic meeting, also shared with Tenis, his husky with keen eyes and easy licks.
At this point, I begin to understand "what is a climber?". When I see other cyclists riding low, nose on the GPS, watching the clock, I understand. Maybe a climber is someone who enjoys taking more time, going to see "up there", to the detriment of a good average, an early return home and lighter legs.
To tell you the truth, despite the risk of hypothermia and hypoglycemia, I take pleasure in getting higher.
But I have one regret: I dreamt of riding with locals but (and I understand them) they preferred to stay at home when I was riding in the rain, wind in my face.
Andermatt, I decide to treat myself to a "loop" day. This region is a cyclist's paradise. It offers the Furka, Nufenen, Saint Gothard trio: the starter, main course and dessert for greedy riders. I couldn't complete this adventure without going to see what was hiding on these three legendary passes and I don't regret it. The Saint-Gothard is a nice warm-up, I ride it in a repulsive thick fog, descending under the sun by the Roman road.
Two atmospheres, two breathtaking worlds and scenery before going to Nufenen. Its ascent is not very steep, it is in a beautiful valley and at the top offers me a small gift in the form of a herd of ibex, standing in the middle of the road.
With the Nufenen back down, I need a break. I find a food shop and leave my bike outside the door. I return to find my bike several meters away, due to strong gusts of wind rushing down tp the bottom of the Furka. It helps to calm my excitement before going to see the third the real purpose of this trip: the Belvédère hotel.
The nice surprise! A day that was supposed to be a transition and that will make me climb the Gross Scheidegg, a pass perched in the middle of a natural park closed to cars. Due to the state of the road, you'd do well climbing it on a gravel or mountain bike, not to mention the heards of cows that refuse to get out of the way. Like a rather nice Milka advert!
When I leave Interlaken, I find Dom (Dominique Daher), a photographer and mountain artist. The French expat in Switzerland, will ride with me during the last day in this country with its breathtaking natural environment before reaching Gaul - that I have never been so happy to find! Together we are remaking the world. We talk about cycling, why we ride, how we ride. Like me, he likes to climb, except not for the same reasons. He climbs to go down, whereas I climb to go up - but with the same love of the mountain, its landscapes, surprises that only it can reserve for us.
Our discussions fascinate me because they answer questions that I asked myself before leaving ... above all, the kilometers and the hours pass quickly, so quickly ... At the end of the day, I pass the final border! At Châtel, I sleep with a friend, as I will for all of the final stages. Knowing that you'll finish each day with an evening spent with someone you like is motivating.
The bivvy nights that I envisioned before my departure. The loneliness. Dreams I had after watching the heroes of The Great Divide and The Transcontinental. But I don't yet have the armour to do as they do. I need others, I need to exchange. I also have to respect my plan: the performance is not my goal, pleasure is my engine and that must remain central.
The weight of loneliness
I like to ride alone. I think I only share 20% of my rides with others, often friends. Loneliness is part of cycling, it is a rule of our game. In endurance, it is a motivating element to take the road for many participants.
Being alone, keeping silence, is a way of introspection allowing us to explore every nook and cranny of our mind.
"Solitary" is something that defines me, I assume it and cultivate it. Yet on these roads, in the rain, alone, I felt a lot more exposed and fragile than I thought it would. What if I fall, what if I can't, what if ... what if this strength actually becomes my Achilles heel.
I remember the evenings with the locals, they saved this journey, they made me want to continue, so as not to disappoint me, not to disappoint them. In their questioning, sometimes admiring eyes, I found support.
The bad days made me feel how quickly this project could falter, but the sun set me free. In this case, loneliness could carry me.
Everyone must therefore be prepared for this component of the journey. If we meet so many duets on major projects bikepacking, that's easy to explain. A hand on your shoulder, sticking to a wheel when the wind has dried your head, a glass to cheers with ... it helps!
So know it, it's not Mike Horn who wants! Prepare an extended playlist and above all don't expect anything from anyone and fully experience everything that happens.
I find roads that I know, I relax and at the same time, I am more open to others. And the others must feel it, the looks of astonishment thatb I had previously recieved and the questions, now seem softer, people ask me about my equipmentl, my project, etc. Finally I exchange and I share.
The weather is on my side and the equipment is perfect: my bike meets all of my expectations, the clothing from KATUSHA guarantees me comfort ... everything is good! My body reminds me that I am in extreme fatigue, the cardio freezes at 110 beats per minute but the head is there.
For my first day in France, I add the col de Joux Plane on the route of the grande traversée des Alpes. For me, this col is filled with beautiful memories from 2016, when I joined Team Skoda and discovered the mountain by bike. Then I join the tourist road that I will follow until Menton. After Joux Plane, la Colombière is waiting for me. I stop at La Clusaz before drinking a few beers (maybe too much...) with friends, but whatever, sacred evening!
I leave Les Aravis to go up to Les Saisies. Here I hit a wall, nothing left in the tank... in a station that is still closed, deserted, due to lockdown. The reopening is imminent, life is slowly getting back to normal, but not yet.
On this day, it was more difficult to find a meal than it was to actually climb the cols on my itinerary.
So I am content with what I find before climbing the Cormet de Roselend to find the troop who will accompany me the next day from Bourg-Saint-Maurice.
Iseran, the kind of col that we don't necessarily like to climb on legs that haven't been warmed up, just after waking up. But no choice, the day will be very long. Accompanied by a special band of friends, I go up with a light heart to this summit which often offers surprises. Who forgot to stop the stage on the 2019 Tour between the summit of Iseran and Tignes? For us, the climb is done under grey sky, I leave my friends at the top and find an old companion: the rain. Rain which, at this altitude, takes the form of hail. It doesn't matter, we must continue because I must rally Briançon.
After a morning in good company, the sequence Telegraph, Lautaret, Galibier is lighter. Cherry on the cake: I pass Valloire at 5.30pm to attack the Galibier, completely alone on the road. Despite being tired, I enjoy these kilometers and I wish everyone to experience a sunset on this road, rocked by the cry of marmots and the low sun.
I forget that I'm climbing because my head is elsewhere, never have I ever had such an experience on a bicycle: climbing more than 5000 vertical meters during the day and being disconnected from fatigue, pain, thanks to the presence of friends first, then of a natural environment which offers you royal conditions. We cant deny the strength and power of "mind over matter" ... indeeed, the goal of such a trip.
Arrived in Briançon, at Fabien's from Skyzo Velo. Here I realize that no more friends will be waiting for me more before my arrival in Menton. We discuss and I decide then to reach the Mediterranean in one day.
250km and some 7000m of D+ on the "relaxed" agenda, it's scary but these are the last. It might be reckless and naive, but sometimes you have to follow your instincts and your desires, so I go for it.
From Briançon, I join the Isoard accompanied by a retired couple on electric bikes. They have light legs, me, not so much. Then comes the climb of Vars where I lose a lot of time because of a nasty puncture. I'm two or even three hours behind schedule. For those who have never visited the Ubaye, the spectacle is worth it, despite the distance I still have to cover. On the road to Barcelonnette, I meet herds in transhumance, it's quite an experience but I lost even more time, stuck in the middle of many many sheep.
Like the day before, once I've climbed the Bonnette pass in the drizzle, I am still on the road when night is falling. To exceed my schedule and what I can normally do in training, gives me a boost of energy, a kind of relaxation and disconnection that until now `i haven't experienced. After a stop at a restaurant in the Tinée valley, I climb towards Valdeblore. I relive some cycling films that I had watched during the confinement, I understand both the fragility of this type of night out but also, and especially the freedom it gives you. To all those who have never done it, I recommend heading out on your bike once the last rays of the sun have disappeared, to taste the joy from the beam of your front light, in the freshness of summer nights. Valdeblore is an unknown climb for me, in the black, I don't feel the usual sensations, I don't feel the drop.
The more the hours passed, the less my body was limited. This is surely the beauty of endurance, balance and peace between the body and mind. I climb at my own pace and enjoy the descent of the valley from Vésubie to the bottom of Col du Turini. Midnight passed, I tackle the last ascent of this transalpine. A new unknown climb, a soothing nocturnal atmosphere, a memory that will stay with me.
We often dream of the start and finish of a long trip. In this case, I was dreaming of a seesaw with a low sun reflecting off the Mediterranean. But I arrive at the top of the pass at 1:30am, I thought I would see the sea, but it is pitch black. The ambient silence makes the atmosphere calm, I had no strong emotions.
I left Briançon around 9am, really drawing on my reserves, I'm tired. Descending to the light of my lighthouse, stiff on an imperfect road that's narrow, with sharp turns, is anything but relaxing. My arms are numb, my hands hurt, my neck throws me. I have 45km to go before I find the hotel that I booked last minute.
I try to savour these last few kilometres. But I must confess that no one is waiting for me at the end of the day, I don't have a lot of motivation. I had considered arriving at the seaside and diving directly in. But at three in the morning my bed is calling me more than the pebble beach. I arrive in Menton in the middle of the night.
This journey ended just as it started, on a whim (Briançon Menton in one day), full of spontaneity and rarely easy. I don't feel any pride right now, just the relief to have come full circle, the feeling of duty accomplished.
Two days ahead of schedule, never looking for speed or exploit. It all happened naturally. The first few days forced me to move on, the cold conditions kept me from stopping. Then the sun warmed me up and helped me to lengthen the days, to enjoy the light and the scenery.
Back home, I won't forget the magnificent bivvy on the edge of the lake to Interlaken, the moments shared with friends, the cols I had dreamed of like Stelvio or Furka as well as the breathtaking landscapes. The cold that gnaws at you, the mist, the rain and the wind that forced me to struggle the first few days. Still, no regrets, the rise of Glossglocker was surely more epic, despite the fact that I couldn't admire the glacier. The Italian Tre Cimes left a lot to my imagination since I only saw them. In the same way the passes of the Dolomites will remain for me a series of turns, the Italians indicate to you in at the bottom of each pass the number of “tornanti” that awaits you. I remember very well the 33 "tornanti" of the Pordoi and the rain it reserved for me at the summit.
During this trip, I think I understood "what is a climber?". For me a climber is a dreamer. A climber wants to go over the passes to see what the mountain reserves for them. I learned during these two weeks to take the time, accept the rules of the game that nature dictated to me. Bend your back in front of wind, to be showered by this rain but above all not to crack in the face of the drop. No suffering, just acceptance, to climb is to feel small in the face of elements, questioning yourself and accepting your weaknesses. It is also nourish a natural environment that offers you magnificent landscapes, wildlife and an exotic flora. To climb is to travel...
Words (originally in French), by Grég Hetuin
Photos by Florent Geninatti:
1-9, 12-14, 17-22, 24-30, 37-39, 42-44, 46
Photos by Dominique Daher:
10, 11, 15, 16, 23, 31, 32, 33, 40, 41, 45
Photos by Marie Cortial: