Swiss Family Fred

A Bike Tour in Switzerland

Renee Le Verrier & Andreas Meyer

We arrived in Switzerland in June drizzle. At the passport control, when asked about our trip, the agent stamped the page and gave us a glum look: "It's been raining all month". Still we had a couple of days to assemble Fred. Those couple of days also allowed us to prepare for a cool, wet-weather trip.

Fred and Bob packed for an airplane ride
We had actually started to prepare for our trip months before. To take Fred (our Santana triple, named by our son) and Bob (the trailer) with us for a self-contained tour called for a fair amount of planning and organizing. We chose a route that would include riding through valleys, but also take us into the Alps and over a pass. We spent numerous evenings deciding how many miles we wanted to ride, each town's must-sees, and preparing maps and itineraries. We spent just as much time calculating how to get a triple bicycle and a trailer onto the airlines free of charge.

We had purchased our Santana triple a few years ago from another family in our bike club. It has a full set of couplers, but the middle section was a bit too large to easily fit into airline-sized cases. Since we also had a few other gripes with the bike - specifically cable eyes in unfortunate places, we sent the frame off to Bilenky Cycle Works in Philadelphia. Fred came back beautifully repainted - looking just about new, with one more coupler in the center section, and the braze-on moved so that it didn't take out the stoker's knee.

Packing a Triple for an Airplane
Waiting for a plane

With that done, we packed Fred, Bob, and lots of riding gear into four suitcases, including two bicycle cases, one hard and one soft. Checking luggage was hassle-free. The airlines dutifully weighed each bag, but it all went for free, and made it to Zurich just fine. Apparently the frame got the interest of the TSA, since they left us calling cards in those bags.

With that much luggage, we decided to use a taxi when we landed. Our only challenge was waiting for a taxi big enough to take the three of us and all of our gear.


We'd chosen a hotel in Winterthur as our base. The hotel had a garage for the bicycle, and they would store suitcases during the trip. So we spent the first two days touring the museums and spending some quality time with Fred in the garage.

By the time we were ready to start our ride, the weather reports were beginning to promise a few breaks in the clouds later in the week.

Mapping It

We rode out of Winterthur in light rain. We had been planning on navigating by GPS and odometer. However, our GPS apparently forgot all of the downloaded maps, and the odometer decided it was a good day to die. Luckily we also had paper maps and a compass. The GPS was still able to give us distance, but we ended up navigating the old-fashioned way, which was more fun anyways.

In planning the trip, we'd discovered a wonderful website with detailed maps of Switzerland for biking (road and mountain), roller blading and hiking. If you are thinking of a trip through this country, by all means check this out. We also purchased some of these maps, but we ended up printing a lot of maps from the site:

Beginning in Winterthur, we noticed quite a few brown bicycle signs that happened to be pointing the same way we were going. After a little while, we realized that the route-numbers on the signs matched the route numbers on our maps and on the veloland web page. They tended to stay off main streets, taking us on small paved lanes, through fields and forests on gravel paths, and occasionally on roads with cars.

While not the fastest way to travel, it proved to be very pleasant riding alongside the sheep farms and vineyards.

Of course, after riding through the countryside in the rain - especially with four chains kicking up grit - , Fred was soon not looking quite so clean and fresh.

Neither were we, but as long as hotels let us in and had showers, we didn't mind too much. Swiss chocolates and pastries helped, too.

Our first few days took us north to the Bodensee (Lake Constance), before turning east along the lake to Lustenau. Our planned route was to follow the Rhein river up to its source at the Oberalp pass, down through Andermatt, to Luzern, and back to Winterthur. One of the nice features of this route is that it offered many options. We could make the route longer or shorter depending on how we were feeling. To ensure this freedom, we hadn't made any hotel reservations beyond Winterthur.

A Tandem Couple from Holland heading for Rome
Name the Game

Right from the start, we noticed a great number of touring cyclists. Many were fully loaded, and there were a remarkable number of tandems to be found. Only one triple though.

Family touring on one bike is similar to all of us driving along in a station wagon. Car games, or Fred games became the daily ritual. First game: identify the other riders as fitting into two categories : the happy-face ones who seemed to be enjoying themselves and the grimacing crowd who couldn't – or wouldn't – return a greeting because they

a) were struggling to stay on the path
b) were struggling to stay upright
c) were struggling with the idea that pedaling around in the rain was fun.

After a few days of riding in the rain on the variety of paths, Fred was beginning to object. Standing on climbs elicited groans of protest from the grit-filled bottom bracket and eccentrics (the ones that were part of the machinery, not the stokers...). We did our best to feed Fred oil, and that helped somewhat, but it was a bit disconcerting, since we weren't yet close to the real hills.

When we reached Lustenau, we headed south towards Chur. Here, instead of hills, we rode in a flat valley, train tracks alongside us and a hint of mountains peaking out through the clouds. The Fred games switched to counting trains (up to fifty in one day!)

Once we turned into the mountains, we started counting castles. This proved much more exciting to the eight-year-old stoker as well as to his parents. We stopped and toured a ruin or two.

The Rhein valley stays relatively flat until Chur, where we turned west, and started a gradual ascent. By this time, the weather had cleared, opening up sweeping views of the valley, with spiked walls of mountains jutting up on either side.

Going Up

Course correction through a field after a missed turn
On the climb, the difference between the bike paths and the roads become quite pronounced. The bike path meandered from one side of the valley to the other, sometimes hitting 15 percent grades in gravel (which can be a challenge on a fully loaded triple with road tires and a Bob). In addition, at times the turns were too tight for our rather lengthy vehicle (the bicycle equivalent of a tractor trailer). While quite pretty, we decided after a few hours that a small paved road with an even 6 percent grade was just the ticket. Besides, roads passed through towns, and towns mean at least one bakery (with a choice of sweet or savory concoctions, or, depending on the climb, sweet and savory concoctions)

Throughout the trip, any time we cycled on a road we found the drivers were amazingly courteous and aware of bicycles. They gave us plenty of room. On switchbacks, where we had to take the entire lane on inside curves, cars and trucks waited for us to get back on the side of the road before overtaking. No horns, obscene gestures, foul language, or even heavy sighs. Bicycles are a part of the landscape, whether on city streets or country lanes.

Along the climb up the valley, the landscape changed again. The contrast between the flat green valleys and the snowcapped mountains called out for numerous photo ops. Along one side of the valley the highway and the railroad took the direct route. Luckily the highway was almost exclusively in a tunnel, so there was little traffic, and a wonderfully peaceful valley.

On the other side of the valley, we cycled the local roads that zigged and zagged through little towns, dropping down to cross rivers, and climbing up the side to avoid cliffs.

Our game changed from counting castles to counting tunnels. The only major difference is that we had a lot more time to count each tunnel as we slowed down in the climb.

A few of the tunnels were surprisingly long and dark. We had made a habit days earlier of switching Fred's lights on. While I'm sure we were pretty easy to spot, it was still nice to know that it would be difficult to miss us in the tunnels.

People Watching

As luck would have it, the soccer world cup was playing while we were riding. Big screen televisions adorned each town's center plaza, set up outside for people to watch the game. For us, it meant that our son (who has turned into a sports junkie) could stay entertained while we sat with a beer, enjoying the city scene while discussing the day's ride the next day's weather.

When we first entered the valley from the Bodensee, the Rhein spread wide and light-blue, fast and cold. Each day, the river was a little narrower. As we approached the Oberalp pass, the river became a little stream in a meadow. This last climb to the pass cut through meadows decorated with wildflowers, some of the best scenery thus far. It was also a bit busy. There were quite a few motorcycles and cars, obviously out to enjoy getting to the top. Despite some pretty aggressive driving, nobody complained about Fred. On inside turns, Fred needed the whole lane, and sometimes a bit more just to make the switchbacks.

At the pass, we tightened the drum brake cable, donned windbreakers, and prepared for the downhill.

Going Downhill Fast

Winding across switchbacks and through a few more tunnels, the road down to Andermatt provided a sweeping view across to the whole valley. After the month of rain there, lush green and blooms of every color burst out.

About half way down to Andermatt, we stopped to check the drum brake. The rear frame was heating up, and the drum brake was radiating enough heat to feel from a foot away.

We decided it was a fabulous time to enjoy the day and let the brake cool off a bit.

Fully loaded with luggage and riders, Fred weighs in at around 500 pounds. Even cranked down hard, the drum brake isn't quite sufficient to keep our speed under control. We also need some help from the rim brakes. While it might be possible to make this descent without the drum brake, we certainly like knowing that any single brake could have failed and we would have been able to stop Fred.

We continued on down to Andermatt, and the views continued right along with us. After another stop to let the brake cool, we rode down some more. Somehow, I had thought that this downhill would be a mild one. Instead, we kept the drum brake on full, along with help from the caliper brakes to keep our speed down.

Dropping more than five thousand feet from the pass to the town of Fluelen - did I mention that we were going d-o-w-n - summer was upon us. All at once, we switched from trying to stay warm to trying to stay cool. The number of cycles - mostly not touring - multiplied. When we arrived at Fluelen, a lake town, rather than our typical wide choice of hotel (as well as the honor of being the only guests that night), we rode up and down the main drag until we found a hotel that still had a room available.

We spent the next day wearing civilian clothes and visiting - on foot - several of the towns on the lake.

I had been looking forward to the next day's ride since seeing pictures on the Swiss map. The road, which travels along the lake, is cut into a sheer vertical cliff. The snapshots I had seen looked interesting; I was expecting a great ride.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. Again, it appeared that this road was a favorite of drivers, since the underground highway would have provided a much faster way to get around.

This road curved with almost no spare room, and nonstop traffic in both directions. Generally, we had been very impressed with the availability of bike paths or shoulders. On this road, someone decided that the bike path should start and stop every few miles, and bikes should cross the road to get on and off of it. Since that seemed like a great way to die, we just gritted our teeth and stayed on the road. No shoulders, no additional room for cars to get by, and tunnels everywhere. Once again, drivers were courteous.

Once we arrived in Brunnen, another lake town, we were happy to be back to our beloved small roads, paths, and beautiful countryside on our way back to Winterthur.

When we entered Winterthur, we wondered if we had the right city. It was a completely different town. We had left in cold rainy weather, with only a few people walking through the streets.

After two weeks, we returned to a sunny, hot city, during the last day of a week-long festival. We could barely walk through the streets, much less ride. It was hard to fathom the transformation.

Packing Up

Two-hundred and fifty miles later, when we packed Fred and Bob, Renee had an exact list of every part that was in each piece of luggage. With that list, it was pretty easy to repack Fred and Bob and know that it would all fit and that we were still within the weight limits.

As on the way over, the airline agent didn't blink when we checked our bags. Even though the bike cases wouldn't fit on the conveyor belt, the attendant just pointed us to where large luggage is dropped off, and checked all of our bags - no fees and no questions. The most important parts stayed in carry-on: the cameras with pictures, the journals with the day's logs, sketches and pleasant ramblings about touring in a little corner of Switzerland.

Copyright 2010, Andreas Meyer, Renee Le Verrier