The Swiss Cycling Alpenbrevet

Words: Tommy Mulvoy / Images: Tommy Mulvoy &

160 km of riding and 5094 meters of climbing spread over four hors catégorie climbs in the stunning central Swiss Alps were more than enough reason to sign up for the Swiss Cycling Alpenbrevet. But the fact that I would not feel forced to pee in my bike shorts also helped.

I first peed on myself as an adult during a marathon some 20 years ago. I was eager to break 3:30 and was convinced that stopping to relieve myself was a risk I couldn’t take. So at around mile 18 I pulled my shorts aside and peed on my leg. I ended up running a 3:30:58.

Three years later, some 140 km into the bike stage of my first Ironman, in Lake Placid, NY, I peed on myself again. I was similarly convinced that stopping to relieve myself would prevent me from reaching my goal of qualifying for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. There were also serious doubts that I would get back on my bike. Unbeknownst to me I had developed a small saddle sore on my left butt cheek and when the pee hit the broken skin I screamed in pain, stood out of the saddle and sprinted for about 100 meters. I still didn’t qualify for Hawaii.

Last January my friend Carl and I were in the tram heading to the top of the Gemsstock in Andermatt when we first discussed signing up for the Alpenbrevet. We were both giddy from a morning spent skiing on fresh powder and agreed that spending a day riding up the four mountain passes that surround Andermatt would be a great idea. The Alpenbrevet, which bills itself as “one of the most beautiful and toughest one-day classics in the Alps,” is not a race but a supported tour. For two athletic, middle-aged men with full-time jobs, young children, and spouses who work it seemed like the perfect way to sate our competitive appetites while staying employed — and married. And I wasn’t trying to qualify for anything and thus wouldn’t feel compelled to pee on myself.

I spent my mid-twenties endlessly training for and competing in triathlons, running races and bike races. I enjoyed my monkish existence and was addicted to the adrenaline high of toeing the line. But as I approached 30 the monotonous focus on training and lack of enjoyment I was experiencing on rides and runs finally took their toll. I wanted to go for a long ride without spending the entire time dreading the impending brick session and I longed to come back from a run and crack a beer, not force down a protein shake. For almost two years I didn’t enter a single race. I ran without a watch and rode without a bike computer. I sprinted when I felt like it, not because my training plan demanded it, and often set out for a quick 5 km only to end up running 15. They were two of the most enjoyable running and cycling years of my life.

I continued this low-key approach in 2011 when I moved to Madaba, a small town just outside Amman, the capital of Jordan, to teach. I ran without a mileage or time goal through the scorched fields that abutted my school, admiring the Bedouin as they harvested their fields in the spring and wondering where they all disappeared to when the rain arrived in the fall.

On weekends I rode to the Dead Sea and then hitchhiked back up the main highway towards Madaba, often stuffed in the back of a cargo van or hanging out the side of an animal cart. At the turn-off to my school I would hop out and buy half a dozen bananas or a handful of pomegranates from a street vendor and stuff them in my jersey before riding back home.

When I returned to the US in the summer of 2013 I signed up for my first triathlon in more than five years. It was a super sprint, and I treated it as such — no training, no taper and no 5:45 am swim practices. I spent most of the swim leg doing breaststroke, on the way to T1 I gave high fives to my nephews, who were racing in the kid’s division, and on the run I tried to chase down my friend Tristan, who was a minute ahead of me in first place. I never caught him and finished second. Later that night I drove back to Brooklyn, where I had recently moved, happy to have raced again but no more eager to start training in earnest for long-distance triathlons.

Over the next three years, during term time, I rode and ran endless laps of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. In the summers I rode up and down the gaps surrounding
Middlebury, Vermont, where I was studying for my master’s degree. I set little goals for
myself, like road and mountain biking more than 1200 km during my season, which lasts from May to early November, and completing the epic LAMB Ride in the Green Mountains. I accomplished the first, by 5 km, but got shut out of the second because of work demands this past summer. My younger self would have sacrificed my studies in order to complete the ride but I was just as happy reading Elizabeth Bishop and Shakespeare as I was struggling up the notoriously steep gaps.

With a full-time teaching job, primary caregiving duties for my son and a wife who works long hours, finding time to train for the Alpenbrevet was particularly challenging. Prior to my son’s birth in 2018 I would ride for hours, both after work and on the weekends. Now, during the working week I often put Aksel to sleep while wearing my bibs and try to ride for an hour and a half before the sun sets. On weekends I ride during Aksel’s nap time and substitute stretching sessions for folding laundry and cleaning the house.

Although Carl and I were not ‘racing’ the Alpenbrevet we did want to finish. So, on a sun-splashed Sunday in late April, we hooked up for our first ride of the season. We rode from Andermatt up and over the Oberalp pass to Sedrun and then back. The ride was just over 40 km but we gained over 1200 meters in vertical. The pass had been ploughed the week before but it wasn’t open to cars because of avalanche danger and the possibility of late season snowstorms. Consequently Carl and I had the road to ourselves and enjoyed clear views of the surrounding mountains, which we had skied on all winter. When we reached the pass we were greeted by a 50-metre ribbon of unploughed snow that had been left to prevent rogue drivers from attempting to cross the pass. We shouldered our bikes and post-holed through the snow as spring skiers sipping beers on the restaurant decks looked at us quizzically.

On the last week of the ski season, in mid-May, Carl and I planned to ride up the north side of the Gottardo Pass, then down to Airolo for an espresso and back up to the Gottardo on the famous Tremola road, which contains a nearly 8 km-long section of cobbles, before returning to Andermatt. But halfway up the pass we were stopped by the police because an avalanche had crossed the road a few hundred metres further up. We were disappointed, but happy not to have been taken out by an avalanche or gotten stuck on the other side of the pass.

Carl and I didn’t break any speed records on these training rides but we were content
knowing that, if work and family obligations got in the way of training during the next few months, we would have at least climbed a quarter of what we would do on the day of the Alpenbrevet.

In mid-June, I headed back to Vermont for seven weeks to finish my master’s degree. Aksel stayed with his grandparents and cousins for the first few weeks, so, after mornings spent in classes and working in the library, I would spend a few hours in the afternoon riding around the Champlain Valley or up and down Middlebury Gap before returning to my studies. On my first weekend in Vermont I rode in the 110 km-long Vermont Gran Fondo. The course’s 2000 metres of climbing included what Global Cycling Network considers one of the steepest sustained climbs in the world, the infamous Lincoln Gap road, with its maximum grade of 24% and average grade of 15%.

My schedule and the isolation brought back feelings of the training in my twenties, but I always ended my summer rides with a beer. In mid-July Aksel and my wife arrived in Vermont and my time on the bike took a hit. I was focused on finishing my final papers and free time was devoted to Aksel. But after riding close to 1400 km during my seven weeks in Vermont I arrived back in Switzerland convinced that I might actually ride a fast time in the Alpenbrevet.

Three days after we returned to Basel chaos engulfed us. First, Aksel came down with a horrible cold, and within 48 hours I was sick too. I didn’t ride at all over the next week and spent most nights not resting but preparing to teach three new classes. By the middle of the following week Aksel and I were both feeling better, but Vicky, who somehow hadn’t picked up our cold, awoke feeling nauseous and with a fever. She didn’t leave her sickbed for two days. At this point, I was ready to call Carl and throw in the towel but on Friday afternoon Vicky begged me to do the ride. I finally relented and drove to Andermatt at 7:30 pm. I arrived just before 10, grabbed a pizza, and rushed up to our house to organize my gear for the early start. I didn’t get horizontal until nearly midnight.

I awoke on Saturday morning excited but a bit nervous about how little riding I had done during the previous ten days. In my twenties I would have thrown in the towel, convinced that a wasted week of precious preparation would prevent a personal record, but now I was just excited about the opportunity to ride up four gorgeous mountain passes with like-minded folks. As I straddled my bike for the short ride to town I realized that I had bent my rear derailleur when attaching my rear tyre earlier in the morning. I also realized that I had forgotten my water bottles. With my chain rubbing angrily against my front derailleur and slipping off nearly every sprocket, I rode back up to my apartment to retrieve my bidons.

On the 8.5 km ride from Andermatt to Wassen, where we passed numerous riders dealing with punctures or the effects of too much prerace hydration, we wore light jackets to ward off the morning chill and enjoyed an unobstructed view down the Reuss valley. Carl and I nervously joked about the first climb and relished the fact that we were weren’t the only ones who thought spending an entire Saturday on a bike was a good idea.

A dropped chain and the constant noise from my derailleur were frustrating, but not enough to detract from the glacier covered peaks that surrounded me and the quintessential Swiss farms that lined the 18.5 km road to Susten Pass. I rode in and out of large groups and tried to speak to as many riders as I could. A quick “Schönen guten Tag” or “Wie geht’s?” was often returned with a German phrase I didn’t understand, but the collegiality helped as my legs started to burn.

After a quick derailleur repair and some food at the top of the pass I donned my jacket
and set off on the 27.6 km downhill. I enjoy riding downhill, but the constant mental energy required to navigate new roads at 70 kmh and the strain on my arms from death-gripping the bars left me exhausted. Daring riders flew by like fighter jets while I focused on spots where I could feather the brakes. It was also incredibly cold: the sun had yet to hit the west side of the pass and the air temperature was in the low 50s.

I arrived in the small village of Interkirchen shivering, but within minutes I had started the 26.5 km climb of Grimsel Pass and was questioning my decision not to refill my water bottles in the town. The expansive valley approaching the pass was stunning but what most stood out to me was the concrete face of the massive dam situated just below the pass. I thought the dam was on the top of the pass but after reaching the wall of concrete l looked up and saw seemingly endless switchbacks snaking higher up the mountain. Somewhat broken, I put my head down and pedalled on. I reached the summit feeling strong but after waiting in the food line for 25 minutes my energy high burst. I hadn’t seen Carl since midway up Susten Pass and was in need of his dry humour to get me up the next two climbs.

The rest of the Alpenbrevet was something of a blur, but certain moments stood out. I
remember riding into Gletsch and watching the Silver and Bronze riders head left towards Furka Pass while I headed right towards Ulrichen with the Gold and Platinum riders. After making the turn I was fully committed to riding up the Nufenen and Gotthard passes in order to get back to Andermatt. At the top of the 14 km climb to Nufenen Pass I made some quick calculations and realized that I could finish the ride in under 10 hours if I maintained my current pace.

About halfway down the pass I had an urgent need to pee. The thought of completing the ride in under 10 hours was appealing and I rode past a few prime roadside spots. But, as my bladder became more uncomfortable by the second, and the silliness of soiling myself in pursuit of the meaningless goal of finishing the ride in under ten hours became clear, I relented and pulled into a small roadside restaurant. When I saw the sign noting that it cost CHF2 to use the toilet I didn’t hesitate to grab my wallet. When I was done I lingered for a few minutes enjoying the privacy and cleanliness. The enclosed space also kept my mind off the impending climb of the Gotthard pass.

I knew the infamous cobbles on the old Tremola road of the Gotthard pass would be
challenging but I had no idea how much energy they would suck not just from my legs, but also my arms, back, and feet. Having already ridden more than 130 km, each small bump between the cobbles felt like someone was grabbing my jersey and trying to throw me off the bike.

Halfway up the pass my thoughts started to bounce around. I pondered why anyone decided to build this road, how good it would feel to cross the finish line, whether I should order one or two pizzas after I finished, why I had ever signed up for this ride, how strong I was feeling, how weak I was feeling and how I had to sit on my ass for another two hours later that evening during the drive back to Basel.

After reaching the summit I took a deep breath and smiled at the fact that I was done going uphill. I took it easy on the descent to Hospental, not wanting to risk a crash after spending more than nine hours in the saddle. After reaching the valley floor I pedalled the last 3.5 km to Andermatt in leisurely fashion and crossed the finish line in 9:52:11. Unlike the Ironman, where I was surrounded by family at the finish line, I exited the finish area alone. After inhaling a pizza and packing the car I checked in at Carl’s house. He too was excited to have finished but was too busy playing tag with his four-year-old and trying to not step on his 9-month-old to provide many details.

When I arrived home just after 9 Vicky was resting and Aksel was fast asleep. I wanted to celebrate but come sunrise another gruelling 10-hour day would be staring me in the face. This one would be slightly smaller in stature than the Swiss Alps but surely no less demanding.


This feature first appeared in Conquista 24.