I have been a cyclist for over ten years and had only ever cycled in Sunny old South Africa, Nigeria and China. Not really locations that come across as idyllic holiday destinations. In June 2011 I went to Europe for the first time and after not having ridden for over a year I was slightly worried about my level of fitness. Doing the Panorama tour with Winston in preparation was in retrospect a very wise thing as I would probably have still been struggling up that hill in Lichtenstein had I not done the tour.
We decided to not take our own bicycles and hoped to hire bikes in Switzerland. This proved to be a bit more difficult than anticipated. We were living in Basel, and in a town where it seems that every single person owns at least two bikes and every second shop is a cycling shop we could not get racing bikes to go challenge the Alps… After two weeks and almost giving up we strolled past a custom single speed shop only a small distance from where we were staying. Having a chat with the owner he organised with some of his friends to loan us their bikes. We walked out of the shop with the two coolest bikes you could ever wish for. I was on my way to the Alps armed with a white steel Colnago with nine speed shimano!
The next day we set off to a small town called Bad Ragaz to watch two stages of the Tour de Suisse. The town was close to the finish of one of the Queen stages in Malbun nestled in the middle of the Alps. We took off that afternoon in search of the ski station where the following day’s stage would finish, armed with a map and some Swiss franks we started our ride. There aren’t really words to describe riding through the Swiss countryside, and trying to do it justice would probably fail miserably so all I will say is that it’s breathtakingly awesome! The ride was a pleasure up to the start of the final climb up to the Ski Station in Malbun, Lichtenstein. Having never ridden up a ‘real’ climb I approached it completely wrong. Yet again I thought I was Rocky Balboa and attacked it with a bit too much gusto… After riding for about half an hour I wasn’t any closer to the top of the mountain and I was getting a bit worried that I may possibly not make it to the top. I came around yet another switchback and stopped in the shade next to a small herd of cows. They had bells around their necks and looked at me with a questioning look. I’m sure they were saying to one another, “What do you think this sweaty looking female could possibly want from us”.
I started again but proceeded to stop every kilometre because I was going so slow that if I didn’t stop I would have fallen in front of an oncoming car. Winston was of course gone and I just had the crunching noise my gears made as company, and of course the odd cow now and again.
After about one hour I reached a small village and still it didn’t seem like I was any closer to the top. I made one last effort to get to the top and failed miserably. There was a small river to the right and I stopped yet again, next to a statue of Mary in a rock. At first I thought maybe I was hallucinating, but wiping the sweat out of my eyes I saw that I was not. It was one of the most beautiful spots I had ever been and I decided there and then that I was going to wait for Winston right there even if it took him the whole day to come back down the mountain. I didn’t have to wait for long. Apparently I was only three kilometres from the top of the twelve kilometre beast but I was simply not interested in going all the way to the top. We decided to have lunch at the only small restaurant on the slope and the dish that ended up in front of me was enough to send any health conscious person running for the hills. Not really understanding what we wanted, the friendly owner explained in very limited English what was on the menu. Catching the two words, ham and cheese we ordered two of what ever it was that contained ham and cheese. I smelled the dubious sandwich from about twenty metres away and had I not been that hungry I would probably have run away screaming. It was officially the oiliest nastiest piece of what I think was bread, I had my entire life. It did however make me feel a whole lot better and able to limp home to the hotel. I would try again the following day.
The next day went a bit better as I started the climb with a great amount of respect and restraint. It also helped that all the barriers were up for the race and spectators were already lining the roads waiting for the race to come past. I couldn’t stop by every second cow and look like a softie in front of hard core European cycling fans. I made it all the way to the small village knowing it was only three kilometres from the top. We refuelled with a coke and started the final three kilos. It was exactly as steep as Winston warned me the previous day and this time I made it to three hundred metres to go. No matter how much I told myself that it’s ONLY THREE HUNDRED BLOODY METRES, I could not muster the strength to get to the finish. I pulled off and walked the last three hundred metres…
The small town was alive with activity awaiting the finish of the Stage and after having lunch and about three beers at a small restaurant, we picked a spot about fifty metres from the finishing line. It was standing there that I realised I was never a real professional cyclist but a mere professional fun rider. The reason for this was that at the exact spot where I stood hallucinating the previous day, race leader Damiano Cunego attacked the peloton and rode off the front.
I had always watched Elvis, or Michael Jackson concerts wondering what was wrong with the spectators and fans crying and screaming like crazed fools, and on that day on the slopes of the climb to Malbun it became clear to me! Ample amounts of beer and atmosphere had turned me into a screaming crazed fool trying not to faint at the sight of Thor Hushovd and Peter Sagans… The highlight of the day came when we were watching the prize giving and Peter Sagans threw his flowers into the crowd, I’m sure he threw them straight at me as I was the only girl in the crowd. I actually managed to focus for long enough to catch them at the same time as a guy standing next to me. I know however that the look in my eyes made the guy let go immediately, I don’t think he was in the mood to have a girl stomp on his face over a bunch of flowers. I didn’t notice while fighting for the flowers that I was actually standing right next to the Devil, (for non cyclists, The Devil is a cult figure that goes to every single cycling race in the world, picks a spot on the route and runs with his pitchfork next to the riders cheering them on in a bright red devil suit). Having had just enough beer to make me very brave I tapped him on his shoulder and asked for a photo. Being a lot friendlier than you would expect the real devil to be he agreed and I got a great pick smiling so broad you can see the fillings in my back teeth!
It was a perfect day and riding back to our hotel fuelled with copious amounts of beer sloshing around in my stomach through the beauty of the Swiss Alps was so amazing that even when we got stuck in a huge thunder shower twenty kilometres from home I didn’t mind. We ordered a take away pizza and fell into bed with images of cows, kings and glory dominating our cycling dreams. The small trip into Lichtenstein turned out to be a very nice one and far from the end of our Swiss Cycling adventure!