This feature was originally published in issue 387 of Cycling Plus magazine.
A heat haze billows from the tarmac ahead of me, distorting the climb ahead. Tall pines flank the road while the jagged white peaks of the 4,000m-plus Swiss Alps loom behind me.
The Weisshorn and its sister peaks send mighty ridgelines to spear the sky, as their scalloped white flanks cast the summer sun back into the stratosphere.
They look like the titanic tools of ancient gods, wielded to carve out the heavens, rather than geological structures.
It’s easy to cast Switzerland as a Disneyland of Toblerone, yodelling and conspicuous devotion to cheese, but this ride, from the mountain resort of Crans-Montana and up the 2,252m Col du Sanetsch, is reminding me just how primal and wild this country can be.
Here, the mountain comes to meet you on the road. Towering slabs of rock, dotted with stubborn, gravity-defying evergreens, march alongside the ribbon of roadway, occasionally firing tumultuous waterfalls down their scree-scattered gulleys.
It’s a landscape that always seems on the verge of stretching out to erase the footholds of civilisation.
You get the feeling we don’t really belong here, which makes riding up to meet the mountains an intimidating prospect.
The day starts at 1,500m in the picturesque resort of Crans-Montana, with its funicular railway and a mountain lake full of sleepy carp. UK tourists are the second most vital group to Valais (after the Germans), the third-largest canton in Switzerland, so it’s a welcoming place.
My guide for today is Sébastian Monard, local expert and, as I am about to find out, super-fit climber. It’s a bluebird morning as we set off on a mini-tour of the riding around Crans-Montana.
A quick loop later, we start the descent to the town of Sierre, at the valley bottom, down some long switchbacks.
We ride all the way to the banks of the River Rhône. It’s narrow here but rushing a milky mint green, swollen with snowmelt and water from the mountains.
Here, we link up with a traffic-free cycleway that runs all the way from Sierre to Sion, the jumping-off point for the climb up Col du Sanetsch.
Its tarmac surface hugs the southern bank of the Rhône and forms part of the gargantuan 350km Rhône Route that runs all the way from the ski resort of Andermatt to Geneva.
The cycleway is flat, so it’s a good chance to enjoy some active recovery while sucking up sights such as the lone castle perched on the top of a steep hill.
As we reach the outskirts of Sion, we hear the clatter of a helicopter and are treated to the sight of some aerial acrobatics as it sprays the vineyards clinging to the near-vertical slopes by the river.
The effort’s worth it because the Valais white wines are delicious – look out for Petite Arvine, in particular.
We pedal into Sion and along its car-free boulevards, stopping to fill our water bottles at an elaborate fountain. It’s a feature of riding in this area that towns and villages have springs flowing with super-clear mountain run-off.
In fact, there’s an extensive network of water-corralling mini canals up in the mountains (called bisse), some of which cling to sheer rock faces. They’ve been created over hundreds of years so locals and farmers can tap into this natural resource.
The sleeping giant
The Col du Sanetsch, at 2,252m, doesn’t have the fame of some of the other Swiss pro tour climbs, partly because it doesn’t top out at a famous ski resort, but also because it isn’t on a key road to anywhere.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the glacier lake and dam at the Lac de Sanetsch, a few kilometres over the Col, this road would only be used by farmers. Instead, a tourist bus has a regular route to the top in the summer, but the lack of a through road means that the traffic is blissfully light.
There’s plenty of time to be alone with your thoughts and ease into a steady climbing rhythm, winding up from around 500m above sea level. The climb in front of us is around 26km long and clocks in at around 1,820m of vertical ascent, with an average gradient of around seven per cent.
From Sion, we wind up through the close ranks of vineyards, basking under the fierce afternoon sun, through the municipality of Savièse. It’s been hot all day, but the temperature is rising. It just hit 34°C and I’m swilling down the spring water.
So far, I’ve been taking the ride as it comes, piling on the watts as required, but I’m suddenly conscious of the challenge ahead, especially as I have no long Alpine climbs in my legs this season.
I turn to Sébastian to ask about pacing – which section of the climb is the hardest?
He looks thoughtful for a moment and I open my ears for a lengthy breakdown. “Well, all of it,” he replies, pithily. Okay, I guess that’s fair warning.
After a brief descent, we start to ride up the road towards the ominously named Pont du Diable (Devil’s Bridge).
We’re past the vineyards and turn north to wind our way between high walls of larch and spruce trees foresting the sides of deep gorges, with views of the Rhône Valley and the ‘4000er’ Swiss Alps.
Even the forests here are imposing, spreading a cool and fragrant blanket across the slopes. I can hear the distant rushing of water as we work our way up a colossal groove carved into the mountain by snow melt and time.
Presently, we see the high stone arch of the original Pont du Diable, which stands sentinel above the modern roadway. Pausing to look over the side of the bridge, I’m shocked to see a snakelike, narrow canyon plummeting hundreds of metres down.
All the way down, bands of hard stone have been worn smooth by an incredibly focused line of water and are now interlaced, forming a vertical labyrinth. The forces involved are colossal and it looks alien, unnatural even – I suddenly see why this bridge is aptly named.
We pay no toll as we pass the Devil’s Bridge, but the gradient does kick up again as long, steep hairpin bends come at us while we ride, challenging my thighs to crank through each one as we climb north-west, up the other side of the river gorge.
As we ride past a dizzyingly high, tumbling waterfall, I feel the first pangs of cramp in my legs. At first, it’s like the steel hawsers on a sailing ship, twanging under load. But then I start to feel the muscles writhing, as if being branded under intense heat.
It seems I did pay a toll to the Devil after all… I call for a break to stretch out and take on some more isotonic drink. Despite my hopes, the temperature has remained stubbornly in the mid-30s even as the climb has ramped up.
A blasted moonscape
We continue along the Rue de Sanetsch, and ride across a wooden bridge over another deep river chasm as sheer grey walls of stone rise to one side.
Riding on, we break out into a beautiful expanse of alpine meadows bursting with vibrant green and the yellow and purple of wildflowers. The air is thick with summer scents and the buzzing of insects, and the mountain takes on a more benevolent aspect.
The climb, however, remains anything but benevolent. Riding up the Col du Sanetsch is like trying to scale the side of a gigantic piece of Toblerone.
It’s a consistently steep ramp in a way that I find unusual, even for an Alpine climb. There are few places where you can spin a bit and recover some buffer for your legs and lungs.
At the end of the meadows is a series of long, mercifully cool circular tunnels that look like they’ve been drilled out of the mountain by a particularly voracious giant worm from the film Dune. At this point, I’m glad to have shade and I can feel the energy coming back into my legs.
So it’s a bit of a shock to burst forth from the final tunnel to be faced with something that looks like the surface of an alien planet. The character of the mountain has changed completely to steep slopes of grey-brown scree broken by twisted bands of silverly rock.
It looks like the meadows had been bombarded from space and then covered over with the shower of debris that fell back down again. Nevertheless, it’s very impressive in a primal, unfiltered way.
Once I get over the shock, I see something glinting blue-white in the distance, above the limestone pavement of smoothed-over rock, dotted with green, and a thrill runs through me as I recognise the Tsanfleuron Glacier.
I can actually feel the chill air dropping down to meet us as we climb, putting in the last few turns as we cross the 2km-high mark and ride the last few switchbacks up to the summit. The glacier sits beautiful and remote as the sunlight bounces off the ice.
Incongruously, though, a yellow tourist bus is standing at its stop, waiting for the hurrying figures of hikers as they make their own high-altitude rendezvous.
I had to dig deep to make it up here, but the view from the top makes the suffering worthwhile and I stop to drink it in. After a bar and a bidon, I almost feel like new, which makes riding down the south-facing descent in the mellow yellow of the afternoon sunlight a sheer joy…
Distance: 63km / 39 miles (to Sanetsch summit)
Total Elevation: 1,935m
Grade: ‘Severe’. The Col du Sanetsch demands respect and a good level of training beforehand, although nothing quite prepares you for riding in the Alps, apart from riding in the Alps!
Download the route from Komoot
Getting there: Fly to Geneva and catch the train to Sierre. A 10-minute walk connects you to the funicular that takes you straight into Crans-Montana – you only need a single ticket for the train and funicular, the eight-day Swiss Travel Pass ticket.
Where to stay: Hotel Eldorado has a secure bike store and maintenance station. Like most Swiss hotels, the standard of accommodation is high with a varied buffet breakfast.
Where to eat: Casy is a hip, high-class eatery with pavement tables and a well-designed interior in the centre of the Crans-Montana municipality.
Tourist information: Book guided rides with Sébastian Monard at www.sms04.ch, or contact Crans Montana Tourism: firstname.lastname@example.org