A few days ago while going through the town of Lisetal I started riding next to a middle-aged man who had red Ortlib panniers like mine. The matching panniers made for a good conversation starter. He explained that he was just biking home from work that day but that he had recently returned from a multi-week cycling tour from Lisetal to Amsterdam with his two kids. He told me that his commute is 14 km each way and I made a remark about how that was a long commute. Then I asked him why he commuted by bike instead of by train. Was it for the exercise? He just laughed and said, “I do it for my mind.” I’ve heard other people say that the mental release cycling can sometimes offer is what motivates them to commute by bike. A friend who works for a congressman in D.C. said that after she started biking to and from work she noticed that she didn’t need a drink after work to distance herself from the pressure and stress of her job. The ride was her time. She couldn’t hear the buzz of her Blackberry while she was biking and the ride seemed to help her silence the part of her brain that was engaged in thoughts about work. We are all vulnerable to negative or obsessive thought patterns and many people find that exercise frees them from those mental ruts.
Extreme exercise, on the other hand, can at times be stressful because it tests and taxes your mind. The challenge of a daunting physical test can cause a certain amount of internal drama. I’ve always liked endurance sports because your body and your mind are at odds. You have to control and quiet your mind if you are going to push your body to the limit.
Friday was a fairly flat day of riding along a series of lakes. I camped along Lake Vierwaldstatter and woke to the sound of cowbells ringing from the sloping pastures dotting the steep edges of the lake.
I spent the first part of Saturday morning gazing at the mountains surrounding me and realized that I wanted to get to the top of one of these mountains. I was in the mood for a serious mental and physical challenge. I studied my map for about 20 minutes and then selected Klausenpass.
The elevation of Klausenpass is 1,952 meters and most of the climbing is condensed into a 23 km stretch. It’s a common cycle route and there is actually a sign before the ascent starts warning cyclists that they are about to suffer.
I loaded up on food and water before I started and the first 13 km actually felt great. The views were outstanding and my body felt strong. I’d seen on the map that the grade of the mountain got steeper towards the top. The last half of the accent was at a 9% grade and I really felt the change. More than once I reached down to shift into a lower gear and realized I was already in my lowest gear. My arms and back became very sore because I had been out of the saddle leaning on my handlebars for so long. I became exhausted, but I stayed positive for the most part and never once wished I was in a car.
There was another cyclist ahead of me for the last stretch of the ride and he had a bright red shirt on which I became completely focused on. It was my bullseye.
I eventually got to the top of the pass and celebrated by filling my water bottles up with fresh, very cold water. I felt satisfied and grateful that I had the physical and mental ability to get my body, my bike, and my gear all the way up the pass I was looking down.
I was very cautious going back down the other side of the pass and after about 10 km of downhill my forearms started to hurt from having the brakes constantly engaged.
I decided to stop about halfway down because I found a campsite. I took a dip in an alpine stream, ate a little dinner, and went to sleep. I woke up in the morning and was very cold and a little sore. I didn’t feel like moving and found myself reading and re-reading the warning and care label on the inside of my tent. Did you know that UV rays deteriorate the waterproof coating on tents and you should pitch your tent in the shade? Finally the sun hit the valley I was in and my grogginess seemed to melt away as the temperature increased—although I was now concerned about the waterproof coating on my tent.
I spent the morning reading and making up yoga poses; by about noon I was prepared to get back on my bike and still had plenty of exhilarating downhill left to enjoy.
I also wanted to mention, again, that the signage for cyclists in Switzerland is absolutely phenomenal. Schweiz Mobil is the organization that develops and maintains the cycle routes. They also have extensive signage and maps you can buy for mountain biking, hiking, rollerblading, and canoeing routes across the country.
The network of routes is partially funded through private partnerships and you can see the names of some of the private donors at the bottom of the route maps. There are also icons on the Schweiz Mobil maps for hotels that have registered as “velotels”—a cute name for hotels that are well-suited for guests on velos (bikes).
On my way to Zurich!