My Ride: A circuit I ride regularly if the weather is good enough and the roads aren’t blocked!
Distance: Roughly 110km (68 miles) — it takes Pooley just over four hours at a steady pace
Challenge: Constantly changing gradients
Most famous for the Alps, skiing trips, Toblerone and other altitude related phenomena, Switzerland is not so obvious as a likely location for a straightforward training ride.
Not true, according to up-and-coming British rider Emma Pooley, working towards her PhD in Zurich. She may be a top climber, but even she doesn’t want to spend all her time grinding up 20-kilometre cols.
Having lived in Switzerland for over a year, the Team Specialized rider knows her way round the Zurich region well and she is more than happy to take us on one of her usual, flatter, training circuits. So rest assured, even though there are a fair few hills, there’s no more than you’d find in mid-Devon, say, or in the rural West Midlands.
“The mountains are definitely there if you want them,” Pooley tells us as she gets ready to ride in her small but well-appointed flat in the Zurich suburbs. “But you can get in some great rides on much easier terrain as well.”
The first part of the ride is largely spent escaping the residential area where Pooley lives. It’s fairly painless: she takes a quick left, then after a kilometre or so heading in towards Zurich, she veers right off the main highway, over the tramlines and she’s away up a steep hill.
It turns out that this is the fast track for cyclists out of Zurich. Pooley tells us later that the centre of town is as much of a nightmare in Switzerland for two-wheeled folk as any big UK city: “I definitely don’t go through there unless I’m meeting my training group from university.” So instead we’re out into the countryside in minutes.
The traffic dies away quickly and the blocks of flats are soon replaced by miles and miles of dense woodland on the sides of the valley as we work our way up the climb. The fields are almost all unfenced pastureland, giving the ride a pleasantly open feel in the clear morning sunshine.
While we wait to take photos of Pooley as she steadily pedals past, it’s easy to appreciate how much cleaner the air is, too. And that old cliché about Swiss time keeping (just think of all those cuckoo clocks and watches) appears to be true even when it comes to traffic — one car appears precisely every five minutes. Other than that, silence rules and it makes a welcome change after the bustle of Zurich. The climb is tough, but only because it’s a steady couple of kilometres with no false flats, not because it’s too steep or long.
Once over the shoulder of the hill you join another main road and contour around the hill a bit, then descend into the valley on an equally well-surfaced road. With so little traffic, it’s easy to relax. The sense of being alone is probably what strikes you the most on this road. Cycling is apparently a popular sport in Switzerland, but you won’t risk being elbowed off the road or half-wheeled on the climbs. Maybe it’s because it’s the middle of the week, but we don’t pass a single bike rider.
Pooley’s ride is a testing route, with fairly constant changes of gradient, but far from impossible even for a relative newcomer. The mountains are there in the distance, almost everywhere you look around, but for now they just provide a hint of a much bigger challenge, not one to be faced in the next five minutes.
Switzerland is also famous for its lakes and after 10 kilometres, the first on Pooley’s route looms up on the right. None of them are as big as the Zurichsee, back at the start point, however, which has numerous boat trips for the tourists. Pooley continues contouring along the ridge, with a few dips and bumps to keep her from getting complacent. Barring the lakes, the terrain remains largely the same — rich pasture almost swamped by woodland.
After about 30 kilometres Pooley passes through the first large village of the ride, Hausen, where she strongly recommends the bakeries and cafes for a stop. That’ll come on the return section of her training ride though, so the elaborately made Swiss cakes will have to wait for now. Like most of Switzerland, apart from being almost maniacally clean, the houses and gardens of Hausen are all so well-ordered that you wonder if you’ve wandered onto a film set by accident. The hills are real enough, though, and after a quick descent to another village we head up towards the town of Menzingen. It’s a four-kilometre climb now, and the terrain is getting tougher.
“It gets hillier as you go on, because we’re going southwards towards the steeper climbs,” Pooley explains later.
The weather can be a shade treacherous in Switzerland, too, and on a short, steep descent that follows, Pooley warns that — like in the UK — in the mornings ice tends to collect under the trees. “The weather also really affects the time of the ride as well; it can take me anything between three and four and a half hours depending on how cold it is.”
As we start the bottom end of a loop round and back towards Zurich, we’re on the highest part of the ride. Crossing an isolated plateau there’s some bizarre things to see on the landscape. Pooley rides past a series of cone-shaped hills, all of them grassy but each with just one tree on top. “I don’t know if they’re planted or if they just grow like that,” Pooley muses. “But they’re really funny to see.”
My hopes of finding some good castles, though, are not to be fulfilled: this is deeply central Switzerland, and the country hasn’t been at war for a long time. The most exciting man-made structure we see is a farm with really big cowbells, which doesn’t quite fit into the same category. It’s the incredibly photogenic countryside, though, that gives the ride its visual interest.
As we roll past yet another stunning lake, the Agerisee, with roads leading off to ski resorts, completing a loop and back onto the first part of the out-and-back circuit, Pooley tells us that, “The Swiss do respect cyclists, although some” — and here she uses an unpronounceable Swiss insult — “do try and run you off the road in their fancy cars, just like anywhere.”
But just like in the UK, the time of day and the roads you choose decide the number of encounters with four-wheeled traffic, and on this occasion, considering we’re so close to a major city, there’s been barely a car in sight. Not only that, while the climbing has been a challenge, the rural terrain more than makes up for it, again despite being so close to Zurich. Perfect for working off that fondue, and for getting a really different view of Switzerland than the one in the tourist guides, too.
YOUR GUIDE: EMMA POOLEY
Age 25, grew up in East Anglia, UK, lives in Zurich
Studying a PhD in Soil Engineering in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Since late spring of 2007 has been riding for Specialized
Took two top ten places in the World Championships in 2007 and a strong prospect for an Olympic ride this August
THE route starts and finishes in the suburbs of north-west Zurich — follow signs or ask (most Swiss people speak good English) for the small dormitory village of Urtikon.
In Urtikon, head left down an unclassified road for about 10km towards Affolter, cross over the main Thawl-Cham road on another unclassified road for Hausen. At Hausen, drop down into another valley and continue in a south-easterly direction towards Menzingen. After Menzingen, for 15km the road runs alongside the river and rises steadily towards Biberbrugg. At Biberbrugg, head south-west on a busier A-road towards Rothernthurm, then take a sharp right on the main road to Zug past small Agerisee Lake. Veer off the main road after Unteragi, back up towards Menzingen. Then head up north-west on the first section of the ride (30km) back to Zurich.
Zurich is fairly well served by no-frills airlines from England, although not the rest of the UK: there’s a direct service with EasyJet to Luton and you can also travel with German company AirBerlin to Manchester and Stansted.
The airport itself, Pooley says, is not so easy to deal with if you’re travelling with a bike bag: “The escalators and lifts for some reason seem to be distinctly bike-unfriendly — exactly the wrong shape for you to travel around comfortably.”
Trams don’t accept bikes, but there is a 10 Swiss franc (£4.60) day pass for bikes on trains which lets you take it anywhere in Switzerland all day — except on some international services. Once you’ve got your bike ticket, you just wheel it on.
The good news is that the bus lines in Switzerland will accept bikes as ‘another passenger’, according to Pooley.
“I pay my ticket, and then get another ticket for my bike. As I get a reduction for being a student, my bike gets one too!”