The Beginning of the End…?

So after getting up early for sunrise views of / from the Creux du Van, a quick coffee and breakfast (muesli pour moi, two carefully fried eggs for Uwe, the yolks of which he took great pleasure in wolfing down in one) we headed off back to the trail. I was feeling good as it was earlier than normal and my big climb for the day had already been done. Uwe decided to change his original plan and come with me on the mountain bike route to Ste Croix. It was funny cycling with someone else again, even just up the climb the night before. I immediately had that feeling of pressure of feeling like I’m slower and am probably going to end up struggling to keep up. I have to try not to focus on this and just concentrate on turning the wheels, even though Uwe didn’t speed off (though he seemed a strong climber and perhaps could have pushed it more).

One thing I’ve enjoyed about cycling on my own is not feeling any pressure to keep up with anybody or wait for anybody etc. Whilst many parts of a long ride with someone would be great, I’d have to work out how to not feel this pressure when riding! I guess it depends on who you’re riding with. Anyway, a couple of miles up the road the mountain bike route sign pointed at a bumpy track heading off down into a field. Uwe looked at it and said ‘This is not for my bike!’ and decided to head back on his original route. I headed off, wondering if he meant ‘This is not for any bike!’.

20111005-223138.jpg
[Uwe contemplating options in the morning]

After the usual day of ups and downs (despite having done the big up), and occasionally misinterpreting the odd badly positioned (or mischievously moved) signpost and having to retrace my steps to find the route again, AND having to unload the bike to get it through gaps where the trail passed through stone walls that were clearly not built for wide bikes, by about half past three I was a few miles from Ste Croix. As I stopped for a drink overlooking Lac de Neuchatel, a guy came over and asked where I was going. He was friendly and seemed to be a mountain biker too. I didn’t think much of it, even when he said he was a free-rider and seemed to say he had been testing a bike for Trek. He was trying to set up a bike friendly place to stay at his families place nearby and offered me a place to stay for the night, together with the chance to wash clothes, have a beer with him etc. I often berate myself for being easily swayed from my task by people, but at other times I do the same for not being sociable enough when there is no real reason not to be. It was only mid afternoon, I’d had a good start to the day and really wanted to at least get to the end of day target in Ste Croix, if not further. The past few days had been quite hard and the route seemed to chuck in some surprisingly slowing sections, especially on this bike. So when he said I’d still have time to get to Le Sentier from here the following day, I was a bit dubious. He gave me his details, I said I’d have a think about it, he went back to work and I started to head off along the route, feeing like on this occasion I probably should be more sociable. This isn’t a race! Although in truth I was feeling the pressure a bit as I need to cover some ground to get to St Gallen and still have enough time to see my friends before heading back to the UK in mid October. Anyway, I’d made a decision so pedalled off, and within five minutes almost proved my point by heading uphill on a tortuously steep bit of track ( though I think that as may have happened a couple of times the sign was kind of pointing between the track and I took the (incorrect, this time) option, heading up a goat track when there was perfectly adequate road just meters away.

In Ste Croix the youth hostel I’d been heading for seemed to be non existent so I stopped in a cafe in town to see what see what else I could find. It turned out the cafe had a few rooms upstairs that they rented out. They weren’t great but the waitress was kind of smiled nicely so I somehow said yes…so easily swayed! Must remember never to make any big decisions at the of a days biking. Actually the cafe turned out to be a very friendly, busy Italian restaurant, so in the end I happy to have stayed there.

It was only later that night when I looked at the website that the guy I’d met gave me, did I realise that he was Gilles Cruchaud, a Guiness world-record-holding free-rider, who specialises in wheelying mountain bikes over long distances, and is sponsored by Trek bikes. His website has some pretty funny photos – he looks like a bit of a Swiss celeb! Goddamnit I could have been having a beer with a Swiss biking legend! There’s a video with a bit of off-road wheelying here.

I was only planning on staying the night, but didn’t sleep well (usual hotel noises inside and out I guess) and when I woke, decided to stay in Ste Croix for the day and rest. Ste Croix is a slightly strange town. There were people coming in and ordering a beer at 8am whist I was having my breakfast, and an abnormally high proportion of tattoos and folk kicking around on skateboards. I managed to sit around in cafes for the day and read mostly, whilst resting my legs.

20111005-231900.jpg
[coffee and maps. Both very important]

There also seemed to be a huge number of different people working in the restaurant. The waitress the second night and following morning was really friendly when I actually had a proper conversation with her as I was about to leave (I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name!). I am finding this happens a lot – you kind of say hello to people you meet in a hotel or at a campsite and initially that’s about as far as the engagement goes on both sides. I guess lots of people don’t want to be over friendly, and in a restaurant it’s perhaps difficult for the staff if they are busy etc. Its then often as I’m getting ready to leave that they ask where you are from / going to etc and you have a chat, they turn out to be really friendly and you wish you’d spoken properly the night before when you could have had a proper chat and a beer! Perhaps there’s something I need to learn in order to approach people more quickly, but I don’t want to be starting every conversation with ‘hello, I’m here on my bicycle…’. Anyway, she spoke great English, has family living in central London, and agreed about the early morning drinking in Ste Croix, putting it down to being in the mountains that did it. Maybe there’s something in that. Perhaps the winters are so hard that they need to start the day with a bit of booze just to warm up in the morning…

The climb from Ste Croix was quite big, heading along a long ridge with great views. After a day off though, even though it was hard, it felt…kind of…err…good. Never thought I’d hear myself say that. The views at the top were amazing, with clouds filling the valley below.

20111005-232203.jpg

20111005-232237.jpg
[above the clouds. Well, mist]

20111005-232248.jpg
[I’m not quite sure why they felt the need to warn people about the breakdancing cyclist]

I passed a few chamois in the forests, happy to keep on munching at the grass whilst I watched. Passing through a valley approaching Lac du Joux, I again misinterpreted which direction to head at a junction where there was no sign and headed off up a track instead of a road. As it got steeper I thought it was probably time to unload the bike and headed up on foot carrying two panniers. A bit farther up the track got so steep that I realised this couldn’t possibly be the bike route so slithered my way down and once again retraced my steps. The trickiness comes because a lot of this route is on existing footpaths which are already signed. The mountain bike route signs have been added but they aren’t as frequent as the little yellow footpath signs, which are everywhere as they were in the Schwarzwald. On some stretches you might pass lots of the footpath reminder signs before you come across another mountain bike route sign. They give you a bit of comfort that you’re still on the track. But they can also lead to confusion. The general rule is that if you come to a junction and there is no mountain bike sign, then head straight on, or of it’s a fork, stay on the most major track / trail. But if you come to a fork and the footpath sign points off down a smaller trail, it’s easy to think you should be following it. So off you head up another hill only to have to retrace your steps and waste half an hour in the process.

There were a lot of concrete bunkers and barriers up here which are presumably left over from the war – defences protecting the cols between valleys.

20111005-233858.jpg

20111005-234117.jpg
[finally they are putting something in place to keep the cows in their fields. Actually, I guess these must have been wartime barriers to stop vehicles getting through. Kind of strange to see them still here though.]

At one point I followed the route into a field with a few bulls in, following the track quickly up into the forest. As I entered, and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see a bull or cow at a curve in the track on the hill ahead, maybe 20 metres away. One cow became two became three became many more, all heading downhill towards me. I retreated back put of the field to wait for them to all come down and grab something to eat. Ten minutes later they we still coming! The field was full of them. Giving up, I headed off down another track thinking I could probably see where it went on the map and sure that it linked up with the trail I wanted a bit further on. An hour later, after traipsing through fields following a non existent track, leaving the bike to head up hills on foot to try find the route from the other side of the cow obstruction, and crossing quite a few fences, I was back on track. And had a nice view for a lunch stop.

20111005-235120.jpg
[follow the (non-existant) trail]

20111005-235128.jpg
[this beats lunch at my desk]

I eventually made it down to the campsite just short of Le Sentier, on Lac du Joux. This felt like a fairly long and epic day and I just had time to put my tent up and get a quick dip in the lake before the sun went down.

20111006-003337.jpg
[just time for a quick swim]

The last day looked similarly epic according to the guide. A climb up to the Col du Marchairuz around 1500m (though only 500m of climbing as the last few days hadn’t really dropped much below 1000m, followed by a long ride down to Nyon, covering some 70km. The climb wasn’t quite as hard as I thought it might be, even the last stretch on the road. In fact the off road parts were fairly pleasant, though that might have been because the day before I kept finding more cheeky climbs right until the end. I stopped for a quick coke at the top, refusing to buy and extortionate lunch and instead munching on my squashed sandwiches. There were a few sections on disappearing into the woods singletrack on the way down to make things interesting.

20111006-000004.jpg
[heading up to the Col du Marchairuz]

20111006-000221.jpg
[not sure who the guy with the smile is but I do know he’s kind of spoiling the view!]

20111006-002745.jpg
[and down the other side]

On the way down I came across a big gate where the track entered a field. Normally these are great as you just open and close them – much better than faffing with electric fences or trying to squeeze through gaps in walls that are too small. Some farms / communities seem to have invested in great facilities at these points to keep the cows where they are but let walkers and bikers through (some even have narrow cattle grips style ramps that you can ride or wheel a bike over), whilst others have not. Anyway, this one looked easy so I was severely pissed off to discover that the great big gate was padlocked shut, and there was no easy way though. Walkers (and even mountain bikers with no bags) could climb the fence, squeeze through the style or drop down the wall on the side. I was worried that I needed to cover 70km in order to get to Nyon that night, and every unloading and reloading of the bike ends up eating ten minutes away. Not a major problem really, I think I also just wanted a smooth easy down hill run without obstacles, so for some reason this riled me. I unloaded, dropped the bags down the wall on the side of the gate, lowered the bike down and reloaded. I felt slightly better (and only slightly childish) after taking a leak on the padlock itself (sorry Mum). Slightly better until a few hundred metres down the track where I had to negotiate the same damn setup to leave this farmer’s over-protected field!

On the way down I passed through some woods with some carvings of local wildlife. And was a little big disconcerted to see this:

20111006-002920.jpg
[have I been biking and camping here without really realising they have BEARS?!]

I think I missed a sign for the trail at one point but didn’t care as I was coasting down smooth tarmac switchbacks and had to skip across a couple of villages further down to ice up the trail again. But suddenly then I was on the outskirts of Nyon. There’s no way this section was 70km – 50km perhaps – so I was actually about an hour early getting to the hotel I’d had to book as accommodation in Nyon seemed busy and mostly hotels, with no campsite or hostel. Nyon is a other place I’d like to visit again, even if just for a day. With an old town sat up on a defensive, flat topped hill, it’s full of old buildings and small squares.

It was a bit of an anticlimax that the last day had gone relatively smoothly and uneventfully after a few epic days before. But the thought that I wouldn’t have to drag my sorry arse and push an overweight bike up any more rocky, slippy footpaths was good! I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to have time to use the Panorama mountain bike route to get across to St Gallen. After the Jura took the full nine days it specifies in the guide (plus the day off), I’d need at least two weeks to complete the Panorama route. I’ve got commitments to be back in London for mid October and this was already the end of September. When I’d first thought that I might not have time to ride the Panorama route (actually back in the Schwarzwald), I’d felt like I was bottling it and should just go for it. But after riding the Jura I came to the conclusion that the Panorama route might just not be any fun with a loaded bike. The climbs are longer and steeper and I think there would just be a while lot of pushing. So I had decided to take the (non-mountain bike) Lakes route across to St Gallen. A little bit longer in distance but with a third of the height gain and mostly on tarmac. I really want to come back and do the Panorama route on a mountain bike without bags, and with some suspension, but as I was tucking into what felt like the most expensive steak I’ve probably ever had (CHF45 (over £30?), though it was delicious) I was just looking forward to smooth, flat tarmac.

20111006-003649.jpg
[back in the city]

Posted in London to Switzerland (2011) and tagged , .