Switzerland is a country that puts the mountain into mountain biking. A nation where spending time outdoors is a national past time, be it on foot, wheels, skis or even inline skates.
Photos: Mike Blewitt, Grindelwald Tourism
One of the original Swiss tourist destinations, Grindelwald sits at 1034m in the Bernese Alps, in a valley above the larger towns of Interlaken and Thun. Tourism is big business in Switzerland – it’s not all banking, chocolate and watches. Grindelwald put itself on the tourist map in the late 18th century, as images of the grand mountain vistas flooded out of the valley and throughout the western world. The small town is dominated by the looming bulk of the north face of the Eiger, a mountain with a ferocious reputation. In English, it means Ogre – and it and many other mountains drew English tourists in the late 19th century, bidding to climb the challenging peaks that surround the village. When the train line was put in by 1890, the visitor numbers dramatically increased. Now, you’re quite likely to hear English spoken when in the supermarket or on the main street, as it's the most common language for a lot of the visitors, and even many of the residents. Although Swiss-German is still the language of the region – and just one of four official Swiss languages.
You can’t ignore the wall of rock that towers above you no matter where you stand in the village. It feels so close that it’s hard to gauge the scale of the mountain. After climbers came to conquer the mountain, skiers came to Grindelwald for the slopes below the Eiger at Kleine Schiedegg. Hikers came too – and over the past 20 years, mountain bikers have started to visit Grindelwald and the surrounding villages of Murren, Isenfluh, Lauterbrunnen and Gimmelwald, all linked by mountain transport, trails and forest roads.
This network of trails, rack railways, cable cars, trains, and even bike-friendly buses should be combined to truly appreciate what Grindelwald and the surrounding towns have to offer mountain bikers. Of course, you should probably factor in some stops at alpine huts and restaurants. It’s a playground for active sportspeople in winter and summer, but with fantastic levels of comfort.
FINDING THE RIGHT PATH
If you visit Switzerland in summer, you realise how much the population enjoy being outdoors. Whole generations of families can be found out hiking, cycling, climbing and generally being active in the mountains. Mountain biking is quite new compared to other activities; there are no purpose-built mountain bike trails in the area – yet. But there’s a twist in Swiss land use law that allows mountain bikers to ride on any hiking trails, as long as there isn’t a sign on that trail prohibiting it.
“In Switzerland we have a law that says if there is no forbidden sign, then we are allowed to ride the trails. It’s a grey area in the law.” Says Beni Kaufmann, mountain bike guide, and owner of hotel Lauberhorn.
That greatly increases the amount of rideable trails beyond the 160km advertised by the tourist office. As it stands, most of the marked bike routes are gravelled service roads that snake up and down the mountains and through the passes. They take you to some beautiful places, and are great for access – but in themselves they are not what you travel half way around the world for.
Of course, you can also set off to explore the myriad of hiking trails on your bike – and Beni from Hotel Lauberhorn has put together a whole guidebook outlining the best routes. With his wife Connie, they run a mountain bike hotel in Grindelwald, complete with a brilliant breakfast (and coffee machine) secure bike storage, a sauna, bike cleaning area – and a free service to wash your bike clothing every day! In fact, when you stay at the hotel Beni and Connie act as unofficial guides. A chat over breakfast, or over a beer in the evening, and Beni will readily gain an idea for the riding you like, and can suggest routes for you, or even pop a gpx file on your bike computer.
“We’re an area for all mountain riders, or trail bikers. We’re not a downhill or enduro area. The lifts are too expensive. The biker who wants to go up and then find a nice descent down will love it here. And marathon riders too can like it here, as there are places to push their fitness.” Beni knows the mountains intimately, after running operations on both mountains since the mid-90s until he opened Hotel Lauberhorn. “I try to find out where the peoples skills are, and I give them the maps or gpx file.”
PLAYING IN THE MOUNTAINS
Sent out with a route to follow, I climbed quiet forest roads, traversing the hill to First – behind Grindelwald. Of course, there is also a chair lift or a bus option, but I don't mind climbing. After traversing back across the open meadows, and down some initial steep trails, I was sent back towards Grindelwald on a well drained, sinuous trail below the Grosse Scheidegg, quickly eliminating the almost 1000m of climbing that I'd achieved, and replacing sore legs with a broad grin. I’m pretty sure I found what I was meant to!
“Next year we will be able to open and signpost the trail from the lake above First. More or less 1000m of descending on singletrack,” Beni explains. Grindelwald understand they need to provide more direction for mountain bikers, and the hiking trails provide great infrastructure. It actually reduces trail conflict too. “As soon as the trails are difficult to ride, they don’t move fast. But on the gravel roads, that’s where the problems happen. There are not big problems on the singletrack.”
FORK IN THE ROAD
Around the corner in Lauterbrunnen, you’ll find the well-equipped Imboden Bike. Store owner, Werner Imboden, has been working extensively on approval for a freeride trail in that valley, one that is separate from the walking trails – built by the illustrious Claudio Calouri, who is a youtube hit for his on bike commentary from World Cup course previews.
The new route will start at the top of the mountain train at Grutschalp, and wind down the steep hill next to the cliff, right down to Lauterbrunnen in the valley floor, home of great cafes and restaurants, plus the bottom of the mountain railway to head back up again. There are already two popular routes that link the two areas, but the current options are on shared paths, or gravel roads. This will be a pure mountain bike experience.
This trail will combine what a lot of the hiking trails in the valleys offer. Steep, prolonged descents, but with slightly wider radius corners than the hiking trails, and working to include some of the natural features in the valley like rock step-ups and built bridges to traverse the unrideable terrain.
This next step in trail development, along with more singletrack route marking, should bring the mountain biking in Grindelwald on par with the countless other outdoor activities on offer. As it stands, it suits the mountain biker who is keen to get out into the mountains and explore where the trails can take them.
When to Go: For mountain biking, you are best to visit from late June to late September, when the high trails should be free from snow. August is quite busy, as everyone in Europe is on holiday.
Best Bike Shop: Imboden Bike around the corner in Lauterbrunnen is the place to go for top quality servicing, and rental bikes. Otherwise you can rent bikes from four locations in Grindelwald, starting at 30 CHF for a hardtail for half a day, or 35CHF for a full suspension bike. Kids bikes and E-bikes are also available.
Accommodation: You will find everything from backpacker hostels to 5-star hotels, starting at about 35CHF a night. We stayed at Hotel Lauberhorn, a comfortable bed and breakfast setup for mountain bikers, and run by mountain bikers.
Getting There: You can fly to Zurich or Geneva with most major airlines, with train connections to Grindelwald taking about 3 and 4 hours respectively. The rail links from Munich are also fantastic, but it's a longer trip at about 7 hours on the train. It is easy to avoid getting a hire car in Switzerland, and you can plan your rail trips online. The timetables for the national rail service also work for travel from other countries. Go to swisstravelsystem.com for more details.
Other things to do: There are toboggan rides, paragliding options, countless hiking routes and of course the famous train trip to the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe at 3454m. You’ll find a pool to swim in in town, mini golf, via ferrata, and more great dining options than we can list to fuel days of adventure – on bike or foot.
Events: The main mountain bike event is the Eiger Bike Marathon, run in mid-August. There are three route lengths to choose from, and although it doesn’t take in the best trails, it will test your climbing legs and descending nerve, all while racing in one of the most dramatic landscapes in Europe.
Currency: Switzerland is in Europe but isn't part of the Eurozone. Their currency is the Swiss Franc (CHF), which at the time of printing has been locked at an exchange rate of 1 Euro: 1.15 CHF.
Travel: If you plan to stay in Switzerland a while, invest in a Half Card for 120 CHF. It will allow you to travel for half price on Swiss trains, buses, boats and mountain railways for a month from the date of purchase.
Charging: Swiss plugs are just a little bit different from European or Italian plugs. Double check when you buy an adaptor that it does Switzerland as well.