First Silk Across the Alps

September 30, 2013

High altitude exhaustionBY STEVE NICOL

As soon as I saw the first announcement for a Bike Friday Silk I knew I had to have one.

I have been a fan of folding bikes for awhile because I tend to travel a lot, but was getting rather fed up with the seemingly inevitable layer of grease that seemed to cover me, my clothes and every available surface following each dismantling and reassembly of the bike.

A belt drive and internal hub? This was the solution and I put my order in almost immediately justifying it as a special birthday present to myself.

Now, I live in Tasmania, which is just about at the end of the civilized world. My Silk was produced in Oregon, the other side of the world’s biggest ocean. And I decided to take it on its inaugural tour to Europe.

So, before I even turned a wheel in anger, the bike had travelled two thirds the way around the globe. Nonetheless, the logistics worked; the bike arrived in Tasmania in time for my birthday in May. I assembled it, admired it (and had others admire it), tried it out on a few short rides, then packed it up for transport to Europe.

I arrived in England in mid-June and managed to squeeze in a few rain-free days during which I could try the bike out in touring mode.

I accidentally put us both through a very long day in the saddle (140km) cycling around London and we both seemed to cope.

Then I cycled half way across the metropolis, which was an interesting experience. London is emerging as a very bicycle-friendly city (despite the weather) and there are now vast networks of cycle lanes, bike tracks and bicycle super highways. However, the signage is yet to catch up with the rest of the infrastructure. So I found myself directionally-challenged on several occasions. Then it was time to pack the bike up again for a short flight to Milan to begin the European phase of the operation.

Firstly, my wife Dianne and I were taking part in an organized tour from Bolzano in the Dolomite mountains in the North of Italy to Venice on the Adriatic coast – mostly flat or downhill, a good warm up.

Everyone but me was on full-sized bikes supplied by the organizing company, and there were many raised eyebrows over my use of a small wheeled bike.

One of the guides was particularly skeptical of the ability of the Silk until he took it for a spin and he returned a convert.

The bike completed phase one flawlessly and coped with stretches of dirt road, cobbles as well as the heat and humidity. I found the Silk to be comfortable for long days in the saddle, but I’d not yet tried it fully loaded and going uphill.

Having reached Venice, the tour ended. Then I turned around and retraced my route back into the mountains.

The North of Italy is crossed by some amazing bike tracks (pistes cyclables) and it is possible to ride from Verona to the Austrian border (and beyond) almost exclusively on dedicated, beautifully constructed and signposted bicycle paths.

These paths are incredibly well used by day trippers, families, commuters, pelotons and long-distance tourers.

I followed the Adige River cycle path, which is part of the Via Claudia Augusta a long-distance path across the Alps to Germany.

nicol.alps.6The scenery is spectacular as the glacial valley narrows toward the mountains and every outcrop seems to sport a castle or monastery. The valley floor is heavily cultivated with vineyards in the South and apple orchards in the North.

At Bolzano, the path turns West from the spectacular Dolomites towards the Alps.

I cycled past the entrance to the infamous Stelvio Pass with its 48 hairpin bends in favour of the much more accessible Reschenpass that goes from Italy to Austria. I only stayed half an hour in Austria as the route immediately took me down a series of hairpins into the Inn valley and the Swiss border – three countries in less than an hour – this must be Europe!

Once in Switzerland I followed the impressive network of Swiss National Cycle Routes that use dedicated bicycle paths, minor roads and gravel tracks.

I started by following Route Number 6 that heads up the Inn valley almost as far as St. Moritz before taking a sharp right turn up into the high mountains at the Albulapass.

nicol.alps.9I envisioned cycling gently up a scenic valley for a few days but the route planners had other ideas. In an attempt to avoid the main roads they often took the route high onto the sides of the valleys sometimes on rough dirt tracks more suited to mountain bikes and frustratingly these steep sections always seemed to come late in the afternoon after a long day in the saddle. Then it was time to tackle my first serious mountain pass and the gateway to the Alps proper.

The Albulapass started with a sign indicating a 625-metre elevation change over the next 9 km and commenced with a series of hairpin bends that I shared with other cyclists as well as with a large number of people on high-performance motorcycles and drivers of expensive sports cars.

The climb began at 1600m and I felt a bit breathless as I plodded up the pass pausing at each hairpin to let my heart rate retreat from the danger zone and cursing the 5 kg of camping gear that I was carrying,  which I was destined never to use.

The air got cooler and crisper as I approached the summit only to find the road blocked by a herd of cows that seemed impervious to the honking of horns and multi-lingual encouragement of motorists. It took a local cyclist to ride into the herd, swatting the cows out of the way to clear the road and allow me to reach the summit and a high altitude cup of coffee.

nicol.alps.10

I am glad I didn’t have anything stronger at the top of the pass because the descent was hair-raising. Although the ascent had been a hard 9 km uphill slog, through some bending of the laws of physics the downhill section on the other side was 49km of hairpins, suicidal drop-offs and gorges on a busy road. I elected to use the excellent Swiss railway system for the last 20km section to avoid heavy traffic and a series of tunnels.

Now I was in the true Alps with snow-capped peaks and picture-postcard mountain villages on every side and the constant soundtrack of the ringing of cow bells.

I took a day off in Chur to give my legs a rest but elected to go hiking instead, which only made them even more sore, so I arrived at the base-camp for the Oberalpass in serious need of a rest.

Feeling like a cheat, I once again took a train over the pass then holed up in a hotel for the rest of the day so that I could prepare myself for the frightening Furkapass which followed the next day. This one climbed 890 metres in 13 km and consisted of two series of hairpins linked by a high alpine climb up the side of the treeless valley. At the summit there were spectacular views back down the valley I had just ascended then an awesome view of the massive series of hairpins that would take me down into the Rhone valley, past the fast-receding Rhone Glacier.

Once in the Rhone Valley it was a straightforward but very scenic week’s riding down Route No. 1 to reach Lac Leman and Geneva where my daughter lives.

I had amazing luck with the weather it was mostly hot and at times humid with thunderstorms most evenings, but there was only one day where it rained by day – and I sat that one out. The bike probably performed better than I did; I could have used another gear or two on the climbs, but then again I could have carried less redundant camping gear which would have had the same effect!

I suffered no punctures (thank you Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires!) and few adjustments were needed en route (other than the brakes after several massive descents). After a very hard 1000+km the belt now needs tightening, the gears have run out of adjustment and the wheels probably need some attention but otherwise my Silk has been as trouble free as I hoped – and no grease!

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sally Allen  |  October 1, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Hi Steve, your trip sounds fabulous. very scenic and nice to be off busy roads. riding in the Alps sounds so steep but seems you managed it with ease. Bikefriday should give you a free bike for all the excellent advertising you are giving them. i’m interested in a bike trip some time before June 2014. what did you have in mind?
    cheers. sally

    Reply
  • 2. Mary Ann Wallace  |  October 8, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Thank you, Steve, for such a wonderful description of your trip, the photos, and how the Silk handled the terrain it was on. You’re motivating all of us who read your journal.

    Reply
  • 3. Tom Thel  |  October 8, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Encouraging read. Can you say which internal hub and the size of the front and read pulleys? The fear of mountains on a pannier-laden Silk has made me afraid to get one.

    Reply
    • 4. Steve Nicol  |  October 8, 2013 at 2:50 pm

      I have an Alfine 11 hub which worked perfectly the whole trip. The pulleys were 55 on the front and 24 on the back. Apparently you can get a 26 tooth rear which would make the hills a lot easier and I have contemplated getting one if I do another big trip.

      Reply
  • 5. Bruce Logan  |  November 28, 2013 at 7:03 am

    Like you, Steve, the spec just grabbed me. I travel with my bike a lot and all the felt packing bits supplied with my previous NWT were covered in oil etc, so as soon as I read about the Silk I knew I had to get one. I sold my NWT and ordered the Silk with great help from Walter at BF. I picked it up at the factory in Eugene last month and rode the 400 miles back to Victoria BC through Oregon & Washington. What a delightful – quiet – ride! BTW if you’re going to change the rear cog you may find you will have to install a belt with a different number of teeth. And remember to change the oil after the first 1000 kms

    Reply
    • 6. Steve Nicol  |  December 8, 2013 at 12:46 am

      Sounds like a good trip, Bruce, one I hope to make one day! I have been assured that I should be able to get away with the same belt with a 26 tooth pulley so I have gone ahead and ordered one. I’ll make a further post once I have fitted it. Already changed the oil but apart from that maintenance has been minimal.

      Reply
  • 7. Steve Nicol  |  April 8, 2014 at 4:01 am

    I now have a 26 tooth rear cog on my Silk and it makes hills much easier – it fitted on with the same belt. The bike and I tackled a 3 week tour of New Zealand and we both survived well despite lots of gravel tracks and dirt roads. I even managed to cope with a rear tyre puncture which meant taking the wheel off which is not a trivial task with the belt and internal hub. A word of warning – be very careful with the bolts that go into the wheel drop out plates as the alloy is very soft – I have had stainless steel inserts put in for the adjusting bolts and for the rack mounts.

    Reply

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