Michael Blann, the man behind the book Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs, will be at this year’s Rouleur Classic exhibiting a selection of new images from the mountains of Switzerland.
Although often overshadowed in cycling circles by the climbs of the Grand Tours, the passes of the Swiss Alps are no less spectacular. And while some of the country’s cols did feature in the book, the London based photographer returned to Switzerland this summer with unfinished business to tend to.
“Switzerland has some of the greatest climbs in Europe so it was logical for me to showcase them in the book,” he says. “The Gotthard, Furka, Grimsel, Santetsch and Scheidegg are all amazing and very different in their own way. Unfortunately they are not as well known as some of the French and Italian Alps or the Spanish climbs – although races like Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse regularly visit them.”
In all, Blann made two trips to Switzerland this summer: “On the initial trip I experienced some bad weather and the tunnels up the Col du Sanetsch were closed so I couldn’t reach the top. So it was great to go back mid-summer and photograph these climbs properly.”
Naturally, Blann’s approach to photographing the climbs starts as any cyclist’s would.
“I tend to cycle them first to work out where the best advantage points are and also when would be the best time of day. I then drive up with my equipment, park up and then hike to the vantage point where I think the best shot will be.
“All climbs have their own characteristics and the Swiss climbs are no different. The Gotthard (pictured above) is cobbled which is really unusual to find now. And climbs like the Grosse Scheidegg are so spectacular because of the scenery they pass through.
“So much of the landscape is picture postcard stuff – the meadows are mowed and cows are a constant presence feeding on the pastures. When I’m photographing in Switzerland I think I’m on a set of a milk chocolate ad.”
Even on the bike though, Blann was in work mode: eyeing up angles, reading shadows, imaging the view back at the road he was riding. Maybe he’s tied up the business end of things, but he’s still not finished with Switzerland.
“There is some great cycling to be had there,” he says. “The climb I didn’t actually get to ride was the Grosse Scheidegg. So it looks like I will have to go back again sometime.”
“Why this climb isn’t better known outside Switzerland, I do not know. It’s spectacular. Connecting the town of Meiringen with Grindelwald, the climb starts through the valley of Reichenbach and passes near the Reichenbach falls made famous by Holmes and Moriarty. The road is actually closed to most traffic apart from the local bus service so it’s possible to relax and enjoy the scenery. The constant presence of the Jungfrau, one of Europe’s highest mountains looms over you for much of the climb. But the best view is at the summit where you are met with perfect views of the north face of the Eiger.”
“The Grimsel Pass lies in the heart of some of Switzerland’s greatest climbs and is the main route connecting Meiringen with the Furka Pass to the south. The climb is interspersed by a series of lakes and dams, while smooth glacial rocks give the whole area a unique feel – quite eerie if the cloud is low. At a height of 2164m, the Grimsel Pass is often closed between Oct and May due to snowfall.”
“The Furka Pass is one of the highest mountain roads in Switzerland at 2429m. It connects Gletsch, Valais with Realp, Uri and passes the Rhone Glacier and the abandoned Hotel Belvedere on its route to the top. With spectacular vistas, you can see why it was picked as a film location for the famous James Bond car chase in Goldfinger.”
Col de la Croix
“A popular climb in both the Tour of Romandie and the Tour du Suisse, it’s also a popular training climb for cyclists based at the UCI Headquarters in Aigle. The climb from the south starts in Ollon and winds its way through the vineyards and eventually runs parallel with the train service which runs to Villars-sur-Ollon. You actually have to criss-cross the tracks in several sections before the climbs head’s off onto a quieter road that takes you to the summit. Here there are spectacular views looking north and a fast descent to the base of the Col du Pillon.”
Col du Sanetsch
“This is one of the greatest cycling climbs in Switzerland, but one that is rarely tackled because it’s a dead end. The road from Sion climbs up for 33km through a series of small villages and tunnels before flattening out along a large reservoir at the summit, with views looking north towards Gstaad. From here it is possible to hike to Glacier 3000 and back to the top of the Col du Pillon. It’s a really spectacular climb and very challenging too. Probably one of Switzerland’s best kept secrets.”
See more of Blann’s views from the Swiss mountains on Rouleur’s Instagram (@rouleurmagazine) and at the Rouleur Classic