PREVIEW: 2nd edition of Switzerland’s Bergkönig announced for August 2018
After great success with its first Bergkönig, Switzerland is gearing up for the second edition in 2018, to be held in the village of Gstaad on the weekend of 24-26 August.
Read on for detailed notes about the course, which we are the first to ride on an old steelie, and a preview of the event and how to get there. Websites and contacts at the end.
Think L'Eroica ('The Heroes')– Italy’s runaway success, where only pre-1987 steel racing bikes are allowed. First held in 1997, L'Eroica has spawned a whole movement. The Eroica brand has been leased by its owners to events in Spain, the US and the UK, while standalone rides such as the Retro Ronde in Belgium and La Superba in Italy have become popular. The largest event is estimated to be Eroica Britannia, held in mid-June in the UK's Peak District. 40,000 visitors attended it in 2016.
Bergkönig founder and Swiss vintage bike collector Alex Beeler and his wife Francesca (+41 79 217 62 04) are now launching the Swiss Vintage Cycling Festival. It will offer a vintage bike market and events and rides in the village of Gstaad, over the weekend of August 26-27, 2017. The whole focus of the Bergkönig will be on friendly, non-competitive, family fun. Numerous rides are offered, several of
them just 20kms in length, to encourage the widest possible participation on even the most fragile machines. These rides, up to 85kms in length, are collected under the title Pedaleur du charme, the nickname of Swiss race legend Hugo Koblet (1925-64). However, make no mistake, the defining ride is the namesake Bergkönig-Ronde which translates 'King of the Mountains Loop', and which takes place on the Sunday.
COURSE NOTES: Bergkönig, 103kms, 2,400 metres climbing
Only 2% of the course is gravel; but the roads are often quite bumpy and technical. Freshly serviced brakes are essential. The ride breaks down into three sections that could be termed ‘beauty’, ‘beast’ and ‘bliss.’ The beast section is the meat of the event and roughly comprises four climbs, the second and fourth of which will define your memory of the event for reasons that we’ll come to. Look at the profile:
You set off from Gstaad the village (it’s also a region in the Canton of Bern). Ahead is a fantastically pretty schlepp down a valley on country lanes, with one particular back road that you turn left in to by the church in Rougemont. It's got the odd kick-up but as the profile shows, overall you're losing altitude. Now is the time to shake out your legs and get the feel for whatever bike you've got. In my case I was on a bike I'd only ridden that morning, and I was gingerly plying the six speed cassette; remembering that riding on the hoods is for sissies (they are not comfortable because hands were not meant to perched on them); wondering if the slightly short (for me) top tube/stem combo was going to be a deal-breaker or merely a minor detail (the latter, thankfully), and wondering with trepidation at the hard-man gearing, the lowest ratio 42x26.
I was also busy figuring out where I was going, with only a map and some verbal instructions, but I can say that this is essentially a bulletproof ride. It takes advantage of a mosaic of already well sign-posted bike routes. The handful of critical turn-offs will be amply signposted on the day and I'd be most surprised if anyone goes off route through error. The circular nature of the route is also welcome, making logistics easy.
The first 25kms of the ride, all the way down to the turn at Montbovon, is easy streets. It's also Swiss beauty to die for and unless it happens to be pouring with rain you'll see bell-ringing cows, tiny high-altitude wild flower meadows and woods, and a mosaic of farmhouses, machinery and dogs and cats and birds in abundance. If it doesn't break into your inner-Swiss, something will have gone wrong.
At Montbovon there is a crucial turn that you won't miss, and here is where the ride proper begins. Immediately you're climbing, and while there are respites, you are now gaining altitude for the next 18 kms to Lac de l'Hongrin, a huge reservoir high up in the alps.
This is a lovely climb through woods. There are respites, but as you exit the trees it kicks up and suddenly you're aware of the residual rolling resistance of a back tyre deliberately left at 85psi instead of 100 +, to reflect the often fidgety surfaces of these roads. You're fully at work and if it's hot, you'll be aware of that too.
On reaching the dam you're off down the side of the lake now, all very lovely.
You turn back down the other side at a military base marked by a tank. The roads here are wide and sweeping, the bridges numbered for tank manoeuvres. You're high up and the light dances, yet you're about to go up much higher still...
...And so a sign appears pointing left to Pierre du Moëlle. This is the bit on the profile around the 50kms mark, where steady climbing points skywards and suddenly gets much steeper. This is where you're at 100% effort for the first time, and indeed I quickly found myself having to weave across the road from side to side to keep moving in a 42x26 ratio. The sharply cut drainage channels now become a hazard, because if you were to accidentally converge with one it would swallow your wheel and quite possibly end your ride there and then. Now's the time to grit - but stop and pause or walk if you need to. Lots of riders will need to.
The view at the top is incredible, and is followed by a pretty technical descent where a healthy dose of caution is advised, not least because the road is so narrow. At the base of the descent you arrive at a main road where you'll be grateful to turn left and have a more normal gradient and a billiard ball smooth surface - but you've got another climb of over a kilometre before turning right towards Les Voëttes. More climbing here, this being the third of the climbs and on the profile the smaller 'hump' in the middle. Another descent and then some smooth road again to the ski station of Les Diableret.
Here in Les Diableret there is another critical left turn and, I anticipate, a feed station, because the biggest climb lies immediately ahead, 7 kms of unrelentingly steep ascent. The day I did this it was 27 degrees centigrade - not as hot as it can be - and I was tiring. The heat beat relentlessly off the rocks and all I can say is that 4/5th of the way up you pass a couple of houses on a hairpin bend, and there in front of you is a mountain trough full of sparkly clean icy cold water. I stopped and immersed my whole head in it, tipped water down my neck and refilled my bidon. Take stock: you have about 1km to go so it's going to be OK.
A kilometre beyond and, as Alex put it, 'at Iserau you're done: it's all over.'
Actually its not. You've got 35kms left to savour. The initial descent is as technical as ever and be careful not to overdo it across the cattle grids as I did, hitting one so hard I slightly threw the rear wheel out of true. When you reach the junction with the main road you turn left and the sign posts are once more for Gstaad. Now you've got billiard ball surfaces again and a fast, beautiful ride that flatters everyone because it's downhill even though it may not look it. Presently you reach the start/finish and hopefully a hero's welcome. Timingwise I took 5 hours 45 min, but including stops and quite a lot of iPhone mapping checks, I was actually on the road for nearly 8 hours - a 9 to 5 'long day in the saddle'. In order to enjoy the stops, the views and the atmosphere you may find yourself doing likewise. View it as a lovely long day out and savour every moment.
By way of a summary note, I think this was one of the finest rides I've experienced in recent years. It's not only ravishingly beautiful, to the point where if you're from the UK you'll bitterly regret it, but it's got grit and a sort of material distinction and charisma that is rare. Not seeing a single piece of litter from start to finish is also a first.
Regarding the vintage bit, I found myself increasingly appreciating a heavier but somehow purer, GIOS-built Colombus SL-framed mid-eighties race bike, in this case equipped with Dura-Ace 7400. It belongs to Alex Beeler, the organiser, and was the first generation bike to feature Look-style cleated pedals (which scrape in as allowable, according to the rules), although I rode it with Quoc Pham shoes (the Fixed model) and clips and straps.
The basic rule is steel bikes up to 1986, but the organisers are not going to quibble if you get a detail wrong. There is more information on components on the German-language version of the website. Kit-wise I have two lessons to share:
1. the ideal tyre is 700x25, and for me the perfect contender is the Continental GP Four Seasons because of it's supple ride but strong cut protection.
2. Get the gears...Old school gearing is going to hurt you on this course, but if you can ride most of it and walk a little, you'll feel you've had a unique experience compared to a modern bike. I was surprised how much I loved the older bike and a return to the downshifters I started on as a teenager.
Accommodation, Travel Notes, Contacts
There is a wealth of information and the registration form at
www.bergkoenig-gstaad.com. The cost of riding is Chf 100, about £75 at current exchange rates. The easiest way to get there from the UK is to fly to Geneva and then take a train to Montreux, changing onto the panorama 'Goldenweg' train that then climbs brilliantly towards the sun-lit Bernese Oberland. Alex's direct contact is firstname.lastname@example.org / +41 79 217 62 04 and he can advise on bikes and bike rental if you don't have one. We stayed at the Hotel HUUS above Saanen, the adjacent village of Gstaad. This is a cool, recently-opened, sporty chalet-style property boasting a wide range of summer events and activities all included in the price - very well worth considering if you would otherwise pay for those activities (everything from yoga to rafting - budget £200 per night). This four star property also has a very relaxed electro-beat DJ vibe and its own fleet of mountainbikes which you can simply take if you just want to whizz down the hill to the village. Of course there are camping and B&B options too and the event website links to the excellent tourist office, who will sort you out. There are good bike shops in each village: I recommend Arthur Reuteler of Bikesport Reuteler, +41 33 7445133, www.bikesport-reuteler.ch.
Right now our favourite event in the whole world. If you're from the UK the only downsides are:
(1) The weak BREXIT pound isn't helping with Swiss costs, but flying to Geneva is easy (even from London City as I did, with Swiss Air, having cycled to the airport along the River Lee)
(2) On the other hand you might so fall in love with this place that you ditch Milton Keynes and stay forever, in which case you'll be the one earning Swiss francs.
(3) The memories will long outlast the costs so go for it (in our view)
(4) This is the inaugural event. When it's one day catering to thousands of visitors, you'll look back longingly on the intimacy of the first edition.
(5) We're in a vintage moment for good reason. If you have attended the Goodwood Revival you know all about it. But the purest transport form of all is not an old Ferrari but a steel-framed racing bike. Anyone who disagrees hasn't tried it. OK, we're not anti-old Ferrari, but the point stands. It's also possible for anyone to buy the bike but not the Ferrari. A bigger point.
THANKS: To Alex and Francesca Beeler for making this happen, and for their God-sent apricots and buttered bretzel (you have no idea how good this was or how much I needed it!); Sara Roloff and Harry White at the Swiss Tourist Board in London, UK, the staff and general manager of HUUS, Arthur Reuteler of Bike Sport in Saanen.