Crossing the Alps on an E-Mountain bike: A Pioneer’s Story

There we were on the promenade of Colico, at Lake Como, covered in mosquito bites, with bleeding shins, and e-bikes barely recognizable for the dirt. But we were overjoyed to be there. We had made it! 

We began our Tour at our front door, twenty-five kilometers north of Lake Constance and crossed the Alps on a route we planned ourselves with komoot. Against the odds, absolutely everything went smoothly.

Not being particularly fit and sporty, we were setting ourselves a big challenge as some stages covered over 100 kilometers (62 miles) and more than 2000 meters (6500 feet) in altitude gain. Riding e-bikes definitely helped!

My wife, Ela, and I, both in our 50s, had never attempted anything like this before. But the transalp is a classic bucket list item, and if we can do it, anyone can! 

With a tour operator? Nah, with komoot!

Researching this Tour I discovered that many routes offered by MTB transalp tour operators stick to easy trails (grades S0-S1), and most drive over the Reschenpass because the MTB trails in the area are very technical. I wanted to ride the whole thing so I needed an accessible alternative. 

I settled on a Tour from Lake Constance to Lago Maggiore, staying in hotels along the route. I mentioned the idea to Ela, who to my surprise, said she’d like to come along. The pressure was on! Of all my cycling buddies, there are few women my age who’d be up for this kind of ride. I felt proud that she was willing to rise to the challenge, but wanted to get the planning just right. If too many things went wrong, she’d never agree to come along again!  

The route…

Finally, the route was set: between our home at Lake Constance in Germany, and our destination at Lake Como, Italy, we would climb seven passes. The main Alpine ridge-crossing would take us over the Septimer Pass — a quieter alternative to the San Bernardino Pass (where hundreds of cars and motorcycles cross every day).

I also plotted some cheat sections (ferry crossings and cable car ascents) that would make the journey slightly easier and more enjoyable for us. 

The final route comprised five stages, with one rest day in the middle. We covered approximately 320 kilometers and climbed over 7000 meters. 

The important factors we considered while planning

This was a holiday and it was important that we enjoyed the experience — a challenge is good but it needs to be interspersed with fun, relaxing bits. To this end, we wanted traffic-free riding, routes that weren’t too technical for our ability, and a comfortable place to stay each night. 

What we included and how it panned out:

  • Nice hotels (and enough time to enjoy their amenities)

We booked good quality but affordable hotels, preferably with a pool or sauna to soak in after a day’s riding. This worked well in Switzerland as hotels are affordable, and while the food is expensive, the quality is excellent everywhere.

  • Quiet roads and trails

We ensured our route avoided motorways and highways, as well as busy passes and longer sections of the Rhine Valley. This was a good decision as the few times we did ride in traffic, it really tested our nerves!

  • Challenging trails that weren’t beyond our technical ability
  • Lunch stops with electric power points 

Riding e-bikes with two batteries each meant we needed the opportunity to charge them at lunchtime. We recharged the batteries four times during breaks, which wasn’t always necessary but was reassuring. No restaurant turned down this request and in return, we tipped well.

  • A flexible rest day that allowed us to plan around the weather 

The weather was perfect and the break day in the thermal bath in Lenzerheide was wonderful.

  • Flexible hotel reservations

We used an online reservation site to find hotels with the best cancellation policy. Normally I prefer to book hotels directly, but with so many unknowns on a multi-day ride like this (weather, bike problems, etc.) we needed the flexibility. 

Preparing for breakdowns

It’s evident that your bike and gear need to be in great condition to undertake a transalp ride, plus you need to pack enough spare parts and tools to cover many eventualities. We packed a set of cranks, a spoke magnet, brake pads, and more… plus the necessary small tools. Good thing we did because I had to change the front brake pads after a downhill section, and sort out the gears on Ela’s bike after a poor gear change. 

What did we pack and where did we put it?

We upgraded our touring packs for this trip, with a 30 +5 liter pack each, which we combined with frame bags for the rain jackets and electronics. We packed light with a spare pair of cycling shorts, and an extra t-shirt each, as well as long-sleeved trousers and jumpers for the evenings. We also packed socks and underwear for three days, and rain jackets, water bottles, and various electronics. We went light on toiletries as hotels have shampoo and soap and all our clothing was fast-drying synthetic which could be washed and dried overnight or aired on a lunch break. 

Highlights

After riding 114 kilometers (71 miles) and climbing 2,000 meters (6500 feet) of altitude on our first day, we were hungry. We reached the foot of the Säntis mountain in legendary evening light. This mountain that we see every day seemed transformed. It was beautiful! 

A few kilometers later the path winds through a dozen alpine farms with goats, sheep, and cows, on a romantic route towards Schwägalp. Due to the summer holidays, the farms were alive with happy, excited children playing — it felt like a fairytale. 

Lowlights

All our mishaps happened when we ignored the route suggested by komoot and tried to carve our own path. As we approached Lake Como, a mere three kilometers from our final destination, we sank into the swampy floodplains of Lake Como. 

Later we found ourselves trudging through meter-high nettles, ankle-deep in mud. We turned back and spotted another “short-cut” over an overgrown hill which appeared to have a small track over it. The way wasn’t shown on komoot so we should have known better. As it was, we stomped through the overgrowth, shins being hit by the pedals regularly as we maneuvered our laden bikes over rocks and through the overgrowth. We arrived in Colico on Lake Como bloodied and bedraggled. So much so that the hotel receptionist asked whether we needed medical help!

The Challenge

We wanted it lonely and it got lonely! The Septimer Pass is an isolated Roman trail consisting of loose gravel with large uneven stones. Definitely not S0* territory. There are also numerous tight hairpin bends that add to the adventure. As we approached the pass from Bivio, leaving the alpine pastures behind us, it started to drizzle, and as we approached the 2300m (7546 feet) summit, we were enveloped in clouds. The path became so slippery that we decided to push, although that wasn’t risk-free either. Pushing an e-bike down the 16 hairpin bends of the “Donkey’s Death” road required plenty of concentration and care.

In dry weather I would have dared to ride most of the path, but under these conditions, we felt it better to push. Having conquered the pass and made it to the bottom, a group of young technically experienced mountain bikers passed us with reckless abandon, seemingly without a care for the future! We still had two weeks of holidays ahead of us though, including a five-day Tour of the Slovenian Alps. One injury and our plans would be scuppered. We weren’t taking chances! 

After two Alps experiences in three weeks, I was already secretly planning the next big Tour, but I doubted Ela would be up for another one. Ever surprising though, a few months later over Christmas she raised the question of our next transalp adventure, “Where will we ride our next transalp?” I knew she had finally caught the transalp bug! And of course, she suspected that I was already planning another transalp Tour!

To see even more pictures of Roy & Ela’s route, click on the Tours above.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *