Journey to Milano
I just got back from a bike trip from Stuttgart, Germany via the Alps to Milano. In the last five days I have ridden the bike in hail, storms, snow, the most extreme rain that you have ever seen, summer heat of 40°C in the shadow, and in the freezing cold. I had expected a hard trip, but I simply can not explain the intensity of what has happened. And on the fifth day, I quit, taking the train instead of completing the last two distances.
Day 1 - The Underestimated [map]
I am starting to Tübingen in the pouring rain, but only ten minutes later the sky clears up. I can comfortably make my way via known roads for now, so I yet ignore my navigational device (Oregon 400t). In Tübingen the Navigator does not know a good path towards Switzerland, so I navigate manually. For the first time in my trip, I head into villages that are unknown to me.
It starts off pretty hilly; a lot more so than I expected. I had intentionally planned the first day to be rather lazy to let my body get used to the work, but after a while I realize that this day is actually a hard part of work. There are almost no plains here, and by the time I arrive at my first hostel for the night I am more than glad to have made it.
During the trip I occasionally feel a slight pain in my right achilles tendon; this is well known to me and I know not to try and compensate by using my left foot. I make sure to ride extra carefully.
The hostel in Stein am Rhein is quite good, and I can lock my bike away in a room with only few other people. I take a walk into the city in the evening and after a meal the is rather low in calories, I get a good night of sleep.
Day 2 - The Overestimated [map]
My muscles feel pretty good, and shortly after starting the pain in my achilles is back. It still doesn’t affect my strength, but is significant enough to remind me to be careful. After a rather hilly start I cross the Obersee. I the middle of the dam it feels like the ocean, and it’s a great way to start into the Alps that are now towering in front of me. I had a lot of respect for the Alps - apparently too much, in fact. After climbing the first large mountain I remember thinking that this was *a lot* easier than I expected, and can enjoy a huge and slow decent. I end up at the Lauerzer Sea, which is an incredible sight. For the first time I stop to take a picture. Upon stopping I notice that my arms are burned from the sun, so I take the opportunity to apply some sun blocker as well.
The trail continues with some small climbs, until I end up at the Gotthard. This is an utterly exhausting way to end the day, and I could not have crammed much more into it. Today’s 165 kilometres are enough.
The hostel in Hospental is very friendly and nice, and that the owners are trying to do everything to make it a warm and familiar place. There are three other people my age who are travelling the Swiss to go to a festival in Locarno. We have a nice evening and I am glad to have met them.
Day 3 - Can It Get Any Worse? [map]
My muscles are starting to feel used, but my achilles is now pain free. Today starts sunny, and after climbing the missing 500 vertical meters on the Gotthard I am in for at least 70km of decline. The first 10 or 15 km of this is headstones though, so it is not a fast or very pleasant ride. Still, this was no doubt the easiest part of the trip. I continue in the growing heat, and this is where things start to go ugly.
It is now at least 35°C in the shadow, and on a steep climb of 10% I am starting to get really grumpy. I can’t be in the shadow, so I am riding in at least 45°. The heat is too much to take, the traffic unbearable and the stink of molten asphalt in the air adds more; I see and feel the heat waves coming from the ground. I barely make it up the mountain. At least I get another decline in return, but on the next hill at km 135 I feel like falling off my bike. I take a 15 minute break, and then finally cross the border to Italy to make it to Como. I drop my luggage at the hostel and head on for Milano.
The ride to Milano and back adds another 80km on top of the 145 that I already did, and due to the still increasing heat this is almost more than I can take. I am going at 15km/h now, but in the end I do manage to make it back.
In the evening I go get some food at an excellent Italian restaurant and call it a day.
Day 4 - It Can Always Get Worse!
I did not sleep well, and I get up at 6:30 in the morning. Today’s distance is one of the shortest, but after having seen the Gotthard going in the other direction yesterday this one scares me the most. For the first time, my muscles already feel tired in the morning. Still, my achilles feels well.
Again, the sun is shining and I swear that if today turns out to be as hot as yesterday I am going to quit. Little did I know.
Only 30 minutes later, all hell breakes loose; clouds are coming, and what seems like a strong storm at the time starts. It is still warm, so I am actually glad to be able to start in the rain. It takes only a minute to soak my clothes, but remembering yesterday’s heat I don’t mind that at all.
After riding in the pouring rain for half an hour, things get worse. The rain is now so strong that all roads turn into rivers; this is difficult with the bike because you can’t see the potholes, of which there are plenty in Italy. Another hour later, I the rain stops for a short while - only to come back even stronger. I feel a sharp pang in my neck; this is the first of many hail balls that are now falling down. I take a short shelter, but after only 2 minutes the hail is gone and only water keeps rushing down all around me. The temperature is still an acceptable 15°C or so.
For the next couple of hours there is so much rain that there are almost no cars on the streets, and there is always 5 - 10cm deep water on the street in front of me. There are just unimaginable amounts of water rushing down. Nonetheless, I am making good progress sneaking closer to the Gotthard, and finally the ascend that scared me so begins.
There is an incredible surreal moment: Before me, there is the street that is now a river, left and right of me are green mountains towering above, and everywhere else are just clouds; there is nothing else. For a moment I feel like there is nothing else in the world. And then I remember feeling like Frodo on his endless journey.
For a few hours I climb up the Gotthard and at the top there is enough snow to build snow men. I remember that my muscles felt well; this was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I am not yet at my hostel, however.
All that’s left for today is letting it roll for 10km - I was looking forward to this, but now I am not so sure - I am completely soaked, and it is still raining, and it is at most 5°C up here. By the time I arrive at the hostel I am freezing so much that I shake all over my body, I can’t move my head because my neck stiffened, and I can barely get out of my clothing the get a warm shower.
After today, everything I own is completely soaked, and the lady at the reception is hanging up my money to dry.
Tonight I meet two brothers who are travelling from Belgium and back in a month; they almost had half of their trip done today.
Day 5 - It’s Over
I got only 2 - 3 hours of sleep at night because it was too cold. Also, my clothes are all still wet. At breakfast we are discussing the weather - it had cooled down even further, and snow has fallen only 100m above of us. It did not melt, too.
My muscles feel better than yesterday, so I decide to give today’s trip a go despite the cold. I get into my wet clothes and start the tour, but after only 2km I am again shaking from the cold - my summer’s clothing is all I got, and that is definitely not enough to make a 40km descend down the Gotthard - even in the valley, the climate is now too cold. So I head for the nearest railway station, and go back to Stuttgart by train.