Switzerland is a mountain nation. The high Alps, and many of its most famous peaks, such as the Eiger and Matterhorn, comprises the southern two-thirds of the country, while the lower slung and densely forested Jura mountain range forms the nation's western border. Amidst these mountains, tiny paved roads wind up and over glacier-lined passes; singletrack trails cut across grassy alpine meadows; and dirt paths encircle iridescent blue lakes. In other words, it's a playground for cyclists, the experience is made all the easier by a detailed national system of routes that connects one adventure to the next.
SwissMobility, a government-run organization, is responsible for a network of national, regional, and local cycling routes that encompasses 5,600 miles of road cycling, and 2,800-miles of unpaved, off-road routes, all expertly signposted, well maintained, and accompanied by detailed online information.
Here's a cheat sheet to plan your next vacation in a nation begging to be explored by bike.
The road riding in Switzerland is defined by some of the world's most famous mountain climbs, as well as hidden treasures — roads that ascend into the high peaks just because they can. The highest paved pass in Switzerland, the Umbrial pass at 8,205 feet starts in the southern Swiss town of Santa Maria Val Müstair, and snakes up pristine pavement, across the Italian border, toward the summit of the Stelvio — a road so beautifully engineered that its architect was knighted. The ancient, entirely unique ride up the Gotthard pass climbs 8 miles with 38 hairpin turns, on a surface comprised almost entirely of hand laid bricks. The Gross Scheidegg ascends a single lane (open only to cyclists and public buses) through fields of wildflowers, between towering mountain faces, beside frigid glacial streams, and within eyesight of the Eiger's iconic north face.
To experience the lesser-known side of Swiss cycling, Will Davies, who's exhaustively documented Switzerland's alpine roads via his blog Cycling Challenge, recommends exploring the roads that rise toward the country's many hydroelectric dams. In particular, Davies suggests the ascent of the Sanetsch, a climb that gains 5,800-feet over 16 miles (more imposing than France's famed Mount Ventoux). The Sanetsch rises from the Rhone River, through vineyards and thick stands of pine, and culminates at a rock-strewn summit beside a glistening alpine lake. There's no road down the other side, rather, a gondola that ferries cyclists from the lip of a lofty cliff down to a village on the backside of the Sanetsch.
As the snow melts from the mountains, a vast network of trails emerges across the Alps. The riding ranges from cross-country and enduro epics on centuries old singletrack, to newer, professional built bike parks full of jumps and berms. Mountain bikers can get assistance reaching the highest peaks by utilizing the expansive and bike friendly Swiss public transportation system of buses and trains, hopping on the ski lifts that run year-round, or simply riding the paved and gravel roads up the mountain passes to reach the trails flowing down the other side. And due to the nation's longtime love affair with hiking and skiing in even the most isolate of these mountains, you're never far from a cafe at which to refuel. The highest trails are typically snow-free and rideable from late June into October.
Amidst the many mountain biking options, the canton of Valais, and particularly, the resort town of Zermatt stand out. This quintessentially Swiss tourist destination of roughly 5,800 inhabitants is situated at the head of a long valley, at the base of the renowned Matterhorn, a spire of stone that dominates the views. To mitigate congestion and pollution, no gas-powered cars are permitted within the town limits, and bikes serve as a primary form of transportation, as well as recreation. From Zermatt, a railway rises nearly 5,000-feet, to the top of the Gornergrat peak, from which the single track spills out across the mountainsides.
SwissMobility's nine official paved road routes, and three off-road routes, promise cross-country cycling tours of a week or more, while 55 regional routes offer shorter, multi-day rides. The national routes range from rides that are mostly flat and family-friendly, such as trips through the Rhone and Rhine river valleys, to more demanding road and off-road adventures that traverse the spines of the Alps and Jura mountain ranges from border-to-border.
Each of SwissMobility's tours incorporates some of the country's most dramatic scenery, as well as cultural highlights. The Trans-Altarezia off-road route, for example, parallels Switzerland's eastern border with Austria and Italy for 134 miles, following historic trails cut by smugglers (back when Europe's borders were closed) and passing military installations dating back to the first World War.