You could say it all started with a Kona Dew. I had rented one to explore the local rail trails with Mum while I was back in Melbourne for holidays. On my last morning before flying back to Europe, my brother, Jono, took me for a bash on the XC trails around my home town. It was stacks of fun, but the mountain biking bug didn't quite take hold just then. It took another home town bash during my visit the next year - this time on a $250 Kona Aloha from 2006 - and an inflamed ITB preventing me from running, before I took the plunge and bought my first "proper" mountain bike. After three months I was thoroughly hooked and an idea that had been germinating for a while began to be seriously discussed: Jono coming over to Switzerland for an extended mountain biking adventure. Twelve months later he landed at Zürich Airport at 6am on a Thursday morning.Saturday morning outside the apartment in Zürich; all ready to go for a weekend in the sunny SouthTicino trip report
Two days after arriving, and with Jono having only tried out his new Santa Cruz Blur LT once on my local trail, we got up early and made a dash for the train station through the Zürich rain. Our destination was Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton in the south of Switzerland. To get there, the train goes through the Gotthard Tunnel, which was finished in 1881 and was the first tunnel underneath the Gotthard range of mountains. It was one of the first European north-south routes that could be used all year round (the Alpine passes being impassable in winter). These days we jokingly refer to it as the "magic weather tunnel" as the huge peaks above often keep the bad weather on one side and leave the other sunny and clear. Thankfully, on this day it didn't disappoint.The Zürich rain that we were escaping from
Our plan for day one was to warm up with a cross-country style tour around an chunk of land that extends south of Lugano into the lake which separates Switzerland from Italy. It starts with a short half hour climb on the road then enters into a forest that reminded us of watching Robin Hood movies as kids. The trail begins with some flowing descents interspersed with short, sharp climbs that left us gasping after a few minutes. It soon flattens out and then the fun really starts as the trail heads exclusively downhill, providing lots of line choice between, or over, the natural obstacles. The best bit was saved for last: an extended section of natural rock gardens on a twisty trail that burst out of the forest, bathing us in sunshine and stunning us with an amazing view down to the lake and across to Italy. There was no time to concentrate on the view though; one mistake and we'd have been tumbling down the steep drop off to the right!Techy Ticino goodness
After a picnic lunch by the lake in Arbostora (complete with a family of swans coming by to say hello), the next climb was quite a bit longer and tougher. Jono's jetlag was beginning to hit him during the last part of the climb, but as soon as he launched over the first drop, he woke up quick smart. What followed was almost 10 kilometres of descent, mostly flowing single track covered in tree roots, rock gardens and some loose rocks. Occasionally we had to connect a couple of sections of trail via fireroad, but as Jono remarked, "Even the fireroads are fun in Switzerland!" After 35 kilometres and three and a half hours of riding, we rolled down into Paradiso and topped the day off with some well-deserved gelato by the lake and some authentic Italian-style pizza in town. Day one was a success.Hanging out at the lake with the locals
We overnighted in a hotel in the small town of Rivera, which is dwarfed by Monte Tamaro rising behind it. The hotel promised "secure bike storage" and after five minutes trying every word for bike I knew (unfortunately, it seemed the only one I didn't know was the one in Italian, and that was the only language our host spoke), we eventually established that the bikes belonged in a conference room in the basement. We stashed them downstairs and noticed a couple of Norcos already sitting in the corner. Apparently we weren't the only ones planning an assault on Monte Tamaro the next day.
In the morning, we awoke to blue skies and bright sunshine. I have often thought that Ticino could steal Queensland's old tourism motto: "Beautiful one day, perfect the next." It certainly felt like that as we stole 1000 metres of vertical by using the local cable car to get ourselves and our bikes to the adventure park at the top of Alpe Foppa. No time for rope climbing though, we were here to ride.Lift-assisted tour start from Rivera
Of course, as Jono has learnt since arriving here, Switzerland is not Australia. And while there are a lot of cable cars in Switzerland, there are even more mountains. You can be assured that most mountain bike tours include both a mountain and an hour long climb to start. Tamaro was no exception.
The tour is known as the Traversa Infinita, and it started with a 500 metre climb over a steep, loose, rocky, switch-backed road that snaked its way up from the top of the cable car to a mountain hut a little below the Monte Tamaro peak. We'd been joined by our friends Eleanor and Ilya, and none of us were able to ride the whole way up; it was time for some Alpine Bike Walking (ABW). Of course, our pride was piqued when some incredibly fit Swiss cross-country riders powered past on their 29er hardtails, but even the boys' competitive streaks couldn't manage to latch them onto the rear wheels of those guys. With climbs like these to train on, it's no wonder Nino Schurter is one of the best XC riders in the world.Taking a break above Alpe Foppa
The climb was quickly forgotten, however, when we reached the hut. What a view! A three hundred and sixty degree panorama with peaks in every direction, punctuated only by the narrow line of track which was our last, short climb to get us to the start of the descent. We crested that last bump, then traversed along the hiking trail which straddles the ridge between the two sides of the mountain. Can you say "exposed"? It was rocky, technical and made slow going thanks to a group of hikers who started just before us. Thankfully, after a few minutes they pulled aside and let us pass. Soon after, we came to the proper start of the descent. We dropped down to the left under the Monte Tamaro peak, into some exposed, rocky single track which included some seriously technical switchbacks. And all of this surrounded by killer views.Single track with a view
I'd planned the tour using the Swiss Singletrail map, within which the first descent under Monte Tamaro is marked as black (difficult). While there are bike parks in Switzerland, as well as maintained and dedicated trails (like my local, the Uetliberg/Antenna Trail in Zürich), the majority of all-day tours are done on hiking trails that have been around for hundreds of years. These are the trails that Heidi walked with her grandfather. As such, mountain bikers are a relatively new import onto these mountains. There are regions where mountain bikers are welcomed with open arms for the summer tourism francs they bring (Ticino and Graubünden for starters) and others where the local hikers see mountain bikers as a threat and unfortunately some amazing trails are off-limits to bikes. So it's important, if we want to remain free to use these trails, that we each do what we can to give mountain bikers a good reputation; and that means respecting all the other users of these incredible Alpine trails.
Once we finished that first gnarly, exposed and tricky descent, the trail headed into the forest. After a section continually punctuated by small, natural drop-offs, we took a slight detour and had to retrace our steps after misreading the map. Ten minutes later we were back on track, and what a track! For me it was the best trail of the day: stunning views and a trail that just flowed. It went in and out of the forest and started with dirt, changed to loamy goodness, then finally sent us surfing along a bed of golden leaves three centimetres deep. Sure, you didn't really know what was under those leaves but staying loose on the bike got us through without any mishap. There were many whoops of delight when we finally stopped at the next intersection.Eyes on the track, eyes on the track...
We'd bumped into the owners of the Norcos from the hotel at the mountain hut, and we crossed paths again at the end of that flow-fest, taking a moment to debate the merits of 650B wheels, try to discover the source of the banging in Ilya's fork and generally exclaiming over the fun that was the previous section of trail. The group leader suggested we adjust our route to traverse the West side of a small peak that we'd reached, instead of the East side as we'd planned. Taking his advice we then rode some very technical and rocky single track, often with no room for error on one side, all the way around to the tiny town of Arosio. We all had to walk some of the more interesting sections but for really good riders this would be a challenging blast to get around.
In Arosio we finally stopped for a well-earned lunch on the steps of an ancient church. By now it was already after two o'clock and once we’d eaten, Eleanor and Ilya said goodbye to take the quick way down off the mountain and head back to Zürich. Jono and I refilled our Camelbaks at the church fountain (almost all public fountains in Switzerland spurt crystal clear, fresh, drinkable water) and got ready for the last two sections of single trail that would take us down to the valley.Old and new
The trail straight after lunch wasn't particularly technical and we blasted along it at full pelt, getting our legs warmed up again. It landed us in the gorgeous, historical town of Cademario, where again the views were glorious, this time down to Lugano and the San Salvatore peak - which we'd ridden underneath the day before - and across to Italy. The car park in town was on the cliff side of the road and all the cars faced the view to which caused Jono to exclaim "even the car parks have great views!"
To get to the very last section of trail, we were first required to climb a fireroad then haul our bikes up some old stairs to the little St. Bernardo church. We collapsed on one of the park benches, admired the view once again, shared a chocolate bar, then roused ourselves for the final descent. And while I maintain that the trail through the forest below Monte Tamaro was my favourite, this was a close second. The trail was the steepest of the day and seemed to be an infrequently used track. There were more tree roots, switchbacks, rocks and dusty sections that didn't allow us to get complacent even after such a long day in the saddle. Finally we arrived in the town of Vernate, after having ridden some 20 kilometres of descent, almost all on single track.Overlooking the village of Arosio
We cruised down the mountain road and jumped on a train in Agno, eventually upgrading ourselves to first class for the journey between Bellinzona and Zürich. A bottle of red opened with a Swiss Army Knife topped off the day and the weekend. And best of all, when we went back through the magic weather tunnel, it was now sunny on the other side as well.The first class ride home made classier with wine drunk out of plastic cupsWords by Sarah MaguirePhotos by Jonathan Ochse