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October 5, 2011 3:22 PM

Day Three of Biking the Alps: Even Going Downhill Is Hard

Posted by Chris Johnson

Alpsday3 So, this is it: The Big One. Don't get me wrong—any day in which you traverse the Alps will be big—but as George Orwell might have written, had he been a keen mountain biker, some are definitely bigger than others. It's also the day of two's: Two passes across the Alps, more than two kilometers (more than a mile) of altitude gain and a route that spans two countries. (It may also prove to be too much.)

Setting out at 7:30 a.m., a short, five-minute ride in the freezing early morning cold took us to the base of the first of the day's two vertiginous Alp crossings: the Stralettapass. Although higher than yesterday's ascent of the Strelapass—2,600 meters (8,500 feet) compared to "just" 2,300 meters (7,500 feet)—the going was much easier thanks to a more clearly defined path. It was still hard going in places, however. Increasingly frequent patches of snow and ice were a clear sign, if one was needed, that we were starting to get really very high indeed.

We made excellent progress, perhaps down to yet another gut-busting breakfast, and hit the top in a breezy 70 minutes—just over half the time the signposts estimate for hikers. After posing for some cliched "We did it!" photos, we dropped our saddles for what was to prove an electrifying descent to the small village of S-chanf.

The terrain headed south at a furious rate of knots, dropping almost exactly one kilometer (0.62 miles) in height within the space of 40 exhilarating minutes.

Unlike the footpath I unsuccessfully tumbled down yesterday, this was more within my comfort level—if only just.

Perhaps counterintuitively, going downhill is just as tiring as going up. Any technical descent necessitates that you move around on the bike constantly, shifting your weight to counteract the forces your body are being subjected to and therefore stopping you from being thrown off. This means you're effectively tensing your thigh muscles nonstop—imagine holding a squat position for 40 minutes while trying to ride down the side of a mountain—and by this stage mine were on fire. I also started to suffer from what's known as arm pump, a weakening of the forearms caused by trying to hold on tight while taking repetitive hits from rocky terrain. (It's a similar effect to those exhausting vibrating plates in gyms that force your muscles to repetitively relax and contract in quick succession.) Combined with my quickly depleting reserves of leg strength, this became less of a controlled descent and more of a fairground ride. It was all I could do to hang on to the bars, trusting in my bike—if not my own skill—to see me through.

We reached the bottom bruised and broken, but with smiles plastered across our faces (and some mud). But as seems to have become a feature of this trip, the euphoria was once again short-lived.

Having just lost one kilometer in height, we immediately had to find it again. Doing so involved a grueling slog up to the Chaschauna pass, which at 2,700 meters (8,900 feet) above sea level will be the highest point of our five-day tour.

We rode about 75 percent of the way up, despite the best efforts of the voice inside my head telling me to stop hurting myself, then stopped for some bundner fleisch—subtly smoked and seasoned beef that has been air dried high in the mountains—before continuing for the final push on foot.

Without wanting to sound too dramatic, I have to admit the climb to the summit was horrendous. The ludicrously steep slopes were formed of loose dirt and stones, making it hard to find any grip. The sweat once again started to pour, my heart felt as though it were going to burst out of my chest—I could feel my pulse throbbing in my eardrums—and the sadistic gradient also placed a lot of strain on our ankles, calves, and achilles tendons. The final meters were littered with more expletives than I'm proud to admit, but the rewards were ample: It was truly a sight to behold. Our lofty vantage point was so high that it didn't just give us a bird's-eye view of the surrounding valleys, but also a bird's-eye view of the birds themselves.

The summit marked the border between Switzerland and Italy, and we shortly stumbled across a mountaintop cafe run by a charming Italian couple. (See the photo for what must be one of the best views of any eatery, anywhere in the world.) The plate of gnocchi I ordered was one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten. (Objectively I know that it probably wasn't, but when you're that exhausted, even a simple home-cooked meal seems like ambrosia from the gods.)

All that left was a relatively relaxing (i.e., still draining) coast down to the Italian ski resort of Livigno. I'm now determined to find a pizza the size of a manhole cover. Or bigger.

Overall, it was a hard, hard day—one that I'm proud and relieved to have completed, though I suspect I will pay for such physical excess tomorrow.

Still, it's another one down. Just two to go.

Many thanks to all who have contributed to Self Help Africa. I hope that others will follow suit.


I've undertaken this journey to raise money for Self Help Africa, which works to help rural Africa achieve economic independence through sustainable solutions to the causes of famine and poverty.

Those readers that would like to sponsor me on this gruelling test—whether as law firms or individual partners and attorneys—can do so via my page at JustGiving. For those of you that haven't used JustGiving before, it's really simple, fast, and secure. The money is passed directly to the charity, and the site will automatically claim Gift Aid for donations made by eligible U.K. taxpayers.

U.K. residents can even donate by phone: just text KWEI77 (that's an 'i', not a '1'), followed by the amount you would like to donate, to 70070. 'KWEI77 £20', for example. This SMS service is free to both you and the charity.

I've set an ambitious target of £5,000 (just under $8,000), so please dig deep and donate now. It's a great cause, and your money really will make a difference.

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