“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best.”
Thru-hiking — the idea of completing a long-distance hiking trail in one go — has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially on popular routes such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. Hikers would spend an entire season, covering several thousand kilometers, in order to get from start to finish. In 2000, a project in the same spirit was launched in the Alps, christened Via Alpina (not exactly the most creative name, admittedly). Following the so-called Red Trail from Muggia (near Trieste) on the Adriatic Sea to Monaco on the Cote d’Azur, it passes through all 8 Alpine countries (Monaco, France, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, Slovenia), totalling around 2,500 km and a staggering 160 km (yes, you read that right!) of elevation gain. The current speed record was set in 2021 by Belgian ultrarunner Karel Sabbe, who completed the whole thing in just 31 days — and absolutely mind-blowing feat even if you take into account that he was supported by a crew along the route.
[Video from the previous record, less polished but also much more captivating.]
The idea of doing something similar on a bicycle had been in the back of my head for a long time. Crossing the alps has of course been a popular pastime since at least 218 BC, when a certain North African general decided to give it a shot with an army of elephants, and as a matter of fact a North-South traverse is a standard item on every mountain biker’s bucket list — I did one back in 2016. [The fact that it can neatly be fitted into a week of holidays probably aided its popularity a great deal.] But following the mountain chain all the way from sea to sea was a different level, and always a bit out of reach, given the time commitment it requires. Finally, this year, my fiancée and I seized the chance in between jobs and decided to create our own version of that mystique route. Clearly, there was no way we’d follow the original track, nor did we have aspiration to break speed records of any kind, so instead we just decided to stay true to the general concept: We kept start and end, as well as the requirement to pass through all eight countries, but then just drew up a route that would pass through as many highlights we’ve long wanted to see. The whole month of June would be dedicated to completing it.
I had done long bikepacking tours before (e.g. going from Germany to Romania on the Danube Cycle Path), but for my fiancée, it was the first time embarking on such a journey. Naturally there were many open questions about how it would go. With hindsight, I’m happy to report they were most unwarranted.
All in all, we spent 26 days cycling (plus one rest day) to cover 2,370 km and around 38,000 m of elevation change. Depending on the country, we’d be either cycling on regular (and, for the most part, less frequented) state roads, actual cycle paths or gravel/forest roads. There are some noticeable national differences: France, for example, has very few roads designated for cyclists (is that because everyone here is into race biking?), while Austria has one at practically every turn (helpful visualization). Consequently, the composition of riders also markedly shifts: There are practically only race bikes on the longer climbs, whereas on the paths in the valley, retirees on e-bikes with lots of luggage dominate the scene. On a typical day, we’d cover around 90 km, which seems to me a reasonable objective if you want to be able to stop along the route (say, to swim in a lake, or to hike a gorge) and not arrive super late in the evening.
Disclaimer: After Bad Gastein (well worth seeing!), the only chance to continue is to hop on the car transport that takes you to the other side of the High Tauern in Mallnitz. It’s the only part we didn’t do by bike, which is regrettable but unavoidable. One possible alternative is to skip the spa town and its massive waterfall and instead cross from the Grossglockner High Alpine Road.
A few years ago, we both bought new gravel bikes, as they seem to combine what we most enjoy in cycling: The ability to go fast when necessary, yet also having the option of going off the road whenever there’s a chance to do so. They’re also more comfortable to ride than pure race bikes, and lend themselves more to bikepacking than hyper-weight-optimized carbon bicycles. This means, however, that camping is almost out of the question — not strictly speaking impossible, but adding a tent, inflatable mattresses and sleeping bags to the kit would be a challenge. Not to mention the added, if expensive, comfort of sleeping in a real bed during the night, with a bathroom of your own.
The two remarks we’d get most consistently were 1) whether the frame bags were batteries (lol) and 2) how we’d been able to travel for so long with so little. But there’s no big secret here, and in fact I felt we were rather generous with the things we brought along (such as a speaker). Most importantly, the amount of clothes you bring along doesn’t fundamentally change whether you go for three days or three months: If anything, you might take more in the first case to save yourself the trouble of doing the laundry (read: handwash) every evening. Then there’s warm layers, rain protection, toiletries and pills, bike tools, chargers, and some food reserves that you’ll have to replenish regularly.
A few non-obvious items that I found very useful and that are therefore worth highlighting:
- Arm warmers: Doesn’t have to be a fancy model, but they’re easy to put on and off and offer protection from both the sun and mild chills.
- A foldable backpack: Takes away very little space, but amazing if e.g. you want to do a picnic, but have to carry your lunch a few kilometers to reach a nice spot. Otherwise, avoid carrying anything on your back for longer time spans.
- Plastic gloves for bike inspection. Pack a pair more than you think you’ll need.
- Some lights for the bike for tunnels and because you never know.
- A bit of sugar, salt, tea, maybe oil and at least one complete set of cutleries.
- A very simple plastic poncho in case you get caught in a cloudburst and have nowhere to shelter.
Assorted High- and Lowlights
Nothing would be more boring than a linear retelling of the events and states of mind we went through day by day, so I’ll spare you that. Nevertheless, there are a few things that deserve a special mention. On the bright side and in no particular order:
- Slovenia has an excellent network of cycling paths, and — unbeknownst to us — a vibrant cycling culture on all levels. While no longer a hidden gem, I believe few people are aware of just how advanced they are in this respect. We also came away thinking that people are very hospitable.For example, people would often proactively ask us if we’re vegetarian and recommended dishes that weren’t on the menu — almost unthinkable in Italy or France!
- Bormio is known for its thermal baths, but did you know there’s a place where you can enjoy a hot pool for free? There are no markers, but it’s easy to find and get to if you know where to look for it. Approximate location here.
- The Silvretta Hochalpenstrasse might have been the most beautiful pass we climb, and thanks to the fact that it’s a toll road (not for bicycles, of course), it is relatively quite — unlike, for example, the Stelvio Pass! Other climbs with stunning landscapes are the Col de la Bonette, Col du Galibier, Cormet de Roselend, Umbrail, Passo del Maloja and Flüelapass.
- We passed by many lakes and it would be hard to pick a favorite. All of the great Italian lakes (Maggiore, Como, Lugano, Orta) are awesome, as are the counterparts in the Austrian Salzkammergut: Fuschl, Wolfgang and Hallstatt.
- No issues with the bikes! We had to change brake pads a couple of times, and of course engage in maintenance every so often, but we had no punctures, broken chain links, crashes or whatever else might befall you on such a tour.
- An incredibly kind couple hosted others when we were looking for a shelter from the rain, offering us omelet and hot tea. It’s hard to put my gratitude in words, but it’s heartwarming to see how adverse situations often bring out the best in people.
- The quality of the places we stayed at varied wildly, but some were simply amazing and we’d come back without a second thought: Gite Chez Isabelle for lots of little treats, Le Catinat Fleuri for their swimming pool and laundry service, Le Lotus Blanc for fantastic rooms and breakfast, Magali’s chalet for incredible views, Il Talucco and Chalet le Dorf for the peaceful atmosphere, Hotel Astoria for big buffets and an incredibly well-equipped bike atelier, the unassuming Lumpaz (incredible value for money in Switzerland!), Echt Heimat Apartments for style proximity to the lake, and this studio in Ljubljana because of the wonderful hosts.
Of course, there were also some real letdowns! Again in random order:
- Italian cycle paths, to the extent that they exist, are creative in the best of cases and horrendous in most others. Narrow turns, potholes, vegetation covering the view, major traffic axis being officially designated as cycleways: Trieste wins a sad but decisive victory in this category. Oh, and unfortunately sticking to the roads is often little better, not just because of the general patchiness, but also because — from the limited sample we got to observe — Italian drivers stood out as the most reckless and inconsiderate ones, many being completely oblivious to the idea that you leave some friggin space when you overtake a cyclist. No, that’s not optional.
- We suffered from really bad weather during the first couple of days and got really wet, had to shorten trips and wait for long hours for the rain to subside. Unavoidable, probably, but let’s just say that descending from 2,000 m above sea level when you’re soaked and shaking is no fun.
- The idea of booking lots of places in advance backfired quickly, but the more flexible alternative we opted for instead has its downsides, too, as you’ll likely spend a lot of time each day deciding where to stay the next day, adapting the route and checking for weather conditions in different places. I have no real solution for this, but I really disliked how much time I wasted on my phone.
- Even if you’re not too picky about where to sleep, it’s expensive. There are always extra fees if you stay for just a night, and in many places it was all but impossible to get a room for under a hundred euros. Some of them (see above) were great, but just as often they were rather subpar.
- Cities are best avoided on bike tours, because you almost invariably have to pass through long stretches of industrial area or worse. Salzburg and Innsbruck are two cases in point.
- Popular tourist destinations such as Hallstatt and Bled are nice but overcrowded. This may be a personal tick but I enjoyed neither of them very much.
What Would We Do Differently?
No such adventure is ever perfect, nor should it be. And clearly there is a difference between the things that are the result of poor or insufficient planning, and those that qualify as bad luck. Other parts still — such as the horrible section between St-Michel-de-Maurienne and La Chambre — are more or less unavoidable if you want to include certain iconic spots (the Col du Galibier in that case). So purely with regards to the route we chose, here’s what I’d change:
- Since we started in Nice, rather than Monaco, we felt we had to enter the principality in order to stay true to the idea of the project. But from a pure cycling perspective, it was a nightmare, and next time I’d happily skip it and instead enjoy the fantastic backroads that offer splendid views of the coast.
- Between Guillestre and Briancon, we followed a mix of heavy-traffic roads and cycling path. Much better, though longer, to pass from the Col d’Izoard.
- The Aosta valley was disappointing. While impossible to avoid altogether, it makes sense to get out of the valley and take some detours along the slopes. Otherwise, expect lots of traffic and tunnels.
- Bypass Biella from the north. You could go as far up as Rosazza.
- Instead of going to Domodossola and climbing up to Santa Maria Maggiore, which involved one atrocious, 4 km long tunnel that sits at an average 9% incline, head straight to Lago Maggiore and follow its western shore up to Locarno. It’s probably also more fun not to then connect to Lugano via the Monte Ceneri (highway, airport), but rather head towards Luino on the eastern shore and follow the Tresa river from there.
- The Inn Valley Cycle Path, which we followed from Landeck to Woergl, while easy to cycle, is rather boring — oftentimes it’s just long stretches next to a field or road. A promising alternative that avoids Innsbruck altogether is to turn north in Imst, entering Germany via Ehrwald. From there, you’d pass through Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the Sylvenstein Lake/Dam. From there, cross Lake Achen to get back to the Inn river just before Woergl.
- Rather than passing through Salzburg, staying close to the German border after Bad Reichenhall and passing from the Wiestal Lake before going to St Gilgen is well worth a bit of extra climbing.
A caveat for all of these: It’s good practice to check for potential road closures, especially early in the season. In a few cases, we barely smuggled our bikes across a pass that required us to use a tunnel cyclists are officially banned from or sneak past a barrier. Suffice it to say that such a thing could really mess up your plans.
Much more could be written, of course. Many details were left out, such as the violent hailstorm that hit us right on the second day, just minutes away from the Col de Turini, the emotional rollercoaster you’re going through at times, or the strange feeling upon arriving (“This is it?”). Instead, I’ll leave it at that. Do, however, leave a comment if there’s something else you’d like me to address!