25 March 2020: The Swiss leg of the 1,100 kilometer bicycle route which follows the Rhône river from its source at the Rhônegletscher base high in central Switzerland to Plage Napoléon where it empties into the Mediterranean came to an abrupt halt about 1km from the actual border with France in Chancy in southwestern Geneve Canton.
The Swiss authorities have erected robust roadblocks at the hundreds of small, unmanned border crossings which sprinkle the 1,850km border with Germany, Austria, Italy and France since 17 March. This move seemed peculiarly late to many, as Italy struggled under a rapidly accelerating COVID-19 infection rate in early March and many other countries had enacted strict prohibitions and border controls to slow the transmission. Movement within Switzerland remains technically unrestricted at the time of writing for individuals and families, although there are abundant ‘rester chez toi‘ reminders in all media and on posters in the city of Geneva. My quest to knock off the Swiss part of the Rhône trail in sections relied significantly on the superb Swiss rail network. I was fortunate to be able to benefit from the pricing, reliability and frequent departures even in these extraordinary times.
Almost two weeks earlier on 15 March, the 4.5 hour train journey from my home city of Geneva to Oberwald*, a riverside village and cartrain station 1,400 meters above sea level in easternmost Valais canton went surprisingly quickly in the company of absolutely no one (not even the conductors made an appearance in my railcar) save the monotone Aussie narrator of some escapist episodes from the Casefile podcast series. Only for the last half hour of the journey did a few cross-country skiing enthusiasts jump on the mountain train to enjoy the gorgeous late winter sunshine on the finely groomed tracks in the upper Rhône valley, or the Rottental as it is known in the local German.
Eastern Switzerland received more snow this past winter than the western Alps nearer Geneve. For much of the stretch between Oberwald and Brig at an altitude of 750 meters, I cycled between snow fields more than 1 meter thick on national road 19. I had chosen my trusty 20+ year old Klein mountain bike over a road bike for this section, anticipating at least some off-road sections to be open. Ultimately the wide handlebars and strong brakes proved useful for the 5-10 degree paved descents.
Averaging 30km/h for long stretches of this 650 meter drop over 45km, and even edging past the descending mountain train at over 50km/h at one point, I arrived in Brig in just over one hour. The human contact element which normally is a focus of my adventure travel writing was predictably limited, and the main excitement of the flat riverside trail between Brig and my end-of-day destination Leuk was a Switzerdeutsch verbal lashing from a horse rider whose definition of ‘langsam‘ must have been different from my own. I can’t claim to have misunderstood, since the word is virtually identical in Swedish!
Three days later on 18 March, the last day on which the trains continued to run on a regular schedule, I arrived in Leuk alarmed to find that the rear tire of my wife Empi’s Scattante road bike was unexpectedly and irreparably deflated. Since shops selling non-essential goods were closed by government decree, I feared that I would be taking the train back to Geneve, tail between legs. However, the teenage apprentice in the workshop of a motorcycle vendor a mile away proved adept at locating the correct size of inner tube and installing it – all within 20 minutes of my arrival.
The Rhône river throughout its 800+ kilometer course to the sea produces over 5MW of electricity in Switzerland and 3.5MW in France to surrounding communities through its dozens of hydroelectric plants. Many are located in narrow gorges such as this one in Leuk, and Switzerland’s 60% power from hydroelectricity places it near the top alongside countries such as Norway.
With a decent tailwind to add to the 200 meters of vertical descent, this 60km section to Martigny went relatively quickly and uneventfully in two and a half hours, with some gorgeous solitude on the way.
The 45km Martigny to Montreux leg on 24 March unfortunately passed without photographic documentation as my iPhone 7 was unexpectedly refusing to save images. The average speed was reduced to 17.5km/h due to a strong headwind tearing up the valley from Lac Léman, and it was with relief that I arrived at the renowned Chillon castle, inspiration for Lord Byron’s 392 line poem The Prisoner of Chillon. It’s a moving work loosely based on the life of the imprisoned monk and nobleman Francois Bonivard, while also paying homage to the picturesque setting of the castle and Byron’s personal dislike of tyranny and religious discrimination.
I had cycled the 90km from Geneva to Montreux in a punishing October 2018 3:45h ride, which left the final 22.5km section from Geneve to Chancy on 25 March. The French section of 760km to the sea will follow as soon as conditions allow.
There is a long list of reasons to wish for a normalization of the current situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on public and private life. One’s ability to make choices and decisions in the near term is reduced to the comically mundane, such as which supermarket to shop in when carefully venturing outside. Some of these inhibitions will naturally be reduced in the medium term. However, I am profoundly worried about the freedom of movement for adventure travel and association with interesting people from all over the world in the long term – core elements to happiness and sense of purpose.
* In the spirit of full disclosure, I did not achieve the goal of starting from the uppermost point of the headwaters, as the road is closed during the winter and trains do not stop at the nearest station to the glacier. I aim to complete this short but challenging 10-12 kilometer leg in late June or early July 2020.