Is it called biking if all you do is squeeze the brake and not peddle? That’s what I kept thinking to myself the entire time as I was cycling down the Gotthard Pass on old Tremola Road in Switzerland. Granted, I still had to turn (there was lots of turning) and keep the bike upright as I traversed the serpentine cobblestone road, so it must count as biking, I thought. Regardless of if I call it biking, it was an immense amount of fun. And the best part – anyone can bike down Tremola Road – no training necessary!
Not only was it an adventure that few people take on, but cycling down the pass was a ride through history. It was the perfect example of taking the road less traveled, which is something I always aspire to do when I travel. I can’t imagine a better way to experience this historic pass that connects the North and South of Switzerland over the Alps.
Cycling and Hiking Switzerland’s Alps and Lakes
I spent my first 4 days in Switzerland in a cloud…like a literal cloud. Swiss Alps? I don’t think there are any mountains here – I couldn’t see anything but thick clouds and rain for 4 days. This is certainly not the scenario you want when you are in one of the most famous and picturesque mountain ranges in the world. But you can’t control Mother Nature; sometimes you just have to make the best of it.
Is Switzerland still amazing when you can’t see the Alps? Yes – it might be moody, but you can still get out and enjoy the trails, the culture, the cows, and the transportation still rocks! I was with a small group of writers traversing our way from Zurich to Lugano (north to south) by hiking and biking. Thanks to the challenging weather we had to change some of our hiking around Lake Lucerne, but we were still able to get out and huff and puff our way through some pretty epic climbs.
We arrived at the top of the Gotthard pass by van after a day of hiking in the rain. As most passes go – it was pretty barren; not a tree in sight, and thanks to the nasty weather – it had a light dusting of snow, and was quite cold. I was just excited to get into our warm, comfy hotel room and get cleaned up after a hard day outdoors in the elements.
Hospice St. Gotthard (built in 1237) didn’t look like much from the outside, but once inside, it was stunning. This ancient building had a completely modern interior, all made of wood. And even though it looked like it might be cold and uncomfortable from the outside – it was cozy and comfortable inside. In fact the rooms sort of looked like a giant sauna.
I looked out the old window in my room and saw absolutely nothing but yet another cloud. It certainly didn’t feel like we were at 6,900 ft. in the Alps. My mind started wandering to the next morning – I didn’t know if I wanted to go down this pass on a bike in the rain and sleet – it felt overwhelming at the moment, so I went and had a beer and dinner instead.
Right before I went to bed, I looked out the window one last time, and that’s when I saw a faint light in the sky. What is that? I put my glasses on, and realized it was a star. Yippee! The clouds had dissipated and left us a clear sky – suddenly, things were looking up for tackling the famed Tremola Road the next day!
The Gotthard Pass is often referred to as the ‘King of the Mountain Passes’ as it was one of the most arduous and important passes in Europe. It’s named for a chapel built at the top in 1300 in honor of Saint Gotthard, a German bishop of Hildesheim. The pass connects northern (German-speaking) and southern (Italian-speaking) Switzerland. The development in the area started in 1200 and has undergone many transportation changes through the centuries.
The primitive path was first used by traders moving goods from north to south of Europe. The first ‘road’ was opened in 1830 and was made of cobblestones. The railway and train tunnel was opened in 1882. Next, a highway tunnel was built in 1930. Then the newer road tunnel opened in 1980. And finally, the Gotthard Base tunnel for high-speed trains was completed in 2016.
If you want to learn more about the transportation history, at the top of the pass, across from the Hospice where we stayed, is a museum that covers the history of the road, railroad/car tunnels, and region.
Tremola Road Cycling Fame
The route is legendary for avid cyclists to conquer. It has been said that if this road was in France or Italy it would be one of the most famous climbs in cycling. The Tremola Road has been one of the stages of the Tour de Suisse biking race for 38 years.
However, it’s not just for the professionals, any cyclist can take it on. This is made possible thanks to the lack of traffic on it, which makes it safe to ride for people of all levels. And if you want a little boost, you can easily rent an electric bike to tackle the pass.
Want more adventurous, curvy roads – I drove the famous Trollstigen road in Norway – and it also is a wild ride!
4 Ways to Get Over or Under the Gotthard Pass
- Drive yourself through the car tunnel. But be prepared for massive traffic through this popular route connecting north and south Switzerland.
- Use the more modern road to drive over the pass.
- Go by fast train through the railroad tunnel
- Take the Old Tremola Road by car or bike. This is absolutely the slowest, but the most scenic. And the best part is that you’ll practically be alone – there is very little traffic on this route – which makes it ideal for biking and making lots of stops for pictures!
Take the Cobblestones Less Traveled
I did this ride at the beginning of October, which can be a little iffy for the weather at altitude. However, when I woke up, I pulled the curtains back from my hotel room and there it was – my old friend the sun. It had been so long since I had seen him that I nearly didn’t recognize him! But – his timing was impeccable as I really didn’t want to ride down the pass in the rain and sleet we had the prior day. Even though it was cold at the top, the sun was out, the skies were blue, and we had a perfect day for this biking adventure!
We bundled up as it was still chilly at altitude, and as we got closer to starting, the more nervous I became. I looked at the map of cobblestone switchbacks – it looked like a pile of spaghetti.
I had a good bike with good brakes; however, the little cobblestones combined with the hairpin turns stacked on top of each other had me slightly concerned about my ability to stay upright.
Ready, Set, Brake! Biking Down Gotthard Pass
I put on my sunglasses (something I thought I was never going to use on this trip!), my biking gloves, and started peddling down the bumpy cobblestones. I maybe peddled 4 times…and then I never had to peddle again. Gravity launched me down the road, and the adventure began.
Video of Cycling Down Tremola Road on Gotthard Pass
Of course, I probably made it 500 feet before I stopped to take pictures! I had only seen the road on GoogleMaps, and now seeing the serpentine turns in person on a sunny day in the mountains was breathtaking.
Not only were the views incredible – but I was mesmerized by the perfectly square little granite cobblestones. They were laid in little arcs like a work of art. The granite dates back to the early 1800s; I had never ridden over anything so old. With 4+ miles of cobblestones, it is considered Switzerland’s longest road monument.
There were even sections where they were working on replacing the cobblestones. It was like a giant puzzle on the side of a mountain. It made me wonder how many cobblestones were used to construct the road – something I was never able to find an answer to.
But the one thought that continued to roll through my head and consume me was, why aren’t more people driving on this beautiful pass? I only saw 4 cars the entire ride down! Thanks to everyone being in a hurry these days and the construction of the modern rail and car tunnels, Tremola Road was empty – which makes it the perfect pass to bike.
After we made it down the hairpin turns we continued all the way to Bellinzona where we biked through beautiful farms and villages all the way to the train station. We had a full day of biking 43 miles (most of it downhill) into the Ticino canton where suddenly everything became more Italian. And the sun was out the entire time!
How You can Cycle Down Old Tremola Road
Cycling the Tremola Road is normally part of a longer biking tour across Switzerland. I wasn’t able to find a company that just took you to the top with your bike and let you bike down for the day. However, I think you could arrange to do that by taking a bus to the top with your bike and then just biking down.
The company I went with, Eurotreks, offers a 9-day self-guided route that includes biking down the Gotthard Pass. I was really happy with their bikes and the guides that we had so it’s a great option if you want to see and bike more of Switzerland.
Where to get the best photo of the Tremola Road
Of course, I took a number of pictures and videos on my ride down Tremola Road; however, it’s hard to get a good inclusive view of all of the hairpin turns while on the road. Before you start your descent from the top, briefly follow the main road towards the south descent (Highway 2) – about half a kilometer. Park at the lot on the left and you’ll find the perfect overview shot of the hairpins you are looking for. It’s even marked on Google Maps.
Let all of the others who are in a hurry take the tunnels through the Gotthard Pass, you can take your time and wind your way down the historic cobblestones of Tremola Road. It may be the road less traveled, but it is the best way to experience the Gotthard Pass. Slow down, squeeze the brakes, and take it all in…this is the way travel should be.