Tim Wiggins 7Countries7Passes - 4

The #7Countries7Passes TransContinental Tour

There are easier ways to visit friends and family dotted across the European continent than riding a fully loaded touring bike over some of the highest mountain passes. Those alternative options though, would provide little challenge…

On a rainy day last November, Velusso Ride Leader Tim Wiggins dreamed up the #7Countries7Passes tour.

A 3000 kilometre, self-supported ride across Europe, with 42,000 metres of vertical elevation gain, on a bike weighing 27 kilograms.

Tim reflects on his biggest adventure to date…

Joining the dots

The route for the tour started from the Danish capital of Copenhagen. I had been enticed by an offer to ride a gravel road race, sponsored by an ice cream company. Seeing as the Nordics are a part of the world that I haven’t really explored to date, it seemed like a great opportunity to start an adventure.

From Denmark, I headed south to the ferry to Germany, before beginning a long series of back-to-back days to get me to the town of Villingen, near the Black Forest, where my sister is now based.

From Germany, through Lichtenstein, and then into the Swiss mountains. Wolfgang Pass was the first taster, before the high roads of Flüela Pass and Pass dal Fuorn took me deep into the Italian Dolomites.

I took a planned rest day in the beautiful spa town of Merano, to visit close family friends, and then headed back into the high passes. Stelvio, the infamous snow-capped mountain road, took me to the warmth of the Italian Lakes.

From the Lakes, to the flat lands around Milan, and a traverse across the country to Turin.

Back into the mountains, this time the French Alps, the Col de Montgenèvre was my route across another country border.

Then, just as Germany had been a full north to south trans-country, France was a complete east to west traverse. Through Provence, Avignon and the Corbieres.

The final day then took me deep into the final mountain range: the Pyrenees.  The Haute Categorie Col d’Philipahres, and then the finale climb of the Col d’Envilara, which took me to the finish line on the Andorra border.

A self-made challenge, which pushed bike, body and mind further than ever before.

Notes from a journal

Tim documented his route on his website lifeinthesaddle.cc. Extracts from the journal highlight the adventure, excitement, and challenge of the #7Countries7Passes tour…

Denmark

08:00 at Tivoli Gardens. The gates are closed, but the world’s oldest theme park is the starting point of this trans-European bike tour. Through the rush hour traffic and into the Danish countryside. A good friend Peter accompanied me for the opening 50 kilometres.

After farewells, I am alone on the road for the first time; over bridges and through bustling villages; headed south to Puttgarden and the 17:00 ferry to Germany.

The first country of the #7Countries7Passes tour is a sunny and straightforward affair.

Across the Baltic, my first evening in Germany I manage a bonus 50 kilometres southbound, before setting up camp in the shadow of peacefully swishing wind turbines.

Germany

From the Baltic coast, I have five days to reach the southern border. A routine quickly forms: Ride. Eat. Ride. Coffee. Instagram. Repeat.

The first unexpected fortune of the trip comes on the second evening. After making the (poor) decision to get south of Hannover before finding a camping spot, I am caught out by the fact that the land south of Hannover is thick forest and swamp. After aborting one campsite, which turned out to be a mosquito-ridden marsh, I am offered a warm bed and supper by a kind German family. I gratefully accept. The kindness of strangers.

Day 3 is a marathon. 275 kilometres: to reach the promise of a soft mattress, at a good friend’s home. It is a long day in any context, but it is made longer because my GPS takes me the most direct route possible, which turns out to be the most hilliest imaginable. Arriving in Fulda at 22:45, I am thankful to have been escorted in for the final 30k, and even more thankful for a hot shower and food.

Day 4. More forests and more big cities. Mile munching. Heading south. I finish the day camped in a sweet corn field on the outskirts of Heilbronn. A freeze-dried dinner and a baby wipe shower. Glamour.

Day 5 is my final full day in Deutschland, and it is also where the hills begin. Skirting down the edge of the Black Forest, in damp conditions. The promise of a BBQ and my sister’s great hospitality is enough to entice though. I reach the town of Villingen in fading daylight, to a welcome of cake, coffee and friendly conversation. The final rest before the mountains.

Switzerland

Past Lake Konstanz. Cloud hangs thick on the mountains ahead, and the temperature begins to tumble. As I turn into the valley, on my entrance to the Swiss Alps, the vineyards turn to quiet green pastures, and the rain begins to fall.

Rain turns to sleet. Sleet then turns to snow. By mid-afternoon, my GPS reads 1 degree Celsius, and I have pulled on every layer I am carrying in my panniers.

Wolfgang Pass provides enough challenge to get the blood flowing again, and the technical 15 kilometre descent adds adrenaline to keep the mind alert. After a brief diversion into Liechtenstein for a warming coffee, I press on. My target – the foot of the Flüela Pass, is reached in the fading light. I wild camp next to a fast flowing alpine stream, and cook a warming dinner of lentils and saucisson on my JetBoil.

Day 7. I wake to continued precipitation. There is reason to be excited though: from my wild camp spot at the foot of the Flüela Pass, today’s route will see two 2,000 metre passes, and a descent into Italy. Gelato and espresso await…

Up past the ski resort of Davos, it is a gear-grinding pace that I set on the early slopes of Flüela.

After Davos, the road really kicks up, and empties. I should have taken note that it was only 4×4 cars coming towards me…

Then the snow line appears, and before long I am in it. Thick banks of white stuff encase the road. Despite wearing some of the best foul weather kit available, I can feel my core temperature falling rapidly.

By the summit, I have had to remove and wipe my glasses multiple times to clean off the snow. It takes me five minutes to pull my gloves back on, after removing them to take a photo. I will find out later that this photo cost me frostbite in my fingers…

Luckily, by the Passo dal Fuorn the weather has dramatically improved. Stripping off layers, I am down to arm warmers and jersey by the summit. The signpost also signals the start of a beautiful 85 kilometre descent into South Tyrol, Italy. Apple orchards, sunshine, and gelato.

I finish this first leg of the #7Countries7Passes by pulling up at the thermal spa resort of Merano. Two nights rest in a hotel, and pizza for supper. I am on holiday, after all…

Italy

After a rest day exploring waterfalls and visiting family, I return to the road for Day 8 of the tour. Today is Stelvio day.

It takes me 2.5 hours to reach the top of the 2,757 metre pass. The 27 kilograms of bike weight making themselves known. From the summit, it is a long and warm descent into the valley below, on secluded bike paths and single-track roads. A wild camp by the river. Pasta for dinner.

Day 9 is a departure from the Eastern Alps. My southbound route takes me past Lake Como, and onwards to Milan. The warmth of northern Italy makes for pleasant riding. Day 10 I turn west, and traverse the northern plains of Italy; through Turin, and towards the next major mountain range…

It is 30 degrees Celsius at the foot of the Col de Montgenèvre – the pass that will take me into the Western Alps and France. The temperature alone is enough to warrant one final ice cream.

After descending into France, I am rewarded with another icy experience: a wild camp and swim in the alpine river just past the town of Briançon.

France

My first full day in France starts with a mountain sunrise in the Western Alps. I head west, into Provence, and the familiar sight of vineyards. Patisseries and giant meringues provide fuel for the ride, under the shadow of Mont Ventoux.

Day 12 is a long rolling ride across the south of France. From Avignon, I have a day of head-down mile clocking. It finishes in a beautiful ride though: a single-track road through a national park close to Beziers followed by a take-away pizza and my last hill-top camp.

The following day, Day 13, is a shorter affair: providing a brief respite for the legs before the Pyrenees. Riding past the walled city of Carcassonne, I reach a good friend’s house in the Corbieres for lunch. I spend the afternoon drinking coffee and cleaning kit, ready for the final assault…

Andorra

The final day of the #7Countries7Passes tour is a monster. 175 kilometres into the Pyrenees, with 5,000 vertical metres of climbing.

With legs already feeling hollow, and with the weather taking a turn for the worse, it will be a long finale to this trans-European ride.

The rain strengthens throughout the morning, and the legs wane at the first sign of vertical. A brief stop in a patisserie and Bar Tabac provides a boost to blood sugar levels, and an opportunity to pull on more layers.

The first puncture of the trip comes at the foot of the Pyrenees. Pulling over into a deserted park, I fix the flat, and then wolf down pasta perched on the bonnet of the photographer’s Land Rover. I certainly welcome the unique luxury of having a following car for this final day of the challenge.

Through the gorges, and to the foot of the Col de Pailhères. The rain ceases momentarily, but comes back stronger, this time accompanied by a gale force headwind. By the summit, the visibility has closed in to a couple of metres. The exposed mountainside provides no protection from the chilling wind. I grab a quick photo at the graffiti covered refuge at the summit, with water running off every surface of bike and body.

After a fast descent, gripping the brake levers with claw-like fingers, I arrive in the town of Ax-les-Thermes. 18:00 would be dinnertime for most, but in the local café I order a triple espresso in a chocolat chaud, with extra Chantilly cream and a speculoos waffle. ‘Rocket fuel’ for the final climb.

Darkness is closing in by the time I begin my ascent of the Col d’Envilara. The 39 kilometre road, with an average grade of 8 percent will take me to the final country and finish line – Andorra.

Past burnt out cars, and into the clouds – it is an eerie scene.

Legs regain energy from the anticipation of the finish line, and my mind is fuelled by adrenaline brought on by blazing lights and darkening skies. Two and a half hours of constant pedalling.

At 20:55, with the temperature just above zero, I reach the sign marking the summit of the Col. The finish line, illuminated by the headlamps of the Land Rover. My legs just about support me for one final photo.

The #7Countries7Passes tour complete.

The mountain giants and the cultural diversity seen on this bike ride provided incredible challenge and interest throughout.

From the forests of Germany, to the vineyards of Provence. From the Swiss snow, to the dust of the Corbieres. 14 days of experiences and memories.