Saturday, June 26 (110Km, 2109m)

Hans and I met around noon at the ferry dock in Brunnen, on the beautiful shores of the Vierwaldstätter See (the lake of Lucerne), and enjoyed a lunch of fresh trout before setting out on our bike ride together. Hans had driven to Switzerland from his home in Hoevelhof, Germany, the night before, while I had arrived from southern Italy via an ill-conceived overnight odyssey that involved delays, missed connections, and six sweaty men in a stifling second-class train compartment. I had had no sleep, and felt a little ragged.

But the breeze pushed us along and sunshine sparkled on the lake as Hans and I rode to Altdorf along the Axenstrasse. The road was spectacular, a series of short tunnels separating longer exposed sections where sheer rock walls rose to our left and plunged vertically into the water to our right. After a quick stop for money in Altdorf, we headed up the narrowing Reuss valley. The climb began suddenly, shortly after Amsteg, and we stopped to down Cokes in Wassen (900m) before tackling the main ascent up the Meiental to Sustenpass (2259m). (The store we bought them from took back the empty one-liter bottles and returned our deposit. I wish convenience stores in the U.S. were as well-organized and environmentally friendly.)

The climb from Wassen begins with two tunnels separated by a bridge over a deep gorge where the Meienreuss River roars into the Reuss valley. Beyond the second tunnel, the Meiental opens up, broad meadows to the left, snowfields in the distance, and an unobstructed view of the road almost all the way to the pass. We climbed slowly: I was sleep-deprived and Hans suffered in the afternoon heat. Hans' face was red and dripping with sweat before we found water to refill our bottles, just below the first of the three switchbacks that crown the ascent. Further up, snowbanks appeared by the side of the road and the air cooled off considerably.

The Sustenpass summit is a short tunnel that connects Meiental with Gadmental. We emerged into bright sunshine on the other side and looked for the blue Sustenpass road sign in order to take a picture. But the sign must have had an unfortunate encounter with a snowplow, so we simply posed with the tunnel entrance behind us.

The western side of Sustenpass is a wonderful descent. The road passes through a series of bare rock tunnels that protect it from rushing snowmelt, sweeps past the snout of the impressive Steingletscher, winds through meadows, and then plunges into a fir forest in a series of switchbacks before descending to Innertkirchen (625m). This time, however, I enjoyed the ride less than in the past. I could barely keep my eyes open, and on a couple of occasions I caught myself just in time to avoid missing a turn. I asked Hans to stop for more caffeinated bubbly water in Nessental, and there we decided that it would be best to stop for the night in Meiringen, rather than climbing to Rosenlaui as we had planned.

Thomer, another friend would be joining me for a week, had spent the day cycling from Zurich to Meiringen. We had planned to meet on Sunday, but this new arrangement was just as convenient. So after a final push up the four switchbacks next to the Aareschlucht, a scenic gorge of the River Aare, we coasted into Meiringen to find Thomer sitting outside the hotel he had picked for the night. I was so sleepy that I could barely talk. After a shower, abundant risotto, and a giant "Coupe Castello" ice cream, I perked up enough to doze through the first half of the Holland - Sweden Euro 2004 quarter-final. Then I left Thomer to cheer on his home side, and collapsed in bed for the better part of nine hours.

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