I must admit, I felt apprehensive about the Etape Suisse trip. After all, I am usually flying to Geneva with a snowboard in tow and not to travel down the Swiss Alps at 50Kmh on two wheels.
But when I met the Etape Suisse group at the rendezvous point of Heston Blomenthal’s Perfectionist Cafe at the Queens Terminal at Heathrow Airport, I realised that they were a friendly bunch with a passion for cycling with different skill levels.
The Perfectionist Cafe was the perfect place to start the trip and I ordered the Full English. After watching Heston perform his magic with food on TV, I was half expecting the egg to taste of sausage and my plate to be made of compressed jelly beans, but it was all quite normal bar the fact that this was a gourmet breakfast using only the finest ingredients (the Baked Beans were Heinz of course – I asked!)
As we were flying out to Geneva, it seemed only appropriate that we flew with SWISS. Hassle free, efficient and enjoyable; this is how flying should be! It is the little touches where SWISS stand out like the quality of the complimentary food and the (to die for!) Swiss chocolates.
Gstaad is less than a 3 hour coach trip from Geneva airport with the route snaking round the whole length of the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Geneva. Our destination was the five-star-superior rated Gstaad Palace Hotel.
Perched on top of a hill like a Château guarding the small town of Gstaad below, this magnificent building looks like a creation from an early Walt Disney film. Steeped in tradition, the Gstaad Palace has maintained a timeless charm that is luxurious without being overbearing. Luxury is what Etape Suisse is all about and this was certainly a fitting location.
My huge suite had a large bedroom and lounge area that lead out onto a balcony overlooking the gardens below with the stunning backdrop of the Alps, a walk-in wardrobe, a large bathroom consisting of double basins and a bath big enough to stretch out in while watching the wall fitted TV. The shower compartment was big enough to hold a small party (I did not try this!) with tiled seating alongside the wall. No expense is spared on the rooms including the mattresses which are individually hand-made for the hotel by a company at Lake Geneva.
Over night, Michael Vaughan (OBE), the former England cricketer who captained England to their famous Ashes history in 2005, had joined the party.
I was following in the footsteps of a long list of who’s who celebrities that have stayed at the Gstaad Palace over the years and we were all treated to a ‘behind the scenes’ tour. It was fascinating to see the beating heart of the hotel and to know its history. This included the extremely chic GoGreen nightclub with its original 70’s ambiance that oozes class and style. We also visited the delightful La Fromagerie in the Basement and it was difficult to imagine that it was once a fortified bunker, built in case of attack from the Nazis during the second World War.
Although I could have easily enjoyed the hospitality of the hotel for the whole duration of my short trip, we had some serious cycling to do! This is what Etape Suisse is all about; a luxury cycling experience. Born out of frustration of the mediocracy of the UK sports scene, Etape Suisse was created to give cycling experiences to all abilities in the challenging but incredibly scenic Swiss Alps, while enjoying fine dining and relaxation in the best hotels. Etape Suisse is for those who want to realise their passion for cycling without compromising on luxury.
Over night, Michael Vaughan (OBE), the former England cricketer who captained England to their famous Ashes history in 2005, had joined the party. There was huge excitement as everyone gathered by the makeshift BMC and Stromer bike fitting camp outside the hotel. Whilst the more seasoned cyclists had opted for the BMC bikes, I opted for the Stromer ST2.
The Stromer ST2 is an e-bike which is an incredible piece of Swiss engineering. Looking like a bike version of KIT from the 80’s show Night Rider, it has a powerful 500w motor, 20-speed Shimano gears, a battery range of 150Km and reaches an assisted speed of 45Kmh! It looked sleek and stylish as you would expect from the Swiss.
We were split into 2 groups of abilities and we let the faster group storm ahead towards Gstaad. It was a hot July day and the heat was already starting to make an impact. We kept at a steady pace through Gstaad and a few more picturesque villages, before starting our first assent into the Alps. It was at this point, as I powered past my struggling fellow cyclists with ease, that it felt a tad like cheating on my Stromer E-Bike. But the feeling didn’t last long!
The whole scenery so beautifully surreal it looks like it has been edited with an Instagram filter
The beauty about the Stromer is that you can push yourself as much, or as little as you want. There are 5 power assist settings and I tried to keep mine on the minimum of 1 or 2 as much as possible, but if I was tired or needed to climb a steep assent, I just clicked it up to 4 or 5 and powered ahead with hardly any effort.
The Stromer really is a beast under it’s designer exterior as I have been on E-Bikes before which really struggled with mountain roads. This was no problem for the powerful 500w motor of the Stromer and they are insanely quick on flat road. The only thing I had to watch out for was that they are not as nimble, light and reactive as a normal road bike, so needed a wider birth for corners.
For many of the group, this was the first time that they had been cycling outside of London and there really can be no comparison to cycling in the Alps of Switzerland to around the one-way system in Wandsworth! The Swiss Alps will always have a special place in my heart, but I am used to seeing them with a white blanket of snow. Summer is equally as spectacular with the lush green mountains and the lakes, sparkling from the melted snow, a deep crystallised turquoise. The whole scenery so beautifully surreal it looks like it has been edited with an Instagram filter!
It was a good idea to split into smaller groups as the more serious cyclists powered their way through the Alps, our group took the more leisurely approach with frequent stops for photos of the scenery as well as selfies with the wildlife (my favourite was a selfie with a donkey chewing an electric fence!).
The total ride was about 70Km before we stopped for a well deserved late lunch at a lovely village restaurant. I consider myself reasonably fit and may have coped with the BMC bikes, but the Stromer was such a joy to ride and not used to road cycling, was the right choice for me.
After lunch, many of our group decided to go back out cycling, but I decided to make use of the luxury Spa facilities of the hotel! I believe I made the right choice with a relaxing afternoon in the saunas and steam rooms, as well as the pools and Jacuzzis. I loved the small pool that opens up to swimming outside on a balcony pool; the water was so warm it was like being in a bath. The staff were so attentive and even provided us each with a Spa towel dressing gown, slippers as well as fluffy towels. Many of our group made use of the various massage services offered.
The organisers of Etape Suisse are so focused and passionate about what they were doing, their enthusiasm was infectious
After a much needed rest, we all boarded a coach for a short trip back up into the Alps to a secluded restaurant to enjoy a good old fashioned BBQ. Situated in a valley, we were treated to stunning views of a waterfall cascading over the rocks of a mountain to form a lake beneath us. While waiting for the main meal, we enjoyed drinks and snacks of local cheese and meats out on the veranda, while challenging each other to games of Hammerschlagen (involves taking it in turn to hit a nail into a tree stump with the sharp end of a hammer). The smell of the BBQ was too much to bear and I was first in line when it was ready! With huge steaks, pork, spare ribs and chicken, it was just as well I was hungry.
It really was an incredible evening and I was lucky enough to sit next to Michael Vaughan throughout the meal. It had been a long day but one that will be forever etched in my memory.
The organisers of Etape Suisse are so focused and passionate about what they were doing, their enthusiasm was infectious. It is also worth noting that Etape Suisse is partnered with the Laureus Foundation charity, an organisation that uses sport to benefit children across the world by funding community projects and helping individuals achieve real change in their lives.
It really was an incredible experience and an insight to the official Etape Suisse Gstaad 2016 event. The option of the Stromer e-bikes makes the event accessible to friends and family of members to attend and enjoy the events, as it acts as a great equaliser for those who are not experienced riders.
To become a member of Etape Suisse and to find out information, visit http://www.etapesuisse.com.
Mark is also the manager of Jamie Barrow (Britain’s fastest snowboarder)