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Week 15: Falling Apart but Getting By in Switzerland

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Andermatt to Kaiseraugst, 425km; total 6,675km

A bicycle is a pretty impressive machine - simple compared to modern wonders like iPhones, self-driving cars or those robots that mow your lawn by themselves; yet remarkably intricate when you consider all the moving parts that need to be working perfectly for the ride to be smooth.

Bearings and chains have to be adequately greased, or the bike wobbles and creaks. Brake and gear cables require just the right tension, or the bike jerks and screeches. Seat and handlebars must be at the correct, personalized height to avoid nagging pain in the knees or back. Tire tubes airtight and pumped to the proper pressure, and wheel spokes tightened to exact equilibrium - otherwise you’re going nowhere, or at best crooked.

In short, a lot has to go right for a bike to get its cyclist from A to B. On a six-month, 10,000-km bike tour, add in gear, weather, and of course the most complex machine of all: the human body. So much can go wrong.

We’ve been reminded of this inescapable reality over the past week - with our bikes, our gear and our bodies all showing signs of breakdown. Between wobbly headsets and balding tires, torn ligaments and migraine fevers, thunderstorms and flooded campsites, and holes in everything from our panniers to our underwear, some serious repair work was required for the epic to keep rolling. Thankfully, our collective mood was bolstered by the addition of a second family to our pedaling posse for the next month - our zany and adventurous buddies the McConnells - so our eight days circumnavigating Switzerland along the contour of the mighty Rhine River was a rip-roaring riot in spite of our faltering everything.

We left the tropical swelter of Greece (with a five-hour flash-stopover to the Acropolis in Athens, where Sitka marveled in fast-forward over the august ruins of temples to his favourite mythological characters, and Ed surreptitiously disregarded the stuffy “Do Not Touch the Millennia-Old Marble” signs - as if) to arrive in cooler and drizzlier Zurich for the launch of the second act in our grand European tour. But when we unboxed our bikes for the usual breezy reconstruction, we discovered that our Greek bike-mechanic pals left us the gift of learning how to reattach the front fork they had detached - with all the various bearings and spacers whose order we had never taken time to memorize. Heron and Ed had some profound, late-night father-son quality time experimenting, YouTubing, cursing and finally succeeding in rebuilding all four bikes.

Until the next morning when three of the headsets wobbled precariously under the weight of our panniers. (Imagine your car’s steering column with a half-foot of vertical give, then your front axle jerking back and forth as you accelerate.) Our morale was deflated, but our tires were not, so we improvised a tram ride to meet our arriving Yukon friends at the airport and would later seek professional help (for our bikes, not our psyches) after a brisk train ride to the source of the Rhine in Andermatt. We even found a replacement for Sitka’s very bald rear tire that had been skidding scarily for the past weeks.

Just as we got our rides back in working order, our bodies started to give out after 14 weeks and 6,000 km of steady activity. Joce’s tweaked knee now appears to be a torn ligament - sore while biking, painful while walking, and excruciating afterward as it swells in revenge. We’ve gradually upgraded the quality of her brace, but it’s quite possibly easier to get a fish to stay still than to convince Jocelyn to take a rest day, so the healing has been slower than hoped. Then an intense fever-migraine combo flushed through Joce and both boys - Sitka’s horrible wails from this unprecedented cranial pressure brought tears to all of our eyes, and also his lunch back out of his belly and all over the bike path. Joce spent the same night wracked with scary shakes and chills, and was the sickest any of us have ever seen her. Joce may not stop for herself, but Sitka’s concurrent illness was finally enough for her to skip ahead by train with him the next day and meet the rest of the troupe later that afternoon.

Heron, meanwhile, holds it in all day - especially now with friends his age to ride and chatter with - and then crumples into a fetal ball of misery at bedtime. Ed skipped the sickness but was exhausted carrying the physical and psychological load of caring for his beleaguered beloveds.

Not exactly the funnest family to join up with for a week rolling down and out of the Alps, with two vicious overnight gale-force thunderstorms rocking and flooding our tents.

But Chrissy McConnell and her three teen sons are a different breed of bike buddy. For the past two summers, they’ve gone all-in on our cycling adventures on Yukon’s remote and rugged North and South Canol Road - with endless drench-dry rain cycles, no fresh food for days on end, and thick swarms of mosquitoes in our tents, our clothes and our oatmeal. After all that awsomeness (and awesome it indeed was), they were still eager to ride along the Rhine with us. So we were hella happy to have them - fun, unfazed and indestructible.

Fifteen-year-old Jonah is the stoic, steady rock who’s always there to support his single mom with whatever’s heavy that needs lifting (he’s a teenager, so of course some or much prodding is required, but in the end, there he is). He’s quiet, so whenever his cutting observational humour bursts out, we all burst out in belly laughs - and sometimes he’s not sure why.

Thirteen-year-old Micah is the Energizer bunny on a caffeine bender. Always bantering or philosophizing (or screeching inconceivable noises just to hear what it sounds like), he’s a fierce warrior for justice and sticking up for the little guy - though still working out the appropriateness of some of his proposed, imaginatively cartoon-violent strategies.

And then there’s Tommy, Micah’s twin, who happily goes along with whatever plan lays before him (so long as there’s ice cream or swimming at the end of it) and entertains us endlessly with silly dances, random catchphrases repeated in song, and trick challenges like bottle flips or tossing pine cones into fire pits. Tommy also has Down syndrome, which his family navigates with unbelievable grace and ingenuity - and adds another layer of magic to his already enchanting personality.

Herding this pack of wild young wolf cubs is alpha mom Chrissy, who bravely brings her fearsome threesome on all kinds of ambitious adventures that other mothers wouldn’t dare imagine - even with a less unfair parent-kid ratio. She matches her boys’ wacky playfulness with gusto, all while enforcing a firm standard of respect and order when needed. And she’s also a pure blast of an adult to hang out with, even if our lads weren’t so fabulously compatible.

Altogether, then, we’re a motley crew of Yukoners storming through whatever poor village stands in our path. It took us twenty minutes to go down one floor with our eight bikes on the train-station elevator, for example, because Micah kept running back up the stairs. But when we needed to get all eight bikes into three different train cars (with an 18-inch elevation gap from the platform), we operated with military coordination and precision. We’re Yukon wild-campers by spirit,so we don’t take up much space with our three small tents and tiny cookstoves, but we do make an inordinate amount of noise - so much that we quickly learned “Shut up” from fellow campers in Swiss German on Night One in the dense alder forest in Trun.

We’re back to camping after our luxurious romp along the Adriatic (paying the same or more for a patch of grass and picnic dinner as we did for apartments and dining out with a table on the beach in Albania), relishing the fresh night air and vivid stars - along with the slugs and earwigs, rowdy high-school groups on end-of-year camp trips, late-night karaoke wafting in from the neighbouring outdoor bar, and endless church bells through the night. It’s yet another entirely distinct kind of bike trip, in an entirely new place.

And good thing, as we’ve happened upon an especially beautiful bike ride this week from the Alpine source of the Rhine River, down through idyllic Swiss towns and hair-raising hairpins, into sweeping farm valleys of maturing wheat, sprouting sunflowers and budding apples. The ornate church clocktowers peek out above mural-covered shops and homes with terracotta roofs so warped and mossy that you’d swear they’ll collapse today - until you realize they’ve likely been that way for decades longer than your average tar shingle.

Along the way we threw rocks and logs off the 70-metre-tall Versamer Tobelbrücke bridge in the “Grand Canyon of Switzerland” (an outdoor-loving teenager’s dream), explored the spiral watchtower in Schaffhausen’s 400-year-old Munot fortress, got awe-struck up-close at the thundering, rollicking Rhine Falls, witnessed a wedding ceremony that went from an austere cathedral to the top of a fire-engine ladder in the town square of Bad Säckingen, and even stumbled upon a Wibit on sunny Lake Bodensee (“the Monaco of Switzerland” according to the charming fellow who let us in).

We also slipped into quiet, quaint Liechtenstein (country number 15) for an overnight at a youth hostel to dry out between storms, then back-and-forth to Austria and Germany a few times (often without even noticing the border) before ending our Switzerland circle tour at Basel, where we’d been seven weeks earlier heading southeast toward Italy.

We’re still slowly recovering from injury and illness, buoyed by the contagious vitality of our family friends. “Once we’re back to healthy, this is gonna be even more awesome!” Heron mused one evening. We still have some tires to rotate, and more than a few sewing jobs on our task list. Chrissy’s gears are skipping and crackling, so there’s plenty to keep us busy as we head north along the Rhine, bouncing between France and Germany toward to the North Sea in the Netherlands in three weeks.

Fortunately, the machine that is our family unit is chugging along in unison - each cog doing its part to support the others.

So even when the road is bumpy, our ride is pretty impressively smooth.


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Becker Philippa
Becker Philippa
Jul 06, 2022

This is beautifully written. It is wonderful to read of your adventures and tenacity. Thanks so much for including lovely descriptions of Chrissy and the boys. What an incredible undertaking!

Ed Gillis
Ed Gillis
Jul 15, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Philippa! Our friends are adding so much for and energy to our trip - it’s been a blast!

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