Switzerland: Cycling the Lakes Route in the most bike-friendly place on earth

In Switzerland's Simmental, my bike has drawn a crowd. As I stand at the road edge photographing the luminous green meadows and bristling peaks, a herd of the valley's namesake cows has gathered around me, licking and slobbering at my bike. By the time I continue cycling along the Lakes Route, I'm somewhat suitably sitting in my own lake of sorts. 

The 510-kilometre Lakes Route is one of nine national cycling routes across Switzerland, a country that might well contend as the most bike-friendly place on earth. In addition to the impeccably signed national routes, there are more than 50 regional cycling routes and myriad local routes covering about 8500 kilometres – about the distance from Perth to Brisbane via Darwin and Cairns. There's an app that covers every metre of the network, and trains, buses and cable cars double as bike carriers.

The Lakes Route is one of the most intriguing of the trails, somehow threading between mountains to connect 10 lakes as it traverses the country between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance.

The route's best sections are west of Zurich, as it loops around gorgeous lakes such as Geneva, Brienz and Lucerne, and in sight of some of the Alps' most famous peaks.

Setting out from Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva, it's my plan to cycle six days to Lake Zurich. As I begin pedalling, climbing north above the lake, there's the feeling of leaving a coast – the so-called Swiss Riviera – even in this landlocked country. The motorway is a distant murmur, but the roads on which I ride are as quiet as a Sunday service. Often the only sound is cowbells, chiming as if signalling the final lap in a velodrome.

I'm soon high enough that the glacier-wrapped summit of Mont Blanc, the European Alps' highest mountain, climbs into distant view over the fields, lake and other mountains between us.

The ride makes a circuitous start, and soon after crossing Europe's continental divide – the Rhine one side, the Rhone the other – in Chatel St-Denis, it bends and turns to follow another valley back in the direction from which I've just come. By the next morning, south of the town of Gruyeres, I'll have cycled 55 kilometres and yet, in a straight line, I'll be just 10 kilometres from Vevey.

In the Gruyeres valley, cows trail in and out of milking sheds, a pair of deer jog across the road ahead of me, and wild strawberries grow at the roadside. Above the main road, the Lakes Route follows a tiny farming lane that undulates across the slopes, though as ever on a bike, the ups seem somehow more numerous than the downs. All morning I'm passed by just one car until the valley becomes so squeezed by mountains that there's only space for one road.

It's at the end of the Simmental the next day that the ride changes character. As the Simme River roars through the valley, passing an incongruous cluster of industry at its end, I emerge into view of the Swiss Alps' grandest mountain trio – the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau – and onto the shores of Lake Thun.

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The Lakes Route might easily start here. Until now I've been wriggling through the valleys of the pre-Alps, but suddenly lakes form a queue all the way to Zurich. It begins with Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, the pigeon pair of lakes that compress Interlaken.

I spend the night in Spiez on the shores of Lake Thun, pedalling out at dawn to enjoy the early morning beside this odd couple of Alpine lakes – the ocean-green Lake Thun sitting side by side with the vivid-blue Lake Brienz. With mountains rearing out of the lakes' shores, I could be cycling through the fiords of Norway rather than along the lakes of Switzerland.

I roll around the rim of one lake, and then the next. In Interlaken, paragliders flop to earth outside the front doors of the palatial Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel, and Lake Brienz is so flat and still at this time of morning I feel almost as though I could ride straight across it rather than around it.

With its brilliant blue waters, Disney-like castle in Istelwald, and the Giessbach waterfall plunging past a grand hotel on its shores, Lake Brienz appears cut from a storybook. The waterfall has drawn a crowd, with visitors streaming along the walkway that burrows behind the falls, but it's still only the second most famous waterfall here.

Ahead in Meiringen, where there's the temptation of farmhouses selling Alpine cheese, Reichenbach Falls were the scene of Sherlock Holmes's fictional end, pushed to his death by Professor Moriarty. In the town now, there's an industry of Sherlock, with Meiringen containing a Sherlock Holmes Museum, Sherlock Holmes Club and Lounge, and the Sherlock Holmes Hotel.

The town that gave its name to the meringue is also the start of the Lakes Route's toughest climb, ascending 400 metres to Brunig Pass. It's a climb that can be circumvented on a train – this is Switzerland, remember – but I've carbo-loaded with rosti at lunch in Meiringen and I'm ready to climb.

It's an ascent that, like me, seems to fatigue as it climbs, starting out steep and flattening as it gets higher and nearer to the pass. Quickly I rise to fine views over Meiringen and the Alps, even as the Lakes Route now turns its back on the mountains, swinging north and rounding a procession of small lakes.

Nearing Lake Lucerne, the route surprises me by cutting across a military runway – I half expect to be arrested and yet I'm faithfully following the trail markers. Another time it darts into the middle of a golf course, winding through fairways and greens. It's as though there's no place in Switzerland that a bike doesn't belong.

From Lucerne, where the route crosses the Reuss River between the city's two famous wooden bridges, the ride develops a more urban edge. The towns get larger and more business-minded, but at their edges the ride still plunges into stands of forest cut by beautiful streams.

Outside of Zug, Switzerland's richest town, where the old town's medieval buildings seem to hunch over two cobblestone streets, I pedal for an hour through the sort of dense forest you forget still exists in Europe. High overhead, atop elevated concrete bridges, the motorway snarls along unseen – trees below, traffic above.

Lakes continue to be my guiding lines north, and I'm once again the cycling equivalent of an animal crossing overland from waterhole to waterhole. Sitting between the lakes, the enormous abbey at Einsiedeln, a pilgrimage stop along the multi-pronged Camino de Santiago, appears almost divinely from the landscape, looking larger than the town around it.

The abbey also marks the start of the final climb along my own watery pilgrimage. As I crest the last hill – strangely one of the steepest climbs of the route, even though the Alps are now just muscle memory far behind me – Lake Zurich is suddenly pooled far below.

I pedal on, descending through one last band of vividly green forest to the shores of the lake, where my final pedal strokes take me onto a bridge across its middle. I'm no longer riding around the lakes but over them.

Rain begins to fall for the first time in six days, so that there is now water below me and water descending from above. It's a fitting finish to the Lakes Route.

5 SWISS NATIONAL CYCLING ROUTES

RHINE ROUTE

A simple 430-kilometre ride following the Rhine River's course from its source at Andermatt to Basel.

ALPINE PANORAMA ROUTE

Get almost 10,000 metres of climb into your legs on this 475-kilometre ride across the northern fringe of the Alps.

JURA ROUTE

Explore Switzerland's other mountain range by bike on this 275-kilometre ride from Basel to Lake Geneva along the country's eastern border.

AARE ROUTE

Descend the Alps from Grimsel Pass along the shores of Lake Brienz and Lake Thun to reach the Rhine after 315 kilometres.

NORTH-SOUTH ROUTE

Do as the name says, pedalling 365 kilometres from Basel in the north to southern Ticino.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/switzerland

myswitzerland.com

FLY

Swiss flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Zurich via either Singapore or Hong Kong. See swiss.com

CYCLE

Eurotrek operates an eight-day self-guided Lakes Route cycling trip from Lake Geneva to Rapperswil on Lake Zurich. Prices start from $1250 and include all accommodation, breakfasts, daily luggage transfers and a guidebook. See eurotrek.ch

Andrew Bain was a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

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