On the language border of the French and Swiss-German speaking Swiss communities, there’s a village that sits on the French speaking side called Jaun, and where everyone speaks German as a primary language. Jaun is the Swiss-German name for the village, and Bellegarde is its French name. Confusing I know. However, the pretty village sits in a deep valley alongside the Jogne river, and at the foot of the Gastlosen Mountains, which are known locally as the Swiss Dolomites.
In winter, a small but busy ski lift is operative and the main ski run is often lit at night, which looks really pretty when driving down the pass to the village. In all of the other seasons, Jaun is a good base for walking, cycling and other outdoor sports. The air is always fresh and the architecture is classic Switzerland with its white church and wooden houses. Apart from that, there’s a small boulangerie, a school, some local businesses, mountain farms, hotel, and a waterfall. It also has one roundabout which is the meeting place for busses from the two companies that run services either side of the mountains.
What makes Jaun relevant for this post, is that there are two mountain passes that leave the village from the roundabout and take a traveller out of the valley and over the mountains, and in this case, to a destination town called Saanen. Saanen is one of the prettiest towns in Switzerland and with its own little exclusive airstrip, it is home to a Chocolatier and cafe called Cafe Delice. As cafe’s go, my wife and I think that Cafe Delice is up there in the world top 10 cafes. Fact!
Close to the ski lift and bus terminal in the village, there’s the (newly added) roundabout that I mentioned, and this is where the two passes head off in different directions. This roundabout in Jaun is about 56 kms (34 miles) from our house, so it seemed like a good idea to tackle both passes, on different days, and on differently powered, two wheeled transport. The old pass will be tackled on a bicycle with electric assistance (a Diamant eBike) as it’s a tiny road up and down, and the new pass will be tackled on a motorcycle (a Ducati 851) as it’s a much wider and smoother. Both passes have a similarly large number of hairpin bends as well as final altitude. The old pass tops out at 1633 metres (5357 feet) above sea level and the new pass tops out at 1509 metres (4950 feet), so both have a similar altitude gain from the village. I rode both passes in the same week as I wrote this post, which was the last week of September 2021, and one which there was hardly any rainfall (for a change).
So, that’s the context and scene-setter. I won’t provide a minute-by-minute account of each ride to save boredom setting in for readers, but I will try to articulate the journey and the landscape simply (Hopefully). The first pass that I tackled was the old pass on the ebike, so strap in for a journey uphill.
The Old Jaun Pass (Diamant eBike)
Briefly, the ebike ride total distance was 72 kms (45 miles), the average speed was 24 KMH (16 MPH), the altitude gained from the house was 800 metres (2600 feet), the maximum speed (downhill) was 72 KMH (45 MPH) and the whole ride took just under 3 hours with several photo, toilet and cake stops. The range of the battery on the ebike is enough to do this ride as long as I’m prudent with the assistance level. This plan was challenged a bit with at least half of the ride being into a strong head wind, but worry not, I made it to the cafe with 23% range left as I’d used the second most economical assistance for the majority of the ride.
For at least 3 months of the year, this road is impassable due to the snow, and the road is closed to traffic. It’s a really popular route for cyclists when it is open as there’s little traffic on it and it has an amazing landscape from open, mountain meadows to a steep wooded valley with a fast river in the bottom. From either side of the pass, the way up or down provides challenging descents, and a bit of a slog up.
After a cake and pee stop, I leave the roundabout in Jaun and set off, upwards. After about 10 minutes in, I stop to take a photo of a map and as I’m about to set off uphill again, a man comes flying by on small skis with wheels on and ski poles to aid his balance. As the road goes up a bit steeper, he slows down and I pass him. He’s focussed on his ski training and probably lining up the next bend in the road, but he gives me a raised ski pole in greeting, then gets back to his podcast or whatever it is he’s listening to whilst grinding uphill.
The cows, bells and all, are all still high up in the mountain pastures and will be brought down to a big celebration during the annual, village Desalpe festivals in October. This is where all of the animals that have been up in the mountains during the summer are decorated with flowers and huge bells, then brought back down to the valley farms and paraded through the village. Much eating of cheese, cold meats and wine drinking is also a key part of the day. The cows use the mountain road as well as the pastures so this means that there’s cow shit everywhere. This is ok riding up as the speed is much lower and there’s time to dodge the mess. However, on the descents around tight, blind hairpins, it’s lethal and has the same effect as ice does for a bicycle tyre.
I did the ride on a midweek day and the road was generally very quiet from a traffic perspective, but not from a cow perspective. The surface is average tarmac and not super smooth and the Ducati would hate it. The views are breathtaking at the top of the climb and I’m greeted by a herd of cows, mostly in the road. Swiss cows are very tame and this lot even looked pleased to see me. I noticed that one of them had a wooden brace on her horns. This particular breed of cow have short but curly horns and the farmers use a wooden, adjustable brace to ensure that their horns grow the correct way. It’s just the same as having a brace on your teeth.
I don a body warmer for the descent and head down. The speed and wind noise increases and the large diameter disc brakes do a great job of hauling all of that ebike weight down so hairpins can be tackled safely-ish. The road is about the width of a modern family-sized car, so if I meet one around a blind corner, it’s going to be a squeeze. My route down follows the falling water in a gorge so it’s a rock wall on one side of me and a big-ish drop on the other. I only met one car coming the other way and that fortunately, was on a straight bit. The driver took one look at the speeding LED light shining at him/her (I was going too fast to check driver gender) and pulled over a bit. Phew!
After what seems like a long time braking hard into sharp, downhill bends, I pop out of the trees into bright and very warm sunshine. I stop, take off my body warmer and take the photo below. FYI – This photo doesn’t capture the high temperature of the brake discs?. I continue down the mountain to the town of Saanen and marvel at the beauty of the place bathed in sunshine. Just Google the place and look at the images and you’ll see what I mean.
I meet my wife in the town car park, put the bike in the van, get changed and then we walk through the town to Café Delice where we have amazing soup, cakes and a cappuccino. Switzerland has a lot of mountain passes, but not always two heading out of the same village to a shared destination on the other side, so this first pass on the ebike was amazing, a privilege to ride, and the cafe calories consumed probably didn’t exceed what I’d burnt off, unusually.
The New Jaun Pass (Ducati 851)
As I started the ebike ride above with some facts, let’s just say that the motorcycle ride was ‘a bit faster’ and ‘a bit louder’ than the ebike?.
The new Jaun Pass was constructed and cut out of the mountain side in 1878 and is the only link from the Gruyère region into the Simmental region. If you are into Swiss, or any cheese for that matter, you’ll know about these two neighbouring regions. The new Jaun Pass starts from the same roundabout as the old pass and then goes up, and doesn’t stop going up until the col.
This road is kept open year round as there is a very small ski resort on the top. There’s a flat area on the col which is now a car park and where there are a few cafes catering for winter sports, and in all of the other seasons, walkers, cyclists, classic and sports car drivers, and of course, motorcyclists. The tarmac is super smooth on both sides of the pass, the camber on the corners well thought through for agile cornering, but probably more so for efficient snow and rain drainage, and there’s even a tunnel to go through on the way up from the Jaun side.
Once the snow has gone from the road, it takes a couple of months for the small pebbles, gravel etc to be washed away, so from June to the end of September, it’s a perfect ribbon of grippy tarmac. This is emphasised as the ascent from Jaun is on the side of the valley that gets the hottest of the late day sun. For motorcycle tyres, this is perfect.
The road up the pass from Juan is different to the road down the other side into the Simmental valley. Going up, it is faster and more open on the mountainside with flowing corners, whereas on the other side down into Simmental, it is much steeper with many tight hairpins. It is so tight in places that a really fast and experienced cyclist can get down this Simmental side as fast as anything else on the road, and sometimes faster.
Mountain roads like this steep and twisting run down into Simmental taught me something about motorcycle tyre wear that I’d never experienced before. I grew up in a flat part of the U.K. so that tyre wear on a motorcycle was always biased to the rear tyre. This means that the ratio of tyre replacement was 2 new back tyres to one new front tyre. Riding a motorcycle on mountain passes like new Jaun pass turns that ratio on its head as the front tyre is put on as much load, if not more, than the rear tyre. It also changes the way the motorcycle has to be ridden. Interesting huh?
I leave the roundabout in Jaun and point the Ducati towards the smooth, Swiss-watch-quality tarmac ahead. This part of the pass going up is the type of road that this bike is great to be piloting. There’s no pressure on the body as it’s all about picking the right spot on the road, the right gear, the right braking, and crucially, the right sound from the engine. There are a few tight hairpins, but a lot are smooth flip-flop corners one after the other. Then there’s the short tunnel. Just as your eyes get used to the dark, you’re out into the bright light again, plus there’s a slight corner into it, a bend in the tunnel and then a corner out of it. They’re all left hand turns going up and it is great to smoothly ride through like it’s all one corner.
The road surface is so good and smooth that a small stone on the road can look like a rock and something to avoid, even though it’s only tiny. It’s the fact that it stands out and looks ominous. Riding in summer is a sharp contrast to a ride in early May where there are rocks and twigs and all sorts of debris on the road and brought down with the snow.
Once on the col at the top, there’ll be a number of bikers having a coffee and waiving to everyone who passes through on a motorcycle. Going down the other side is a different approach and road. It’s a very twisty and serpentine run down to the valley and this is where the front tyre gets a scrubbing, plus you’re pushing back with arms and wrists as well as gripping the tank with your knees. As I polish the bike and tank regularly, it doesn’t provide a very grippy surface for my knees. The actual outright speeds are quite low going down and nothing more than third gear is engaged before a sharp hairpin arrives and it’s down to first gear again.
Going up and down the pass requires a stop if a view needs to be taken in as trying to look around and ride at the same time is a big risk, so it’s good to stop and just look. This is particularly true going down into the Simmental valley as there are amazing views of a glacier, should you decide to stop. This road, like all mountain passes is really busy at the weekend, especially if the weather is good, so my mid-week ride was perfect. Roads like this new Jaun pass really attract the special vehicles and motorcycles. I’ve seen a few cars and motos on this road that I’ve either never seen or only seen in a photo. In addition, I have seen a photographer lying on the road after a corner to capture a new Lamborghini coming around the bend. It must have been for a magazine or marketing. There is also the added bonus of hearing the sound of special engines making great noises up and down the pass (including my Ducati of course).
Anyway, as I’m not meeting my wife at the Cafe Delice in Saanen on this ride, I still decide to stop for a cappuccino and cake there as ‘I’ need to re-fuel. Sadly, these calories won’t be burnt off riding the Ducati, but hey!
Rather than go home directly, I decide to ride home via the Col du Pillon (1546 mtrs), the Col du Croix (1778 mtrs) and the Col des Mosses (1445 mtrs) mountain passes as the weather is so perfect. No issues with electric battery range on the Ducati, but it did use two and a half tanks of petrol?. Looking at my rear Pirelli Rosso tyre on one of my photo stops, one thing I noticed is that just like the famous MotoGP rider, Marc Marquez, I evidently also prefer left hand corners as I’ve got nearly all of the left side of the rear tyre used to its edge in comparison to the right side where there is a clear, unused ‘chicken strip’ still evident. That’s really where the comparison between me and Mr Marquez ends?.
One thing I haven’t mentioned about Saanen is that it shares its name with a white goat and this Saanen goat is the emblem of the town. There are only two roundabouts on the road into Saanen and have three white goat statues on each of them. These pure white Saanen goats are the largest goat found in Switzerland and herds of them can also be found all over the world. They are highly productive from a milk perspective, being one of the highest milk producing goats in the world. Fact! The Swiss obviously make cheese from this milk as well. Obviously?.
If you ever get chance to tackle these two fabulous mountain passes, watch out for the cow shit (in summer), always look where you’re going, make sure your brakes work, and stop off at the Cafe Delice for great service, food and location (link below)?.
Délice Café Chocolatier https://delicecafe.ch/en/
All photos by the Author