Cycling the Furka Pass in Switzerland is an unforgettable experience that is not for the faint-hearted.
The Furka Pass is a famous climb in the Swiss Alps between the traditional Alpine towns of Brig and Andermatt.
Not an easy climb by any stretch, the long pass stretches up to lofty heights where the air is thin, with seemingly endless hairpins winding their way up the mountain.
But in an area renowned for its natural beauty, the view at every one of these hairpins could be a painting: sparkling rivers winding through valleys carpeted with vibrant green and huge snow-capped mountains and unique glaciers towering above them.
So for those looking for a challenge to test out their climbing legs or those who simply revel in the joy of expansive vistas while testing their physical limits, the Furka Pass, Switzerland, is the perfect place to do so!
But how hard is the Furka Pass? Is it worth making the trip there to take on the challenge? What are some good routes to enjoy the climb?
To get you up to speed, we’ll be covering:
- The Swiss Alps: An Underrated Cycling Destination
- A Guide To Cycling The Furka Pass
- The Furka Pass: Routes And The Surrounding Area
Let’s dive in!
The Swiss Alps: An Underrated Cycling Destination
The Swiss Alps are world-famous for their natural beauty, with every view worthy of sending on a postcard home.
So, naturally, you might be wondering: how are the Swiss Alps underrated?
Well, amongst cyclists, there’s definitely an argument that they are frequently overlooked as a destination to take on challenging climbs, overshadowed by the French Alps, Pyrenees, and Italian Dolomites.
When you think of famous cycling climbs, it’s hard not to instantly be reminded of the Grand Tours, with their brutal climbs that break professional cyclists yearly.
But there are countless stunning climbs in Europe, and Switzerland is blessed with some of the best!
Switzerland has excellent food, some of the best outdoor activities on offer, beautiful towns, and some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe: the perfect cocktail for an excellent trip zooming around the mountains on two wheels!
Most importantly, like much of Europe, the roads are extremely well-maintained, so you can glide down the descents on smooth asphalt after tackling behemoth climbs like the Col du Sanetch, the Furka Pass, and the Nufenen Pass.
A Guide To Cycling The Furka Pass
Often compared to the likes of Alpe D’Huez and the Stelvio Pass, the Furka Pass is no easy ride.
However, just like these legendary climbs, you’re treated to fantastic views and a remarkable sense of achievement.
The Furka Pass is perhaps best known for staging the dramatic car chase in the 1964 James Bond film “Goldfinger”, so if you’re a 007 fan, perhaps you’ll recognize some of the scenes as you’re working your way up the climb!
Know before you go
The Furka Pass is an extremely challenging climb, so you’re likely to have a few questions before packing your bags, so here are a few considerations to keep in mind.
One of the first things you should consider before cycling the Furka Pass is the altitude.
The summit reaches an altitude of 2429 m (7970 ft), making it one of the highest rideable passes in Europe.
This means that there’s far less oxygen than at sea level, so you’re going to get out of breath a lot easier, and doing intense exercise such as cycling may result in a higher likelihood of developing mild symptoms of altitude sickness such as headaches and nausea.
Therefore, the altitude really takes a toll on many riders. The inability to take in enough oxygen can grind your ride to a halt if you attempt to take the Pass too aggressively.
So it’s imperative that if it’s your first time riding the pass, you take a couple of days to acclimatize to the altitude and take it easy on your way up!
Best Time To Tackle The Furka Pass
Cycling the Furka Pass is limited to the summer season.
Due to the high elevation, the road is closed from October-May, and near to closure/reopening, the roads can often still be slightly icy so usually, the cycling season would be considered to be June-September.
Even in summer, however, the weather is extremely volatile. From one minute to the next, the ride can change from a clear, sunny ride in bib shorts and jersey to a dark, cold and wet one from under a fortress of layers.
That’s why it’s essential that you bring many different layers with you, even if the forecast says that it’ll be clear the whole time; it’s not worth getting caught out in the cold and wet halfway up a mountain in your summer riding kit.
The best time of day to ride the Furka Pass is usually in the morning on a weekday. In general, early in the morning is more likely to be clear since less water has evaporated from the mountainside. The traffic is usually subdued on weekdays, too.
The Furka Pass Climb In Detail
The Furka Pass is an extremely tough climb, mostly due to its length and elevation. Here are some key stats for the climb:
- Climb Category: HC
- Distance: 16.4 km
- Average gradient: 6.5%
- Maximum gradient: 11%
- No. Hairpins: 12
- Elevation gain: 1065 m
- Max elevation: 2429 m
- KOM: 34:06*
- QOM: 44:26*
*Note that the Strava segment for the Furka Pass (and corresponding K/QOMs) only begins in the town of Realp, several kilometers after the climb is often considered to begin. This is where the gradient begins to ramp up.
Even so, the K/QOMs here are extremely fast. The average fairly fit amateur cyclist can expect the entire climb to take 1-2 hours of cycling.
Beginning from the picturesque mountain village of Hospental, you’ll follow a long and grueling false flat along the valley for the first 10 km or so, before reaching the town of Realp, where the climb proper, and the Strava segment, begins.
You’re immediately greeted by the steepest part of the climb, with slopes up to 11%. It’s a good time to appreciate the restraint of the Swiss, with the maximum gradient relatively low for a climb of this stature.
As you make your way up the most challenging section, you’ll quickly notice that you’re gaining up the mountain deceptively fast, due to the healthy amount of hairpins of this first section on the Eastern side.
After completing the last of the first set of hairpins, you’ll come across the modestly-signposted “James Bond Strasse”, the exact spot where 007 stepped out of his Aston Martin to watch Goldfinger driving away. If you’re feeling the climb, it’s not a bad place to stop!
One or two more bends (and a traditional Swiss cheese shop) later, and the feel of the climb transforms into a gradual, straight pass, with the mountain to your right and an expansive view of the mountains to your left.
You should be able to see the remainder of your climb from here, and with around 7 km of a shallower gradient to go. It’s easy to settle into the rhythm and enjoy the views over the incredible scenery.
From here onwards, you can see one of the most striking features of the Furka Pass, the Rhône Glacier. The glacier is a popular tourist attraction in its own right and is a must-see for anyone visiting the area.
You’ll also pass the famous Hotel Belvedere, a desolate abandoned hotel, which closed due to the climate change-induced glacier decline, massively decreasing their business.
There are a final couple of punchy bends before you reach the top, but it’s the final push – make sure you save gas in the tank to pass this final hurdle!
Now you’ll reach the summit of the pass! 2429 m is very high, and considering you’ll have been climbing for over 20 km (including the shallow false flat near the start), it’s a fantastic achievement to make it up.
Take a break and enjoy a snack while you congratulate yourself.
Furka Pass: Routes and Surrounding Area
The fantastic scenery the Furka Pass has to offer is just the start. Switzerland has a cornucopia of equally beautiful views just waiting for you to visit them.
Being quite a small country, with excellent train infrastructure, it’s easy to get around and enjoy the other climbs the Swiss Alps have to offer.
The Col du Sanetsch, the Nufenen Pass, and even the Passo dello Stelvio (on the Swiss-Italian border) are all within reach.
But in terms of routes to incorporate the Furka Pass, there are a number of different options to fill a good day in the saddle for varying experience levels.
One such route, perhaps for the more experienced cyclist, or those up for a big challenge, is a stunning 118 km loop from the town of Andermatt. Starting towards Hospental, you’ll soon be greeted by the Furka Pass, the first of three major climbs for the day.
The second climb, almost immediately following the descent down the Furka, is the “easiest”: the Grimsel Pass. After completing the Grimsel, continue towards Innertkirchen, where there are many options for food before embarking on the final climb.
The Susten Pass, connecting Innertkirchen and Wassen, is comparable to the Furka Pass itself, at a height of 2230 m. It’s worth taking a break and filling up on food before you embark on the climb. Once you complete it, you’ll have an easy(ish) 20 km to Andermatt.