I reached the Flüelapass—an eight-mile climb that cuts through the canton of Graubünden in southeast Switzerland—convinced that my father was going to die. Or was dead already. My phone had pinged an hour earlier with an email from my mother, in Vermont. Dad had collapsed in the middle of the night. He’d begged her not to call an ambulance, she wrote, even though he was too weak to get back up and likely on the verge of septic shock. After 11 years of kidney cancer and a more recent diagnosis of a second cancer, this time of gastrointestinal origin, he was sick of being sick. He didn’t want to go to the hospital again. When I’d called from the side of the road, Dad was too out of it to talk. “I’ll book a flight home,” I told Mom, straddling my bike. “As soon as I get back to the apartment.”
“Where are you?” she had asked. It was late September 2019, a cold, blustery day that made it seem as if summer had never happened. The peaks were already white with snow, and I was only halfway through a 75-mile loop, with 6,000 feet of climbing behind me and another 3,000 to go before the descent back to the car. On top of that I was bonking so hard I could barely form a sentence. “I’m on a bike ride,” I told her. She repeated my words: “On a bike ride.” Her voice held bemusement, maybe even resentment.
Had I been more articulate at the time, I might have told Mom about how I’d conceived of doing this ride to somehow give strength to my fragile father. These were his mountains, after all. Directly east of me, over the Austrian border, was the farm where Dad had been born and raised. And eight miles to the west was St. Moritz, the ski resort where he’d been an instructor in the 1970s and met my mother, the Brooklyn girl he chased all the way back to America. To Dad, there was no finer place in the world than this valley, these mountains, and the narrow roads that wind through them. When my wife’s company offered to relocate our small family from Manhattan to Switzerland, it was the opportunity to escape into these mountains that sold me. I suppose that on some level I believed I could relive my father’s young life—the one he never stopped talking about; the one he’d given up to be with my mother; the one he sometimes acted as if she and I had kept him from.
But now, delirious and seeing spots as I weaved like a paperboy up the first of the Flüela’s 10 switchbacks, I didn’t even know if I’d make it home, talk to my father, see him one last time. I didn’t even know if I’d make it back to the car.
When I was a kid, my father kept an old copper-colored Motobecane Mirage in the shed behind our house. The bike wasn’t much to look at, a relic of the ’70s with down-tube shifters and suicide levers. Dad hadn’t even bothered to take the reflectors off the poor thing. This did nothing to break the bike’s spell on me. It had silver toe clips and a Zéfal frame pump that I sometimes removed and pretended was a sniper’s rifle as I ran the perimeter of my parents’ one-acre property. When Dad rode his Motobecane, he always wore a pair of black pointy-toed Diadora lace-ups that made his big feet look as dainty as a ballerina’s. The combined effect was one of exoticism, of romance and escape. Even at a young age I was somehow aware of this; I could feel it more than conceptualize it. I knew that when Dad slipped out of the house on summer evenings to bang out a few laps of the four-mile loop encircling our town, his mind went somewhere else entirely; it retreated deep into his past.
We lived in a winter resort in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The town stood at the end of a dead-end road and was surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness. My parents settled there in the early 1980s when the resort hired Dad to run the ski school. Over the years he became something of a small-town celebrity, a silver-haired, six-foot-four Austrian skimeister who shamelessly yodeled while showboating underneath the chairlift, a man whose attention was vied for by all the tourists and wealthy weekenders.
It was on the bike, however, that I liked Dad best; on the bike I didn’t have to share him with anyone. When I got old enough, he bought me a red Bridgestone 10-speed and let me tag along on his summer evening rides. Dad didn’t enjoy much talk on these, preferring that I stay silent in his broad draft rather than babble along beside him. But he would sometimes get caught up in a story, usually about the mountain passes of his youth and the good friends he rode them with. In his singsong accent, Dad regaled me with tales of pedaling up Italy’s Stelvio Pass, of riding all the way to Munich to buy a 45 of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.”
Mostly, though, my dad spoke of Switzerland, that country in the backyard of his youth, whose rugged landscape felt so much more epic than that of his Austria. He talked about the endless switchbacks he and his fellow farm boy friends raced down and the mountain huts in whose darkened dining rooms they fueled up; the climbs they crushed; the cars whose drivers had “no chance” to keep up with them on a twisty descent; the postbuses they sometimes grabbed for a free tow home.
As a teenager, my own cycling became a focal point for our family of three. I’d been bitten by the racing bug, and on weekends Dad and I and sometimes Mom would ping-pong around New England so I could pin a number to my jersey. Dad would park himself in the feed zone, passing me bottles and giving me splits. Sometimes, on the rare occasion when I was actually doing well, he’d get carried away and mortify me by letting loose a bunch of profanities about whose ass I was kicking. After the races we would scout out bike shops and ogle the titanium frames we could never afford. These are memories firmly implanted, though maybe it’s the days between those races that I remember best. I sometimes feel myself drifting back to those midweek summer evenings, with the late light tilting through the west-facing windows of our small house, the endless talk of bikes, the sound of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen droning forth from the TV, the musical names of pros whose genius Dad and I debated all year long—Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci, Laurent Jalabert, and Miguel Induráin.
I stopped cycling in college, got a girlfriend, grew pretentious. In New York I started working in magazines, drank too much, bummed cigarettes, had a vague and romantic idea of myself as a novelist who just hadn’t found the time to write a book yet. It wasn’t until I lost my job in the final year of my 20s that I began biking in Central Park as a way to lose weight. Dad took notice, and he and my mother bought me a new bike. It was the only nudge I needed. Within half a year I was racing again. Dad was already suffering from the first of the two cancers that would assail his seemingly indomitable body, but it didn’t seem to faze him. He still rode his bike, still laughed that big honking laugh of his, and still came to all my races, handing me bottles and cheering me on from the feed zone. Sometimes I felt foolish for being a guy in his 30s who went to bike races with his father, but mostly I was just thankful for the time together.
My father didn’t want a funeral, didn’t want an obituary either. He’d made that clear to my mother and me in the last few weeks of his life. This struck us as odd, coming from a man so comfortable with the limelight, but we honored his wishes nonetheless. Dad died on a cold Tuesday afternoon in late November, two days shy of Thanksgiving. I sat next to him, holding his thick-fingered farmer’s hand, one that had gone bony and limp. I watched and whispered to him as he drew his last raspy breaths in the rented hospital bed my mother had put in the TV room of the small ranch house she’d shared with him for 19 years.
All told, I spent nine weeks at home that autumn, spread over three visits. My wife and 2-year-old son accompanied me part of the time, but mostly it was just me and my parents, like the old days. Despite the cancer having rapidly metastasized to his lungs, skin, and bones, rendering the bones so weak that he broke his right arm simply by trying to lift a bedsheet, Dad’s spirits remained high, and we often talked of cycling. We watched the World Championships Road Race from Yorkshire on my laptop, and joked about how Dad was now a doper due to all the blood transfusions he’d received. We spent what felt like hours huddled over my phone’s small screen to look at photos I’d taken on a recent ride up the Klausenpass. Dad flicked back and forth between his favorites, marveling at the green pastures and yellow-needled larches, the blue-white glacier and the rushing waterfalls—all that enchanted topography of the country he considered his spiritual home. He shook his head, half in awe, half in disappointment. “There are so many passes I never got to ride,” he said.
It wasn’t until late winter of 2020, a few weeks after COVID-19 hit and delayed our family’s move back to America, that I realized I could still ride these passes for my father. Perhaps I’d been inspired by my own son. We’d pulled him out of day care, and twice a day I followed him around our small city on his push bike, watched him tool down streets as eerie and empty as the haunted hallways of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. He had no clue that we were in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, and thus the pandemic had no power to diminish the joy he derived from the bike. I wanted some of that joy too, and I wanted to do it for Dad, who I hoped would approve of such a memorial.
My riding began on the trainer at night. I set it up in an air shaft outside our apartment so as not to wake my son and wife, who was pregnant with our second child, and I texted an old racing buddy for coaching advice. He prescribed a series of ever-increasing threshold intervals, all designed to boost that diesel power I’d need to grind up climb after climb. There were numerous setbacks—bonks, back spasms, a humiliating train ride home when I couldn’t complete my first outdoor 60-mile ride. But by summer I was lean and fit, with a threshold that hovered around 350 watts. When I caught my reflection, I felt as if I’d excavated some younger version of myself from the nearly 40-year-old man in front of me.
I tackled the Sustenpass with an American friend in early June. Some say the Susten is Switzerland’s most scenic climb, but on that day the weather was too lousy to tell, and we rode along with our breath smoking into the enshrouding mist. Falling snow greeted us at the 7,415-foot summit, and the descent was so cold I could hardly control my bike. We stopped at a restaurant in Innertkirchen to thaw out over mugs of tea and bowls of Gerstensuppe, barley soup. Other cyclists huddled in groups, soggy and shivering, speaking in the German my father never taught me. I felt the urge to look for his face among them, to spot the improbable image of him as a young man. The restaurant’s decor was typical of the region, rough-hewn and dimly lit, and amid that old-world setting I felt like a time traveler—a Marty McFly in Lycra. I wondered if the young version of my father that I’d imagined would somehow recognize me, feel the bond of the bike between us. It was an absurd notion, yet I couldn’t shake it.
After lunch my friend and I rode the Grimselpass, ascending from one false summit to the next over the course of a 90-minute slog. The rain dissipated but the fog remained. On the other side, my friend had the better sense to hop a train back to his car, but I didn’t want to risk getting cold again. Instead, I took my chances with the Furkapass. There was a tailwind coming up the valley, blowing in from the canton of Valais, but I cracked regardless, my legs suddenly as empty as the boarded-up Hotel Belvedere, whose Instagram-famous facade still loomed a few switchbacks above.
It was halfway down the slippery descent on the other side of the Furka that I realized I needed disc brakes. A few days later, I got my hands on a BMC to test. Forest green with Dura-Ace, beefy carbon tubing, dropped seat stays, and ample tire clearance, it’s an endurance bike that looks and feels every bit the racer. “What a machine,” I could imagine my father saying, letting loose that big laugh and flashing me his green eyes. That was his reaction anytime he fell in love with a bike. It’s a fitting description, given the BMC’s name: Roadmachine.
My summer became a series of mountain passes, each more addictive and punishing than the last. In July, I weaved up the double-digit pitches of the Grosse Scheidegg, using its tight hairpins to sneak glances back at the Eiger, a mountain my father mythologized but never saw in person. A week later, in the mostly abandoned town of Gletsch, I lit a votive candle for Dad in a chapel at the foot of the melting Rhône glacier, and then crawled up the rocky flanks of the torturous Nufenenpass, wondering what would burn out first, the candle or me.
The sun had set by the time I reached the Gotthard’s Tremola Road, the surrounding peaks a canyon of pink light, and it felt as if each of the climb’s nearly 200-year-old cobblestones had been laid for the sole purpose of breaking me. Endless is how I’d describe the 23-mile Julierpass, on whose lunar landscape I experienced altitude sickness for the first time. Road work riddled the Bernina, and as I plowed through rain and mud and passed the cable cars of St. Moritz, I could imagine my father teaching skiing somewhere above the clouds, just out of sight. On the Oberalp, crossing from the canton of Graubünden to Uri, I passed a pack of e-bikers, who shot me incredulous looks as if they took me for some doped-up pro. In Chiavenna, Italy, I wasn't allowed into the local grocery store without a mask (Switzerland, with its low case count, required masks only on public transit), so I rode on vapors over the 52 switchbacks of the Splügenpass—a route with Roman origins—back to the Swiss border. Stone huts flecked the treeless hillsides, cows grazed, and my Wahoo head unit ticked over to 16,000 feet of climbing for the day. I celebrated with a 65 mph descent down the glassy tarmac of the pass’s northern side, dropping a dude in a Mercedes-AMG GT in the process. I took it easier off the Lukmanier the following day, in part because the late-August sun had long set by the time I’d reached its plateaued summit, forcing me to descend in darkness with only twinkling farmhouse lights to guide me back down the valley to the village of Disentis.
“What’s this all about?” my wife wanted to know when I got home that night. She talked about the novel I was neglecting, the family I’d been ignoring, the baby we were expecting. She looked into my gaunt face like she didn’t recognize me. I couldn’t answer her any better than I could my mother, who’d scolded me over email for gallivanting around on these crazy rides. My son seemed to share their opinion. He looked at me the next morning wide-eyed and said in surprise, “Daddy, you came back.”
An answer to my wife’s question presented itself a week later, during the first days of September. The weather had turned colder, and I knew this would likely be my last big ride before our baby arrived. A handful of mountain passes remained. The Simplon and St. Bernard and San Bernardino were too far away, I decided, too risky to ride when my wife could go into labor at any time. A landslide had closed the Umbrail, the highest pass in Switzerland. I opted for the Albula-Flüela loop, a choice that seemed inevitable—a return to the ride that destroyed me last year on the day that I was to realize my father’s death was imminent.
Ever since I first thought about this alpine mission, I knew I’d want to write about it, and I’d been trying to fuse my father to these rides. I’d pick a mountain peak in the distance and imagine I was looking at the gravestone he didn’t allow us to give him. I’d see a piece of farm equipment in a field and daydream that if I waited there long enough, maybe Dad would reappear to fetch it. I swatted flies from my face on the Pragelpass and saw my hand as his hand, the one that, three days before he died, moved back and forth for 16 straight hours as if he were conducting some hallucinogenic symphony from his deathbed. I remembered, too, the rough way I put his arm into a sling the night he broke it and the sad look he gave me when I did so, or how I sometimes avoided sitting beside him because I couldn’t stomach the smell of his dying body. I thought that maybe these rides were punishment for having betrayed him like that, as if my suffering on climbs could somehow be commensurate to the ways he’d suffered. But those are bullshit, half-baked ideas meant to convey some poetic vision of life; the type of self-indulgent writing that should be struck from any story before it goes to print. To be more truthful, those are simply ideas and emotions I don’t trust. The fact of the matter is my father wasn’t on those rides with me. He is dead now, and much of the missing I have done of him is missing I have done for myself, a mourning for who I was when I was his boy, for all the time I can’t get back. So, in answer to my wife’s question, I had done these rides for myself.
The Flüelapass didn’t offer the cinematic conclusion I’d hoped for. I went too hard over the Albula, practically sprinting up each of its stair steppers, and when I reached the Engadin Valley I was greeted by a block headwind that sapped all of my remaining energy. I weaved from side to side, lurching up the Flüela’s opening six switchbacks, the steepest part of the climb, and I felt no stronger, no different than I had nearly a year ago. The wind grew fiercer along the river, and I cursed it as I hit the tree line and then pedaled squares up the last four switchbacks toward the summit. I kissed the ground at the top, mimicking what my father did anytime we drove over this same road en route to his home, but I was merely going through the motions, adhering to some self-imposed ritual in which I no longer believed.
Our baby was born two days later, two weeks ahead of schedule: a boy that we named Josef, after my father. I was overjoyed. A few nights later, while Josef slept in my arms, I thought about my summer of riding, which now felt far away. I tried to decide which climb was best, which was hardest, which was most memorable. But no one climb came to mind. Instead, I fixated on a descent. I was back on the Splügenpass. I’m unsure if it is a ride my father ever did, but that hardly seemed to matter. The late evening light looked diffused, soft, and as flaxen yellow as the hay on the fields, and I banked the bike around the bends, accelerated up to speed along the straights, the wind a rush through my helmet, in my ears. What a thrill it is, I thought, to move through this world, of our own volition, at high speed, even though we know where we are ultimately headed. What a thrill it is to feel what my father felt, to love what he loved, to touch that ineffable thing he touched, and in so doing to somehow be able to still touch him too.
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