Book Review: Over the Alps on a Bicycle (1898!)

Simplonpass Tunnels - J. Pennel

"Over The Alps On a Bicycle" - 1898


To whom I should like to point out that there is another and more delightful method of climbing."

Book Dedication, Elizabeth Robins Pennel, 1898.

A couple of weeks ago, deep in the comments of a post, R Mc linked to a remarkable little book: "Over The Alps On a Bicycle," by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, published in 1898. Yes, 1898.

This is a highly entertaining account of Pennel's adventures cycling over several high alpine passes, accompanied by her husband Joseph -- who also illustrated the book.


Above: St. Gotthard Pass hairpins.

Pennel was an American writer who spent most of her adult life living in England. Per wikipedia: A recent researcher summed her up as "an adventurous, accomplished, self-assured, well-known columnist, biographer, cookbook collector, and art critic."

Indeed, she was definitely no shrinking violet, and this account is a confident, observant, witty, sometimes chauvinistic account of her adventures as she cycles some huge alpine passes, most -- if not all -- of which are still today major goals for high altitude alpine cycle-tourists.

She was a purist. Keenly pointing out that "unlike most people," she had cycled all the way from the English Channel instead of sending the bikes by train. Fair point. Just north of Geneva she climbed her first of nine passes, the Col de la Faucille (a Jura not an Alp, but a necessary passage), where Lance chased Simeoni more than a century later.

From there she trekked to Chamonix, at the base of Mont Blanc and proceeded to climb (and descend - with "modern" pneumatic brakes) La Tête Noire (Col des Montets), into Switzerland via Col de la Forclaz, Simplonpass, through Italy, back into Switzerland over Splügenpass, San Bernadino Pass, St. Gotthard Pass, Furkapass, Grimselpass, and finally the Brünigpass - her husband also made a day trip up Col du Grand St. Bernard. Wow.

I absolutely loved this short book, in part for a glimpse of what it was like to be an alpine cycle-tourist over a hundred years ago, but also for Pennel's fearless, amusing approach to a very difficult challenge.

I am no book reviewer, but I thought I would offer up a few quotes in the hopes of enticing some of you to read this book.

Excerpt from the first great paragraph:

"Other great people have crossed the Alps; Hannibal on elephants, Caesar in a litter. According to David and the Century poster, Napoleon pranced over on a white charger. [……..] And if the name of the first man to climb the Alps with his bicycle is disputed, I propose to immortalise the name and adventures of the first women."

I mentioned a little chauvinistic …. throughout she clearly doesn't much like the Swiss. But part of the fun of the book are the many caustic comments she makes about the many characters she meets along the way.

"The manners of the French in this part of the world were quite Swiss - they had none."

For many of the high passes, the only lodgings were hospices inhabited by monks. The hospice at the Grand St. Bernard still leaves the door unlocked all year for any wayward adventurers. Pennel clearly had her favourites:

"The St. Bernard hospice is no better nowadays than a pension; the Simplon is still a genuine hospice where you are not merely given food and drink and a bed, but are entertained by the monks."


Above: Even 114 years ago, Simplonpass had too many tunnels. :)

She loved the Splügenpass (and I enjoyed the many historical references to the origins and uses of the routes):

The engineers of the Emperor Francis may have been no better than those of Napoleon, but they were more sensational …… with its endless stone parapet in long lines and zigzags and curves mounting and mounting.

The Emperor himself seemed to have been impressed, for he set a big slab in the rocks …… to let you know he built it.

She writes of the hardships of her challenge, and she pushed her bike and baggage up many of the highest passes, sometimes in terrible weather, sometimes beside glaciers, but she always refused help from passing horse-carriages, or short-cuts via train. Climbing the St. Gothard:

"If the dangers of glacier water are half as bad as they are said to be, we should never have survived." […..] "On the opposite side steep, short zigzags went up like stairs among the cliffs. I could have dropped at the sight. But when a cart passed and the driver offered my bicycle a place by the side of two Germans bowed under their knapsacks, but clutching their alpenstocks, I refused; I was doing this thing myself."

Meeting a German cyclist about to descend, she showed him her "modern" pneumatic brakes:

"A German cycler, in yachting cap, was at the back door, tying a huge plank of wood , shaped like a paddle, to his back wheel. He explained the "system," and we showed him our brakes. "Excellent, " said he, "though in time sure to destroy the tyres." We said we would rather any day risk our tyres than our lives."

The highest point of the trip was the Furkapass (still one of the great climbs in the Alps) where she stayed in a hotel beside the Rhone glacier - James Bond drives by it in Goldfinger.

"We coasted carefully to where the Rhone glacier swept, a frozen hurricane, over the mountains, and the road took a precipitate flight down the break-neck slope below us, zigzagging as it went."


She loved a good descent and rejoiced at the 40 km downhill from Grimselpass (David Millar tweeted something about doing over 100 km/h through tunnels down the same road in the 2011 Tour de Suisse).

"A coast of some 40 kms - 25 miles! Think of it! I let my bike go faster than ever before, down to the dark lakes and the hospice in the high naked valley; down through the gorge beyond, the Bernese Alps towering in front. […… ] I met the diligence and post wagons, and the drivers would not give me any space at all on either side of the road, and then threatened J. with a whip."

The above are just some random quotes. But this book made me smile and laugh in equal measures, while simultaneously teaching me a few things. Again, I absolutely loved it.

The book is in the public domain (no copyright). It was reproduced in 2010 by the British Library.

Over the Alps on a Bicycle, Elizabeth Robins Pennell,

The British Library, London, 2010, ISBN: 9781241598587.

It’s for sale at and on

You can also read it for free at

The Dolin Profiles

In 1897, for the Haute Savoie Tourist Board, the <<Profils Dolins>> were published. This book described profiles for many of the routes of the era in the Jura and French Alps.

It's a fascinating look at some old roads. For example Col du Galibier was much steeper back then ….. and just surpassed by Col du Parpaillon (!) as the highest French pass (Col de l'Iseran wouldn't open until many decades later).

Perhaps Pennel used it as part of her trip planning as it includes Col de la Faucille, the route to Chamonix as well as the Tête Noire, and Col de la Forclaz.


The Dolin books have been carefully reproduced by altigraph and are available here.

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