Grindelwald celebrates its unique velogemel

The Swiss Alpine resort of Grindelwald has just held the annual celebration of its unique form of transport: the velogemel.

This content was published on February 7, 2000 - 16:03

The Swiss Alpine resort of Grindelwald has just held the annual celebration of its unique form of transport: the velogemel. More than 160 people, young and old, took part in the fifth Velogemel world championships - nothing more than an excuse for Grindelwald to tell the world about this curiosity.

This wooden snow bike may look rudimentary, with its wooden frame and ornately-carved runners. But those who have ridden one will testify that it's a thrilling experience. On the flat, the gemel can be pushed along with the feet, but when it goes downhill, the rider can literally put his feet up and rest them on a small bar - and hold on tight.

The Velogemel may provide the rider with a big adrenalin kick, but its origins were much more practical. The first gemel was built in 1911 by a carpenter who wanted a quick and practical way of getting about the village. And it's still an everyday means of transport today, with postmen using them on their rounds and children riding them to school.

One company has the patent on making the bikes, which are fashioned from ash and maple. The makers boast that their gemels, if well treated and steered clear of mountain trees, will last 100 years. Certainly many of the velogemels in the race looked like antiques that had been passed down through the generations.

The local tourism office is the driving force behind the velogemel race. It's aware that this curiosity is a real selling point for the town.

"It's certainly a tourist attraction," says Tony Baumann of the Grindelwald tourism office. "You can hire tham at the railway station for a day or a week."

"For a long time, no-one used sledges. But in the past five or 10 years, sledging has become really popular again. We have a lot of sledge-runs in Grindelwald, so people come to sledge, see the velogemels, give it a try and really like it," Baumann says. "It's much more comfortable than sitting on a sledge."

Many of those taking part in the world championship race wouldn't agree: "It doesn't have any suspension, so it's a bit uncomfortable when you go over the bumps," says Joe Lombardo, an Australian working in Grindelwald, "but it's great fun - it can go pretty fast."

Tony Baumann says enjoyment is the whole point of the event: "There are some people who want to win, but 95 per cent are just taking part for the fun."

The Velogemel world championship is a great opportunity for the people of Grindelwald to celebrate a curiosity unique to their corner of the Bernese Oberland.

By Roy Probert

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