The what world championships?
Velogemel. Vélo is French for bicycle and gemel is a Swiss German dialect word for sled. Put it together and you have the wondrous velogemel, a wooden snow-bike that is unique to the Swiss town of Grindelwald, in the Bernese Oberland.
Because it was invented there in 1911 by a canny local bloke, woodcarver and sawmill owner Christian Bühlmann, who had mobility problems and needed a better way to get around town visiting customers in the depth of winter. So he set about creating a wooden bike with in-line runners that would slide on snow.
It’s still made in Bühlmann’s old factory in the village today, though these days it’s less a mode of transport and more a tourist activity; hire one from a local sports shop and take it for a test run on one of the area’s fantastic toboggan runs.
How do you ride it?
Sit on the saddle, point your velogemel down the slope and you’re off. Use the handlebar to steer and your feet to ‘scoot’ on flat sections and to brake. Did we mention there are no brakes?
There are no brakes. The only way to slow down is to put your feet down and hope for the best.
No more than regular tobogganing. Wear a helmet and take it gently at first. Oh and you might want to wear padded cycling shorts under your trousers if you don’t want to end up with a bruised behind – the wooden saddle and lack of suspension take a toll on your tush.
'Scoot' along flat sections using your feet. Photo: Andrea Hess/Jungfrau Region
Can I just watch the experts instead?
Sure. Head to Grindelwald on Sunday January 29th to watch local velogemel riders show you how it’s done in the annual Velogemel World Championships, a fun event founded in 1996 to celebrate the 850th anniversary of the town.
Around 40 riders are currently signed up to hop on their velogemels and set off at 30 second intervals down the 2km timed course from the start point at Oberläger to Mittelläger near Bussalp, above Grindelwald. There are different categories for men, women, juniors and team racers.
What’s the time to beat?
Last year’s winners were Corina Tritten for the women, with a time of 2:31.62 and Peter Messer for the men, triumphing over the competition in 2:16.81. However the Grindelwald tourist office told The Local that this year’s course (it differs slightly each year depending on snow conditions) should take around four minutes.
I fancy my chances. How do I sign up?
Find out more and register here. Spectators can access the finish point by public bus from Grindelwald, where you can warm yourself up with good food and a fantastically-named Schümli-Pflümli (schnapps and coffee) at the Bergrestaurant Bussalp as you watch the riders come through the finish line.