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Kitzbüheler Horn: Sportive

In Austria the name Kitzbüheler Horn strikes fear into the hearts of local riders. We saddle up for this annual sufferfest.

Mark Bailey
1 Jun 2016

Amidst the beauty of the Austrian Alps lurks one of cycling’s beasts. The medieval town of Kitzbühel in the Tyrol region of Austria is a picturesque world of cobbled streets, ornate pastel-coloured houses, Gothic churches, old heraldic flags and castellated towers fresh from a fairytale. The jagged mountains, alpine meadows and stunning vistas around the town are equally mesmerising. But don’t be fooled. This tranquil region of Austria hides one of the most murderous cycling climbs in the world – an altar upon which local amateurs willingly sacrifice themselves for fitness, pride and reputation, and whose cruel gradients have reduced pro cyclists to tears.

The Kitzbüheler Horn, a towering 1,996m peak to the north-east of Kitzbühel, offers a leg-buckling 865m climb over a distance of just 7.1km. It has an average gradient of 12.5% and a maximum of 22.3%. Liquigas-Cannondale’s American cyclist Ted King has described it as ‘a wall’. Local cyclists in Kitzbühel’s bars recall how pro riders forced to endure the climb in the Tour of Austria wept like children for spectators to push them uphill for even the most fleeting respite from the pain. Team Sky’s Austrian rider Bernard Eisel says of the experience, ‘It starts off bad and then gets worse and worse all the way up.’ Such words make this climb sound as enjoyable as a hike in Helmand Province, but road cyclists have a strangely masochistic attraction to big, bad mountains. Cycling is nothing if not the art of suffering.

Even in the summer, the visible skeletons of Kitzbühel’s ski infrastructure – ski lifts, toboggan runs and jumps – provide enough clues that this mountainous winter sports playground should hide plenty of horrors for cyclists. To the south-west lies the Hahnenkamm mountain with its notorious Streif ski slope (maximum gradient: 85%), one of the most demanding downhill courses on the ski World Cup circuit. But within the cycling fraternity, the Kitzbüheler Horn has a more esoteric appeal. It is rarely uttered in the same breath as Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux but the lack of anecdotes, pictures and information from travelling cyclists only make it a more refreshingly unique – and frightening – prospect. 

Legends of the crawl

A competition for amateur and elite riders, the International Kitzbüheler Horn Race, has taken place annually since 1971. The most famous battle took place in the 1970s when local amateur hero Wolfgang Steinmayr challenged Belgian pro rider Lucien Van Impe to a duel. Steinmayr rode a 7.4kg superbike but his 39x22 gear ratio proved too ambitious and Van Impe won in a record 30m 3secs. Former Austrian pro Thomas Rohregger set the current record of 28m 24secs in 2007. 

The race normally features around 150 local riders from Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland, but the 32nd edition of the race, which took place on 11th August 2012, featured one Brit: me. This is a genuinely local race, with local riders, traditions and, subsequently, local standards to attain. 

‘A professional will take about 31 minutes, an elite amateur will take about 35 minutes and a good amateur will take 40-55 minutes,’ says Günther Aigner of the Kitzbühel Tourism Board. ‘An hour is still good, but relatively slow. Anything under 50 minutes is respectable locally.’ And so my modest target is set.

On the sun-soaked morning of the race, I cycle the short distance downhill from my hotel to the old heart of Kitzbühel to sign up and collect my race number from the start line – only to find all other cyclists heading the other way. I realise that they are heading to the hills to warm up, even though the ride doesn’t start for two hours. It’s the first reminder that the locals mean business. When more cyclists trundle into town, I ask for some advice. ‘Save yourself for the last 2km,’ warns local rider Daniel Wabnegg. ‘It is very steep – over 20% in those last 2km – and many people lose it there.’ 

I’m told that a small white farmhouse marks 2km to go. From here you can give it everything knowing you’re on the home straight. But it will hurt like hell. Other riders advise me to use the countdown markers to judge my pace and not to drink too much – the ride is short and tactical dehydration is OK to save on weight. I forlornly squirt my energy drink into the gutter.

Jostling for position 

At 10.45am our small peloton is guided by a police escort through the town’s streets and over the gurgling Kitzbüheler Ache river to the foot of the mountain. The race doesn’t officially begin until we reach the Kitzbüheler Horn, but riders are already jostling for position. My front wheel is nudged three times and I decide to fall back for safety. I may be here as a tourist but, with local pride at stake, I’m in a race – like it or not.

We turn off the main road then complete a short climb before the road bends onto an open plain at Hoglern. This marks the start line. As I cross it, my heart sinks when I see the road rise up ahead like a stunt ramp. The road shoots up so steeply that I’m reminded of the time I watched the bascules of London’s Tower Bridge open up before me. Within seconds my lungs are burning as I try to keep up with the other riders who are shooting skywards, and the journey to the first kilometre sign seems to take an age. 

The road is smooth but narrow and riders are scrapping for the best line, making it hard to get into a rhythm. When the road starts to twist, the hairpin turns rise like staircases. A few kilometres into the ride we enter into a pine forest and the shade brings welcome relief from the sun. We emerge into the only flat section of the race – a short 200m stretch near a toll booth. For me it’s a chance to collect my breath, but for others it’s an opportunity to gobble up valuable seconds. 

After three kilometres I realise the race is taking place in total silence. There are no words or shouts, just the sound of laboured breathing. As the lactic acid builds in my quads I count pedal strokes and stare blankly at the tarmac in front of my tyre. Only when I force myself to look up do I notice my surroundings, with quaint farmhouses, emerald meadows and snow-capped mountains on the horizon. But right now any beauty is peripheral to the pain. I can enjoy the scenery on the descent. 

The pace has taken me by surprise and I’m being dragged up faster than I’d like by the riders around me – which is both helpful and harmful. I can feel my heart beating wildly through a throbbing pulse in my ears. As I approach the halfway point I take on an energy gel and regret it. It’s too hot, my body is steaming and I can feel acid rising in my stomach. I instantly regurgitate the last dollop into my mouth. I look around for sympathy, but see only faces contorted in agony. The languorous chimes of cowbells, so often a reminder of alpine tranquillity, now sound more like a death knell. 

I look up and see riders zigzagging across the road. I soon realise this is a deliberate attempt to dilute the gradient. I conclude that I’d rather end this awful pain as soon as possible and continue my direct assault on the mountain.

I’m too focused on the slow treadmill of road in front of my tyre to notice the mythical white farm house at 1,424m that marks 2km to go, but I can see from the terrifying road signs – 18%, 21% – that I must be entering the final steep slog. The gradient is so sharp that my front wheel leaps skywards with every pedal turn, leaving me fighting to stay upright and enduring the painful knowledge that I’ve just wasted a pedal stroke. At least the silence has been broken. I learn my first Austrian word – scheisse – which is being yelled out regularly, along with other angry machine-gun outbursts. I don’t need to speak German to comprehend the sentiment. The phrase ‘pedalling squares’ doesn’t do justice to the ugliness of my revolutions. I’m pedalling octagons.

The climb is relentless. It’s so steep you can’t even slow down – you’re already going so slowly that slowing down means stopping. At one point I tried to reduce my cadence to correct my breathing, but it simply elongated the bursts of pain and made the ordeal last longer. 

The final countdown

It feels like a mirage when a left turn brings the final section into view. It’s beautiful to see the finish line at the 1,670m Alpenhaus mountain inn, but although it’s no more than a kilometre away, it is defended by hairpins sculpted from hellish gradients. 

This last section seems to last an hour and my occasional glances to drink in the spectacular surroundings feel like my only source of fuel. Only when I turn the last corner and see the giant clock ticking up from 49 minutes do I remember I had a time to aim for – somewhere far below I had slipped into a hazy survival mode – and summon up a final burst of energy to dip under the 50-minute mark. My final time was 49m 58secs. It’s nice to know I can walk into a bar in Kitzbühel and receive the minimal possible respect from the locals. The winner, Martin Schoffmann, of the WSA Viperbike pro team, finished in 29m 56secs, while the last finisher took 1hr 14m. 

Having collapsed over my handlebars I’m handed a cup of warm apple juice by a ghostly hand, but it takes a while to recover my focus. Checking my Garmin data later on, I found my heart rate averaged 175bpm for the entire ride – 10bpm more than when I tackled the infamous Alpe d’Huez time-trial – and I averaged a cadence of just 53rpm with an overall speed of 8.2kmh. 

The winner, Martin Schoffmann, tells me he never gets used to the pain: ‘I do this climb in the Tour of Austria and it can take over 40 minutes because you’ve already done 100km and you are dying. My advice is to treat it like a time-trial. You find the effort you can sustain and you hold it. Above all, focus on your pedalling. You need to try to use as much of the 360° as you can.’

Cyclists can tackle this climb any time of year thanks to the timed ticket machines at the start and finish of the course, but entering the race offers a genuine immersion into a foreign cycling culture with its unique local traditions. Where else are you greeted with a cup of warm apple juice? And when you’ve finished there are over 1,200km of mountain roads in the region to explore, including great climbs such as the legendary Grossglockner, which can be savoured at a more enjoyable pace – without being sick in your mouth. 

As expected, any pleasure is retrospective, but no less enjoyable as a result. Completing the Kitzbüheler Horn is great for your climbing confidence. Knowing that you have survived its horrors will ensure those ‘killer’ climbs on your local ride will never seem so hard again.

The rider's ride

Condor Baracchi,  £1,500 (frameset only),

Put simply, if a bike can get up the Kitzbüheler Horn, it can get up anything. Kit was at the forefront of my mind when I signed up – I woke up in a cold sweat fearing I’d be given a heavy tank of a bike to trial – but the Condor Baracchi didn’t disappoint. The Condor RC11 carbon frame, which weighs 1,250g, was light enough to enable me to haul the bike up even the steepest gradients (the wave fork is also very light) and stiff enough to transfer my wattage into vertical movement. 

The Campagnolo Centaur groupset provided smooth gear changes on the rare occasions I felt the courage to move out of the easier gears. Despite the reach being fine for normal riding conditions on the continuous gradient, I felt I needed a shorter stem – but it handled well on the descents. 

It’s a looker, too. I had plenty of positive comments about its eye-catching white design. It may look like a prototype, but if that makes opponents think you’re on a flashy new superbike, that’s no bad thing. 

The details

What Kitzbüheler Horn Mountain Race
Where Kitzbühel, Austria
How far 7.1km
Av gradient 12.5%
Max gradient 22.3%
Next one 23rd July 2016
Sign up / Call +43 676 8933 51631 or email for details.

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