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Cyclist Big Rides: Europe

Big Ride: Austria

Henry Catchpole
16 Feb 2017

From the town of Sölden in the Austrian Tyrol, Cyclist takes on two climbs to reach the highest road in Europe. Or is it?

You should never go into a supermarket during the first five hours after returning from a long ride.

To do so is to see yourself sweeping all sorts of unlikely products into a trolley as your hunger rules your head.

A kilo of the latest bizarre chocolate bar with marshmallows, popping candy and mustard powder? In it goes. A packet of blackberry and apple flavour crisps? I’ll take two dozen. 

You arrive at the till with everything except the small quiche you popped in for.

In short, you make unreasonable decisions, the like of which you would never make on a full stomach.

Similarly, you should never ring up the editor of Cyclist and suggest a ‘terrific route’ for a Big Ride immediately after driving it in a Porsche 911 GT3.

Being powered by over 450bhp (it’s not mine, I was reviewing the car. I know, I know, it’s alright for some…) does dastardly things to your judgement of how steep a road is. 

Unfortunately it’s only now, two years later and 15 minutes into the suggested Big Ride in southern Austria, that I’m realising this.

With cold legs wondering what has hit them, I’m tackling a 4km stretch at a sustained average gradient of more than 12%, and yet I barely remember driving this bit through the trees when I was here before.

In my mind this was just ‘a few hairpins among the pines’ to get to the proper scenery above, but it’s actually the toughest start to any ride I think I’ve done. 

Chance encounter

The 2km spin on the flat through the town centre of Sölden first thing this morning already seems like a distant luxury.

Sölden lies at the southern end of the beautiful Ötztal valley and is apparently the second-most visited place in Austria after Vienna.

As well as a good dollop of Tyrolean charm, it has (according to our host and local legend Ernst) six pizza places, four strip clubs and 38 sports shops.

We only sampled one of those things yesterday evening, before retiring for an early night in Ernst’s guesthouse, just behind the bike shop on the northern edge of the town. 

A magnificent thunderstorm during the early hours had lit up the surrounding mountains – standing at the window for half an hour I watched the lightning illuminating craggy peaks in the darkness with flashes of almost purple-white iridescence.

As a result there is a wonderful, almost sterilised freshness to the air that I’m sucking in this morning. The ride today is a curious one as it’s not really a loop, like we’d usually do, but two spectacular out-and-back climbs. 

The first is known as the Ötztaler Gletscherstrasse (glacier road). Confusingly it was used in the Tour de Suisse in 2015 having previously featured (equally oddly) in the now defunct Deutschland Tour in 2005 and 2007.

Thibaut Pinot took the win in 2015 but Geraint Thomas also featured strongly, giving us an indication of what a force he would be in the mountains when he got to that year’s Tour de France.

Full steam ahead

Light grey clouds are hanging around the peaks, but as the sun begins to burn through, so the road starts to gently steam.

I’m getting into a rhythm now, my legs moving more easily, and it feels like a lovely morning to be out for a pedal, with the temperature just right.

As it’s a dead end road, there’s very little traffic too, so there’s a peaceful Alpine serenity in among the trees.

After 5km, the trees begin to thin, the gradient eases significantly and the road spreads out like a river running into an estuary.

The increase in width is to accommodate a slightly excessive number of toll booths that guard the road to the glacier.

Only one is open and, being on a bike, I don’t need to pay anyway so I nip past the barrier and the road immediately rises up once more. 

This second half of the climb is really what I’m here for. I’m in a huge glacial valley that is scaled by its northern side until it arrives at the remnants of the glacier at the top.

The end in sight

I can see my goal more or less from 7km out, although it’s probably not much more than four kilometres away as the crow flies. Just four hairpins zig and zag up the side of the valley, meaning long, sustained ramps for my legs to cope with.

The average gradient is just under 11% and remains fairly consistent the whole way up.

An old Peugeot crawls past, elegant in a way that Peugeots haven’t been for some years, but its engine is definitely not disguising the gradient.

Then up ahead I see Ernst and photographer Richie stopped on a hairpin, but this time they’re not waiting for me.

They’re talking to a group of cyclists. One in particular stands out – powerful, tanned, in charge, with mighty calf muscles hewn from years in the saddle.

I unclip, come to a halt and we shake hands as Ernst makes introductions. It turns out I’m shaking hands with Jan Ullrich, the German former winner of the Tour de France. It seems that his day job is now guiding clients on rides like this. 

There are a couple of minutes of German chitchat during which I rue the fact that the only German words I know are achtung and spiegelei.

The opportunity to say, ‘Attention, fried egg!’ doesn’t really arise, so we shake hands again before Ullrich and the others clip
in and begin descending. Ullrich leads, dropping like a stone down the steep mountain road. 

Then there were two

Brief interlude over, I don a jacket having got cold standing around and I’m about to resume climbing when Ernst hails another chap, this one making his way up the mountain.

This is Rupert, a local rider who was originally going to join me for the whole ride, but a work commitment detained him and he’s only got a couple of hours spare. 

After more handshakes, we set off and it’s nice to have some company on the final push to the top. Rupert’s a strong rider and the last couple of switchbacks go past quickly.

The road meanders towards a beautiful blue lake filled with glacial meltwater, and Rupert decides this is the perfect venue to perform some on-bike circus tricks for the camera.

I think about juggling some water bottles, but instead decide to just look at the view back down towards Sölden. It’s truly spectacular and I can see why they chose to film scenes from Spectre, the most recent Bond film, up here.

A restaurant and some ski shops mark a fork in the road. One way leads through a long tunnel to a car park and another restaurant, the other up through a couple more hairpins to a much smaller car park.

We take the latter route, which is no more than a few hundred metres in length, but seems to hurt my legs a disproportionate amount, the altitude perhaps finally taking its toll.

At the top, the reason for the road becomes clear. There wasn’t a particular need for another car park up here, but by continuing the road a little higher it has awarded itself the accolade of being the highest road in the EU, topping out at a breathtaking 2,830m.

Highest road?

There’s a sign inscribed with the legend ‘Highest Road in the EU’, though confusingly it’s at the lower altitude of 2,798m down on the main road.

Either way, I can’t help wondering if the inhabitants of Spain’s Sierra Nevada know about this.

The Veleta climb in the south of Spain reaches 3,300m, so really the Ötztal glacier road can only claim to be the second highest road in the EU, but this probably isn’t the time to point it out to my Austrian hosts. 

The weather has been closing in for a while and, with the first drops of rain beginning to fall, we don’t linger long, heading down to the shelter of the restaurant for a hot chocolate while it blows over. 

Half an hour later we tackle the descent and it’s one of the fastest I’ve ever done – or at least it would be if the road wasn’t sopping wet.

The long straight back towards the toll booths feels like a giant ski jump. I tuck for as long as possible, but I’m still some way off when I begin squeezing the brakes.

Much as I love the Mavics, like all rim brake wheels they need a lot of stopping space in the wet.

At the halfway station I bid farewell to Rupert, who bungs his Scott in the back of a crazy-looking modified Beetle cabriolet, and then continue down through the trees to Sölden.

At the bottom, Ernst and Richie head back into town to get some lunch but I turn right, towards Italy. 

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