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Ready, Eddy, Go: Eddy Merckx Classic sportive review

In-depth
10 Feb 2021
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A tour of the lakes near Salzburg in Austria doesn’t sound too arduous, but give it some attacking intent and it’s worthy of the name. This article was originally published in issue 87, June 2019, of Cyclist magazine

Words: James Spender Photography: Juan Trujillo Andrades

With a glass of red wine in one hand and still in his cycling kit, Eddy Merckx looks rather cheerful when we are ushered into the back garden of the Hotel Mohrenwirt.

This is the second time I have visited this hotel, the first being when I turned up yesterday with suitcase in hand, only to be politely rejected when it turned out the taxi driver had dropped me at the wrong address.

In his defence, despite its modest size there are a lot of hotels in Fuschl am See. There needs to be to put up the large number of tourists who come here for the mountains, the beautiful lake and air so clean it could have just been unboxed.

This part of Austria, just east of Salzburg, is a gift-shop tea towel brought to life, a living pastiche of quintessential Alpine living, where people come to be hearty, healthy and happy.

I can only imagine this is all part of the draw for Mr Merckx, who has lent his distinguished name to Salzburg province’s premier sportive. The main 168km event takes place tomorrow, so the fact that Merckx is in Lycra is a result of his participation in today’s earlier charity ride around the lake.

Tomorrow morning, the world’s greatest cyclist will be on public relations duty so will not be joining us on the ride. Still, with the forecasted fine late summer weather set to continue, the Eddy Merckx Classic looks set to be very pleasant indeed.

Terribly civilised

The morning sees hundreds of riders gather on the main road out of Fuschl, the majority displaying the kinds of bodies only achievable by regular participation in sports requiring helmets or sweatbands.

For once I am not looking too pale by comparison, in the way that white bread’s crusts aren’t actually white, but my skin tone has less to do with any real training over the summer and more to do with weekends spent lying around in Britain’s extraordinarily sunny parks, weighing up the pros and cons of global warming.

Given the tranquility of the region we’re in, and the proliferation of relaxing ‘wellness’ hotels, the organisers have decided to forego the usual pre-start warm-up of thumping Eurohouse.

However there is one musical concession, and that’s to the sportive’s official song ‘Top Of The World’, performed acapella by a vocally rangy woman. The lyrics are so good I write them on my phone for later: ‘Ride with me, we will be the strong ones, finally, we’re on top of the world, we’ve broken away.’

It’s a far cry from ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ (‘He was a ladies’ man, women loved his punk, he was a superstar, he was popular’) written by Austria’s second most famous son, Falco, about its first, Mozart. But it’s performed with earnest conviction, and I quite like it.

As an additional quirk, our race numbers display our full names, but back to front, so as the gun pops, cleats click and timing mat beeps, I follow Kind Andy and the commanding-sounding Beer Marvin out into the countryside.

Euro Devon

A kilometre in and my Garmin has already displayed a gradient of 14%; by 3km I’m descending switchbacks through thick mist. Passing riders fade in and out of view like apparitions, any sounds of tyres and brakes dulled by the heavy air.

With the white-out and the punchy roads, it feels more like an early-morning spell on Dartmoor than the Austrian Alps. But that Alpine splendour is here, and it belatedly reveals itself as the descent peters out. It’s at this point that I meet Thomas.

 

We’ve all met people like Thomas before. In age they are your contemporary, yet in physicality and charisma they appear superior. They speak three languages to your one and are inexplicably good at cycling considering they work in a high-pressure, all-consuming job.

They are the airline pilot who completes sub-12-hour Ironmans or, in Thomas’s case, the paediatric neurosurgeon who is driving the pace.

In another instance you might be annoyed at just how bloody talented they are, but it so happens that they are also really lovely, and the ideal riding partner for an event that although technically not a race still brings out your competitive side – even if the only person you’re trying to beat is yourself.

Thomas doesn’t know any of this, of course. His easy manner and metronomic legs are oblivious to what’s running through my head.

Then, while I’m following in the wheel of Thomas, we team up with Jürgen. We have all met Jürgen’s type before as well. They have piratical ponytails in grey to display both their age and swashbuckling nature, and their pounding rhythm comes from legs that look turned on a lathe.

Besides telling me my sunglasses are too big – thanks, Peter Sagan – Jürgen’s default position is stoic silence, but he seems to accept my presence as the three of us plough on.

Thomas is from nearby Linz and knows these roads well, which proves a great help when we happen upon a greasy stretch of tarmac winding perilously beneath leaf-dropping trees.

So entwined with this area is Thomas that, emerging from the enclave of forest, he points out a lone wooden hut on the hillside that would be missable to anyone else, but for him bears special significance.

He explains that he used to work for the Red Cross and that this hut belongs to them, so he called in a favour and borrowed it for his 30th birthday, invited all his friends and proposed to his now wife at the party. Later, he tells me, we’ll ride past the church where they married.

 

Half way up

Our trio skirts around the bottom slopes of the Gaisberg, a notorious climb in these parts that ascends to 1,288m over 13km at an average gradient of 6.5%.

The other two seem intent on making a good go of today, so I slot in third wheel and our conversation turns from words to breathy grunts, and by the time the trees are fully enshrouding the road, we’re communicating primarily through our elbows.

At just proud of 850m altitude we skip a turning that would have taken us to the Gaisberg’s summit, and reduce our effort as the plateauing road permits. It’s a shame. Having been told about this ascent in advance I rode up it yesterday and can attest to it being an absolute must-do climb: picturesque, testing and highly rewarding.

But cycling aside, unless you happen to be touring Alpine car parks and radio masts, the Gaisberg is a road to nowhere, which means it can’t be included on today’s route in its entirety.

Instead, lower slopes ticked off, we circumvent the peak and head north, and though I’ll not get to retrace yesterday’s steps to the top, it does at least mean I get a second stab at part of the descent.

A braver rider than I could easily manage a ton here; yesterday I managed 86kmh. But today my own mortality stares me down at 84kmh, although I’d love to believe what I later read on Strava – 96.8kmh.

 

But alas I soon find out that Strava calculates your speed based on the time travelled between any two GPS fixes, so if there is any inaccuracy recording those positions your speed is interpreted incorrectly. Garmin allegedly uses a smarter algorithm to get around this.

At this stage in proceedings, as the trees peel back to reveal vast rolling fields and stern, hazy mountains, GPS accuracy couldn’t be further from my mind. The distance still to go and the average speed we’ve been making do bother me somewhat, though.

In my head, Thomas is now called Thomas the Tank Engine. This guy is the train that wouldn’t quit, so much so that I can only dream about the cakey promises of the food station we’ve just passed, which at Thomas’s loaded question I foolishly agreed we should skip.

However, with the neurosurgeon at the helm I’m making excellent time, and we even seem to have dropped Jürgen.

Today’s statistics might not be imposing as such. Less than 2,500m is scheduled to be ascended in total, but with fields draped between mountains like lumpy duvets, and roads criss-crossing on top of that, the parcours rolls with relentless abandon, and it tells.

I have sworn a lot on a bike before, but I don’t think I have ever yelped in pain, at least not publicly. But I can’t help it as cramp stabs its blunt knife in the back of my hamstring.

It’s been threatening for a while, and that’s one of the strange things about cramp – when it looms it appears to me as a threshold, under which I can mete out effort so as not to cross into full-blown spasm.

The problem is that strategy only works for so long, and that threshold gets crossed much more quickly when your ride partner spies the unmistakeable flowing locks of Jürgen up the road, whom it’s now clear actually gave us the slip.

I entertain the idea of pulling a pin from my race number and stabbing it in my leg, which is apparently what pros used to do when they got cramp, but thankfully the others take pity and slow while I perform some on-bike stretches, which I suspect makes me look like a wonky flamingo.

 

Lake land

By this point we’re ticking off lakes almost as quickly as kilometres. This is the Salzkammergut lake region, and the Eddy Merckx traverses 11 of its finest. That might sound like a lot, but consider there are 76 here and we’re barely scratching the surface.

Anyway, as far as I’m concerned we may as well have passed 100 lakes since rejoining forces with Jürgen. I have seen more of the backs of his calves than he’ll ever see in a lifetime of owning them.

Thomas points out twin spires on the horizon – the church in which he was married. As an ambulance rushes by, Jürgen makes a quip about having a heart attack at the speed we’re going.

A tentative peek at my Garmin backs up this point – we’re averaging 32.1kmh, which is by far and away the fastest I’ve ever tackled a sportive of this length.

My legs feel like third-party appendages, as if my glutes are watching my quads and my quads are watching my calves and my calves are staring intently at my ankles and pretending not to notice, and everyone is hoping everyone else has the energy to continue.

Once again, though, Thomas comes to my rescue. He has been hanging out of his proverbial rear for the last few kilometres too, he says, so we slow until the flat road tips graciously down on its way back to Fuschl am See.

With a nod in part thanks and part surrender to Jürgen – who, the results sheet will later confirm, is 23 years my senior – I tuck in behind the Tank Engine and puff laboriously for home. So if you’re reading this, Thomas, thank you.

 

The details

Climb every mountain…

What: Eddy Merckx Classic Salzburger Land  
Where: Fuschl am See, Austria  
Distance: 168km  
Elevation: 2,449m  
Next one: TBC  
Price: €49  
More info: eddy-merckx-classic.com

 

The rider’s ride

Condor Leggero SL Disc, £7,650, condorcycles.com

The tubes are round, the shifting is mechanical, and while it does have disc brakes, the brilliance of the Leggero SL comes from its simplicity.

Handmade in Italy using tube-to-tube construction (where pre-fabricated tubes are cut and bonded as opposed to pieces of the frame being moulded), there is a traditional, near steel-like quality to the smooth, comfortable nature of the bike.

But thanks to what its builders can do with carbon, the frame remains stiff for punchy efforts yet exhibits just the right degree of flex to grip through corners and feel lively – yet never chatty – over a variety of surfaces.

The full complement of Campagnolo parts rounds off the bike nicely, with special mention going to the disc brakes, which Campagnolo has managed to make look elegant. They perform with excellent modulation and power while remaining mercifully squeal-free in operation.

 

Do it yourself

Travel

Salzburg airport is 30 minutes from Fuschl am See by car, and is serviced directly from Stansted (Ryanair, from around £70) and Gatwick (British Airways, from around £130), taking two hours each way.

Other airlines such as Lufthansa fly from London City via Frankfurt from £182, taking 3.5 hours.

Accommodation

Cyclist pitched up at the exquisitely plush Ebner’s Waldhof (ebners-waldhof.com) in Fuschl am See, which offers double rooms from £285pn, including breakfast and access to the wellness centre, gym and myriad swimming pools.

It also provides free use of stand-up paddle boards, kayaks and row boats, which can be launched onto Lake Fuschl from the hotel’s private beach.

Thanks

Huge thanks to Yvonne Rosenstatter, Alice Rager and Christina Kahlenbach from the Salzburger Land tourist board for making this trip happen, and in particular Christina for her last-minute efforts in finding a moto and driver for our photographer, Juan.