Sign up for our newsletter

The Grossglockner: Austria's Alpine giant

In-depth
13 Aug 2019
Advertisement

This article was originally published in issue 88 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Spender Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

I have always found Austria charming, much like Switzerland but without having to pay €45 for a cafe stop.

Austria enjoys the full bandwidth of the Alps, and through its landlocked state draws on cultures from Hungary to Italy and beyond, yet remains itself very much Austrian.

You will find the traditionally rude waiters in the coffee houses of Vienna, world-class orchestras in the magisterial concert halls of Salzburg and the unmissable décolletage of dirndl-clad receptionists in Alpine hotels.

In the most endearing sense, Austria is an almost impossible pastiche of itself, delivered without irony.

It is friendly – homely even – but encompasses landscapes that run the full gamut from idyllic to downright daunting, all the while existing just as it has been portrayed in musicals and adverts for muesli.

There’s a ‘Sound of Music World’ in Salzburg, and there’s nothing quite like the breakfast buffet in a decent Austrian hotel.

This is why, when the Cyclist council met and began to push little wooden cyclists around a map of Europe with plotting rakes, all roads seemed to lead to Austria, and to one road in particular: the Großglockner-Hochalpenstraße, or the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, Austria’s highest paved mountain pass.

Composing chocolate

I arrive at Salzburg airport with an afternoon to while away, so take a taxi to the old town. It feels suitably ancient, from its 11th century Hohensalzburg Fortress overlooking the city to the many Baroque churches and cobbled streets that radiate away from the banks of the River Salzach.

It’s this river that gave rise to the name Salzburg, meaning ‘Salt Castle’, because more than a millennium ago barges carrying salt had to pay a toll to continue through the city limits.

Beyond Julie Andrews’ warblings, Salzburg is famed for being the birthplace of Mozart. And for its sweet tooth. So with minutes to spare before I’m due to get my transfer to the foot of the Grossglockner, I make for Cafe Konditorei Fürst.

This is Salzburg’s most lauded confectioners and the birthplace of the Mozartkugel, a dark chocolate-coated, praline-covered marzipan bonbon named in honour of the great composer and created by chocolatier Paul Fürst in 1890.

A more cultured traveller than I would have planned a trip to Salzburg to coincide with a performance of Mozart at the acclaimed Großes Festspielhaus concert hall, but given the prospect of tomorrow’s 3,600m of climbing over just 85km, I’m in the business of hoovering up as many calories as I can get my hands on with a cyclist’s impunity.

The Gross depart

The morning sees me searching for the mains switch in the Hotel Römerhof’s restaurant-bar. Last night it was packed with rosy-cheeked patrons clinking and singing into the night, but at 5.30am it’s eerily quiet.

The hotel owners have kindly laid out a serviceable breakfast for me, and I’m joined by Manuel Weissenbacher, who dutifully put himself forward to ride with me today despite it necessitating a 4am start for him to drive the 100km south from his home in Salzburg to where this Big Ride starts: the tiny town of Fusch, lying at the feet of the Hohe Tauern mountain range of the Central Eastern Alps.

Manuel is a retired professional mountain biker but admirably has undertaken to shave his legs for the first time in a year and, already in bibshorts, still looks every bit the whippet.

His enthusiastic demeanour is infectious, which is appreciated when we sit down to study the forecast. Not that the symbol for rain needs much studying.

However, he explains, the Grossglockner road is subject to abruptly changeable conditions given that it straddles the Alpine divide – the chain of high mountains that runs the length of the Alps and separates the north and south drainage basins.

It can be raining on one side, he tells me, while being gloriously sunny on the other.

Thus, at the mercy of a swirling weather front, we push our bikes out into fresh air and begin pedalling towards some decidedly dark-looking peaks.

With the sun breaking blearily overhead, Fusch is quintessential in its loveliness. The town’s wooden buildings are wrapped in cascades of pansies and petunias.

Neatly kempt lawns rise up the flanks of the surrounding mountains, disappearing into forests of larch and spruce that spill down the slopes like rivers.

Everything is quiet – the kind of quiet that if you stop pedalling and sit for a moment, the rhythmic throb of blood being pumped around your skull becomes deafening. The idea is tempting too, because the road out of town is already on the up and my legs are making more effort than I had expected this early.

At 3,798m, the Grossglockner is the highest peak in Austria, so it’s little surprise that the pass that traverses its flanks is chalked as Austria’s highest – albeit not its highest paved road, an award that goes to the dead end atop the 2,829m Ötztal Glacier Road in Tyrol, some 200km to the west of us.

The high point of the Grossglockner High Alpine Road is at 2,504m, although that won’t be the highest point we’ll reach, as a short diversion to a lookout point will add another 67m of vertical ascent.

The distances involved mean we won’t be attempting a loop today, but will instead be simply heading up and back along the same road.

At Ferleiten, 7km from Fusch, we arrive at a series of wooden-roofed tollbooths that span the road, each with a green tick on their neon signs indicating the Grossglockner is open for business, but only at a price.

Unless you are a cyclist, that is. For Manuel and me the road is free (although we could buy a timing ticket for €2 should we wish), but for motorists it’s €36.50.

That might sound like a fair whack, but as we advance past the tolls it becomes apparent where the money goes. The road is wide and near-perfect in surface, with lines so crisply white they could have been shined this morning.

This pass has twice featured in the Giro d’Italia, but I can’t imagine the municipal officials letting road graffiti hang around for long. Moreover, this pass was only ever intended as a scenic route for tourists.

Who’s laughing now?

It’s an odd place to end up in life when, presented with a view of breathtaking natural splendour, the first thing you say is, ‘Wow, look at that road!’ But by the time we reach Fuscher Törl, 13km after leaving the tollbooths, that’s exactly what both Manuel and I utter in unison.

Looking down onto a vast valley, it’s the beauty of the snaking black ribbon of tarmac that draws our breath, and it’s at this point that I realise cycling has well and truly claimed me.

Parts of the valley swirl in and out of existence with the rapidly moving mist, which at this altitude might in fact be considered cloud.

From this vantage point everything is so distant as to appear miniature, yet the only feeling of smallness comes from being here in the first place, an insignificant human dropped onto the lip of a gargantuan granite cauldron. 

There are, however, several manmade structures. One is a signpost, along with a time card stamping machine, that tells us we are now at 2,248m, meaning we have ascended 1,145m since the tollbooths.

The other is a monument to the storied past of this road.

Initially the plan for this pass, first suggested in 1924, was laughed out of town, but with post-war unemployment running at 26% the Austrian government gave the go-ahead to project leaders Franz Rehrl and Franz Wallack, who were convinced an automotive dawn was imminent and that Austria’s slice of the Alps could be monetised.

So what was once a Celt and Roman muleskinners’ dirt track became a 6m wide asphalt totem to automotive tourism (today it’s a uniform 7.5m wide all the way).

Thus 3,200 Austrians found gainful employment, of whom 13 sadly died in the construction process, to be remembered alongside the Glossglockner Pass’s creators in the stone-built memorial.

At whatever cost – one that has risen over the years with the deaths of eight more construction workers and numerous thrill-seeking motorists – the Grossglockner Pass made history, allowing the two Franzes to make the first crossing of the Alp divide by automobile in 1934.

Indeed, beyond the memorial, Franz Wallack’s legacy lives on in the bright blue snow ploughs he designed and had made in the 1950s, which 65 years later are still going strong, albeit today they lay dormant along the roadside, waiting to be called upon again next spring to clear nearly one million cubic metres of snow.

From November to April, Manuel tells me, most of what we’ve just pedalled up lies buried, the pass officially closed.

Apparition road

Before we reach the highest stretch of the pass itself, there is still the matter of detouring to today’s highest point, although from our current position in a layby adorned with fluttering national flags, where that road might be is anyone’s guess.

All I can see is a sign declaring ‘Edelweissspitze, 2km’ that points towards a piece of tarmac vanishing into mist.

On closer inspection it becomes apparent this white-out is aided by the fact the black tarmac has given way to dull-white cobbles.

With a few gear-changing chonks Manuel rises from his saddle and drifts into the whiteness, the muted rattling of his drivetrain over uneven stones the only proof he’s still ahead.

The road runs to double-figure gradients in parts. On another day the views from here would be expansive, but today the horizon is stifled by cloud, and when we reach the lookout point at 2,571m, we could in truth be anywhere.

There’s not much reason to linger, so we turn around and descend tentatively for 2km back to the main road, our tyres struggling for grip on the greasy cobbled hairpins.

Once back on tarmac, the road dips tantalisingly for a second but soon enough we’re rising again through another set of hairpins and disappearing into a cool, dim tunnel that ties together the two Austrian regions of Salzburg, from whence we’ve come, and Carinthia.

Emerging from the gloom we turn to face the tunnel’s mouth, over which are inscribed the words In te Domine speravi, a quote from Psalm 71 that translates as ‘In thee, O Lord, I have put my trust’.

It seems a fair appraisal of the situation, given the 300m length of the tunnel and how many thousands of tonnes of rock sit above it.

To the right of the mouth is a blue sign confirming that we have arrived at the pass’s highest point: ‘Hochtor 2,504m’, and above that, a red digital sign puts a number to what our shivering bodies already know: 5.9°C.

Emperor king

Our last port of call before we return down the mountain is a 7.8km diversion to the Kaiser Franz-Josef Höhe, a beauty spot named after the intrepid regent who holidayed here in 1856.

To reach it, we begin by descending a short distance down the southern side of the Grossglockner, which looks more barren and moonscaped than the northern side we ascended.

The sun has come out, the corners are wide and banked, and my legs are grateful for the respite of a proper descent.

But no sooner does my mind start to drift with gravity than the road seesaws and winds upwards again past the thundering waters of the Fensterbach Waterfall, whose negative ions are said to be good for the lungs, but which also, given the signage, appears to have its own marketing department.

For one last time the road plateaus before sweeping artfully by a mountain refuge and its lonely-looking accomplice, the tiny, wooden-tiled Pasterzenhaus chapel, whose breathtaking views must only be matched by the breathtaking effort required by its parishioners to get here.

We climb past 2,200m via several lengthy hairpins to arrive at the Kaiser’s favoured lookout spot, and it is certainly a sight to behold.

Below us is the Pasterze Glacier, an unmoving river of ice, white in opacity against the surrounding cliff faces that are near purple by contrast.

In the Kaiser’s day the glacier was 11km long, but the effects of climate change have seen it shorten to 8km and its volume halved.

Yet even so it presides with majesty over the dams and valleys in its lee, holding court like the Glossglockner’s giant weeping eye, frozen forever in time.

There is, however, one good thing humans have wrought upon this particular spot – a restaurant, and the chance to restock and warm up before about-facing and repeating this route in reverse.

But having completed 2,700m of ascent to get here, the remaining 900m should be a cinch – providing the weather holds.

The old up ’n’ over

Tackle the northern side of the Grossglockner High Alpine Road

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/88austria. Head due south out of Fusch on highway 107/the Grossglockner High Alpine Road. Pass through the tollbooths at Ferleiten, collecting a brevet ticket if you wish (only available before 9am and after 3pm).

Climb 12.9km to Fuscher Törl. In the main car park at the top, look for the sign for ‘Edelweissspitze, 2km’ and follow this cobbled road to the 2,571m peak. Descend carefully back down to the car park, head towards the memorial at Fuscher Törl and keep following the 107 round, towards Heiligenblut/Lienz.

At 36km take the first exit at the roundabout and climb towards Kaiser Franz-Josef Höhe. Stop for a bite at its restaurant then reverse the journey back to Fusch.

The rider’s ride

Condor Leggero SL Disc, £7,650 (£3,599.99 frameset only), condorcycles.com

In this day and age it seems absurd to come to the Alps and not take a disc bike, especially given the likelihood of damp weather. Similarly, fitting the widest tyres possible also seems a smart move, despite the extra weight.

Thus, furnished with Campagnolo H11 disc brakes and 28mm wide Continental GP4000S II tyres, the Leggero SL was every bit the mountain goat I was looking for.

At 7.23kg it was light but not flattering up inclines, but I’d trade that weight twice over for the confidence the Leggero presented down washed-out descents that even included cobbled hairpins.

The Campagnolo Bora One wheels were also an excellent addition, their mid-sectioned 35mm rim profile and 1,483g weight (claimed) providing rapid acceleration and good rolling speed yet being shallow enough to withstand the occasional gust.

Yet the standout feature is the Leggero SL frameset, which hit the sweet-spot between fast handling and stability. In these conditions, it far outclassed its rider.

How we did it

Travel

We flew from Gatwick to Salzburg, which takes two hours and costs around £140 with British Airways. Ryanair flies from Stansted for £74, but BA proved the cheaper option as it counts bicycles in its hold luggage allowance, whereas Ryanair charges £60 each way for a bike. From Salzburg it’s a 90-minute drive to Fusch.

Accommodation

We stayed at the four-star Hotel Römerhof in Fusch, which is right on this Big Ride’s start line. It’s well appointed with all the usual wellness mod cons, and in late summer serves up a delicious menu of locally hunted game. Bikes are welcome, of course, and service is incredibly friendly and adaptable to late arrivals and early starts. Double rooms from €89pn. See roemerhof-fusch.at for more details.

Thanks

The planning and organisation of this trip was meticulous, so big thanks to Yvonne Rosenstatter, Alice Rager and Christina Standler-Kahlenbach of the SalzburgerLand tourist board (salzburgerland.com), and Jane Parritt and Anne Morgan from Media Contacts PR (mediacontactspr.co.uk) for putting it all together.

Huge thanks also to Markus Hankl, who drove our photographer Juan around all day, and who can reverse up a 1-in-10 like you’ve never seen. So too thanks to Manuel Weissenbacher for riding with us and offering crucial insights to the area.