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Otztaler Radmarathon sportive

James Spender
3 Feb 2016

There is a fine line between genius and insanity. Austria's Otztaler Radmarathon might well have stepped over it.

There are many reasons why cyclists shouldn’t go to war. We get hungry easily and expect to stop for food often; our flamboyant battle dress marks us out yet offers scant protection, and if we see a drone we’re more likely to wave for the camera than run for the hills. Our vehicles wince at enemy potholes; our heaviest artillery is a fold-out 8mm allen key, and deploy us in Flanders and we’ll end up cycling up the Koppenberg instead of trying to secure it. Yet, on the inhospitable slopes of the Jaufenpass, just across the Austro-Italian border, a state of war has been declared.

The temperature and gradient have marched silently into the teens, punching a hole through the dawn mist that enshrouded the Tyrol Valley hours ago. Both look set to continue their steady passage, which is more than can be said for many of the riders around me. I’ve not ever really wondered how much of a man’s sweat a cycling helmet can absorb, but as I turn to my left, I get my answer anyway. A cyclist, his face gnarled by miles and anguish, clasps a hand to his forehead in a despairing gesture. The foam beneath the polystyrene compacts for the briefest moment before releasing a torrent of human brine, cascading down his face and unceremoniously onto his handlebars. He grunts. We’re still 100km from home.

The wizard of Ötz

Otztaler Radmarathon road

Any self-respecting James knows never to trust a man whose first name is Ernst. If you’re of the secret-agent variety that’s because it’ll be followed by the names ‘Stavro’ and ‘Blofeld’, and if you’re of the cycling variety (me) it’s because it will be followed by the name ‘Lorenzi’. However, while one Ernst is short, bald and bent on world domination, the other is busy running around madly in cut-off jean shorts and braces at the start of the 34th annual Ötztaler Radmarathon, a trail of long greying hair trying desperately to keep up with his six-foot plus frame.

At 238km long with 5,500m of climbing, the Ötztaler is a dastardly fiend of a sportive, and like a Blofeld-orchestrated plan it’s a work of convoluted, if slightly eccentric, brilliance. The small ski town of Sölden has been engulfed this late August weekend by Ernst Lorenzi’s mammoth operation, which sees 4,000 cyclists take over the town and turn it from a picture of Alpine tranquility into a bustling festival devoted to two wheels. Fireworks, oompah parades, stunt shows, skydiving and group leg shaving are just some of the orders of the weekend, but of course the main event is the cycling, which is why despite the 6.45am kick-off it seems like every hotel, campervan and tent has emptied out onto the streets to see the riders off.

In the field opposite the start pens two hot-air balloons are ready to take off, while perched on a hillock in the distance is a man with something that looks suspiciously like a cannon. On the roof of a nearby petrol station four mime-artists in trench coats and bowler hats enact a dance that’s presumably been produced by Charlie Chaplin and choreographed by Kraftwerk, but before I get too mesmerised the enthusiastic whirlwind that is Ernst comes bounding over to my start pen with photographer Pete in tow.

Otztaler Radmarathon peaks

‘So we have a plan!’ says Ernst. ‘Pete, you will go up on the petrol station roof for the start. Then when the riders have left you will climb down and run over there, to that helicopter, see?’ he says, gesticulating to two landed choppers. ‘Pete, you take the red one, I am in the blue one. You fly, fly, fly, one hour maybe, then you will land at the top of the Kühtai Pass where a motorbike will be ready to meet you. His engine will be running so you must be quick!’ Pete looks excited, if uncertain. ‘And James, good luck, you will need it. Let’s hope to see you at the end.’ With that ominous comment, Ernst and Pete disappear into the throng to a thunderous crack that echoes through the valley. My eyes weren’t deceiving me – that distant man did have a cannon, and its firing signals the start.

Steady on

Theoretically the opening kilometres are neutralised, but with such a build-up it’s no wonder everyone around me seems to be racing. Although a hot, dry day is forecast, the road is still damp, so I do my best to keep things in check, leaving plenty of room for the more excitable to whip past. 

It’s amazing how reckless some people are in the early stages of an event they’ve presumably been training for all year, and as if to bear out this point three figures clamber from a roadside ditch ahead, their kits caked in mud, their bikes a tangled heap some metres away in a field. Mercifully they appear unharmed.

Otztaler Radmarathon mountains

After 15km things finally settle down, the once thousand-strong peloton having separated into more manageable groups of hundreds, and for the first time since the start line I take in my surroundings. The mauves of wild flora lap at the bottoms of the great green swathes of conifers that flank the sides of the road and continue high up into mountains. We’re well into the countryside now, with only a token wooden chalet to interrupt the rolling pastures. This magical veneer is shattered when a cursory glance at my Garmin and the course profile taped to my top tube confirms the first climb is upon us, the aptly named Kühtai Saddle Pass.

Luckily it’s only the third-highest ascent of the day, taking riders to 2,020m, but it ramps nastily at 18% and averages 6.3% for its 18.5km length. I would find those kind of stats an ordeal at the best of times, only today my heavy heart has company in the form of an even heavier stomach. The problem is I’m a sucker for a hotel breakfast buffet, and while that’s fine if you begin riding at noon, it’s not so advisable when you’ve left just 45 minutes from getting out of the shower to the start line. 

The climb is a slow grind, and by the time I reach the top I’m uncertain as to where I am in the pack. I hedge my bets that I’ve probably lost a lot of time, so once I’ve dropped down the other side and hit the flatter roads of the valley, I get my head down. I’m wary that the longest climb of the day is still to come, so I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself almost partway through it when I see a sign with the word ‘Innsbruck’ crossed out in red, denoting that we’ve left the comparatively bustling metropolis of Tyrol’s capital city and are heading once again for the steep mountains that put this area on the map. 

Otztaler Radmarathon Lake

Miraculously it seems I’ve found my gear. My legs are turning nicely and I’m passing riders with such ease that I’m soon leading a group with my hands draped over bars in the manner I imagine Tony Martin would adopt if he were here. My mouth is certainly open as wide as Tony’s, and I’m sucking down air like a lycra basking shark. I’m definitely not nearly as strong and efficient as one though, so by the time I’ve notched up the last of the 39km of the climb (a veritable joy at just 1.5% average), I’m spent. 

The heat of the day is becoming stifling, I’m dehydrated and my legs are as crumbly as a pair of dry baguettes. Thankfully a feed station appears just in time. A volunteer spots my dilapidated state and rushes over with a jug of electrolytes and a fistful of pastries that puts even my hotel breakfast to shame. I toy briefly with the idea of hanging around for a second sitting, but experience tells me that even 30 more seconds spent in this blessed heap on the floor would be dangerous. Must keep moving.

Broken spirits

Extremes of temperature are one thing, but going through extremes of temperature is quite another. At its coldest this morning it was just 6°C – now it’s approaching 30°C. The sun is high enough that shade is a distant, taunting memory, and it’s here that the fallout begins. 

Otztaler Radmarathon helicopter

The descent after my food stop was a glorious reprieve, but for some it clearly wasn’t enough. The mercilessly steep 15.5km long, 7% average Jaufenpass is now in full swing, and the once pristine verges and views of the disappearing valley are interrupted by discarded bikes and collapsed humans. Riders are simply getting off.

Some may just need a rest before continuing, but I can’t shake the feeling that many of those who have stopped won’t be seeing the finish line in daylight, if at all. The organisers reckon it takes between seven and 14 hours to complete the Ötztaler, although they tellingly point out that a large coach is on hand to act as broomwagon. It’s now that I look across to see my comrade and his helmet-squeezing waterfall.

Like me he’s clearly being chipped away at by this experience, but something in his stoic, ragged cadence tells me his resolve is still formidable. I bet he’s never had a DNF against his name. I vow I’m not going to court my first now either. The worst is behind us, surely?

Assumption is the mother of all hiccups

Apparently Laura Trott has a condition that means when she goes hard in a race she vomits immediately afterwards. While I’d never put myself in her bracket in terms of ability, I can at least sympathise with such unsolicited bodily responses from big efforts. I know when I’ve been pushing my limits because as soon as I stop, I begin to hiccup.

Usually it’s a simple case of stopping and waiting for the hiccups to pass, but here on the middle slopes of the Ötztaler’s final climb, the Timmelsjoch pass, that isn’t an option. 

Otztaler Radmarathon climb

After a gloriously wide, rolling descent that had my Garmin speedo clicking into a third significant figure, I was met at the bottom of the Timmelsjoch by what looked like a battlefield. If the Jaufenpass was arresting, the early Timmelsjoch slopes were downright tragic. 

Never before have I seen someone on a sportive actually cry. Yet here I saw two. Backs heaving up and down, heads in crooks of elbows, these two were finished. And they weren’t alone. Some riders had summoned friends in cars to load up their bikes and declare their misery over; others were presumably surrendering themselves to whatever broomwagon ignominy awaited.

I use these stark images of despondent riders as my incentive to keep legs turning and mind focused on not giving up. I know I’m close to the end of my tether, because… hic.

My bout of hiccupping began at the last water stop – a man outside his garage with a hosepipe. I stopped, clumsily groped for my bottles and then all of a sudden I felt the first spasm of my diaphragm. And the hiccups have been with me ever since, making it hard to drink, all but impossible to eat, and all the while reminding me just how close I am to teetering off my final rivet.

Otztaler Radmarathon James

Down the valley below winds a gargantuan snake made up of minuscule riders, progressing so slowly it looks like it has stopped. Ahead I can’t even see where the road goes. At 2,500m I’m far higher than I’ve been all day, the treeline long forgotten, yet despite being closer than ever to the finish I’ve never felt so far from it. It’s no good. I think I’m going to get off. I’m going to get off. I’m getting off. I’m… speechless.

The towering hairpin I’ve just dragged myself up has swung a full 180° to reveal the most wondrous view of the day: a big, black spot etched deep into the rock face. An unmistakable tunnel. I don’t want to tempt fate, but at this height, with the road having few other places to go, this must surely designate the top of the descent back to Sölden. 

The entrance of the tunnel is cool and dripping with condensation and I shiver for the first time in eight and a half hours. The tunnel is long, or at least I’m pedalling painfully slowly, but eventually out of the dimness glimmers a light that I hope marks the beginning of my salvation. 

It grows bigger, the tunnel spits me out, the Tyrol Valley is laid bare before me, and I can almost feel the gravity that will pull me home. For me the war is over, and just in the nick of time. I don’t think I can fight any longer. Hic.

How we did it

Travel

The nearest airport to Sölden is Innsbruck, although flights are limited in summer so we flew into Innsbruck but had to fly out of Munich, a three-hour drive from Sölden. A return to Munich starts at £100, a combination of flights from £200.

Accommodation

For a small town Sölden is full of good hotels, but the jewel in its crown is undoubtedly the Hotel Bergland, the very same hotel in which Daniel Craig stayed while shooting Spectre.

Prices start from €300 (£212) pppn, which includes a fantastic breakfast, as you’d expect for that price.

Where to eat and what to do

Take a trip up Sölden’s highest gondola to the Gaislachkogl Peak, which at 3,048m provides views that are worth the €15 (£11) trip alone.

However, it would be churlish to leave without at least having a drink at the Ice Q restaurant, which doubled as the set in Spectre, where it was re-imagined as a rather sinister private clinic. The highest dining experience short of an aeroplane.

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