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Words by Szymon Kotowski
Photography by Piotr Trybalski
The Alps Less Riden
Anyone with even a passing interest in road cycling would be familiar with the French Alps. The sweeping vistas, the huge climbs, the legendary battles that have taken place on those slopes. But of course the Alps aren’t just a feature of France – they extend across eight countries in Western Europe, with amazing cycling climbs found throughout.
In our latest Roadtripping feature Szymon Kotowski and co. headed to the region of Tirol – on the border of Italy and Austria – for another memorable cycling adventure. Szymon put together this report, with amazing photos from Piotr Trybalski.
Hairpin turns coming one after another on a long roads never gets old. Numerous mountains stand threatening, their snowy tops scowling down at you from above. Is this what a perfect cycling road looks like? Here almost every road in Tirol is like this one. We are at the heart of the cycling nirvana: the Alps. For me, being here at the end of summer with my bike is a dream come true.
There are three of us here. There is Dominik with whom I’ve had many ups and downs with on the open road. He’s a man of few words, but I know him well enough so we don’t have to fill the silence with small-talk. We both just take it all in. There is also Jarek, an ex-pro who rode his last professional race just two days ago. Now, for the first time in a very long time he has taken the power meter off his bike. He is here for the same reason we all are: to simply enjoy riding our bikes and clear our minds on a roadtrip around Tirol.
If you tell a cyclist about the Alps, they will probably think of the famous mountain passes of the Tour de France. But the Alps are far bigger than just the climbs of France. There are a myriad of destinations to choose from.
Tirol is a region situated on the border of Austria and Italy which is more often associated with skiing rather than cycling. All the better for us — the area, despite in the midst of holidays, is pretty much desolate. There are no crowds of tourists or lines of cars spoiling the fun. We’re here for only a couple days to acquaint ourselves with the mountains and let our legs get used to the never-ending hills before we set off for the proper roadtrip. We didn’t plan out our routes. All we had in mind was one magical word: “Höhenstraße”, or “high road”. That is all one needs here.
We find it immediately and got on to the Zillertaler Höhenstraße. We leave the town and immediately get on to a single car-wide road going to nowhere. It is not the typical road made to connect two cities. It is one of those roads that looks like it was designed for cyclists, running somewhere on the hillside, twisting into picturesque hairpins with views out of this world.
The weather is great and we keep shouting “whoaaa!” each time another spectacular view appears from around the bend. It is a cycling amusement park full of climbs and descents. We are focused, tired and immensely satisfied. Our first day couldn’t be more perfect.
Something completely different awaited us the next day. Instead of the scorching sun, heat and beautiful views we faced the cold, thick fog and pouring rain. We start from Imst, heading for an unknown mountain pass. We don’t want to know what it is, we just want to enjoy the ride along the road situated on the wall of a great ravine, halfway through the steaming mountain. There is only a wooden rail between us and the precipice.
We’re surrounded by heavy clouds, thick fog and slanting rain, all while Jarek treats us with stories from his time as a pro dropping names that most of us only dream of riding beside. We are unable to see what’s behind the next turn or how far it is to the top. But every mountain has its oeak, and we will finally get to this one’s as well. It’s getting dreadfully cold and the only tourists we come across are dressed as if they were taking part in a polar expedition. We are also trying to keep warm. Dominik puts on his leg warmers but Jarek says that doing so in the summer is unbecoming. Alright, if a pro says so, he must be right. We put on only rain jackets and head down.
I don’t know how high we’ve climbed but the descent seems endless. And it is not because we are going slowly – our brake pads would quickly disintegrate had we wanted to ride slowly. Fortunately the road was such that we were able to descend like kamikazes. I think it was one of the most beautiful descents in my life, with perfect tarmac, banked turns and long curves where we could easily see if a car was going our way. With the wet weather we didn’t expect to encounter anybody or anything – the road was all ours.
Innsbruck. The heart of Tirol. The sun slowly emerges from behind the mountains, heralding what is going to be another regular day for many. But not for us. We are about to do what we have come here for – the destination of our roadtrip. We will start and finish in Austria but we will spend a half of the day in Italy. Planning out a route in the Alps is no piece of cake because the roads run from one valley to another, with many mountain passes. The itinerary looks pretty easy on the map, maybe because the map is flat. But we know that today our road will very far from flat.
We begin with Brenner Pass. It is a light warm-up compared to what’s in store for us. We set off in great moods, listening to Jarek’s stories about the life of a domestique to our past idols. The conversation lasts only a moment before it’s brutally interrupted by a very strong wind blowing right in our faces, turning the ride on this slight uphill into a battle for every metre. We move closer to one another and start spinning the pedals as if we were breaking away from a peloton. Dominik is doing whatever he can, I am taking my turn at the front for a couple of seconds. It’s only really Jarek that’s doing the hard work – without him we would get blown back to Innsbruck.
The gruelling struggle is over when we reach what we wrongly assume to be a mountain pass. Instead of a summit we get a lovely town, Brennero. However, it’s too early for a coffee break, and no one is thinking about it yet. We just want to get away from this wind, which doesn’t get any weaker on the way down. We stop rolling turns at the front as we look for a road sign to Jaufenpass. The proper mountains have arrived. The mountain grabs you by the throat right away and makes you pant. But we have no reason to complain – this is what we wanted and have having a kind of masochistic fun. There are only 100km left after all. The end seems very close. We are not in a hurry – the sun is still high.
As we are climbing the hill we are passing cows that are chewing the grass at the same slow pace we are moving at. Some of them even throw an indifferent glance our way. Maybe they think we’re idiots. “Why don’t they just lie down on the grass?”. The pack of motorcyclists that pass us by might think the same. The Jaufenpass mountain is a raceway. Nobody here is enjoying the nature or the views. Everybody is pushing their machines to their absolute limits. This isn’t the type of company we wanted – we have to constantly watch our backs as they seem to think that riding in the middle of the road is a good idea.
It takes us almost an hour and a half to get to the end of the second mountain pass. This time instead of wind we get some seriously steep grades. It is a horribly long climb with just a single flat section as a consolation. At the end of a mountain pasture, where there are no more trees, there is only a green forest clearing and a narrow path. A couple of switchbacks more and we get to Passo Giovo, at 2,094 m above sea level. The café at the top is crowded by motorcyclists who seem to be in a hurry. We take a deep breath of satisfaction and enjoy the view before we begin the ride down. From its south side, Jaufenpass is an incredibly picturesque road. Almost the entire time you can see a huge valley and mountain ranges sticking out of it. It’s a delight for the eyes. Unless of course you are descending with the likes of Jarek and Dominik who know how to get down a mountain at warp speed.
So I forget about taking in the views. There is no room for distraction. All the more so because of the motorcyclists who might show up behind your back. There are many of them coming from the opposite direction but none of them behind us – despite their huge engines and even bigger brake discs, nobody has managed to catch up with us. It was half an hour of euphoria like I’ve never felt.
The Alps are very simple in a way. There are valleys and summits, climbs and descents. That’s it. The question of stops and coffee breaks is pretty straightforward as well — you have only two possibilities, either at the top or in the town at the foot of the mountain. We have missed out on too many of such opportunities so far. It’s time we stop. These mountains can drain you of every calorie. We stop in San Leonardo, a beautiful, typically Tirolean town where cafes are plentiful. We lounge comfortably and treat ourselves with good coffee and apfelstrudel. We’ve earned it and we take our time. Each of us is already tired and instead of a only a piece, we’d most certainly prefer a whole cake. Knowing that we still have a lot of cycling up the hill to do we stuff ourselves with anything at hand and set off to conquer another mountain pass. It is getting difficult.
We start from a valley with our heads craning up towards the snowy mountain tops. One of them is our goal. We have two vertical and 30 horizontal kilometres to cover.Timmesjoch, Passo del Rombo. The names might not sound familiar to the average cyclist but the hill we are riding is a good match for the most famous of mountain passes. It starts nice and easy but the first switchbacks, narrow turns and steep sections let our legs know that this mountain is going to be as painful as anything we’ve ridden before. There’s no discussion; we just continue on ahead. To distract us from the pain, Jarek tells us stories about how he used to train with Simoni, Piepoli and Szmyd. He tells us how he carried Cunego’s or Ballan’s water bottles or how he dictated the tempo for his leaders. We are all ears, imagining the scenes in our heads and suddenly we end up sucking the narrator’s wheel, as if we were a part of his story.
The problem is that this mountain is a monster and even the best domestique in the world is of little help here. But the point isn’t riding as fast as possible. After some time each of us is riding on his own, silent and concentrated. The area begins to empty, while most of the sky is covered with dark clouds. There are no motorcyclists, cars or people passing us. We are almost alone on this mountain. The road to the mountain pass is closed to traffic in the evening and it is getting later. We take the last of the narrow hairpins as wide as possible to reduce the gradient. Our legs begin to beg for mercy but we refuse to stop, knowing that reaching the summit will be well worth the effort.
The final part of Passo del Rombo is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The road appears to be hanging over the escarpment and the mountain around us seems to be within arm’s reach. Our legs are now empty and we are not sure how high we are or how far it is to the summit. We have come out of the forest the snow on the roadside make us realise how high we atually are. Just before the end we have to go through a long dark tunnel that gives us a surge of adrenalin. We are gathering speed as if we were close to a finish line. I grab the lower handlebars and lock onto Jarek’s wheel — he is not waiting for anyone.
We ride the last kilometre as if it was the end of a mountainous stage in some grand tour. Finally, we get to the Timmelsjoch mountain pass. We are 2,500m above sea level and we are all alone. The sky has been completely covered with lead-colored clouds and the wind is whistling sonorously. We get off our bikes, totally worn out, and eat whatever we have left while staring at the mountains.
The ride down to Sölden is my fastest descent in memory. I didn’t know how fast I was going but Dominik, who was the only one with a speedometer, said that we looked like little dots quickly disappearing from his view. His top speed was 99km/h. We felt like we were dying on the way up, and now were risking our lives going down.
“WE WERE DYING ON THE WAY UP, AND RISKING OUR LIVES GOING DOWN.”
It all starts from the very first meters. A wall of tarmac running for 13km. It becomes a little flatter somewhere in the middle, letting you catch your breath and make a couple of lighter spins, but only for a moment. Inside the entry gates must usually be full of skiers and snowboarders in winter but now there isn’t anybody in the area.
Ötztaler Gletscherstrasse. An climb leading to the mountain glacier that is extremely popular in the winter but completely empty in the summer. Now, it is being visited by only the three of us. The whole road is up for grabs. We are making the most of the turns like at a race and zig-zagging from left to right on steeper sections. Huge signs count down the hairpins and make us realise that we still have a long way to go.
Dominik picks up his rhythm and rides off. Jarek stays with me, out of habit I guess. I can hardly speak, I can feel my energy supply being asphyxiated. We stop by a mountain creek to fill our bottles with the water and then we’re back on the bike. Jarek flicks through the gears and starts chasing Dominik and leaves me in my misery. Now each of us are on our own. I don’t know what Jarek feels and I can only guess what Dominik does, but my tempo has now settled into a free-flowing mode of cycling meditation. The road goes up for quite a while, the landscape becomes more and more harsh and the sky is increasingly darker.
We are at the foot of the mountain glacier. The lifts are not operating. Totally exhausted, we are standing in the middle of a huge and completely empty car park, only with mountains around us. Getting here was worth all the effort it required. I take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. This is what it’s all about.
Hope to see you on the road.
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