71 miles. 7700 ft of climbing.
Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/2472029566
The night was wild. I had left the widows open due to the heat and had a restless sleep due to the noise of the wind blowing down from the mountains and whipping up the waters of the lake. What had been a clam lapping of the waters against the shore, softly lulling me to sleep, had turned into a crashing of waves during the night. My kit hanging to dry in the window had been blown to the floor. If I were a suspicious man, I could have taken this for a sign. It was as if the gods of the mountains were sending us a warning, “Who are you that you dare to climb mountains? You may ride upon my back, but I shall not be conquered without great toil!” The taunting voices of the mountain kept me awake for much of the night, it was a mighty storm which blew.
Up at 7:15, breakfast at 8. Out on the road by 9. The early morning mantra. Breakfast was a hearty meal. Cereals, fruit, toast, coffee. More toast, more coffee. Coffee. We were all well fuelled up. By nine we had finished packing up our bags. By 9:15 we were on the road.
The days riding began with a retrace of our steps from yesterday and then a short stint to the foot of the mighty Grossglockner. It was mild, though unfortunately raining, misty and grey. Along the way Justin pointed out various campsites and roads he knew. “We stayed at that campsite in 20XX, it was a during terrible storm and we woke in the morning with our kit saturated.” A little further on; “If you take that little side road, it winds up the side of the mountain through a lovely forest. There’s a village halfway up where we stopped and had a coffee,” and so it goes on.
At of the foot of the Grossglockner is a ticket stamp machine. The idea is you buy a ticket which punches in the time you started the climb, then when you reach the summit you get your ticket stamped again. There are many of these on the famous passes of the alps. For many, these are a great souvenir. For me, it would be something I would look at, then place in a drawer and forget about. We passed by the ticket booth, and cycled through the gates which stopped the cars and motorbikes. Any vehicle using the pass had to pay a toll. I think about 40 Euros for a car, a hefty levy which meant that the already quiet road was even less travelled, particularly on a day such as today when visibility was very poor. We twisted our way up the mountainside, the group soon splitting up as we each took on the challenge of the mountain at our own pace.
For me, it is difficult to give too much feedback on the pass. Certainly, it was a long breathless, leg churning climb. But with the grey drizzle, the cool mist and poor visibility, the majesty of the mountain was lost. Where there should have been amazing vistas of high mountain peaks, I could hardly make out the far side of the road. As a cyclist, you tend to look up the mountain and pick out where the road will take you, today this was all but impossible.
Along the road, signs were positioned at what would have been scenic lookouts, giving details of the astounding view which lay before you. Today it was a thick impenetrable mist. I felt like a losing contestant on the 80’s darts quiz show Bullseye, where even though you didn’t manage to win the top prize, it was still revealed to you, as if to completely rub you nose in it. Now let’s take a look at what you could have seen!
Now let’s take a look at what you could have won!
Two thirds of the way up, I stopped beside a souvenir shop/café and waited for Justin and Jos to catch up, they weren’t too far behind. We were all cold and wet and agreed to have a coffee and warm up a bit. The shop was warm and the owner welcoming. We took a look about and then placed our order. Sitting at the table Justin retold his tale of how he had once descended this mountain in the freezing cold without any gloves. I made it to this exact café and stood in the toilet with my hands under the hot air hand dryer for five minutes. We had our coffee and a slice of delicious apfelstrudle, then made ready to set off. A dim prospect as we had just begun to dry off and warm up. Justin nipped to the toilet and returned with a big smile upon his face, “They’ve still got the same dryer!” On the way out of the door, a motorcyclist chatted to us. Good news, summit the mountain, and on the other side it is warm with clear skies, “You can see for a hundred miles!” We doubted the authenticity of the report, but thanked him and stepped out into the cold.
Nothing to see here
The rest of the climb was steady, for the most part we stuck together. Jos must have got an energy boost from the strudel as he made it to the summit, or rather false summit first. He was waiting by the side of the road, but in the mist, I literally couldn’t see him and cycled straight past, before twigging something was wrong when I started to descend, so turned back and there he was waving wildly at me. Justin filled us in, the road descends for a hundred meters or so, before a final climb and then the summit is on the other side of a short tunnel. We slowly descended. Back in Wales all that time ago, we invented a scale. The cold scale. 5 is the coldest you have ever been, a zero score is nice and warm, ideal cycling conditions. Wales was a good 4.8. That descent I think I scored a 4.2, it was cold. The pass itself hadn’t long been cleared by the snow ploughs and the high banks of snow still lingered at the side of the road.
The 5-meter-high snow banks, mist and cold on one side of the mountain.
The temperature began to creep up as we took on the final steep ascent. The tunnel soon came into view and as we entered it, blue skies were visible on the other side. Passing through the tunnel the temperature change was tangible, when we exited on the other side of the mountain, it was as though we had ridden into a different world. Blue skies, warmth, sunshine. The motorcyclist back at the café wasn’t lying, the views were astounding. Looking above us, a monstrous bank of cloud was held pinned up by the peak of the mountain. The magazine article had stated the Grossglockner was often known as a mountain of two sides, never a truer word was written!
The usual custom for cyclists to layer up prior to a descent didn’t apply here. We stripped off our jackets and basked in the sun and warmth prior to descending. A short ride down we stopped for some photographs at an amazing viewpoint, thin wispy clouds encircling us. Along the side of the road were small stone bollards to aid keeping people on the road. Justin perched his bike against one and then stepped back to take a photo. A most unfortunate incident, he tripped over a small bollard and fell onto the tarmac with a heavy thud. Picking himself up it was very apparent he was in a lot of pain; his face was distorted in agony. Then followed one of the craziest lines from the whole trip; “I think I’ve just re-broken some of my ribs…but it’s ok, I don’t think I’ve punctured my lung!” Thank goodness for small mercies!
Josby atop the Grossglockner. Note the sunshine, and the bollards.
We descended gingerly to the town of Heiligenblut and stopped for lunch. Justin was in pain; “A whole new world of pain!” We deliberated on what to do. He certainly didn’t want to call it a day on the trip, but was struggling to keep going. The rest of the days riding, apart for a small Cat 3 climb, was flat or downhill, including a long stretch joining another cycle path. Re-fuelled and loaded up with pain relief, the decision to continue was made and we pushed on.
The rest of the day’s riding was taken at a steady pace, no major dramas required after the mornings’ events. The cycle path was another Austrian masterpiece, smooth picturesque tarmac which put many British main roads to shame. 30 relaxed miles later, mainly following the fast flowing Isel river, we arrived at the village of Huben and checked into our guesthouse. A white-water rafting adventure centre.
Three beers and two large packets of crisps later we checked into our room, a large 3 bed apartment with windows overlooking the crashing rapids. We showered, washed our kit, then had a satisfying dinner washed down with a few more, medicinal, beers.