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Salzburg to Milan 2019. Day 4, Brixen to Solden.

76 miles. 12000 ft of climbing.

Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/2472029531   

We had breakfast, the bikes were loaded up and we were out on the road for just after nine. By day four, we had turned into a well-oiled bike packing machine. Our ride began with a quick tour of Brixen old town before we joined a cycle path and headed northwards. The path followed the meandering river Isarco for a few miles, then as we crossed over a main road, we parted ways from the river and the tarmac/gravel surface turned into a soft carpet of pine needles. More suited to a CX or mountain bike, for the next 3 miles we dipped in and out of the woods. The undulating route was thrilling to ride, but I feared that with 6 wheels between us, we were almost bound to get a puncture. Luckily, we somehow made it through the woods without incident.

Morning view from the cycle path

Morning views from the cycle path

Morning view from the cycle path

We re-joined the river and the tarmac, and for the next 10 miles gradually crept our way uphill to reach the town of Sterzing, and the foot of the first pass of the day. The Jaufenpass is a nine-mile, 7% average gradient HC or Hors Categorie (beyond classification) climb. I felt fresh after the steady miles we had ridden to reach the foot of the climb and pushed on pretty hard from the start. The beginning of the climb was thickly wooded, there was a thin misty rain in the air which kept the temperature cool, and I found the gradient not too taxing. I soon left Jos and Justin behind and after settling into a decent rhythm, enjoyed the twists and hairpin turns as the road wound its way steadily upwards through the trees.

After around 7 miles of steady climbing, the road left the woods behind and the mountains with their high snowy peaks were revealed in all their glory. It was difficult to appreciate how much elevation the road had gained as I passed through the trees, so to find myself up amongst the mountaintops came as a real surprise. The final couple of miles along the pass were hard going. The open road meant that the summit could be seen from a long way off and the journey to get there seemed to take an age. At times like these, I tend to think of familiar roads back home, I had just two miles left to cycle, less than my commute to work each morning. I pictured myself leaving my front door, then rolling downhill to the roundabout, so it goes. I’m not sure if others share this strategy, but it certainly aids me when I start to tire. The road flattened off with about 100 meters to go, and I made a sprint finish final effort to reach the summit.

The view from atop the Jaufenpass. An enjoyable HC climb.

The view from atop the Jaufenpass. An enjoyable HC climb.

From the summit I could see Jos and Justin making their way upwards from a long way off, I tracked their progress as they drew ever closer. Jos had tagged along with a small group and as they approached the final turn and the100 meters sprint section, he was second wheel. He rode hard out of the saddle and by the time he reached the summit sign was a good 10 meters up on the other riders. Fun. Justin made it to the top a couple of minutes later, pain evident from his expression. The first HC climb of the day over, we put on our warm kit and descended the mountain to the town of San Leonardo in Passiria for lunch. 

San Leonardo

Descending to San Leonardo

Over a large sized bowl of pasta and a coke, we discussed the highs and lows of the trip so far. Recounting our experiences of the various passes, it was clear that things were starting to get muddled. After four consecutive days of riding and climbing mountains, I find this happens. Was that climb yesterday, or two days ago? The days all start to blur into one. Even a single day can seem like 2 or 3 rolled into one. Events of the morning can seem to be far removed from activities undertaken in the afternoon. This may sound strange, but it has also happened on all the other trips I’ve been on. Possibly, its due to everything being unknown, everything being new. In our day to day lives, we mostly know where and when we will go to sleep, where we will wake up, what we will have for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Life on the road is full of unknowns, each day an adventure, grasped tightly with both hands and lived to the fullest.

The next climb was one of the hardest on the route, another HC monster, the Timmelsjoch, 17 miles at an average gradient of 7%. Leaving the restaurant, we crossed the road and filled up our bottles at a water fountain. I made the mistake of only filling one bottle, the other was only about a quarter full. The climb began almost straight away. Back to back HC climbs in one day, this was going to be fun.

Josby and myself started the climb at a steady pace, occasionally attacking one other, mainly in jest, rather than a concerted effort to get away. Justin was soon far off the back, well out of sight due to all the hairpin bends. The peaks of the mountains could be seen far off in the distance, in the direction we were heading, the sky looked dark and ominous. We continued, switching on our rear lights as the daylight started to fade. The climb was impressive, with stunning scenery all around. We passed though a series of tunnels and over bridges, a slight drop, then a sharp incline. The course of the road could be picked out from far below, it may seem incredulous that you would be able to ascend to that height, but in less half an hour, there you were. I was starting to get thirsty; I had finished off one bottle, one was less than half full and we were still a long way from the top. I kept a look out for a water fountain, usually they were in plenteous supply, but here none were to be seen.

Cars and motorbikes approaching us had their lights turned on, a darkness descended over the mountain and a few spots of rain were felt in the air. At last a water fountain came into view, I pulled over, filled up my bidon and took a large drink. The water tasted strongly of iron and I spat most of it back out, the small amount I had swallowed left an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I poured the water away and we pushed on, I felt stupid that I had neglected to fill both bottles. A mile or so later, the slight drizzle became a light rain, then the light rain became heavier. We stopped to put on our lightweight rain jackets, more suited to a shower than anything substantial. We continued, the darkness grew, the rain became heavier still, the clouds began to descend. We were in trouble. Within a few minutes we were soaked through, the rain now falling as hail stones, bouncing off the road. It physically hurt when you got struck. Then, with clouds above us, below us and all around, there was a deep rumble of thunder. A storm was upon us. The thunder echoed all around the mountains, the awesome raw power of nature was about to be unleashed. Then, a bright flash of lightening, close by, very close by. The deafening electrical clap of the lightening made your heart skip a beat; you dreaded the next. Then came another deep rumble of thunder, another flash of lightening. Lightening flashed horizontally before our eyes, above us and below. We were cold, we were soaking, I had a belly filled with iron water, positively charged, this was scary, this was dangerous.

A dark thundering, flashing and crashing insanity which shocked the heart and startled the senses. Jos wholeheartedly shared my fears and as we struggled on side by side, we offered each other encouragement and moral support. I was glad to have him by my side; this onslaught would have been unbearable alone. My thoughts turned to Justin, somewhere far below, undoubtedly also being subjected to the same torment. I could not imagine how me must have felt. Onwards through the storm, for five slow miles, over half an hour, lightning bolts were thrown directly at us, booms of thunder rang in our ears. The Timmelsjoch was not a beast who would be conquered without a fight. Another series of tunnels came into view, we crept onwards, my resolution drawing thin, I drew upon Jos’s wry humour and good nature to keep me going. A group of motorcyclists approached us, what they must have thought as they passed us by, who knows, but one of them, dressed in fluorescent orange waterproofs, offered a thumbs up as he passed. A morale booster, how I needed it. A simple expression of encouragement, but offered at that moment when I needed it the most, it meant so much more.

Attached to the side of one of the tunnels, a blue sign read “Austria 1km,” we were almost there. The torrent started to abate, the dark clouds scattered as quickly as they had arrived and the thunder and lightning rolled off into the distance. I was thankful to be alive, that was the most terrifying experience I had ever been through on a bike, one which I hope never to repeat again. I thanked Jos for accompanying me through such an ordeal, our friendship had just been elevated another notch.

We reached the summit sign in sunshine and quickly put on what dry, warm clothing we had. We were cold and wet and needed to descend the mountain quickly. Taking a photo of the summit sign we chatted to another couple of cyclists who had ascended the mountain from the Austrian side. They had heard the thunder and had seen the flashes of lightening, but had escaped having to ride through it and were in disbelief that we had just managed to do so. They took off ahead of us, feeling numb with cold, a fast descent would have been dangerous and foolish, our fingers and hands weren’t quite up to any sudden braking and our shivering bodies made the bike difficult to control. The views during the descent were outstanding, and as cold as we were, I was compelled to stop a couple of times to take a photograph. The snow banks were stacked high along both sides of the road, the rain water and ice melt ran across the tarmac as if it were a black river, these were scenes which I may never have the fortune to encounter again and they deserved to be documented.

The Timmelsjoch. Terrifying up, freezing cold down. Living the extreme.

The Timmelsjoch. Terrifying up, freezing cold down. Living the extreme.

The temperate reading on my cycling computer slowly increased as we descended. Usually you start to feel the warmth as you lose elevation, today we were too cold to notice. The road had a slight uphill kick just prior to the Austrian border crossing, it was an arduous trial to crest the rise, we had had enough. We reached a junction and waited for Justin to arrive, uncertain if he would actually still be riding or not. After about five minutes he appeared, foregoing the stops to take a photo on the way down he had made up good time on us. The final part of the days riding was all easy downhill to the town of Solden where we booked a guesthouse and at last warmed up. The hot shower at the guesthouse was one of the best I have ever had!   

That evening we ate our pizza and chips and drank our beer sharing our reflections and our experiences of the climb. The Wales rating was settled on as a solid 4.7, hopefully nothing left on the route would challenge this.

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