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Salzburg to Milan 2019. Day 3, Huben to Brixen

Austria Furkel Pass Italy Staller pass Wurzjoch

85 miles. 11000 ft of climbing.

Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/2472029390

Breakfast at 8, lots of toast, lots of cereal, lots of coffee. There was a group of Czechoslovakian bodybuilders staying at the guesthouse, each one well over 6-foot-tall and probably weighing around 20 stone apiece, they were proper man mountains. We ate them under the table, a bottomless thirst and hunger upon us.

The day was bright and warm. Not a cloud in the sky, perfect cycling weather. After the previous night’s poor sleep, I had managed to sleep well, and this morning felt fresh and ready for the day ahead. Justin walked about with his hands clutching his side, a constant expression of immense pain upon his face. Josby and I did our best to lighten the mood. Three steep climbs lay ahead of us. It was going to be a long, hard day.

We checked out, packed up our bikes, gave them a little dust off and ensured everything was still working ok, then set off. The ride started at the bottom of a climb, the Staller pass. There was a fair ramp almost straight out of the guesthouse, we climbed almost 200 meters in just 2 miles. The road then evened off as we eased into the climb proper. What followed was possibly the most enjoyable hour I have ever ridden on the bike. The combination of feeling on good form, the weather and the amazing mountain scenery all fitted together so well, a perfect assembly, I rode in awe of all around me. I took many pictures on the way up the climb, each one fit for an alpine calendar or a chocolate box, but even though I can look back at these photos and recall the scenery, so much else is lost. The amazing feeling the cool clean crisp mountain air filling your lungs and enlivening all your senses. The smell of the pine forests, the alpine flowers and grass meadows. The sounds of the birds singing in the high trees, their song joyful, giving thanks for being alive and celebrating the joy which life brings. The immense power of the sound of the river as it tumbled down the valley, playfully crashing over rocks and down waterfalls. I climbed the mountain as if floating in a cloud, it was a wonderous experience.

Approaching the summit, slightly ahead of the others I was drawn to stop at a viewpoint and take a moment to fully capture these images and emotions in my mind. Justin and Jos soon caught up; they could see from my beaming smile that I was having a great time. It was plain to see that Justin was not wholly sharing my enthusiasm.

Scenes from the Staller Pass. I loved it!

Scenes from the Staller Pass. I loved it!

We climbed the remainder of the mountain pass together, having a good chat about the planned route for the rest of the day. This climb was a joy, the payback was that the next two climbs sounded horrific. At the top of the pass was a picturesque lake with a restaurant, we were tempted to stop, if it were not for all the tourists in their motorcars and the pressure of pushing on. Just past the lake, at the top of the pass, we entered Italia.

The summit was busy with tourists, parked cars and motorbikes. We didn’t linger for long, just long enough to apply a gilet, a pair of arm-warmers and get a shot of the summit sign before commencing the enjoyable twisty, technical descent.

Staller Pass

Staller Pass

At the bottom of the climb we stopped for an ice-cream, a quick coffee and some more delicious apfelstrudel, this time baked with sultans and pine nuts. We were starting to become aficionados; it was certainly a welcome change from the standard beans on toast we were accustomed to back home.

Post café, the rest of the descent was on a wide smooth road. An almost perfect piece of tarmac leading us up to the second climb of the day, the Furkel Pass. A 5-mile, 8% average gradient climb with an elevation gain of over 2000 feet. We stopped off in the village of Valdaora at the foot of the pass, to replenish our water bottles at a fountain before hitting the climb proper. Justin immediately fell off the back, taking the climb at his own pace was a necessity, it was going to be a testing day, without the added element of a broken and battered body to contend with. He had mentioned back at the café that he could hold the wheel on the flat sections, and even push hard on the shallow gradients, but on any steep section of road, any attempt to get out of the saddle brought with it an immense agony. I did not envy him one bit, and to this day am still amazed that he actually managed to keep going.

Ski-school

Ski-school

Josby was coming into form, his legs spinning almost twice as fast as mine as we began the steep final section of the climb. A punishing 3 miles with an average gradient of 9%. Passing through the pine forest, breathing in that lush clean cool air, I decided to push on ahead to test his legs. He answered. I pushed on again. Again, he replied to the challenge. Then came the turning of the screw, I jumped out of the saddle and began to dance on the pedals, no looking back, no prisoners taken. I hit the summit over two and a half minutes ahead, long enough to quickly put on my gilet and arm-warmers and act cool, like I had made it to the summit a good 5 minutes before. We chatted about the climb, the tough final section, we chatted about the climb yet to come, could Justin even make it to the end of the day? Justin arrived 4 minutes later, stoic.

Three long steep climbs in a single day is tough going, not only is it physically draining, but it’s also difficult to get the feeding right. Stop for a large lunch and feel bloated for part of the day, or make two short snack stops and lose a fair chunk of time. Travelling as light as we could, we didn’t really have any snacks in our packs, and being a Sunday the few shops which we did pass were closed. We were low on energy and low on water when we made it to the foot of climb number three, the Wurzjoch. Most of the climbs in the Tirol region of Italy have both Italian and Austrian names, for this particular monster, I preferred the Austrian moniker.

It was a relatively short descent before we reached the pretty town of San Martin de Tor, complete with its very own castle. It is a town surrounded by pristine picture postcard mountains, a very popular destination for hikers, and as we passed through the town and hit the beginning of the climb, it was clear to see why.

The start of the climb was a very steep ramp, up to 13% gradient. I was soon out of the saddle and pushing as hard as I could, feeling a little lightheaded from a lack of fuel. I stopped to take some pictures of a pack of lamas grazing in a field as Justin and Jos pushed on. By the time I caught up with them, the open picturesque first steep section of the climb was almost at an end, but more was yet to come.

Half way up the climb, you are treated to a downhill section. We descended for almost two miles, dishearteningly losing a large chunk of the elevation we had worked so hard to gain. When we reached the point where the climb did ramp up again, we stopped and evaluated the road ahead. The road twisted steeply up the mountainside ahead of us. On a good day the challenge would have been relished. Today, not so. It was stiflingly hot, we were tired, our legs were tired, Justin was in a great deal of pain. Jos and myself offered to carry his bags, anything to lighten the load, but Justin declined. Four miles of wooded twists and turns lay ahead of us, the gradient at points reaching over a gruelling 14%. “I can do it, but I’ll have to tackle it in stages,” was Justin’s evaluation. We decided to break the final section of the climb up into three manageable parts, resting twice before hitting the summit. This was by far the hardest day so far on the trip.

We crept upwards, mountain bikers overtook us, I would have usually sprung out of the saddle and attacked, my power levels running low, I let them have their moment of glory. We stopped and rested on a bench; Justin declined to sit down. “If I sit down, I have to stand up again, and that hurts!” This was an ordeal. We pushed on again, hard times on the bike will make you stronger. Survive this and you can survive anything. This was the mantra as we inched along. Another stop, as the afternoon was drawing on, the traffic on the road had quietened. It was peaceful, we were alone amongst the birdsong and the gently swaying pines. Myself and Jos took in the dappled sunlight and the scenery. Justin was elsewhere, somewhere dark. Five minutes rest, we pushed on again, rolling slowly along, silently counting out each pedal stroke one at a time, one less to go till we reached the summit.

Wurzjoch

Wurzjoch

The road opened out, the brown road sign marking the summit came into sight. We crossed the line together. That was tough. The rest of the day was a comparatively easy ride, just 20 more miles to go, almost entirely downhill. We made a brief café/ice cream stop before pushing on to the town of Brixen, our overnight stop. We found a decent hotel within the pretty old part of the town and flopped down at a table in the shaded hotel courtyard. The hotel owner must have been slightly shocked to see three such wild eyed, almost wrecked cyclists pass through his door. We ordered a round of beers, then another, then another, all complimented by large bowls of crisps which we demolished like savages. We were revived. We showered, our kit was washed and hung out to dry. That night we ate well, pizza and chips and beer. A recurring theme. Goodnight.  

Wurzjoch

Atop the Wurzjoch. Tough day.

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