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Austria & Italy (2010)

In June 2010, I cycle in Austria and Italy to prepare for the Marmotte. With peaks (Klammljoch, panoramic views of Dolomites, enthusiastic Italian cyclists, 13 summits) and lows (motor cyclists, flies). In nine days I cycle 800 km and 16,000 m up the mountains.

Day 1: Innsbruck > Wald im Pinzgau (108 km)

In the night train to Munich there is this lady from Ulm in the compartment travelling alone for the first time in her life - she is in her fifties. She is worrying about everything. I am glad when she gets out. In Munich I take the super slow Regiobahn to Innsbruck. The view from the window does not look too well: low clouds and drizzle. I arrive in Innsbruck around noon. A gentle man helps me finding my way to the Innradweg to the east. He tells about his cycling trip from Austria to Sicily, 20 years ago. At Wiesing I turn right to the Zillertal. The main road is quite busy, so I take secondary road to Zell am Ziller. The Zillertal is not of exceptional beauty. Obviously the main industry here is tourists: Familienhotels with indoor pools and giant slides, and huge chalets for winter sport and "active" summer vacation. It is pretty commercial around here.

The part from Zell am Ziller to the Gerlospass is wide and very boring. First I have to gain 400 m at 7 to 8%, next false flat to Gerlos, and 8% to a ski resort. Partly wearing rain clothes. Today's trip was supposed to offer beautiful sceneries, but due to the clouds I can hardly see the mountains. Snow is covering the ground from 1,300 m. On the summit (1,620 m) the temperature has dropped to 3 °C. After a 18 km long and freezing descent I see a camping at my left side. I am shivering when I enter the reception. The friendly camping boss cannot hide feeling sorry for this miserable guy and starts laughing. Whatever. First I take a shower to warm up. At the time I have spaghetti it is almost getting dark. I am happy with my new tent, a Hubba Hubba HP 1, even if it turns out to be twice as small as what I am used to.

Day 2: Wald im Pinzgau > Lienz (92 km)

During the first 25 km it is drizzling, but thereafter the rain coat can stay off. The Tauernradweg up to Mittersill exists of several detours, however, the alternative is the Bundesstrasse with the many fast driving vehicles. So what choice do I have? I get some sandwiches in Mittersil's Spar. Lots of bored youngsters hanging around here. After another 25 km I arrive in Bruck: the place where the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse starts. I have been looking forward to this high pass road for a long time: 14 km at an average of 10%. One of Europe's most difficult cols, a lot harder than the better known Tourmalet, Stelvio, Galibier or Timmelsjoch. Especially hard with luggage, so the conditions have to be perfect. But today the valley is covered by heavy clouds, with snow from 1,400 m. I expect the pass road to be closed, and even it is not, I think it is not wise to cycle in freezing temperatures for hours, followed by a long descent trying to steer and brake with ice-cold fingers. So thanks, but no.

This is when I decide to continue eastwards and take the train to the other side of the Tauern. And this is not such a bad idea. From Bruck the Tauernradweg follows small secondary roads, highly varied, sometimes very steep. Just to show my point: I ascend 600 m today in a downstream direction. The valley closes in: There is not much space for the Bundesstrasse, secondary road, rail road and river. Deep down I can see groups rafting. At Schwarzbach Bahnhof the train running information is miserable. There is no map and all desks are closed. Poor service! I buy a ticket to Lienz via Spittal, jump into the Intercity and head for the tunnel under the Tauern Massive. It is late when I arrive at the camping in Lienz, and although I am short of money to pay for the night, the gentle camping owner lady says it is okay. The luxury shower facilities are located in the basement of a recently renovated villa, with German covers of Sky Radio music songs. I feel at home.

Day 3: Lienz > San Lorenzo di Sebato (82 km)

All over Europe the Dutch retirees are camping, i.e. with their travel trailers. This also the case in Lienz. Most of them are looking bored. Couples have nothing to say to each other. Routine dictates the day. Highlight are the walks to the toilet block. Quite sad. But then there is this guy on a cycle pitching his tent... The men drop by for a chat (the women stay in the trailer). And when you talk to your countrymen it is not hard to come up with a common contact; it is a small world.

From Lienz I go north west on a perfectly constructed cycling lane along Bundesstrasse 108. The head wind is fierce. Close to a beautiful castle ruin I notice a man and woman using the scythe - it is hay time. The man says that there is strong north wind here in the valley if it is raining at the other side of the Tauern. He is correct, I was there yesterday. At Huben I turn left into the Defereggental. The first few km are steep, 10% on average, thereafter several steep parts in tunnels, and 12% from Mariahilf onwards, with long stretches of false flat in between. The back wind helps me through. The valley itself is neither spectacular nor spoiled. At Erlsbach the bottles are empty, so I ask a local man for a refill. I can tap some water and next I ask him if he thinks the gravel road to the Klammjoch is feasible for me. For a long time he remains silent, but in the end he confirms. So the Klammljoch is what I am heading for.

After a short while I leave the main road going to the Stallersattel (2,052 m) and turn right, in the direction of the Klammljoch (2.288 m). The tarmac road becomes very steep after a few km, 10-20% on average. Just at the moment I start asking myself whether I took the right decision, a small tractor comes from behind. The driver is the man who gave me the water just before. He says he has to drop something down (or actually: up) the road and wishes me good luck. The road surface turns abruptly into gravel, but becomes less steep at the same time. At Oberhaus is a café with terrace, and the driver of the tractor is looking out for me. What a caring guy. I make a picture of him and continue my journey. The road quality deteriorates, but there not a single moment I get into trouble. At this part of the road only local and construction traffic are allowed. It is not busy here. For two hours I only encounter a dozen hikers, a few mountain bikers and one car.

The upper part of the valley is very beautiful, I can recommend it to everybody. Lots of green meadows and snow, and on a remote spot I see a couple of houses. The road continues to climb. It is only in the last few kilometers that the pass reveals its exact location, and it is not before 6 pm when I get there. It is completely desolate up here. The view of the Italian side is splendid, with dark clouds in the evening sun.

The quality of the gravel road (with a lot of hairpins) is quite good, but the gutters that they have dug every 30 m or so make me crazy. From the lovely located Knutten-Alm the tarmac roads starts again. After Rein in Taufers the road goes very steep down along a rough mountain stream. Ascending the Klammljoch is definitively not easy from this side. The main road from Campo to Bruneck is broad, busy and false flat. In Bruneck I cannot find a camping. Fortunately Google on the smart phone helps me out: there is a camping nearby in San Lorenzo. The camp site a bit dull but why would I bother. It is almost dark when I have dinner. It has been a beautiful day.

Day 4: San Lorenzo di Sebato > Cortina (94 km)

After visiting Bruneck's mega large Spar I go via the old center to the east in search for the regional cycle route. This route is easily found and perfectly constructed. Partly unpaved along the river, partly following narrow secondary roads. Often gentle climbs, sometimes a very steep one. I miss a sign somewhere which makes me cycle the wrong way - 100 m up for nothing. But there are worse things in life. Like "sweat flies" attacking me almost continuously from the moment I leave Prags and start climbing to Platzwiesen. It is hot and windless, and if these little bitches smell a passing-by sweating human being they attack at once. Dozens of flies compete to get the best spot on my body, and the rest is swarming around me. When I look over my shoulder I see even more stalkers. When I have a speed of 15 km/h I can stay ahead of the flies, but I can only get rid of them by cycling faster than km/h for several hundred m.

At Brücken the road is closed to most motorized vehicles; only coaches and bicyclists are allowed to use the last 6 km of the road to Platzwiezen.  The first part in the woods without view of the surrounding landscape is pretty boring. The last 1.5 km to Platzwiesen (2,040 m) is very steep. But the reward is the view on top: green meadows and beautiful mountains. Lots of day-trippers up here. I buy a large coke in the mountain hut and start the descent. The eastern approach to Platzwiesen is in bad condition: while roughly 25% is paved and 10% is gravel but okay, the remaining 65% is 100% awful. I bump over the rocky road and get cramps in my hands due to the frequent braking.

From Schluderbach (1,430 m) I take the wide road to Misurina, and enter Italian-speaking area. The 300 m height difference are easy, although I can feel little cramps in my left upper leg. Must be the nerves, because the severe climb to Tre Cime is waiting for me: 7 km of which two-thirds at an average of 10 to 15%. Quite difficult, especially considering the 1,700 height meters I have done so far today. Before I start the climb I put away the front and rear panniers at a house near the junction. The toll road is well constructed with a lot of wide hairpins some of which are extreme steep (up to 20%!). On the summit (2,333 m) I am happy to enjoy one of the most spectacular views of the Alps. I can see lots of these typically shaped mountains that make the Dolomites so special.

Before I can go down to Cortina I have to gain 150 m in height to reach the summit of the Passo tre Croci, which is easier said than done if the legs hurt. The descent that follows is simple. In Cortina finding the camping is a challenge; the lobby of the local hotels has successfully managed to prevent signs referring to campings. But they cannot fool me: I have Google on the phone, hence the camp site is localized within minutes. Camping Rocchetta is a very nice place to stay, with lots of shade, lots of tents, hardly any trailers, good music (blues, Bruce Springsteen) in the toilet block, and a very gentle boss. I am very satisfied about today: I have cycled a beautiful route with panoramic views and broke my "difference in height day record" (i.e. with luggage).

Day 5: Cortina > Bellamonte (84 km)

I take the busy R48 to the west and arrive in no time at the junction to the Passo di Giau. On the Michelin map this pass road is indicated narrow and looks attractive, but in real it is wide. Although the road is well constructed and has lots of curves, the view is disappointing due to the many trees. Which is, I realize, a disadvantage of cycling the relatively low passes of the Dolomites. Les Grandes Cols in the French Alps offer better views. The last 7.5 km to the summit are steep, with 640 m difference in height to gain.

When I finally get there (2,233 m) I wonder if this is "Motor Mecca": a gathering of numerous German and some Austrian and Italian motor cyclists. On a half-empty terrace I wait for someone to take the order but no one waitress showing up. Must be the infamous Italian service attitude. So I continue my journey without the "summit coke". Wow, this descent is incredible! I count more than 35 hairpins before reaching Caprila. The head wind makes the following Cancenighe Agordino (773 m). When my stomach starts crying for food I decide to eat my last bread rolls, next to the lovely lake near Alleghe.

I buy another can of coke in a café and turn right in the direction of Falcade. This valley is not very special, there is but one nice view of a sub valley. At Cavida the road is very steep, as is the bit after Falcade. And also the road to the Passo di Valles is quite demanding, almost continuously 10%. The combination of the steepness, the long straight parts of the road, the lack of views and wind, and the still high temperature makes the pass a tough challenge. I am relieved to reach the top. No spectacular view here. I had planned to make a detour to the Passo di Rolle from here, which is supposed to offer one of the Dolomites' most beautiful mountains (Pale di San Martino). But it is too late by now to do the 300 m unpaved climbing. Too bad, I will save this for later. I go down quickly to the nice camping at Bellamonte (which is, by the way, full of mosquitoes).

Day 6: Bellamonte > Weissenbach (111 km)

After I have bought groceries at the local Coöp, I start the descent to Predazzo (1,018 m). There is a long queue both ways due to road construction works, which I can pass smoothly. One of the few occasions cyclists are faster than car drivers. In Predazzo I get some cash from the ATM. The owner of the bank walks to me, points at my Avaghon and asks if it is a bicycle or a car. 'None of them' I answer, 'It is a tank'. The man cannot imagine me cycling through the mountains with all this luggage.

I take the excellent cycling path to Moena, followed by the regular road. A bunch of friendly Italian racing cyclists from Napoli catch up and I manage to follow them for miles. At Pozza I turn left to the Karerpass. This is a very dull road, sometimes steep parts, but not very hard in the end. On top (1,745 m) are many hotels – this is a ski area. I turn right to the Nigerpass (1,688 m). Actually this is not a pass at all, but mild false flat down. The first few km the wide road is not exciting, but then after a while I can see beautiful mountain on the right (Rosengarten), and on my left panoramic views up to the Austrian Alps. Descending the Nigerpass is a serious business. It starts with 15%, there is a bit of 20% half-way down in the village of Tiers, and from Blumeau the descent to the 500 m lower situated main valley is a matter of just a few minutes.

In this main valley from Brixen to Bolzano, the river, highway, regional road, rail road, and cycling path all bend through the narrow valley. The cycle path is of excellent quality. At one point I ride in an obsolete 500 m long tunnel with only a narrow tarmac cycle path. In the outskirts of Bolzano works of art are standing and hanging along the cycle route. It makes me happy. I am less happy about the temperature: over 30°C. In the picturesque city center of Bolzano I buy bananas and liters of liquid at the Spar. From the Rathausplatz I follow a narrow and winding road up north to Valle Sarentina. The first half of this long-stretched valley is scarcely inhabited and peculiarly narrow with lots of nets on the rocky cliffs to prevent lose stones tumble down. I count 20 tunnels in the first 10 km. Given this sultry weather these tunnels are more than welcome to me.

After the last tunnel the rough and narrow Valle Sarentina changes into the more friendly and wide Val di Pennes. Farmers are taking the hay off their lands everywhere, apparently there is a thunderstorm approaching. But fortunately for me there is neither thunder nor rain today. Since there is no camp site in the valley and I  do not feel like camping wild after ore than 100 km, I search for a cheap hotel. I find one (type: faded glory) in Weissenbach (aka Riobianco, 1,330 m) and prepare pasta and tea in the hotel room. Tomorrow I will finish the Penserjoch.

Day 7: Weissenbach > Salthaus (79 km)

What a luxury: the entire breakfast room for myself! I eat more than usual and begin cycling at 9 am. The Penserjoch has a nice height profile: the further you are, the steeper it gets. In the first 6 km from Weissenbach just 4% (to warm-up), next 3 km 7.5% (not too hard) and the remaining 5 km to the summit nearly 10% (pretty tough). The upper part of the pass road is quite nice actually, with the road straight as a line through the big green ridges. It shares similarities with the Cime de la Bonette. The only disturbing thing are the numerous motor cycles. I notice that the early risers drive relaxed and enjoy the landscape, while the late sleepers are racing as if it were a competition. The second category should be banned. On the summit (2,215 m) a local cycle racer and former motor cyclists shares with me his irritation: 'Vor allem die Österreichischer Motorfahrer sind schlimm'.

The descent is long and with a lot of bends, and fun to do. Unfortunately there is this Italian senior in front of me in his BMW. He is cutting the corners, thereby barely missing upcoming traffic several times. Obviously he has the memory of a goldfish. And it is a widely accepted fact that goldfishes cannot drive a vehicle.

Then off to the Jauffenpass, with 7.5% on average during 15 km not particularly difficult. In theory. But in practice, with the heat and the lack of wind it is. It is "sweat fly" time again. I am cycling for a few hours with a cloud of these little bitches on and around me. And there is nothing what I can do about it. I sincerely feel sorry for these poor kids in Africa who face this inconvenience every day of their life. Other pass roads allow for some distraction by offering nice views, but the Jauffenpass is almost completely located in the woods. I cannot recommend this pass.

On the summit (2,099 m) I buy myself a coke and enjoy the better view on the other side. The descent is going perfect until I see a sign "bad road surface" and shortly thereafter I ride in a hole and my right front pannier falls off. With a car driving close behind me this could have ended badly. I hate these miserable Ortlieb pannier hooks. In Iceland the front panniers also did not hold. I wonder why the local authorities put energy in putting down this warning sign these instead of repairing the road right away. The camping in Saltaus (335 m) is far more attractive on their website than in reality. Just grass and gravel strips and hardly any shade.

Day 8: Salthaus > Umhausen (86 km)

By nature I am not a early riser, but today I get out of my sleeping bag at 6.30 am. After having experienced the heat on the Jauffenpass I decided that it is wise to do the lower part of the pass road, which is located in the woods, in the morning. At 7.15 am I leave the camp site and half an hour later I have breakfast in St. Leonhard. My stomach cannot process the multi-grain rolls I bought yesterday in the Spar. I will never buy these again.

Until Moos the climb is moderate, but then it starts out well. Via a series of hairpins and steep parts (sometimes 10 to 15%) I gain altitude fast. For the next 5 km the road goes in northern direction through several tunnels, and becomes easier with 7 to 8%. Except for a few houses next to the road and a village deep down, the valley is nearly uninhabited. Far away, still more than 15 km to go, I can see the summit of the Timmelsjoch. After Corvara the road gets easier so I can breathe again. Italian race cyclists overhaul me regularly, thereby pointing at my panniers and shout 'Ciao' or 'Complimenti'. One of these guys wants to make a photograph of us together. I really like this. So different from the sour faces of the Swiss and Austrian riders I have seen so far.

Some 8 km before the summit the upper valley makes a T-split. The main road bends to the left and gets nasty: 11% for 2 km, a bit false flat, and 10% for 3 km. Quite tough I must admit. What stimulates though is the lay-out of the road: narrow and lots of "real" hairpins to gain altitude on the steep side of the mountain. Similar to the classic eastern approach of the Stelvio. No buses allowed here. A woman on a racing bike catches up ('Respect!') and we have a chat. Meanwhile my stomach starts hurting, must be the multi-grain rolls. Come on, hold on. From the dark, wet and 500 m long tunnel up the mountain I enter Austria. At the other side of the tunnel the landscape is high alpine for several miles. The summit (2,474 m) is within reach now. Up there I continue down right away. After a few km the road starts going up again, I have to climb 150 m to Hochgurgl. I had not expected this after 2 km of climbing.

My plan was to pitch the tent in Sölden but the camping in this horrible ski resort is worthless. Actually, the whole upper part of the Ötztal is spoiled by all these ski resorts, ski lifts and secondary roads. I continue through the much more beautiful middle part of the Ötztal. Although it is false flat down cycling takes a lot of effort due to the strong north wind. When I have completed the 25 km from Sölden to Umhausen I can finally pitch the tent. After such a long day I allow myself not to cook and to buy Wiener Schnitzel with fries instead. And a large glass of beer of course.

Day 9: Umhausen > Innsbruck (65 km)

The weather continues to be sunny and warm. I get on the bicycle, get some food and milk at the M-Preis supermarket and head for the town of Ötz. The pass road to Kühtai immediately starts with 10% and brings me through the outskirts up the hill. Next the road follows a mountain stream in a green valley to the east. It is a sultry day, only the water stream provides some cooling. The slope is irregular: sometimes 5% and next parts 10-13%. Half way, in Ochsengartenwald, I order a large coke. This gives me so much energy I hardly have to halt again, not even after a part of 800 m with 15% on average. I yell to the workers at that steep spot that they do not do a proper job because they make the road too steep. But then they reply 'Doch, das ist für die Radfahrer zum trainieren.' What can I say.

After a few more short climbs and a basin I arrive at the pass height (2,017 m). Until now the boring valley was scarcely inhabited, except for a few cows and horses. But up here I am quite shocked about what I look at: Kühtai is an excess of terribly ugly ski hotels (type: French ski resort) spoils the entire area. Let's get out of here as fast as I can. According to the slope profile I have the north-eastern approach of the pass should be easier than the west side, but I still have to use the breaks a lot.

When I enter the Inn valley only 10 km separate me from Innsbruck. I would like to take a shower before I get in the train. In the little town of Völs I ask the owner of the camping (also owner of a Porche Cayenne) politely if I can use the shower (for a fee) he simply declines: 'Es ist leider nicht möglich, nur fur Gäste die zwei, drei Tagen bleiben. Wir sind eine Familiencamping und haben in den letzten 50 Jahr noch niemand nur zu duschen gehabt. Est ist nichts persönliches. Gute Reise. Und viel glück mit dem Holländischen Mannschaft' (referring to the World Championships Soccer 2010). What a fascist, and what a hypocritical way of saying that he detests my kind of people. Anyway, the clock is ticking so I keep going to Innsbruck station. In the men's room I can refresh a little. What remains is the slow train to Munich and the night train with a too small "bed" to the Netherlands.

Statistics

- Day 1: Innsbruck > Wald im Pinzgau (distance 108 km / climbing 1,150 m)
- Day 2: Wald im Pinzgau > Lienz (92 km / 620 m)
- Day 3: Lienz > San Lorenzo di Sebato (82 km / 1,785 m)
- Day 4: San Lorenzo di Sebato > Cortina (94 km / 2,585 m)
- Day 5: Cortina > Bellamonte (84 km / 2,441 m)
- Day 6: Bellamonte > Weissenbach (111 km / 1,952 m)
- Day 7: Weissenbach > Salthaus (79 km / 2,013 m)
- Day 8: Salthaus > Umhausen (86 km / 2,200 m)
- Day 9: Umhausen > Innsbruck (65 km / 1,233 m)

Epilogue

After one rest day at home I drive the car to Bourg-Oisans, to a camping at the start of the road to L'Alpe d'Huez. My objective is to finish the Marmotte, a 176 km cycling tour including the Glandon, Telegraphe, Galibier and L'Alpe d'Huez. On my first day there I cycle up the Croix-Fer. On the second day I do nothing but relax; further training adds nothing after my tour in the Dolomites.

Then the big day, on Saturday July 3. I start just before 8 am and finish after ten hours and 40 minutes (not including the descent of the Glandon). Just ten minutes short of silver, but I made it, and that was my objective.

The Marmotte is very demanding due to the high temperature today. For a long while I am doing well. I am being overhauled quite frequently  but I pass a lot of people as well especially on the steeper parts. It is only at the foot of L'Alpe d'Huez that I become sick and energy level drops. It costs me two hours to cycle the 14 km. Without cramp, without vomiting and without walking. With hindsight I should not have relayed on the poor food supply by the Marmotte organization, and instead should have taken more bananas and croissants with me. That way I would have been able to maintain a steady energy supply during the day.

During the last few km I decide this is the one and only time I will ever take part in such a ridiculous event. Next morning, in the car back to the Netherlands I have forgotten everything and put the Marmotte on the 2012 calendar. New objective: one hour faster!