In preparation for the Marmotte in the French Alps, in June 2010 I cycle over various mountain passes in Austria and Italy. The trip offers peaks (Klammljoch, views of the Dolomites, enthusiastic Italian cyclists, thirteen peaks) and lows (motorcyclists, flies). In nine days’ time, I cover 800 kilometers and climb about 16,000 meters.
Day 1: Innsbruck > Wald im Pinzgau (108 km)
I travel by night train to Munich and from there I take the super slow Regiobahn to Innsbruck. In Bavaria the view from the window doesn’t bode well: low clouds and drizzle. I arrive in Innsbruck at twelve o’clock. I have to find out where the Innradweg leads to the east. Luckily a nice man, who cycled from Austria to Sicily twenty years ago, points the way. At Wiesing I turn right, into the Zillertal. I don’t have to take the busy main road here all the time, but I can mostly take village and rural roads to Zell am Ziller. The Zillertal is not beautiful by the way: everywhere I see family hotels (with indoor swimming pools – even with a giant slide) and other large chalets for winter sports. It is very commercial here.
The stretch from Zell am Ziller to the Gerlos Pass is wide and super boring. First, I have to climb 400 meters at 7 to 8%, followed by a piece of false flat to Gerlos, and then 8% up to a ski area. It is becoming very cloudy. Not being able to see the surroundings doesn’t really motivate. From 1,300 m there is snow. On top of the pass road (1,620 m) it is only 3 °C and it rains. After an eighteen-kilometer long, ice-cold descent I see a campsite on my left. I am shivering when I arrive at the reception. The friendly camping lady laughs at the pile of misery in front of her. First, I take a shower and warm up. It’s getting dark when I finally sit in my new tent with a plate full of spaghetti. That tent, a Hubba Hubba HP 1, is twice as small as what I am used to, so a bit claustrophobic.
Day 2: Wald im Pinzgau > Lienz (92 km)
Today I first cycle some fifty kilometers on the Tauernradweg to Bruck. According to my plan there I can continue on the Hochalpenstrasse. I have been looking forward to this for a long time: the fourteen kilometers long climb at 10% on average is one of Europe’s most difficult pass roads, harder than, for example, the Tourmalet, Stelvio, Galibier or Timmelsjoch. Unfortunately today it is heavily cloudy and there lies snow from an altitude of 1,400 m. If expect it’s snowing up there; the pass road will probably be closed. But even if the pass is open, I don’t feel like cycling in the freezing cold for hours, let alone the long descent with cold fingers.
In short, I cycle on through the main valley to take the train to the south a bit further on. And that plan works out quite well. The Tauernradweg goes from Bruck over small country roads, which are varied and sometimes very steep. And even I’m cycling downstream today, I’m still climbing more than 600 meters. After a while the wide valley becomes narrow: Bundesstrasse, the local road, the railway and the river are wriggling their way through the canyon. Down in the depths I notice groups of rafters.
At the Schwarzbach train station I try to find information about the train journey to the south. But there is no overview map and ticket offices are closed. How inconvenient! I buy a ticket to Lienz via Spittal, and exchange the bad weather on the north side of the Tauerngebirge for the beautiful weather on the other side. At the campground in Lienz I’m short of money for a camping spot, but the nice lady doesn’t think that’s a problem. On the campground there is a renovated country house with underneath first-class sanitary facilities. I take a shower while listening to German covers of Sky Radio music songs.
Day 3: Lienz > San Lorenzo di Sebato (82 km)
All over Europe, Dutch pensionados are on the road with their caravans. So also here on the Lienz campsite. Most of them are looking a bit bored. Couples have nothing left to tell each other, and boredom is only interrupted by agonizingly slow walks to the toilet block. Pretty sad when you think about it. When you stand between them as a cyclist with your tiny tent, the men (the women stay in the caravan) come by spontaneously for a chat. Well, that’s nice. And to our surprise we even have a common acquaintance, because after all, the Netherlands remains a small country.
Anyway, from Lienz I start to cycle on a well-constructed bike path along Bundesstrasse 108 to the northwest. There I face a very strong headwind. At a beautiful ruin a couple is haying with scythes. The man tells that the wind is always fierce when it is raining on the north side of the Tauern. I can confirm this, because I cycled there yesterday. At Huben I turn left, into the Defereggental. It’s quite demanding with a climbing average of 10% in the first couple of kilometers, followed by several steep parts in tunnels and galleries, and from Mariahilf also 12%, although there are also long stretched of false flat. Luckily I have tail wind from now on. The valley is not so spectacular.
At Erlsbach the bottles are empty and I tap water at a local’s house. I ask if the unpaved Klammjoch pass road can actually be cycled. After a lot of thinking he says “yes”, so I’ll take my chances. Shortly after that I no longer follow the main road to the Stallersattel (2,052 m), but instead turn right towards the higher Klammljoch. The road is quite steep for a few kilometers, on average 10-20%. As soon as I start to wonder if the Klammljoch was such a good decision, a small tractor comes from behind with on it the friendly man who has just given me water. He says he has to transport something, wishes me good luck and drives on. By now the road is unpaved, but it is easy to ride. Near Oberhaus there is a café with a terrace, and there the man with the tractor looks out for me. How thoughtful! I take a picture of him and continue my cycling trip.
The quality of the road becomes a bit poorer, but never becomes really difficult. Only local motorized vehicles are allowed here, and besides a dozen hikers, a couple of mountain bikers and a single car driver, I don’t encounter anyone for the next couple of hours. From now on the valley is very beautiful: highly recommended! There are many green pastures and I can see fresh snow on the mountain sides. The track goes higher and higher along the mountainside, but it’s only during the last few kilometers that I can actually see the pass. It takes until 6 pm before I reach the deserted Klammljoch (2,288 m). From there I enjoy the view of the beautiful mountains and threatening clouds in the evening light on the Italian side.
Descending on the gravel road, with its many hairpin bends, goes unexpectedly well. Only the gutters that they have dug every thirty meters drive me crazy. Near the beautifully situated Knutten-Alm I reach the tarmac again. After Rein in Taufers I plunge into a very steep descent along the wild mountain stream; from this side the climb of the Klammljoch is certainly not a piece of cake. From Campo to Bruneck I descent mostly false flat between the busy traffic. I don’t see a campsite in Bruneck itself, but fortunately Google on the phone offers a solution, and in the nearby town of San Lorenzo I do find a camping spot. Again, I eat my meal in the dusk.
Day 4: San Lorenzo di Sebato > Cortina (94 km)
After a visit to Bruneck’s mega-sized Spar, I cycle through the old town to the east in search of the cycling route. The bike path turns out to be very well constructed, and goes partly unpaved along the river, and partly on narrow agricultural roads. As soon as I cycle from Prags to Platzwiesen, “sweat flies” start to spoil my good mood. It’s warm and windless, and when those little bitches smell a sweating person passing by slowly, they strike without mercy. Dozens of flies try to get a spot on my body, while the rest keeps swarming around me. When I look over my shoulder, I see many more. I quickly find out that can stay ahead of them from fifteen kilometers per hour, but they only stop at 20 kilometers per hour. And this speed is quite a challenge when ascending.
During the last six kilometers from Brücken to Platzwiesen only buses and cyclists are allowed. The last 1.5 kilometers to Platzwiesen are extremely steep. From there (2,040 m), the view of striking Dolomite peaks is extraordinary! I drink a large coke on the terrace of a restaurant and then I start the descent on a mostly bad road. I bounce a lot and get cramps in my hands from constantly squeezing the brake levers.
From Schluderbach (1,430 m) I continue on a wide road to Misurina and enter the Italian-speaking part of the region. I cover the 300 meters’ difference in altitude quite easily, although I sometimes feel cramps developing in my left upper leg. Maybe I’m just nervous for the hard climb to Tre Cime: seven kilometers long, two-thirds of which are between 10 and 15% on average. Normally this is quite difficult, but in this case I have already climbed 1700 meters. At the foot of this climb I leave my front and back bags at a house and start climbing. It is a beautifully constructed toll road, with many wide hairpin bends, which are sometimes extremely steep (up to 20%). At the end of the road (2,333 m) I enjoy one of the most beautiful views of the Alps.
Then back down to the Passo tre Croci. From that’s just 150 meters of climbing, but the cycling doesn’t go very smoothly anymore. The descent to Cortina is simple. In this very touristic city it is difficult to find the campsite; the local hotel lobby has apparently managed to keep all the road signs to campsites outside the town center. Fortunately Google on the phone helps me out to locate the campsite. Camping Rocchetta is a really nice location, with plenty of shelter, lots of tents and few caravans, nice music (blues, Bruce Springsteen) in the sanitary building and a very friendly camping boss. I can be satisfied about today: I have cycled a beautiful route with beautiful views and have broken my cycling holiday climbing day record.
Day 5: Cortina > Bellamonte (84 km)
I take the busy R48 to the west and ride to the exit to the Passo di Giau. On the Michelin map this pass road looks attractively narrow, but in reality the road is wide. The road is quite steep, with an elevation 640 meters in the last 7.5 kilometers. Unfortunately, the many trees prevent me from seeing much of the surroundings. The relatively low summits are the disadvantage of the pass roads in the Dolomites. For those who prefer the wide views I recommend the high cols in the French Alps.
On top of the Passo di Giau (2,233 m) I end up on a Sammelplatz for the many German, Austrian and Italian motorcyclists. I’m waiting for a while on a half empty terrace, but the waiters neglect me. So I change my routine and descent without a coke. And what a super descent this is! Up to Caprile I count more than 35 hairpin bends. The part down to Cancenighe Agordino (773 m) turns out difficult because of the strong south wind. I even get hungry and next to the beautiful lake near Alleghe I eat my last sandwiches.
I get a can of coke in a café and turn right into the road to Falcade. This valley is not so special, apart from a single view of a beautiful side valley. At Cavida the road becomes very steep, just like the part after Falcade. The road to the Passo di Valles I also have to climb quite a bit, with the gradient quite constantly at around 10%Added to this the long straight stretches, the wind, the still high temperature, and the lack of view make this not very easy. Therefore I am relieved to arrive at the Passo di Valles (2,033 m). Should I mention that spectacular views are absent here as well? Anyway, according to plan I would now take a détour to the Passo di Rolle, where the road leads along one of the most beautiful mountains (Pale di San Martino) of the Dolomites. But it has become simply too late to climb another 300 meters on an unpaved road. Too bad. I quickly descend to the beautifully situated and mosquito-filled campsite of Bellamonte.
Day 6: Bellamonte > Weissenbach (111 km)
After shopping at the local Coop I descend further to Predazzo (1,018 m). Here a man comes approaches me, points at the bike and asks if it is a car. I answer “Neither, it’s a tank.” He can’t imagine that I’m travelling through the mountains with all these bags. From Predazzo I take an excellently constructed cycle path to Moena, where I continue on the regular road. A group of friendly Italian road cyclists from Naples comes alongside and I can keep up with them for quite a while.
At Pozza I turn left onto the Karerpass. This is a very boring road, with sometimes steep stretches, but all in all the climb is not that hard. On top of the pass (1,745 m) there are many hotels – it is a ski area here. I turn right to the Nigerpass (1,688 m). From there I see beautiful mountain walls on my right (Rosengarten), while on the left there are sometimes beautiful views of the Austrian Alps. The descent of the Nigerpass is quite demanding: it starts with 15%, halfway through the village of Tiers 20% and from Blumeau to the main valley the remaining 500 meters down are steep as well.
In the valley from Brixen to Bolzano the river, highway, regional road, railway and bike path squeeze themselves through the sometimes quite narrow valley. At a certain moment, I ride through a 500-meter long tunnel exclusively for the bike lane. In the suburbs of Bolzano numerous works of art by children are standing and hanging next to the cycle lane. What makes me less happy is the temperature: over 30 °C. In the picturesque Bolzano city center I acquire liters of water and a few bananas at the Spar. From the Rathausplatz I take a narrow and winding road to the Valle Sarentina. The first half of the long valley is uninhabited and peculiarly narrow, with lots of nets on the rocky walls to prevent stones falling on the road. During the first ten kilometers I count no less than twenty tunnels – nice and cool in this hot weather!
After the last tunnel the Valle Sarentina transforms into the wide Val di Pennes. Everywhere the farmers take the hay from the land – apparently there is a thunderstorm coming. Fortunately, it stays dry today. There is no campsite in the entire valley, and after more than 100 kilometers of cycling I don’t feel like camping in the wild. That’s why I get a cheap mountain hotel in Weissenbach (1,330 m) and cook pasta and tea in my room. Tomorrow I will finish the Penserjoch.
Day 7: Weissenbach > Salthaus (79 km)
The Penserjoch has a nice elevation profile: the higher you get, the steeper it becomes. The first six kilometers only 4% (gentle cycling), then three kilometers 7.5% (no worries), and finally five kilometers at almost 10% (ouch!). The pass road draws long, perfectly straight lines through the wide green walls, similar to the southern approach of the Cime de la Bonette. The numerous motorcyclists are really disturbing. The early ones among them ride quietly and enjoy the landscape, while the late risers race as if there is a competition going on. At the top of the Penserjoch (2215 m), a local road cyclist (and former motorcyclist) explains: “Vor allem die Österreichischer Motorfahrer sind schlimm”.
The descent is long, curvy and fun. Unfortunately, for a long time I cycle behind a badly driving Italian in a BMW who cuts corners rather sharply, and several times almost collides with oncoming traffic. But he doesn’t seem to learn from it: the driver has the memory of a goldfish, and as we know goldfish can’t drive.
After this I go to the Jaufenpass. With an 7.5% gradient on average over fifteen kilometers, in theory this road is not so difficult. But it’s going to be a small drama. It is very hot and there is no wind >>> sweat flies time! For a couple of hours I cycle with a swarm of these bitches on and around me. And there’s nothing I can do about it. I spontaneously feel sorry for the poor children in Africa who suffer from them every day. The Jaufenpass leads almost to the top through the forest, so there are no beautiful views that could soften the suffering.
On top of the Jaufenpass (2,099 m) I get a coke and enjoy the much nicer view on the other side. The descent goes well until I see a sign “Bad road surface”, and before I know it, I ride into a hole and my right front bag falls off. As there is a car just behind me this could have ended very badly. The damned Ortlieb bag hooks … these also gave me problems on Iceland. I wonder why the local road authorities put effort in erecting such a sign but fail to repair the road. My mood deteriorates further when I arrive at the campsite in Saltaus (335 m): contrary to the pictures on their website it is just an unimaginative stretch of strips of grass and gravel road offering little shade.
Day 8: Salthaus > Umhausen (86 km)
After the bad experience with the heat on the Jaufenpass it seems better to me to go to the Timmelsjoch early. At 7.15 am I leave and an hour later I have breakfast in St. Leonhard. From the village of Moos the actual climb starts. Through a series of hairpin bends and steep stretches of road (sometimes 10 to 15%) I quickly climb a few hundred meters. After that the road becomes lees steep for five kilometers (7 to 8%) and goes through a number of tunnels to the north. The beautiful valley below me is almost uninhabited. In the distance I can already see the pass height, but to get there I still have to cycle more than fifteen kilometers.
Italian cyclists regularly overtake me, point to the panniers and shout ‘Ciao’ or even ‘Complimenti’. At a certain moment one cyclist even wants to be photographed with me. I like that so much! They are so much more friendly than those grumpy Swiss and Austrians. About eight kilometers from the summit the main road bends to the left and becomes steep: 11% for two kilometers, and after a stretch of false flat another three kilometers 10% on average. The narrow road climbs via numerous “genuine” hairpin bends, a bit similar to the classic eastern side of the Stelvio. A lady on a racing bike comes alongside (“Respect!”) and chats with me. From the dark and wet 500 meters’ long tunnel at the top of the rock face the road continues to the pass height (2,474 m) which is right on the border with Austria.
I continue immediately. The first part of the descent is fine, but then the road climbs another 150 meters to Hochgurgl. I would have liked to camp in Sölden, but the campsite in this terrible ski resort is rubbish. Anyway, for me the upper part of the Ötztal is one big horror show with all those ski villages, lifts and roads. I cycle on through the much more beautiful middle part of the valley. This goes down false flat, but the strong north wind prevents me from make progress quickly. Finally, 25 kilometers after Sölden, I can pitch my tent in on the campsite in Umhausen. After today’s ride, I allow myself not to cook, and order Wiener Schnitzel with fries and a large glass of beer.
Day 9: Umhausen > Innsbruck (65 km)
And also this morning the sun shines when I get on my bike. I get some bread and drinks at the local M-Preis and go off to the village of Ötz. The pass road to Kühtai starts with a gradient of 10% and leads up with a few bends along the mountainside. Next the road follows a mountain stream through a green valley to the east. It’s very muggy today, and the only cooling is provided by the mountain stream. The slope is irregular: sometimes 5% and then again pieces of 10-13%. Halfway the pass in Ochsengartenwald I order a large coke. That gives me the necessary energy; after that I hardly need to stop. Even a stretch of 800 meters at 15% on average I continue cycling easily. I tell the road construction workers here that they are not doing their job properly because the road is much too steep. The answer: “Doch, das ist für die Radfahrer zum trainieren.” That makes sense. After a few more climbs and a reservoir I reach Kühtai (2,017 m).
So far, the valley was hardly inhabited, except for a few loose cows and horses. But up here there is an outburst of very ugly ski hotels (type: French ski resort) that ruin the whole area. So I get the hell out of here. Down in the valley of the Inn it is still some ten kilometers riding to Innsbruck. I would like to take a shower before I get on the train, but when I ask the campsite owner (also owner of a Porsche Cayenne) in the village of Völs if I can do this (and pay for it), he refuses: “Es ist leider nicht möglich, nur fur Gäste die zwei, drei Tagen bleiben. Wir sind eine Familiencamping und haben in den letzten 50 Jahre noch niemand nur zu duschen gehabt. Est ist nichts persönliches. Gute Reise. Und viel Glück mit dem Holländischen Mannschaft” (World Cup Football 2010). What a cowardly way of saying that he does not want cyclist on his site. The clock is ticking and so I cycle to Innsbruck where I refresh myself a bit on the station toilet. I take the local train to Munich and next the night train back to the Netherlands. This nine-day cycling vacation has been good training for the Marmotte!
– Day 1: Innsbruck > Wald im Pinzgau (108 km; 1,150 altitude meters)
– Day 2: Wald im Pinzgau > Lienz (92 km; 620 alt.m)
– Day 3: Lienz > San Lorenzo di Sebato (82 km; 1,785 alt.m)
– Day 4: San Lorenzo di Sebato > Cortina (94 km; 2,585 alt.m)
– Day 5: Cortina > Bellamonte (84 km; 2,441 alt.m)
– Day 6: Bellamonte > Weissenbach (111 km; 1,952 alt.m)
– Day 7: Weissenbach > Salthaus (79 km; 2,013 alt.m)
– Day 8: Salthaus > Umhausen (86 km; 2,200 alt.m)
– Day 9: Umhausen > Innsbruck (65 km; 1,233 alt.m)
After just one day at home from the Dolomites I drive to the campsite in Bourg-Oisons at the start of the Alpe d’Huez. I’m there to ride the Marmotte, a 176 kilometer cycling with four climbs totaling 5,000 meters: the Glandon (1,924 m), Télégraphe (1,566 m), Galibier (2,642 m), and l’Alpe d’Huez (1,860 m). I train on the Col de la Croix-de-Fer, and then take a rest day. Further training is of no use after the cycling holiday.
On Saturday, July 3, the time has come. I start just before 8 am. The trip itself is beautiful, but with a temperature reaching above 30 °C makes cycling hard. For a long time everything is fine: even when I am often overtaken, I also stay ahead of many others, especially on the steeper stretches. But when I arrive at the first steep kilometer of the climb to L’Alpe d’Huez the energy has gone. In hindsight I should have relied less on the poor food supply by the Marmotte organization. If I had brought enough, easily digestible food myself, I could have distributed my energy better. I’m feeling nauseous and exhausted. During the last kilometers on the Alpe d’Huez I firmly conclude that this is the first and last time ever that I will participate in something so ridiculous. (But on the way back to the Netherlands, I’m already planning the 2012 Marmotte event.)
After great effort, I reach the summit of Alpe d’Huez after two hours, fortunately without cramps, vomiting or walking. Total riding time is ten hours and 40 minutes (net time excluding the descent of the Glandon), which is just ten minutes too long for a silver medal – but I made it, and that was my goal.