It is the first Sunday in September and we are in the classic Austrian ski resort Sölden. It is still dark when we cycle from the hotel to the start where 4000 avid cyclists have gathered. The air is fresh, the speaker encourages the participants to wave their arms in the air and tries to keep the audience, who have ventured up at this early hour, in a good mood. Colorful hot air balloons are about to rise to the sky, as we are getting ready for the start.
The light is about to break through as we roll north through the main street. As soon as the master car pulls away, we get into full speed. The closed road is occupied by cyclists in its full width. From the helicopter that follows us through the green Ötztal valley down to the small community of Oetz, we look like a colorful snake that winds down the curvy road.
After 30 km of downhill we take a right at the roundabout in Oetz. In a sea of carbon bikes and newly shaved legs, we begin the first climb up to Kühtai. It is steep, but we keep a brisk pace, full of zeal and enthusiasm. But it will get worse. The road up to the ski area is 18% at the steepest section and we have a long day ahead. Some giant Alp cows that take up half the roadway look indifferently at us as we cycle past and up at the ski area where the lifts are waiting in the winter, people have gathered to cheer the cyclists. I still feel strong and now it carries away down towards Innsbruck. And what a downhill ride! Sometimes it is really steep where you can get some serious speed if you dare to let go. And there are many who dare.
The weather forecast has promised heavy rain with thunder during the afternoon, so the rain jacket is in my back pocket. If the forecast is correct, there is a great risk that it will be a cold climb up to Timmelsjoch and a dodgy downhill towards the goal in Sölden.
After a long downhill run, we eventually came out on the flat. The back and neck are stiff and the brakes smell of burnt rubber. The sun shines as we cycle through the Tyrolean capital on closed roads, where an enthusiastic crowd is cheering us. It is hot and soon the climb up to the Brenner Pass starts. It is a long but not so steep climb that will take us over to the Italian side of the South Tyrol. I still feel good and when we finally reach the peak at 1377 meters we have cycled pretty much half the race. Here I also make the first stop to refill sports drinks. However, the remaining 120 km back to Sölden will be tougher.
Sölden is one of Europe’s most popular ski resorts with lifts that take skiers well over 3000 meters and with 144 km of slopes. The main income still comes from skiing, but bicycle tourism is large and growing. The conditions for cycling are excellent, not only for road cyclists who like long climbs. Great efforts have been made at utilizing existing ski lifts for MTB riders.
Halfway up the third climb, the one that will take us over Jaufenpass at just over two thousand meters, it starts to hurt. The legs are not that strong anymore and the speed slows down. The road winds up through a dense coniferous forest, but as soon as we get above the tree line, we see the mountain peaks and the slopes are still green. As we pass above the ski lifts of the Italian ski resort Ratschings-Jaufen we have cycled 150 km and soon a 20 km downhill awaits. Even though the pulse goes down during the downhill, the neck hurts after constantly being in a low position braking before all the countless curves. When you do not live near any real mountain, it is difficult to train and get used to it.
Registration for the Ötzertal cycle marathon opens on February 1st and is open for one month. Of the approximately 15,000 registered, 4,000 lucky ones are allowed to start in the race. Most participants come from neighboring countries, but I also see cyclists from the US, Mexico, Russia, Australia and Lebanon. In total, there are participants from some 40 countries.
The last climb is the toughest. From the valley floor of Passiri where the summer heat still lingers we start the climb to get over Timmelsjoch and back to Austria. The climb begins pretty soon after coming down from Jaufenpass. It is noticeable how the mountains have worn us down. Most of the adrenaline, in the now much smaller groups, is gone. I took the last gel from my back pocket, but that extra boost you normally get from the mix of caffeine and carbs doesn’t really kick in. Looking for a lighter gear, but the chain is already on the biggest cog.
Through the verdant landscape we pass typical Alpine houses, cycle through coniferous forest and tunnels, and soon it turns into a serpentine road that winds up the mountain. When we reach the tree line it looks like there is no end. That the road will lead us all the way up to the moon. I feel how it tightens on the inside of my thighs like the cramp is on its way.
At the last food stop, just before the summit, I take a plastic mug of water on the go. Handed out by some young volunteers. But then I see a large bowl of orange wedges. Not sure if it’s a mirage, a brain ghost caused by fatigue and fluid deficiency. I have to stop. The oranges turn out to be real and I enjoy a few before it’s time to move on.
Why do you expose yourself to this? When I find myself in the middle of the pain on the way up Timmelsjoch it seems completely incomprehensible. What part of human nature makes us do this? Not once, but over and over again.
Somehow we finally manage to cross the mountain pass at 2509 meters. I don’t really remember how. Fortunately, the predicted rain with thunder did not materialize. At least not at forecast time. After another long descent, we return to Sölden. We pass under the cable car that goes up to the ski area and cycle towards the finish line in the middle of the village, where cyclists and the crowd are gathered. The atmosphere is a strange mix of party with music, people, and exhausted cyclists who are happy to have completed the race. A few hours later, the promised rain comes.
Never again. That was my thought as I lay there in the bath in the hotel room after almost 240 km and 5500 altitude meters. But now as I write this and have gotten some distance to the race and my memories of the pain have vanished, I slowly start craving for a new challenge. Longing for those long mountain climbs.
As we now live in the strange times of COVID19, the Ötztaler race has been canceled for 2020. Just like the majority of all other sports events. But in hope for better times, keep up the training indoors or outdoors and get those long endurance rides covered when possible and hopefully we’ll meet at the starting line next year.