Bicycle Ride over the “Großglockner Hochalpenstraße”,
the highest mountain pass in the Austrian Alps

 

I had long wanted to do a bicycle loop in the Austrian Alps crossing the Großglockner pass – Austria’s highest mountain road. Over the years I had ridden up the pass from the North, but never crossed it to form a larger loop. Crossing the Glockner pass is about a 2000m vertical climb; together with a return trip using the train tunnel from Mallnitz to Badgastein this forms a 160km loop with about 2500m. Once I had flown a similar route with the hangglider, so I wanted to do this loop on the road with the bike. Towards the end of a longer vacation in Europe the weather was still good – with some thunderstorms predicted - so I decided to go for it.

 

Friday, July 23, 2004

The alarm clock rings at 4:40am. I load the mountain bike on my mom’s car and leave Salzburg for the start of the loop about 70 km away. The sky is clear, except for some high clouds in the central mountains indicating overnight thunderstorm activity. After 1 hr drive with the car I park the car in Taxenbach near Zell am See. I start riding at 6:00am. It is much milder than I expected, another sign of unstable weather.

After 10km I reach the village of Bruck where the road turns South towards the pass. Here I see several cars parked with riders unloading who go up to the pass and return back down the same way. Since this valley goes North-South, I won’t see the sun for the next two hours while going up the North-West side of the pass.

Another interesting point some 200m further up is the toll station in Ferleiten at the base of the steep 12% graded climb. This is also a point where lots of bikers start their trip. They even have a little booth where you can get a ticket, ride up and then punch a clock on the top to see your speed going up the pass.

It is 2 years since I have climbed a long pass with the bike. Living and riding in Florida and North Dakota, I am not used to my fairly heavy MTB, the long climbs or the thin air above 2000m. After going quite fast at the beginning trying to match the speed of two other riders 200m ahead of me, I have to slow down and try to find my own rhythm. On long climbs you have to find your own pace. After more than 1 hour I take a short 5 min rest stop.

I am riding for 2:45 hrs now and I need some breakfast soon. The last 300m up to the pass are quite strenuous and I am going really slow. It dawns on me just how hard the racing must be in the Tour de France, where they go over multiple passes like this in racing speed for 5-6 hrs a day – incredible! Finally around 9:15am I reach the first pass called Fuscher Törl at 2400m. A nice view greets the tourists who come up here in cars or tour buses. The actual Großglockner mountain – Austria’s highest point at 3797m – is the snowy triangular peak in the distance in the middle of the picture.

I have some coffee and two portions of apple strudel for breakfast. Luckily there are not many cars yet so the road is not too busy and you don’t inhale too much exhaust and diesel on the ride up. However, there are plenty of bike riders coming up here. I sit down with three other local riders who also have breakfast and beer to celebrate their accomplishment of having come up here under their own power on the bicycle. It is quite comfortable sitting in the restaurant, having breakfast and chatting with the locals. I spend about 45 mins here, which will cost me a dry ride down the mountain, but I don’t know that yet. I continue around 10:00am first going down the road to the ‘Fuscher Lacke’ about 250m down from the pass. On the dry road it is fun to rush down at top speeds of maybe 70km/h. Soon however there is another short climb up to the highest point.

Now the sky is darkening and black clouds are brewing. I am in my own race up to the highest point at the Hochtor at 2504m. I can hear thunder and know that it will start to rain any minute now. Eventually I reach the Hochtor where a short tunnel cuts through the crest of the pass.

The first drops of rain are falling and I put on my Gore-Tex jacket. As soon as I exit the tunnel on the other side it is raining hard. Too bad, as the 1500m descent is much less fun on the wet, slippery road. And it is also getting quite cold, with my upper legs freezing cold due to the cooling effect of rain and high speeds of going down. I stop for one picture about half-way down the pass.

The Großglockner summit is visible just to the right of my helmet, as are the raindrops which appear as white dots on the flash photograph. The wet descent continues all the way to the village of Heiligenblut at the bottom of the pass road.

It took less than ½ hour to get down here. I don’t waste any time and continue on further South as I expect dry roads and sunshine ahead. My bike jersey and pants are the first to dry off, but my shoes and socks are soaking wet and will take longer to get dry again. Soon the weather turns real sunny again. Right now it is much nicer down here below 1000m as compared to the 2500m alpine area just ½ hour ago. I can see the mountain range of the Lienzer Dolomiten in the distance and it feels quite different riding on the South side of the main mountain range of the Alps – almost like in Italy.

It is almost 12:00pm noon and I stop in Winklern to buy some drinks, fruit and power bars as well as to have lunch at a restaurant. I spread out on their patio to dry up shoes and socks. After 20mins or so it is getting so hot that I need an umbrella. The temperature is around 30C (92F), so the next stretch of my ride will be quite hot.

Upon departing from the restaurant in Winklern I see a rider on a road bike zooming past on the main road. I hurry to catch up to him, spinning madly in the highest gear on my MTB. Luckily I reach him soon. Hence I get to draft behind his wheel for the next 30km through the ‘Mölltal’ valley. He has also crossed the Glockner pass and he is doing an even bigger 1-day loop than mine, leaving in St. Johann and closing the loop further East crossing back over the Katschberg pass.

It is brutally hot, initially with a tailwind. It feels like in an oven. My shoes get a blow-dryer treatment, and even though it was freezing cold on the descent 1 hr ago, I now sweat heavily and have trouble staying cool enough. I drink 1 liter of gatorade while drafting behind the other rider. We cover the 30km in 50 mins with a nice average speed of 36km/h (22.5mph).

From the village of Obervellach the road turn North to Mallnitz to the train station. The train will bring me back to the North side via a 8.5 km long railroad tunnel. We stop at a gasstation to buy drinks and to ask for the train schedule. Good timing, as I have a bit more than 1 hour for the next 500m climb over 8km. I soon continue this second climb.

Even though it is much shorter and at low elevation, it is excruciatingly hot. With temperatures above 30C and hardly any wind or shade it is just brutal. The clock is ticking and I don’t want to miss the train at 2:40pm, which would cost me at least another hour. I stop twice for short drink breaks in the shade. Every 200m there is a mile marker which helps to count down the 8km distance. I can easily see that a Tour de France rider can lose 10mins or more on just one climb on a bad day. I am dehydrated and after more than 8 hrs and 2300 vertical meters I am having serious trouble getting up this part of the road. Only the clock keeps pushing me ahead. I stop at a monument where the National Park ‘Hohe Tauern’ symbol is carved out of stone.

Thankfully the road flattens now and within another km or so I reach the train station with 10 mins to spare. I cool my head and arms with cold water and drink plenty of fluids. Sitting in the air-conditioned train while going through the tunnel is very refreshing.

I study the map and eat apples and chocolate bars. Less than 15 mins later I am on the road again, now back on the North side of the Alps riding in the valley of Badgastein. First I stop and visit my Aunt and Uncle’s house. They didn’t expect me, but are happy to see me and we have coffee and cake together on their patio. To my surprise, the weather is sunny as well on this side of the ‘Hohe Tauern’ range.

After 45mins of chatting and relaxing over coffee I continue on to complete the 160km loop. It is around 4:30pm already. Luckily the wind had turned to South so I can cruise out the valley with a slight tailwind on a nice bike path hugging the main road.

The last obstacle is a 4km long tunnel which I am concerned about due to the bad air quality inside. However, it is sloped downwards going North, so you can ride along at good speeds without much effort. They also have a bike path seperated from the main road through a fence, so the passing is quite safe.

From the North end of the tunnel near the village of ‘Lend’ it is only about 10km back to Taxenbach where I parked the car. The road is still going downhill which further helps me close the loop. Almost 12 hours after I left this place I return to the car in Taxenbach.

The 1 hr drive back to Salzburg is uneventful, but I need to focus not to fall asleep after getting up at 4:40am and the long, exhausting day. At around 7:00pm I’m back home in Salzburg, where my curious son Philip takes the last picture of me while I’m having dinner on our patio.

Finally I had closed this loop over the Großglockner. The day had brought so many different weather conditions, from crisp early morning mood to thunder, rain and cold on the mountain pass to sweltering heat and sun in the valley in the afternoon. Also there were plenty of different areas to be passed and the ‘Hohe Tauern’ range passed twice. It always amazes me how much you can see on a single day riding the bicycle…