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Cycling up the Großglockner Road in Austria

Exactly 60 years ago the famous Großglockner Road was opened to public. A personal review.

The scenic highway Großglockner Hochalpenstraße was opened with a race on August 4th, 1935 after only five years of construction under the direction of Carynthia's government building officer Franz Wallack. Since then it is one of the greatest challenges Austria has to offer to its cyclists: with its 47,8 kilometres between Bruck and Heiligenblut and with slopes up to 14 % not only professional racing cyclists have to go to the max. It is also a dream of many hobby bikers to conquer Austria's highest mountain once in their lifetime. To celebrate its 70th birthday, Tobias Micke went 13 kilometres on his bike – elevation gain to more than 1200 m, from tollgate Ferleiten to Fuschertörl at 2571 m.

Insecurity and butterflies in the stomach – the sensation of taking a test you are not prepared for – you don't know what will be tested, you don't know how much. You only know you have to pass. And you are prepared.

Lovely sunny weather, a beautiful day, but already the ride to the tollgate really tests my mettle. There it is – the mighty mountain – piling up majestically, showing itself and its snow covered summit from its brightest side. But the traffic signs demanding snow chains, which you can see every 500 metres, appear to be a warning: There's not only a friendly side...

The tollgate Ferleiten seems to be a border crossing to another world: peak season for tourists, four-lane waiting queues. The prices: about 25,- Euros for cars, about 17,- Euros for motorbikes. Cyclists do not pay for the road in Euro – they pay directly, with sweat, effort and the most precious thing they have to give: their gradually but steadily decreasing will, which you can't measure with money. The mountains know this, the man at the gate knows it, and even the tourists who slowly scale up with their smouldering vehicles seem to sense it.

There it is, the great challenge. You don't think twice – you quickly cross the white-red toll barrier, drive past the warder, who is smiling magically, as if he knew something you still have to learn...

The pedals are familiar, as well as the transmissions. But the distance is new, the slope, the sensation of really feeling the immense Großglockner Hochalpenstraße underneath the high-pressure tyres.

"Just don't go too fast!" a thought crosses my mind at the first hundred metres about a hundred times. Lucky for me, two other cyclists drive in front of me. I try to adapt my speed to theirs. But whatever I try, they come closer – they must have a different conversion, a different rhythm. They are well experienced. As I greet them, one of them asks me "How are you?" What a joke! After 500 metres... "Are you riding both?" (He means Fuschertörl and Hochtor). "No, this is my first time." He laughs, looks at my bike and my choice of gears, and as I ride by he shouts: "Good luck!" Surely, I will need this later on...

I try to listen to my body, try to find my rhythm as Dave Brubecks Orchestra suddenly starts to play the song "Take five" in my mind. Of course, I heard this melody yesterday just before I went to sleep.

I pedal lightly, the rhythm draging me along. The sun is shining brightly. I feel great.

Suddenly a big motor-coach passes me far too close. The smell of burnt diesel and the heat streaming out of the engine feel like a slap in the face. It's my first collapse. I try to shift into a lower gear, but I can't. I have already started with the lowest.

The fight has begun – I have to come up with an idea. The view of the mountain side is impressive. "What a beautiful landscape!" I convince myself. "The cows, the rush of the waterfall, the whistling marmot, how magnificent..." How often have I exercised to enjoy this situation. And it's really magnificent. But in this single moment, it doesn't count. I have found my rhythm.

The biggest problem, actually the only one, is speed. I'm used to cycling under pressure, slowly approaching my limits during training. But now, on the Glockner road, I have to come down to the minimum and to save my powers. I only want to reach the Fuschertörl, and if it'll be late evening by then.

I drive past a parking lot for the tired motorists. How I like them, as they stand at the roadside staring, the engine shut down. "Look, Dad!" The little boy almost chokes on his biscuit. Dad turns around and looks, the whole family is looking at me. I soak up their looks, they are pure energy for me. Each one of them pushes me at least five meters forward. I know what these people must be thinking. Again, two bikers are riding in front of me. I try to use their slipstream. Uphill not a physical advantage, but a psychological one. The opponent has to fight for each metre. I just have to follow his line, I don't need to take care of the speed.

Victory at the Fuschertörl, Großglockner Hochalpenstraße
Picture by T. Micke

I greet as I overtake, after all we are colleagues and companions. Then I'm quickly gone. I surely don't want anyone using my slipstream as well. Once again alone.

Ten minutes later it suddenly happens: a lack of energy, a collapse. I was riding to hard and now I experience an awful burning sensation in my thighs. The sun is surging, and so do the blisters on my hands, the hot sweat in my eyes. "It's okay to give up," I think, "about halftime". "No, you won't!" my inner voice shouts. And so I stand up and grab the handlebars with all my remaining strength. I can feel the outcry of the blisters, but suddenly it's over. Silence. I can only hear the pulsation of my blood behind my brow, my jaw hurts badly. But I have to make it to the next turn, the incline will bei more gently there. There I can drink from my flask – hell, why did I never believe in these "isotonic drinks"?

The next turn shows up very late. Drinking before is senseless, I won't be able to catch my breath. But there comes the relief: a parking lot with a bus full of Dutchmen!

Never in my life was I happier to see such bus-tourists. They are smiling, clapping the pedal rhythm for me. One of them shouts something and gives me a push.

I make it to next turn and I feel the positive effects of the drink. After a slight prickle in my legs (as if they had grown a little) they seem to be light again.

I change the way I hold the handlebars and then I feel the blisters again. This is a good sign. Suddenly the Fuschertörl appears. I never had imagined how beautiful such a simple little stone-house can be. To me it seems to be gold plated, shining in the Alpine sun. The nearer I come, the better I feel. One more sprint to catch up with the last cyclist remaining between the summit and me.

On the last few metres I had a heavy break down. But somehow I even overtook this last biker. The Fuschertörl – after one hour and thirty-six minutes.

Within the last thirty minutes a thunderstorm arose. So I had to hurry up. As bikes dont have engine brakes (contrary to cars), but overheat just as fast, I could only slow down before the turns. The same route down to the valley only took me 16 minutes.

It probably only occurs on the legendary Großglockner Hochalpenstraße that cyclists overtake cars...

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© A report by Tobias Micke (04-08-95) – Contact