AUSTRIAN CYCLOTOUR (July-August, 2016)  

In the Saddle Again

We had an inauspicious start to our 6 week cyclotouring adventure in Austria and Germany that began by heading north towards Brenner Pass from Selva, Italy on a Saturday morning. Somehow our infallible Map Man had been overly ambitious for us on the first loaded riding day in 9 months: he had planned too many miles for the grades on the Italian side of the pass. I rallied my will, determined to make the itinerary work, but the steady, 15 mph afternoon headwinds brought me to my knees. It was only 3:30 pm when fretting about my weariness and our slow progress had me veering off the bike route into a village train station to explore our options.

It’s a different look in Austria than in the Dolomites.
It felt like failure to consider taking a train or bus, especially on the first day, but we had the added pressure of desperately needing groceries. We had to be on the doorstep of our destination village’s main market in 3 hours to do all of our shopping for the next 5-6  meals and because of the winds and grades, we weren’t holding the required 4+ mph pace. We were still in Italy but we knew that this border region conformed to the Austrian traditional of all retail being buttoned-up on Sundays.

We also knew the road to Brenner was well served by buses and trains and better yet, we discovered that a train would be leaving from our platform in little Fortezza in about 15 minutes. The conductor and cyclists in the bike car were unusually generous in helping us muscle our loaded bikes up the steep steps—we had anticipated a ‘roll-on’ train car that was common in the region. A new-to-cyclotouring couple from Milan were eager to hear a brief history of our bike adventures, which had us debarking at Vipiteno in even better cheer.

We were feeling pretty smug about the ‘save’ we’d created with the short train ride, the fun conversation, and the leisurely time shopping at the favorite EuroSpin market where we knew we’d find special items, like frozen Alaskan wild salmon and nitrate-free prosciutto. But unexpectedly, we had one more challenge. 

Our hotel wasn’t in town like we thought but up in the hills, up very steep hills. Loaded with an abundance of groceries, we had to push 2-to-a-bike and take frequent breaks to reach our hotel that was on a 20+% grade road. Disappointingly, we weren’t in our room until almost 7 pm. 

My just-good-enough-for-cycling back muscles were shot. I’d coped with the mild distress surrounding my broken ribs for most of the day but the pushing drained my reserves. I couldn’t wait a moment longer for Bill to finish tucking the bikes away for the night in the garage amongst a fleet of motorcycles and I flopped on the hallway floor outside our locked door to rest my agitated back. Later, I was horrified when I awaken in the middle of the night and realized how deeply exhausted I still was even after hours of sleep—that was a disappointing first. I had enough recovery by morning to carry-on over Brenner Pass and stay on schedule but fretted about the coming days because I knew I was still depleted.

Buzzing Through Innsbruck, Austria
A low and relatively easy pass as they go, Brenner is hard enough from either the Italian or Austrian side and we were glad to have it behind us the next day. We whizzed down the 10% grades from Brenner into Innsbruck and had a restful interval on easy bike routes along the Inn River. The route began innocently enough at the river’s edge but it wasn’t long until we were rolling up and down multiple 10-15% grades with one being posted at 18%. We estimated it was really over 20%. We knew from years of experience that it is actually harder to climb a series of up-downs than it is to do a single big uphill with the same amount of gain—it’s a warm-up thing. 

Jerzen (ya’zen)
After 4 days of challenging riding in Austria, we didn’t fair much better on our first big hiking day in the Pitztal, a steep side valley from the Inn River 6 days after leaving Selva. Clearly our intent of making our weekly 20 miler that day wasn’t going to be: we were only averaging a little over 1 mile per hour; our typical pace is about two-and-a-half miles per hour. It was a harsh reminder that hiking and biking in the Austrian Alps can be wickedly hard. 

We failed to make 20 miles but had a grand view for lunch.
A few days later, Bill planned a second attempt at a 20 miler along the Pitze River, achieving the success we’d hoped for on the first attempt on the harder trail. But even on this riverside hike we accumulated over 2,000’ of elevation gain in the first 10 miles. Bill had expected a “Danube Day” which is our code for a typical riding day along the Danube or other German river route in which we rarely log more than 500’ of gain for the entire day. At least the footing was uniform enough that we could sustain the needed tempo to finish by dinner time.

After a week of hiking in Jerzen, 3 low-mileage but exhaustingly-steep riding days landed us in Lech, another choice hiking venue where we’d spend 6 nights.

Lech (lek)
The fire-engine-red, slatted, benches typical of Swiss and Austrian trails began appearing and beckoned me to sit as we dropped down to the valley floor from the peaks. A half dozen different wild flowers begged to be identified. My aching calves and feet reminded me of how good a soak in the adjacent rushing river water would feel on this warm, sunny afternoon. But no, I had to resist the tantalizing temptations to stall and instead keep walking. It was mile 12 of a 20 mile day and dinner was already doomed to be late. 

The first 8 miles had been brutal. The sun was unexpectedly hot at 8:30 am when we headed up the impossibly steep Austrian trail minutes from our apartment. My clothes were quickly soaked with sweat and I knew I was getting behind on my hydration from the get-go. Hoping for relief was futile because the grades wouldn’t ease much for hours. The relentless steepness, the rocky surfaces, the washed-out sections of trail, the several patches of snow, and the increasingly thin air meant that we couldn’t maintain a 2 mile an hour pace. It was going to be another long day.

Black boulders & snow on this side; soft dirt and grasses on the other side (from Jerzen).
The plan for this, our 2nd full day in Lech was for a moderate distance hike during which we’d meet our goal of a weekly 4,000’+ gain day. Two days later, we’d do a 20 miler, splitting the distance and gain goals into 2 different days like we’d done the week before in Jerzen. Combining the distance and gain goals in a single day like we usually did was proving too hard in Austria so we’d made peace with splitting them. But checking the revised forecast when we arose that morning changed everything: the next 2 days would each get between three-quarters and an inch of rain and the temperatures would plummet from the 80’s to the 50’s. This was THE  day, the only day of our 6 night stay in Lech suitable for a substantial hike. 

Aside from getting a late start because of our last minute change of plans, doing the weekly “big one” would be all the harder since we hadn’t had a rest day for 4 days. We’d had 3 short but hard riding days on tough grades to get from Jerzen to Lech and had hiked over 7 miles the day before. We were tired before we began.

Bill’s quickly formulated route for the day turned out to be about 4 miles short of our target so at 5:30 pm, we ducked into our Lech apartment to pee and drop-off our poles and by our standards, heroically, got back onto the local trails in minutes. Neither of us have the right stuff to be competitive athletes but we nonetheless rallied to stick to our training goals. We dug deep for the drive and commitment to keep going in the presence of our apartment’s temptations.

Two loops on the trails above Lech would give us the missing 4 miles but there was yet another test: a rapidly advancing storm. The sudden chill that often accompanies storms didn’t materialize, so we settled for only putting on ponchos to shield us from the wind and rain. Then lightening cracked directly overhead. We dropped down to the village to be safer but we pressed on. Finally, about 7 pm, we returned to our apartment with 20.1 miles and about 4800’ logged for the day.

In the peaks above Lech.
This was the 16th 20 miler we’d done in 21 weeks since setting a goal in mid-March of doing 1 per week. We had 9 or 10 weeks to go before our Rim-2-Rim event in October and knew that there would be at least several more ‘misses’ in the weeks ahead but we were nonetheless thrilled with our accomplishments. Four months into this impromptu training regime, we were adapting well to the stresses. 

On this day, when we hung it up for the night, we weren’t dead meat. We were stiff and tired
but we could feed and bathe ourselves and disassemble our gear for drying without succumbing to a typical case of the dreaded "stares”. We could keep it moving and get to bed much more readily than when we started our conditioning program.

I was also extremely pleased that we’d made it to the 4 month point of a typical 6 month soft tissue adaptation period needed for a new sport or big bump in intensity without injury. Yes, there had been lots of aches and pains and old adhesions between muscles revealed, but no show-stopping injuries like ruptured Achilles or shredded knee structures. 

We probably won’t keep doing weekly 20-milers after our 2 big events in October, the Rim-2-Rim in the Grand Canyon and the Cactus-to-Clouds in Palm Springs, but would treasure this interval for having created a spring board from which we could launch other, as of yet unknown, aspirations. Aside from just plain being hard, the exhausting hikes limited our other hiking and biking options. The big hike plus a light day before and after consumed 3 out of every 7 days. We did manage to do two twenty-milers a couple of weeks but Bill longed for more freedom in planning.

This Region of Tyrollean Austria

Bill is always searching his maps for new hiking venues that we can access by bike. This more western area of Austria delivered on the hikes as he had hoped but lacked the oozing-with-charm of other regions in the Austrian and Italian Alps that we enjoy.

The area was singular in its focus on skiing. Like most places we hike in the Alps, the lodging and lifts exist for the skiers, with the summer hikers being a secondary market, but it was more evident here than elsewhere. The entire community uphill from Lech, Zurs, was 100% shut for the summer. Absolutely nothing was open, which made it eerie to bike through it on our way to Lech.

And it seemed that the skiers drawn to this region of Austria were more focused on their sport than in the Dolomites.  The slopes, and therefore trails, were horrifically steep: one ski slope was posted as maxing-out with an 80% grade. 

Not that we use them much, but we also missed the ambiance of frequent and charming huts so typical in the Dolomites. On our big hike from Lech, there was a single hut on our trail and it may have only been open in the summer. In contrast, in some areas in the Dolomites, you can see a half dozen huts at a glance. If we had to script slogans for the 2 regions, the local Austrian slogan would be “Ski hard all day” and in the Dolomites it would be “Enjoy a cappuccino before you finish the run.”

Bill was stalking Ibex in the peaks…
The day before we rode out of Lech, Bill chose to do a short, steep “Experts Only” trail (on which he was rewarded with his first sighting of an Ibex) and I chose to have a proper rest day. While he sweated and tested his nerves, I strolled from bench to bench around Lech, reading at each stop. I hoped to reclaim my confidence as a cyclotourist with a little more R&R, rest that Bill’s body didn’t need.

As I quick-stepped back to the apartment to greet Bill with our only key, a too familiar sight came into view on my path: a 50-something Austrian man crippled by a stroke. Certainly not all strokes are caused by lifestyle choices, but the higher percentage of victims we see in countries like Austria reflects our other observations.

Whizzing through a tiny village on our bikes a week prior, we’d spotted a homemade billboard announcing a local man’s upcoming 40th birthday. The color photo of him looking overfed and zoned-out with a beer and a pack of cigarettes on the table spoke volumes.

Almost daily while in Austria, like we do with every visit to the country, we tried to reconcile the contradiction between the impossibly steep skiing, hiking, and biking paths with the people we saw—like the guy on the birthday poster. Back in Pitztal, hillside village streets that were challenging to walk up or down were posted as bike route segments. On the trails, we repeatedly commented on how tough the Austrian outdoors people had to be for these trails to register as normal to them. We envied the folks that grew-up with their bodies adapted to this level of difficulty.

Back on the level village streets we asked ourselves “What happens & when?” because of the prevalence of obesity and strokes. "How do those lean, vigorous, aggressive sports people who devour those trails and slopes degrade into this and so quickly?” we pondered over and over again.

….while I admired Lech from its benches.
Too much strudel and beer?? Perhaps the choices take their toll in their 40’s or early 50’s?? Unlike in the US, there isn’t an extreme obesity epidemic hitting all ages in Austria. The young adults largely looked enviably lean but we also saw a very prevalent and pronounced “thickening” in the middle aged folks. We can only guess what it is that seems to abruptly flip the switch in Austrians. A little online checking did confirm our impression that there were a lot of smokers in the country.

Contemplating this Austrian contradiction brought my new joke to Bill to mind, which is relative to our fellow Americans, we practically live a monastic life. To bed at 9 pm, up at 5 am; 1 or 2 hours of self care exercises on the floor almost every morning; food prep for breakfast and lunch; then it’s out the door most days for our routine of exercise-eat-exercise-eat. No alcohol these days; never-smokers; and shunning UV exposure and as many environmental toxins as possible are all anti-social components of our protocol. And then there is the new, austere, keto diet which is hard on our almost non-existent social life. Oh well, we are by far older than any Austrians we saw out on their tough trails.  Guess it’s all about priorities and choices.

The cycling from Lech to Hofen was by far our shortest and easiest stint of riding for the season but that wasn’t what made it so exhilarating for me, instead it was discovering that I’d surely been catapulted to a new level of healing in my rib fractures. Suddenly, I was confident, competent, and capable again. Suddenly, riding was fun again. Apparently somewhere between Weeks 4 and 5 of my healing journey —arriving at Hofen was week 5—the gatekeeper in my torso said “OK, let ‘er rip” and rip I did. 

The body has all kinds of feedback loops that, despite most expressions of willfulness (short of life & death situations), get the final say on what you can access. At 2+ weeks post-fracture, I could successfully power my loaded bike, but I didn’t have much reserve. And when we did the 12% grades in a series of narrow tunnels on the way to Lech at Week 4, I’d had to walk and push through some of it. But on the way to Hofen, my body felt strong and integrated, I felt whole again. There weren’t any sustained challenges but I deeply felt the transformation and enjoyed playing with its edges. It hadn’t been rest that my ribs needed, only elapsed time to mend.

All-day rain instead of the more typical and less limiting afternoon thunderstorms were increasingly defining our summer adventures in the mountains and our week at Hofen was no exception. We squeezed in a couple of hikes around the worst of it and then left for Garmisch, Germany on our bikes under the threat of almost 3” of rain for the day. We’d spend a week in Germany, about 10 days back in Austria, a week in Selva, Italy and then we’d be on our way home.