Not bad for someone who just bought his first road bike 4 months ago. As I briskly pedalled up the gentle sloping tarmac of the famous Großglockner Hochalpenstraße with a 1,656 metre ascent ahead of me, part of me was nervous and hoping that my preparations were sufficient, the other part blindly stubborn, perhaps not fully understanding what lay ahead of me.
It started about a week before, where my partner and I were planning to drive northwards over the same road, from Carinthia on the way to Kaprun in Salzburg as the next step on our holiday. “It might be fun to try, certainly a feather in my cap. What could go wrong?” I thought.
Faced with the last day of good weather in a suprisingly warm September, the opportunity was there for the taking. Armed with the new 11-34 cassette I had bought over the phone several days beforehand (a good alternative to my 11-30), I spent the evening running through last preparations: checking tire pressures, cleaning and oiling the chain, cleaning braking surfaces and sanding my rim brake pads. What should I wear? How much food do I take? What will the weather be like? What happens if I break down somewhere?
The next morning on 14 September, I got up for a 7 am breakfast in the hotel, giving the staff a bit of a surprise by rocking up in full lycra. Several fried egg rolls later, I continued to devour the hotel’s supply of carbohydrates. That completed, back to the room to get ready.
It was a surprisingly chilly morning. I started from the town of Bruck at the 0 km milestone of the Großglocknerstraße muffled up in several layers of lycra, gloves and sporting arm and leg warmers. Following the obligatory photograph (see below), I set off southwards across the bridge, through the sleepy village and onwards through the rich green valley.
Despite being the highest road in Austria, the Großglocknerstraße is a normal road, well maintained, well surfaced asphalt, broad enough for a bus or truck. For the first 9 km the road snakes between mountains, with a slight gradient at first, allowing me to average a crisp 30-35 km/h. Even before the Ferleiten toll station though (the formal beginning of the mountain pass), there are a few deceptively steep parts which take you down to 10 km/h.
Early on, I met a handful of other equally warmly dressed cyclists, one of whom appeared to be in his 60s or 70s with what looked like to be an overly ambitious 11-28 casette. Nevertheless, the variety of bikes did show the appeal the Großglocknerstraße holds for cyclists of all ages and skill levels. At one stage, I was overtaken by a couple of cyclists on road bikes, one of which was fully laden with water bottles. I decided to lock onto the latter’s back wheel in order to help with pacing and cadence. We eventually did share a fair way of the journey up the Großglockner, remaining in pure anonymity.
At 9.30 am I hit the toll booth at the town of Ferleiten, which has a separate cyclist gate. This is of course free to pass for cyclists, but it includes the start time barrier for anyone who wants an official time to the Fuscher Törl (one of the highest points of the road). This however was switched off at 9 am, in order to discourage too many cyclists ascenting during times of busy traffic. In spite of this, I pushed the “lap” button on my Wahoo headunit when passing the gate, determined to record my own time.
The journey continued well, albeit at a slow pace, ascending through the pine trees. Thankful for my 36/34 gearing, I crawled along the road following the wheel of my new best friend, who appeared to be equally struggling. For the next 9 km we slowly ground our way uphill, averaging 60-70 rpm and 8 km/h, me focussing entirely on his rear wheel about 30 cm away from my front wheel.
For the first time I felt relatively comfortable, knowing that this pace kept me from blowing out entirely, not going too fast or too slow, and hoping that it could get me to the top. This however turned out to be a mixed blessing, as on one occasion my friend wobbled a little through fatigue, I overreacted and for the first time in years, I swerved, toppled and landed on the tarmac. Panic rushed through my body as – mid fall – I caught sight of the car coming up behind me.
Mid-sprawl, I quickly grabbed my handlebars and dragged myself and the bike to the side of the road. Thankfully the driver spotted me in time, swerved past, leaving me somewhat shaken.
Checking over the bike for any damage, I was quite happy to discover both my bike and I made it out unscathed. Slightly trembling, I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, glanced down the steep drop into deep forests beside me, clipped in and started back again.
After a few minutes I caught up again with my favourite rear tire, and its owner called back to me to make sure that I was ok, apologising for him losing stability. A touching gesture, and I pulled up to him to share a few quick, breathless pleasantries. We carried on grinding upwards and after few more kilometres, I decided to pull off into a tranquil wooded car park at Mitteralm (mile marker 18.5 km) for a bite to eat.
Despite seeing my best friend crawl away into the distance, I enjoyed this brief moment of respite, refilling my water bottle at a natural spring and wolfing down a muesli bar. A few minutes later, I got back onto the bike, shifted back down to the 34 tooth cog and carried on uphill, with “just” 9 km to go.
I immediately regretted losing my pacer, struggling to find the right balance of speed, cadence and power. The result was me creeping up a steady 8-12 % gradient (with peaks of up to 15 %), trying to overthink my outputs with cars, motorbikes, buses and the odd truck overtaking with a metre to spare, and fighting to conquer the urge to just stop and give my legs a quick break.
The trees slowly thinned out, exposing the road and surrounding grass and rocks to the sun. The temperature increased, but not unpleasantly so. Off came the arm and leg warmers, as well as the gilet. I gave in to the cries of my legs on occasion, taking a quick break at opportune moments, and then regretting it a few minutes later when struggling to clip back into my pedals in my lowest gear.
Things began to unravel when, with just 4 km to go to the Fuscher Törl, my legs started to cramp. My quick breaks lasted a little longer, each time with me trying to stretch and massage my legs to loosen them up. Instead of being able to get back on my bike after these breaks and ride off, merely pushing down on the pedals set my legs into spasms again.
This left me with a choice: turn around and cruise back down, putting an end to my misery; or carry on upwards any way I can. My stubbornness clearly preferred the second option. This led to a 4 km walk up a 10 % alpine road, with traffic rushing past – on clip-in cycling shoes. For the non-cyclists among you, walking in cycling shoes is not the easiest thing at the best of times, however the cramping of my upper legs from the cycling was now being complemented by cramping of my lower legs as I stiffly walked upwards and onwards.
During this time, the reality of what I was doing struck me – perhaps moreso than when I was on the bike. As ten, twenty, thirty minutes passed by and I continued my ascent on foot, step by step, I began to notice that the hairpin bends that were once above me were now far away below me. I was literally climbing up a mountain. The highest in Austria.
Asides from the usual traffic, including test vehicles and troops of noisy Harley Davidson riders, this whole time cyclists had slowly been overtaking me. Despite not being able to ride up, I tried to muster a sense of pride, holding my head up straight and pushing my bike onwards with a sense of purpose.
Whilst many cyclists were road cyclists with equally unsuitable gearing, there were a few riding mountain bikes and e-bikes. If I had the choice of doing the ascent again and pick any bike, I would again take the road bike, partially out of tradition, partially due to the challenge – plus, I’m relatively young and fit. It was however inspiring to see people of different ages and fitness levels chosing to tackle this tricky climb. In all cases the ascent is well deserved.
During the long upwards march, I finally saw the small pointy pyramid shaped roof of the Fuscher Törl. When it first comes into view though, you still see a long road winding around the face of the mountain, which in my case you still have to limp along.
In my defence, with about 1 km to go, I did try to get back on the bike to arrive properly and in style. 30 metres later my entire left leg cramped, resulting in me screaming in pain and feeling sorry for myself in a small fit of tears. Whilst hunched over my handlebars in agony and frustration, my spirits were lifted as a fellow cyclist passed by, calling out words of encouragement.
I have been told the last 500 metres are the worst, with the gradient gradually increasing. Still walking, I latched onto several cyclists in club kit, which – rather reassuringly – seemed to go the same speed on their bikes as I did on foot. Head up, shoulders back, I walked my way up the last few hundred metres, passing a few curious pedestrians taking photos of the vista.
As I finally made my destination of the Fuscher Törl, suddenly the emotions came pouring it. Exhaustion, pride, pain, happiness. It was an odd experience, in that on one hand I was standing in a car park at one of the highest points of a mountain, surrounded by cars, motorbikes, and people milling around. On the other hand, there were quite a few of fellow cyclists relaxing after a tough climb. The thing that struck me the most however, was the man in a handcycle who was powering up the same climb as I had just struggled up using just his arms. In summary: people who make it up to the top of the Großglockerstraße are truly amazing.
After printing myself a commemorative coin and having a photo taken by a friendly cyclist (one of the aformentioned members of the club run), I prepared myself for the exciting descent. Back on went the arm warmers, the gilet and the gloves, and I took a momen to check my gears and test my brakes. Game time.
I swung my leg over the top tube, the cramps now magically gone, weaved my way between cars in Austria’s highest traffic jam, and started rolling downhill. This being my first ascent of a mountain, I took the first few hairpins cautiously, testing my brakes and tires. Rather kindly a car in front of me noticed me coming from behind, pulled over and waved me through.
On went the descent, all the details I noticed when walking up whooshed past. Gaining confidence – and keeping a wary eye on my Wahoo map for any upcoming bends – I trusted my brakes more, finding the optimum braking point and pushing harder into the straights. After all the cars and motorbikes overtaking me uphill, it was a pleasure to run at the same speed as them and attack the corners faster. A sub-10 kg road bike with two wheels does have some advantages over a 1.5 tonne four wheeled machine.
The thicker vegetation gradually came back, closely followed by the pine trees, and the warmer temperature. The one unusual thing about the Großglocknerstraße is the number of bikes and cars which struggle with overheating brakes. On the way down, I was increasingly greeting by the smell of burnt brakes and the sight of smoking car wheels. My four rim brake blocks seemed to cope well though – good thing I sanded them beforehand.
Back down after the Ferleiten toll booth, the road becomes straighter but still has the same gradient as I struggled on on the way up. Whilst keeping an eye out for wayward animals, I kept the pressure on, touching 60-70 km/h whilst rushing through the rolling green fields.
I finally came to a stop back in Bruck at the small square by the church, relieving myself of my arm warmers, gloves and gilet. I basked in the warm sun and the knowledge of what I just completed. What a day.
And my time from the Ferleiten tool booth to Fuscher Törl? 2:50:22. Perhaps I’ll be faster next time.
Personal tips to ascend (and descend) the Großglocknerstraße
- Weather can be variable, with snow even occuring in early Summer / early Autumn, temperatures can be very warm or cold, and it can be very windy
- Take enough clothes which can be removed in layers, including gloves and gilet for winds during the descent
- There are some shops en route, nevertheless take at least two bottles of water, a handful of muesli bars and a gel or two. There is a spring halfway up at Mitteralm to refill bottles
- Check and double check your equipment beforehand. Loose handlebars, QR skewers, worn brakes and dudy tires can have deadly consequences – often there are no side barriers and an immediate drop off
- Use a GPS with maps function and upload the route. This helps in seeing upcoming curves – make sure you brake well in time
- Take care with traffic as it can get very busy, and drivers often try out their racing skills
- Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back
- Keep a fully charged mobile phone on you with emergency numbers
Have you been up the Großglocknerstraße? Let me know how your experience was in the comments below!