The Donauradweg (Danube bike path) is a well established bike path in Austria running along the Danube river. Like many cycling enthusiasts, I recently decided to ride this – my journey would start at the St. Stephan’s cathedral in Passau (in Germany, on the border with Austria) to St. Stephan’s cathedral in Vienna – a total distance of 320 km. Part of the EuroVelo 6 bike route, a lot of normal people take it easy and enjoy the experience and sights, and sampling local culinary delights over several days. The official Donauradweg website even recommends a trip length of 8 days. Me? I wanted to do it in one day.
There is a logic to my madness. In preparation for Berlin-Munich (my 700 km audax starting this July), I wanted to test my new bike, my kit, my setup, and myself. So far, my longest ride was 150 km around Lower Austria. To make BM’s deadline of 700 km in 64 hours, I would need to do around 250-300 km a day. So, why not do Passau – Vienna in a day?
After work on Friday, I rode to the Vienna Hauptbahnhof train station, and took the 19:15 train to Passau. During the three hour ride, I was joined by 4 other cyclists and had a pleasant chat with them. They seemed to have ridden the same route, and were now going back home to Germany. A lot of cyclists are very friendly people who are willing to chat – we greeted each other using the informal “du” form rather than formal “Sie”, the latter always used when meeting new people. After a bit of a chit chat, they seemed rather surpirsed when they heard my plans to ride in one day, themselves having taken several days with an overnight stay every 70-100 km.
When comparing routes, I was warned that at 50 km there had been a landslide on the southern bank, which completely blocked the bike path. I was told that I could take a ferry at the path closure to the northern bank and then another back to the southern bank. Alternatively there was a hilly route which would bypass this entirely. How mysterious.
After waving my goodbyes and swapping contact details with one of the other cyclists, I decided to do a quick tour of Passau before checking into my hotel. Passau is a beautiful little town at the intersection of three major European rivers, with the Inn (originating in the Engadine region of Switzerland) and the Ilz (originating in the Bavarian Forest) merging into the Danube (originating in Donaueschingen in Germany), all of which eventually heads to the Black Sea. Once in the hotel, I made some last checks, prepped the bike and my food, set my alarm for 4:30, and fell asleep at about 23:00.
Passau to Linz (the first 100)
The alarm bell rung, and I pushed the snooze button for 15 minutes. Bleary eyed, I wolfed down my breakfast of chocolate chip cookies and a bottle of Fanta. I covered myself in sunscreen, dressed, crept downstairs, and set off towards the St. Stephen’s cathedral through the eerie mist. It was a lot colder than I expected, so I put my raincoat over my jersey and arm warmers.
Having touched the gate of the cathedral, I clipped in, the sound echoing across the empty square, and headed out of the old town and onto the main road towards the Austrian border. After about 20 km of rather uninspiring roads, I was supposed to cross over a dam onto the northern bank, but this was unfortunately gated shut. Quite the condemnation of Austrian punctuality, having arrived at 6:10 and its official opening time of 6:00 having been seemingly forgotten. Oh well – onwards along the southern bank.
The first 40 km was a bit unusual and slightly disappointing, with the bike path rarely offering any notable views of the Danube. The bike path instead seemed to be an afterthought, a stretch of asphalt unceremoniously plonked beside the main road. Eventually, the bike path peeled off the main road, following a local single track road. The road gradually became absolutely gorgeous, with the Danube to my left, and a wall of rocks to my right, and surrounded with forests on both banks of the river.
Reaching KM50 at 7:00, I spotted the sign for the landslide, which warned in no uncertain terms: “ACHTUNG: Lebensgefahr – Felssturze” (WARNING: Danger to life – landslide). A closed restaurant nearby and an apparently abandoned ferry didn’t inspire much hope, but the roadie in me appreciated the challenge of the 5 km climb (of approx 8-10%) which winded up through the forest. It was still cold and misty, but I was struggling to regulate my body temperature climbing uphill through the humid forest. Thankfully the bags on my bike didn’t cause much of a problem with the extra weight, and the Cannondale handled like a charm.
Eventually I reached the top, reaching the town on Haibach ob der Donau, where I cycled past a few surprised locals standing around and going about their Saturday morning chores. The road carried on across the hills and away from the river, and after a while, which the sun finally came up and I could peel off my raincoat and arm warmers. It was here that I was treated to the unusual sensation of cycling a slight uphill at about 50 km/h and increasing (likely due to a tailwind or some otherworldly force localised in those hills). The sun eventually broke out and the road slowly headed back down to the Danube at Aschach an der Donau, offering a wonderful view of the landscape.
From Aschach, what I always imagined to be the Donauradweg started, with a nice separated bike path winding alongside the Danube. The next stop was the city of Linz at about KM100, where I was treated to the slightly worrying sight of about 15 paramedics busying themselves on the beach by the river. I couldn’t help hoping that it was an exercise and not a real incident. The city passed by without much trouble, with a couple of local roadies trying to outpace me on the local bike path, and despite having 100 km in my legs and no will to push too hard, I think I put up a fair fight.
Linz to Melk (the second 100)
After Linz, things became a little bland with the bike path and river passing through wide, flat and relatively featureless industrial surroundings. There was a nice tailwind though, and after about 4 hours of cycling and 125 km, I spotted a sign for a little cyclist-friendly restaurant and decided it was time for breakfast. I was welcomed by the sound of Schlager (very dated Austrian pop music) playing from a trolley with a horse head attached to a pool noodle (a party horse?). The horse seemed to belong to about 10 rather tipsy men who warmly greeted me in slurred, heavy dialect, but with a distinclty friendly tone. My slightly food starved mind didn’t quite pick out what they said, and they eventually gave up on talking to me. I ordered a plate of Schnitzel and chips, three bottles of coke, and an espresso – quite the breakfast!
Feeling happier with the world, I bad farewell to the friendly staff (the 10 am partygoers having already staggered off down the road), I clipped in and set out back on the road again. The bike path was still fairly bland, but a giant statue of a fish did catch my attention. Around KM150, I arrived the picturesque village of Grein, which had a slight Mediterranean vibe beside the Danube. I couldn’t resist stopping at an ice-cream parlour and treated myself to a lemon-melon-mango combo.
The blandness of Linz was definitely now behind me, and at KM180 I was cycling through picturesque fields and villages, dodging past slower touring cyclists. Whilst I’m a roadie and am used to riding quickly, when I rode past normal touring cyclists riding at 10-15 km/h, my speeds of 30-40 km/h really hit home. Whilst there is a lot to be said for a comfortable pace and enjoying the local offerings (which I clearly lacked), I really enjoyed the sheer variety of things that I saw within such a short time.
My Cannondale CAAD13 racing frame and FFWD 55mm carbon wheels had so far performed like a dream, and the satisfying whoosing noise unique to carbon wheels is a pleasure in itself. My Tailfin bag in its aerodynamic position behind my saddle felt solid and light. My top tube bag and feed bag on my handlebars offered great practicality, allowing me to store my phone, eat on the go, and even store my rubbish in small side pockets. No complaints about my rig so far. I was motoring.
Melk to Vienna (the final 120)
A constant worry of mine when riding in summer is that of water. A standard bike takes two bottles, which generally means one carries about 1.5 litres. I had tried to mount another two bottles to various parts of my bike earlier, but this didn’t quite work. As a result, every time I saw a public water fountain, I would fill up my bottles just in case.
Nearing the famous monastery town of Melk, I noticed a dedicated public cycle stop (with a stand, tools and water fountain) and couldn’t resist. Every major town should have a station like this – it is a sheer godsend for cyclists. I’m normally a rather controlled and composed person, but after the long day and the heat, after filling my bottles with the cold water, I let loose and proceeded to drench my dusty and salt encrusted face and hair with the water, and wet my cycling cap. Heaven.
I then rolled into the picturesque town centre of Melk, cutting a dusty and tired figure surrounded by smart and casually dressed individuals enjoying their weekend. I found a nice looking restaurant, picked a corner table and sat down with my bike beside me. Mustering my full level of politeness and etiquette to compensate for my disheveled appearance, I ordered a goulash with bread roll, a coke and the legendary Austrian soft drink Almdudler, which saved the day. Feeling rested and well fed, I paid, stood up, adjusted my bike and bags (much to the curiosity of my fellow guests), clipped in and rode out of town.
I was now entering into the wonderous Wachau region, famous for its vineyards and castles. The bike path took on a whole new character, an asphalt ribbon passing through rolling hills, picturesque villages, vineyards, orchards and the Danube lazily snaking through the valley. This is why I cycle. You can’t experience this level of intimacy with a place or its people from a car or motorbike, and by foot you travel too slowly and get lost in the detail. The little handsome hotels and pensions for cyclists were so tempting, and I think I might go back someday for a long weekend.
The road eventually led to the town of Krems at about KM240, now familiar territory from my regular outings. I bypassed the town, now rather keen to get to Vienna with “just” 80 km left. Things started to get difficult here. It started to feel a little hot, and I felt the power in my legs waning. I stopped at a restaurant for another Almdudler and coffee, and to fill my water bottles. Whilst my saddle had done surprisingly well so far (despite it being designed primarily for racing), I was getting increasingly uncomfortable. I started to regularly shift my position on the saddle and handlebars to alleviate this pain, which in turn led to a sore lower back and neck. My speed fell a fair bit, dawdling around 25 km/h.
I passed the Altenwörth dam and shortly afterwards at KM265 I passed the famous Zwentendorf nuclear power station (famous for having been built, but never started up following a controversial referendum in the 1970s). Now back on one of my regular routes, I was really struggling to keep my legs going. I was being overtaken by roadies who were doing speeds I would normally manage, and when some waved (a nice trait of roadies), I could barely manage a wave back.
Whilst the thought of giving up never entered my mind, I was fighting against the resistance imposed by my mind, actively resisting the temptation to stop. This was the point I wanted to reach with in this training ride – the battle of the body and the mind, and making sure the body wins. Just keep those legs turning. Regardless what speed I did, every pedal turn would get me closer to my destination.
After passing the “garden town” of Tulln, I was treated to the bizarre sight of a fireman putting out a fire on the dry grass which lay by the bike path. It seemed so unusual, a small fire of about 1 square metre being attacked by the fireman with a hose, a fair bit of blacked earth surrounding it, and a handful of onlookers standing by and watching curiously from mere metres away. Down the hill, another group of firemen were shoving a larger water pump to a nearby pond, presumably for extra water supply. I simply shrugged internally and pedaled on.
I finally saw the Greifenstein dam in the distance and knew that I had approximately 25 km left. Such a short distance, but at my speed, it would take one whole hour. The fatigue came in waves, and sometimes I found some reserve of power in my legs, pushing back up to 30 km/h, but then slowing back down to 15. At one point, I stopped and sat down on a large rock, feeling the onset of the dreaded “bonk”. I tried to keep it back and get my energy levels up by downing a muesli bar and a handful of Haribo sours (what life savers!).
After some grinding, I arrived in Klosterneuburg, a monastery town lying to the north west of Vienna. I spotted another water fountain and surprised some local youths chilling on a nearby bench by unceremoniously drenching myself with the wonderfully cold water. My power slowly returned and I got back up to speeds on 30 km/h, passing familiar landmarks from my commute. I got into Vienna around 20:30 in the evening, and of course hit the Saturday evening parties along the Donaukanal (the channel running through the city centre). I did wonder what other people would think of me when they looked at me – did I really look like someone who has just ridden 320 km in 12 hours?
I snaked my way through traffic up the Rotenturmstraße and finally onto Stephansplatz, the centre of Vienna. Due to the ban on cycling, I unclipped and walked over the last 50 metres past tourists and partygoers (it felt like pre-COVID) – took the obligatory selfie, and then touched the gate. Made it.
- Total riding time: 11 hours 48 minutes
- Total time: 16 hours (i.e. approx 4 rest hours)
- Total distance: 319.50 km
- Average speed 26.9 km/h
I clipped in again, and then I cycled home.
Well, what a day. It might be a huge distance for some, it might be normal for others, it may be short for others still. My furthest ride ever until this trip was 150 km – on that day, I more than doubled this and survived! Nevertheless, this was a training ride for something much more difficult which I have in four weeks. To train properly, I would need to do about 250-300 km the first day, the second day, and the third day. So what did I learn?
The speed and handling of my CAAD13 and frame bags was great. My suspicions on using a racing frame (the bike is a favourite of crit racers) and deep wall carbon wheels, instead of something more robust were correct. This setup offered me good aerodynamics and light weight, and on some sections I could keep speeds of about 38 km/h, my normal cruising pace. Even at slower speeds or with headwinds, the lower wind resistance offered by the setup allowed me to conserve energy. I have serious doubts I could do the distance in the same time on any other type of bike (well, maybe an all out TT bike, but that’s a challenge for next time).
The bike and kit managed very well even on steep uphill slopes, and it was very manoeuvrable in town and around tricky obstacles.
Despite the distance, to be honest, I’m not certain that it was a very good training session. I had great weather, relatively flat and good quality roads, no mechanicals, and no punctures. Nevertheless, from my daily commuting over the last two years, I have developed valuable experience riding in good and bad weather, as well as dealing with various mechanicals. My clothing and equipment is excellent, lightweight and functional.
Some ideas for what I want to change for Berlin-Munich:
- A second feed bag, offering more space to store things like food and electronics
- Time trial bars to offer an alternative hand position, this might help with my saddle position and ease pressure off my hands and wrists
- Better gloves with protection for my radial/ulnar nerves to avoid compression
- Need to be able to carry more water (but where to put it?)
- Different type of food to eat on the go (the one day old rolls I had were hard to eat)
- More puncture resistant tyres (I definitely had luck this time!)
- Sun screen easy at hand so that I can regularly reapply it (in my feed bag perhaps?)
- That being said, everything else worked very well – from that perspective, a successful test!
I feel like I’m in a good place physically and mentally to take on Berlin-Munich. Despite no real long-distance experience, I surprisingly enjoyed the different challenges offered by endurance cycling. I will definitely revisit the Wachau on the bike, and I think I’ll start to take long distance riding more seriously.
Congratulations if you got to the bottom of this post, thanks for reading!