Follow the little yellow line. Unquestioningly. It doesn’t matter how difficult the road gets – into headwind, up steep hills, across a field – just keep following it. It sounds strange I know, but in some organised bike races, you have to put your trust into the person who planned the route. Finish it properly.
It’s February in Austria, and the weather flirts between the bitter bite of winter and the promise of a warm spring. It’s time for the annual “The Slovakia Experiment”, organised by Viennese bike shop CityBiker. I’ve been looking forward to the TSE since Christmas, as it marks my first big organised ride of the year.
The night before it had been raining heavily, and strong westerly winds were promised. I had already decided to ride the more challenging gravel route, named “Gernot’s Delight”, which would cover 140km, taking me from Vienna to Bratislava through the Industrieviertel in Lower Austria. I was anxious with anticipation.
About 100 starters met on Saturday at 9am at CityBiker in the 7th district. Eventually the group spilled out onto the pavement and rode out of the 1st district, toward the Prater park. Some riders formed small groups, chatting was they rode. My efforts to spark conversation didn’t yield fruitful results, so I decided to to ride alone and at my own pace. Perhaps I could practice some new tactics for longer rides.
So there I was, listening to music and following the little yellow line on my bike computer marking the route. As we snaked out of town, our route became increasingly adventurous, changing from asphalt roads, to bike paths, to gravel, to muddy forest tracks, to single track, and back.
For the next hour, I smoothly moved between groups, keeping a measured pace, riding within myself and avoiding excessive efforts. I was in it for the long game. After a while, the route kinked southeast and the tailwind which had been so helpful turned into vigorous head- and sidewinds. We were being battered about, our clothes and loose accessories on our bikes flapping around. I sought shelter with a small group for a few kilometres, however for no apparent reason, a rider in front of me slammed on his brakes, almost causing a crash. Maybe it was better alone.
The pack starts to thin out
As the route turned increasingly off-road, the large groups thinned out and after a while I could only see a few riders ahead or behind me. The route was full of surprises, including some tight muddy single track which wound its way through a forest, and paths running between garden walls and a river. It was surprising how many riders took a wrong turn, losing time finding their way back. Clear navigation, focus on my environment, and a measured pace would keep up my average speed.
Despite the wind, the sun was shining and I really enjoyed the ride. The KTM Chronos rode well across the varied terrain, and I felt at peace as I left the Viennese suburbs behind. Little moments gave me real joy – a train passing slowly past as I rode on a gravel track; the flickering of red and white tape in the wind, each clinging at one end onto a row of posts at the side of the road; and the friendly greetings of other TSE riders when passing.
Off-road is not really my natural place of comfort. I feel much more at home on the road, and the quick changes in terrain was unfamiliar. Following the route therefore offered me both a challenge and reassurance. Yes, it was a novel path and somewhere I wouldn’t normally ride, but it was clearly ridable and someone had done just that. I just had to trust myself and my bike, and adapt and improve my riding style.
Unlike the road, the mixture of asphalt, gravel, forest roads, field paths and muddy tracks were physically and mentally tiring after several hours of riding. The kilometres ticked by slowly, and after 4 hours I was surprised how relatively little ground I had covered. Not surprising when you‘re riding 20km/h average.
Nevertheless, like the tortoise against the hare, slow and steady wins the race. I made a big gain in placement when I passed a large group of riders who were standing in a field, looking lost. The clear trail we were following made a curve to the left, however thankfully I had already spotted the narrow gap in a mass of bushes through which the route passed. Following this would lead me onto a field which bore faint traces of tyre tracks. Just follow the little yellow line.
Slow and steady…
Later on I played ping pong with a small group of gravel riders. These guys looked like fellow roadies, complete with one or two hipster moustaches; people who clearly enjoyed powering up hills and attacking the headwind. I stuck to my plan of slow consistency, which was certainly easier on my heavier MTB. I kept an eye on my heart rate (I had no power meter), and ate and drank little and often to keep on top of my nutrition. Doing this whilst riding saved me time, which kept up my average speed. My tactics worked, and within half an hour I caught the group, who were standing and resting on a bridge, chatting. I decided to stop with them as a reward, but just for a minute to finish a half eaten Clif bar.
From what I heard of their discussion, morale was low. They talked about the wind, the cold and how they dreaded the final two climbs on the route, and considered the option of taking a more direct route to Bratislava. We rode loosely together for a few kilometres, however eventually three of them missed a corner. I didn’t see them again, and knowing their riding style and speed, I can only presume they must have taken a main road to Bratislava or left for home.
Following the little yellow line is simple, no intelligence is necessary. Sure, a more direct or flatter route would be much easier. You could also give up and go home, but where’s the fun in that? It’s time to show your grit, be stubborn, and take what’s thrown at you.
Now completely alone, the road snaked ahead of me between fields and leafless brown trees, and eventually I was picked up and swept along by the wind. The hard field paths and muddy roads were now behind me. Over the hours of riding, my initial worries about riding through deep muddy puddles had turned to a mild feeling of incovenience. Puddle after puddle had came and went, and I was eventually blasting through them without concern. With every passing kilometre, I felt my skillset developing.
The road finally turned left and into a sidewind as I entered the flat and sterile borderlands. Running several kilometres alongside a train line, I started to fatigue. Nobody was in front of me, nobody behind me – I guessed that I was near the front of the gravel group. This was no consolation as I fell into a dark place as the fatigue rolled in. My mind went numb and I slowly lost my motivation. I was worried that this was due to poor nutrition, and I felt hungry, despite regularly eating and drinking.
I could only help but keep the legs pumping, getting comfortable and focussing on the road in front of me – this would pass, I needed to keep moving. I know this sometimes happens to me after 200km, so I wasn’t happy that it was only 100km in. I then remembered the gel that I brought with me just in case. It was perhaps the kick of glucose I needed, however I fought with myself to take it. In the dark place, simply tasks are a challenge. Eventually my stubbornness prevailed, and I forced myself to down the gel. The road flashed past my eyes like static and my legs kept pumping. Finally the gel hit me, I slowly felt some energy come back to me and my morale gradually improved.
The border-crossing into Slovakia was unremarkable, but this is the beauty of the European Schengen area. It felt like riding through a large hedge, and after a short ride down a bike path on the Slovak side, I was sent down a small path surrounded by concrete infrastructure. I passed through some bushes (literally this time), across an open train line, past a small clearing which some homeless men made their own, greeting them as I passed, and I emerged in a supermarket car park. From there, it was only a few kilometres through early afternoon traffic to the Danube and the bridge which took me straight into the city centre. I had made it.
But half of the total elevation was yet to come. What did the route have ahead for us?
Arrival into the outskirts of Bratislava and riding across the Danube
The route led me northwards to the city outskirts, and up into the expanse of forest where the locals spend their weekends walking, jogging or mountain biking. It is a beautiful area, but the first 17% slope had me cursing. I had stopped for a few minutes at a shop for a bottle of coke, and one of the riders behind me caught up. Confronted with the hill, we both decided to get off and push our bikes up the steep slope, exchanging a few sarcastic comments under our laboured breaths.
This was probably “Gernot’s delight”, the sting in the tail of the TSE23 gravel route. Unnecessary, mean, and tough – but rewarding when you complete it.
At the top I caught up with another TSE rider, and I had a few minutes of bliss, rocketing down the sleep slope towards the final climb. After a few minutes of dread, the route turned from the asphalt road onto a steep, muddy path. A wall, if you will, 100 metres of elevation and peaking at a 20% gradient.
Again I got off and pushed up the slippery, muddy slope. There was a brief moment of hilarity as I looked up and saw another rider ahead of me pushing his bike, as well as another behind me. Both looked miserable and used the same approach as I did – push the bike for 10 metres, take a quick break, look around and wish you were somewhere else, then push again. Repeat until you reach the top. I caught up with the guy in front of me and when we made it to the top, I congratulated him and gave him a crisp fist bump. We then bombed down the rocky path to our destination together, no concern about our speed or the sketchy surface.
I was the 25th official finisher, which included those who took the road route or even a shortcut (rules didn’t matter here). I was quite happy, and treated myself to a delicious risotto and skewer from the kitchen to refuel. It just started to rain as I arrived, so I sat in the warm, looking pitifully at the handful of wet riders slowly traipsing through the door at regular intervals.
Over food and a drink, I had a really good chat with two fellow riders, Franz and Christian, and eventually we took the train back to Vienna. I was tired and it was wet, it had already been a pretty good day.
The ice had been broken. A long bike ride does that to you. About 12 of us TSE riders and our bikes shared the 90 minute train journey back home, and we spent it laughing, joking and telling stories. Franz saw me admiring his cold beer, reached into his bag and pulled out a can of Gösser beer he brought from Austria, and handed it to me without question. This was the life. Complete strangers joined with one common passion, fused together by blood, sweat and kilometres.
Cycling doesn’t have to be easy or even fun in the moment. A day tour like the TSE can be a challenge in its own right, or an opportunity to train for greater challenges ahead. Either way, it was a great day out and I’m certainly happy I stayed firm and followed the full route to the very end.
If you’re in the area, try it sometime (route here), or plan a new and exciting adventure which pushes you.
- Route distance 129.5 km
- Route time 6 h 9 min
- Average speed 21 km/h
- Elevation 780 m
Great report! Thanks for participating and awesome you got to know Franz and Christian.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It was a great experience as always, thanks for organising! There were some real characters there, was fun to chat with them – piratislava also sounds interesting ☺️