Tuesday, September 27, 2016

2016 Tour of the Alps: Niederolang to Winklern

We were riding as hard as we could. "5 minutes left!" I told Arturo. Down below us, the valley was silent. In 5 minutes, the road below us would open up and we would hear the sound of motorcycles and cars racing up the single-lane, one way road.
The morning's breakfast was excellent, with eggs, plenty of small cakes, and sausages. It was to be our last breakfast in Italy and we indulged in the breakfast.

The weather outside looked gloomy. There were a few shafts of sunlight here and there, but we comforted ourselves with the thought that steep climbing at maximal effort would at least not overheat us.
We rode through the fairly flat valley towards Antholz di Sotto as quickly as possible. For a while, the bike path was tempting, but the clouds all around us urged us forward. The light Sunday morning traffic meant that we weren't harassed by the usual Italian driving.
When the road tilted upwards, however, the Italians were done with their breakfast and started driving up the hill in greater and greater numbers. Fortunately, just as we stopped to answer the call of nature, up the road came a team of ski-skaters. "Is it better to be in front of them, or to be in between them?" asked Arturo. "Who cares? As long as some of them are behind you, they make good protection from Italian drivers!"
Indeed, the side to side action of the ski-skaters meant they had to utilize the whole lane. That forced car drivers to slow down and pass entirely on the other lane, so it was worth the effort to try to stay in the midst of them. I chased one of them down and noticed that he was wearing a Serbia jersey. I asked him if this was the Serbian cross-country ski team. "No," came the reply, "Biathlon. Today we're doing strength training: 6km uphill."
Behind the men's biathlon team were the women. One of them passed me, but I figured I could keep up, and in a fit of bad timing, over-took her right in front of her coach in an attempt to get a picture. Arturo told me later that the coach pulled her over and took her pulse, but of course we had no idea whether it's because she was working too hard, or that letting a bicyclist carrying a touring load over-take you was going to get you in trouble.
Past the biathlon track/shooting range where we lost our Serbian bodyguards, we rode past the Antholzer See. The lake was pretty, but it was starting to get cold. Even on sunny days it might never really warm up, since there was plenty of shade from the trees around us. To my amazement, we got to the bottom of the official start of the climb up to the Staller saddle and saw that the road was a timed one-way road. 15 minutes out of every hour, there was a window that would let motor vehicles from each side in. Once in, the vehicles have about half an hour to get through to the other side. Of course, a bicyclist couldn't possibly complete this climb in 45 minutes, so we just ignored the sign and rode up, keeping track of when the switch over would happen and we'd have to pull over to let cars go by.
The climb was challenging, but with cool weather, we didn't even drain more than a water bottle each. There were many places where we saw hiking groups, but nowhere did we see lodging or shelter of any kind. It was a good wilderness experience.
At the pass, we took pictures and then saw that the end of the one way road was right there at the Austrian border. We chatted with various motorcyclists who seemed interested in the idea that people without motors might actually attempt to do the kind of passes that they would burn fossil fuel to ride. We then rode over to the Obersee to admire the scenery.
Enchanted by the scene, Arturo suggested that we stop for lunch. "No!" I said. "Why not?" "Because we currently have a 45 minute window where there will be no cars behind us!" "OK, that makes sense!" So down we went. It's a beautiful descent, much better than a descent into the Italian side would have been. With a smooth, well-banked two lane road, we rarely had to brake.
The descent felt like it lasted forever, though eventually we did stop to have lunch at a roadside picnic bench when the weather warmed up enough. When we resumed riding, blue skies started appearing, and we even had to take off our jackets and leg warmers and put on sunscreen! The road descended a few long tunnels and galleries, but those were fast enough that they didn't bother us. Most important of all, Austrian drivers were far more polite and than the Italians were, giving us plenty of room when passing!
At Huben, I missed the turn that would have taken us along side the other side of the Isel river, away from the main road. Nevertheless, the main road had a downward slope and a tailwind, so we made excellent time even on the main road, keeping in mind Arturo's 40kph top speed. At Sankt Johan, I spotted the entry to the bike path and we rode that all the way into Lienz, where the bike path petered out at a gas station that sold maps.
I had plenty of Austrian maps, so I made Arturo buy a map of the area: we had finally ridden out of all the maps we had brought with us, and were now reduced to buying new maps for the rest of our trip. From Lienz, our goal was to ride at least to Winklern or to make Heiligenblut. Riding out of Lienz, however, we saw a perfect place to take a nap: a kika furniture store. It was closed for the weekend, but their outdoor furniture was still on display, and weren't tied down, nailed down, or locked down --- pieces of the store inventory would occasionally fly off, blown away by the wind. We reflected on how safe a place Austria must be --- any store in San Francisco that treated its inventory this way would find its inventory gone after only 3 hours. We took a chocolate and water stop and then proceeded to ride up the Iselsberg pass over to Winklern.
The Iselsberg was not marked on our (newly purchased) map. So we were very relieved to see the marking, since Winklern was supposed to be only at 500m or so, and we were worried that we were climbing the wrong pass. Right after the pass, we ran into a woman touring with two men --- her husband, and another tourist from New Zealand. They were in Europe for 6 weeks, and were obviously camping: each had 4 panniers and lots of accouterments. That amount of load caused them to avoid the high passes and stay in the valleys.

Descending into Winklern, we found the tourist information center which directed us to a bed and breakfast down near the bottom of town, ensuring we'd have maximum climb the next day. The owner stuck us in the highest room in the place, and we walked to town for a pizza dinner. We were out of salt, and the next day called for thunderstorms. There was a chance we could get over the Grossglockner before it hit, however, but we asked for an early start to maximize our chances.

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