Wednesday, September 28, 2016
"You rode down this on a tandem?" asked Arturo, after he rolled to a stop. "Yeah. In 2010." "You're nuts. I'm far more impressed by the descent than the climb. With the climb if you keep pedaling you'll eventually get there. But that descent? Yeesh!" "There was no point where you were in any danger whatsoever." "Yeah, but it was fast!"
The morning started with a descent from Winklern, which really surprised me. My last visit to Grossglockner was in 2010, and it being on a tandem, the experience turned out to be completely different. The day was mostly overcast, but as we rode some sun showed up and the weather turned out to be pretty hopeful.
The first 15km went fairly fast, being flat or rolling. We knew the real climb only started in Heiligenblut. When we got there, we stopped from groceries, water, and to use the rest room, and then started up the 12% grade. The Grossglockner highway is a tollway for anyone except cyclists. Cyclists ride free, but can only traverse the road during daylight hours. In addition, there's a turnstile where you push the button to get yourself through and in doing so agree to the terms and conditions that the toll road wishes to impose. They also try to sell you on orange vests, which could be necessary on inclement weather days, but were not needed that day.
Arturo quickly outran me, but at one point had to stop to eat or drink. I went on ahead but then promptly made the wrong turn at the intersection by following what I thought were local cyclists! Fortunately, I had gone wrong by only 1km before Arturo sent me a message. I asked the "local cyclists" and told me that they were headed to a ski resort hotel, not over to Zell Am See. OOps. I turned around and started climbing the right way and caught up to Arturo, but he soon left me in the dust again.
Grossglockner was a 2000m climb all by itself to just the first pass (Hochtor). The road is meticulously maintained, having been recently resurfaced as well. After the first pass, you had a tunnel traverse, and then a descent and a climb to a second pass (Fuscher Torl).
The road is best traversed from south to north as the northern approach had grades in excess of 14%! But because the road is so frequently shrouded in bad weather, I'd had to abandon approaches to it in multiple years. We stopped for photos and to admire the views at the top, but with the forecast of a storm we weren't inclined to hang out for lunch.
The descent, of course, is a delight. It's a consistent grade with wide swooping turns that are easy to manage on a bicycle. Because it's a toll road, traffic is light compared to other alpine passes, and the relatively polite Austrian drivers don't buzz you or do crazy things. We zipped along at a good clip, and too soon, the decent was over. Arturo was impressed that I had taken the tandem down this road, but it's actually one of the gentler descents in the area, with several 20% grades that have caused me to stop the tandem and pour water over the rims only to see steam come out!
In Fusch, we stopped at a roadside restaurant and had lunch while looking over the map. Since we were on a Jobst route, I wanted to stay at the Jobst hotel: Hotel Grubl. I'd stayed there in 2010, and found it cheap with great food. It was also high up, which meant that the nights would be cool and we'd be able to sleep. The traverse across the Pinzgau valley on the Tauern radweg, however, did not impress me: it was hot, boring, and the bike path would randomly disappear and in general wasn't well marked while the main road was busy, noisy, and annoying with fast traffic. Our best bet was to find a train to take us to Wald im Pinzgau, and then ride the 14% grade from the train station to the hotel, using the train to skip the boring flat section.
It turned out that in 2010, there was no way I could have taken the train --- the tracks had been flooded in 2005, and only repaired in September 2010. But it was 2016 and the local train had been running for years, so after lunch, we rode the remaining kilometers to Zell Am See and got on the local train. While waiting, I called Hotel Grubl, but someone very young answered and asked me to call back in 10 minutes. 10 minutes later, I called back and indeed got Mrs. Kaiser. When I asked if they had room for the night she said no problem and I asked for a half pension, but never got an answer comprehensible to me. But since I'd been to that place before I knew it was not a problem as long as she was opened!
The train had a very active conductor, who would ask us to unload our saddlebags, and then have us arrange all the bikes so that the ones getting off earlier would not block the later exiting cyclists. It was a slow train, stopping often, but was still twice as fast as a bicyclist would have been (and probably more, since navigation takes a significant amount of time as well). At one point she came up to me and said, "You're riding the Tauern radweg to Salzburg, yes?" The look on her face when the reply was, "No. We're climbing the Gerlos pass. We just came over the Grossglockner highway." was priceless. It's a reminder that the rest of the world think of bicycle touring as riding flat valleys alongside river bike paths, while the "climb every mountain road you can find" approach to cycle touring is very much the rarity.
We got to Wald im Pinzgau at 5:30pm, and then proceeded to first ride to the Spar to refill water bottles and buy some fruits prior to the climb. I remembered that the climb was a painful 14% grade, and did not want to start it on an empty stomach. Well, it turned out that finding the road was the challenge, but we eventually figured it out after turning around a bit, and then started going.
For the second time that day, I learned how much easier riding up a hill is when you're not riding a tandem. While the gradient meter on my Garmin did measure 14% in several places, at no point did I feel like I was being challenged to complete the climb. My legs weren't worn out from riding a boring valley, and my low gears were more than sufficient. In fact, when we arrived at the hotel I was shocked and could probably have kept going up the pass, indicating that perhaps we could have gotten off the train earlier and saved a few euros on the train tickets.
Dinner was delicious and filling and up to what we'd come to expect from Jobst hotels. After dinner we walked along the Old Gerlos road to spot the Krimml waterfall before the forecasted thunderstorm started bringing rain to the valley. We didn't actually get a thunderstorm, but there was no question that the Grossglockner would have had one or two.