Riding west out of St. Anton, heading into the Arlberg Pass, my thighs are burning as I am frantically shifting down the gears of my road bike.
I am only a few minutes into the first climb and the bike computer is showing a gradient of 10 percent.
This can’t be right? I was expecting 7 or 8 percent max, but ahead of me the road stretches upwards just as steep for at least another 200 meters until it disappears behind a bend. I am hoping, with a hint of panic, that after the next corner the slope of the road will become shallower.
My legs are churning the cranks of the bike and I desperately try to relax and remind myself not to grab the handle bar as if I am hanging off a cliff.
I take a few deep breaths. Every muscle contraction means I need more oxygen; oxygen that is in short supply on my first day at altitude in the Austrian Alps.
I follow the street’s right turn past several hotels. On the sidewalk next to me pedestrians in hiking gear are making their way down the mountain in good spirits. The gradient is still showing 10 percent and up ahead the road climbs in a perfectly straight line. My heart rate is swiftly nearing its maximum and stamping down the pedals I simply cannot get into a calm, sustainable rhythm. My breathing meanwhile is turning into a faint, consistent whistle.
On the other side of the road, I see a group of tourists sitting in the grass next to a broken-down tour bus. The driver is talking glumly with another men who gesticulates behind an open engine hatch. A couple of minutes later my stomach is cramping. Riding right after breakfast was not a good idea. Keep pedaling, I am telling myself, keep breathing, relax. And more importantly: don’t throw up.
Perhaps inspired by the sight of the incapacitated bus, a dangerous idea has taken root in my head: I need to stop. This is ridiculous. This was just meant to be a short reconnaissance ride. Stopping after only 15 minutes does not bode well. Two days from now this will be a 6 Km climb followed by a 14 Km climb embedded into a 150 Km loop.
Panting by the side of the road, I have the first nagging doubts whether I will be able to finish the challenge that I set myself.
Choosing a challenge
Fed up with my usual gym routine of weights, rowing machine and the occasional spinning class, I had decided eight months ago that I wanted something different. A new exercise regime to keep the weight in check and fight both ageing and general ennui.
A dodgy knee meant running, Crossfit or playing football, my sport of choice for decades, were out of the question. I don’t know what sparked the idea of buying a road bike. Although I enjoyed the speed and the occasional lung-busting climbs up a hill during the few times I had borrowed a bike, it does not explain why I wanted to start cycling as a sport at age 47.
Because I knew that buying a bike would amount to not much more than owning and storing one, rather than actually using it, I decided to set myself a goal. The strategy was simple. Pick a challenge, tell everyone about it and the shame of abandoning the plan would be much greater than the struggle of regular training needed to achieve it.
I picked the Arlberg Giro in St. Anton, one of the many “bike races for everyone.” It seemed to be, with adequate training, just about achievable for a beginner like myself. Likewise, a less diligent regime or some prolonged slacking off would surely result in failure. Given the stunning Alpine scenery of Tyrol, I could easily combine the Giro with an extended hiking holiday.
About 4,000 training kilometers later, I found myself for the first time on my bike in the mountains.
I had followed a training schedule by Today’s Plan, an Australian training website. The program told me what to do every day of the week and more often than not I managed to do what it had mapped out. Putting in the prescribed number of miles required a considerable amount of discipline. This included a, for me hitherto unheard of, waking up time of 5:45 am several days a week. This way I could fit in some hour-long training rides before work, followed by longer rides on the weekend.
Now ahead of the Arlberg Giro, I was not dissatisfied with the amount of training I had done nor the intensity of it. Sure, I would have preferred to lose more weight than I did in the end, dropping only 7 kilos from 104 Kg to 97 Kg.
But the real problem was that I had done all my training at sea level on a Caribbean island that is completely flat. The highest elevation, other than the piled up trash in the landfill, is a colossal 15 meters above the sea. When I told people about my plan, they tended to repeat what I said in the form of a question, as if I had said something outlandish that makes absolutely no sense. “So, you are training here for a bike event in the mountains? With 2,500 meters of climbing? In the Alps?" And then give me a look that is normally only reserved for mud-soaked dogs looking for strokes.
With a race starting time of 7 a.m. and considering the short 4 Km warm-up ride to the starting line, I set the alarm for 5.15 a.m. After a half decent night’s sleep, interrupted by some fretting about whether I would manage the steep climbs, I woke up quite brightly. As I made my breakfast and some coffee, I noticed a slight feeling of nausea caused by pre-race nerves.
I decided to eat a little bit of porridge but not to overeat. I did not want to repeat the rookie mistakes of eating too much and over-pacing from two days earlier. Still, I could not shake the apprehension that this bad experience may have been the result of more than just an excessive breakfast, my inexperience with steep climbs and the first day at altitude. Perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew?
I decided to wear the largest cycling jersey I owned: comfort over aerodynamics. A glance in the mirror confirmed that I still looked chubby though, but I chose to ignore it. The jersey also had to be wide to fit everything I needed into the pockets: tools and inner tube to fix a puncture, energy bars and gels, and a sugary, soluble powder, that I dubbed “cocaine,” to keep myself going when eating would become difficult later in the race.
The race organizers had given this year’s event the theme “Like a fish in water.” I hoped this was not meant literally. After a last look at the weather report predicted rain only for the afternoon and what would be the last hour or two of the race, I decided to leave my rain jacket behind.
In my preparation, I had used another website, bestbikesplit.com, to get an idea of how long it was going to take me to complete the Giro. After I had uploaded the GPS data of the course and plugged in my weight, type of bike and approximate power measured in watts, the website’s algorithm informed me that, all going well, I would arrive after 7 hours and 30 minutes, breaks not included.
Clearly, that mathematical model had not taken into account my performance from two days ago. Compared to previous Arlberg Giro events, the predicted time would put me solidly among the 50 slowest riders.
At 6:30 a.m. I roll into the pedestrian zone of St. Anton am Arlberg to slot into the last of four groups at the back of nearly 1,400 riders. Most of them, including the strong amateurs and semi-pros at the front would attack the event as an actual race. My only goal for the day was to finish. Never mind the time. I would just compete against the mountain, the distance and myself.
At least the weather seemed to comply. The first sunlight gleamed on the surrounding mountains through some scattered clouds. My race plan was simple: pacing myself on the first climb, finding a rhythm and, if possible, making up time on the downhill and the flat sections that I am more accustomed to.
Looking around at the other participants, I quickly come to conclusion that I am not only one of the 50 slowest riders but also among the 50 heaviest. Cycling in the mountains is really straightforward: It is all about the ratio of one’s bodyweight to one’s power. In the mountains a rider’s weight is so significant that it has been said that no rider over 73 Kg would ever be able to win the Tour de France, a race that includes notoriously difficult mountain stages. In short, whatever I have in terms of biceps, shoulders or chest is just an anchor weighing me down, not to mention any of the blubber covering the useless muscles.
As we finally set off, 20 minutes after the first starters, no one is in a hurry. Every rider is rolling down what a few hours from now will be the finishing straight. We all know what is coming and take a measured approach into the first climb.
Top trained riders fly up this 6 km ascent in 20 minutes or so. I would take a little bit longer, but I am pacing myself a lot better than on my first attempt. My eyes are glued to the back wheel of a rider in front of me as I am pedaling in a controlled rhythm. My heart rate is rising steadily but nothing to be concerned about. After a few minutes, a short passage allows for recovery as the gradient is dropping to 4 or 5 percent.
This is followed by another steep ramp through a tunnel, which at the end offers short respite. Following on from this is only one longer grinding stretch which includes the steepest bit of 15 percent. This is where I jump off for the first time. My heart rate is getting to an unsustainable level. Pushing the bike in cleats is not significantly easier but my fellow stragglers who decide to ride it out are not much faster, as I am pushing forward.
As soon as the incline dips a bit, I jump back on and settle into more stamping down the pedals in a monotonous left, right, left, right. This is no longer the smooth pedaling motion from the beginning of the climb. But there is only one corner left before a tunnel leads into St. Christoph. From there it is only a small hill up to the top of the Arlberg Pass.
After 55 minutes, I am grabbing a drink and something to eat and roll down the other side of the pass into a beautiful, undulating descent. Pink morning sunlight is bouncing of the granite rock faces and snowcapped peaks. There are no cars on the road this early on a Sunday; just me and a handful of other cyclists gliding through thin, cool mountain air.
Steering into the switchbacks of the Western side of the Arlberg Pass is the first time I get to use my breaks. Taking the tight corners is fun and offers spectacular views. Several turns later, however, a few oncoming motorcycles remind me that I am not alone and the traffic laws still apply.
In Stuben, the road straightens out and it is all downhill from here for another 20 Km. Most of the cars are on the motorway, which runs unseen, parallel to the old road that meanders through the Kloster valley and connects the picturesque villages of Klösterle, Wald am Arlberg, Dalaas and Innerbraz.
The postcard-inspiring route leads past baroque churches with onion-shaped towers, bell-wearing cows and half-timbered houses with wild flower-filled window boxes.
After a brief forced stop at a railway crossing, I reach Bludenz, where the road turns towards the Silvretta mountain range. From here, the road ascends for 40 Km up to the Bieler Hoehe at 2,032m. The last 13.3 Km of these are the steepest and feature a King of the Mountain section to determine the fastest climber.
I have found my rhythm now and even start to overtake a few riders. I feel good. Except my drink bottles are already near empty with still some way to go to the first feed station. After a few minutes, a group of about eight riders is overtaking me one by one. I pick up the pace and slot in at the back. Fortunately for me, everyone is drafting behind the strongest rider, who has taken it upon himself to do most of the hard work in the wind and pull everyone like a train up the gradual incline.
“Knock yourself out and thank you,” I am thinking. For 40 minutes there is very little talk among the group. Everyone is tied to the rider in front by an invisible cord. We are making good ground. The scenery is still impressive, although not quite as rustic as in the Kloster valley.
At the first feed station I try to eat and drink. I felt thirsty for the last 30 minutes, which means no matter how much I drink now, I will still be dehydrated. I refill the water bottles and jump back on the bike but the group that worked so well has dispersed and I am on my own.
It is still sunny as the morning is turning into a hot summer’s day. After a few minutes I reach the toll booth of the Silvretta pass. This is where the real challenge starts. Four switchbacks later I have a first cramp and gingerly jump off the bike in the middle of the road, much to the chagrin of a fellow cyclist who berates me for being such a donkey and standing in her way. As I explain that I am suffering from cramps, she stops and gives me a pouch of magnesium powder. There is no competition at the back of this race. Just appreciation for the challenge that we have all set ourselves.
Going up the 34 hairpin turns of the Silvretta is fun but also never-ending. On the one hand climbing on a bike is rewarding because the views from an always rising altitude immediately confirm that the effort is not in vain. But, on the other hand, mountains give the constant illusion that the peak is not far away and must be just behind the next turn or dip.
I did not keep track of the number of switchbacks but have to stop a few times to catch my breath and have a drink. Not far from the top, I am running out of water again and again a fellow sufferer shares with me the remaining content of his water bottle.
By now the struggle is all about making it to the finish before the cut-off time. I can see some doubt on the other cyclist’s face, when I tell him that we will make it. But I am sure that once I get to the top, there is no way I am not riding the remaining 70 Km back to St. Anton.
About a kilometer before the Bieler Höhe, I can suddenly see a van behind me. It is pulling a trolley with several road bikes. Oh no. The broom wagon. The driver pulls up next to me, winds down the window and asks if I am OK?
"Yep, all good.” No word of cramps, tiredness, empty water bottles. No way in hell am I joining the miserable-looking lot in the van, most of whom were surely forced to abandon the race by some mechanical issues with their bikes.
At the Bieler Höhe, the reservoir looks spectacular in front of the surrounding peaks, with some still carrying the last winter snow. I give myself 10 minutes to refuel at the feed station, fill up my water bottles and mix in some sugar powder.
After the short breather, I am off into the 40 Km descent to Pians. Breaking the race into chunks helps to stay focused and this part of the course is the reward for the long climb.
It is also the stretch of the race were gravity is your friend and fat men shine.
I pick up speed very quickly going into the first three bends. Fortunately, the road is dry and the sparse traffic, made up of a few cars, fellow cyclists and the occasional cow, is visible from far away.
I hit 80 Km/h as my pedals are freewheeling in the highest gear. I would later see that my top speed reached a frightening 98 Km/h. It did not feel that fast, although I did overtake a van that was stuck behind three cyclists.
The villages and popular ski resorts of the Paznaun valley – Galtür, Ischgl, Kappl and See – fly past at this stage and it just takes roughly an hour to get to get to the last feed station in Pians. I stop only briefly and then carefully negotiate with cramping legs the rising road back to St. Anton.
Even though there are only 20 odd kilometers to go, I have no energy left and the remainder of the route is ascending. In Pettneu, the incline is a little bit steeper, but I just put the head down with grinding teeth, knowing that I am nearly there.
In St. Jakob my wife and my parents are by the side of the road, cheering me on with much enthusiasm. I barely have the energy to acknowledge them and stopping is out of the question, but it gives me the last boost that I need to get to St. Anton.
In my mind, I envisaged picking up speed on the long straight up the pedestrianized zone to the finishing line. In the real world, however, I can only just about maintain my crawling pace. People by the side of the road give me a friendly clap as I work my way past.
I hear the announcer say: “And here is another straggler…. He knows he should have trained more.”
Is my mind playing tricks on me, I am wondering? Dude, you have no idea. I want to flip him the bird but thankfully I am too tired.
“Nevertheless, a good effort by Michael Klein from West Bay,” it blares over the speakers.
That last bit of patronizing is water off a fish’s back. Ha, get it? I hand back my time chip. It took me a total of 8 hours and 17 minutes and 7 hours and 28 minutes of riding time. Best Bike Split was spot on with its prediction!
And I am proud that I achieved the goal I set myself, proud that I managed to get over the two scary mountain passes, even though I am not entirely sure how. Proud that I picked a new sport and stuck with it.
But, for now, I need to sit down and not move for a bit.