Short Tour of the Alps 2007

In late August, before visiting family in Italy, I traveled to Bad Aibling, south of Munich, to see my friend Bernie and go for a ride in the Alps. We had only a long weekend at our disposal, but made the best of it with a 420Km ride to Bolzano, Italy, via Austria's highest paved pass and several lovely climbs in the Dolomites.

I arrived in Bad Aibling on Friday morning, two days after abandoning Paris-Brest-Paris in Brest. My ego, not to mention my body, was still bruised, but I wasn't going to make a bad situation worse by scrapping long-held plans for our alpine weekend. Sure, the bike I was riding was too small, but I expected it to matter less now that I would be spending a lot of time out of the saddle.

We left on Friday afternoon after a great lunch in Bernie's back yard. It was a perfect day for riding, sunny and mild. The air smelled of manure and moist earth, and jagged mountains rose to the south. South of the Austrian border, rolling climbs offered the first good opportunities to stand out of the saddle. It felt reassuring to enjoy the bike again after my terrible PBP experience. Walchsee, St Johann, Fieberbrunn: we entered a forest, and the mountains on either side became steeper. Above, paragliders filled the sky. Eventually we decided to call it a day in Leogang, a few miles before pricey Zell am See, and parked ourselves for the night at a small gasthof next to a torrent. Apfelschole and spaghetti mit tomatensauce tasted good in the crisp mountain air.

The next day started with some mechanical trouble: I had a flat near Zell am See, and barely a mile later Bernie broke a spoke. But we were back on the road soon enough, up the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse ("high alpine road"), the highest paved pass in Austria. Grossglockner was the first major alpine pass I ever climbed on a bike, on a self-supported tour from Germany to southern Italy in 1995, the summer after college graduation. I hadn't been back since, and riding it again made me a little nostalgic. But I climbed a lot faster this time, and I wasn't wearing a cotton t-shirt and running shoes, and I didn't have four panniers full of useless crap, and the weather was sunny and warm rather than rainy and cold, so the nostalgia only went so far.

The Grossglockner on a summer weekend is a busy road. Scores of cyclists huffed and puffed up the mountain with us, and passing cars left an acrid trail of overheated brakes and burnt-out clutches. We paused a few times to admire the views and take photos. On Hochtor, the northern and lower of the road's two summits, we stopped again for lunch, a decadent affair of pommes frites and Austrian pastries and tall glasses of apfelschole. After lunch it was just a short climb to the summit tunnel (2504m) and the 1800-meter plunge down to Heiligenblut, where a whispy stream of water cascaded hundreds of meters down a cliff to our right.

Crickets sang in the grass and the afternoon heat rose from the pavement as we climbed Iselsbergpass. We shot down the other side at 80Km/h and rolled into Lienz for some ice cream. If you leave the main road, with its car dealerships and gas stations, and enter the historic center of Lienz, you discover a beautiful town with baroque pastel-colored buildings and cobblestone streets full of pedestrians. The Italian gelatai (ice cream vendors) are pretty good, too.

We made it all the way to Sillian, just short of the Italian border, before grumbling stomachs told us that it was time for dinner. We hadn't reckoned, however, with the massive influx of tourists on a late summer weekend, and searched fruitlessly for a place to sleep. A friendly chamber of commerce representative stayed past closing time to find us a place to sleep 5Km back up the road, in Strassen. Few restaurants were open in little Strassen, but finally we did eat—delicious vegetable soup and tomato pasta and lots of buttered bread washed down with apfelschole—at an upscale establishment that was hosting a wedding party and almost didn't let us in on account of our salt-stained appearance.

Our third and last day was a Dolomite classic, from Strassen in Val Pusteria (Pustertal) over Passo Cimabanche to Cortina, then over Passo Falzarego, Pordoi, and Costalunga to Bolzano: about 170Km and 3000m of exceptional climbing. Bernie had trouble with his rear wheel again, but the mechanical pit stops were well-timed. The first provided additional opportunity to admire Monte Cristallo across the emerald surface of the lake of Carbonin/Schluderbach, and the second occurred just as we passed a restaurant near the bottom of our descent from Passo Falzarego. Bernie replaced a spoke while we loaded up on pasta and salad and, of course, apfelschole (available by that name in Italian-speaking regions as well).

On Passo Pordoi's thirty-three legendary switchbacks we encountered many cyclists, including an entire club that had come up from Verona for a cycling weekend. At the summit we lingered a bit to enjoy ice cream with a view of the high meadows and take a photo with the bronze monument to Fausto Coppi, almost 50 years dead but still Italy's cycling hero. From this lovely place we dropped a thousand meters to the bumper-to-bumper traffic of vacationers leaving Canazei at the end of the weekend, before climbing once more to the quiet, remote meadows of Passo Costalunga. A few miles on we stopped by the Lago di Carezza (Karersee), where the motionless water reflected dolomite cliffs lit by the afternoon sun.

It is 27Km downhill from Lago di Carezza to Bolzano, a fantastic and sometimes hair-raising descent that tests one's high-speed bike handling stamina. The most memorable part was the Val d'Ega, where the road cuts through a narrow gorge with sheer vertical walls. We achieved highway speeds, and somehow I had the idea to take some photos. At the bottom of the gorge the road dives into a brightly lit, ultramodern tunnel. The pavement is smooth as silk, the grade never relents, and lights and traffic markers flash by as in a videogame. We were breathless with adrenaline when we emerged from the mountain, amid vineyards on the northern outskirts of Bolzano.

For a while we looped around downtown Bolzano, admiring the old buildings and looking for a place to eat. At a public fountain on a quiet side street we stripped down to our shorts and bathed and changed into non-cycling clothes. Baffled pedestrians hurried past the two shirtless men splashing cold water onto the pavement—they didn't know how much fun it was! We found a brew pub with outdoor seating where we enjoyed our last pasta feast of the trip. In an odd mix of globalization and century-old nationalist friction, our southeast Asian waiter spoke to us in German, just like the ethnic Austrians who still speak Italian only grudgingly in this region annexed by Italy after World War I.

After dinner we headed to the station. The least expensive way to Rome was via a late-night train, so we had some time to rest and think about our ride. The platform was deserted at this hour; the air smelled of dust and tar. We disassembled our bikes and wrapped them in a tarp for transport. Then we lay down on some stone benches and admired the moon as it rose over the hills to the east.

More photos are available here.