We woke up in Tegernsee to a steady rain. Today, we had to get from Tegernsee, Germany to Cortina, Italy. Driving through Austria, this would be 6-8 hours in the car, so we packed up and got on the road. We hoped that we would find a place to ride mid-day, but the weather alternated between a slight drizzle and strong rain, so it was discouraging.
On a multi-day cycling tour, it is wise to go easy the first day, so we hoped to find some flat land with sunshine. A good warmup up shouldn’t be too hard – no big climbs, nothing steep, and distance under 100 km.
The rain cleared just as we got to Brück. Ajax stopped the car and let us out. He explained he would proceed to Cortina, drop off bags, and meet us in Lienz. The ride would be 81 km or about 50 miles. The weather looked good, but there was a simple matter of climbing up this hill called the Grossglockner.
I’d never done this climb before but my friend Andrew has. He told me it was absolutely epic. The peak elevation is 2575 meters, making it one of the highest passes in Europe, probably in the top 10. Total climbing is 1800 meters or 6000 feet, about the same as Mount Ventoux, only it starts and finishes 665 meters (2000 feet) higher. In this weather, it might turn out to be epic.
I was a little worried about this, especially given how Andrew claimed it was epic and this is our first day. Then I remembered when Andrew used to race bikes his 4-year old son said “Daddy, how come you never win?” Hmm… Then I realized that if Andrew could do it, so could I.
With that, Rudy and I pushed off and started riding up the valley. It was about 1:30 PM. At first the grades were easy, so we got a good warmup. Then we reached the official start of the climb. There is a booth with a starting line and machine that will time you from bottom to top and give you a certificate. Given it was our warmup day and I wanted to take pictures, I decided I wasn’t interested in knowing my time or comparing it to anybody else’s, so we took a picture at the starting booth, faking like we were in a race.
Pretty soon, we hit Kehre (switchback) #1 and the climbing got serious.
From there the grade headed up pretty steeply. Most of it was in the 8-12% range. After a long stretch of 12%, we sighted this set of switchbacks. Clearly the steepness of the mountain made it difficult to build roads, so we were in for a treat as these switchbacks looked absolutely brutal.
Exiting this set of switchbacks, the road sign warning drivers to gear down (in three languages) confirmed my bike computer’s 12% measurement.
After this, the road settled down to a very comfortable and civilized 11%. To the right, we had an incredible view of a glacier, but the fog and brightness of the glacier made it impossible to get a decent photo.
This climb has two tops. Approaching the first top, we get quite a view of the snow and the first sight of snow.
The first top encircled a view point where, with blue skies, we would have a good view of the glacier. I’d love to come back when there is blue sky so we can see the whole glacier and capture the scene.
After this top, we lost a lot of elevation and nearly froze to death. Climbing to the second (real) summit, there was fresh snow on the road. Apparently it had snowed heavily the day before and they had to plow the road. To get to the top, we rode through a tunnel, our second for the day, and you can see snow all around the tunnel entrance.
From the top, there is a beautiful view of the descent below.
And you can see the snow plow parked here.
Lower down the descent, we again get treated to the view of ribbons of road making numerous switchbacks. By now, the sky is clearing, and the view is much clearer.
From here we descended a long way. It was just 43°F and I would have been happier if I brought booties and full-fingered gloves. Arm warmers, leg warmers, a base layer, and a vest were sufficient for my body, but my extremities were cold.
Halfway down we reached a junction. A side road climbs another 8 km up to the Franz Josef glacier. I would really have loved to do this, but we were running short on time. We still had to get to Lienz and then drive 2 hours to Cortina.
Given the time available and the weather situation, it turns out we made a really good decision to skip the glacier view, but I will always hope to come back one day.
We kept descending down to Winklern, and then headed west up the Isensberg Pass. I was surprised just how big this little climb was. The weather started to look threatening and quickly turned from threatening to an absolute firehose. We got over the pass (1204 meters) and descended down into Lienz. It rained so hard we could barely see out our glasses, rivers of water on the road obscured any bumps or potholes, and our braking was, well, impaired. When we arrived in Lienz, we looked like drowned sewer rats. We kept good control of our body temperature, but had we encountered this rain at 2300 meters, we would have been in real trouble.
Ajax met us in at the train station and drove us to Cortina. We made it to the hotel by 8:30 PM, got cleaned up, and sat down for dinner at 9 PM just as the restaurant was closing.
All in all, an epic day and a lot of fun. Statistics for the day: 53.5 miles, 7611’ climbed. Glad we kept it under 100km, so it would count as a good warmup, eh?