Famed for winter sports, the Austrian Alps offer a cache of hidden gems for discerning riders.
You might have seen the Ötztal Glacier Road before. A 15km stretch of privately owned tarmac and the second-highest paved road in Europe. It was the location for the car-vs-plane chase scene in Spectre, the most recent 007 film, and it’s the perfect spot for such a high-octane affair, as our group of Rapha riders discovered when we rode there recently. “It was quite breathtaking,” says amateur racer Will Linton. “The first 5km were so steep it was punishing, but then it opens up to this stunning glacial valley that rises all the way to 2,830m. I’ve never ridden anything like it before.”
For snowsports enthusiasts, the attractions of the high alps of the Austrian Tirol are well known. But this landscape undergoes a transformation in the warmer months, which goes some way to explaining why cycling is set to take off here. With spring in the air and snow rapidly turning to meltwater, it proved an ideal time to explore.
We rode up the Ötztal valley in late April, enjoying the unusual experience of passing skiers and snowboarders descending the slopes as we climbed towards the foot of the Rettenbach glacier. Summer brings sweeping meadows, a chlorophyll-fuelled assault on the senses, and a balm in terrain that can feel daunting, even to seasoned riders.
Before tackling the Ötztal road, we’d been softened up on the Kaunertal Glacier, a 26km ascent, no less dramatic and just as demanding. “To get the most from the riding here you need to put in the training miles,” says Linton, aware that the Tirol’s relatively low profile among international riders can catch out the unsuspecting. Leon Cerrone, elite boxer-turned-cyclist and well known to Rapha followers, enjoyed sparring with the Kaunertal in particular: “It was up and up, round and round, but each new hairpin opened up an incredible new view. I loved it.”
The Austrian Tirol might lack the cycling prestige of the French Alps, Pyrenees, and Dolomites but Cerrone thinks this will soon change: “I got as much of a kick from climbing these mountains as from bagging more well-known cols. They’re just as tough and even more beautiful.”
The Timmelsjoch is a case in point. A neighbour to the Kauntertal, it is perhaps the best known of the region’s road passes, with its picture-postcard 44 hairpins. “You could be riding the Stelvio,” says Cerrone, and the Timmelsjoch does indeed bear a resemblance to the celebrated Italian monster. “The switchbacks come in layer after layer, you need to be on your game.” For those looking for a less strenuous parcours, the Achensee cycle path is a summer must-ride, with beautiful vistas of the lake around every turn.
Following the revamp of the Tour of the Alps, which takes in the Tirol and which was won by Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas this April, these roads could soon be collector’s items for the col-baggers. Those looking to get ahead of the curve would do well to ride them before September next year, when the UCI Road World Championships will take place in Innsbruck, capital city of the Austrian Alps.
Innsbruck promises a real spectacle. The men’s elite road racers will have to overcome 5,000m of climbing – suggesting a different calibre of winner to the usual sprinter or classics man – while each of the nine junior, U23, elite, men’s and women’s races will start in different towns, with all roads leading to Innsbruck. (All the climbs we tackled are within one hour’s drive of the city, including the Kühtai resort, scene of Sir Bradley Wiggins’ brief ski-jumping career.)
Innsbruck itself is a beguiling architectural mix for the historically minded city rider. Gothic and Baroque buildings sit alongside contemporary structures. The legacy of the late architect Zaha Hadid is hard to miss: her striking Bergisel ski jump looms large, and her Hungerburg funicular station adds a dash of space-age chic to the old town.
Similar contrasts are evident as you ride around Innsbruck. Cheerful staff in lederhosen or dirndl serve traditional dumplings and apple strudel out of an endless number of café stops, yet it’s also apparent the population is young: a quarter of Innsbruck’s 130,000 residents are students at the university. And everyone appears to be mountain-mad. Young and old take to skis and sleds to tackle the inviting slopes on their doorstep. The 2018 world champs may well tempt more Innsbruck natives to tackle those gradients on a road bike.
The local authorities are investing heavily in cycling, intent on making Tirol the outdoor sports capital of Europe. In late June the hugely popular Crankworx mountain biking festival will pitch up for the first time, and on visittirol.co.uk you’ll find routes for both on- and off-road enthusiasts.
This breathless action requires a little relaxation to recover, however. Which is how we came to find ourselves at the Aquadome resort, a high-concept waterworld and just one of several thermal spa hotels nestled in the region. How better to soothe tired limbs than by sitting in a flying saucer-style hot tub, sipping schnapps and taking in a panorama of the high Tirol’s snow-tipped peaks?
For the chance to win a three-day riding holiday in the Tirol, as guests of Innsbruck tourism, go to visittirol.co.uk/rapha
Routes to ride in Tirol
Ride the roads that Rapha visited in the Austrian Alps with these easy to follow routes.
The Karwendel Tour
A beautiful 168km loop from Innsbruck around the Karwendel Mountains, with 1,770m of climbing.
From Kematen to Kühtai
An 86km ride that takes you up the challenging and at times very steep road to the Kühtai Saddle. Worth the effort.
The Ötztal Glacier Road
At 13.5 kilometres long and with an average gradient of 10.5 per cent, the Ötztal Glacier Road is a hardy uphill challenge. The astounding views will take your mind off the effort.
The Kaunertal Glacier Road
Another majestic highlight for any road cyclist’s palmarès, the Kaunertal takes you up to a sky-high 2,750m. One of the most memorable out-and-backs you’ll ever do.