Erstellt am: 5. 8. 2012 - 17:23 Uhr
On The Road
On the long road down the Mölltal towards Spittal an der Drau, I realised that Bernhard Eisel, rouleur and Tour de France super domestique, is Austria's most underappreciated sportsman.
You see him at the front of the peleton, nose to the wind, forcing the pace of the bunch, working for his team mates, and, apart from insiders, getting very little credit at the end of the day for his efforts. On the rolling road down that sun-baked Carinthian valley, I realised just how tough Eisel must be.
We were cycling in a bunch, me on my borrowed over-sized road bike which, embarrassingly, had a rear mud-guard, and we were taking it in turns to face the fierce headwind. The hot, traffic-choked climb over the Grossglockner pass from Kaprun was already in our legs and I was at my limit just to stay in the group, pushing a heavy gear and keeping as close to the wheel in front as possible.
Empty-minded, my mouth fly-catchingly open to drag in more oxygen, I was lost in the hypnotic, whirring hum of the chains and pedals. Strong riders were peeling off after their stint of working as our engine and were drifting to the back of the group - so bit by bit I found myself nearing the front line. "We've all got to take a turn at the front, you know!" reminded Carlos from Vienna, who was riding cheerfully beside me. But when it was finally my turn, it was like hitting a hard wall of air. Within half a kilometre my legs were burning, my lungs were bursting and I excused myself, with an apologetic rasped shout of "Wechsel!" and let myself float rather shame-facedly to the back of the train of cyclists, tugged along again by the Gulf Steam-like wind-shadow. I was a passenger with a new found respect for drivers like Eisel.
Dieses Element ist nicht mehr verfügbar
I'm a mountain biker. I'm used to tacking short sharp climbs with light gears, spinning my legs around like a looney-tunes cartoon character. I haven't got the 'schmalz' for the relentless push of life on the road, where addicts of group speed greet each other with the rather macho cry "Kettenrechts!" - a reference to the biggest gear on the bike. Keeping pace was hard, and by the third day my batteries were empty before I had even reached the foot of the mountain passes we'd come to climb. But there is something intoxicating about the shared experience of riding at full speed in a group, being part of a velocity that is truly created by team-work, burying yourself for a few minutes in the wind because you are doing it for your friends who did it for you. I really got it - I understood the thrill of riding road-bikes. I just need new legs.
My friend Xandi had persuaded me to join the 5-day Quäldich Tauern Rundfahrt tour over some of the highest mountain passes in Austria. "Just look at Wiggins" he pointed out, "It's the year for British cyclists," But, apart from my penchant for growing side-burns, I have little in common with this year's Tour de France winner. I`d climbed the Grossglockner with Xandi before, but that was just a stage. Now I was
committed for the whole hog.
The alarmingly named Quäldich group's aim is to "reclaim" their passion from the negative stereotypes that surround road-biking due to the repetitive doping-scandals that have seeped down from the professional level even into amateur racing. The idea is to take out the competitive element and put companionship at the forefront - pushing your limits (that's the quälen part) but for fun.
Roland Wagner is a wiry mathematician from Linz, who often gave me a friendly push from behind when I started to flag on the steepest sections. He puts it like this: "We want to show that we hobby cyclists can do the most challenging passes in the Alps and have fun whilst doing it."
Dieses Element ist nicht mehr verfügbar
Friendships grow quickly when you struggle up tough climbs together: the conversation petering out as your breathing gets heavier, the quick glance of encouragement between sweat-streaked faces, the look that means: "You can keep going if I can, OK?
Then, once up at the top, mountain passes seem to trigger the most extraordinary bouts of amnesia. All the pain is forgotten when your pulse is slowing again and you are throwing calorie-bombing cakes down your gullet at the top and prepare for the long, downhill sections that are worth every bead of sweat. You glide down the winding roads, leaning into the wide arcs like motor bike riders, dropping seemingly forever with the wind flapping in your face and your ears popping and your eyes concentrating wholly on yourself and the balance of your bike which feels unusually fragile on its narrow tires, your eyes wide-open studying the road ahead for potholes, little rocks or frightening catle-grids. Like skiing, it's totally absorbing.
When the road kicks up again, you've forgotten it will hurt.
This is not (you don't need to tell me) everyone's idea of fun. After three days I was saddle-sore, muscle fatigued and afflicted with an almost permanent hunger. Yet, even after ten years in Austria, I remain an eternal tourist here and the route, which took me through four Austrian provinces, reminded me of the Hemingway quote "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best."
Indeed it feels like the real essence of travelling when you set off in the early morning when the light is clear and the colours are sharp and mist still hangs to the forested mountain-sides, then moving through a constantly changing landscape and arriving in a new town or village at night with a different dialect and a different charm.
In contrast to mountain-biking, you can cover large distances on the thin tires of a road bike. The mossy lower slopes of the Salzburg mountains were replaced by the mesmerizing white of the Glockner glacier. In the baked flat valleys of Carinthia, they were making hay by hand - old women with colourful headscarves bent over scythes. In the rounded Nockenalpen the white roads reflected the furious rays of the summer heat straight back at me, sweat dripping into my eyes onto the handlebars and I suffered and wondered why I'd agreed to cycle through Uganda this autumn. On the tree-shaded narrow passes of Styria, on the other hand, it was cool and the earth smelled moist and they were clearing up from the recent landslides. In the Upper Austrian forests of Kalkalpen the ravines were dark and mysterious and the roads were empty, then, after Hinterstoder, the landscape opened out again until we turned West towards the Traunstein and into the gob-stopping beauty of the Salzkammergut where every view looks like a jig-saw puzzle.
All that countryside whizzing by, all that beauty earned by your own leg power. It's green tourism with added
Yes, I get road-biking.