Drinking In The Nostalgia
It was 8am on a Sunday morning and I was spinning the pedals of a steel-framed blue-painted Francesco Moser bike down a narrow road in the Weinviertel of northern Austria. On my right the tall green stalks of the corn-fields were still casting a dark, cooling shadow. To my left the landscape swept majestically in waves towards the Czech border.
Up ahead, my friends Kuba and Stefan from the Vienna International Cycling Club, clad in blue and yellow woollen journeys, were marking a quick pace and providing me with a welcome drafting opportunity.
I was by now easing into the ride, the early stiffness gone, but there were 135km still to go and I felt that frisson of freedom and excitement that early morning cyclists know so well. It was the beginning of an adventure.
Michael Kofler/ In Velo Veritas
For many bike freaks like me, the annual vintage ride In Velo Veritas has become a staple of the Austrian cycling calendar. It is a chance to wallow in a bit of rose-tinted nostalgia, meet some old friends and ride in a style where it’s not the power-wattage or the Strava records that count, but rather companionship and fun.
This year, because of the COVID-19 outbreak and its accompanying restrictions to event organisation, we were unsure whether our favourite bike event would even take place at all. In the end, In Velo Veritas was delayed by 8 weeks, and instead of a mass start, we all set off in dribs and drabs.
“Corona means that basically we are just trying to spread the whole event across the amount of time that we have, so that people aren’t that much in contact as they would normally be,” explained co-organizer Wolfgang Gerlich, when I met him at the first rest-stop. “But, basically, the concept of In Velo Veritas is quite resilient to corona and that is the nice thing. It works perfectly because people are taking care and so we don’t feel much of a difference.”
A Bicycle Made For Two
Although we set off as a lone trio, soon we saw our fellow riders strung out along the narrow roads lined by fruits trees and vineyards. It’s a chance to admire each other’s bikes and clothes and grimace at the shared effort.
I was particularly impressed by a couple, Gavin and Lena, who were speeding up a hill on a vintage tandem. Lena, sitting behind, said Gavin’s “butt” was playing a prominent role in her view of the mesmerizing scenery and that she had to trust him because he was in control of the bikes only pair of brakes.
Michael Kofler/ In Velo Veritas
I don’t want to disparage Gavin’s toned posterior, but I feel Lena was missing out on the landscape. The Weinviertel on a hot, sunny summer’s day offers vistas as magnificent as those in Italy. We swept past big yellow fields of nodding sunflowers, there were castles perched on the hill-sides, abbeys in secluded copses, big green apple orchards and always the combed backs of undulating grape-vines. We even rode for a few hundred metres alongside a deer who seemed to be flirting with us for the sheer sport of it.
Once we splashed through a ford and came up in the gorgeous dappled shade of a gravel track that ran through a dark tunnel provided by bent over trees.
I’ve enjoyed this summer more than it is probably decent to admit to, given the worrying and sometimes tragic circumstances that have led us to abandon our original travel plans.
I suppose what I am saying is this: I wish I’d had the inspiration to explore more locally before a global crisis forced my hand. For foreign tourists, Austria means Vienna, Tyrol, Salzburg or perhaps the lakes of Carinthia. But these northern hills, both here in the Weinviertel as well as the Mostviertel and Mühlviertel, have captured my heart.
Michael Kofler/ In Velo Veritas
This was the 8th annual In Velo Veritas ride. It’s the brain child of Horst Watzl, a twinkle-eyed adventurer who had been inspired by the L’Eroica, a vintage bike ride through the strade bianchi of Tuscany.
There are now related events such as the Kirschblütenklassiker in Upper Austria and the Styroica in Styria. Their culture owes a lot to the easy-going charm and sense of fun of Horst, who has become the kindly uncle figure to many bike lovers in this country. He couldn’t be here this year because of a bad accident scouting the route of In Velo Veritas.
This article is dedicated to Horst, who for me embodies the best sort of cycling spirit. Get well soon, mate!
A Tough Ride
That’s not to say that a vintage bike ride is a purely idyllic experience. We’d chosen the red loop, the middle distance of 143km. Others had set of at 6am on the black route that took them on a 210km ride into the Waldviertel and back. But even our more modest ride proved to be tough on our veteran bicycles.
My bike, which was older than me, was borrowed from my friend Michi, who’d bought it in the early 80s from a young amateur racer in the Weinviertel. When he purchased it, it was a superb racing machine and it is still fine to look at.
„A Kind Of Minimalism“
But we riders of modern carbon roadbikes are spoiled. To us, steel-framed bikes seem clunky and heavy. Changing gear is a challenge; in fact, I’ve never managed to do it without looking down. You have to reach to the crossbar of the frame and even when you get the right one, the gears tend to slip on steep hills, jerking the bike and throwing your feet out of the metal cages that riders used before some genius invented clip-in pedals.
“It’s a kind of minimalism. It’s going back to the roots,” mused Kuba as we restored at the final rest stop. “I like this idea from time to time. I would not use this bike all the time to be honest.”
It was the brakes that gave us the most difficulty. The Weinviertel is great for riding because of the many narrow agricultural roads, some paved, some just gravel tracks, which are almost entirely traffic free. But, to accommodate the uniform rectangles of the giant cereal fields, these always involve 90-degree corners. We had to start breaking early to avoid going head-first into the bountiful harvest.
„These Shitty Brakes!“
The experience certainly gives you an extra portion of respect for those heroes of the old days who rode these bikes in gruelling events such as the Tour de France, sometimes fuelling the efforts on brandy and the odd drag of a cigarette. “I can imagine going uphill with those bikes,” said Stefan, “but going downhill with these shitty breaks… well, let’s just say I had a few moments when I missed my modern bike with my modern brakes today."
The hard-core vintage fans were wearing woollen-jerseys which looked itchy and sweaty in the sun. And my tyres, clearly also vintages, punctured twice on the gravel roads, always when my stomach was rumbling as we neared a rest-stop.
In Velo Veritas
But all the effort and the difficulties seemed to fade into the background as we just enjoyed pedalling together. I feel I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself this summer, as a father of a young child, with my work and, perversely, with my addiction to amateur but competitive sport (my failing tennis career).
I have to admit that I feel a constant Leistungsdruck that can’t be healthy. As we rode through the gentle landscape of Weinviertel among smiling eccentrics, with no-one measuring our time or questioning our technique or fitness, I felt a great weight lift off my shoulders. I felt utterly refreshed by the experience.
Leberkäse Statt Energiegels
Instead of sports drinks and power bars there were grape-juice and cakes at the rest-stops. After nearly 20 years in Austria, driven by hunger, I tried my first Leberkäse. I liked it.
There was even Schweinsbraten for those with stronger stomachs than me, or beer and wine for the fool hardy. That’s not for me on a hot day on the bike and I’m assuming that all the rules of the road were respected, but the menu added to the atmosphere of the ride.
As Wolfgang Gerlich summarized: “The idea of In Velo Veritas was always just to have a relaxed time on a bike in great company, in a great landscape, with good food and good drinks. And the Weinviertel is just the place to stage such an event in this combination of joyful things.
Publiziert am 20.08.2020