238km. 5,500 metres of climbing. These are the figures that merit for membership to the Ötztaler finishers’ club. The initiation process hurts, but around 4,500 unidentified heroes join each year, battling through scorching heat in the valley of pain and numb from the cold as they scale the Timmelsjoch. They call it the challenge of a lifetime. We wanted to be part of it.
It’s like a scene from the apocalypse. Riders are wrapped in rescue blankets, huddling together in front of a backdrop of a sleazy striptease club and neon-lit skiwear shops. Winter jackets, jeans and thick gloves are part of the image, as are hordes of onlookers, cameras poised, relying on the flash setting to capture this early morning sight. Inside the heaving mass of cyclists, there’s awkward shuffling as people try to find start positions or the next available toilet. Forget the fact it’s a bike race; this is more akin a painting by the Impressionists. Yet it isn’t just any old race: I’m on the start line of the Ötztaler Radmarathon for the first time, impatiently awaiting the starter’s orders beside my riding mates from Guilty76.
One race to rule them all
I’ve heard a lot about this race. It’s held every year in late August, with a loop that heads out from Sölden and rides over the Kühtai, the Brenner, the Jaufenpass and the Timmelsjoch before returning to Sölden. With 238 km and 5,500 metres of climbing, it’s no surprise to see that this race sports the reputation of being the world’s toughest cycling marathon. In the run-up I’ve been given so many survival tips from finishers that I have begun to wonder what I’m letting myself in for. The most vociferous tip was to have a good position at the start, rolling out as close to the front of the pack as possible. With a mass start of 4,500 riders, the first 35 km to Ötz are set to be dangerous.
Even though my fitness has been going progressively downhill since the beginning of August, I’m feeling miraculously well prepared and I figure it stems from my new Cervélo R5 that I claimed a few weeks ago with the intention to ride the Ötztaler. It’s a bike with the sole aim of riding the imperial Ötztal mountains as quickly as possible. I feel somewhat disloyal to my own personal steed that has been left in the shed after years of faithful service in various sportives. Like any decent marriage, that bike has been through high and lows with me, in sickness and in health. And I’ve just dumped it in favour of a three-week all-inclusive getaway with a summer fling.
The first part: A marathon or a crit?
The first 35 kilometres down to Ötz rush by, with brutally fast sections that lead me to briefly wonder whether all of the riders can really be entered for the 238 km distance. They all want to get as far ahead as possible – I’m no different. Then we hit the day’s first climb up the Kühtai and I lose all sense of orientation: am I near the front of the field? Where are my teammates? Why am I riding like it’s the final climb? Wisely picked for the mountains, my 50×34 – 11×28 gearing sees me ride up comfortably. Within a few kilometres I catch some friends. The bike is riding like its on rails and I feel damn good (aside from that recurrent back pains but they’re still bearable at the moment).
At the top I refill my bottle and we hurtle down past hordes of cattle towards the valley floor. My computer says we’re hitting speeds of 90 km/h, but I’m still being overtaken by dozens of kamikaze riders. I don’t let it bother me and remind myself of my tactics: climb fast, recover on the descents and let it roll.
Just before Innsbruck I rejoin a group with my teammate Frank, which gives me a good indication of my pace and state. Together we should be on track for a time just under 9 hours, but I’ll have to hold his wheel. By the top of the Brenner I’m still feeling good and get a few minutes on him. This is the halfway point, and my average for the 120 km is 33 km/h. Once again I find myself wondering if it’s a marathon or a crit race.
The second part: A broken man
The descent off the Brenner sees me lose some places, but there’s still no sign of Frank coming from behind. Did he have an issue? I start the climb up the Jaufenpass on my own. My back is getting sorer by the hour, and I’m finding it hard to pedal properly. I keep it together for the 21 km climb, reaching 2,090 metres above sea level at my own pace. I’m still on my own at the top, so I ask the feed station if they’ve seen any Guilties, my teammates. It turns out that Frank and another Guilty have just passed. He must have briefly stopped on the Brenner and stayed ahead of me the whole time. The road down the Jaufenpass is really technical and full of tight hairpins so I don’t get much respite and my energy is waning as I start the final climb.
The third part: Morituri te salutant
The final act of the Ötztaler has long played itself out on the climb up the Timmelsjoch. In their dozens, you’ll see riders with depleted reserves clambering off their bikes. Overheated, exhausted and with sunken cheekbones, they lie down in patchy bits of shade under trees, or hang on the railings trying to muster up the strength to make it up the climb. Morituri te salutant. Those who are about to die salute you. There’s a farmer on the edge of the road, generously soaking the now-desperate riders with his garden hose. I stop too, refill my bottle and contemplate the remaining 29 km until the summit.
I figure that Frank must be suffering too, but I’m now in the valley of pain and hoping in vain that I’ll reel him back in. I reevaluate my target time and settle on sub-10 hours. Above and below me, the train of riders visibly clings to the mountainside, climbing its way up to the highest point of the race. Some pass me in a breezy fashion while others grind their way slowly, almost forced to a standstill as they ride on the very limits of their ability.
7 km left. I take a sugary gel on board from a feed station. I have lost sensation in all but two of the fingers on my right hand. Out of the saddle I dance my way ungraciously up the mountain like a concussed boxer. I alternate between this and sitting, but that comes with back pain and my speed struggles to rise over 10 km/h. The double-figure gradient is relentless and the mountain shows no mercy. Then I spot the hairpins with the ripped jerseys of past editions.
A spectator shouts that we’re just 1 km from the top. Bloody liar, I think, it’s further than that, but I don’t have the strength to contradict him. It starts to rain and heavy clouds shroud the mountain peak – you can’t write this sort of drama, I chuckle wryly. There’s one more tunnel, and its light at the end is an appetizer for the finish.
I throw myself down the descent and spot the rider ahead of me overshoot the corner. He stays upright, thank goodness. All I can manage is letting the bike roll. I’m exhausted and have grown tired of the rain and the numbness in my hand. I muster some power for the final ascent, spurred on by a lone, recognizable devil, Didi Senft, who has been exuberantly cheering the riders on for the entire day.
Then comes another downhill and I realize that I’m welling up. Is it just because of the back pain? I don’t know; I don’t know anything other than the fact that this road is taking me to the end, to the finish.
Sölden comes quickly, and there are hundreds of people lining the streets. I ride through the narrow human gangway, which stays enthusiastically in place until the last rider comes home. One more corner. I stop the clock at 9 hours 33 minutes. Frank is waiting for me. He finished in 9 hours 8 minutes. Next year I’ll hold his wheel.
The Cervélo R5 is more suited to long Gran Fondos and mountain marathons rather than crits. With compact cranks from Rotor, I was well set-up for the long climbs. The lightweight aluminium HED wheels were perfect for fast descents in hot weather. One thing escaped me though: two bikes set up with the same position won’t create two identical rides – I should have ridden the R5 for much longer before doing this. Never change a winning team! Next year I’ll be wiser.
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Words: Jonas Kaesler Photos: Noah Haxel