238 kilometres, 4 Alpine passes, 5500 metres uphill: The Ötztaler Cycle Marathon is the ultimate goal for amateur cyclists. Meeting this challenge is a dream cherished by many sportspersons. To secure one of the few andhotly contested places on the start line and experience the mythical Ötztalerclose up. Relying solely on your muscle power and a will of iron.

If I really did manage to complete the Ötzi as it is fondly referred to then I could confidently say I’ve earned my spurs, and a lifetime’s free supply of stomach pills. But more about that later, the suffering and hard graft began much earlier on. To be more precise, during the year of intensive training in preparation for the event. And the most important thing from my point of view was that nobody – apart from my wife – knew about my Ötztaler Mission in advance. It wasn’t easy keeping a lid on my secret, but it worked out fine in the end.

Preparation is everything, but it’s never enough.

I decided that I wanted to try my hand at the Ötztaler 2019 as far back as the autumn of 2018. The cycling season had ended and when you immerse yourself in quiet contemplation you sometimes come up with the odd lunatic idea. Since I had only been road cycling for three years, I realised that the training would have to be painstakingly planned if I had any remote chance of fulfilling my dream of scaling the Ötztaler. So I bought a TACX Neo 2 smart trainer, signed up at Zwift and spent many sweat-drenched hours over the winter in the ‘Pain Cave’.

During my preparation, from October 2018 to August 2019, I cycled around 8000 km and 111,000 metres uphill. Among other things, I cycled together with my good friend Thomas(@thomashilbrand) in July 2019 from Lake Geneva over the French alps to the Mediterranean. A wonderful bike ride and perfect preparation (800 km, 17000 metres uphill) for the Ötzi.

Every conversation about the Ötzi centres on the Timmelsjoch pass and the fact that the hardest part and ‘executioner’ capable of decimating the field comes right at the end. ‘Dream on!’ it says on one banner that the organisers have hung above a winding stretch of road. Thanks guys, you cynical so-and-sos! Dream on? No way, not me, my dream’s alive and kicking and I’ve trained damned hard to achieve it.

The mythical Ötztaler, the ultimate accolade for amateur cyclists

What on earth am I doing here?

I’ve been in Sölden since Friday, soaking up the legendary atmosphere of the Ötztaler. I’m all nerves, and it’s clear to see; my special Ötzi coach thankfully never stopped reminding me about this 😉 And despite that I managed to get a really good night’s sleep between Saturday and Sunday. 

Early on Sunday morning there is a hectic bustle in a narrow valley in the Tyrolean Alps. A veritable sea of bikes pours out of the alleys onto the main street; everybody is pushing and shoving in the direction of the starting line. I’m right in the middle of this crowd of cyclists, frozen like everyone else. The thought of what lies ahead of me is nothing short of terrifying. Just to recap: four Alpine passes, 238 km and a total of 5500 metres uphill. I’m on the edge of my saddle and can’t wait to start. During the day the weather was fine with storms forecast towards the late afternoon. So the signs are looking good for a fantastic ‘race’, where as far as I’m concerned only one thing counts: to arrive at the finish without any accidents before the arrival of the broom wagon.

Ötztaler Cycle Marathon circuit.

It’s now 6.40 a.m., Highway to Hell by AC/DC is blaring out of the speakers at the 4000 participants from 36 nations; I can really feel the goose pimples. And then at 6.45, at long last, after a year of preparation, the cathartic crack of the starting pistol, the official start of the 39th Ötztaler Cycle Marathon. I am positioned in the middle third of the 4000 starters, one more ‘Good luck, an accident-free ride and hope you make it to the end’ to my neighbour on the starting line. I trundle comfortably through Sölden, enjoy the atmosphere and wave smilingly one more time to my coach, before throwing myself into the descent through the Ötztal valley surrounded by steep rocks.

Of the 25000 persons who applied only 4000 secured a place at the start.

The road veers to the right in Ötz and leads to the first ascent: the pass road leading up to Kühtaisattel situated at 2020 metres. An elevation of 1200 metres must be negotiated on a stretch measuring 18.5 km, with gradients of up to 18%. A tense, nervous silence reigns when entering the pass road. I’ve never experienced anything of the sort before: a ‘traffic jam’ on the pass road caused by a heaving accordion of 4000 cyclists, who only separate out slowly. Before the event I always heard the same tips on how to avoid the legendary errors committed by first timers scaling the Ötzi. Drink a lot throughout the day, take energy gels at regular intervals, eat at the feed stations and adhere strictly to the watt values prepared in advance. Just so I don’t forget anything during the hectic pace, I have printed all the details I need and stuck these notes onto my two drink bottles: just to be on the safe side!

A brilliant atmosphere and a good pair of legs on the way up to the Kühtaisattel.

Up on the Kühtaisattel we are greeted by cheering crowds with cowbells, hoots and shouts. It felt like I was doing a stage of the Tour de France. Wow, what motivation, I soak it all up like a sponge. I make a beeline for the feed station and stock up on isotonic drinks, gels and energy bars. An Ötztaler crack said to me before the event that I must eat the equivalent of between 2 and 3 ‘spare tyres’. Their effects last a long time and give you that extra energy boost: no sooner said than done! After all, there’s still a long road ahead.

In high spirits on the way down from the Kühtaisattel in the direction of Innsbruck.

The sun shines during the furious descent from Kühtai towards Innsbruck – you can easily reach 80 – 100 km/h– and I’m simply happy. Then I reach the first tunnel where I can already hear the sirens and see the warning lights. Oh God, what’s happened? Later on I find out about the extremely serious accident with four injured persons. The helicopter is waiting further below to transport the injured to Innsbruck to the University Hospital. My arms are trembling; my thoughts are with the injured. I ride slowly by the accident spot and desperately try to concentrate. Don’t make any mistakes now and maintain a moderate pace. The rest of the route down towards Innsbruck feels very relaxed and the temperatures are glorious.   

While tackling the second ascent at the Brenner Pass, I try to find a suitable tag-on opportunity. I attach myself to a group of ten riders and it somehow feels good: the key is to conserve energy; my legs go round as if they had a life of their own. At the end of the day, cycling is a very banal activity: pedal, pedal and once again pedal. In a world where everything is mechanised, the chance to move something using just your muscle power gives you a sublime feeling of pride. I am ‘in the flow’. The numerous crowds on the roadside in Innsbruck and up on the Brenner Pass urged us on and received us like heroes, but I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted to swap places. 

Once at the top of the Brenner Pass, I trundled through the time control point and received my second SMS from Datasport. Of course my coach knew at all times how I was faring, thanks to live tracking. The same procedure as at the refreshment station on the Kühtaisattel: fill up, eat and then off in the direction of the Jaufen Pass.

The flow shows no sign of slacking!

The descent towards Sterzing takes no time at all and the weather is still magnificent. Nevertheless, I’m humbled by what awaits me. The Jaufen Pass and the Timmelsjoch – 80 kilometres and a 3000-metre climb have yet to be negotiated. But I feel good, I’m in the flow and I’m satisfied with myself and with the world at large. So I wind my way up the 15.5 km stretch and 1130-metre climb to the Jaufen Pass. Funnily, I keep thinking of the Grand Tour des Alpes where together with Tom I scaled the Galibier. A perfect day, just like today.

A bird’s eye view of the Jaufen Pass.
Pleasant ascent to the Jaufen Pass.

I can hardly wait for the feeding station on the Jaufen Pass, not because I’m hungry though. No! I’m anxious to finally set sight on my executioner – the Timmelsjoch; face to face. So I go through the usual motions at the refreshment station, stretch my back a bit and ride the final one and a half kilometres to the top of the pass. On the way down to St. Leonhard you also need to be fully concentrated. Don’t make any mistakes now. Don’t get too full of yourself. Stay centred. The warm wind blowing from South Tyrol provides welcome relief.

The executioner sharpens his sword, Timmelsjoch awaits.

The best comes last as they say. The daunting Timmelsjoch – the grand finale –awaits. It’s where sporting dramas are played out. Well-trained cyclists who had previously overtaken me with no apparent effort stand by the roadside gasping for air. Many of them are pushing their bikes, crying, others get into the support vehicles completely exhausted.  

No wonder, because this mountain is seemingly endless: the route extends to almost 30 kilometres. Even those who are extremely fit take two hours to climb it. And remember: I’ve already been riding for over 180 kilometres and climbed over 3000 metres. At the last feed station the ingestion of food and drink is a challenge in itself. But you can’t forgo eating, otherwise your very last flame of life will suddenly go out. So once more: eat, drink a lot and get your fill of isotonic drinks. It’s only that at this stage, eating and drinking require an effort in themselves. Towards the end you can only swallow cake, bread, bar and energy gels with the aid of lots of water or isotonic drinks. You feel as if you’re choking, your digestion acts up.

So there’s nothing for it than to leave the feed station behind you and continue up to the pass. During the descent I notice from the corner of my eye how Reini (@reini70), who I know from the Montafon, arrives at the refreshment station. I’m glad that I only stopped briefly because I’m eager to get to the top. I’ll show that executioner! He can take a running leap! As if I hadn’t ridden enough for one day. Oh God! Not once during the entire day has the reason why I’m doing this crossed my mind. Even though my legs are tired, I can still think clearly. So I wind my way up to the pass, metre by metre, curve by curve, kilometre by kilometre.

Laughing releases endorphins and gives you additional energy.
The tricot hairpin bend, the summit is not far off.

On the Timmelsjoch the cyclists remain silent, but their bodies cry out in anguish. And then at last, the long-awaited highest point of the pass. Feelings of joy grab at my throat, as if I’m about to lose control of myself. I enjoy the view down into the valley one last time, before riding through the tunnel. Up to now the weather has been perfect. Ample sunshine and not too hot, but that was about to change completely. 

Once at the other side of the tunnel I pulled on my rain jacket because the sky in the direction of Sölden looked very dark. I really didn’t like the look of those clouds. A wise decision, because no sooner had I slipped on my jacket that the heavens opened above. A cloudburst as I’ve seldom experienced before. My cycling shoes were full of water in no time at all. And despite my waterproof rain jacket I was soaked to the skin within a short space of time. I was cold, icy cold; my wrists and upper arms were stiff and all I could do was shiver. Don’t be a wimp they kept saying to me, you’ve come this far, you can do it.

It’s pouring down.
Finish arch at the toll station.

The grand finale.

Come on, throw yourself into it, one and a half kilometres and a 200-metre ascent up to the toll station and then all you have to do is to trundle down to Sölden. You can easily manage that, even if it’s raining, like there’s no tomorrow. I have a lovely chat with my fellow sufferers high up at the toll station. We are all tired and display a wicked sense of black humour, as if we no longer cared about anything.  

As I rode under the Red bull finish arch, it was then that I said to myself, you’ve done it! Over the last few kilometres the suffering turns into joy and the pain into pride. And then that unique, indescribable moment when after 238 kilometres, 5500 metres uphill and over 12 hours of hard slog you ride through Sölden towards the finish line. Turn right just one more time, over the bridge and you’re feverishly received by cheering spectators in recognition of your feat. At the finish line something strange occurs. A sort of apotheosis, feelings of joy take hold of you. Tears well up in my eyes, I’m frozen, but I know that I’ve completed the Ötztaler 2019. 

And those words, ‘Never, never again’, that reverberated through my head high up on the Timmelsjoch gradually morph into the question: Where can I reserve a place on the starting line for next year’s Ötztaler?

Crossing the finish line after a 12-hour slog.

#ÖtztalerRadmarathon #ÖtztalerCycleMarathon #ÖRM2020

By Stephan Rissi

Stephan in AllblackCC

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