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From Inside peloton: Rediscovering Innsbrück

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It was a startling realization at the end of a long day—and an even longer week—that we didn’t have a home in Innsbruck anymore. We had spent thirteen months calling the throbbing heart of the Alps our place of residence, but a year on (we were just visitors, tourists even) had us heading to a friend’s house to sleep on a curiously rigged lawn chair.

Words & images: Jered Gruber

It was a setup that I’ll be forever thankful for, but we were homeless at home, and it was a disconcerting feeling because no matter how much I might have whined about Innsbruck’s weather and its difficult terrain, it became one of our favorite places in the world. And, more important, it was the point from which all of our adventures emanated. We’d venture out, but we’d always return, exhausted, thankful to slip our key into the lock, turn it, and melt into our haven.

When we first arrived in Innsbruck, I was still a professional cyclist, and we were a newly formed couple. The future was foggy in the early days, but as the weeks and months passed we grew together. We left an indivisible pair. One year later, we returned, but this time, we were married, racing was a memory, and we were back to see if we could make a life of it in Europe.

Innsbruck, the beating heart of the Alps in Austria, is a winter sports Mecca. It is one of the few cities in history to host two Olympic Games, and it’s also a pretty fine place to spend your recreational days when the weather warms and the snow melts. When the long days of summer arrive and the alpine flowers are in full bloom, the possibilities in the area around Innsbruck—in the whole of Tirol—are endless. Normally, the opportunities are considered to be mainly focused around those who prefer to use their feet for mobility, but with the proper gearing on your bike, Innsbruck is one of the most spectacular places to ride that you can imagine. It’s also one of the most difficult.

The River Inn and the mountains that encircle Innsbruck—the Tux Alps to the southeast, the Stubai Alps to the southwest and the Karwendel mountains to the north—define the capital of the Austrian province of Tirol. You cannot make a step in any direction, in any place in Innsbruck, without the giant looming backdrop of either the Nordkette or Patscherkofel as a silent guard over all that happens in the narrow valley below. For Austrians and visitors alike, the towering peaks are magnets. In ancient times, they inspired awe, fear, love, art, a lifestyle, folklore. The feelings remain the same thousands of years later, except now the untouchable peaks are tangible. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that I’m after some sort of anthropological quest to conquer the mountains—I just like to ride my bike in pretty places.

Innsbruck Over The Dolomites? Still though, the question remains, “Why Innsbruck?” Just 120 kilometers to the south, there’s Bolzano with its infinitely better weather. It’s warmer, it’s sunnier, the valley is broad, the climbs can be steep, but there are gentle beauties aplenty. Innsbruck, however, is narrower, a bit harsher, the weather tends to err on the Belgian side, and the climbs, oh, the climbs, they’re brutal. As cyclists though, don’t we thrive on brutality? It’s a hard sport. There’s a reason we flock to the television (or computer) screen when the Giro hits the satanic slopes of the Zoncolan or the Mortirolo. I don’t quite know what it is, but they’re sexy in their cruelty.

I’ve always been personally drawn to the hardest climbs. You know, those roads. Roads that require more from you than just turning your legs over for a long time, and just purely by repetition of pedal strokes, you arrive to the top of some vanilla mountain, check off “Pass X.”

Innsbruck isn’t like that. Passes are few and far between and dead-end farm roads, barely the width of a car, are the norm. There’s only one real vanilla pass, and even that one has a hefty dose of syrup to startle you into a seething mass. The ascents are typically climbs to nowhere, an exercise in futility, but it’s the most deliriously enjoyable futile effort I’ve ever managed. The views are gut wrenchingly gigantic. The normal world in the valley below looks like a model train set, complete with little moving cars, as you creep forward up a forgotten little road with percentages that average well into the teens.

Making It Work
It’s no exaggeration to say that riding in Innsbruck consists of three directions: east, west or up. True, you can do some large loops out of Innsbruck, including the infamous Ötztaler Radmarathon—all 238 kilometers and 5,000 vertical meters of it—or the more sedate, but still arduous (as everything here is), Karwendel Loop. If you’re looking to ride your bike for under five hours, an out and back type ride will be your constant companion, but this is not your typical out and back. You might head out to the east and head back a few hours later from whence you came, but seemingly every bit of the mountains that line both sides of the valley have roads going up their flanks. You can effectively do a ride that is 30 kilometers out and 30 kilometers back, and have it take you over six hours with about twenty climbs. I’m not exaggerating. Sure, you’d be an absolute masochist, and you likely wouldn’t walk for days afterward, but the point is that it’s possible.

The only problem with these climbs is that they are laid out in a most frugal manner. Switchbacks are used only when absolutely necessary and there’s an emphasis on using as little pavement as necessary to get you from valley floor to the dead end above. The gradient often tips toward driving age percentages, and if you find the right little road, or wrong, depending on your love of desperately steep, you can see masters age gradients.  While the grades are anything but friendly, often hovering in the 10-11% range as an average, the quiet farm roads that shoot straight up out of the valley are some of the most pristine, beautiful, and perfect roads I’ve ever ridden.

For a place like Innsbruck to be enjoyable, the first thing you need to do is leave your regular cranks at home. Don’t even try. The compact is your friend. I came to Innsbruck thinking that whatever climbs they had would be no problem—I was a professional bike racer, what compact? Why? Two weeks later, my standard crankset was dangling from a coat rack, and I was on a 50×34 with a 28.  Then, and only then, did the mountains become my friend.  Fifteen percent for ages? Sure, why not? Thirty-plus percent to the tiny little cluster of buildings known as Gramart, right out of my back door? Okay, no worries, I can do that too.

My Top Two
With countless climbs all within an hour’s ride of Innsbruck’s old town, I had to narrow them down to two very distinct rides for the sake of avoiding having to write a book.  The first is a beautiful brute that epitomizes the perfection possible along the skyward turning mountainsides, while the second is a more moderate route: beautiful, pleasant, but still capable of doling out major difficulties if you’re interested.

The combination climb of Kleinvolderberg, followed by Tulferberg right on top, is probably my favorite climb ever. To say that I’m partial is a bit of an understatement.

The 20 kilometers to get to the base of Kleinvolderberg can either be a pleasant, quiet warm-up (save for dodging rollerbladers and other recreationists) along the excellent Inn River bike path, or, you can choose a more difficult approach using the mountainside as a giant half-pipe—up and down, up and down, except without the cool tricks at the top. For the purpose of this piece, we’ll go with the bike path, because though it may be tiresome at times weaving through the people enjoying the outdoors on a sunny weekend afternoon, it’s a wonderful artery to get where you’re going and never have to wave a tired, exasperated greeting to an irritated motorist.

You can see the inviting green of the cultivated farmlands above you for most of the ride from Innsbruck. Even with the knowledge of the difficult climb ahead, it’s one of those ascents that draw a knowing smile, not only for the ardors to come, but also for the hard-earned scene that will unfold over every part of the climb. It can take between 30 and 60 minutes to arrive at the base, but it’s well worth taking a couple minutes easy before heading toward the heavens.

It’s a forgotten little road that rears up from the town of Volders, a little ways east of Innsbruck. The road is hardly used, so it functions more or less as the world’s greatest uphill bike path. The entire climb is separated into two very distinct parts, two completely different climbs actually: Kleinvolderberg and Tulferberg. The two climbs are separated by only a quick descent and a foray through the town of Tulfes, before heading up once again. The two are a nasty one-two punch, but the visual rewards and the hut awaiting you at the top of Tulferberg make it worth the struggle.

Kleinvolderberg is 4.6-kilometers long and gains 460 meters, putting it right at the 10% average mark, while Tulferberg is 4.1-kilometers long and gains 440 meters, weighing in at 10.7%. Yikes. That’s 900 meters of elevation gain in 8.7 kilometers.

Kleinvolderberg, though it reads as the easier climb, is, without question, the harder of the two. The final 500 meters or so ease off the gas just enough to bring the average into the realm of humane, but there are long stretches of 12-15%. Somehow though, they’re pleasant. The climb is absolutely brutal, but it divides itself into perfect, distinct sections—all defined by glorious visual feast.

The first part takes you out of Volders and up through the low-lying green fields just above the river; the Castle Friedberg sits off to the left side and “bucolic” is the word of the moment. As you pass the castle, the road begins to move toward the right and skirts along a dark forest. That’s the next part.

The section through the forest is pure fabled black forest fun: tall, slender coniferous trees create an almost impenetrable ceiling above you as the road takes in six switchbacks and a bunch of elevation. The switchbacks provide just a tiny bit of respite from the grade, but that’s normally followed by a quick punch in the gut right after, so it’s not too terribly helpful.

After the six switchbacks, you start into part three. You emerge out of the woods and into the open expanses of the next layer of farmland above the valley below. At this point, the views are … never mind, they don’t make superlatives for these views. Even under full gas alert, it’s hard not to notice the panorama. They hit you over the head.

Tulferberg doesn’t quite have the pronounced joy of Kleinvolderberg for me, but that might be because I’m normally fairly wrecked by the time I start rotating squares by the little ski area above the town at 920 meters. While Tulferberg has a steeper average, as I mentioned before, the overall feel is of a climb slightly easier, as the gradient is much more constant—thankfully staying shy of the teens for the most part in favor of 10, 11, and 12 percent. Never thought you’d be thankful for low-end double-digit gradients, did you?

Just as Kleinvolderberg’s views get better as you climb higher, so to do Tulferberg’s, except, after a certain point, they really just can’t get any better. About midway up the climb, you emerge out of a small wood to even bigger sweeping views—if that’s at all possible. It turns out that it is. A dark, tall chapel stands alone in the green pastures, and for a while your view will switch between the oddly colored chapel and the green magnificence off to the right.

The wide expanses are left behind for another pleasant trip through the forest, and from there it’s a straightforward push to the top, except for that errant little ramp right before the hut at the end of the road. It only peaks a bit of 20%, and you’ve only been climbing for a few days now, so it’s not that bad. When you crest it, pull into the welcoming patio of the restaurant, have a refreshing beverage, a lunch, maybe even a beer.  But do keep in mind that there’s a bit of white-knuckle descending to come before home.

The ride to Sellrain is nothing like the Kleinvolderbergian monster. It feels like a secret. The route takes you once again along the river’s bike path, but this time in the opposite direction to the west. The main valley road, which climbs up to Kühtai, is forgettable and nowhere close to my top ten, but the road that traverses the mountainside above this main thoroughfare is a gem. It takes a few kilometers of climbing to the middle mountain town of Axams before you get to the good part, but when you get there it’s pure goodness.

At some point before the pure goodness, however, you’ll probably wonder where all these cars are going, but just as you think that you turn off the main road onto a tiny road, and from there the fun begins. Sure, this section of the climb pitches to Flandrian proportions, but it somehow also has that Flandrian feel, with the road recessed well below the green fields just above your eye level. It’s a pleasant steepness if that’s possible, and it’s even nicer that the Flandrian comparison doesn’t mean that it’s cobbled. If the Austrian climbs were cobbled, we might be talking about a bridge just a wee bit too far.

After this difficult section, the grade eases and the views of the grand Sellrain valley open up. Behind, you can look back at the Inn Valley, and directly across from you, on the opposite side of the valley, you can see exactly where you’ll be riding in the not-so-distant future. Since there’s no giant bridge spanning the valley, you guessed it, there will be a descent followed by, yep, a steep climb. First, you get to enjoy a gentle climb, a nice rolling section, and then finally, the loss of elevation. The descent takes you into the valley’s namesake, Sellrain, then it’s over a tiny bridge, a rushing alpine stream, and then it’s up, up, up with some sections hitting over 20%. It’s not unbearable though. Just when you think you can’t go any further, it mercilessly lets off. It’s a quick little climb with a couple hundred meters of ouch.

Did I say this was the easy route?

From here, the decisions are plentiful. You can continue up to the dead-end town of St. Quirin and its beautiful old church, which leaves you wondering, “Who goes to church here?” Or, you can continue along the mountainside to my other favorite climb in the world—the ascent to Stieglreith. It’s once again a climb to nowhere, but its position at the end of the Sellrain Valley and looking into the Inn Valley, makes for some of the biggest views I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying—even bigger than Kleinvolderberg’s.

At the very top, if you continue to the climb’s absolute dead end, you finish in the village of Gfas. If you’re lucky, the village dog will bark at you and a little old lady will emerge out of her house scolding the dog for barking at nothing, then she’ll stand agape when she sees you pedaling slowly by. She’ll apologize for her dog and her surprised, but friendly mouth and eyes will say the rest: “What in the world are you doing here?”  You’ll smile and shrug and realize that there is absolutely no conceivable way that you could possibly explain why you’re on a bike in this tiny collection of houses.

From there, all that’s left to do is turn around and hold on tight. Tirolean descending isn’t often the most fun. The steep, curvy, narrow farm roads don’t allow for much bike driving, and you’ll need the last name of Knievel if you manage to go fast. In this case though, it is a fast descent back into the Inn Valley. You can lose 1,000 meters in 10 kilometers, and there are not very many turns between you and the river far, far below. It’s one of those “go as fast as you dare” descents.

Give It A Try
Don’t be deterred by my cautionary tale of harsh gradients. I don’t want to mislead anyone about the difficulty of the area, but I also don’t want to deter anyone from giving it a try. Like I said before, the key to enjoying Innsbruck is in your crankset and your cassette. If you give yourself a 34×25-27-28 you’re going to have a fun, challenging experience. Take your time; breathe in the views, no hurries. With the unending difficulties springing up from the Inn Valley, you can do as much or as little as you want. If you crack, you can at least take solace in the fact that you’re likely not more than half an hour or so from a soft, recovery-inducing bed.

A few days, or even a week, in Innsbruck will make the rest of the world’s climbs feel just that little bit easier. It won’t help you all that much to take comfort in that fact while climbing, but you can at least know that you’re plying roads less traveled, exploring something a bit off the beaten cycling path of the famous mountains of Europe. The Dolomites are only a couple of hours south of Innsbruck, but it’s hard to get that feeling of isolation, of quietude—except perhaps in April. The views are tremendous in the Dolomites, I would never say anything to the contrary, but the refined, developed, but still rugged mountainsides around Innsbruck can almost rival the Hall of Fame feeling of the Sella Ring on a good day. The small mountain roads above the Inn River are worth the effort. If you’re ever passing through the area, give it a try. When you’re done in Innsbruck, head to the Dolomites. It would be a shame to miss out on those as well. And after that, you might as well head just a bit further south to Lake Garda. From there the possibilities are literally endless with big, steep climbs that are as heavy as what Austria offers.

From Issue 02. Buy it here.