Magnificent, stunning, marvellous, splendid, pretty, awe – inspiring, majestic, grand, superb, fantastic, terrific. These are just some of the adjectives that should be used when describing the Arlberg Giro and the superlative Alpine scenery in the Tirol region of Austria.
The Arlberg Giro is a 148 km sportive that packs in 2,500 metres of climbing, thanks mostly to climbing the Silvretta Alp.
The event attracts professionals and amateurs alike, keen to win the event, but is also open to cyclists who just hope to get round in a decent time. It is based in the beautiful town of St. Anton that nestles amongst the Alpine mountains and also hosts a professional criterium the evening before the mass event.
The town is world famous for being one of the top skiing resorts in Europe and is often called the ‘cradle of alpine skiing’ due to the major role it had in inventing and developing the sport. But when the winter skiing wonderland melts away the area becomes a playground for cycling, hiking, and other outdoor pursuits.
The numerous hotels, that cater for any budget, are expertly set up for these summer activities. Many hire out electrically assisted mountain bikes (e-bikes), as do the varied sports outlets. A great way to explore the miles of tracks for all ages and abilities.
The area is perfect for road cycling too, hence the Giro. It is an excellent alternative to the popular Alpine destinations used in professional races that attract cyclists following the tyre tracks of their heroes.
The Austrian Alps may not have the same racing pedigree, but are no less challenging or beautiful as their famous counterparts. In my opinion the Arlberg Giro certainly deserves a higher profile in the UK, as does the area and activities around St. Anton.
I arrived on the Friday to give me time to sign – on, a little time to discover the possibilities the area has to offer, and to watch the Saturday evening criterium.
I stayed at Hotel Schwarzer Alder, a fabulous traditional Austrian hotel that has been serving the area since 1570. The management were most helpful and allowed me and others to keep our bikes in our rooms.
The signing – on hall was conveniently located behind my hotel just a short walk away. Once signed up, I was given a token for a pasta party for either that night or for after finishing the sportive, my bib number complete with which ‘Block’ to start in, and best of all, a great lightweight event jersey.
Inside the hall there was a screen with all the names of the participants printed on it. A nice touch. Outside, a fleet of official course cars provided by the sponsor, Audi, lined the square. This was definitely the closest I would ever be to entering a full blown race. It felt great. I then joined a party lead by Wilma from the St. Anton am Arlberg tourist office.
Wilma issued each of us a ‘St. Anton summer ticket’. This is a free leisure card entitling the holder to a wide range of free activities and is issued by hotels and accommodation providers in the St. Anton am Arlberg and the Tirolean holiday region, even if guests are only staying one night. Activities include e-biking, archery, yoga and a guided walk. Cardholders can also enjoy free use of St. Anton’s cable cars for a whole day and also free travel on local and hiker’s buses within the districts of St. Anton, Pettneu and Flirsch and the scheduled bus service to Landeck.
The St. Anton Premium Ticket is also available: for a fee, guests can upgrade to an additional package for three, five or seven days and enjoy, for example, unlimited use of all St. Anton’s cable cars and spa facilities.
We hopped on a hiker’s bus and once out of town, wound our way up narrow mountain lanes to the start of our own little hike before lunch. It was incredible that buses used these small roads. As we passed hikers and mountain bikers, they had to squeeze themselves onto the verge to allow the vehicle to pass.
There were several stops to allow walkers to start their treks at the relevant points. Wilma indicated when it was our turn to jump off and start our ramble back down the mountain.
The gorgeous woodland tracks lead us to Lake Verwallsee that helps provides electricity to the town via the adjacent hydro electric power station, as well as providing an excellent venue for fishing, boating and swimming.
We continued on our journey via the newly installed metal suspension bridge that crosses a small gorge in front of a wall of water, picked wild strawberries, breathed in the clear mountain air, soaked up the woodland and mountain atmosphere, and stopped for lunch at Restaurant Ferwall, just a stone’s throw from the lake.
I chatted to Wilma over traditional Austrian fare and beer. Wilma informed me of the recently installed bike park that we passed on our way up the mountain. The facility is a great asset to the area allowing adults and children alike to practice and hone their off road bike handling skills.
I asked about other activities that are available in the area and was amazed at the amount of varied events and pursuits visitors could participate in.
These ranged from adrenalin inducing white water rafting, paragliding, climbing (including indoor), kayaking, and canyoning tours, all available with professional instructors; to more leisurely activities, such as the challenging golf course in nearby Nasserein, and opportunities to take part in swimming, saunas, steam baths at the ultra modern ARLBERG- well.com, Centre for Wellness and Communications.
And of course there are the organised sporting events of which the Arlberg Giro is just one. Others include mountain marathons, both half and full distance, the Arlberg Eagle – a mountain triathlon, not to mention a feast of all manner of different festivals from film to music.
For a small region it appears to have it all!
Returning by bus on roads that all pointed downwards, the Arlberg Giro was never far from my mind, as these were some of the roads I would have to climb the next morning just to get out of town.
I had studied the profile of the event that clearly showed a 500 metre climb including a 15% ramp in the first 10 km, and had tried to put it to the back of my mind. However, travelling on these roads had brought the thought of struggling on inclines straight after breakfast and before being properly warmed up, right back to the forefront of my contemplations.
I tried to forget any negative thoughts as I boarded the first of three cable cars to the top of the Valluga. The last cable car is the smallest and only holds four to five people, so the top tip of the day is to ensure you exit the second car first to avoid queuing!
As we floated over the foothills, Wilma pointed out a sea of edelweiss that the guys from the Guinness book of records were due to report as a world record for the most heavily covered area. The bird’s eye view from the gondolas became more and more spectacular the higher we rose. Hikers could be seen slowly making their way to the top under blue skies interspersed with wispy light clouds and on paths surrounded by thin layers of snow. But the best scene was left to last. The vista from the viewing platform at the summit which is over 2,800 metres, was breath-taking. A panoramic view of ‘wall to wall’ alpine mountains from four different countries; Switzerland, Italy, Germany and of course Austria.
360 degrees of pure Alpine magic, with many mountains tops still capped with snow.
We descended in time for the 5 pm briefing for the following day’s activity. The briefing was very comprehensive, complete with video and slide show. I must admit my language skills learnt from the ‘Rough Guide Phrasebook of German’ on the flight over, let me down. I understood very little, but I think I grasped most of it – keep to the right hand side of the road, take care on the descents and at the highlighted danger points. Not sure why it took over 45 minutes to get these messages across, perhaps I did miss other important points!
What I did understand however, was that it was going to be a very early start due to the authorities wishing to avoid the main road out of St. Anton being used by motorists and hundreds of cyclists at the same time due to the Arlberg Pass Tunnel being closed for maintenance.
So at 5 am the following morning I joined other bleary eyed cyclists at the breakfast table, forcing down fuel. I collected my bike from my hotel room and cycled to my ‘Block’ for the chilly 6am start. As well as feeling sorry for myself, I felt for the other tourists and hikers staying in the town, as the organisers didn’t hold back from using the loud speaker or from playing loud inspiring music.
I was in Block 3 so there was a little delay before I could get the pedal down. I took the opportunity to take a selfie with an Austrian friend I had met the previous year. Unfortunately, as I fumbled to put my phone back into my pocket, my group were given the green flag, and we were separated immediately.
As I passed the music speaker, Pink Floyd’s ‘Hey You’ was being blasted out with the prophetic lyrics ‘Hey You! Out there in the cold, getting lonely, getting old, can you feel me?’
If only ‘getting wet, getting cold’ had been added to the lyrics then they would have been perfect. For, foolishly, I had trusted the weather forecast that predicted rain at 3 pm and hence not carried a rain jacket. The heavens opened about half way up the climb that had started just metres from the inflated start arch. At first I didn’t feel so bad as the effort of grinding my way up the damp gradients kept me quite warm. However, although it had stopped raining by the time I started the 30 km descent, my stupidity really showed. Anybody that has ever descended a short hill let alone long Alpine descents, will know about wind-chill and how it is the downhiller’s enemy. Well, I had a rude reminder!
The descent down into the valley was magnificent in splendour, and on dry roads would have been magnificent in equal measure for sheer fun. However, care had to be taken on the wet tarmac. As I shivered and wound my way down to the valley floor in very wet lycra, I prayed for the sun to appear. A big ask as it was only 7 am! I must say all other participants took care too and the faster ones did not put any pressure on cyclists in front, which I was thankful for.
The glorious downhill in wonderful scenery through the occasional tunnel and the easy pedalling gave a taste of things to come. But first we had to conquer 1,452 metres of non – stop climbing on the Silvretta.
On the approach to the biggest climb of the day, I caught up with a small peloton. The cyclists were a mixture of Austrians and Germans. I prepared to use my limited language skills, but was relieved to find that the international sign language of cycling prevailed. Along with the hand signals for pot holes and obstructions on the right, the signal to take your turn at the front was in regular use.
Unfortunately, I lost my teammates after the first and well stocked food stop at the village of Gortipohl, a short distance from the official start of the Silvretta climb.
Cycling alone, I soon passed through the unmanned barriers that I presume are in use for when the pass is closed in winter, and started the uphill struggle. I found the first sections to be the steepest at around 12%, then the middle section eased off a little with a fairly steady gradient allowing you to get into a rhythm. Near the summit it is significantly less steep, apart from a little ramp as you crest over the top. And from bottom to top, stunning scenery.
Wilma had told me to enjoy the ride and to ensure to take in the views. Good advice as to come all the way to Austria just to look at the wheel or tarmac in front of you would have been criminal. So although the competitive cyclist buried somewhere deep inside me wanted to conquer the mountain without putting a foot down, I yielded to Wilma’s advice and stopped approximately half way up to take photos.
For the more enthusiastic rider there was a ‘King and Queen of the Mountain’ competition. So at every kilometre there were signs indicating how far to go to the summit.
Great to see towards the end of the climb, but on the first few steep slopes about 12km from the summit, I found them quite depressing.
At last, the end of the relentless grind came into sight and I found the energy to increase the pace a little to reach the second refreshment stop overlooking the reservoir, known as the Silvretta – Stausee Lake.
I was at the highest point of the pass at 2,032 m and knew the worst was over. The best part, 40 km of downhill to Pians was about to begin. Luckily my prayers had been answered and the temperature had warmed up significantly. Therefore, wearing a waterproof or gilet was not needed.
I zipped up my top and joyously started the long descent. The sweeping bends from the top of the Alp eventually lead us into the beautiful valley. I whizzed through small towns each with their own little church that looked to the untrained eye identical to the ones in every other town, past houses adorned with window boxes full of flowers and with mountains as their backdrop. Stunning. And with the road still gently pointing downward, I cycled at speeds I only normally dream of achieving on the flat.
Indeed, somewhere along the way I hit 99.4 km/h. The fastest I have ever been on a bike. To be honest I was a little peeved to think I missed out on the magical figure of 100 km/h, but the feeling soon passed as I never thought in a million years I would come anywhere close to that figure, even though the blurb advertising the event stated ‘participants will have experienced tremendous downhill speed well beyond 100 km/h’.
I approached St. Anton weaving my way through standing traffic that was trying to get through the pinch point the town created with the Arlberg Pass Tunnel being shut. I left the main road and was instantly greeted with cheers and applause from bystanders watching the spectacle of fatigued cyclists returning from their endeavours.
For the riders that didn’t have leisurely breaks at the three food stops, or stop to take photos, cheerleaders greeted them back. For me, I had to be happy with just the commentary informing the small crowd of my return and a little ripple of applause. Nevertheless, I proudly crossed the line in my event jersey, with a big smile on my face.
I would love to go back to explore the area further and also to attack the course not only to improve my overall time, but to hit that magical 100 km/h!
Image credits to Patrick Säly