As a boy I would cycle a lot. I would spend weekends and school holidays bezzing about on my BMX and then my green Rayleigh Ascender mountain bike. When I became a teenager, I embarked on a riverside cycle following a rocky, muddy track on my dad’s road bike.
I was asking for trouble, wasn’t I? But, as it turned out, the greatest peril was attempting a downhill right hand turn, back on tarmac, as I pulled into the street I called home.
Wrenching the handlebars at too acute an angle at speed, the tyres lost tread mid-turn and down I went, and stayed down in the middle of a thankfully quiet suburban road junction.
Flat out on my side, I was in trouble. Minutes later I somehow manged to pull myself up and staggered the 500 yards home, gingerly pushing my dad’s bike along with me.
Scolded for arriving home late for tea by my mum as I unhitched the back gate, I was close to passing out. It would transpire, hours later in a cubicle at the local hospital; leaving my mum feeling somewhat guilty, that I had in fact broken my left arm. It required manipulating back into place which, yes, is as painful as it sounds.
Since that fateful day I had, until recently, just a single bike ride to my name as an adult, and that being a most leisurely jaunt alongside the Sava river in Belgrade last summer followed by a remarkably untesting diversion through the city centre on the way back.
There were no dramas to speak of on that occasion. And then, this summer, just months after the Grand Départ of the Tour de France passed through my home town, I received an interesting offer from the Austrian Tourist Board. Would I like to go on a four-day cycling trip through the Zillertal valley? Perhaps still mind-drunk from the thrill of the Tour, I accepted, without hesitation and with, at least initially, an absence of apprehension.
As the trip drew nearer however, the nerves crept in a tad; what with my long absence from the saddle – Belgrade aside. My answer was to kit myself out with cycling gear because what could possibly go wrong if I looked the part? Then the itinerary arrived. Great news. I’d be cycling up a glacier.
The only comfort at this stage was that I’d be taking on such treacherous terrain firmly in the seat of an e-bike, which isn’t, contrary to the wise cracks, a bike made in Yorkshire. No, this would be a battery powered set of wheels. The power kicks in to respond to the rotations of the pedals, giving the rider a boost that would only otherwise come through extra manpower. It’s cheating, essentially.
Reassured, I warmed up the day before the flight east by pedalling a Boris bike through central London, as you do. In town to catch the flight from Gatwick, I caught up with an old friend. Meeting at London Victoria we cycled to Leicester Square. Picking our way through traffic and gulping in the not so fresh capital air with my seat too low, thus requiring needlessly strenuous effort on my behalf, it was hardly an experience that filled me joy about the adventure ahead.
I joined five other English and Welsh ladies and gents signed up to the trip and headed for Innsbruck. Day one was gentle. Having touched down we were transferred to the tourist board HQ and were equipped with the machines that would be our companions for the rest of the holiday. Here’s my trusty stead, pictured below.
That day we trundled 25km to the nearby town of Mayrhofen on flat terrain along a trail that passed through sleepy farmland alongside a train track (pictured below) with speed mode on my bike cranked up – effortlessly clocking 29km/hr.
Day two was to offer the biggest test – glacier day and a two-hour crawl uphill via winding dirt trails with panoramic views of the Zillertal valley and the village of Hintertux (see next photo). Those vistas proved a spectacular diversion as we wound ever upwards in low gear at slow speed. Our end point was a cable car to the top of the glacier and the most testing part at this stage was my increasingly painful saddle sores. The air too was thinning out, presenting an extra challenge and the chatter between us died down as we came to terms with the rhythm required to make the trek.
At last, we rode the cable car to the glacier’s peak, some 3,250 metres above sea level. It was shrouded with fog as we arrived but suddenly, stationed on the viewing platform, the wind cleared the weather front in patches, offering majestic views of the sleepy iced capped mountain range that stretched out around us. The border with Italy was just 2km away.
A few pictures for posterity later, lunch and the odd experience of a robotic toilet seat that rotated to clean the bowl (blew. my. mind.), and it was descent time. Wow. This is where it got interesting. The forward momentum as the steep gradient gave way beneath the bike’s wheels propelled me along at increasingly pulse racing speed; the edge of the path gave way on the right of the bumpy track to uncompromisingly sheer drops into the picturesque valley below. Cows are known to plummet to their deaths with one misplaced step. I didn’t fancy joining them.
Such a high speed descent over rough ground requires steady navigation to negotiate ruts filled with water and loose rock debris, as well as the hazards presented by hikers – who thankfully stepped aside – and cows, obviously…
Gaining velocity and plunging headlong into a straight stretch having taken a sweeping bend with a mere stroke of the brakes, my path was unwittingly blocked by a herd of these four-legged friends. They moo-ed and sniffed, and slowly a gap between their hides opened up, wide enough to allow me to continue downwards. Soon I was again hurtling at speeds on the outer limits of my comfort zone. Then – oh great – the pedals locked up. The chain double backed on itself. I had no option but to stop. I couldn’t fix it so I freewheeled on, letting gravity do its job.
We were nearly there, our pack of six riders and then… slip, SMASH… and the gent two cyclists ahead lost his balance and was down in a tangled heap having taken a sharp, rocky, muddy corner onto the final section of the route without appreciating its difficulty. The main road back through Hintertux was just a couple of metres away. The corner was suddenly upon us now, me and the rider immediately ahead. Screech, hard braking, rubber against metal wheel rims, then tip, skid, SMASH, the guy in front of me was now down in the same spot as its last victim.
Bizarrely, my reaction to having seen this sorry spectacle was to let out a chuckle, quite uncontrollably, but I had to concentrate because now I too was rapidly bearing down on the blackspot. Rear and front brakes both squeezed, I took the corner with incredible caution and delicacy, so much so in fact that suddenly it wasn’t the bike that had the momentum. Almost stopped in its tracks, 75kg of me, raised ever so slightly out of my seat to take the corner, was carried forward, overbearing the 20kg of the steel frame beneath me, and I felt it go. Weight ratios in horrifying disarray. The frame of the bike was overcome, I lurched forwards and sideways all at once, and silent nanoseconds later, down I tumbled, SMASH; bike landing on top of me. Both me with limbs flailing and it, my overly exerted bicycle, sliding six feet, ten feet, more, down the slippy rutted hillside with my right foot wedged between the seat and the frame.
I came to a stop. Instead of shooting pain, this time, this crash, my overwhelming rush of sensation was that of hilarity, and I burst into a fit of giggles. No harm done, not this time, only bumps and bruises, to my legs and to my pride.
Over four days, I would average a crash or a ‘stack’; so the experienced cyclists in our number called them, once every two days. Between us we ‘stacked it’ a total of eight times. Consistently dramatic if not polished in our performance on the slopes of the Austrian alps.
If there’s one thing I learned from my cycling travails, it’s that I won’t ever mount and expect anything other than some rough and tumble, but in Austria I rediscovered the liberating thrill of two wheels. The adrenaline rush of zooming breathlessly down a mountain, wind in my face, was exhilarating. Time for a trip to Halfords soon, me thinks, I’ll just remember that it is wise indeed to wear a helmet.
- If you would like more information about the Zillertal region of Austria, have a look here. Otherwise, here’s some quality Austrian music…