238km, 5500m of elevation, 4 cols, 66 switchbacks, 3769 male and 231 female finishers - this is Ötztaler cycling marathon, the toughest one-day challenge for passionate and complete cyclists. And maybe just slightly crazy ones - or as someone put it: "You really have to love cycling to do it". Yes, I do, I do love cycling - and I hope many people will fall in love with it too.
Why? Because nothing beats the pain-pleasure combination of reaching a high altitude mountain pass. You can climb several hours, one switchback after another, never seeing the end of the road. You never know what is behind the curve – and just hope that it gets flatter there, and maybe – just maybe – there is a tiny descent…So you just keep pushing the pedals, trying to breath smoothly, doing your best to accelerate your bike by getting out of the saddle and cutting the curves. Just to get a second or two of recovery... and then push again. This is very meditative and very painful space to be in. And the only way to learn the ecstatic pleasure and relief of reaching the top by experiencing the pain of getting there. Like in real life.
Cycling mountains is dope. Official, legal, free dope. You get into cycling, you become fitter, you start cycling in mountains and you become addicted. You want more cols, more altitude meters, less fat on your body and more power in your legs. Power to weight is the magic formula in cycling. A perfect cyclist is like an ant - a tiny, light creature able to lift and carry huge weights. Uphill.
This is what makes Ötztaler cycling marathon so extremely addictive - your get an overdose of pain and a fountain of joy. Overdose of pain comes in form of the biggest climb to Timmelsjoch (Passo del Rombo), 2505m altitude, 1821m and 29km positive uphill with average 8% and max 14%. And as if it were not enough - this giant hits you after 180km of riding over 3 cols and over 3000m of elevation already in your legs (Kühtai, Brenner and Jaufenpass). Bring it on, baby!
The Timmelsjoch climb starts in the valley, in St Leonard, where it is normally very hot (32C last Sunday) and finishes close to the glacier, with temperatures 15-20C degrees lower. It can actually snow there in summer - and it rains a lot, like it was the case last Sunday, for all 10hrs+ finishers, who got into the pouring rain with temperatures around chilly 7-8C. Climbing in rain is one thing, descending back to 1300m of Sölden is another. Carbon wheels do not really break, so if you enjoy the feeling of a free fall, you are in for a treat.
Riding such a course, whether you win or finish last, is a truly exceptional achievement – you have to be fearless and you have to be a complete cyclist. You have to be able to go the distance (200km+). You have to be able to climb for hours: long moderate cols with 6-8%, steep ramps of over 12% and also long “faux plats” of 2-3%. In Ötztaler you have them all. Then you must ace fast descending – taking switchbacks curves, jumping over cattle grids and constantly watching for cows, who like to chill out in the middle of the road.
You have to be able to ride in a group – and also push alone against the wind. You have to be extremely weather resistant and deal with all elements, as well as extreme temperatures jumps, as you change altitudes and cross weather divides in mountains. You also have to master nutrition and know when, what and how much to eat and drink to give you enough energy for a 8hrs+ ride – in a race like Ötztaler you burn between 5000 and 8000Kcal. And then you have to be a mental ninja – you are all alone out there, totally exposed to your psyche and striped down to the very essence of your nature. Your true character shows only in extreme situations – and such a race is a perfect stage and opportunity for it.
The Latin root of word “passion” stems from passionem, which means “suffering, enduring” – and it says everything. You have to suffer for your passion. Especially, if your passion is cycling. Especially, if it is cycling cols.
If your dream does not make you suffer, you don’t have one. Maybe this is why Ötztaler´s motto is “I have a dream”. And this specific dream does make you suffer. On 66 switchbacks of cycling happiness.