Ride Report: My Ötztaler – The Ötztal Cycling Marathon
That’s me on the first climb to Kühtai. (Copyright: Sportograf)
I love cycling and road cycling is my favourite discipline. This sport has fascinated me from when I was small. The speed, the stunning places to ride a bike, feeling my body as an extension of the bike… The joy and that incredible emotion of being one with the bike and the road under me. Not the destination, but the journey. It might sound kind of corny, but it’s a Zen thing, being one with the bike. There is literally no limit to how hard I can challenge myself.
There is a fine line between genius and insanity. The Ötztal Cycling Marathon might well have stepped over it—a 238 kilometer leg burner of a day in which you take on four of the Alps’ notorious killer climbs. With 5,500 meters of climbing this is an event that will test even the toughest of cyclists. This is an event you don’t just rock up to and ride. The ‘Ötztaler’ is an event you aspire to achieve. I have been watching the event together with my Dad as a teenager and even then, I considered the Ötztaler an accomplishment I wanted to be a part of! Thus, the motto of the race, “I have a dream”, is a pretty accurate description of myself. That I have made this dream come true four times already is quite unbelievable (I am less successful at realizing some of my other goals and dreams ;o)
The finish line resembles the one of the Tour de France: Welcome to Sölden. (Copyright: Sportograf)
I won’t tell you about my first Ötztal Cycling Marathon. Quite starry-eyed, I completed it in 9 hours 59 minutes and 37 seconds (which was 23 seconds (!!!) below my targeted time of 10 hours ;o). I won’t tell you about my second neither, where I achieved my personal best of 9hrs 26mins. This report is also not about my third Ötztaler, where a freak hailstorm atop Timmelsjoch has toughened the life of competitors—and where I lacked some commitment and determination right from its start. I will tell you about my fourth and up to now last participation in the Ötztaler, where I didn’t settle my personal best but earned my best place. And where I learned that I am tough enough to take on a challenge.
My Review of the 2013 Ötztal Cycling Marathon
I hadn’t closed an eye all night. Understandably, perhaps, I am always a little nervous before the start of a race. But this time around, I heard the rain pouring outside from my snuggly bed at a B&B in Sölden. The heavens have opened and it was raining cats and dogs. I saw the rain pouring against my window when I got up. Breakfast was horrible, as usual. Who in the world can enjoy a proper breakfast at 4:30am? Anyway, I was sitting there with a few like-minded, trying to fuel up with energy. Enough to get me through the day but not that much that I will feel sick during the first fast kilometers. The breakfast room was not filled to capacity. I assumed that some had skipped the race and decided to keep sleeping because of the heavy rain. But this was definitely not an option for me. I don’t want to have a DNF (did not finish) against my name. At least, not for lack of motivation.
Competitors were trying to beat the downpours in the start pens. (Copyright: Sportograf)
So, the next thing after breakfast was to kit up and get out. I was welcomed by pouring rain. The temperature was fine, though. Once again, I thought about what to wear, what to bring along. It’s important to judge the amount of kit you wear during a race so that it’s just right to avoid getting cold or too hot. Things that take up no room in my jersey pocket. After all, added weight means slower riding. I used a large waste bag to protect me from the elements. Being wet in a race is only an issue if it is cold. Thus, it’s important to keep dry a little longer in the start pens. Nevertheless. After the short ride to the start pens, my feet were completely wet. During the 45 minutes waiting in the start pen for the race to begin, I tried to beat the downpours. Well, it seemed to become a wet ride. There were definitely less riders than usually. There was more space for each of us. I ate the last energy bar, got rid of the waste bag, and did the last check of brakes, gears and GPS device. I wished good luck to my fellow competitors. And then, the cannon was firing to signal the start. Despite the 6:45am kick-off—and despite the heavy rain—it seemed like every home, hotel, campervan and tent has emptied out onto the streets of Sölden to see the riders off. Or, did they just like to watch us getting wet? Anyway, it felt great. Rain was still pouring down. At the tunnel, shortly after the end of Sölden I was wet to the bones. Like always, persistent rain gets through eventually, no clothing can keep such a rain out. It didn’t matter to me. The peloton was riding at high speed to Ötz in the wet. I did not see a lot as my glasses were wet and foggy, but I felt confident and relaxed. Fortunately, there were no unpredictable and wobbly riders in front of me. It’s good to be in front of the pack on a rainy day.
The cannon was firing to signal the start in the dark and in pouring rain. The speed from Sölden to Ötz was very high, despite the wet road. (Copyright: Sportograf)
Kühtai (2,020 m)
The first ascent of the day was business as usual. I felt fully comfortable on my bike. Rain? Double bonus points! Somehow battling the rain felt great. The water came in waves and it almost felt like surfing. I was surprised at how some of my fellow competitors were kitted out. Shorts and jersey seemed to be quite cold to me. I wore leg warmers and a waterproof jacket and felt just fine. Up in Kühtai the temperature dropped. Thankfully, a feed station with hot tea and soup appeared just in time. I continued my steady passage, which is more than could be said for many of the riders around me. And they weren’t alone. Many riders had declared their misery, waiting on the organizer to load up their bikes and bring them back to Sölden. I used these stark images of despondent riders as my incentive to keep legs turning and mind focused on not giving up. Dropping down the other side of the pass from Kühtai to Innsbruck was fine. It was still raining. Of course, the descent was a little slower, but speed was unlikely to top my agenda in these less-than-ideal conditions for a host of reasons, not least safety. Taking risks and endangering yourself and others is simply not worth it. After all, biking isn’t my profession — but it is undeniably my passion.
I felt more comfortable in Kühtai than it looks like. (Copyright: Sportograf)
The descent was less frantic than usual, the once thousand-strong peloton had separated into more manageable groups in Kühtai. And speed was not on top of the agenda. Taking risks is simply not worth it. (Copyright: Sportograf)
Brenner Pass (1,377 m) and Jaufen Pass (2,009 m)
The rain ceased in Innsbruck, yet the road up to Brenner Pass was still wet. Miraculously it seemed I had found my gear. My legs were turning nicely and I was riding with such ease that I asked myself why. Seemed as if the rain had spurred me on to do even better and quickened my pace. My Mom was up on Brenner Pass to cheer me on. Should I leave my rain jacket with her? I didn’t dare to. I didn’t want to be caught short when the rain started again, so I took the jacket along. A mistake as it soon turned out. The sun came out in Sterzing, and the heat became stifling on the mercilessly steep climb up Jaufen Pass. I took off my rain jacket and the leg warmers. Where to store it? Not much room left in my jersey pocket, however, it was no use crying. The torturous climb continued; Jaufen Pass is the one I hate most. It reminded me just how close I was to teetering off my final rivet. A woman on the road told me I was the tenth woman in the pack. I couldn’t believe it. I was uncertain as to where I was in the pack. Somehow, I managed to churn it out all the way to the top. A mini victory for me and the descent to St. Leonhard was a glorious reprieve.
Timmelsjoch, the final ascent of the day. Hairpins as far as the eye can see. (Copyright: Sportograf)
Timmelsjoch (2,509 m)
From there, all energy goes in to the promise of the finish line not being too far away. I only had to tackle the beast, ‚il mostro‘ (the monster) as they call the Timmelsjoch. In the past races, I always did best on the final climb to Timmelsjoch, passing riders with ease. The longer the race, the stronger I get. This time, too, I did’t get too excited, it was pretty much all uphill but hey, why would it be anything else? Of course, climbing all the way up to 2,500 meters above sea level is always quite challenging. With a nasty 1,750 vertical meters, you know this is going to be an absolute belter. But I felt confident and comfortable. I was climbing smoothly. My legs kept on turning and I started to chat with fellow riders. I don’t know if they liked that or not—it simply offered a perfect distraction to me. A billboard at Moos in Passeiertal Valley said, “Have you finished dreaming?” It was exactly here that a fellow cyclist had a flat tire and I had a lot of sympathy for him. Eventually, the towering hairpin I had just dragged myself up had swung to reveal the tunnel that designates the top of the descent back to Sölden. I spotted the huge inflatable Red Bull arch with the writing “Now you have your dream” on it. However, this was no place to get my jacket on or engage other riders. It was head down and get in the zone time. My watch told me that there were chances to reach a time below ten hours.
I managed to churn it out all the way to the top of Timmelsjoch. This picture is from my first Ötztaler in the year 2010. That doesn’t matter, though, as it looks the same up there every year. (Copyright: Sportograf)
Unfortunately, there was a headwind to the finish. That made it a different race compared to other years. Once off the Timmelsjoch, the headwind did play a major role. In the races before, my speedo was clicking into 90 km/h on this descent, this time it only reached 65 despite me riding hard… really hard. I almost spanned out. Nevertheless, I still had great legs for the final 200 vertical meters atop aptly named Windegg (which means ‘windy corner’ in German) at the toll station in Hochgurgl. I know these meters are there. For many riders, this last push comes unexpected as they think it’s all downhill from Timmelsjoch. It is a blow up and really brings many close to the end of their tether.
I kept going full gas on the final kilometers to Sölden, wheelsucking for a while. The men riding with me were finished, too. It was hard work until the finish line. Rolling in to Sölden is awesome. The sense of achievement when you cross that finish line cannot be replicated by any other cycling event. You are welcomed by loud cheers, lauds and music. Yes, I did it again! I completed the Ötztaler in 9 hours 46 minutes and finished 11th overall and third in my division. I couldn’t believe it! Me on the podium of the Ötztal Cycling Marathon! It was a huge feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. There is literally no limit to how hard I can challenge yourself now!
I did it! For me it was a huge feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction . It was hard to hold back the tears ;o) (Copyright: Sportograf)
For me, the Ötztaler was an accomplishment I wanted to be a part of as a teenager. Standing on the podium made my wildest dreams come true—miracles can happen. (My proud Dad captured this great moment.)
The Ötztal Cycling Marathon: Facts and Figures
The ultimate one day bicycle ride challenge travels 238 km (148 miles) with 5,500 meters (18045 feet) of climbing over four mountain passes, Kühtai, Brenner Pass, Jaufen Pass and Timmelsjoch. Start and finish line is in Sölden. There are more than 20,000 registrations per event, each year. However, there is an overall field limit of 4,500 racers. Cycling enthusiasts from 40 countries all around the globe come together in Sölden on the last Sunday in August, 5% to 8% of the participants are women. It was run for the first time in 1982, where 154 competitors took to the start in Tirol’s capital Innsbruck. In the year 2013, only 3,350 participants entered the race because of the inclement weather, 2,375 of which reached the finish line (2,292 men, 83 women). I was one of them. www.oetztaler-radmarathon.com
- Ötz (820m) – Kühtai (2,020m): 1,200 vertical meters, 18 kilometers, max gradient topping out at 18%
- Innsbruck (600m) – Brenner (1,377): 777 vertical meters, 39 kilometers, max gradient topping out at 12%
- Sterzing (980m) – Jaufenpass (2,009 m): 1,030 vertical meters, 16 kilometers, max gradient topping out at 12%
- St. Leonhard in Passeiertal Valley (750 m) – Timmelsjoch (2,509 m): 1,759 vertical meters, 29 kilometers, max gradient topping out at 14%
Tibetan Prayer Flags made of old Ötztaler Jerseys are hung in a hairpin shortly before reaching Timmelsjoch. (Copyright: Sportograf)
I am a passionate road cyclist and have participated in almost all Tirol road bike races and in a few races across the borders of Tirol. Up to now, I have competed in the Ötztal Cycling Marathon four times. This review is from the race in 2013. The photographs published in this blog post are by Sportograf, Ötztal Tourism or by friends and relatives. Refer here to learn more about Road Bike Tours in Tirol. You can also read my blog post about The Myth of the Ötztal Cycling Marathon.
More infos: www.tyrol.com