The Myth of the Ötztal Cycling Marathon
Tibetan Prayer Flags made of old Ötztaler Jerseys are hung in a hairpin shortly before reaching Timmelsjoch. (Copyright: Sportograf)
“Every man should have a son, plant a tree and participate in the Ötztal Cycling Marathon,” says Austrian road cycling legend Wolfgang Steinmayr, 4-time winner of the Tour of Austria and competitor at the Ötztal Cycling Marathon in 2011.
Getting up early for the 6:45am kick-off pays off. (Copyright: Sportograf)
Many road bike races cater to serious competitors, and some are even billed as being tougher than the ‘Ötztaler’ cycle sportive. And yet the myth of the Ötztal Cycling Marathon persists. How come?
- Distance and Elevation Gain: The ultimate one day bicycle ride challenge, travelling 238 km (148 miles) with 5,500 meters (18,045 feet) of climbing. There is only ONE route. You either make it or you have to surrender yourself to broom wagon ignominy.
- The Elevation: A nasty vertical meters gain is common with endurance road bike races. Yet climbing all the way up to 2,509 meters (!) above SEA LEVEL can be quite challenging—and is dramatically different than climbing on lower altitudes. The high elevation takes a toll, even on fit riders, and pedalling comes at a substantial price in lung and leg pain. Moreover, as the best always comes last, the final climb up 2,474-meter Timmelsjoch is a 1,750 meter climb from St. Leonhard, a place where you already have 3,500 vertical meters in your legs. The scenic Timmelsjoch High Elevation Road is called “il mostro” by Italians – the monster.
- The History: One of the oldest cycling endurance events, and a legend in the lore of bicycle racing, the Ötztal Cycling Marathon celebrates its 37th year in 2017 and takes riders on a gorgeous tour through the Heart of the Alps.
- The Date: On the last Sunday in August, you can be significantly exposed to the elements in the Alps—and surprisingly cold temperatures even when the villages are sweltering in the 30s below. Between persistent rain, snowfall and thundershowers with intense winds; between lightening, hypothermia and falls, the epic ride has forced dozens of riders to surrender. Especially participants from Italy are scared of hypothermia… The Ötztaler is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Snow in late August is not unusual for this location, high up in the Alps. Being exposed to the elements scares off many participants. (Copyright: Sportograf)
- The Participants: Some say that there are more than 20,000 registrations per event, each year. However, there is an overall field limit of ‚only‘ 4,500 racers. The race fills up very quickly each year.
- The Riders: Cycling enthusiasts from all corners of the world come together in Sölden each August, from almost 40 countries, to be precise. With only 5% to 8% female participants, the Ötztaler doesn’t seem to attract a lot of women. Maybe because it has earned the title of toughest one day cycling adventure…. Quite strange, aren’t women supposed to be ‘the stronger sex’?!
German former professional road bicycle racer Jan Ullrich has participated in the Ötztal Cycling Marathon several times. (Copyright: Ötztaler Radmarathon)
- The Organisation: The race organisation is superb. I have participated in quite a few road bike endurance races. Apart from the Maratona dles Dolomites, which is equally well organised, no other event can keep pace. From entertainment over spectators along the route to road closures (all roads are closed for traffic), rest stops, sag wagons, mechanical support, first aid, and much more—lots of helpful people/volunteers/marshals are at every turn. It doesn’t get better than this.
- The Award-Giving Ceremony: Very different to everywhere else, too. Usually the ceremony begins when the fastest riders have reached the finish. Yet this is the Ötztaler. The grand award-giving ceremony takes place in the evening, after the race has been finished. And it’s not only about the winners here. It’s also about those who won’t be seeing the finish line in daylight. The arrival of the last riders is eagerly awaited at the crowded Freizeit Arena in Sölden. Accompanied by the local fire department and police, they get the loudest cheer and are warmly welcomed to take to the stage. That’s amazing!
The finish line resembles the one of the Tour de France: Welcome to Sölden. (Copyright: Sportograf)
- After the Ötztaler… is before the Ötztaler: All those lucky ones who won the registration lottery are moments away from stepping in to a wonderful two-wheeled world of chamois cream, the aggregation of marginal gains and unhealthy amounts of coffee. In brief, you are faced with a ‘summer of pain’, so shave your legs, squeeze into the Lycra and grease your chain. Specific training plans are written, adapted, changed and cancelled. Instead of relaxing by the lake, you spend hours and hours in the saddle. Persistent rain is not seen as an obstacle but as a challenge. You feel terrible when your best friend is marrying and you are not able to get miles in your legs for a day or two. Friendships and marriages are put at risk. You don’t remember your children’s names. The weekends are designed to build cardiovascular endurance for long days and tolerance for climbing while the working week is used to recover between efforts. It’s all about getting ready for the Ötztaler and how to reach your full capacity.
- The Stories: If there is one thing participants of the Ötztal Cycling Marathons like more than riding their bikes, it’s talking about THEIR Ötztaler. They can do that for days, well weeks. Which of the elite riders they have overtaken at which cadence, which mountain pass they have tackled at which power output (measured in watt), where they got their first cramps, where the wind blew and when, how reckless some people were in the stage to Brenner Pass, which rest stop they took and how long, and what they had, where the crowds lining the road were most cheering, where they pulled off their arm warmers and where they put on their windbreaker jacket (and vice versa), that they lost half an hour (!) while fixing a flat tire, and another 20 minutes (!!) for a ‘toilet break’, how they felt at the final push to the summit of Timmelsjoch Pass, how fast they were on the descent from Timmelsjoch, if sheep, cows or horses crossed their way, how often they were close to the end of their tether, how often they asked themselves why they are doing this, how tough the last sprint to the finish line was, that they blew it up and almost had to give up, how it felt crossing the finish line, cheered up by the crowds in Sölden, what time they achieved, and so on and so on and so on.
Basically, all roads are closed during the Ötztaler. However, some ignore the closure signs. (Copyright: Sportograf)
Want to know more? Here’s my personal story :o)
- Emotions & Feelings: Tenseness, doubt, respect, fear, pain, passion, exhaustion, dedication, rage, fury, resolve, going full gas, commitment, determination, endurance, fun, motivation, overwhelmed, confidence, joy, elated by success, relief, gratitude, satisfaction, complacency, peace, proud!
It’s hard to hold back the tears. I did it! I have pushed my limits and expanded my physical and emotional boundaries most profoundly. (Copyright: Sportograf)
Learn More about the Ötztal Cycling Marathon: www.oetztaler-radmarathon.com