Cycling Austria’s best climbs
When you think about countries with a big pro cycling culture, Austria is probably not the first to come to mind. However, with the upcoming UCI Road World Championships (22th to the 30th of September 2018) in Innsbruck-Tirol, the central European country will be in the spotlight of the entire cycling community.
The event also serves as a recognition of the rise of professional road cycling in Austria in recent years. With athletes like Matthias Brändle, Stefan Denifl, Lukas Pöstlberger, Patrick Konrad and many others, Austria has more pro riders in the peloton than ever. Some call it the golden generation of Austrian cycling, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Austria played a significant role in the medal ranking during the Worlds on home turf.
Austria has always been a great place for cyclists. Located in the middle of the Alps, the country offers hundreds of great climbs with stunning sceneries and perfect road conditions, as well as many events for amateur cyclists of all categories.
The most famous cycling event is probably the Ötztaler Radmarathon, a race comprising of 238 kilometres and 5,500 meters of altitude gain that attracts 4,000 riders every year. The marathon is affectionally named “Ötzi” among locals, and its route features the first in our list of five best Austrian climbs. Include these five ascents in your next cycling journey and you’ll get a glimpse of what Austria has to offer for road cyclists – beyond being the host nation of the 2018 World Championships.
Timmelsjoch (or Passo del Rombo in Italian) has earned its cycling fame as the last big climb of the Ötztaler Radmarathon. For 29 kilometres, the road winds up from the Italian village St. Leonhard in Passeier (750 metres) to the pass (2,509 metres) that marks the Austrian-Italian border. Gaining nearly 1,800 metres of altitude it definitely separates the wheat from the chaff and only the best riders make it to the top without pausing to catch their breath.
As the “Ötzi” always covers the Timmelsjoch from the Italian side, the Austrian ascent is less famous but still very challenging: Starting from the Tirolean village Sölden, you still have to cover 22,3 km and 1,269 metres of altitude – a long ride that also includes a short descent with a steep counter ascent in the end. However, the dramatic mountain scenery compensates more than enough for the torture in the saddle.
The Monte Zoncolan and Alto de l’Angliru are considered amongst the toughest climbs in professional cycling. But Austria also has an ascent that belongs in that category: the Rettenfachferner or Ötztal Glacier Road. This breathtaking ascent leads to the highest point in Austria accessible by road bike, at 2,830 metres above sea level. Besides the thin air, the challenging aspect is the steepness of the narrow road that starts, like the Timmelsjoch, in town of Sölden. Over 13,5 kilometres the average gradient is 10,5% – a slope that is even tougher as the climb hardly contains any flat passages.
The Rettenfachferner has been the setting of epic duels between the best riders in the world. In 2005 and 2007, the Deutschland Tour (Tour of Germany) included the climb for a tough mountain finish. Former German cycling hero Jan Ullrich later called the mountain “cruelty to animals” and his fellow countryman Jens Voigt wanted to “call the mountain rescue and issue an avalanche warning”. The Rettenfachberner was also visited by the peloton during the 2015, 2016 and 2017 edition of the Tour de Suisse with spectacular stage victories by Thibaut Pinot (2015), Tejay van Garderen (2016) and Simon Špilak (2017).
3. Kitzbüheler Horn
Besides this year’s UCI Road World Championships and the Ötztaler Radmarathon, Austria’s most famous and important cycling race is the Tour of Austria. The one-week-long stage race is usually held in July during the Tour de France and it’s a popular platform for WorldTour riders who didn’t make it to the Tour, and for young Austrian cyclists striving for a breakthrough into the international cycling scene.
The traditional queen stage of the Austrian Tour leads the riders up to the Kitzbüheler Horn, an incredibly steep and challenging climb near the famous ski-resort of Kitzbühel.
On paper, the Horn is already very tough: It covers an altitude gain of 865 metres over a distance of just 7,6 km. The average gradient of 12,5% and the maximum gradient of 22,3% (a section that is known as the “Knödelfleischgraben”, meaning “Dumpling Meat Ditch”) are more numbers that show how hard it is to earn the incredible view on the top. It’s hard to believe that the former Austrian pro rider Thomas Rohregger completed the climb in just 28:24 minutes during his victory ride in 2007 – a record that still stands today.
At 3,798 metres above sea level, Großglockner is the highest mountain in Austria. A well-known cyclists challenge is the Grossglockner Hochalpenstraße (Großglockner High Alpine Road), a nearly 50 kilometres long mountain pass between Bruck (757 metres) in the state of Salzburg and Heiligenblut in Carinthia (1,301 metres). The highest point of the route is the “Edelweißspitze” which reaches a respectable 2,571 meters above sea level. That makes Großglockner maybe not one of the highest but definitely one of the more challenging routes in the Alps.
Just like Kitzbüheler Horn, Großglockner plays a big role in the history of Tour of Austria. The peloton takes on the climb almost every year, and especially the local Austrian riders fight for the popular title of the “Glocknerkönig” (“King of the Glockner”). But that didn’t stop Dutch rider Pieter Weening from taking that title in 2017 and 2018. For hobby and amateur cyclists, the Glocknerkönig bike race offers a great opportunity to challenge the mountain without having to jostle with the heavy weekend traffic.
5. Höttinger Höll
The “Höttinger Höll” (“Hell of Hötting”) is probably the youngest climb in Austrian cycling history, but it’s one of the most talked about in Austria these days. The reason is the 2018 Worlds route in which the Höttinger Höll marks the final climb – and will likely be a key point in the men’s road race. Only 2,8 kilometres long, this short “wall” near the city centre of Innsbruck and the famous Hofburg imperial palace covers more than 300 metres of altitude and has an average gradient of 11%. The highlight is a very steep segment in the last third of the climb with a maximum gradient of 28% – which will make even the best climbers in the peloton suffer.
Pros like Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru and local hero Stefan Denifl have already visited the “Hell of Hötting” in the months leading up to the World’s, adding to its appeal. The steep and narrow path got so popular amongst hobby riders that the city of Innsbruck decided to temporarily close the road to cyclists. There is still an option to ride this remarkable segment by applying for a special permit at the city of Innsbruck.
Header image: EXPA Pictures