Once again I had to pack my bags and head out on to the road. This being only my second bike tour I was finding my stops so engrossing that each departure was like leaving family behind. The fast friends you make in the short time you have can make you wonder why you don’t have this mentality when you live at home. I suspect if I did more of this sort of connecting with people and places when I’m living at home perhaps I would be a little less footloose. The grass is always greener.
I’ve come to realise I love and I hate packing. On the one hand it’s nice to know I can fit everything I own into 5 bags on a bike and saunter off to another place without a care in the world. On the other hand there is the tedious process of figuring out what you will need during a ride and packing in such a way that you don’t have to unpack everything whenever you pitch camp somewhere. Its logistical nightmare or a quartermaster’s dream depending on which way you look at it. I’m also one of those people that unpacks everything managing to spread my shit everywhere and then typically proceed to ask everyone where my stuff is every five minutes. Its a seriously bad habit. I’ve left most of you in the dark as to what and how I pack but it will be the subject of another post I promise.
Due to my inefficiency I left Tubingen late, around 4pm with a thunderstorm approaching. I took a wrong turn out of town and found myself on a dead end at the top of a hill. Fifteen minutes of backtracking and with the storm on my tail I finally left town rain clouds ominously following close behind.
The plan was to get to Kempten, a town close to the border with Austria. I calculated could do the 70 or so kilometres to Ulm and camp at a site I’d found on Google Maps. Arriving past ten the campsite was a paid affair but no one was around. Then a man I met who lives on site showed me a spot to camp and said I could just visit the reception in the morning. He gave me some names of Alpine passes that I would have to cross before wishing me good luck.
I was half tempted to pack up early and skip the fee but in such civilised surroundings I felt compelled to pay. The showers and WiFi were free so I felt it was worth it plus official German campsites in June tend to be between 10 and 15 Euros which is pretty good.
The next morning I believe I was following the Ammer river to Kempten, yet another beautiful ride through the German countryside before arriving after 10pm at the next campsite just as the sky opened. I pitched my tent and went to sleep waking to yet more rain. I did not feel the call of the road that day so I decided to stay one more night hoping the weather would improve by morning.
In the meantime I quizzed the receptionist at the campsite about routes to take over the Alps but like everyone else I had met nobody had a clue which route was best for cyclists. I suggested that I would take the Brenner pass but she said it was heavily trafficked by cars and might not be so fun. All the time I had spent with Max back in Tubingen trying to plan a route using the abysmal MapMyRide app went out the window as I couldn’t download the route to my phone or my Garmin. Seriously people mapping software needs to be simplified.
In the end i just decided to set out in the general direction of Innsbruck. There were a lot of weird place names throughout Germany and Austria, too many to take photos of, but I think there is a town that deserves top prize for a having the name Wank. I spent my time thinking about silly things like what it would be like to be a Wanker, is that even what you would call someone from a town called Wank. Where are you from? I’m from Wank. Excuse me. Wank. I mean you wouldn’t actually ever take anyone seriously. I really should have stopped for a Wank… I mean in Wank. Maybe Wank compliments the town of Fucking also in Germany which is probably twinned with Intercourse in America. Of course in German it is pronounced Vank so the jokes totally lost on them.
As I crossed the border and began a series of arduous hill climbs through small Austrian towns two cyclists in lycra and on top-of-the-line racing bikes passed me. When I saw they had stopped at the same supermarket as me I decided it was time to ask for directions. I’m forever indebted to Stephan Pfidde and George Castlehard for their advice.
Stephan was my primary navigator… “Which way should I cross the Alps?” I said.
“Where are you going?”
“Italy, Lake Garda I was thinking of taking the Brenner Pass”
“Oh no you don’t want to go that way. You’ll be cycling with big trucks. Its much better you take the Hahntenjoch Pass and then head to Nauders to take the Reschen Pass”
“Is the Hahntenjoch easier?” I had a serious fear of hill climbing having only encountered some lightly undulating hills really. These passes sounded epic and when you look at them on a map winding through the mountains you begin to imagine endless 30 degree ascents into the heavens.
Stephan looked at George with a grin, “Haha no not the way you are going but you will like it for sure and once you get over the Reschen pass its downhill to the lake.”
That settled it these guys looked serious they were in lycra, you don’t wear that shit unless you take your cycling seriously! They knew the passes and route names because they had cycled them too. So with my new destinations set we wished each other happy cycling and then I watched them quickly disappear on their carbon fibre chariots as I pootled along on my steel tanker.
After about an hour I had descended from the foothills into a huge U-shaped valley with mountains either side and the sun blazingly hot above. The cycle path ran alongside a river in the wide valley floor and for the next few hours I passed through quaint Austrian villages with barely any ups or downs. It was marvellous I couldn’t believe my luck. I was humming The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Music in my head imagining Julie Andrews on a bicycle in a meadow.
A great many motorcyclists in large groups were also making their way through the valleys riding their massive steeds dressed in what looked like the most uncomfortable leather clothes in the summer heat. They looked like giant black beetles. At my last stop before the Hahntenjoch pass I popped into a village to top up my water, eat lunch and avoid the heat of the 3pm sun. There I saw the the motorcyclists were all middle-aged bikers, grizzled types with their biker wives in tow. I thought if I get a motorcycle I’d want to look good on one so I’ll have to forego growing a beer gut till I’m 60 and certainly before I finally get a drivers license.
Not long after I had arrived at the foot of the pass. It was 5pm and the sun was still beating down pretty hard. This was the first proper climb of the journey and I was not looking forward to it. 15Km and 1000ft in height, it didn’t seem so bad when I looked at the sign. I was so wrong. My leisurely jaunt down the Rhine had not prepared me for this. I found myself stopping every few minutes to sip water or catch my breath as the weight of the bike forced me to cycle up in the lowest gears. I was like those grandmas you see in town riding their bikes with the spinniest gears and getting nowhere fast. It sometimes got so frustrating that, like a madman, I would scream out loud at the mountain and then spontaneously begin laughing at my own plight before then whispering motivational cliches to myself.
Each turn I found myself praying for a decrease in the incline which in hindsight wasn’t so bad. The mountains were gorgeous snowcapped pinnacles with lush green meadows at the lower levels and some were covered in alpine forests . I knew I had only 3 hours before sunset so I had to get to the the top and back down before then because the temperature can drop to -5C at night at this time of year.
As I neared the end of the pass I passed by a restaurant that appeared to be open. It was 7.30 and I figured I needed a coffee to keep me going. Upon entering I found I was the only customer and proceeded to order a coffee. The owner of the place thought I was insane when she saw how much stuff I had on my bike. She told me “The cyclists usually go the other way on the pass because its an easier climb”, I thanked her for her honesty! I then told her that I was heading to Singapore and she shook her head in utter disbelief then told her colleague who looked equally shocked. After half an hour I bade them farewell and carried on bursting with energy after having been told I had only 4km left.
Finally reaching the top breathless and exhausted the sun was setting and it was time to get some warm clothes on for the hair raising descent. Three and a half hours of climbing was undone within twenty-five minutes as I rushed down the mountain at speeds of between 60-70km per hour burning through my brake pads on the curves and trying not to lose control of this juggernaut. My hands began to freeze and my face went numb as the cold evening air rushed passed. I have video of the ride but it doesn’t do it any justice… I make no apologies for my choice of soundtrack.
At the bottom I had arrived in the town of Imst and found a campsite almost immediately and by accident as I explored the town at night. I pitched camp and slept soundly till midday the next day…