Two-Wheel Torture

If you’re mad enough to sign up for this voluntary 5-day ride, it’s a little too late to start complaining of shortness of breath

The author riding his bike along the Großglockner alpine pass | Photo: Jan Sahner

The wide asphalt of the Großglockner alpine pass stretched soberly and pitilessly ever onwards and ever upwards – steep enough to hurt but smooth enough to make capitulation shameful. I had been left in a tug-of-war between desperation and determination, the battle swinging each way with every slight change in gradient.

I’d set off from Zell am See on flat roads in the middle of a colorful peleton of cyclists, all whirring pedals, chatter and effortless speed. But now we had fallen silent – but for heavy panting – and were spread thinly along the snaking mountain pass; each of us in his or her own world of pain. By now I had reached 2,000 meters of altitude and had been in bottom gear for the best part of an hour.

I was focusing now on each slow painful pedal stroke. The sweat was running down from my brow like the streams pouring down the mountainside from the grey glacier across the valley. A cold head wind was whipping in from the mountains and it froze the sweat against my skin as it trickled down. I was both hot and cold. It was as if I had a fever. And I was beginning to feel slightly dizzy. This was torture!

Are you feeling sorry for me? You won’t if you realize that I had signed up voluntarily to do this 5-day ride, organized by a group called “Quäl Dich” – or “Torture yourself”. I had actually agreed to go on a ride with the marketing slogan that explicitly targeted masochists! It was too late to start complaining now about my shortness of breath.

Just ahead of me, turning the pedals with an annoying ease, was one of the organizers, Jan, who was also the guide for the week. I stared up at the group’s motto which was emblazoned in large black letters on the back of his blue and white team jersey shirt: It read “Berge statt Doping” – “Mountains instead of Doping”. This wasn’t just sport, it was a demonstration. We were in essence engaged in a 700km, 5 stage protest ride through the Hohe Tauern mountains aimed at writing positive headlines about the increasingly maligned sport of road-race cycling.

The motto is interesting. The night before I launched my assault on the Großglockner pass, the disgraced Austrian Tour de France rider Bernhard Kohl had appeared on Austria’s evening news program, ZIB2. As I rubbed menthol into my tired muscles after the 135km opening stage from Salzburg to Zell am See, Kohl was busy condemning his former sport.

The man who once wore le Tour’s legendary polka-dot jersey is now trying to restyle himself as cycling’s head cynic, with a motto that seemed more along the lines of “Mountains Therefore Doping”. He suggested to moderator Armin Wolf that a high tempo race like le Tour, which typically sees riders climb an aggregate altitude of three Mt. Everests piled on top of each other, led almost logically to doping. The banned cyclist repeated the allegations he made when announcing his retirement – that doping is a practice widespread not only among professional endurance athletes but also among amateurs.

When Kohl speaks, the audience is large. As an insider in a secretive world, his words carry weight. But hobby cyclists refuse to let him become the spokesman of their sport. It was the downfall of Kohl and the German Stefan Schumacher – following in a long line of dopers from Marco Pantani to Floyd Landis and Ivan Basso – that led to the development of Quäldich.de from an internet forum formed to present descriptions of road climbs into a grassroots anti-doping movement.

The concept is to counterbalance the voices of Kohl with the mostly unheard voice of those thousands upon thousands of hobby cyclists who are sick of seeing their passion dragged through the dirt by association. For the vast majority of cyclists the sport is not about abusive pharmacists and counterfeit doctors. It’s not about haemocrit variations, erothrocyte counts or ferretin levels. It’s not even about competition. It’s about epic adventures on two wheels among some of the most spectacular backdrops in the world.

“It’s yourself you’re climbing”, wrote Paul Fournel, the French cyclist-philosopher. In essence, cycling is about testing your own comfort boundaries, going to your own limits and, hopefully, surprising yourself.

That’s exactly what I was doing that day on the Großglockner pass, with a carpet of clouds lying in the damp valley well below. By the second day of the ride, I had been ready to get off and push. With still 500 vertical meters to the summit, by now constantly standing in the pedals; the light weight road-bike that I’d borrowed had just two big cogs instead of the triple chain I have on my mountain-bike that lets me spin out the steep stuff. And I was suffering. At my lowest point, some brain-dead idiot with Munich number plates sped closely by in his souped-up hair-dressers’ chassis shouting abuse at the line of cyclists.

But I ignored him and instead focused on reaching the next corner, with the blissful respite in gradient that the curve always brought, and then let myself be dragged along by team spirit.

The Quäl Dich tour is not a race, and my fellow riders were my allies not my competitors. As I weakened, slowed and began to veer across the road, a fellow rider came up behind. As glassy-eyed as myself, he slowly overtook and offered me his back wheel as a wind-shadow. “Das schaffst du noch,” he muttered quietly between big gasps – “you can do it!” Another rider offered me one of his energy gel bars. Suddenly it was 2,300 meters and I knew I would make it the last couple of kilometers to the top, where congratulatory high fives and chocolate bars awaited me, as well as feeling of exhausted elation that you can’t reproduce with chemicals.

Ahead was a long descent down into Carinthia and a peleton ride into Spittal an der Drau. And, for a lifelong Tour de France fan, there is nothing torturous about that!

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