Part 6: Fire and Ice

This ‘fire & ice’ route was also hastily borrowed from my friends down the road at the bike rental outfit. Lots of low(ish) roads with scenic vistas and rides through valleys. That kind of thing. Except it’s never really that easy, is it?

‘Another cold start’ I thought, as I stepped back inside the hotel and began thawing out my frozen eyeballs with copious amounts of black coffee over breakfast. Colder than yesterday and as a special extra treat, it’s also snowing! I mulled over staying indoors all morning to wait it out and hope it’d get better. But then I’d just end up playing a riveting game of charades with the staff, trying to articulate what I wanted. Walking down to the town probably wasn’t going to fill much of the day either. I did that on the afternoon of day one and found (unsurprisingly) that not very much goes on in ski-towns when there isn’t any skiing to be done.

A bit of snow might be fun? If I get a little bit lower into the valley, it might stop? I somehow managed to fill my rationalisation bucket to the brim, because next thing I knew I was upstairs pulling on thermals and bike gear. I idled the bike sheepishly down the hill past some stunned looking mountaineering looking types and made it to the town, waiting for but praying I didn’t find any black ice along the way. Unlike yesterday morning, I saw precisely zero bikers and very few cars on my forty minute ride to Landeck. That wasn’t a very promising start. The snow line I’d been monitoring religiously since I arrived in Galtur was now most of the way down the valley. I began to question how or if I was going to get out of here tomorrow morning.

Before long, and much to my relief, the snow turned to rain. Not everything I’d hoped for in life, but I guessed it was better than snow. The biting cold remained and my heated grips and heated seat were now set to the higher of their two settings. The setting that doesn’t get used very much. Mostly because I’m not overly fond of the smell of my own arse cooking. Smells like last months bacon.

All my toil and the hardship I’d endured was worth it when I arrived at the first scenic viewpoint.

I gather that there is a beautiful view of the lush, green valley out there somewhere. Somewhere beyond the grey, rain filled sheet that was draped over everything in sight. The platform stood out from the side of the hill and by the time I walked to the very end of it and looked down through the wide spaced mesh floor, I was about 100ft above the ground. More or less suspended in the cloud. Looking backward, it was difficult to see where I’d parked the bike. Interesting, if a little unnerving.

After making my way back to the bike and while taking a moment to warm my hands on the cylinder heads, a tour group from the bike rental company from which I’d borrowed this route came puttering around the hillside. Never have I seen such a group of downtrodden, disappointed looking tourists in my life. I hoped, for their sake, that this Alpine holiday wasn’t their first. On the other hand, it can only get better. Come earlier in the season, folks. Something I’d been repeating to myself since I arrived in the snowy Tyrol valley.

Onward through the rain and cloud and it wasn’t all bad. There were breaks in the rain long enough for me to stop and smell the… err… pine trees.

The one thing that endured was the cold. Now that my gloves were soaking wet, the heated grips were only making my hands hot and wet. Not entirely helpful. So I decided to implement a trick I’d seen on various biker forums and something I’d actually anticipated needing before setting off from Cork. Bring rubber gloves. Or more accurately, the workshop type mechanic gloves I’d been using when working on the bike. Peeling off my bike gloves was the easy part. They were then placed on top of the hot cylinder heads to dry out as much as possible. Getting a wet hand into a thin, delicate rubber glove is interesting. Turns out that getting a warm, wet bike glove onto the dry exterior of a rubber glove is even more interesting. There was swearing. Thankfully, I assumed there would be at least some mildly blue phrases used and planned my stop carefully, in the middle of nowhere. Only the cows know how foul mouthed I am.

That worked. My hands were coming up to a reasonable temperature again and were mostly dry. For about fifteen minutes.

I was rapidly approaching the point where I was going to call it quits on this route and the day. I had options to get back to the hotel somewhat directly and a little bit quicker than if I continued on the route. The rain returned and brought the cold with it. It was now beyond ‘pretty miserable’ and venturing into ‘bucket of shit’ territory. I was almost glad I was on my own today, I wouldn’t wish this kind of touring on anyone.

But I decided to continue and finish out the route. I still don’t know why, perhaps out of some kind of ‘you won’t beat me’ spite or so when I’m sitting in the hotel later sipping my beer, I can’t say I quit and took the easy option. We’re now in endurance touring country.

That theme continued as I made my way up my next mountain pass. Back into the snow.

“This is a rather interesting development” – my next in-helmet conversation with myself begun as I got deeper into the snow and higher up into the mountain pass. My fuel gauge was flashing. How long had it been flashing for? As if it was delivering good news, the LCD screen pointed out that my probable range was now 20 miles. It recalculated every time I accelerated. Sometimes going up and making me relieved. Most of the time going down and giving me the terror sweat. All too often I play ‘petrol chicken’ when I’m out on the bike or in the car. In the freezing cold, half way up a mountain with nobody around was not literally not the hill to die on.

I stopped at what seemed to be the top and immediately turned the bike off. That’ll almost certainty save fuel. Probably about half a teaspoon full. I pulled the GPS off the cradle and searched for nearest petrol stations. Have a wild guess how far the nearest one was from me? About 20 miles. Endurance touring indeed. I was now having to endure my own stupidity.

With the kind of certainty and bravado that one can only posses when about to do something entirely unplanned, I fired the bike back up and moved off. With a bit of momentum behind me as I began the downhill journey, I flicked the gearbox back into neutral and coasted. I coasted like I’ve never coasted before. If there was an Olympic medal handed out for coasting, I’d have won the gold. The Guinness records people would surely meet me at the bottom of the hill to award me several world records for my gargantuan effort.

The conclusion of this epic saga is that the GPS mapping in the area apparently isn’t too solid. There was a petrol station within five miles. Lesson learned. I mean, I’ll do the exact same thing again many, many times. But at this very moment, in these specific weather conditions, lesson learned.

As if to reward my achievement in not getting myself stranded and freezing to death at the top of a snow covered mountain, the rain had now stopped. I was on the home stretch back toward the hotel. To a hot shower, a cold beer and about six courses of dinner.

I was only a couple of miles from Galtur when the sun peeped out over the top of the hills and lit up the valley in a beautiful burning orange glow. That brought the temperature up just a few degrees, but it made all the difference. The content of my next in-helmet conversation was mostly a rant about the weather improving just as I was about to call it a day. Further fueling my rant was the continued improvement of the weather the closer I got to the hotel. “Balls to this, I’m trying Silvretta”. Rode through Galtur and onward toward the pass. Arrived at the toll booth and defiantly whipped out the free pass I’d been given when checking into the hotel. With the snow, ice, rain and everything else being thrown at me, I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to get to use this pass.

Compared to the start (and most of the rest) of the day, it was like discovering a different planet. Dry roads, sunshine, no traffic. In fact, no people. The only humans I saw were in the toll booths at either end of the pass.

The top of the pass was still covered in a deep layer of snow, with only the roads and car parks cleared out. It’s a bizarre feeling, riding a bike on a flawless, dry road when all around you is snowy and frozen.

Even more bizarre is being able to lean the bike into perfectly cambered corners at speed with snow banks to either side of you. Back below the snow line on the opposite side of the pass is where the fun really kicks into high gear. Short sections of insanely bendy road that seem to go on and on. I was leaning over as far as I dared with a heavy touring bike laden with side cases. When I reached the toll on the other end, I think the operator saw my smile through my helmet from 100 meters away. These were the roads and the weather conditions I’d been searching for the last two days. I rode through the toll in a daze, without really knowing why or where I was going. Coming to my senses a couple of kilometers down the road, there was a swift u-turn back to the same toll operator and I once again made use of my free pass.

I once again rode the length of the pass as far as the toll booth on the other end. Checked the time briefly and then let the adrenaline take the reins. Before I was ready to call it a day, I think I rode the pass a further six times. Each time I was trying to get a perfect (or at least as perfect as my current riding skill would allow) line through corners. I must have been on the pass for at least 2-3 hours and only saw three cars. The sun hung around to light up the mountain top, the temperature remained at a constant 8-9 degrees and the rain stayed away. It was as close to perfect as I’d hoped possible for my last day in Austria.

I rode the couple of kilometers back to the hotel with an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. The Silvretta pass was the main reason I’d come to this area. To be able to ride it once in fine weather was the target. That I got to do it quite a lot more than that was a treat I didn’t dare hope for. It also helped to burn off the grumbly, ranty mood I’d been carrying around for the majority of the day.

The last dinner at the hotel was the icing on the cake. Oh, and complimentary Grappa! I do like a boozy surprise at the end of an evening.

I had a brief chat with the proprietor of the hotel and was informed that this kind of weather in this area so early in the year (mid-September) was out of character. Good to know for future poorly planned trips to the Tyrol valley I guess. Of which I have no doubt there will be plenty. I look forward to coming back to Hotel Valisera in the future.

Full of dinner, beer, and Grappa, I waddled up the stairs to get some quality Netflix time in. Except I didn’t. What I actually did was check the weather for where I was, where I was going and everywhere in between. I now needed to plan an early morning escape and evade as much weather as possible.

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