Weather - grit your teeth and do it... or not!

Yvette Yeates - Grand Tours Project team

Jul / 15 / 2021

There are many variables for a great or not so great cycle tour. Many are within your control such as making sure the bike is mechanically fit and ready; making sure that you are fit and ready; that you have the spare tube, the tube repair kit ... and know how to use it!; that the Garmin has the right GPX files and is fully charged; that the mobile phone is charged; and that the gearing is charged... nothing worse than running out of battery and you are stuck in the big ring ascending a pass, i.e. it's not possible. Also important, making sure that the Strava app is on and working...if it isn’t on Strava, it didn't happen! These are variables within your control.

There is one variable that is not controllable but it makes the adventure adventurous, epic and memorable. The weather.

If the dates are fixed and the timeframe tight, then the tour happens whether it rains, hails or shines. There is nothing you can do about it except call it quits before starting and quitting is not in our lexicon... except on one day.

Above: All smiles in Vipiteno

My friend Eileen, and I went on a Big Bike Adventure recently #YEBBA21. Seven days we rode the routes taking us over several mountain passes, about 15,000m of ascending. Anyway, was it easy? No. Was I fit? No. Was my bike ready? Yes, I made sure that I had gearing to help me (a 36 ring Ha!). Did I have fun? Yes and no. Let me explain - the weather.

We were attempting to ride parts of Uri’s Grand Tours Project The Tyrolean Zero Emissions Tour, but in 2 days rather than 4 days. Were we overly confident? Yes, most definitely in hindsight. I recommend you do the route Uri designed.

Above: Riding up towards Passo Giovo (Jaufen Pass)

Day 1 - the perfect ascending climb consisted of early morning rain, cool temperatures and dappled sunshine as we rode through the forest from Vipiteno, Italy to Passo Giovo. PERFECT!

Above: Lookind down on San Leonardo in Passiria

Rather than head all the way down to San Leonardo In Passiria as per Uri’s instructions, we opted for a scenic ‘shortcut’ that would eliminate some of the climbing up to Timmelsjoch. Scenic? Yes. Shortcut? Yes. Easy? No. But we had saved some time and so stopped for a long leisurely lunch.

It started spitting rain a couple of kilometres after lunch, then pretty much continuously thereafter. Still it was a pretty ride and not much lots of excuses to stop and take photos. Another error.

After this one the rain became heavier, the rumbling of thunder could be heard behind distinctly darker clouds over there somewhere, and Eileen was way ahead of me trying to reach dry safety on Timmelsjoch. Also, Eileen does not stop on climbs because she is anxious about getting back on the bike. I, on the other hand have no qualms about stopping and starting on hills. I was way behind.

Here is the problem. We are between two passes, a huge storm is about to envelop us, there is no going back to the car and the only escape is to keep going up - up into the thunder, lightning, rain and hail, praying that these endless switchbacks would soon end at Timmelsjoch.

The relief of reaching a tunnel through a mountain was sensational until I exited the tunnel into the storm, cold rain and more uphill. Crushing is the only way to describe it. More tunnels, a road that was not so steep and finally I was at Timmelsjoch, and Eileen was waving frantically for me to come into the alpine pass cafe.

Frozen to the core, utterly soaking wet, it was a relief to get there and find Eileen waiting for me. Socks, and gloves were rung out, coats and jerseys were draped over heaters, attempts were made to drain the shoes, and we bought cute fluffy socks to pad around in. Soup has never tasted so good. We waited for the rain and sleet to end. It didn’t, and eventually we had to leave as the workers closed the cafe.

Back into the ‘weather’ and now a slow wet teeth chattering downhill. Within several kilometres, it was warm wind, sunshine and soon flat land. Fifty kilometres later we were dry, hot and parched and at our quirky hotel in Oetz that remained in tired 1970s decor (not an Uri choice!) and having dinner with a busload of Austrian seniors!

We slept well that night.

Next day we set off for Kuhtai with the aim of reaching Brenner Pass (maybe back to Vipiteno) before the next ‘weather’. We made it to Kuhtai ski resort and in the freezing alpine wind and mist, missed each other. Eileen waited for me. I thought she had headed down rather than become hyperthermic. I was descending at speed to get out of the cold and saw a message on my Garmin, “I am waiting for you at the last shop in town”. What town? What shop? Shit - I hope it's the next town. It wasn't. Eileen was still patiently waiting for me on top of the pass! I messaged her to leave immediately. I huddled by my bike out of the wind but eventually started riding back up - to find her; to get warm.

Down we rode, each of us getting colder. At 11h57, we found an outdoor shop and bustled in there to buy thermal longs and gloves before they locked the doors for lunch at 12h. Then we dived into a hotel restaurant to defrost and eat. Like clockwork, the heavens opened up as soon as we left the restaurant - roads became streams, glasses fogged up and we were wet again. At some stage, after umpteen flooded sections and cars sending waves over us, I said to Eileen that I think we should give up and find dry transport to Brenner Pass, without hesitating she agreed. We laughed!

Eventually, we found a restaurant that allowed us to drip pools of water on their floors and helped us find a taxi. The taxi came and took us over the Brenner Pass to Vipiteno and my car. Not a cheap option, but given the drenching rain, the distance still to ride and a commitment to be in Alta Badia in the Dolomites that night, it was so worth it.

So, my lesson learnt - weather can make and break a tour but sometimes you just need to grit your teeth and get through it. Other times, you need to know when to call it quits, and to try again another day. Brenner Pass...we’ll be back.

PS Uri’s carefully crafted Tyrolean Zero Emissions Tour is a much better option with much more manageable stages of riding and much better hotels.