The off-season on the bike: Touring three countries in three days with Amanda Spratt
What do professional cyclists do when the season ends and it is time to take a break? Well, if they are anything like Australian national champion and Orica-AIS rider Amanda Spratt, a break from riding a bike includes … riding a bike.
When thinking of the off-season one mostly looks forward to a holiday, time away from lycra and just generally spending more time being a ‘normal’ person. It’s also a chance to be active in different ways and I usually find myself over-committing to ridiculously hard hikes that don’t sound that bad until I am 2000 metres above sea level wondering how my already shaky legs are going to cope with the three hour hike back down the mountain.
This year though, I’ve done something a little different. As I got a few days into my off-season the realisation hit me that at the end of the day I just love riding my bike. I love the adventure it brings and the challenges it presents. Spending my off season in Europe means there are endless possibilities for riding, so the decision was made to spend three days away cycling with my partner in crime Maja, a bike, an extra large saddle bag and a small backpack. The aim was to tackle three countries in three days – Switzerland, Italy and Austria.
Day one, Chur to Zuoz (83.6kms): Tunnels, dirt and a lot of vert
I packed everything into my saddle bag the night before and was pretty proud that it all weighed only 3.5 kilograms. I’m usually the one being asked if I have a body in my suitcase when anyone has to transport it at races, so this was a small victory for me. I was so excited about the days ahead that I had very little sleep and was already awake when the alarm went off at 4:30am.
First on the agenda was making the train trip to our starting point of Chur in Switzerland. We tucked the bikes in the special area on the train set aside for them and thanks to our early start were zooming along next to the mountains as the sun started to rise. By the time we got to Chur it was close to 8am and my body was in need of coffee and some food. And when I say in need, I really meant it. If I went for much longer no one in a ten metre radius would have been safe. But, once we were all coffeed up, and much safer to be around for it, we rolled out of the train station to get on our way.
One thing I love about cycling in Switzerland are the bike roads and the red signs to guide you at every turn. I am still in denial about my declining eye-sight so this can turn into quite a challenge at times but between the two of us we managed to spot each arrow in time and flawlessly make our way out of town. Following Graubünden Route 6 was a breeze.
Next up we had some surprise dirt roads with a gradient of 15% up hills that tested the skills. I was thanking my lucky stars that I had changed my tyres two days before. Luckily the dirt didn’t last for too long and the only real hiccup was stopping to readjust my saddle bag because it was hitting my wheel. I often suffer from #shortpeopleproblems and this time the amount of seat post I had to play with was a limiting factor.
Next up we made our way through the Schinschlucht Gorge along the busy main road between Thusis and Tiefencastel. This involved a fair amount of climbing and a few dangerous tunnels where I was pretty happy to have my bike light, which is usually reserved for early morning bunch rides in Australia, on board. It definitely made me feel a tiny bit safer as we navigated the one metre wide path allocated for cyclists.
I must admit that prior to the trip I didn’t do a lot of research on the ride route. I knew that google maps told me it would take seven to eight hours to complete but I didn’t really compute how much climbing that meant there would be on day one. It turns out the answer was A LOT! It was 2320 metres of vertical ascent to be exact.
We stopped in the last town Bergün before the final and most challenging climb of the day – the Albula Pass. The ascent is 13.8 kilometres long with an average gradient of 6.8%. By this point the legs were fatiguing after a long day in the saddle and I could almost sense the mountain goats scattered along the side of the road taking pity as we looked ahead for any sign of a summit. The good news was, once the climb was done it was a downhill run to Zuoz.
As we turned up lycra-clad at our first accommodation the owners didn’t flinch at the look of our sweaty, smashed and most likely stinky bodies as they happily showed us to the bike room downstairs. The hotel was basic but had everything we needed. And the Italian restaurant down the road fed me the best tagliatelle al porcini I have ever eaten. That was the ideal way to get fuelled and ready for the next day.
Day two, Zuoz to Nauders (71kms): It can’t rain on your birthday
The alarm went off at the much more reasonable hour of 8am and I could hear the rain coming down outside. We had been spending a lot of time checking weather forecasts so it was not entirely a surprise, but the other thing you soon learn in these regions is that the weather can change in an instant. This is what I kept telling myself anyway. Plus it was my birthday. And it can’t rain on your birthday, right?
We considered starting a bit later but we also wanted to make sure there was ample time for cake eating and celebration upon arrival so just after 9:30am we were rolling away. The rain had stopped but it was definitely a colder start, at around 6 degrees, as Zuoz is situated at 1716m. We were still following Route 6 today and in comparison to the previous day it was fairly ‘flat’ with only 838m of altitude gain.
Today was mostly about riding next to the mountains rather than up the mountains.
Although we spent most of the day on roads, they were pretty much all freshly hot-mixed and the cars had no problems with cyclists sharing the roads. Riding into the Swiss National Park we went through Zernez and headed towards Martina. At this point we crossed the border into Austria and had the most challenging part of the ride – the Martina Pass. The 6 kilometres at an average of 8% was enough to finish the legs off just in time to ride back downhill for 3 kilometres into Nauders. As planned we had enough time in the afternoon for celebrations and a walk around town.
We also discovered that the next day there would be a special ceremony and march of the cows through the city to celebrate them coming down off the mountain for the winter. I have never been to one of these events, only heard of them and part of me wanted to postpone our cycling trip just so I could bear witness to such an event. Unfortunately common sense prevailed and we continued on the next day.
Day three, Nauders to Santa Maria Val Mustair (41kms): “You have to grow”
As we set off for the final day of riding I received a message from my Mum asking if I wouldn’t just rather drive to all these places? I guess she had a point … but that would just be far too easy ;).
Of course just to add a little more wisdom to my Mum’s question, day three started immediately uphill. First up was the Reschen Pass which took us over the Austrian-Italian border and climbing up gently until we hit the shores of the Reschensee. This is an artificial lake that is famous for the steeple of a submerged 14th-century church and has become a tourist hotspot over recent years.
Because of this we had read that it could be quite unpleasant to ride here but following the bike signs avoided the chaos and the small dirt sectors that we had to take were well compacted and definitely road-bike friendly.
After skimming along the lake we started the long road downhill back into the valley where we turned right and headed back towards Switzerland. These were some of my favourite roads of the trip as we weaved through small mountain towns completely free from traffic.
By the time we crossed the border back into Switzerland it was starting to rain so we made the call to stop at Val Mustair and catch the next bus coming through.
With the Ofen Pass coming up next it wasn’t really the smartest move to keep riding through it, especially with the long technical descent back into Zernez. Have to put safety first.
As the bus arrived the next mission was to get our bike up onto the racks on the back of the bus. Again another case of #shortpeopleproblems occurred much to the amusement of onlookers who watched and yelled “Sie müssen wachsen“ (You have to grow). Eventually with the help of the bus driver the bikes were secured and we were ready to go.
It turned out to be a great decision as the rain came down even harder once we started the Ofen Pass. I spent most of this pass looking behind at our bikes swaying from side to side on the back of the bus whilst we navigated the hairpin turns … I was having visions of having to explain to my team mechanic how my bike ended up off the side of the mountain.
We (and the bikes) arrived safely into Zernez where we cheersed the trip with ham sandwiches from the small café next to the train station and waited for the next train to pull up to mark the end of this adventure. Some may call me crazy but it has definitely been a fun way to get into the off-season. With more weeks left in Europe before I head back to Australia I already find myself thinking of new adventures … but for now, it’s time to put the feet up and let myself recover a little.