Day 6: Thur 11th June 2009
Ride: Grossglockner Hoch Tor – 226 miles
As soon as we woke up this morning it looked like we’d struck gold with the weather. By all accounts the previous weeks weather in the Dolomites had been dreadful, cold and lashing it down with rain, but today it was blue skies and sunny, and the forecast was for more of the same. Pete, Gaz and Mark had ridden in torrential rain pretty much all the way through England, France and Switzerland so no one was more relieved than them.
The plan today was to tick off another of the 10 highest passes in Europe from our bagging list by riding out towards the medieval town of Lienz in Austria, up and over the Iselsberg towards Winklern, and then up the Grossglockner – the 8th highest pass road in Europe. After a bite to eat we would then head back to Arabba, pretty much retracing the route we rode out.
Today was also the first time this tour that the whole group would ride together and after finding a fuel station a couple of miles down the road from the hotel we were ready for the off.
(L-R) Half the line-up: Phil’s BMW HP2 Sport, Taj’s Honda Fireblade, Pete’s Kawasaki GTR1400 and Cat with his Yamaha V-Max
Pete had stuck to his vow not to drink too much the previous evening and the result was there for everyone to see when he led the group over the first pass, Passo di Falzarego, at a more than respectable pace. At the top was the obligatory photo break and the views were spectacular, well worth the effort of getting to the Dolomites.
The first group ride out of the tour and the first photo stop, at the top of the Falzarego
One thing that was noticeable to a number of us on road up the Falzarego was that the lighter grey tarmac, which looked good, wasn’t that grippy. Phil, Taj, Gaz and Mark all had rear and front wheel slips at moderate lean angles on the bends, even when the tyres had warmed up. The others didn’t seem to have any problems but Gaz reckoned that was because they weren’t trying hard enough. The road down however, had a surface like shell grip which was good even if the road surface itself was often deformed.
(L-R) Kyle, Phil, Taj, Bobby, Cat, and Gaz with Pete strolling into shot – taken by Mark
Off down the Falzarego we passed the right turn to Passo di Giau at Pocol before dropping down to Cortina. The route Phil had planned to Lienz intended that we ride the Passo Tre Croce but he couldn’t find any sign to it so we continued up the SS51 to Dobbiaco.
Whilst on the SS51, just before the turn off to the Tre Croce, we rode up and over Passo Cimabanche, although it didn’t register with us that this was a pass as it was just a nice gently undulating sweeping road without any noticeable summit, or signpost that anyone spotted. In fact it wasn’t until we were looking at our maps later that evening that we realised we’d been over it. Still, another pass had been climbed.
The SS51 was a very nice road even allowing for a few places where the road surface was a bit broken up, but quite frankly you just have to accept the fact that any region which suffers such extremes of heat and cold is going to have some deformed road surfaces. Just be aware and look out for them, particularly on corners.
At Dobbiaco we turned right on the SS49 to Lienz. We stopped at Sillian for a coffee where we were aware of several loud explosions going off around us. A local explained that it was a national holiday but we couldn’t determine which one. A short distance out of Sillian and we were stopped and had to wait while a church service ended and some sort of celebration passed by. Although all the locals were in a variety of military regalia Pete observed that they couldn’t be celebrating winning a war! An internet search when we got back revealed that they were celebrating Corpus Christi.
Just outside Sillian, engines off waiting for a Corpus Christi celebration to pass by
Approaching Lienz the Grossglockner is well signposted and a couple of miles outside Lienz we took the second left off a roundabout, and then headed towards Winklern and over the Iselsberg Pass. From here all the way through to Heiligenblut the road is open and fast and we were able to crack on. At Heiligenblut the pass road starts properly but nothing too tight and only a couple of miles above Heiligenblut we reached the toll booth.
A view looking south from the Grossglockner before the toll booth (L) and the toll booth (R)
The Grossglockner Hoch Tor, or Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse – meaning high Alpine road – is a toll road and costs Euro 18. For that you get an information pack, a sticker and the pleasure of riding the pass as many times as you like that day. Construction started in 1930 and it opened on 3rd August 1935. At that time it was the only transalpine road between the Brenner Pass and Kattschberg – a 100 mile range. Today it’s less of a transit route, more of a tourist route, and is a private road with public right of way. It’s closed during the winter months when snow depths of up to 21 metres have been recorded, and is open between the months of May and October. In addition, it’s only open during daylight hours opening around 6.00am and closing around 9.00pm – times vary so check actual Grossglockner opening times before going.
Looking up the mountain we could see that it was raining and the toll booth attendant warned us that the road might be icy, and that the road was closed temporarily but would be open in 15 minutes. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, the sun reappeared and the road was open again.
We all set off from the toll booth at intervals and a few miles up the pass we were faced with a roundabout, signposted left Grossglockner. As we’d all set off at different times, so we arrived at the roundabout individually and each made their own decision – left or right. Phil, Cat and Taj turned right while the rest of the group turned left – left was logical considering the sign.
As it happened turning left at the roundabout was a pleasant distraction
Turning left at the roundabout actually takes you up to the Kaiser Franz Josefs Hohe Visitor Centre – a dead end – where you can view the longest glacier in the Eastern Alps, the Pasterze. There are also a number of exhibitions to see at the centre showing you everything that is interesting about Austria’s highest mountain. If you want further information about the visitor centre or the pass road visit the Grossglockner official website.
A view of the Pasterze, the longest glacier in the Eastern Alps
All very interesting but eventually it clicked with Bobby, Pete, Kyle, Gaz and Mark, they’d taken the wrong turning. And so after some collusion they decided that it was always their intention to turn left because they all wanted to see the Pasterze Glacier before riding to the top of the pass.
Views around the Kaiser Franz Josefs Hohe Visitor Centre
Meanwhile, realising that the pass road was to the right, Phil, Cat and Taj set off that way. Cat and Taj rode on while Phil waited for the others – to take some photos of them riding up the pass. After 5 minutes he realised that they must have gone the wrong way, so continued upwards taking photos along the way.
The lower reaches of the Grossglockner
A fine well surfaced road was his reward until he reached a bank of very cold cloud. It’s incredible how quickly conditions can change in the mountains.
The upper reaches of the Grossglockner, just below the cloud line
Phil continued up through the cloud until he reached the monument that marked the summit, and where visibility was down to 20 metres. Even if you miss the monument you’ll know that you’re at the top because you’ll see the entrance to the tunnel.
And finally the top of the pass, completely covered in cloud
At the top there was no sign of either Cat or Taj so Phil rode through the tunnel. When he emerged at the other end visibility had dropped even further, it was now less than 20 metres. After waiting another 5 minutes he decided to retrace his steps and ride back down to the roundabout. Here he took the first exit, signposted Grossglockner, and headed up to the visitor centre where he figured he’d bump into the others.
Sure enough about half way up Phil met the others coming down and after some discussion everyone agreed to meet at the roundabout in 20 minutes. While Phil continued up to see the glacier – although far smaller than it was 1,000 years ago it’s still an impressive sight – the others headed up the real Grossglockner. Unfortunately the weather was now deteriorating quite quickly and the cloud cover dropping rapidly. By the time they reached the tunnel the monument that marked the summit was nowhere to be seen. Not realising that the tunnel marked the top Pete, Kyle and Gaz rode through it and continued up the pass, while Bobby and Mark turned round and headed back down to meet Phil.
Pete, Kyle and Gaz weren’t the only ones to have ridden past the summit and continued up the pass. Cat and Taj had done exactly the same thing and they’d carried on riding until they reached a point they believed was the top.
Taj’s Fireblade and Cat’s V-Max parked up (L) and Cat wondering where everyone else was (R)
In actual fact what they’d done was ride up to the Edelweiss Spitze – meaning peak – and “Bikers Nest” viewing area – even though you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Inevitably the two groups bumped into each other as Pete, Kyle and Gaz made their way up and Cat and Taj made their way down. After a bit of chat Cat and Taj managed to convince the other three that they hadn’t yet made it to the top and promptly led the way to the “summit”, for a second time.
In the meantime Bobby and Mark met up with Phil at the roundabout as agreed. The intention was to wait until the rest made it back down but this all changed when it started to rain. Phil decided that the sensible thing to do would be to retreat down the mountain and keep ahead of the rain, and to find a cafe or restaurant for a coffee or lunch.
The Edelweiss Spitze – or peak – where you can stop off at the “Bikers Nest” viewing area
Riding up to the “Bikers Nest” the weather was awful and getting worse by the minute but Taj seemed to love the conditions. The final run up to the viewing area gets quite steep and twisty, with the last section being a cobbled surface. No one was sure what planet Taj was on but he clearly enjoyed the ride up and even claimed that the final cobbled section was grippy!
Taj loved the conditions and reckoned that the final cobbled section was grippy!
By time they started to make their way down off the Grossglockner the rain had turned to sleet so there was no hanging about. They simply wanted to lose as much altitude as quickly as they could, in the hope that the weather would be better further down the pass. The more they descended the better the weather got but it didn’t stop raining until they got into Heiligenblut. Kyle then phoned Phil to find out where the other three were. They were having lunch a few miles down the road but not without incident.
Lunch stop just outside Heiligenblut
Unfortunately Bobby had parked his Fireblade on what looked like solid ground but 5 minutes after parking up there was a crashing sound. His bike had toppled over and fallen onto a Ducati Multistrada, that in turn toppled too. The Italian owner was, as you would expect, none too pleased about this development, especially since his screen had been signed by various racing dignitaries.
Despite all Phil’s protestations that this was what insurance was for, Bobby ran around like a headless chicken letting his food grow cold before finally recovering his sang-froid enough to exchange the necessary particulars with the hapless Ducati owner and get back to lunch. At which point Pete, Kyle. Cat Taj and Gaz arrived for their break.
Pete explaining to Gaz and Phil why Kawasaki’s side stand is better than Honda’s
Kyle, having decided that he didn’t need to eat, left Pete, Cat, Taj and Gaz to get on with their lunchs, and joined Bobby, Phil and Mark who had decided to get on back to base. Over the Iselsberg Pass and down to Lienz it was agreed to carry on past Dobbiaco and bypass Brunico before turning left on the SS244 to San Martino and Corvara and then onto Arabba.
The run down to Brunico on the SS49 was fast despite the heavy traffic and then it was left up a narrowish road towards Corvara. Despite the attentions of a black Merc which seemed determined to make as close as acquaintance with Bob’s rear tyre as was possible, they all made it without further incident to Corvara where it was deemed time for a beer. A couple of beers later and it was over Passo di Campolongo to Arabba and Hotel Evaldo.
(L-R) Phil, Kyle and Bobby stop off in Corvara for a beer – taken by Mark
The rest of the group took the same way back to the hotel, and all in all, despite Bobby’s tribulations this ride out was regarded as a good day out. A decent night out on the beer followed but it was pretty restrained given the next days task – to ride 18 passes in a day!