Brenner Pass

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It has really hit hard how little time we have left on our cycle tour.  We fly home in 13 days; while we realize that for a typical European vacation this may be the entire length of the trip, when put in perspective of the 3 months that we will have spent our time is practically done.  We are feeling a little pressed for time, and as such spent the morning planning exactly how we can make the best use of what time we have left.

Realizing that our original plan would sadly leave us with only two more days of loaded riding, we revamped our entire route and once again, the entire map was a blank slate.  We finally settled on what sounds like a good plan but then realized that we’d be pushing it to get the miles in before we depart. We suddenly realized that this meant that the best course of action would be to break camp and leave today to cross a big alpine pass into Italy, even though we’d tentatively planned to stay put.

Given that it was already 11:30 when we came to this realization, much later than our 9:00 rule, we were glad for the cloud cover.  Today was slated to bring thunderstorms, which we have learned means that sometime throughout the day it might rain but it WILL be cloudy.  With a record pack up time of time of 28 minutes (with 7 of those minutes spent changing a rental car agreement online), we were rolling out of Camp Schwimmbad.

We rode the busy roads into the old town of Innsbruck.  Innsbruck is a very pretty city with a very striking mountain backdrop, and the feel and the energy of the old town was not tainted by the prospect for rain.  The typical painted live statues you see in Europe were sprinkled throughout old town, and people in traditional Bavarian and Austrian garb walked around, posing for pictures.

We visited what I have deemed as Innsbruck’s golden toaster for lack of a more formal name, which is really just a balcony that was decorated with golden tiles in the 1500’s.  We weren’t overly impressed, but snapped a picture anyway as good tourists do.

Seeing the thunderclouds building, we hurried out of town in order to conquer Brenner Pass.  The ride up the canyon leading up to the pass was very beautiful, with impossibly steep hillsides cleared and used to grow hay.  I was surprised that the hills weren’t terraced, but the patchwork of yellows and greens on the opposing side of the canyon made for some very interesting views.  We passed farmers with their small haycutters muscling the heavy machines in neat rows along the steep hills.  It reminded me of my days as a hill mower; though after taking a quick walk along the hills, I still can’t imagine cutting on terrain this steep.

At one point, the freeway crosses an enormous bridge built high over the valley where we saw people bungee jumping off the side.  The valley floor must have looked pretty far away as those people jumped off that bridge!

We were hit with a cold and stiff rain as we rode through the wide canyon and soon we were on the side of the road to don our raincoats.  Usually, if we ride fast enough we can often outrun bad weather, but not today.

Bree: As we rolled out of camp at nearly noon today to climb one of the biggest loaded passes of our trip, I was actually feeling pretty excited.  With not so many days left on the bike, I’ve been more enthusiastic than ever about wanting to pedal hard and enjoy the scenery in the best way possible.  The bad news was that we knew we were probably due for rain sometime during the day and I knew as we left that I would probably be riding up a mountain pass in the freezing rain.  But for whatever reason, today I was okay with that idea.

By the time the rain actually hit, it had gotten terribly chilly but I’d put away most of my insulating layers and didn’t want to get them back out and have them get wet in the weather before I even put them on.  We headed back out onto the road continuing up the gentle grade and I tried my hardest to pedal fast enough to stay warm.  My efforts were to no avail and with every bit of water my clothes soaked up I was getting ever colder.  Still, my sprits were high even as we pulled over next to a building to get out of the rain long enough to put on more clothes.  By the time we had added some layers and safely stowed our camera in the waterproof bag though, the rain was slowing down, so we figured we would eat a snack and wait a little longer.  Not ten minutes went by before blue skies pushed out every last bit of cloud cover leaving us with perfectly clear weather to finish off our ride.  We had to take off all our new layers before we even got going again.  It was late afternoon by this point and we were focused on making it to the summit.

Ben: At the top of the canyon, we finally hit the final ascent to the pass.  It was the most difficult section of the ride, but the relatively steep pitch did not last long, and before we knew it we had arrived at the summit.  We were proud of ourselves and surprised at how quick and relatively painless the climb turn out to be.

The town of Brenner, the last town in Austria before the Italian border, is full of shops and casinos.  It appears that gambling is illegal in many parts of Italy, so the first thing that you see every time you are about to cross the Italian border is a casino.

Crossing the border, we were delighted to find what I believe is the world’s best bike trail.  We read about its construction last year online, and it seems that it was finally finished!  The Italian bike trail starts just over the summit and follows an old railroad that was no longer being used.

It is plenty wide, and even has tunnels through the mountains completely separated from traffic.  It was perfect for heading downhill, but Bree was glad we weren’t cycling up it because it has some really steep parts!  We wove in and out of forest, along ridgelines with spectacular views, and even ran into a herd of farm animals.

Goats, rabbits, chickens, and geese stood in the middle of the pavement, greeting us with curiosity and suspicion.  Their owner, who apparently had converted an abandoned railroad house into his own place, was sleeping on the ground next to the old house with his cat curled up on his back.  A little strange indeed.   Perhaps even a lot strange.

After the trail wound its way through /the hills into town, its status as the world’s best trail ended, in place of “yet another bike trail” that had us rolling up and down some steep hills for no particular reason.  Still, bike trails are better than highway or most roads, so we tried to appreciate it for the final few kilometers of our ride.  It ended a few towns too short though, so we had to coast the rest of the way to our Italian campsite on the not too busy highway.

Now, as we sit in a little hut built for gatherings on the campground, people keep coming in for beers and spirits.  It is loud (and getting louder, as the bottles become more and more empty), but at least it is warm.  Today started out cold, got hot, got cold again in the rain, then back to warm as the sun came out, and finally settled in with cold.  We have spent more time today putting layers on and then taking them off than we ever have.  There was even fresh snow today – on the 2nd of July!


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