What's Cool In Road Cycling

Travel: The Jeantex Transalp

Who doesn’t dream of doing a stage race through the mountains? From city to city, accompanied by race marshals on motorcycles, with electronic timing and feed zones along the way, on roads and through cleared intersections, on the same roads and mountains used in the Giro, and without worrying about baggage transport? Face it, you all do. This is the Transalp for road bikes!

– Words & Pics by Bruce Carnevale –

The Jeantex Tour Transalp is just this, a race and a ride to survive balled up into one. Made up of seven point-to-point timed stages starting on June 25 in Oberammergau (in Bavaria, Germany), briefly through Austria and ending in Riva del Garda, Italy on July 1, this year’s edition sent us up 23 (or 22 depending on how you count) passes, most in South Tyrol (Giro country). We amassed 21 kilometers (nearly 70,000 feet) of vertical elevation over 830 kilometers (around 500 miles).

The path from above… Photo: JTT 2006 SAT. (Credit: Bike GPS)

If you think about it, the Transalp seems so logical, you wonder why it’s only four years old. Part of it has to do with logistics, surely. The race’s founder, Uli Stanciu, told me he sees the event, which spun off the mountain bike version that’s five years older, as a “marathon with a racing character.” His role model is the Ironman, where most simply want to finish. But, he continues, the Transalp is also a way “to experience fantastic landscapes as well as the hospitality of the guest city’s citizens. It is a social experience,” he maintains, “and a kind of trip into the unknown. One must take everything along, one’s senses, one’s energy and power, one’s will to survive.”

This fourth edition was longer and harder than the last three—so it doesn’t always follow the same route, though some stages are very similar to previous ones. Last year, for example, the riders were treated with both the Stelvio and Gavia passes. We didn’t have that pleasure this year.

A slight downhill before the climbing really began to the Timmelsjoch.

The trick about the Transalp is that it’s about twosomes: all teams are made up of two persons and the slowest of the two times counts. Hence it makes no sense for the stronger to ride alone—rather s/he needs to help the weaker. Put succinctly, you work and suffer together to succeed. Of the twosomes, there are five categories: women, mixed (one man, one woman), men (combined age under 80), masters (between 80 and 100) and grand masters (over 100). There are five different colored leaders’ jerseys, worn, like at the Grand Tours, by the combined lowest time. The first three placings got money, but for 95% finishing with a good time is what the Transalp is all about.

Yup – just another view along the Transalp route.

Every evening the host city put on a pasta party (which were uneven in quality, quantity and organization), and there we were informed of the day’s news, the stage winners honored and the leaders’ jerseys doled out. Twice former professional racers paid us a visit. In Oberammergau, Rudi Altig came and fired the race’s first shot, and in Alleghe, after stage 5, Moreno Argentin graced us with his presence. Both praised our stamina, with Argentin telling us he’d never even tried seven back-to-back mountain stages in his racing career. Did he think we wanted to hear that? When asked if he’d like to participate, Altig politely declined, wryly saying 50 or so kilometers were enough for him nowadays. Did he care if we wanted to hear that?

Many factors made it seem like a “real” race. The bikes had transponders attached to the number badges, which handily served the professional photographers who later offered us their wares. Our bags were carried from hotel to hotel, or the hardcore could sleep with 200 others in a huge room, a gymnasium or such. Accommodation is not included in the 550-Euro entry fee, however.

Race marshals patrolled the route, made it safe for us and found the accidents quickly (there were more than a few). Including an ambulance, a broom wagon, and two, sometimes three feed zones every stage (you had to stop to fill up, however), the Transalp is an amazingly professional and logistical achievement. Over 35,000 liters of water, 130 boxes of bananas and 2.4 tons of dried fruit were consumed in the seven days along the route. All we had to do was ride, since the Transalp took care of these unpleasant “little” things.

The north Tyroleam town of Brixen is worth a repeat visit.

While over 80% of the riders came from Germany, Austria and Italy, seven Americans, ten Canadians, five South Africans (I met most of them, a pleasant lot they are!) took part. Four came from Zimbabwe. Nearly every European country was represented. Indeed, one of the nice things about the Transalp was the banter along the way; you typically met the same riders, since they rode your speed and the fun talk about the suffering made the latter seem like, well, fun.

Stage 1 took us from Oberammergau, Germany to Sцlden, Austria. In a large group that traveled along the first flat section at speeds between 35 and 40 km/h, I met a Transalp veteran. Competing for the third time, he told me to take it easy on the first day, enjoy the scenery, save energy for the days ahead. Although the longest at 141 km, this stage was only the beginning and too many, he said, burned all their energy right at the beginning. The main obstacle was the Hors Categorie Hahntennjoch (1,894m/6,250ft), present in this year’s Tour of Germany. With ramps of over 12%, it wasn’t a joy ride.

After the pass, the last forty or so km were slightly up, slightly down, slightly up. My German teammate had a name for it, Eierbrei. Literally “wobbly porridge,” it’s an untranslatable word, often used in children’s rhymes, where sound reigns over sense. Imagine your wheel’s out of true, wobblin’, and you gotta ride through quicksand. That’s how it felt, that up and down and up and down and so on that doesn’t give you any respite. Like my stomping ground, Limburg in the Netherlands, where the Amstel Gold Race takes place, these hills are hard to ride because you just cannot find a rhythm. I should be used to it, but you never get used to Eierbrei.

Coming down the backside of the Hahntennjoch.

Stage 2 had us riding from Sцlden to Brixen, Italy. Here we hit the Timmelsjoch (2509m/8297ft), the highest point of this Tour, then the Jaufenpass (2,094m/6910ft). The organization even managed to have the police light the tunnels, which was a massive relief, seeing as how they are often poorly paved. Patches of snow on the Timmelsjoch gave us a slight Giro feeling, as did the fog, but the highlight of this stage was the quaint town of Brixen, undoubtedly the most beautiful city we visited, heralding the entry into South Tyrol. Start and finish was on the main market square, which, like most of the finishes, had a great almost carnivalesque atmosphere. And to top it all off, the city arranged free beer! Felix and I began alcohol doping.

Coming up through the fog to the Timmelsjoch.

At the restaurant “Traubenwirt” in Brixen: the best lamb I have ever eaten!

Stage 3 only measured 91 km from Brixen to St Vigil, but made us climb over 3,180 meters (10,494 feet vertically). The thing is, I could have added a few more. Yes, I could have ridden the notorious trail up to the Kronenplatz. Several weeks before the Tour began, when I realized we would pass right by it, I told my partner we had to do it, hell or high water, qualification or disqualification.

But once I scaled the Furkelpass (1,737m/5372ft, where the Kronenplatz climb begins), and had already climbed the 35 km up Wьrzjoch (1,987m/6557ft), I decided otherwise. Not only on account the Furkelpass—called the “f*ck you” pass by a Canadian I met—but on account of it being the third day, and I was already feeling the lactic acid build in my legs. My heart was fine; I couldn’t get it above 130 or 140 no matter how hard I tried. I saw that gravel road leading up to the Kronenplatz, however, and it looked mighty steep (this said after doing the occasional 19% ramp of the Furkel—now do you understand the Canadian?).

The teeth of the Dolomites behind my satisfied smile.

Earlier in the day, there was collective “ooohs and ahhhhs” as we rounded a corner and caught our first glimpse of the Dolomites: like teeth jutting up into the sky, they were spectacular. And we heard those behind us round the corner also go “oooh, ahhhh.” Despite baking in temperatures that hit 39° Celsius (102°F) in the valleys, their beauty transformed us all. And thank god the Transalp crew set up an unannounced cold water shower on the side of the road as we began climb up to the Furkelpass.

The beginning of the Furkelpass doesn’t look that steep, but that road averages 14%!

Stage 4 took us from St Vigil to Wolkenstein and was called the king stage since we had to climb a total of nearly vertical 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) in 121 km. We were mercilessly led over the Passo Valparola (2,168m/7154ft), Passo Falzarego (2,117m/6986ft), Passo Giau (2,236m/7378ft), Colle Santa Lucia (1,461m/4821ft), Passo Campolongo (1,875m/6187ft), and the Grцdnerjoch (2,137m/7052ft). Child’s play, eh?

But the real obstacle was the rain on the way down the 18% Passo Giau. Like I said, the Transalp is about twosomes, and while nature beckoned to my teammate Felix, I began the descent. The dark gray clouds were fascinating, but I wanted to descend on dry streets. I thought he saw me pass by, but he didn’t. So he waited at 7,378 feet in the rain, wondering where I was. While I began climbing the Colle Santa Lucia, slowly, thinking he’d catch me, he went down the Giau, thinking I’d catch him. We both stopped, waited for each other, until I headed back down the Lucia to find him. We lost about 30 minutes this day.

I didn’t bring the camera along since I thought we’d have heavy rain. Too bad, since the views of the Dolomites were the best on this day—and the sun shined after the Giau—especially going down the Grцdnerpass, where we had to fight and pass many buses filled with tourists taking the easy way up and down.

This was the only time the traffic was a major problem on the whole 830 km! In general, the roads were only closed up to one hour behind the leaders, and since Felix and I were always a bit slower than that, we typically rode the last bit of every stage in traffic, but only rarely did we encounter heavy traffic. We did not have to stop at one single intersection the entire 830 km—police waved us through.

What trip to Italy doesn’t deserve a nice aperitif? Called a Venezia, this one mixes white wine, sparkling mineral water and Aperol.

For stage 5, from Wolkenstein to Alleghe, we scaled the Sellajoch (2,214m/7360ft), Passo Fedaia (2,057m/6788ft ), Passo Staulanza (1,766m/5287ft), and Passo Duran (1,601m/5283ft) over 113 km (which was lengthened to about 121 km by day’s end). This was a day most would have said “I’ll stay in bed, thank you.” It wasn’t the mountains—it was the rain. It poured the whole night and was still falling in buckets as we set off for the Sella pass. Ah, the rigors of being in a real race! To be honest, however, going up wasn’t that bad, since we shared in the misery together, and the collective complaints somehow became collective pleasure. It was going down that was hell: 6° Celsius (that’s about 43° Fahrenheit) was measured at the top and the wind came in gusts.

The rain stopped in the middle of the stage, only to come down even harder during the last 30 km. And to add pain to our misery, we had to ride through more of that damned Eierbrei! Was it a divine intervention that I had my brake pads replaced the day before? I did, free-of-charge thanks to one of the other perks at the Transalp: a large mail-order service in Germany sponsors a bike repair tent with three excellent mechanics; you only pay for materials.

Over 100 didn’t make it on bike to Alleghe—overloading the broom wagon and all the other Transalp trucks—but were allowed to continue the following day with a time penalty. While the race organizers got hoarse telling us to be careful descending at the beginning of every stage, several people crashed badly this day. Luckily Felix and I just got soaked and covered with grime.

Even in the rain, I couldn’t help smiling with glee. That’s my Transalp experience. (Photo Credit: live-sportphotos.com)

Lake Kaltern in the distance. Views like this compete for your breath every stage.

Stage 6, from Alleghe to Kaltern, took us over 115 km deep into Giro country. We climbed the Passo di San Pellegrino (1,907m/6293ft), with ramps of up to 18%, and saw lots of Bassos and Simonis and Cunegos freshly painted on the roads. A sign warned us of 15% over a 5 km stretch. Then, to make things just a little more serious, we had to ride over the Karerpass (1,745m/5758ft), Deutschofen (1,431m/4722ft) and Coyotenpass (398m/1313ft).

San Pellegrino: where it got flat after the steep stretch. Really, this part was easy.

Now at this point Felix and I realized we had energy left and started to go for broke. We understood how to get a good time; no more dillydallying at the feed stations, for example. We also began to improve our descending skills, which were pitiful at best. To make matters a little better, our sleeping problems were improving — neither of us slept more than four hours the first few days of the tour.

We also tried to coordinate his biological needs with my photographic ones. And the alcohol doping seemed to be working. About 10 km before Coyote Pass (so named by the South Tyrolean cyclists because you howl when climbing its short but steep passage: ramps of up to 20%), we upped the pace. When no one in the 12+ group wanted to work, but let Felix and me trade off at the front, we dropped the bunch when the climb began, finishing alone. That evening we celebrated with the local specialty, wine.

Wine route of the Dolomites: Kalterersee (Lake of Kaltern) has some good reds!

The final stage, number 7 from Kaltern to Riva del Garda was a 112-km roller coaster stage, more downhill than up, but no easier due to headwinds. Remember that strange German word? Yep, that Eierbrei again. While we also had to scale the Mendelpass (1,394m/4600ft), Andalo (1,036m/3418ft) and Passo del Ballino (796m/2626ft), all this wobbly stuff in the middle killed us. But we finished.

Of the 1104 cyclists (552 teams) who began, 510 teams made it to Riva. And the winners were …. eh, I forgot. Some guys and gals in each category won the thing. They were ambitious amateur racers, like Cat 1s and 2s in the States. They even won a little money, but the real heroes in my book were others. For example, Iris (28 years old) and Georg Bettenbьhl (60) from Warendorf, Germany finished the tour, but this wasn’t just a normal mixed team: this was father and daughter. Iris had already completed the Ironman in Hawaii twice when her father read about the Transalp last year. He asked his daughter to do it with him as a birthday present.

Daughter and father team Iris and Georg Bettenbьhl. Mixed group from da same house!

Or take Dietmar Wettengl from Cologne, Germany, the oldest participant. At a ripe age of 71, he cuts a pretty cool figure, doesn’t he? He started cycling when he turned 50 and then completed the Hawaii Ironman in 1997! And damn if he didn’t pass me on several descents!

Stanciu told me he was thinking of including the Mortirolo and Stelvio in next year’s addition, and that we’d make a slight path through Switzerland. There might even be a ferry ride over a lake in it for all thousand cyclists, but I won’t tell you more, as little has been nailed down. Getting the permission from the communities and states to ride the roads ain’t an easy task.

The welcomed, and un-welcomed – finish in Riva del Garda.

If you want to participate
…read the following carefully. My partner registered us on the first day possible last year, on November 2. He logged in at noon—but the tour was already overbooked! Fortunately we got in high on the waiting list and were informed we could take part three weeks before the tour began. So check your international clock and get on-line at the right time.

And if the seven days aren’t enough to justify a transatlantic flight, you can find many other cyclotourist rides before or afterwards, like Maratona dles Dolomites which takes place one day after the Transalp, nearby. Then you can hightail it to the French Alps and catch the Tour as it passes through.

With 1100 others to share the suffering, even that rain day wasn’t so bad. That is what made this tour so enjoyable for me. The banter riding up the Pellegrino’s 15% slopes, the misery-loves-camaraderie, day after day, or that day we jumped in a group for the last 30 km of stage 2 hitting averages of 45 km/h. We formed a twelve-man team! I met Americans who came over just to do the Transalp, and not only for the first time. The South Africans were always in a good mood.

Many cyclists wear special jerseys which led to lengthy conversations: what does that word on your jersey mean or is that road on your jersey really THAT steep? Endearing was the sight of many couples, one pushing the other up the hill. And I couldn’t help keeping the childlike glee out of me at the end of every stage. Grinning from ear to ear and with a cold one in my hand, I cheered on the riders as they passed the finish line. Next year? I’m there.

It’s all about twosomes and finishing together.

Check it out.
Jeantex Tour Transalp: TourTransalp.de

Click on “Altitude Profiles” for descriptions of each stage.

The main sponsors:

Tour Magazine (in German): www.tour-magazin.de

Jeantex Sport Clothing (in German, the English doesn’t seem to work): www.jeantex.com

The photos of me are from Live-Sportphotos: https://www.live-sportphotos.com

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