THE HILLS ARE ALIVE
If you’re going to tackle !",###m of climbing in !###km of riding, in $" hours, you’d better be prepared for anything. And even then, you’ll need luck on your side, as Marcus Leach discovers during his attempt to tackle Austria’s ultimate ride
Marcus Leach enters a world of pain in Austria as he attempts to ride the 1,000km Glocknerman.
The sign in the distance reads 15%. I rub my tired and heavy eyes hoping that I have made a mistake. I look again: 15%. My heart sinks, my legs – already weak and drained from the previous 350km – shudder and the little voice in my head grows louder.
‘Stop now before it gets really hard. It’s three in the morning; you should be sleeping, not riding your bike, let alone riding up this mountain. Nobody will judge you. You can blame the rain. You don’t need to climb this mountain.’
But I do need to climb this mountain, and a few more after it, if I am to finish a race that has a reputation for being one of the hardest on the ultra-cycling calendar. So, with a sense of reluctance I do the only thing I can, I ignore the voice and keep turning the pedals, albeit more slowly, inching ever closer to the start of a climb I have feared from the moment the race started some 15 hours ago.
The Glocknerman is the oldest extreme cycling race in Europe and has, over the years, earned its fearsome reputation. At 1000km long and with an eye-watering 16,000m of climbing, it’s not a challenge to be taken lightly. When you factor in a 56-hour cut-off time and two ascents of the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest paved road at 2575m, you begin to understand the magnitude of the challenge it presents to those who decide to take it on.
Are in you the right place?
These figures had weighed on my mind as my wife, my son and I drove our motorhome through Europe in the week leading up to the start in Graz, the capital city of the southern Austrian province of Styria. My initial concerns escalated into serious doubts when I walked into the pre-race briefing to see a group of riders built for climbing – all skin, sinewy muscle and bone. I felt like an outsider; not only was I the only British rider, but at a shade over 90kg I looked like I should have been heading to the track for a sprint race, rather than taking on Austria’s most feared mountains.
Ever since completing all three of cycling’s grand tours in 2017, by riding the routes a day ahead of the professionals, I had been searching for a new challenge. I briefly flirted with the idea of time-trialling, but I knew that deep down I was looking for something different, something that would force me to redefine the
boundaries of what I believed I was capable of on a bike. Hence, I opted for the world of ultra-cycling.
While this wasn’t my first ultracycling race (I’d already ridden the Oman and Corsica legs of the 2018 BikingMan series) it was my first supported race. My rides in Oman and Corsica were essentially solo endeavours – I carried everything I needed in bike-packing bags and found food and water as I went. The Glocknerman was more akin to riding a grand tour, with support vehicles and crew on hand to ensure you stayed on the bike and moving pretty much non-stop, which, given that the clock runs continuously from the moment you start to the time you finish, is essential.
The need to micro-manage
Riders, cheered by a large crowd of spectators, set off from a start ramp at 30-second intervals. As my name was called I took a moment to savour the atmosphere, knowing that for the best part of two days I’d pretty much be alone – the long periods of solitude broken only by brief exchanges with my support crew.
The mindset for riding ultra-races is altogether different from sportives or club rides. It’s impossible to comprehend the bigger picture of the Glocknerman – that in two days’ time you’ll still be cycling; that you might, at best, have slept for a few hours; and that during those days, assuming all goes to plan, you’ll have spent no more than about four hours off the bike. Instead it becomes a case of micro-managing the ride with a series of mini-goals. These targets get smaller as the race goes on, as what is perfectly manageable at the start, with fresh legs and a full tank of optimism, eventually becomes unthinkable many hours down the road as the fatigue mounts and your mental resolve starts to wane.
I start the race with one simple focus: get through the first four hours, ideally having covered 100km. After that I can re-evaluate. And so, against the backdrop of rolling hills adorned with meticulously tended vineyards and bathed in glorious sunshine, the journey towards the Grossglockner begins.
Four hours come and go, and not even the first serious altitude gain – a long meandering climb that rises over 1000m – can dampen my spirits. With a steady supply of food and water from my support crew there’s no need to stop, and so I target another four hours in the saddle.
The learning curve in ultra-cycling is a steep one and it didn’t take me long to realise that circumstances can change in an instant, often without warning. On this occasion, however, the sight of dark, menacing clouds rolling towards me was a strong indication that things were about to turn grim. Within half an hour the sunny afternoon had turned into the foulest of days. Thunder rumbled across the valley floor, lightening flashed in the distance
“I START THE RACE WITH ONE SIMPLE FOCUS: GET THROUGH THE FIRST FOUR HOURS”
and the rain fell at such an intensity that it forced cars to pull over and stop. I followed their lead, seeking shelter in a disused petrol station, glad to be in the dry, but frustrated to have had my progress interrupted.
Eventually the rain eased enough to allow traffic to resume, but it showed no sign of abating, leaving me with little choice but to don full waterproofs and press on. The next six hours were as bleak as any I’ve spent on a bike. Day gave way to night as the rain continued to fall, gradually washing away my hitherto positive attitude. My eyes grew heavier; I lost count of the number of times I had to force myself to stay awake, often shouting out loud or slapping myself in the face. And then I saw the sign, the one that read 15%. It was then that the first real seeds of doubt began to germinate.
Voices you can’t ignore
On the descent from Kreuzberg a slither of light crept onto the horizon and grew, signalling the start of a new day. With it came a renewed sense of belief. I had survived the first night; now I had all day to get as far as possible before the darkness returned. Easier said than done, though, because I was now in the heart of the mountains and drawing closer to the double ascent of the Grossglockner. I had done my best to put this small detail to the back of my mind, but I couldn’t avoid it any longer – this was where my race would be won or lost.
The climb actually begins before Heiligenblut, but it’s in this little alpine village that the road pitches up into double figures and doesn’t relent for six soul-destroying kilometres. Even then it’s only for a few hundred metres before it ramps up once more, and twists and turns its way to the summit. It was here that my mental demons reappeared to ultimately bring an end my ride. After two hours of battling with them I was left with no choice but to simply accept what they had been telling me: I was not good enough.
I had been fighting the time limit since the race began. I knew the minimum average speed I needed to maintain to finish inside the cut-off and I knew that once I hit the big climbs I was going to suffer. It’s not that I’m averse to suffering on a bike, quite the opposite in fact. But back-to-back climbs, each one gaining over 1500m, with all the riding I’d already done, was simply beyond me. There’s only so far anyone can push themselves before both body and mind shut down. I could accept that, but I hadn’t come this far to not even cross the Grossglockner once.
It took every last ounce of effort to drag myself to the top of the climb, with every turn of the pedals exacting yet more pain on my tired and battered body. I might not have been able to ride the remaining 450km, but I wouldn’t be denied the satisfaction of reaching the Grossglockner’s summit at least once.
Knowing that the ride was coming to an end, a sense of calm washed over me. My mind fell quiet and I became acutely aware of the sheer beauty of my surroundings. It felt as if everything was in slow motion as, with one final push, my wheels finally reached the summit. But it was there, after 24 hours of non-stop cycling, after having covered 550km and ascended over 8,800m, that my quest came to an end.
I sat slumped in the corner of the motorhome, aware of the world around me but lost in my own thoughts, trying to somehow come to terms with the situation. My mind was full of questions. Had I eaten enough? Had I got the right gearing? Did I start too fast? Should I have brought more wet weather gear? Was I too heavy? On and on the questions went. The little voice that had convinced me that it was the right thing to stop continued to torment me, searching for answers. But none were forthcoming.
At no stage had I taken it for granted that I would finish, but I never once pictured it ending like this. Experience from past shortcomings has taught me that as painful as the lessons they teach you are, the most valuable ones always come from the failures. The mountains will always be there, and so long as we are prepared to learn from our experiences they can always be conquered.
“IT TOOK EVERY OUNCE OF EFFORT TO DRAG MYSELF TO THE TOP OF THE CLIMB”
Marcus tries to grasp the full scale of the challenge that lies ahead
Hitting the highs below the lows take their toll
Above: coming to terms with the ride coming to an end
Left: A moment’s respite from the unrelenting challenge