Tirolean Mountains: riding Innsbruck

Tirol is a land of superlatives for road bike riders.

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When the weather is just right in Innsbruck, you won’t want to be anywhere else. September/October seems to be the best month of all in Europe, with crisp cool mornings that last all day, and blazing colors that stretch the length of the valley and up the slopes of the mountainsides.

Innsbruck – the soul of the Austrian Alps, is a winter sports mecca. It’s one of the few cities in history to host two Olympic Games, and it’s also a pretty fine place to spend your recreational days when the weather warms and the snow melts. When the long days of summer arrive and the alpine flowers are in full bloom, the possibilities in the area around Innsbruck, in the whole of Tirol, are endless. Normally, the opportunities are considered to be mainly focused around those who prefer to use their feet for mobility, but with the proper gearing on your bike, Innsbruck is a cycling heaven…a very steep, uphill version of heaven.

The river Inn and the mountains that encircle Innsbruck – the Tux Alps to the southeast, the Stubai Alps to the southwest, and the Karwendel mountains to the north – define the capital of the Austrian province of Tirol. You can not make a step in any direction, in any place in Innsbruck without the giant looming backdrop, a silent guard over all that happens in the narrow valley below. For Austrians and visitors, the towering peaks are magnets; almost sexy in their cruelty.

I’ve always been personally drawn to the hardest climbs. Roads that require more from you than just turning your legs over for a long time, and just purely by repetition of pedal strokes, you arrive to the top of some vanilla mountain, check off Pass X.

Innsbruck isn’t like that. Passes are few and far between, and dead end farm roads, barely the width of a car, are the norm. The ascents are typically climbs to nowhere, an exercise in futility, but it’s the most deliriously enjoyable futile effort. The views are straight out of a dream. The normal world in the valley below looks like a model train set, complete with little moving cars, as you creep forward up a forgotten little road that averages well into the teens in percentage.

It’s no exaggeration to say that riding in Innsbruck consists of either east, west, or up. There are some large loops out of Innsbruck, including the infamous Цtztaler Radmarathon – all 238 kilometers and 5000 vertical meters of it – or the more sedate, but still arduous Karwendel Loop.

For a place like Innsbruck to be enjoyable, the first thing you need to do is leave your regular cranks at home. Don’t even try. The compact is your friend. I came to Innsbruck thinking that whatever climbs they had would be no problem – standard cranks 53/39 with a 28. Do-able but not easy.

With countless climbs all within an hour’s ride of Innsbruck’s old town, I had to narrow them down to two very distinct rides. The first is a beautiful brute that epitomises the perfection possible along the skyward turning mountainsides, while the second is a more moderate route, beautiful, pleasant, but still capable of doling out major difficulties.

Kleinvolderberg

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The combination climb of Kleinvolderberg followed by Tulferberg right on top is my favorite climb ever. The more I travel, the more I explore, the more I realise – this is a dream climb. It has everything you want in a climb – views, forest, switchbacks, and it’s not too long.

The 10kms or so to get to the base of Kleinvolderberg is a pleasant, quiet warm-up along the excellent Inn River bike path

You can see the inviting green of the cultivated farmlands above you for most of the ride from Innsbruck. Even with the knowledge of the difficult climb ahead, it’s one of those ascents that draws a knowing smile, not only for the work to come, but for the hard earned scene that will unfold over every part of the climb. It can take about 30-45 minutes to arrive at the base, but it’s well worth taking a couple minutes easy before heading toward the heavens.

It’s a forgotten little road that rears up from the town of Volders, east of Innsbruck. The road is hardly used, so it functions more or less as the world’s greatest uphill bike path. The entire climb is separated into two very distinct parts, two completely different climbs: Kleinvolderberg and Tulferberg. The two climbs are separated by only a quick descent and a foray through the town of Tulfes, before heading up once again. The two are a nasty 1-2 punch, but the visual rewards and the hut awaiting you at the top of Tulferberg make it worth the struggle.

Kleinvolderberg is 4.6 kilometers long and gains 460 meters, putting it right at the 10% average mark, while Tulferberg is 4.1 kilometers long and gains 440 meters, weighing in at 10.7%. That’s 900 meters of elevation gain in 8.7 kilometers.

Kleinvolderberg, though it reads as the easier climb, is without question, the harder of the two. The final 500 meters or so ease off the gas just enough to bring the average into the realm of humane, but there are long stretches of 12-15%. Somehow though, they’re pleasant. The climb is tough, but it divides itself into perfect, distinct sections, all defined by an ever changing visual feast.

The first part takes you out of Volders and up through the low lying green fields just above the river – the Castle Friedberg sits off to the left side. As you pass the castle, the road begins to move toward the right and skirts along a dark forest.

The section through the forest is pure fabled black forest fun – tall, slender coniferous trees create an almost impenetrable ceiling above you, as the road takes in six switchbacks and a heap of elevation. The switchbacks provide just a tiny bit of respite from the grade, but that’s normally followed by a quick punch in the gut right after.

After the six switchbacks, you emerge out of the woods and into the open expanses of the next layer of farmland above the valley below. At this point, the views are outstanding and it’s hard not to notice the panorama. The scene hits you over the head. You plunge back into the forest and the climb continues on with three more switchbacks before cresting the beast. A quick, steep descent into the small town of Tulfes follows.

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Tulferberg doesn’t quite have the pronounced joy of Kleinvolderberg, but that might be because you’ll be fairly wrecked by the time you start rotating squares by the little ski area above the town at 920 meters. While Tulferberg has a steeper average, the overall feel is of a climb slightly easier, as the gradient is much more constant, thankfully staying shy of the teens for the most part in favour of 10, 11, and 12.

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Just as Kleinvolderberg’s views got better as you climbed higher, so too do Tulferberg’s, except, after a certain point, they really just can’t get any better. About midway up the climb, you emerge out of a small wood to even bigger sweeping views. A dark, tall chapel stands alone in the green pastures, and for a while, your view will switch between the oddly colored chapel and the green magnificence off to the right.

Last bit to Tulferberg ski station

Last bit to Tulferberg ski station

The wide expanses are left behind for another pleasant trip through the forest, and from there, it’s a straightforward push to the top, except for a little ramp right before the hut at the end of the road. It only peaks a bit over 20%. When you crest it, pull into the welcoming patio of the restaurant!

Descending Tulferberg and Kleinvolderberg late in the evening as the sun is setting is sublime. We followed the main road back into Innsbruck, making a total of about 31 miles and 1400m of elevation.

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/913429887

Stubai Gletscher

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Our hotel was based just south of Innsbruck in the town of Steinach Am Brenner, a superb location if you’re planning to head south through the Brenner Pass and into Italy.

Heading north out of Steinach Am Brenner on this out-and-back loop you’ll be treated to a gradual descent with epic views to the right before peeling off the 182 and up a 1km climb to Schonberg as you approach the Stubai Valley.

From here you’ll see clearly what’s ahead; the snow-capped peaks of Stubai in the distance, a roller-coaster ride and permanent grin-fest on immaculate tarmac to the town of Neustift.

The gradient starts to kick in from Neustift as you regularly criss-cross the Ruetz River which flows from the glacier area of the valley to the Wipptal in a north-east direction. As a typical rapid-river the Ruetz is pretty dangerous and full of rapids. However, as you can imagine, the water quality is very good and several communities in the Stubai Valley use the river as drinking water resource.

Stubai Valley is obviously an iconic climb and local favourite, and to our surprise and joy, Sport 2000 were running a TT event on the day we passed through Neustift. With timed sections to attack marked along the roadside we jumped on a few 4-man trains as they pushed hard to the ski station, slowing only to admire the waterfalls and isolated Tyrolean farmhouses nestled high in the mountain clearings.

Top of Stubai

Top of Stubai

As you approach the open-sided tunnel welcoming you towards the ski-station the gradient noticably kicks up. 16-20% in places with some short respite, but nonetheless you’re feeling it.

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With its base at 5,741ft (1750 m) and summit at 10,531ft (3210 m) altitude, Stubai is Austria’s highest glacier ski area and it doesn’t disappoint as you arrive at the end of the road.

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A stunning climb with a perfect mix of gradients and a quality finish just a few feet from the lift station Alpensporthotel

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/913429936

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