Austria – Österreich – sits unassumingly in the heart of the Alps. This breathtakingly beautiful country seems to fly under many a radar on many levels, not least as a cycling paradise. Even Austria’s stunning national tour, the Österreich Rundfahrt, is criminally overlooked as, each July, the all-encompassing juggernaut that is the Tour de France sucks in every lumen of media light and spits it back out in a blinding yellow glare like some perverse racing-coverage black hole…
The Österreich Rundfahrt is centered around two majestic mountain citadels: The Großglockner and the Kitzbüheler Horn. Whilst the former rises 2571m into the heavens, with formidable, but not insurmountable, sections of 10 or so percent over its 25.7km, the Kitzbüheler Horn is short, sharp brutality personified: In all, 1250m altitude gain in just 9.7km. That’s an average – average – of 12.9%. Each kilometer section’s percentage is thoughtfully sign-posted for you as you crawl up the simply ridiculous ramps of this purgatory: 12.5, 16.7, 14.3, 14.0 before coffee & mints are finally served upon 17.5%.
I climbed it once and it visibly aged me. I have a photo at the top in which I look like a wizened old man rather than the holiday-tanned and confident 64kg young chap that left the valley floor (there was no way I was riding down, either – you’d need a spare set of brake blocks in your jersey pocket to even contemplate it – I took the serene and scenic cable car option back to town). So, you can imagine how I practically spat my morning espresso out as I read that this year’s Rundfahrt had decided to use the Kitzbüheler Horn not as the traditional 7km center-piece finale to a mountain stage but as the opening prologue! I imagined the scene: A cosy evening in a snow-blanketed Gasthaus, the race organisers idly kicking around new ideas for the coming year’s race over a couple of weissbiers when one bright wag, no doubt at least three steins in, suggested, amid much laughter, “Let’s make the poor sods time-trial up it!”
Sanity clearly prevailed and the opening test only (!) called for 600m of the mountain to be raced over. Perhaps a shot of mercy is taken as a hangover cure in beautiful little Austria…
Still, even at 600m in length, on the gradients in question it was a prologue like no other. Naturally, Ciclissimo! was keen to get the inside line on affairs. I caught up with Tirol Cycling Team’s 2016 An Post Ras GC winner and Austrian National TT Championship podium finisher Clemens Fankhauser. With a couple of days in the salmon pink Manner Best Austrian Jersey and a brace of very solid top-ten placings, Clemens’ ride was another strong showing from the Continental outfit with a track record of producing World Tour riders from within its ranks, as it typically punched up a weight category throughout the week long race.
Ciclissimo!: Is the Kitzbüheler Horn a road you train on often? Or is it just too brutal to completely waste yourself on frequently!?
Clemens Fankhauser: No, it’s too hard to train on it: We do it once a year in the Tour of Austria and some of our climbers do it once more at the annual Kitzbüheler Horn Race, which will be this Saturday (23rd July ’16 – Ed).
C!: Ahh, yes – the International Kitzbüheler Horn Race; do you ever compete in that timed event which runs from the bottom to the top each year?
CF: Yes! It’s only the last 7km, so the same length as in the Tour of Austria so you can compare your times -which are much faster as you don’t have to ride 160-200km before! But we only do this race if we aren’t competing in international races at the same time.
C!: Do you have memories of the first time you raced up it in the Tour of Austria?
CF: I rode it the first time in the Tour of Austria 2008, went up easy because I’d worked all day for my teammate, Thomas Rohregger, who finished 2nd in the stage and won the GC. But it was tough anyways. I remember Boasson Hagen, he went up doing wheelies!
C!: This year is a little different as far as the mountain’s role in the race – what do you think about this new idea to have a TT up to the Alpenhaus?
CF: It was a very nice idea and an exciting start into the race. Good for sprinters, I think the first 8 riders were all sprinters!
C!: OK – so, the prologue itself – how was it?! Horrendous or not so bad? A ‘nice, short shift’ or ‘hard day at the office’?
CF: The last 200m were incredibly long, i was totally empty and needed about 15min to recover, after the finish I was more tired than after most of my races…
C!: …and did you measure your effort due to the steep nature of the course? Or, as it was only 600m, did you just go full gas?
CF: I started with 90% in the first 300m then I went full gas! Jan Tratnik from BMC Amplatz used a powermeter and he did about the same time as me, he pushed about 700 watts on average…
C!: Do you think they should include a TT like this every year?
CF: Yes that’s a good idea for a prologue, it suits the race and the topography of our country – and you have great pictures on the tv!
C!: So, looking back at the race overall, do you feel you hit the mark personally across the week?
CF: I was aiming for a top 3 result in a stage or a top 10 in the GC, unfortunately the big teams didn’t give a chance to breakaways so I could do only a 5th place in one mountain top finish. And, as I had big technical problems in the final 30km of stage 5, I lost 2 mins and the top 10 overall…
(Pics courtesy of Clemens’ Streichelhandy)