“A dream location for every type of cyclist”. This is how arguably the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, described the area known as SalzburgerLand in Austria. With its abundance of mountains, lakes and alpine meadows, it’s easy to see why. Think The Sound of Music, and you’ll get the picture – the movie was both set and filmed here.
If, like me, you watch the grand tours on television each year, jealously imagining those long steady alpine climbs and switch-back descents, then you’ll understand why, when I got the chance to spend a weekend in the beautiful lakeside village of Fuschl am See, in the heart of SalzburgerLand, I jumped at it.
After a welcoming get together on the Saturday afternoon at the excellent, and very bike-friendly Hotel Mohrenwirt, where even the staff were wearing cycling jerseys, I joined a small group for a short 40km recce of the local area. This was a chance to make sure our bikes and legs were all in working order, and ride off some of the tasty buffet we had just enjoyed at the hotel.
As I rode around tree lined Fuschlsee lake (apparently the water is so pure it is of drinking quality), I occasionally got glimpses of the mountain passes high above and quickly realised the longer 102km ride we had all come for the next day was going to be special.
Staying in Hotel Seerose overlooking the lake, I rose early on Sunday morning to enjoy the ample buffet breakfast and fuel for the day ahead. I joined fellow riders at 8.00am on a bright autumn morning and with plenty of friendly but slightly nervous chatter, we clipped in and set off from the village wondering when the first test of our climbing abilities would come.
We didn’t have to wait long.
Within the first kilometre, we were confronted by a steady 10 percent gradient. This sudden and unexpected climb had a wonderfully calming effect on those who may be inclined to treat rides like this as an opportunity to show off their mountain-goat heritage. The chatter died away, instead replaced by the ‘click, click, click’ of riders quickly selecting their lowest gears. This gave us all a chance to ponder the ride ahead, clear our heads and bond emotionally as we formed into small groups, each moving at our own, steady speed.
The Sound of Cowbells
As we climbed, the countryside around us slowly unfurled, with each few metres of altitude gained bringing us to a new vantage point. Fuschl am See locals, I noticed are early risers – the fields around us were buzzing with activity, and the hills were alive to the sound of, if not exactly music, then very musical cowbells, accompanied by the cowherd’s calls of “up, up, up” as we steadied for the ride ahead.
What really struck me though as we wove our way deeper into the alpine foothills, was the beauty and smell of the meadows. SalzburgerLand has the highest concentration of organic farms in Europe and is becoming increasingly famous for its cultivation of herbs – particularly medicinal herbs. As we settled into the ride I was constantly struck by the taste and smell of the herb-infused mountain air and at one point we were even offered small paper cups of herbal tea, held out by some friendly locals as we rode through their farmstead.
Thanks to the feeling of camaraderie our early climb had quickly instilled, I had more or less stayed with my group for the entire ride - a great mix of men and women from all over Europe. This is how I like to ride, at a constant and just about comfortable, tempo – putting in the effort, but not trying to bust a gut. As we approached the halfway point at Mattsee, we were still riding as a disciplined cohort, working hard but able to take in the magnificent alpine scenery.
Mattsee is known as the ‘Venice of Salzburg’ and is surrounded by three beautiful lakes in Austria’s lake district. Occasionally I’d flick out my arm pointing to an amazing vista or to wave to the many locals who were out on the promenade occasionally cheering us on. My fellow riders were rather surprised and perhaps even alarmed by this practice.
I just couldn’t contain my genuine delight with this wonderful ride and the bike friendly Austrians. The sun was out, the roads were smooth, cars were few and we were pushing an average speed of well over 30kph.
Climb Every Mountain
Perhaps my comrades were puzzled by my joy because they knew what was coming. Soon the sound of Sunday strollers taking the lakeside air had faded and we started the two sharp and literally breath-taking climbs up and over the ski resort of Neumarkt. Passing ski lifts that even in summer are active taking hikers and tourists up to the lush green pastures, our group started to split apart as the lactic acid took its toll. I reached for another energy gel.
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Before the ride, I had taken some expert advice from the sports nutrition manufacturer – Torq. My strategy for the entire ride was to take on close to 90g of carbohydrate per hour for sustained energy. I had set my bike computer to notify me of 20-minute intervals at which point I would take either a gel, energy bar or several sips of energy drink. This structured approach, I hoped, would limit the amount I needed to carry and ensure I had enough energy to complete the ride without fading. So far it was working and I pushed on knowing that what goes up must come down.
Sure enough, soon after the two energy sapping climbs, we were flying down a 25km descent through the town of Mondsee and along the vast lake of the same name. I was told it was at the church here where Maria was supposed to have married Georg Luwig von-Trapp in The Sound of Music. Although, I also learnt during my visit that the honest and efficient Austrians are more than a little embarrassed by the film’s factual inaccuracies.
As we rode along the flat, straight lakeside road at Mondsee, I knew we were around 100km into the ride and therefore close to finishing. In English, I asked a fellow rider if the climbing was over, he tried to reply but then simply shook his head and pointed towards the sky. I was really feeling it now and his improvised communication was daunting. He was right though, it was too soon to relax. Within a couple of kilometres, we turned onto the final and constant 10km climb, before the welcome run down into Fuschl am See and back to where we had started.
My hotel (Hotel Seerose) was just 200m from the finish, making it incredibly easy to shower, change and join others I’d met over the weekend for a post-ride get together. Soon we were exchanging stories over more excellent local produce, revelling in the release of endorphins: our prize for conquering something that had been genuinely physically – and at times mentally – quite challenging.
As my fellow riders began to disperse, I returned to the hotel where I relaxed in their sauna before plunging directly into the Fuschlsee lake. Motorised craft are banned on this stretch of water, making it exceptionally clean and safe for swimming. As I slowly took in its tranquillity, drifting past the hotel, I couldn’t think of a more peaceful or glorious place I could possibly be. Eddie was right, I thought. SalzburgerLand really really is a dream location for cyclists.
Rooms at Hotel Seerose, Fuschl am See are priced from £90 per person per night (based on 2 sharing half board) Neil also visited Hotel Mohrenwirt
The cycling tour is the Rennrad SalzburgerLand, cycling tour number 12, route B
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