Day 15: Sterzing to Solden (96.2km, 3019m)

The morning granted me with no fresh bed bug bites, so I thanked my lucky stars. Breakfast downstairs in the restaurant was excellent, to my surprise (given the conditions of the rooms), and we were out riding in a good mood. I asked a pedestrain on how to get to Jaufenpass (2099m), and she told us to follow the directions towards the Auto-strada, which would lead us to it. Sure enough, as we approached the Auto-strada, signs started telling us which way to Jaufenpass.

Soon the climb started in the woods as the pass made one winding turn after another. I started eating bananas while riding (they are the perfect riding food: biodegradable wrappers you can peel with your teeth, tasty, and they come packaged with their own water), not wishing to stop just to eat and drink. My knee was mostly recovered but still not at 100%, while Roberto was bothered by the halo of flies each of us gathered while climbing in the woods. He was even more dismayed when he passed me that part of my halo went to join his. Maybe flies are attracted to warm temperatures, and I run a little cooler than Roberto.

As we exited the treeline, more and more unloaded cyclists passed us, and the sightlines got much longer, allowing us o see the glaciers of Hocheck, Botzer, as well as across the valley to the East. We did not stop long at the top of Jaufenpass, just long enough to take on water. In the past, Roberto had complained of heavy lunches in valley making for tough climbing in the afternoon, so I proposed that we did not stop for lunch but just ate powerfood as we climbed. Mike agreed, as did Roberto, but unbeknownst to me Roberto was not carrying any food!

The descent down Jaufenpass is steep and fast, with rough pavement, relatively poor sightlines, but also fortunately not too much traffic. There were several straight sections where you could pick up a lot of speed but then would have to bleed it off quickly for the next blind corner. Roberto went ahead and shot photographs as we came down the mountain. Finally, as we made the final corner on the approach to St. Leonard (688m), I heard the frantic rattling of a cowbell worn by an angry cow chasing an enemy. I turned my head to see Mike on the road. It took me a bit to stop the bike. I asked if Mike was OK, but he was apparently not, so I turned and walked back to him.

Apparently, he had suffered a front puncture (a snakebite) which caused a somersault over the bike which Roberto witnessed. We got his bike off the road and him, and Roberto proceeded to dig through his first aid kit for antibiotic wipes. I took one of them and proceeded to scrub Mike's wounds while he attempted to fix the tire. Adding to busy moment, my phone rang, with Jennie telling me that she had gotten into the Dolomites at 3 in the morning, and so she would not be up for meeting up today. We told her Mike had crashed and asked Mike if he needed a pickup, he shook his head, so we proceeded with patching him up and fixing the bike and said goodbye to Jennie.

"You have to stop crashing in Italy, Mike" I said. "That's it. I've had enough, we're not doing any more descents in this country." It turned out that Mike had indeed crashed on the last 100m of descent in Italy. When we got going again, at the next corner the road flattened out and immediately started a gentle climb up Timmelsjoch (2504m).

The climb started out gently enough, and we tried to take it easy at the lower altitudes where it was warmest, but still ended up using water at an alarming rate. At least in the heat there weren't any annoying flies to bother us. At Moso in Passinia, we stopped at a fountain outside the tourist information center to refill and realized we had dropped Roberto. Well, there seemed to be restaurants and fountains so we went on ahead. I reasoned that Roberto would catch us, since he overtook me on Jaufenpass earlier this morning.

The climb wound its way back and forth along the mountain side, occasionally becoming steep enough that I had to get off the saddle and stand even in my lowest gears. Given the temperature and the length of the climb, I instituted a strict timetable for eating and drinking for myself and Mike: we would stop every 45 minutes to an hour to down some salt and food.

We found more water at a restaurant near 1900m before the road went into the final push. I was pretty worn out, so could only manage 6kph or so at this point, and stopped at 2250m to eat more food while Mike pushed ahead. It was at this point where I realized that my map was wrong. Instead of being 2474m high, Timmelsjoch was more than 2500m. Since my altimeter agreed with the summit sign later on, I'll take that as the true value of Timmelsjoch summit.

By and by, I got to the summit tunnel, where after a few pictures, I made it through, lights blinking and helmet on to the no-man's land between Italy and Austria. This was truly beautiful, and my pictures did not do this section justice. The valley between the countries looked truly desolate, while the bare mountains stood as though they were holding up the sky.

After a bit of riding I saw Mike's bike up against an inn fence. He had gone in and ordered a plate of spaghetti. I asked for one too and we ate outside while waiting for Roberto. After downing the plates in record time, we looked around the mountain, and got a few pictures. We discussed the possibility of me going down to town to get us lodging, as it was a Friday night. Solden (1368m) on the map looked reasonably big, and reasonably high, so I headed down the hill, after first talking to two German tourists who had made it up from Otz today, and had started touring from Garmish in Germany the day before. They seemed entranced by my Carradice saddlebag, asking if I had made it myself. I explained that it was English and you could buy it, and they said their panniers tempted them into carrying too much.

With photographs exchanged, I descended Timmelsjoch on the Austrian side and the difference between Austrian and Italian engineering became immediately obvious. Where the Italian side of the pass was steep and narrow, the Austrian side was wide and sweeping, with beautifully constructed turns that even with my crummy brake setup were a joy to ride and float through. This is what cycling is like: flying without leaving the ground.

At Hochgurgl, I followed the bicycle signs bypassing the toll-booth and rode on down, taking pictures because I was so enchanted by the beauty of the road. Past the turnoff to Obergurgl there was longish retro-grade, and I knew that if Roberto was having a bad day this would not be a happy place for him. Similarly, there was a retrograde past Zwieselstein, and I arrived at Solden to find the tourist information closed. Due to the retrogrades, my altimeter registered 3019m, the day with the most climbing on this trip so far. The lady at the Intersport recommended Castello Falkner just across the stream on the bike bridge to me, however.

Castello Falkner was a 4-star hotel that looked really grand. The rooms were really suites, with two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom with both shower and jacuzzi, a mini-kitchen, and its own patio attached to a shared courtyard. The man at the counter offered it to us at 79 Euros a person a night. This was a bit much, so I rode around town looking for cheaper places. The 4-star hotel on the main road was only 4 Euros cheaper. The cheap apartments (though I didn't think I felt like cooking that night) were all booked for the night. While mulling things over, I stopped at a supermarket to buy some fruits and chocolates. At that point, I saw Mike and a very tired looking Roberto ride past. I ran out of the supermarket to shout at them to turn around.

Offered the news, they gladly picked Castello Falkner, and we rode over and took the room. The resort-style dinner as well as the pleasant surroundings took a lot off the edge of the hard day, and we said to ourselves that perhaps we should do this more often. I learned from Mike that as should have been expected, Roberto cursed my name all the way up every retro-grade from Timmelsjoch, having ran out of both food and water while climbing Timmelsjoch, having somehow missed every water stop Mike and I found.

That night, however, bellies full of food and bodies clean and healthy, we could not help but be optimistic for the next day.

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