We had a slight change in plans in the works as we left Switzerland that involved adding another two countries to our itinerary. The first, Lichtenstien, was more of a novelty than an experience.
You could be forgiven for not knowing about Liechtenstein’s existence. Only around 35,000 people live inside its mountainous 160 square kilometre borders. Mostly, people just go there to ski or to hide their money into lightly taxed, high security accounts. We entered at Vaduz, stopped to take a picture, and after half an hour had left it again.
The second country not on the original itinerary was Italy. After consulting with a family near Rapperswil over some cannelloni and red wine, they had convinced us that on the other side of that exceeding tall belt of mountains called the Alps, was better weather. We had previously thought to skirt around the top of the Alps through Austria and cross them as they petered out into Slovenia. But the new plan took us directly south after Bludenz, over the Arlbergpass (1800 metres) and the Reschenpass (1500 metres) into Italy. But before we conquered these towering beasts we had some business to take care of.
As I described in my previous post, Will, our beloved bicycle, was in bad shape. He’d had his bearings and brake pads fixed in Switzerland but nevertheless, both chains, the front cog set, a few frayed gear cables and the front tyre all needed replacing. To be honest, how much this all might cost scared the lycra tight pants off us, but we needed Will to be in tip top condition before we tackled any major passes. We found the right man for the job in Feldkirch. Peter Nachbaur not only knew his way around a bicycle, but he was also a traveller and a paraglider pilot and thus was sympathetic to our cause. He operated a very busy business from a shed at the back of his house, running from customer to customer with boundless energy in his bright blue full length overalls and a beanie pulled down over his ears.
We pedalled away from Feldkirch with the threat of imminent rain above our heads and arrived in Bludenz that afternoon wetter than seals. Over a meal of cheese and tomato sandwiches and two blocks of chocolate under a bridge, we agreed that we would not attempt the Arlbergpass until a sunny day presented itself, even if it meant sitting in Bludenz for a week. Though, the thought of being stuck in Bludenz for any length of time was depressing. Factories were the clear driving force behind its economy and it seemed the revolution of the internet was yet to arrive. In fact, the only pleasant thing about the place was a bridge located near the Kraft factory that smelt like chocolate all day long.
If we were trying to procrastinate with our weather ultimatum, the joke was on us. The very next morning the sun shone in a blue sky despite the forecast. We loaded our panniers up with sweet treats, I put down an espresso with one large gulp and we headed for the hills.
For the first 1000 metres or so the climbing was somewhat gentle and pretty. A lot of snow had fallen in recent days because of the chilly, wet weather. We were climbing at a steady nine kilometres per hour and Ashley found he had enough breath in his lungs to serenade the entire alpine population with a rendition of Edelweiss. After a quick road side lunch stop where we pulled out the tent to dry off in the glorious sunshine, things got a bit more serious. The road turned into a dark, carbon dioxide filled, vergeless tunnel that stretched up the mountain for almost two kilometres. The need to survive quickly overrode whatever pain we felt in our legs from the upward push and we redoubled our efforts. Out in the fresh mountain air once more, we huffed, puffed and bribed ourselves up each hairpin turn with the promise of some chocolate at the next corner, and then the next.
By the time we reached the summit at 1800 metres we had stripped down to tee-shirts but were surrounded by fluffy, fresh snow. There were still a fair few people out on the slopes with their skis and snowboards who pointed at us as they zoomed up on the chairlift, laughing and waving. The view from the top was, I admit, breathtaking (or maybe that was just the struggle to get to the top?). But there was no time for dilly-dallying with the camera and tripod… we needed to rug up fast. Soon we were whistling down the other side at 70 kilometres an hour and our fingers and toes were turning into popsicle sticks.
To keep ourselves from total annihilation by speed greed, Ashley was periodically applying our front drum brake. He wondered out loud how hot the brake would be, given the amount of friction being created inside it as we hurtled down. Then, once we had pulled over about half way down, he was stupid enough to answer his own question by leaning down to touch it. He let out a girlish shriek of pain, ran toward where the road fell away into a steep valley, and clumsily plunged his right hand into the snow. Curious, I also put my hand down to the snow, picked up a handful and threw it onto the drum brake. The snow vaporised instantly upon contact, making a satisfying hissing noise. We couldn’t imagine getting the brake that hot would be conducive to it having a nice, long life so we made a practice of stopping every 100 metres vertically to throw some snow on it. We were just pulling into a campsite outside of Landeck when the rain started again and could see a white fog had now engulfed the top of the pass: snow.
One rainy day later, we made a similar plea with the weather gods: we would make an assault on the Reschen if the rain persisted. It worked. The gradients were considerably easier than we had faced on the Arlberg. Before we knew it we had summitted and were gliding down the Italian side of the Alps certain we would soon encounter blossoming apple trees and better weather… we were wrong.
Liechtenstein & Austria