23 July 2012: Day 5 – Kufstein (Austria) to Colle Isarco (Italy) via Brenner Pass

151.41 km (94.08 mi)

What a loooong day!!!  We rolled into our unknown and mistaken destination around 7:30pm – hungry, exhausted, sore, and exhilarated.

We left Kufstein a bit earlier than usual for us, around 9am and stopped to send our wedding clothes and shoes home, since there was no real need to lug suit, dress, and dress shoes all the way to Rome.  33 euros later we were lighter and faster, especially knowing we had a long ride ahead through Innsbruck over Brenner Pass to Vipiteno, Italy.  We would be in Italy tonight!  What a crazy thought!

Studying the map, I had managed to calculate around 100km for our ride today, but we quickly realized how wrong that was.  Leaving Kufstein, we were pleasantly surprised to find a bike path that travels all the way to Innsbruck.  It was our own little road, but that’s definitely not to say it was the most direct route.  It more or less followed the River Inn the whole way, but several times the path took us on such a roundabout route that we actually found ourselves riding backwards towards Kufstein before traversing back through corn fields and other farmland back in the right direction.  Where A—-> B should have been 60 or so kilometers, our path went from A —-> F—–> D——> H——-> E——> B, adding a significant amount of distance.  But…it was so relaxing not to have to deal with cars and we got to tour the real farm area of Austria.  At times it could have been Nebraska (except for the mountains in the background).

We arrived in Innsbruck around 2pm and hung out for about an hour enjoying Innsbruck’s Altstadt and grabbing a quick snack from a bakery.  We wanted to savor Austrian pastries and breads before crossing the border in pastaland.  It was kind of funny to tour the small streets of old town with bikes and panniers in tow.  It certainly gets people’s attention and gives them something to talk about.  The day was beautiful – warm and sunny – so hundreds if not thousands of tourists were mulling about and enjoying strudel in the many cafes lining Maria Theresien Platz. Perhaps we should have spent the night, but we were eager to get riding into Italy and into the Alps and Dolomites.

We left Innsbruck around 3pm and knew we had a mountain pass to climb, but really had no idea how long it would take us.  The biggest problem was finding the old Brenner Pass road in first place (the autobahn is now the most popular route, but bicycles are not allowed, for good reason.)  So after traversing Innsbruck and touring the not-so-altstadt we finally stopped someone on the street. He spoke a little English, so between his broken English and Kovas’ broken German, we learned the man was backpacking around Europe from his home in Verona, Italy.  He pointed us in the right direction and we were on our way.

The start of Brenner is pretty easy – not unlike any of the road rides in Denver’s foothills.  It is mostly up with a few flat and slightly downhill areas.  The views are breathtaking as the road winds its way through the Alps – you can catch glimpses of little towns nestled on the mountainsides.  I found myself constantly wondering where the roads were that led to those towns.  And then I started thinking, wait, is that where we’re going too?  You see, Brenner Pass road doesn’t give away any secrets.  You can’t really tell where the road goes and how far the top of the pass is.  You just keep riding, and riding, and riding, and riding….and riding.  It’s long!  Supposedly it’s the lowest pass in the Alps, which is why it’s the most popular road to get to Italy.  People and goods pass that way all day and night.  Thankfully with the autobahn most of the traffic is diverted away from Old Brenner Pass Road, but there are enough trucks and cars that speed around the winding curves to keep a cyclist on constant alert.  It may be the lowest pass altitude-wise, but it is loooong distance-wise.  It’s about 74km from Innsbruck to the top of the pass, and we’d done about 75-ish km to Innsbruck from Kufstein.  Long.  At one point as we were riding along we turned a corner and saw the autobahn soaring into the skies above.  It was an impressive sight – all that concrete in air carrying 4 lanes worth of cars and trucks high above us.  What a feat of engineering (and thank goodness we didn’t have to climb up there)!

The rest of the ride up Brenner is as you might imagine.  Up up up and up, with the road getting steeper the closer we got to the pass.  We did enjoy a couple of the towns, however, especially Matrei am Brenner, which is very colorful and pleasant.  I was secretly hoping Kovas would want to call it a night.  It was getting late, I was tired and hungry, and I was concerned that we wouldn’t roll into Vipiteno until well after dark.  However, after a little hemming and hawing, we both decided we couldn’t stop.  It was against our nature not to finish a pass and not to reach our goal.  Perhaps not always the best strategy, but it kept us going this time.

When we reached the top at last, I was pretty much on my last legs and a bit grumpy.  The last few kilometers had really taken every last bit out of me, but there was something about seeing the sign for Brenner and the “Bienvenuto (Welcome to Italy)” sign that perked up my spirits considerably.  Now, the top of Brenner Pass isn’t altogether exciting.  The autobahn screams through there as cars and trucks pass the border, but otherwise there’s an outlet store and some places to stay.  Sadly the stores were closed by the time we rolled by, but they must have just closed because just as we crossed over into Italy we saw a man putting his shopping bags into the back of his Lamborghini.  A fitting sight for the first taste of Italy, we thought!

The most welcome sight, however, was the sign that read “Sudtirol Bike Path” with an arrow pointing to a little man on a bicycle to our right.  There it was, quite possible the most beautiful, the cleanest, the smoothest, and the most inviting bike path I have ever seen!  It was away from the autobahn and the old road, away from the cars.  It wound through the woods along an old set of train tracks, past abandoned farm houses, and down the other side of Brenner Pass toward Vipiteno, Italy.  We reveled in that bike path, that and the fact that we needed to do no more pedaling for the night as the downhill was significantly downhill (going up Brenner from the Italian side seemed considerably steeper, though shorter, as an FYI).  It was truly amazing, if you could ever describe a bike path as amazing.  It’s impossible to express the ecstasy we felt as we flew down this bike path after 150 km of grueling mountain riding.  It was a long day, but a glorious way to end!

We finally rode through a small town that we decided had to be Vipiteno (despite never actually seeing a sign), and since it was about 7:30pm, we quickly chose a place to sleep.  It took several attempts as a few places were closed and two were unacceptably disgusting.  We settled on a restaurant/B&B that had an entire apartment available for about 60 euro, so we snatched it and took advantage of all the space in drying our hand-washed riding clothes.

Because it was late when we rolled in, by the time we’d showered up it was after 8, and we quickly learned that Sudtirolers eat early, at least in the summer.  We ended up eating in our hotel restaurant, but dined on absolutely divine Italian pizza and pasta, our first of the trip.  Because we weren’t quite in wine country yet, however, we indulged in the Alto Adige (this area of Italy) local beer.  We found it interesting that Italian was not Sudtirolers’ first language – it’s German.  And we also quickly learned we were in an area where not too many english-speakers venture, because we found no one who spoke english (or admitted to it), nor did we see any other Americans.  For the time being, we were still in some kind of limbo Austria/Germany land.  Sudtirolers identify themselves with Austrians more readily than with Italians.  It is a fascinating cultural study.

I’m sure there isn’t much need for me to say how well we slept this night.

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