One British photographer follows 40 brave cyclists up and over 450 miles of unending mountain passes across the Austrian & Italian Alps
words and photography by Matt Ben Stone
Over five days 40 brave men and women set out to concur over 450 miles of northern Europe’s most grueling tarmac. Over endless mountain passes and through perilous weather they trudged on. None were professional, some experienced, and amazingly, a few even new to extended two-wheeled travel. But each and every one was unified by a single cause. This is what Magnificent Alps is all about.
The Magnificent Alps cycling challenge is an organized annual ride to benefit The PACE Centre, a UK charity school that helps change the lives of children with sensory motor disorders disabilities like cerebral palsy. Since 2008 PACE cycle challenges have seen 242 riders complete 122,000 miles throughout England and the rest of Europe.
This event is not for the faint hearted. And this year’s route only further proved the point, providing a long list of impressive mountain terrain to test the riders to their very limit. I was invited along to photograph this epic event unfolding in some of the most iconic cycling scenery in the world. Who could resist?
As with all cycling challenges, the first morning was a rather nervous affair. Starting in Jochberg, Austria, the route had 8,855ft of ascent off the bat, with 22 glorious miles of descent in the afternoon as reward.
First, we faced the Kitzbuheler Horn, followed by the Grossglockner Pass—each as formidable as it is difficult to pronounce. And the weather proved especially unkind on the later. Climbing to 8,200ft in the wind, freezing rain, and mist took our breath away and slowed riders to a shivering crawl. Smiles dropped and the chatter tailed off, save only to curse the cold or another flat.
It was a shock. Not even overshoes could save you from the torrents of water, as there is always a trickle that crawls in under the zipper. And the tarmac was awash with detritus that the punishing rain had washed up. Not ideal conditions for road bike tires—the puncture sweepstake which was taken on the outbound flight was looking good if you had a high number!
"Smiles dropped and the chatter tailed off, save only to curse the cold or another flat."
At the top of the pass we took shelter in restaurant Fuschertörl, politely asking the gentlemen behind the bar if he would be prepared to cater for a dozen or more wet to the bone cyclists in our best broken German. Luckily, he was. (One complication that we encountered with the interiors of cafes over the trip where the tiled floors—unless you had cleat covers, it was a perilous ice rink.)
Eighty-eight miles later we rolled into Oberdrauburg for the first of many overnight stops. Without a full support team on hand the first order of business upon arrival was to find every hot radiator and adorn it with wet garments—everything from odd looking overshoes to fingerless gloves. A few foam rollers were passed around in place of a professional trainer.
Day two brought us into Italy, with 79 miles and a mentionable 2,130ft ascent. The tarmac on many of the highest peaks is cracked and worn almost to rubble from the annual freezing and thawing each winter and spring.
With the wind on our backs and the sun now shining, we indulged in a well earned breath at the day’s highest pass. Peering down the valley I could see the cyclists swoop through the switchbacks, the air being so eerily still you could hear the occasional shout from distant riders reverberate back up over the rolling contours.
Day three brought the biggest climb of the trip, and the toughest day in the saddle—another 82 miles and an ascent of 9,708ft over multiple peaks. It is days like this that the adventure truly comes alive.
I would be peacefully waiting for the riders to come around the switchbacks, silently they approach and then disappear again, out of frame down the next four switchbacks at 30 mph, easy. I can remember many spots where I was waiting for the cyclists within the rocky landscapes, high up watching the mist effortlessly roll through the alpine trees, as quickly as it came into view it dissipated again. I was itching to give up the camera and jump on the spare emergency bike—it was that awe inspiring.
Day four, just one massive climb. The ascent itself totaled 55 miles, up and over the second highest alpine pass at 9,048ft in elevation. Luckily Passo Stelvio offered smooth open roads and impressive sweeping vistas. The quietness was surreal, with sheer drops and untouched nature all around and only your own breathing for company, and to offer a steady beat to dance on the pedals with.
We too had trouble climbing the Passo Stelvio in our support vehicle and suffered the effects of altitude sickness. The van had been driven from England so was right hand drive, my task was to hang out the window, ensuring we could make it around the hairpins.
The descent was magnificent, with the sun retreating behind the glinting peaks of the surrounding mountains. Then the race against the setting sun and dropping temperatures started. Cyclists wrapped up with every item of clothing they owned, plus a few newspapers from the cafe at the top. Fingers began to cramp from the relentless pressure needed to hold their metal brake levers, which themselves began to freeze from the wind chill of traveling at speeds of over 40 mph. By the time we reached our overnight stop it was pitch black, and the smell of the support van's burning breaks highlighted the exhaustive day that had passed.
"Fingers began to cramp from the relentless pressure needed to hold their metal brake levers, which themselves began to freeze from the wind chill."
The final day was blessed with glorious sunshine throughout. Heavy legs could not dull the enthusiasm as the cyclists inched closer to completing the ride, though not before 80 miles and one last killer climb—7.7 miles long with a whopping 10.5% incline no less. What a way to finish a trip.
Over five days I experienced the sheer power of nature and its beauty. Every single one of the riders who signed up for the challenge completed it. This determination to keep going when things got tough showed the full potential of human strength, both physical and emotional.
It’s incredible what we can do when willed to accomplish a goal for a good cause.
Matt Ben Stone is a London-based photographer. Follow him on Instagram here