Großglockner 400

Jan Grodowski
9 min readJan 3, 2024

A celebration of the Alps.

View over the Großglockner Hochalpenstrasse

It’s a sunny May afternoon and my bicycle is packed and ready for a breathtaking weekend on some of the most stunning roads of Austria.

Gear: two kits, one set of apres-bike clothing, misc essentials. Gloves and warmers mandatory for the high-altitude sections.

The journey to Großglockner Hochalpenstraße was my first bikepacking experience and oh how excited I was counting days to the afternoon marking the start of the three day trip. The plan was to get close to Glocknerstraße from Salzburg on day one and then cycle over the alpine road towards Lienz on day two, while exploring the nearby viewpoints. Day three was about closing the loop back to Salzburg over the Felbertauern tunnel pass. Three days, three regions: Salzburg, Carinthia and East Tyrol.

Riding on my own, I expected lots of space to think about nothing while just absorbing the surroundings and pushing the bike forward on the numerous climbs. Pure enjoyment of the moment and a reset of the mind.

On the way from Salzburg to Bischofshofen.

The first Friday stage was meant to be means to an end: arrive at the Glocknerstraße after a full day at the desk. I had some first thoughts about this article already in my head as I zoomed through city traffic. Funny enough, anxiety and anticipation for what’s coming was still occupying my headspace. I thought about the numbers, steep grades, elevation gains and potential risks. Do I have enough spare tubes? Will it be 400 or 380 km in total? Will I get caught in the rain?

The majesty Hochkönig from the east side ascent to Dienter Sattel. Austrians casually loading a trailer with roadside rocks in the background.

Hochkönig

As soon as I reached the town of Bischofshofen and took the right turn into a steep road towards Dienter Sattel, my mindset drifted away from the earlier performance-focused attitude into a peaceful state of flow. So much more than means to an end. The traffic calmed down and there I was: me and the beast, the winding road facing the Salzburger giant, the Hochkönig. Cool air from road-adjacent waterfalls, mellow turns revealing more and more of the breathtaking landscape and just pushing the pedals hard was all I had in mind.

Tranquility of the Hochkönig massif, Dienter Sattel (top) and Maria Alm am Steineren Meer (bottom)

I won’t be bothering you with numbers and stats too much, though I’ll share the route in more detail in the appendix (1). Long story short, the final bit of the 17km Dienter Sattel ascent really squeezed my legs. The Dolomite-like views and a few sweet and loud 911s passing by were only the prelude to what was about to come on Day 2.

The descent of the day brought me to Maria Alm am Steinernen Meer with a big smile. The bags attached to my bike didn’t affect the handling and I was positively surprised with how they felt on the long downhill: bike was still fast, planted and sharp around the corners. The ski village welcomed me with a solid glass of Hefeweizen at an outdoor restaurant, surrounded by tourists and hikers resting quietly after their day adventures. Not finishing my ride back at the start felt amazing, no matter how trivial this sounds.

Left: afternoon prize, right: morning in Maria Alm just before departure

Maria Alm is also where one of my earlier anxieties materialised… I learned how the only USB-C cable I packed doesn’t charge my bike computer properly and that GPS routes no longer load on the Wahoo computer, due to a software problem. Well, I knew I’ll figure it somehow, and I did! I went for a short walk and then straight to bed, excited for the upcoming adventures.

Großglockner

If you decide to do this trip and sleep at hotels like I did, book them with breakfast. Austrian breakfast buffet game is strong, trust me.

Saturday started with soft-boiled eggs, fragrant bread rolls and a big pot of filter coffee. Such a nice surprise at the cheapest hotel I could find in Maria Alm.

First kms of Day 2 at the crystal-clear waters of Zeller See. Tyre valves not aligned, sigh.

The famous toll road across the High Tauern and nearby the Großglockner peak is an Austrian version of the Stelvio. Expect tourists, cars and motorbikes. Fortunately, starting early paid off and I had the climb to myself most of the day.

Highlights of the Großglockner toll road

Departing from Maria Alm, it took a while to cycle along the Zell lake to Bruck, where the Großglocker climb officially begins. If you’re planning to just ride up there, Bruck is a perfect place to park the car. I was over the moon as the road elevated past the tree line to the first patches of snow, as end of May turned out to be perfect timing for epic snow walls. I did my best to capture all of it, but trust me the scale hits different when you’re there.

Endurance athlete essentials: gummibears.

I love cycling up the Hochalpenstraße as an opportunity to observe how the landscape changes with every few hundred vertical meters gained. Few KMs past the toll road booths in Fusch and the forest eventually gives space to mountain pines, barren rocks, and then just snow that kept melting slowly in the sun rays on that day. The air got chilly. The breathtaking views really opened up. There was a moment where I could see far ahead into the valley, where the climb begun. I have no idea how far it was, but the distance was spectacular. Finally, a dozen or so switchbacks until the end I could see Fuscher Törl with the iconic 180-degree final turn and viewpoint, marking the end of a 2h+ climbing effort.

Germknödel mit Vanillasose, the Austrian king of fluff. Food aside, panorama from Edelweißspitze overlooking the final meters of the main climb and the famous final 180 degree turn (bottom left).

Though, I ended the journey a bit further at the cobbled “bonus climb” leading to a nearby peak, the Edelweißspitze. Had a moment of rest there and ate lunch on the sun terrace. The sun and leftover heat from the climb kept me warm only for a short moment, so I slowly started putting on more and more winter gear for the first descent of the day. All that while appreciating the accomplishment, the views and the Germknödel swimming in a bowl of vanilla sauce.

Top of the cobbled road to Edelweißspitze (2571m a.s.l.)
Top: May snow walls on the ascent to Hochtor (2428m a.s.l.). Bottom left: Franz-Jozef Höhe viewpoint. Right: Heiligenblut am Großglockner and descent towards Lienz.

The well-deserved, long and twisty descent from Franz-Jozef’s Höhe towards Lienz in Osttirol quickly turned into the lowest point of the day and the whole trip. On the first few KMs as the road enters a wide parking area, I was stopped by police together with several cars and witnessed a cyclist being rescued by a medical helicopter after a severe accident with a car. I learned later the driver was on the incorrect lane (2).

As I’m writing this today, I know that the 44-year old cyclist from Salzburg passed away days after the crash due to irrecoverable trauma. My thoughts are with them and their relatives.

Day 3: Felbertauernstraße

It’s a Sunday morning. Bartek sends me this drum and bass set by Wilkinson, which was about to power me up the lengthy climb to Felbertauern tunnel.

https://soundcloud.com/sheetal-sethi/sleepless-nights

Felbertauernstraße. Long fake-flat with traffic. The price for nice views has to be paid, just push through it.

Located west of and parallel to the Großglockner road, the pass is a popular Alpine crossing with heavy traffic. It’s a long fake-flat climb and honestly it felt like a grind, so music helped a lot. Was it worth it? Yes, would do this loop again, because loops are the best.

In the town of Matrei close to the tunnel entry, I called the toll booths and organised a minibus transfer. It’s not cheap (€30 per car) and unavoidable, as the 7km tunnel is not open for cyclists. The friendly Austrian tunnel operator who took me & the bike through to the other side provided good company and some laughs.

Top: Felbertauerntunnel crossing. Bottom left to right: losing all the altitude meters back towards Salzburg.

On the other side waited the final stretch, almost all the way downhill to my hometown Salzburg. Almost, because for whatever reason I decided to do the “bonus climb” to Hirschbichl. If you decide to follow the suggested route, get ready for up to 31% grades. Lowest gear, full power off the saddle and barely moving. Type-2 fun at times. Did I discover the steepest tarmac road in the area? Maybe!

The reward was there: a peaceful descent into Klausbachtal, Hintersee and further towards Salzburg, with great views (not worse than the rest of this trip) and no traffic, only tour buses allowed on the top section of the road. I stopped at the Klausbach valley for a final snack, a drink straight from the mountain stream and a moment of appreciation for what was about to end, as I was getting closer to home and the transition back to the day-to-day. I felt joy and gratitude for this cycling adventure around my still relatively new home region.

I hope you’re motivated to get up and do your own crazy thing, whatever it is. That was at least my goal for writing down all of these feelings and facts after the big weekend in the Alps. Ride On!✌️

Thanks to all supporters of my cycling journey: Early Birds Salzburg for keeping me in shape and able to do such adventures. Cyclite.cc for the saddle and frame bags. Marco Protič (probably the best mechanic in Salzburg) for rescuing my dead shifter levers this summer. The iPhone 12 for being such a reliable adventure camera.

Cobbled finish on Edelweißspitze. Will be remembered.

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Jan Grodowski

Maker of UndercoverCI, writer of software, road cyclist