As we ascended the challenging path towards the summit of the Kitzbüheler Horn, a series of signs adorned the roadside: 'Der Horn Ruft', '#EchtSteil,' and arches proudly displaying 'Kitz-bue-hel' beneath them. However, what particularly caught my attention, especially during the grueling final climb, was a sign that posed an intriguing question: 'How steep is your love?'
As the starting box of the Kitzbüheler Radmarathon swung open at 5:45 a.m., the irresistible call of the Kitzbüheler Horn echoed in the air. Located just a kilometer from the foot of the Horn in the heart of Kitzbühel, the focus was sharply set on two things: the impending final climb and the ever-uncertain weather. Throughout the week, ominous weather forecasts had cast a shadow of doubt, but on the actual race day, conditions were relatively forgiving. While rain lingered in the forecast and occasional threats loomed, the overall temperatures remained reasonable.
The second pre-race dilemma, familiar to all cyclists, revolves around what to wear. Some shed layers, while others added extra jackets, only to discard them moments later. Those in short must have felt the chill, especially during the initial descents. Yet, their lighter load would pay off during the demanding final kilometers. The Kitzbüheler Horn's call resonated even before the race commenced. Conversations around me were dominated by the looming challenge of the last punishing 7 kilometers, boasting an average gradient of 12%. Nobody seemed to discuss the preceding 208 kilometers that had to be conquered before reaching that point.
The fact that no one paid much heed to those initial 208 kilometers speaks volumes about the final climb. The #EchtSteil sign could have just as aptly adorned the first 6.5 kilometers of the Gerlospass, the five-kilometer-long Kerschbaumer Sattel (with a 10.7% average gradient), or the occasional #EchtSteil(e) stretches of the Brandenberg (spanning 14 kilometers). If there were any signs left, they could have dotted the course's "flat" sections where standard road signs warned regular traffic of gradients exceeding 10% and 15%. If you seek #EchtSteil, the Austrian Alps offer a cyclist's heaven. Personally, I find my rhythm better on slightly less severe climbs. The Pass Thurn, our first ascent of the day, suited me more. It was a gradual 17-kilometer ascent, never exceeding 10% gradient, but steadily climbing right from the start.
Flanking the road's initial stretch up the Horn are half-red arches adorned with 'Kitz-bue-hel' from top to bottom. I couldn't help but wonder if this arrangement was intentional, creating a division to reveal "hell" separately. It was evident that many participants had transitioned from cycling paradise to a blissfully masochistic cycling ordeal. The KRM is undeniably a top-notch gran fondo experience, particularly in favorable weather. The organization is exemplary, with convenient gear pickup in the village center, a visible presence of police and even firemen ensuring route safety, sections of the route entirely car-free, well-equipped aid stations, and a picturesque course.
Unfortunately, as expected, there were some inevitable crashes, but these incidents were beyond the control of the organizers. Organizational staff were positioned at various points, urging participants to exercise extra caution, especially on the wet road surfaces and steeper descents. Negotiating hairpin turns aggressively was not advisable. The participants were provided with comprehensive information about hazardous spots and received a briefing on Saturday. In my opinion, this level of support should suffice; the remainder of the responsibility lies squarely with the participants themselves.
Yet, the sign that truly captivated my thoughts, and still does to some extent, is the one inquiring about the depth of my affection. After all, seven kilometers of unrelenting ascent, with gradients never dipping below 11%, might just be a tad too steep for my love. Glancing at my fellow cyclists, it appeared to be a shared sentiment. Two kilometers into the climb, I passed riders who were practically draped over their bikes. Another kilometer on, someone was reduced to walking alongside their bike, and they were not alone. Many riders swerved across the road, adding significant extra distance to their journey. I even had a cyclist with a stubbornly stuck water bottle riding next to me for a kilometer. While I was irked by his assistance, I couldn't help but admire the female soigneur who tirelessly kept pace, pushing him forward.
This year introduced a new option for participants, 'Kitz,' allowing them to conclude their journey at the base of the Horn. I empathize with these participants for whom love isn't quite as "steep," as the other climbs are more than #EchtSteil enough, and the call of the Horn resonates more like an urgent warning. However, after enduring 208 kilometers and over 3800 meters of elevation gain, completing the Kitz is an achievement that eludes many cyclists.
Though perhaps steeper than my own love (and, in all honesty, my current fitness level) can conquer, I remain irresistibly drawn to the allure of the Horn, and I suspect I won't be able to resist it next time either. Once at the finish, the memories of that stretch on Kitz-bue-HEL quickly fade. A satisfying meal, warm and dry clothing from the bag entrusted to the organization at the summit, and then a descent on the cable car with my bike. As I sat in the elevator, the shroud of clouds briefly parted, granting me a breathtaking view of the valley and, most notably, the Horn, where others were still grappling with the question, "How steep is your love?"