My old mate Pavel Cinegr is a professional orthopaedist and a person to whom I owe my thanks for several medical interventions, which helped me to recover from serious sports injuries. Fortunately, I don’t need to call him just in the case of an emergency. The last time I dialled his number, I wanted to make him a proposition about heading to Austria and taking part in the Stoneman Taurista bike challenge. “Have you ever heard about it?” I asked him at the end of August.
Connecting the eight peaks of Salzburger Land, the Stoneman Taurista belongs among the most challenging MTB official circuits of the Alps. The route runs across pastures, mountains, and lakes. On top of that, the itinerary includes crossing several alpine passes and visiting a six-metre-tall waterfall. Since stage races were unlikely to happen during these sad days, we agreed with Pavel that travelling to the Austrian Alps and conducting an individual ride was a decent way to rehash our sports experiences.
When checking the track profile, I found out that my heavy free-riding bike was perhaps not the best choice yet it was too late to turn the car back to pick a lighter one, which would suit the 123-km-long trail with 4,500 metres of altitude better.
Even though I knew my friend ‘Doc’ was in perfect condition, I did not expect him to complete over 4,000 km on the MTB so far this year. When I found out, my jaw dropped as he was so much ahead of me, spending most of the summer in the car seat, looking for trails. That was when I realised for the first time that my legs are likely to burn in hell soon.
Cards to stamp
Stoneman Taurista participants are free to split the whole distance into as many parts as they like, based on their skills and weather conditions. The only limitation given is the capacity of mountain lodges, which we had to book ahead to provide us with overnight accommodation. Anyone registered gets a card and is obliged to collect stamps at checkpoints to prove they completed the route without cheating or taking advantage of any shortcuts.
“Well, we can do it in two days, can’t we?” Pavel asked using the dark sense of humour typical of most doctors I have ever met. I knew that the tour is going to be tough but it could be even worse as some people are able to make the entire route in only a single day. Luckily for me, Pavel was not that eager.
The start was climbing torture. One thing I could not refrain from noting after several hours of sweating was that Stoneman Taurista is not a holiday destination you want to experience with a girlfriend unless you date a national XC cup champ. Every other girl would throw the bike on your head after a few kilometres of the initial 12% climb or after pushing it up to the Oberhutte Mountain lodge. I am not a fan of climbing either but I did not want to moan since everyone has to go through this part.
After gaining up on altitude, however, I had to admit that the breathtaking views over the Alpine landscape surpassed all of my expectations. You may never experience seeing something as beautiful as this from the window of your office. While watching rain clouds breaking on the peaks of the Hohe Tauern Mountains, I almost forgot about the pain stabbing my thighs and drops of sweat burning my eyes. I also accepted we had to dodge free-grazing cows and horses, and even forgave them the poop all over the trail, which was filling my tyre tread pattern with the unmistakable aroma of the countryside.
The warmth of Austrian hospitality
The next destination was an old wooden cottage that slowly grew before our eyes as we got closer and closer. With no signal bars on the mobile phone display, and with a lady pouring us a bowl of hot soup right from the pot on the stove, we felt as if heaven opened its gates and warmly embraced us. After we finished our delicious food, the landlady played a couple of songs on the accordion and offered us a welcoming toast with a shot glass of homemade pine liquor. One would spend the whole day in that place yet we could not afford to stay idle and enjoy the local hospitality for any longer.
Since we decided to squeeze the itinerary in mere two days, there was no more time to waste. Our next goal was to climb some more hills and get our cards stamped at each checkpoint alongside the route. For some reason, most of the checkpoints can be found on the highest peaks and ridges so it cost us lots of energy to reach them one after another. With the number of stamps in our cards growing, we learned that the end is nigh yet the biggest challenge was still about to happen.
I will never forget the endless ascent to the Hochgrundeck cross (1,827 m) where my lungs ran out of oxygen once and for all. One last click, though, and my record card was completed. After emptying a glass of chilled shandy beer, we finally turned back to the valley. After such a climb, returning down on a wide gravel road was a little disappointing yet any technical downhill would cost us too much precious time we did not have as the autumn day was considerably shortening.
Hungry but happy, we made it to the very end and we got a beautiful trophy as a reward for our performance. Given that there are more Stoneman original routes around Europe, I am a little worried which one of them is Pavel going to choose next year.