The most talked-about part of the elite men’s road race at this weekend’s World Championship is the final climb. Known locally as the “Hoelle” – “Hell” – it’s a street that winds through a chic residential neighbourhood locals refer to as the Beverly Hills of Innsbruck.
Billed as the “Highway to Hoell” by the organisers, it’s so steep and narrow that it’s closed to non-residential auto traffic. Most people make the climb to the hamlet of Gramartboden at the top via a funicular railway, the Hungerburgbahn, whose sail-like stations were designed by starchitect Zaha Hadid and opened in 2007.
After a recon ride in March, Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali likened the ascent to something more appropriate to a mountain bike race.
Even on foot the 2.8km climb is intimidating. After barely a kilometre, the houses end, and the road jackknifes upwards, ascending into a thick forest at pitches that are hard to walk, let alone pedal.
Almost unbelievably, it gets steeper and steeper, reaching a sustained incline of over 23 per cent – and one brief chunk at 28 per cent – towards the top. On a humid, drizzly day in July, the hill was empty and quiet, save for a single, white-haired cyclist, helmet swinging from the bars of a ‘90s-era Colnago, puffing slowly up the climb’s steepest pitch.
At the summit, there’s a green meadow and a few trees, plus a bench next to a shrine to the Virgin Mary. On race day, riders will grind over the top and then plunge back towards Innsbruck along a five-kilometre switchback downhill. In the hands of a skilled, fearless descender, a gap of a few seconds at the top of Hell Hill could translate into victory down below.
Though the “Hell” climb, its Zoncolan-esque gradient, and its position as the stinger on the tail of a 258-kilometre race has received the most early buzz, it’s not going to be the best place to watch the race.
In fact, organisers are deliberately trying to discourage crowds from gathering on the narrow, heavily-forested road, even eschewing a video wall for the hardy few who manage to climb to the bucolic meadow at the top. “It’s going to play an important role between 4:55 and 5:20, and that’s it,” says Innsbruck-Tirol World Championships CEO Georg Spazier.
Instead, Spazier hopes fans will congregate on the other side of the Inn valley, along the eight-kilometre climb to the bobsleigh track in Igls. Riders will climb the road eight times, ascending along sweeping bends overlooking spectacular views of Innsbruck below.
Jagged Alpine peaks rise from across the valley, wreathed in cloud and white-veined with snowmelt streams and waterfalls. It’s got pavements and wide grassy meadows that overlook the road below like natural theatres. It averages a respectable but hardly decisive 5.9 per cent, never breaking into double digit inclines.
That’s led Innsbruck insiders to wonder if there might be a surprise in store. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Rudolf Massak, secretary of the Austrian Cycling Federation, has been watching cycling in Austria for a long time – he was running the Tour of Austria back in the ‘80s, when it was still an amateur race pitting national teams against each other.
“If Peter Sagan comes out of the Tour de France weighing five kilos less, you can’t drop him on that climb,” Massak says.
That leaves a window for Classics specialists who can survive a long day and still have enough energy in reserve to kick over a single, steep final effort – the type of rider who could win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, for example.
“It’s going to be hard, because it’s relatively long, but it should be possible for not-pure climbers to have chances, if they’re smart,” Massak says. “A Classics specialist can do it as well as a climber.”
Realistic? Maybe, maybe not. Team selection has tended to favour lightweight climbers.
Still, in his wildest imagination, Spazier is hoping cycling’s most reliable crowd pleaser could pull off the unthinkable: A fourth straight Worlds win.
“If Peter Sagan can stay with the front group into the narrow part, and can get over close to the leaders, he could catch them on the descent,” Spazier says. “Wouldn’t that be amazing?”
The full version of this article was first published in Rouleur 18.6