For the night from Monday to Tuesday, the forecast promises the first snow of the season for Bozen. Winter isn’t coming. Winter is here. Even though I look a bit jealous over to the temperatures in South Tyrol. I went hiking today in Bavaria at freezing temperatures; the max temperatures still hit the double digits in Bozen. That’s maybe not even real winter cycling. But then again, it is. Days are short and max temperature arrive late and last not for long.
I’m writing this post as a suggestion for all those cyclists who will be in and around Bozen for skiing holidays. Hence, to be clear: I do not suggest Bozen as a training camp during winter. That just doesn’t make any sense. But if you’re in the area and one week off cycling is too much: here you go. Other than that, this might inspire you to think about winter cycling where you live. Unless you’re living in an area with permanent snow, e.g. Canada.
A little bit of background: last winter, we had an apartment right in the historic center of Bozen. In fact, I also spent New Year’s in town, looking forward to fireworks over the backdrop of the mountains. That didn’t go too well, since there are no fireworks in Bozen. I did a lot of cross-country skiing and cycled only indoors on Zwift. Already in January I felt I had seen enough of Watopia, so in February I decided to take the bike along for one weekend. As I rode through the naked vineyards, where the leafless plants reached far above line of view, I was wondering if the views were actually better now in winter.
In Bozen’s winter I get to exploit the unique geographic situation. Bozen itself is surrounded by steep rising mountains. Very fast, you gain 1,000m elevation. Bozen itself instead has an altitude of only 300m above sea-level. Even North of the Alps, that’s usually way too low to maintain snow all over winter. So typically you get a situation like this: in Bozen it’s between 5 and 10 degrees (Celsius), while it’s -2 to 2 degrees in the skiing areas higher up. Also, Bozen sits at the widest opening of an unusually wide Alpine valley. The ground of the valley is mostly flattish, but then there’s a hill area just 10km away which you can use to train your climbing legs. I have also mentioned the wine already. Now, this is not hillside wine, but valley wine. In order to access the grapes, farmers use a network of (mostly) paved and (partly) unpaved roads. That opens flexibility for cyclists. I’m not yet considering that there is also a vast network of protected bike lanes due to the popularity of the area for cycling holidays in Summer. Finally, I should mentione the wine again: no wine without a good amount of sun. Bozen has among the highest number of sunny hours all over the Alps. There’s more sun than even in Milan, which more frequently finds itself under a layer of smog-fog. Even on rainy days, Bozen tends to have less rain than the surrounding mountains, because they effectively shield the city.
Put short, you get a nice mix of easy and challenging roads in front of a great panorama. Streets are well-maintained and the weather usually offers riding-friendly conditions. To support my point, here’s a video of two days of riding out of Bozen from last winter.
I finished my season in November 2017 with two rides in Bozen. I then added three rides in February 2018. Here is what I take away from this exercise: training on Zwift will give you good legs. However, no matter how much they invest into simulating reality: there is no equivalent to actually riding on mountain roads. The most obvious difference is in riding the downhills. In Zwift, you’ll pedal or not. Either way, you reach the bottom of the climb. In reality, you got to steer your bike. You don’t forget the how-to, but you get less used to it over winter. In other years, I’d need a little bit until I had restored my confidence on steep or technical downhills. Winter cycling allowed me to retain these skills. And then there’s looking back. There’s no looking back on Zwift. Sure, you can change the camera angle, but this doesn’t trigger the same perception of nature as turning around your head. From these five rides, I kept much more peripheral awareness on the road. Big effect on enjoyment. Very likely it also added again to skills and safety.
So far so good. I’m now adding a brief section on the gear I use. Then, I’m going to list the five rides which I did with a little comment on each of them. These rides demonstrate the diversity of winter cycling in Bozen. They also highlight the little things you need to pay attention to.
We can skip the bike. I don’t have a specific winter bike and I don’t put special winter tires on my wheels. It’s all about clothing. At maximum temperatures in the valley below 10 degrees, I will switch to long baselayers and a long winter jersey. It’s on the warmish side for me in the valley itself, but adds some buffer for the more wind-exposed and more elevated bits of a ride. I will certainly also take a buff to protect my throat and lungs. I’ll breath heavy at times going uphill. In those moments, the buff just provides some comfort. I protect my ears with a normal under-helmet cap. Mine is from Castelli.
Dressed up with long clothing, cap, and buff, I can go all the way down to roundabout 0 degrees. However, there’s three different levels of gloves I’d use: (1) wind-proof, yet thin gloves for between 5 and 10 degrees, (2) wind-proof, thick gloves for between 0 and 5 degrees, (3) thin back-up liner gloves to wear underneath the thin wind-proof gloves on rides where I anticipate to ride sufficiently much in either temperature range. This third combination will obstruct me from giving input to the mobile phone.
My weak spot are my feet. I do not have winter shoes. Instead, I have neoprene toe cover. They help the tiniest bit. I use thicker socks (and therefore the aging, more spacious shoes instead of the new ones). That helps for some distance. Winter shoes would be a great idea. I can go without, but I’m commonly not too sensitive to cold temperatures. Ask the pancake who really wears my jacket when we’re out together.
Ride 1: A trip to Meran
Meran and Bozen are just 30km apart from each other. There is bike trail, perfectly paved, which connects both cities. On top of that, a street connects the villages on the Easern side of the valley, and paved paths lead through the vineyards on the Western side. On my own ride, wanted to use the bike trail for returning to Bozen. That didn’t work all the way due to renovation works. The normal street can be busy at times, but it’s not during the weekend in winter.
My route also includes two kilometers of gravel. Those were tricky, as they were sitting in the shade on the Western side. Bits of frozen snow and ice forced me to slow down. If I were to re-do the trip, I’d take the normal road rather than this off-grid way. No detour necessary: it runs basically parallel. It’s a rather calm road anyways during off-season weekends.
My personal highlight of this trip is the ascent to the Tyrol castle. Skip that if the legs don’t want to climb. However, a sunny winter day is actually the perfect moment to tackle this climb. In summer, too many hikers would obstruct the climbing. Officially, they don’t allow bikes to go up there. Yet, nobody checks or cares. In exchange, near the top the climb offers one of South Tyrol’s most impressive panorama views. The valley opens wide to the South.
Ride 2: A secret road at the lakes of Montiggl
Montiggl is a small village on top of the hills next to Bozen. Other villages on these hills are Kaltern (Caldaro) and Eppan (Appiano) which are arguable more famous for all the wines they cultivate. Montiggl, however, sits on top. A wide road leads up here and in summer it’s full with people that want to take a swim. No one is here in winter. I also figured that there is a second paved road. Cars are not allowed, but cyclists can take it. It’s hidden and there are no signs. It’s also much steeper than the main road. However, this little secret connects Montiggl directly with the lake of Kaltern. That one is South Tyrol’s warmest lake, but I advice on not to test that during winter.
From the lake of Kaltern, I next reached Tramin. The grapes of Gewürztraminer originate from here and to this day it’s the main variety of wine that they cultivate. I had two climbs left. For both I simply left the quiet main road and cycled up to some isolated communities. Then I rode down again another side. Those streets tend to be narrow, fitting maybe two Fiat Panda passing each other. I figured I should be careful. Also, as those extra climbs can be very steep, you should expect some road dirt: When snow falls, they need to provide grip to cars, but they won’t clean it away until spring.
You can go South as much as you want. I turned around at the Southern border of South Tyrol and took the bike trail back.
Ride 3: A steep ramp at the lake of Kaltern
I rode two hills on this ride. The first seems the more substantial one. but it’s not. It’s about 3.7km at 5% from Auer/Ora to Montan. Had I continued on this road for another kilometer, I had reached the most panoramic switchback turn in all of South Tyrol. However, traffic can be a factor on that road. It will be before 10.30, when everyone drives for skiing, and after 15.30, when everyone returns. During weekdays, trucks will also frequent the road. On Sundays over lunch, the road is fine to use.
Actually, I’ve found that many streets with a terrible reputation for traffic are not all that bad. Often it’s enough to find the right day, time, and direction. Sometimes I’ve figured that while I was going in the wrong direction at the wrong time.
This ride like most features a second climb, starting at the lake of Kaltern. The Passo Muck is only 1.9km. Gradients of 8% on average don’t seem that bad. Still, cows drown in lakes that are on average 1m deep. Basically, it’s two ramps with gradients at or above 10% – they reach 15% in the second ramp. You don’t actually need to ride over it. There’s a simple detour of about 5km through flat terrain.
Back to Bozen on the bike trail.
Ride 4: A ride through an old railway tunnel
Atjust above 30km, that’s the shortest loop. Many variations are possible. I followed quiet roads out of town, then entered the bike trail till about the first opportunity that would allow me to cross the river. I was heading for Eppan/Appiano and climbed up through a beautiful semi-circular valley, surrounded by vineyards and castles. It’s one of the quieter roads leading up to Eppan, but the bike trail that I used in ride 2 would be less steep than this one.
I thought about taking the bike trail down all the way, but then found another incognito street to some little village. The quality of maintenance of the roads in South Tyrol definitely helps to enjoy all of these. Cracks and potholes are rare. They are just not always very wide. This one was. I took some speed and eventually merged into the bike trail. That bike trail runs on an old tram line. It’s wide and slopes are gentle. An old railway tunnel adds a special flavor.
Don’t underestimate the false flat that you’re facing when cycling into Bozen. Oh, and sorry for the lack of a picture. The day was ending fast and I wanted to finish before dark.
Ride 5: A little bit more South, a little bit more up
It was February 24th when I did this trip and I got very warm. The temperatures rose up to 15°C in the valley. The contrast was full fifteen degrees to one week earlier when I had visited Lago di Resia for cross-country skiing. I took this as an opportunity to get higher up to 950m at max. Starting the climb in Trento at an altitude of just 200m, that was half of the total climbing which I did on that day.
This ride didn’t start in Bozen. I had a car available and I had never been by bike in that area, so moved 50km South to Mezzocorona in Trentino. Temperatures were still fresh in the shadow as I started and I first headed North against the wind. Note that this valley almost always has wind. From Meran to Bozen to Trentino to Verona it will blow from the North in the morning. At lunch, things turn around. That was the main reason as to why I had started at the Northern end of the ride. Nice thinking. Incomplete thinking in this case.
I used the bike trail to reach Trentino. Basically, the normal roads are good alternatives between Bozen and Mezzocorona. As of a few kilometers South of Mezzocorona, the valley gets a tiny bit narrower; more importantly it’s more densely populated. As a result, the roads in the flat part of the valley carry more traffic. As its Trentino, not South Tyrol, farmers paved fewer of the vineyard trails. The bike trail itself misses a bridge at some point (it has never been built and implies a detour of about 5km). Still follow it: all alternative routes in the valley meet at a busy road.
On the climbs, I figured that it might have been better to ride the other way around. I rode up both mountains from the South. Being in the sun, I got almost too warm. More importantly, I rode down through the shades of the forest. Here, left-over snow was still melting at the very top. I’ve had descents on which I felt safer, I’d say. On the other hand, riding the climbs later in the day gave me warmer temperatures on the top. Hence, if I were to do it again, I’d start in Trento, ignore the wind and ride to Mezzocorona, turn around and tackle the climbs.