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  • Jamie Shannon

Crossing the Alps and a date with a tooth doctor

You can't cycle over the Alps with a mouth like that!

When I woke the following morning, I had a lump the size of a golf ball in my mouth and I needed to get to dentist rather quickly. When I went downstairs to pay (a prospect I was dreading just a little), I found out that, to my relief, the bill was only 35 euro’s and couldn’t quite believe her when she plonked down the bill in front of me. She didn’t even charge me for the two glasses of soothing whiskey I had drank. When I pulled out my card though, she informed me that it was only possible to pay with cash. I had already loaded up my bicycle and didn’t want to cycle the two km’s uphill into the small village centre before coming back down just to pay and so she said I could just pay the money directly into her bank in the village before continuing on my way. I thought that this was quite trusting of her and so thanked her generously for her help. She really did look after me and I’m still ever so thankful for all she did.

Having made my way to the village of Heilingblut and paid the money into her bank, I asked the man there if he knew of a doctor’s surgery and amazingly said there was one located on the first floor of the building. I wasn’t sure what a doctor could offer in the way of treatment for a tooth but I went up anyway. After examining me, said that under no circumstances, should I try to cycle over the pass. It was just too high and might cause bigger problems with the infection. He gave me some antibiotics and also phoned a dentist in Lienz to arrange an appointment for me, explaining afterwards that I could indeed take the bike on the bus with me.

And so it was that I found myself a half hour later on a bus travelling all the way back the way I had come and onto the small town of Lienz. I found the dentist with relative ease thanks to two German guys and their phone.

When I arrived, the dentist made an incision which hurt like hell as he decided to do so without any pain relief. I’m not ashamed to say two small tears rolled down my cheeks and fell onto my blue bib in the process. With that done, I made an appointment to come back the following morning to have the tooth extracted.

When I left the surgery I just headed in the direction of somewhere that was out of town. I was spitting blood out of my mouth and just wanted to get to some place where I could sit quietly and invisibly. I don’t believe I have ever felt quite so alone as I had at that moment; I had no hotel booked and thus nowhere to go. It’s times like these I think that travelling alone isn’t all I crack it up to be.

After I had sat down and relaxed for a while, I felt well enough to head on out of town and search for somewhere to sleep. I found lots of small cycle paths criss-crossing the forests around the town and so found a reasonably well-hidden place in which to camp and, most importantly, sleep and get some rest. Quite a lot of rest as I fell asleep soon after climbing in my tent.

I went back the following morning and had the tooth extracted which wasn’t as bad as I had expected. Before he began, I asked him how much all the treatment would cost me as I’m obviously not an Austrian citizen. He told me that he was going to ‘pretend’ that I was and that I had Austrian health insurance. It doesn’t get much better than that I thought and was just delighted that I had finally take care of the problem that had been with me for far too long already.

I decided I would just rest for the remainder of the day and travel back to the Heilingblut in the morning. I walked around the compact town centre, had some good but soft food and returned to the forest later where I found a quite brilliant place to camp. I wasn’t in any pain now what with the painkillers I was taking and so had quite a good night’s rest. Something that I was sure I was going to need if I was going to cycle over a 2500m road the next day.

In the morning, I made my way to the bus station and travelled back to Heilingblut, before taking a seat in a small park in the village in order to eat a mighty bowl of porridge and sit quietly for a while, almost delaying the inevitable in a way. I was a little nervous about the task ahead as I didn’t really know what lay in store. I have cycled over mountain passes before but none that were on this scale. It was a mammoth prospect but of course I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. The views along the way would surely make the whole affair worth the gargantuan effort that was required of me.

To get rid of some weight, I went ahead and emptied two of my bottles. I even went so far as to tip away half my sugar and salt along with several other miscellaneous items too. With that done, set off up the winding a steep road into the mountains proper.

I guess it's time to cross the Alps - gulp

Luckily, I had extremely favourable weather conditions which gave me unobstructed views across the surrounding landscape, something that would not have been possible if I had have done this two days before. I won’t go into every detail of the following hours but it’s enough to say that it was quite possibly the hardest physical thing I have ever done in my life. I inched my way along the road by way of cycling slowly, very slowly, interspersed with sporadic bursts of heavy pushing followed by several seconds of heavy breathing and many, many profanities that I won’t go into here. It was hard. It was exhausting and don’t wish to experience it again any time soon. What actually made it even harder, and I never truly understood this until now, was that my heavy breathing was definitely exasperated by the thinness of the air. It was certainly thinner up here and it made my life all the more difficult.

Six pm had come and gone and it was looking increasingly likely that I wouldn’t be able to make the top by the end of the day. This was a fairly alarming prospect as camping at 2000 metre’s filled me with just a touch of anxiety. What if the temperature plunged? What if there was a thunderstorm? More and more scenarios played out in my head as the minutes passed by. I pushed my bike up the final few turns before giving up for the day, scanning the area for a suitable and sheltered place to camp.

I asked somebody on a motorbike how far the top was and with the reply of another 'four steep kilometre’s to go', decided then and there that I could go no longer; my legs felt like jelly and I was hopelessly out of breath and hungry too. I needed to rest and that was the end of it.

I found a walking trail leading off the road and down into the valley at this point and so hauled the bike down with me before finding the safest and least sloping part on which to camp. I collapsed in my tent soon afterwards but with a positive outlook as I was nearly at the top and the morning would see me going down the other side. I couldn’t wait.

As it happened, the weather was extremely kind to me. It didn’t rain, wasn’t windy at all and the temperature stayed above zero. I couldn’t have asked for more. When I did wake up, and upon peering out of my tent, I was astonished to see clear blue skies all around with only a few scattered and faint wispy clouds over some of the mountains in the distance. I was mightily pleased with that too.

I felt refreshed and invigorated and so set off with the hope of reaching the top by ten. I felt full of energy and actually managed to cycle the remaining four km’s all the way to the top, albeit very solely, but I cycled nonetheless.

When I finally reached the summit, I felt an overwhelming surge of emotions; relief, joy, a profound sense of pride and even astonishment at having actually done it, not just on a bike but on a bike with seven bags. Now I really was superman!

After admiring the views and of course having a photo taken, I cycled through a tunnel and on the other side was presented with even grander view. It was ice ridden and desolate with very little or no vegetation present, just rocks and steep cliffs as far as the eye could see. It all looked quite moon like really. I could see the road snaking around the cliffs and then dressed in my warmest clothes before setting back off in what I would undoubtable be a pretty hair razing descent. I checked and re checked my brakes amongst other things and was off with some good tunes to accompany me.

After perhaps just a few km’s of going downhill however, my heart sank rapidly when I realised that the pass I had just climbed wasn’t even the highest one! I couldn’t believe I had to do it again, albeit only another 250 meters but that’s a lot of work nonetheless. The next pass stood at a lofty 2575 metre’s I believe (that’s 8450 feet above sea level if that works better) and was just as steep as the previous one. When I eventually got to the top, it was very crowded with people admiring the amazing views and so I asked one or two of them if this really was the top. To my delight, I was told it was and at the same time, saw the road snaking its way down through the valley. A good verification if ever there was one. Now I could enjoy it!

Cycling down from 2500 metres - a white knuckle ride!

It took me about an hour to descend to the bottom where the first villages were (still 1000 metres above sea level mind) and was just an amazing experience; the views, the speed and adrenaline, it was magnificent. That’s about all I can say without exhausting my limited vocabulary here.

I arrived in Zell am Zee a little later and found a café where I could use the electricity and then made my way out of town - it being Sunday - pretty much everything was closed anyway.

On my way out, my cycling came to an unexpected end when I was presented by a tunnel and was thus informed that it was not intended for my use and so I had to find another way around. Since about halfway through Austria, I had been relying on road signs and helpful people as I had no maps from this point on. I didn’t want to buy anymore since I knew that Germany, Austria and Belgium had excellent road signs and bicycle paths. This though didn’t seem to be the case here so I asked an elderly couple about a road north around the huge obstacle. I didn’t expect them to speak any English and was gearing up for another bout of universally understood sign language. I was quite taken aback then when the gent started speaking very passable English and which incidentally made my life a whole lot easier. I’m very lazy in some respects I guess.

With some sound directions, I found the road I needed with relative ease and continued on my way north and onto Germany. I was going home.

Check out my trip over the Apennines and the Pamirs

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