Wednesday 18 June 2014

In Velo Veritas: A Retro-Ride in Austria's Weinviertel

Arriving in Berlin years ago I was bemused to discover there were Austrian restaurants, which were perceived as foreign and exotic by the German locals, themselves no strangers to permutations of Schnitzel. But the Austrians were seen as having a lighter touch, possessing a flair with diverse ingredients and spicing it all with a knowing, sly humour.

A few years ago Horst Watzl and fellow enthusiasts Martin and Michl, admittedly inspired by Tuscany's great L'Eroica retro-ride, felt that that own country offered many of the same features that made the Italian ride so wildly popular: superb tarred roads; bad gravel roads; the odd cobblestone and nasty climb; and really excellent wine and food. Test runs were carried out with increasingly large groups until the first In Velo Veritas (IVV) was officially run in 2013, attracting 291 cyclists on old steel bicycles from 14 countries.  Here is a video of the 2013 event:

News of the event spread and in 2014 well over 400 cyclists, representing 17 nationalities, came to ride one of three courses: the Epic (210 km); the Ambitious (140 km); and the Pleasurable (70 km). The majority of the riders are local but 40% make the trip from Germany.

The event is spread over two days on a June weekend. On Saturday registration was set up and the area around Korneuburg's Hapsburgian Rathaus on the Hauptplatz was given over to the arrival of cyclists, who came not only to sign in and get their numbers but also to look at the Flea Market, check out the display of some of the truly ancient bicycles brought over from the Bicycle Museum in Retz, enjoy an Eiskaffee in the afternoon sunshine the adjacent café, chat with other cyclists and admire a lot of cool racing bikes.

The rules are straightforward: you need a pre-1987 classic racing bicycle with downtube shifters and pedals with toeclips and straps. My participation was with my glorious 1975 Rickert Spezial built in his Dortmund workshop by the great Hugo Rickert with classic Reynolds 531 tubing, a SunTour Cyclone drivetrain and with slightly shakey pinstriping applied by Frau Rickert. I really need to do a post about Rickert's bicycles.  And “a suitable outfit for the riders would be very much appreciated” which meant wool jerseys for sure.  So I had my favourite RSV Vagabund '13 jersey to show off.

Besides the usual Colnagos and Peugeots one sees at these events there were there were many interesting Austrian bicycles—Puch, Austro-Daimler, Select, RIH and Steinmayr. (For more about Austrian bicycles, check out my review of a book about them here .) One of the unusual twists of this event is that you are photographed on Saturday in a “before” photo and then again on Sunday in an “after” version as the organizers were hoping for the gaunt and sweaty style of true “convicts of the road.”

At 4 pm the cyclists present were organized into the In Velo Veritas prologue and the group of about forty happy riders churned off westwards and soon reached the mighty Danube, A wide bikepath brought us along the river for 8 kms before turning northwards at Stockerau where we began what was first a rather gradual climb that became progressively steeper until it topped out at Km 21.6. A super-fast downhill came next, accompanied by the usual squealing of ineffective vintage brake blocks and we continued downhill more or less until we returned to the Hauptplatz after riding 32 kms in all, with a gain of 270 m. Time for dinner!

At our table was the Guest of Honour, former pro Rudi Mitteregger, a Very Cool Guy. Three-time winner of the Tour of Austria and an unmatched quadruple winner of the King of the Grossglockner competition, Herr Mitteregger is a very very fit 70 years old and he rode the prologue with us on his newly-restored green and white Puch bicycle. One of Austria's cycling legends, he is famous for a quote when leading the 1974 Tour of Austria he was left holding a wheel at the side of the ride when his team car was nowhere to be seen and shouted (in enraged and frustrated Austrian dialect): “Where are the monkeys? Still at the start?” He lost the stage but won the overall and immortality.

After dinner he took the stage for a Q&A and showed himself to be a gracious and entertaining speaker. A highlight had to be the arrival of a bike collector with one of Rudi's old Tour of Austria bikes, a silver Select (actually a relabelled Alan from Italy). It was carefully researched and restored and Herr Mitteregger enthusiastically agreed to sign it. And the very fit Austrian ace was looking forward to the 70 km ride the next day which was appropriate given his age!

Also at the dinner table was Hannes Weitscheider who is the manager of the Weinviertel tourism agency and he explained to us how his organization has been keen to work with IVV to develop the entire program to encourage visitors to come to the region. The routes were chosen to highlight the lovely scenery of rolling landscapes, historic small towns and villages and impressive castles but also to show off local products, of which wine was the most obvious but not the only one by far.

The evening program ended with the showing of a 15 minute experimental video, “In Velo Veritas,” which was shot on 16 mm film last year by filmmakers Milena Krobath and Johannes Schrems. Accompanied by the sounds of spinning spokes only, the video was in black and white and sepia and reversed images and had a timeless if fey quality.

Sunday and time to get serious, although I had plenty of time for breakfast.  Startlingly, someone in my little B&B at the next table recognized me from "Travels with a Tin Donkey," the first time this has ever happened.  A thrill to start the day!

The Epic riders had already assembled and ridden off from the Hauptmarkt at 6:00 am and headed northwards on a route that would take them into Moravia and the Czech Republic. The more modest Ambitious riders set out en masse at 08:00 am in what was claimed to be a neutral start but some of the more antsy riders were pushing the pace. The Rickert began to shift strangely as we almost immediately began to climb but the real problem was when we reached Stetten 13 kms into the ride and suddenly turned onto a “Weingasse.” This is a unique feature of the Weinviertel, an alley of small buildings that are used by vintners to store wine but also are opened up to serve wine and simple food during special events. The Weingasse in Stetten was paved with flat stones with surprisingly big gaps between them packed with earth. This was very difficult to ride and not helped by the steepness of the grade. But we pulled through and we rewarded with, oops, another long climb but one on dirt and gravel tractor path before a nice descent on smooth asphalt to Grossrussbach and the first control point at Km 37.

This had to be one of the highlights of the day. Unlike the usual organized long-distance rides where you can really only expect some bananas, energy bars and fluids, we found ourselves in a real restaurant. There was a fantastic variety of food, from three different soups to cakes, all-natural apple cider and grape juice, fruits and hot savoury strudel, either spinach or meat. Little signs explained where the products originated: for example, the milk for the coffee came from a particularly family farm.

We all sat together in the shady garden enjoying ourselves but eventually realized we had to go or else explain to friends how we had gained so much weight on a single ride. And in the parking lot was stationed a friendly mechanic, a cheerful Berliner, who put the Rickert shifting to rights in about 30 seconds. So no excuses now!

We had a bit of a laugh that the next control/food stop was only 15 kms away but laughed a bit less when we began to feel the effects of a headwind, coupled with a gradual but relentless climb. A very cool thing was crossing railway tracks and seeing four people using a draisine, a self-propelled railcar named after but not invented by Baron Drais, the generally accredited inventor of the bicycle.

We rode by the first castle of the tour, Schloss Niederleis, which dated back to the 12th Century but had seen a number of reconstructions due to war and fashion and even served the Russian occupation administration from 1948-1955. But we were now climbing more steeply.

Some hard turns and we found ourselves, breathless, at the highest point in the Weinviertel, the Buschberg, which towers, relatively, 491 m ASL. The hut where we had our cards stamps and enjoyed a cold drink is the lowest-situated mountain hut maintained by the Austrian Alpine Club at 484 m.

Blasting down the descent of the Buschberg at 70 km/h with not-so-useful brakes was fun on the superb road and we rode through the green and lush landscape into the northwest headwind. But the sun was shining and we were having a great time. We passed another Weingasse near Mailberg, the third for the day and thankfully not involving cobblestones before pulling up to control point No.3, Schloss Mailberg at Km 78.

This castle has been owned by the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta since 1146 and, like most castles, has had many periods of reconstruction following numerous wars. It presently is an impressive hotel and we were treated to soup, yogurt and juice or, for those indulging, wine. We were joined now by the Epic riders heading on their way back and coming to Mailberg for a second time on their loop.

We had more climbing and descending, with not much of the hoped-for tailwind as we also turned back on our loop and by the time we returned to Grossrussbach at Km 114 the Rickert rider was feeling a bit rickety. We had already reached the amount of climbing claimed by the organizers for the whole route but fortifying ourselves with coffee and cake we attacked the last 30 kms of our route.

The organizers clearly had not wanted us to miss any chance to do more climbing before we saw a road sign showing the way to Korneuburg was only11 km. Of course our route took us a different way as we needed to ride another long stretch of gravel and then a nasty short climb of perhaps 16% grade through what appeared to be someone's backyard—oh! It was a backyard! Wrong direction! Finding the correct 16% section took us over the top and now, mercifully, we were on the main road from Leobendorf for a fast, flat straight-in ride back to the Hauptmarkt.

Greeting joyfully by those who had arrived before, we happily if sweatily posed for our portraits before receiving a bag which had lots of printed material (promos for retro-rides in Italy, a very good Austrian bike advocacy magazine, bike route maps, tourism information and a nice certificate personally signed by organizer Horst Watzl, the Mayor of Korneuburg and Rudi Metteregger) but, most thrillingly, a bottle of local white wine which made up for the fact that the promised 1400 m of climbing were more like 1800 m. 


We had had beautiful weather, fine roads with little traffic, great company and the Austrians are even organized enough that you can take a shower at the end before heading for home. The small team that runs the event has built a total package in a remarkably short time, with community buy-in, enthusiastic sponsors, professional graphics and a useful website. If you register early enough you can enjoy Horst's entertaining build-up e-mail newsletters. They ignored their own rules (no mechanical check to see if you had spare tubes, or time stamp at the controls) because, well, somethings are less important. One had the sense that everyone was there to have fun. The organizers are aware of the dangers of letting an event get too big and lose its charm but I don't think there is much risk of that at IVV.

Getting to Korneuburg and the Weinviertel from Vienna is very easy (almost a suburb of the capital) and for those planning to visit there are excellent wines to sample and a whole range of events around them—even for children! Of course, the area is rich in history and lovely architecture and there is a whole lot more than schnitzel and strudel so be prepared to be charmed at one of the best retro-rides yet.

Riding with my new friend Bernd
For more information, go to The attractive website is multilingual.

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