What do champagne bottles and gravel bikes have in common? This question was apparently asked by the makers of the international Jeroboam series. An event was born whose distances are based on the containers of the sparkling grape juice: Jeroboam is a 3-litre bottle and means a distance of 300 kilometres (with a crisp 7000 metres of altitude) for the riders, Magnum is 150 kilometres and Classic is the classic 75-kilometre bottle.
For a few years now, the series has also been stopping in Austria, more precisely in the idyllic south. Velden on Lake Wörthersee is just before the Italian border and close to the border triangle – so on the longest distance it is compulsory to carry an ID card, because here not only personal but also physical borders are crossed.
For me, a regular gravel rider since winter 2018/19, it was supposed to be a more leisurely day. Until the end, I was unsure whether I would choose the Magnum or Classic route. The weather in Carinthia can be really nasty at the beginning of October and my technical skills on trails in general – and especially wet, muddy trails – are really in need of improvement. And I’ve never managed more than 100 kilometres and a four-digit number of metres in altitude on a gravel bike.
What’s more, there’s no classification, at most the one that’s about the most fun and the funniest group. But let’s be honest: for 75 kilometres of cycling, four hours on the track is a bit disproportionate, and so the night before I got my seven things ready for 150 kilometres and 2,400 metres of altitude!
After it had been pouring down for the last two days, we were greeted at the start by wet asphalt, lots of fog and a fantastic weather report – no sarcasm! While the 300-kilometre starters had already been on the course since Thursday and Friday respectively, and some of them had already surrendered, we rolled off at 8am.
At first the route led over asphalt and picturesque forest roads to Villach! After every bend, more “gravel-porn” awaited us – those perfect paths where the line is just perfectly clear and the gravel never too loose. But also some roads – according to Garmin and Komoot – but which were just flat ridden clay.
I first thought of a construction site, but no, the locals enlightened me: this is a real road! Here, for the first time, I had to put a fair amount of trust in my choice of tyres (but more on that later), but all went well and I was rewarded after the highest point of the event with a hole in the clouds. And the priceless view of Lake Ossiach on a calm Saturday morning.
After the gravel descent to Villach (“Please don’t die! Please don’t die!”), the route took us along the Gail to Nötsch. Along the imposing slopes of the Dobratsch, which we would climb later. Here the route was flat and apart from the railway line towards Fürnitz and the impressive water masses, there was not too much variety here, so we use these almost 30 kilometres of gravel for a big compliment to those who scouted the routes.
In Austria, there is an advertising campaign by the former tourism minister “You like it, bike it!” – which simply does not correspond to reality at all. On very many forest roads, “biking” is strictly forbidden and disputes with foresters and owners are the order of the day. To find such a beautiful, rideable route with so much gravel, which is also (almost entirely) legal, borders on madness. And yet that is exactly what the organisers have achieved!
But all the other things that are important to us gravel bikers were also thought of: in Nötsch, a long-established bakery with a picturesque garden was waiting to hand us the last apple pie, Linzer tartlets and foam rolls. Immediately afterwards, we headed towards Bleiberg for the climb up the Dobratsch. And OUCH. It was steep and relentless.
Just like my freshly serviced gears, which suddenly stole the two easiest gears from me. Great idea, the super finely graduated gravel groupsets that whistle out of the last hole at the slightest grain of sand.
Speaking of the last hole: I was now whistling out of it too, but luckily the nice group and the view cheered me up! After an announced pushing passage and a nasty trail along a mountain slope, I was finally back at almost 1000 metres above sea level.
I cursed a few times: 40 millimetre wide tyres with a light gravel tread (Tufo Gravel Thundero and Conti Terra Speed) with inner tube offer a little less comfort and safety than some other riders enjoyed on their MTB-like tyres.
The ground was saturated with rain and we repeatedly rode through small rivulets. Nothing dramatic really but something that can push a weekend warrior to the limits of his confidence on the bike! And oh yes: 3500 calories were already burnt and I started refuelling far too late. The classic.
At some point we were there: in front of us was a beautiful up and down along the hamlets. Through pastures and meadows we were gently rocked back into the valley, always in the direction of Villach, through a moor. Finally, near Lake Faak, the second refreshment station was waiting for us.
I didn’t dare try the schnapps, but I did try the venison sausages and other local specialities – including beer. And since it was already after 4 o’clock, I had lost quite a bit of time due to a lack of skills on the route and some of us had no light with us, we decided to introduce a new size of sparkling wine bottle: the 1.25 litre bottle.
We re-planned our route and made our way back to Velden without a detour along the Karawanken. I also got a professional tip: the gravel routes that Komoot suggests are too boring. It would be much better to simply get a route suggestion for MTBs. No sooner said than done!
Our route included another detour to the route of the 1987 UCI Road World Championships and then took us over the most rooted trail of my life. My joke that we were going over the root pass was met with limited amusement by the rest of the group on the rattling bikes with the rattling helmets.
The beauty of the forest we were riding through, however, was breathtaking: from my home trails I am often used to commercial forest that reminds me more of the dark forest in Harry Potter than an idyllic natural spectacle. Not so here!
And then there it was: the road that led us back to Hubertushof and to the delicious finisher’s beer. Later than expected, because I still have a hard time converting from road bike to gravel bike speed. Next year I will start earlier, because I want to take as much time as possible to discover the many small and big highlights of the route!
Yes, I was exhausted, but with Kasnudeln, a thorough shower for my bike and a short refreshment for the rider, the spirits were up again! At the prize-giving ceremony afterwards, I looked into many satisfied faces, listened attentively to the stories of the others and made new friends.
Award ceremony? It wasn’t a race, was it? That’s right, the award went to “Dances with Wolves” – the rider with the shortest bib, who must have rubbed a wolf. Or Steph, who had the longest journey from Seattle.
And if it were up to me, the prizes could be awarded in the same way at many other events – because we riders with bent handlebars like to take ourselves too seriously. Let’s be honest!
Summary Jeroboam: An event that has something in store for everyone, from the organisation to the choice of routes to the community, and guarantees a nice end to the season. And above all, it makes you want to do more!
The motivation that classic road races have not been able to give me lately, I have found again here on the course. Over the winter I will train for all I’m worth! Not faster, further, better. But more courageous, more self-confident, “not clicking out” is the motto – and I am grateful for that. Because if the motivation for the most beautiful hobby in the world is missing, then at some point a piece of yourself is missing. Apparently I had lost it in the forest!
If, after this personal experience report, you now also feel like (re)discovering a piece of yourself on a gravel bike, there is still a Jeroboam in Mallorca at the end of November. And Carinthia is looking forward to welcoming you next autumn with three new routes!
PS: In 2023 Jeroboam Austria will probably take place on 29 and 30 September. Start and finish will again be Velden am Wörthersee.
Thanks to Martin Granadia for many of the great pictures!