Climbing the Austrian Alps

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“No—No! Wrong place!” a European man shouted from his Hyundai window, pointing up the steep incline. We knew we hadn’t seen any other bikers for miles, but we were determined and ignored his admonition. The 35 pounds of equipment strapped to the backs of our bikes made the 19% grade of the third and final Austrian Alp on our trip feel more like 91%. Tacking left and right may not have been the safest way to summit this 20-kilometer behemoth, but—because weight, steepness, and gravity all conspired to lift our front wheels right off the ground—it was the only viable option.

My quads and calves burned with every hard-fought rotation of the gears. I was used to pain. I knew what it felt like to run so hard that I would literally collapse more often than not after crossing the finish line in cross-country races. In the midst of an adrenaline rush, I cared little about having Vocal Chord Dysfunction (VCD), which precluded 40% of the oxygen I breathed from getting to where it needed to go. Agonizing as those races were, this was worse.

Sweat ran down my face and momentarily blinded me as my hands cramped up from squeezing the handlebars so tightly. I knew what it felt like to cramp up, too, from stage fright, as I did before my first...

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