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GANDIA, Spain (VN) — Anton Palzer rocked up to the start line at the Vuelta a España in this bustling beach town with beads of sweat trickling off his brow, and he couldn’t be happier.
The 28-year-old German is used to a more chilled atmosphere, as in snow, ice, and altitude.
The 90-degree-plus heat and a peloton of nearly 200 of the world’s best cyclists reveal just how far the former ski mountaineer has come in a very short time.
“Four months ago I was still a ski mountaineering athlete, and now I am riding in a grand tour,” Palzer told VeloNews. “It’s an adventure. Let’s see how it turns out.”
Also read: Bora-Hansgrohe signs Anton Palzer
Palzer might not be recognized in his road racing kit, but the wire-bound German is renowned within the world of ski mountaineering and mountain endurance running.
So much so, sports marketing behemoth Red Bull is one of his backers.
After a decade of lighting up the world of “SkiMo,” capped by a closet full of World Cup and world championship trophies, Palzer is pedaling into unknown terrain.
Before 2021, he’d never raced in a major international road race. Now he’s halfway through the Vuelta a España.
“So far, things are going pretty good,” Palzer told VeloNews. “It’s important to go step by step, and take the process as it comes to me.”
Palzer is used to climbing mountains, yet his transition from a snow-bound athlete to a professional cyclist could be his toughest challenge yet.
From mountain trails to paved roads
Palzer is the latest cross-discipline elite athlete trying to elbow his way into cycling.
Transferring skills from one sport into another is never easy. Having a huge engine helps — Palzer reportedly tested his VO2max at 92, according to reports in the German media — but it’s quite something else to handle the argy-bargy of racing flat-out at 50kph on open roads in a peloton of 185 riders.
Palzer’s left arm and knee were wrapped in bandages and gauze from a crash on oil-slick roads in a roundabout when VeloNews checked in with him a few days ago.
Keeping rubber down is essential to any pro, and Palzer is slowly learning the tricks of the trade.
“When you crash in ski mountaineering, you normally break a leg — now it’s only skin,” he said with a laugh. “For sure, it’s pretty painful. It’s all new for me. It’s completely OK. I think I will survive.”
Palzer’s mission in this Vuelta is to survive as long as he can. He rode in with the gruppetto in Sunday’s summit finish at Alto de Velefique, the hardest climb so far in the Vuelta.
The rest day will come at a good moment for his ongoing transition from ski mountain and mountain endurance runner to professional cyclist.
One mountain at a time.
“It’s not so easy for me. The fitness level is good, but in cycling, every day you need to pull, and there’s nothing in ski mountaineering that is similar,” Palzer said. “Normally we race two or three races in a weekend, now it’s the seventh stage and more days to come.”
Despite being one of the world’s best ski mountaineers — a unique discipline of climbing up mountains and then skiing down them — Palzer was ready for a new challenge.
At 28, he’d done all he could in the niche sport and was always drawn to cycling, though he never raced at any formal level.
He’s completely turned the page, and totally committed to this new challenge.
“For training, I will still do some ski mountaineering in the winter, but I will stop the competition, because I want to become a really good cyclist, and I need some time,” Palzer explained. “I have decided to completely focus on the bike, so we will see how long this project will take.”
Latest cross-over athlete trying their luck
Swapping out one sport for another is nothing new in cycling.
The peloton’s history is full of speed skaters, runners, Nordic skiers, and rowers who’ve transitioned from one discipline to another.
Eric Heiden and Connie Carpenter-Phinney moved from the ice rinks to roads in the 1970s and 1980s, just as Michael Woods swapped out running shoes as a middle-distance runner to racing cleats, and Primož Roglič leaped from ski-jumping to racing in today’s peloton.
Palzer’s move from ski mountaineering and trail running seems to be a first. After nine years as a pro ski mountaineer, he simply decided it was time for a change.
“I was tired of always doing the same, so I decided to try and see what can come in the future,” he said.
A scan at Palzer’s social media reveals he’s not shy from taking risks. A link on Red Bull reveals him running across a highly exposed ridge-line in the German Alps.
Yet the challenge of racing a bike is something completely different.
Contacts via his friend, Bora-Hansgrohe rider Lukas Pöstlberger, who linked him up with team coach Helmut Dollinger in 2020. That opened a door with conversations with team boss Ralph Denk, who invited Palzer to a team training camp a few years ago.
Palzer didn’t go then, but stayed in touch with Denk and began working with Dollinger. After some impressive testing numbers, Palzer watched in awe as German rider Emanuel Buchmann ride to fourth overall in the 2019 Tour de France.
The racing bug was firmly implanted.
“He’s a young guy like me, and I think the dream started there and it became big for me,” Palzer said of Buchmann. “It’s a dream that at first seems impossible. It was no option to go on a smaller team because I had sponsors in ski mountaineering. I got an offer from Ralph Denk because I had asked his coach if he could be my coach. Then he had to see if I could ride a bike.”
Therein lies the rub.
It’s one thing to post huge power numbers on a stationary bike in a lab, but quite something else to finish a race anywhere near the front of the bunch in something as grueling as the Vuelta a España.
The high-altitude endurance sport helped hone his fitness and natural-born motor. Now it’s about honing his bike-handling skills and racing acumen.
“The most challenging thing is at the start or the end to have a good position because we ride so close with really high speed,” Palzer said. “Sometimes it is super-stressful for me, but for sure, at my first bike races in April, it was hard. I went to the Tour de Suisse, it was super-hard. Now I am here, and it is getting better.”
Dreaming of climbing mountains on two wheels
At 5-foot-8 and 135lbs, Palzer certainly has the look of a pro racer.
One thing that stands out is his Red Bull-sponsored helmet, providing a telling clue that something is very different about Palzer than the typical first-year, grand tour rookie.
Born and raised in Ramsau bei Berchtesgaden along the German/Austrian border, Palzer was one of the best in the world at skiing and running up icy, vertical faces of Europe’s biggest mountains.
Now he’s dreaming of racing up them on two wheels.
The ultimate goal? Reach the Tour de France, and perhaps translate his innate watts-producing engine into a successful bike-racing machine.
“Ski mountaineering is a winter sport, and you use different muscles,” he said.
Right now, he’s hoping to make it to Galicia for the final stages of the Vuelta. One step at a time.
“Crashing is part of the game. I also had crashes as a ski mountaineering athlete. I hope to survive these next few days,” he said. “The Vuelta is still hard for me, but it’s part of the process. I knew this project would not be easy. Step by step.”
Just like climbing a mountain.