The Powder Snow Of Austrian Summer

Unlike Skiing, Staying on Your Bike is Paramount To the Enjoyment on the Mecca of Single Bike Tracks

On The Town | Christian Cummins | September 2008

Snaking up and around the Hahnenkamm mountain (Photo: Christian Cummins)

According to that fountain of knowledge, "single-track" is a term used to describe a trail that is only wide enough "for one person or mountain biker at a time." My friend Jon has a more blunt definition: "Single-track," he told me, "is the bomb, man."

But until recently, it was also a world that had been closed to me. True, for years I’ve been addicted to watching the spectacular free-ride mountain biking pictures and videos on YouTube. The videos speak of freedom and self-expression and fun. On rainy days in the office, they whisper at me incessantly and seductively.

But I’m a coward of almost epic magnitude. For years those murmurs have been sternly blocked out - silenced by an instinct generated somewhere deep in my cycling shorts. Even in my Vienna Woods training ground, you could always tell when I was coming along the narrower, steeper tracks by the acrid smell of my burning brake fluid.

No longer I tell you! I am now a single-track rocker. It’s amazing what a single lesson can do.

My quest began this month in the Kitzbühel Alps, as my bike and I bounced down over rocks, slippery mud and exposed roots on a narrow, rutted footpath that snaked left and right through the undergrowth, deviating suddenly to avoid large trees. Every now and then I slipped into a rivulet that had been caused by a violent thunder-shower the night before, and my bike would pitch forwards, then backwards, like a small boat in a storm.

When I reached the safety of the valley, three things surprised me:

1) My bike was still in one piece.

2) I was still in one piece.

3) I had enjoyed myself and was sad it was over.

The first mystery can be explained by the rather nifty bike I was riding. Made by the German manufacturer Ghost, it was an extremely solid, full-suspension, carbon-framed little number - a sort of pedal-powered Toyota Land Cruiser.

The other two even more mystifying points are explained by my enrollment in the Bike Academy in Kirchberg in Tirol - established in 1999 – which claims to be Austria’s first school for mountain bikers.

On my first day in the Tyrol, the Academy’s energetic founder and owner, Kurt Exenberger - the coach of Austria’s young Beijing Olympic mountain biker Lisi Osl - had lent me the impressive Ghost bike, and entrusted me to the care of his girlfriend and fellow guide Karin, a blonde and horribly fit-looking Kirchdorf local with one of those easy, fearless smiles that strike the fear of God into all cowards like myself.

"Don’t worry!" Kurt called after us, as I pedaled off nervously in her company, "We always take special care of the guys we lent the expensive bikes!" I wasn’t reassured. I’d already heard the phrase ‘crash course’ mentioned.

After picking up a pair of fellow pupils in neighbouring Kitzbühel, two lads from northern England who said that the Alps were the European "Mecca of Single-track", we sweated and panted our way up a forest track snaking up around the Hahnenkamm mountain.

At the top, as we slurped down some "strengthening" dumpling soup in a mountain hut, and as I considered then reconsidered ordering a quick glass of Dutch courage, Karin gave us a brief reminder of the rudimentary elements of downhill survival. You have to keep your weight well distributed, which means keeping your pedals in a stable horizontal line and your centre of gravity over the crank of the pedals. This basically means you should lean slightly back rather than forward while maintaining enough pressure on the handlebars to keep the front wheel under control if you hit an unexpected bump.

With your saddle lowered to give you maximum space and your arms pretty much stretched out in front, you look rather like a racehorse jockey, but when you hit the roots and your bike starts bucking, you’ll feel more like buckeye at a rodeo. When slowing, you should apply pressure evenly with your front and back brakes, and don’t get too overenthusiastic with the latter, or your rear wheel will slake all over the loose ground. With that, we were off.

The descent provides an adrenaline kick of the first order, of course, but the experience can’t be reduced to a mere hormone injection. In all, I spent three days in the Kitzbühel Alps, trying out ever more challenging trails with different guides. Sometimes we had to climb our way over barbed wire fences; sometimes we had to carry our bikes on our shoulders as we picked our way across mountain streams, past waterfalls and through rocky ravines. Sometimes we rode through tunnels of trees so thick that the daylight was almost entirely shut out and where the ground was still moist and treacherously slippery from the recent rain. Alone it might have been a nightmare, with a guide it was three days of adventure. Extreme scouting, to say the least.

Kurt Exenberger told me that many people around Kitzbühel laughed at him when he set up his Bike Academy.

"Everyone knows how to ride a bike!" they scorned. But Kurt had seen how his friends were giving up on single-track mountain biking because they were crashing so often that it was no longer fun. "I was enjoying it so much myself," he remembered, "and I wanted to share that feeling. The only way was to show people how to ride without crashing!"

Unlike skiers, who can afford the odd tumble with their soft snow, mountain bikers are pretty much guaranteed a hard landing on rocks and roots. Even at the relatively slow speeds mostly associated single-track biking, that will hurt. So staying on your bike is paramount to the enjoyment.

There are three levels of daily tours (easy, medium and ‘extreme’) at Kirchberg. But you can also opt to stay in the valley and work on your technique with an instructor. That option makes Kurt’s Bike Academy unique in Austria.

But is single-track a guilty pleasure? Mountain bikers have often been blamed for cutting up the trails; Kurt says this is unfair, and recent studies have shown that hikers cause more erosion than mountain bikes. The environmental impact can also be greatly reduced by not riding on muddy or sensitive trails, not skidding or locking the rear wheel when braking and simply by staying on the trail.

Meanwhile, the conflicts between hikers (looking for some peace and quiet) and mountain bikers (looking for a buzz) do still exist; but they are becoming less common. As the sport has boomed, the acceptance has also grown. Hikers are more likely than ten years ago to step aside to let a biker past, and today’s mountain bikers are more likely than the sport’s rowdy pioneers to slow down or even step off their bikes for pedestrians.

It’s also a good idea to give the hikers a grin, of course. Which is not hard, when you’re already smiling from your stomach upwards. Jon was right - single-track is the bomb.

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