Erstellt am: 27. 8. 2016 - 09:34 Uhr
From Peak To Creek
There is a thin halo of cloud hanging two thirds up the spectacularly steep-sided Ötztal mountains that tower above Sölden and the sun is glowing on the small hamlets that seem so bravely and perilously perched on a ledge above the village.
Alles außer Nordic Walking
I sit excitedly nervously in a gondola, a newly rented full-suspension mountain bike squeezed into the cabin, knowing that this could be one of my best ever days riding, if only I can summon the courage to enjoy it.
I love mountain biking and I love the thrill of a downhill descent, which is why, as well as my regular rounds in the Vienna Woods, I’m drawn periodically to the high mountains.
Here in Austria there aren’t many mountains higher than those of the Ötz Valley – my choice for the FM4 Draußen summer series “Very Important Platzerl”.
A New Emphasis on Mountain Biking
With winters getting shorter and summers longer, Sölden has warmly embraced mountain-biking in recent times, creating a concept called The Bike Republic Sölden which has involved an intense trail-building programme that has seen almost 3 million euros invested over the past three years.
But Bike Republic Sölden’s Dominic Linser says it is the natural high-Alpine attributes of the area that make it special: “It’s peak to creek. You can plunge down 1400 metres in a single ride.”
I know that ear-popping thrill from skiing these mountains, now I want to experience it on two wheels, lured to this corner of the Alps by Dominik’s seductive promise: “You will have endorphins shooting right through your body. You’ll have a lot of fun and end up with a big smile.”
Losing the Fear
Very Important Platzerl - Die FM4 Draußen Sommerserie
But there has always been a significant problem with my relationship with downhill mountain-biking: I’m not very good at it. Not at all.
Far from ending with a smile, too many of my forays into steep and relentless gradients have often ended with some torn clothing, bloodied knees and dented pride. So this time, in Sölden, I’ve taken a guide to show me how to do it properly - and more importantly how to enjoy it without a harness of fear.
Keeping Things Simple
Extreme environments attract extreme personalities and Kamil Pospisil, who has made the Ötztal his home, rocks up to meet me on a single-gear hard-tail, explaining he likes “to keep things simple.”
The Czech rider, who seems to live entirely off Kaiserschmarrn pancakes and coffee and shares his home with a Husky dog, has completed the world’s toughest mountain bike marathon stage race, the Crocodile Trophy, on his single gear. Before he goes out guiding, he is usually seen shredding Sölden’s steepest slopes at first light.
But with me, thankfully, he is gentle.
The Pump Track
We start with a bit of technical training at a specially built pump-track in the village. There we’re honing the skills I will need up the mountains by riding laps on a purpose-built beginner's track featuring waves and banked corners. There are also a couple of switch-back turns on a low-lying steep mountain meadow to help me build up confidence.
This might sound tedious, but it is what I have always wanted. When I hit the steep slopes skiing, even if I am scared, my body has been conditioned by thousands upon thousands of turns to do the right thing. When biking downhill this is evidently not the case.
So such a practice facility is just the ticket for me. It’s balsam to the soul, when we finally head up, to know at least what I should be doing; so I could relish the gravity rather than fearing it.
The Teäre Trail
The first highlight was a sweeping flow-trail called Teäre, which is apparently Ötztal dialect for stubborn. The trail has been cleared by hand of loose rocks and banked at the sides like a bobsleigh run which makes cornering smooth and easy. I had to concentrate, I felt some welcome adrenaline, but I felt fully in control following the easy pace set by my guide.
"That’s the thing,” said Kamil, “We have flow trails like this and we also have single-trails which are a bit more tricky and a bit more technical. There are plenty of lines to choose. There is something for everyone.”
“Surviving The Wall of Death
Even on one trail there is plenty of variation. We set off over a series of humps called tables, which can either check your speed or get you airborne, entirely depending on your level of ambition, then, with periodically widened gathering points to collect your thoughts and your friends, you continue through seven kilometres of banked curves, wooden bridges and tight serpentines.
One corner is adorned with a steeply banked ramp of wood - known, inaccurately, by me as a “wall of death” which, setting the appropriate pace to guarantee grip, Kamil guides me around.
As I find myself at a 45 degree bobsled angle with the roar of wood under my feet I let out my first whoop of joy of the day – that endorphin rush of pushing your limits and surviving.
The Teäre trail intersects with a jump trail, where the track is rougher and wooden jumps, including some terrifying-looking gap-jumps that have been incorporated into the trail. This is where the more competent and confident can test their limits. Kamil jumps, I take photos.
“You know, it’s not the jumping that is difficult,” he confides, bastardizing a quote from La Haine, “it’s the slowing your paces afterwards.” The momentum gathered after the ramp vertical drop has to be quickly strangled with the next tight corner just ahead. I find it thrilling just to watch - the tantalizing possibility of what you can do on a bike.
These man-made flow-tracks, and, of course, the jumps, are contentious. Should nature in the fragile ecosystems of the Alps be manipulated for our selfish adrenaline fixes?
I suppose it should be pointed out firstly, that, when we are talking about ski resorts we are already talking about an industrialized landscape (Kamil and I had ridden up on the gondola).
There is always a balance between the needs of nature and the need to have livelihoods and jobs in rural areas. I care deeply about the environment but, as an EU economic migrant, I also come from a rural region where there are no viable jobs and the villages are left to pensioners. I have a foot in both camps here. I meet young people in Austria who have jobs they enjoy in the village where they grew up; that is almost impossible in the rural area where I come from. There has to be a sensible balance between nature and land-usage.
Dominic Linser of Bike Republic Sölden says, the team does its best to build “eco-trails” in a degree of harmony with the natural surroundings: “We have a different system. We try to work with 30 people and it’s a lot of handwork. We use few machines. They use their hands and try and make the banked sides nice and get rid of the water but the trail should look natural as if it has been there for twenty years, even if we have only opened the trail a few days ago.”
The day before my date with Kamil I had ridden with Freddie Grüner, a trail shaper from Ötztal who told me the process from planning to the building of a new trail took at least two years - involving both the technical aspects of trail building and the various legal, political and environmental evaluations.
“Using our hands as much as possible is important,” he says. “And we try and keep the trail as narrow as possible and any earth that is dug out is put back into the mountainside to the left or right of the track.”
The flow tracks are fun and a great place for me to build up my confidence - but to be honest I love the challenge of the high pasture single-trail, moving more slowly but picking my way over the rocks and roots - there is a sense of adventure there: the mix is important.
If you are prepared to do a bit more pedaling you can enjoy some challenging single-trail. This means picking a path through rocks and roots, with the panoramic views right over past Obergurgl to the Italian border past giving the ride an epic feel.
The “natural” trails are demanding challenges for your body position and braking technique. Instead of the whirr of the gondola and the clank of other speeding mountainbikes, there is only the sound of cow-bells and a gurgling stream up here.
Kamil coaxes me to push my level every opportunity. Soon I am embracing rather than resisting gravity and pointing my front wheel down the steeper sections of single-trail.
My visit to Sölden hasn't made me an expert downhiller overnight, but with its variety of routes and its training infrastructure it has made me believe again that this could be my sport.
And, in any case, I'm not letting Kamil's back wheel out of my sight. He knows where the best Kaiserschmarrn is to be found.