Erstellt am: 15. 2. 2017 - 06:00 Uhr
My Big Fat Biking Adventure
This is the way to explore a winter landscape! The craggy peaks of the Wilder Kaiser massif loom in the distance and we are cruising over an expansive field of hard-packed snow, leaving virgin tracks on the crusty surface.
Diamond-like crystals are sparkling under the February sun and gliding smoothly on our fat bikes down a gentle incline, whooshing past timber farmhouse and then slowing to pick our way gently over the divot left by an iced-over mountain stream.
Well of course I love fat biking. That’s hardly a surprise: it involves everything I enjoy pedalling, snow and mountains while, with its tractor-like tires, there’s even a nod to my farm boy heritage. I’m soon whooping with joy.
“I told you,” says Kurt Exenberger of the Kirchberg-based Bike Academy, “It’s a good work out but it is not as serious as mountain biking.” The ride reminds me of the improvised adventurous spirt of ski touring, but without the fear of avalanches.
The tyres, which are spooning up crystals of snow, are 4.8 inches wide which is just over 12cm. This gives them great buoyancy when the snow is deep and fluffy and also gives me incredible traction.
They seem able to cope with any terrain I throw them and this means, following Kurt, I can explore every nook and cranny of the white valley, diving into snowy gullies, gingerly traversing across a ski piste, sweeping cruise down a cross-country skiing track and even pedalling over an iced-over lake.
A Bit Of A Sweat
Kurt’s right about the value of the work out. These incongruous bikes with their monster truck tyres look faintly absurd so flitting around on them feels a bit like the sort of messing around I did as a BMX-obsessed child. But I’m soon sweating. I’ve dressed for a ski day – helmet, jacket and thick ski gloves but ski tour kit would have been more appropriate.
“We may as well start with a challenge,” says Kurt as we rumble out of Kirchberg and sets off on an improbable route up a hiking trail. I start to follow him, leaning down over the handle bars to help the front wheel gain traction and am amazed at the grip on the crisp crusty snow. But, as the fat tires bounce over the divots of the deep footprints, I find myself being jolted around as on a bucking bronco. My arms jerk left and right to control the bars as my legs spin to keep pushing upwards as I huff and puff behind Kurt’s back wheel.
After an exhilarating roller-coast ride on the undulating path, we emerge on the lower slopes of a ski piste and let the bikes fly back down towards the village. Kurt’s back tire is spitting out clumps of ice as he swooshes down the fall line, making little angled turns like a slalom skier in the verticale. I try to follow but I soon lose him as, tentative on this incongruous machine, I grip too heavily on the brakes.
"It can feel quite hairy"
“It’s great training for summer,” says Kurt. “It pushes your riding skills. There’s a lot of balancing and sometimes the brakes aren’t so efficient. It can feel quite hairy but it will make you a better biker.” I enjoy the challenge. There’s a luxury of grappling with the bike but knowing that if you do crash, your landing will be on soft snow.
A Refreshing Change
Fat biking also makes a refreshing change during these February Semesterferien days when the pistes are busy and icy while the off-piste conditions in this cold but dry winter are unappealing.
With your bouncy tyres you’re fairly independent from weather conditions. Naturally powdery conditions are fun but ice has its crunchy appeal under a fat tyre and, unlike cross country skiing, you can still cruise happily over the bare south-facing patches where the sun has exposed rocks, dirt and brown grass.
“It’s fun when you get 15cm of new snow and you float like on a snowboard,” says Kurt, “but it’s great in high winter too when there’s a good base and you get great grip. And you can still have fun in a thaw.”
This versatility could be a boon for a tourism industry grabbling, in this era of climate change, with the unpredictability of snow fall. I had a miserable trip to the Arlberg a couple of Decembers ago when there was nothing to play with but stripes of artificial snow. If only I’d known about fat bikes then!
Diversifying the winter fun
As I ride along I think about what a great way this would be to explore the snowy but less mountainous areas of Austria, like the gorgeous Mühlviertel in Upper Austria. To explore the icy border land between the Czech Republic and Austria would be glorious and for villages there it would be a way to diversify their appeal and perhaps attract a younger generation of winter sport fans.
Yet like, the pioneering snowboarder in the 1980s, it might take a while for fat bikers to find general acceptance. “We’re punks!” laughs Kurt.
The Kirchberg tourist board has been exemplary in embracing the niche sport, designating special trails for bikers and promoting Kurt’s tours on its official homepage.
The New Snow Punks
But we encounter quizzical even hostile looks as we pedal through the snow, and have been moments of friction when bikers use the cross-country tracks. Because of the buoyancy of the tyres, the bikes leave barely a trace on the prepared trails but if numbers of bikers increase there will have to be some sort of accommodation with the bemused cross country skiers.
It’s not just that. By the time I find the opportunity to try out a “trend sport”, the trend is usually waning. The sport, which originated in Alaska in the 1980s, is a relevantly recent arrival in Austria’s ski villages. This is only Kurt’s 3rd winter renting bikes and guiding riders through his snowy back yard. He organized a fat bike festival in 2015 but says interest from the industry has waned in Austria.
Kurt seems the perfect figure push the sport. The endurance rider, who was once the Austrian Olympic mountain bike team coach, exudes enthusiasm for his winter passion. “Every time I ride,” he grins, “I discover new routes, new features to bike down.”
Today he’s taking me to the Schwarzsee, a classic bathing lake that has frozen over for the first time in years. There’s some rollicking single trail through some woodland where pine needles littering the snow. My hiking-boot clad right foot trails nervously, always ready for an emergency bail out as I fail to commit to the trail blazed by Kurt.
There’s a quick dart past a farm house notorious for an unchained and cantankerous dog. It’s the fat bike equivalent of an intermediary sprint. Then there’s another breathless ascent on a hiking path, a spiralling descent and, as we speed towards a well-deserved lunch, a procession across the sparkling lake, albeit with a nervous moment as the ice groans under our tyres.
It’s only at night, that I realize how far we’ve ridden during the day. As I relax back in the village my face is glowing from the fresh air and my legs heavy.
The ride, 25km and 700m of climbing over varying snow conditions, was a feat of endurance. But it never felt that way. I’m addicted. I’d go fat biking in the snow every week if I could. It’s a big fat bouncing ride of joy.