Seeking out Gravel Trails in Tirol, Austria
Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by John Summerton
Produced in Partnership with Visit Austria
A gravel bikepacking journey through the Tirolean Alps, seeking the elusive flow state.
The Tirolean Alps sprawl before me, a playground of wild terrain and possibility. I do a final check of everything on the bike: repair tools, check; rain jacket, check; snacks, check. I squeeze the tyres one more time, sure that the pressure is suitable for off-road riding, then slide my van door shut, leaving everything behind for a couple days of simplicity – just me and my bike.
This gravel bikepacking journey has been specifically planned to immerse me in nature while also testing my limits, and I want to enjoy the scenery while also pushing my legs as far as they’ll go. I clip into the pedals and begin just as the sun begins to reach the Inn Valley. The thrill of long days in the mountains surges through me as I spin down the bike path alongside the Inn River out of Innsbruck, eager to be immersed in the wild and beautiful surroundings. Soon my route will turn north from the valley floor and steeply uphill – into the forest and up the mountain’s flanks.
As my tyres find purchase on the gravel trail, I become one with the rhythm of the forest. The trees stand as silent witnesses to my journey, the scent of pine filling my lungs as I grind my lowest gear up the steep gradient. The sound of the motorway in the valley fades away behind me, replaced by the sound of the wind rustling through the trees. It feels like leaving civilisation and entering the domain of nature. Each crunch of gravel beneath my tyres feels hard won, and with every twist and turn through the forest I’m drawn higher up into the mountains.
The allure of these mountain landscapes pulls me like a magnet. Long days in the mountains have long been where I find most inner peace; they are a promise of challenges and triumphs, of raw moments and sheer exhilaration. The meeting point of physical challenge and outside exploration has always been my target – it’s where it all comes together for me. Time becomes irrelevant. My mind is only in the present moment. I am in the zone; the flow state. The realm where every motion feels intuitive, effortless, and perfectly timed. I’m comfortable in every sense, despite the objective challenge of the steep trail. My breathing is steady and my headspace clear.
Emerging from the forest’s sanctuary, the Naturpark Karwendel stretches out with paths forking in multiple directions. Alpine meadows paint the landscape in vibrant hues, and jagged peaks reach skyward with unapologetic grandeur. Before continuing, I check my route – I could be happily lost in this forest for days. The path leads up into thick woodland. Here gravel gives way to dirt. The turning of my pedals feels effortless, and my wide tyres glide over the jagged rocks and occasional tree roots across the path. The sun tries to pierce the thick canopy and warm the ground. It’s mid-morning now and the chill is starting to lift.
By late afternoon, I finally reach my descent to Lake Achensee, which glistens in the sunlight, holding a mirror of the mountains that line its shores. I follow the bike path, where I see the first sign of other people in what feels like the whole day. It’s a milestone to reach the lake shore; here I can restore my muscles with something from a bakery and take a needed rest while watching a sailing school on the southern end of the lake. The biggest climbs are now completed. It’s a short ride to the end of the day – time to rest and recover before another big day ahead.
Starting on the second day feels easier, despite the lingering fatigue from yesterday’s climbing. Mentally, I am completely immersed in my adventure, and as I’ve only taken a minimalist pack, it takes little time to prepare myself and swing my leg over the bike and continue my journey. A long climb that takes most of the morning delivers me to the base of Torkopf. The shadow cast by the mountains stirs a mix of reverence and awe. I regret that today is not a day to ascend any further on foot, but make a mental bookmark to come back for some trail running later in the week. A descent lies ahead. I’m excited to gain speed, thrilling as I freewheel my bike down the rocky path back towards the forest.
Brixlegg, with its cobbled streets and timeless architecture, is everything I hoped a Tirolean village would look like. I find a fountain to fill my bidons – and another bakery where I fill my handlebar bag with calories to see me through the next segment of climbing. The gravel roads of Austria are so far stunning me with their beauty and tranquillity, but now my legs are shaking from the effort. It’s the fine line between work and play that makes a mountain journey meaningful to me.
Descending towards Lake Walchsee demands my full attention – a technical ballet between bike and trail. The forest envelopes me, and my focus is entirely on guiding my front tyre through the curves of the trail and around larger rocks. I let the bike pick up speed. Grinning broadly as the rush of wind howls in my ears, I block out anything but the narrow line ahead. I am at a thrilling speed now – and although any error would be catastrophic, I feel no fear. My belief in my abilities and the equipment that carries me is steady, and as I navigate the twists and turns, I’m engrossed entirely in the present moment. My heartbeat syncs with the rhythm of the trail. The world around me blurs into a symphony of motion. I am fully present, fully alive; a manifestation of determination and resilience hurtling through the wilderness.
Stopping at the bottom of the descent snaps me out of the trance. In an instant I realise how quickly and expertly I just navigated my bike down the trail. It doesn’t always happen like this – sometimes flow doesn’t come, and fear arrives instead – so I’m beyond delighted to have just enjoyed this experience. I can’t stop smiling.
As the sun paints the sky in hues of orange and pink, I find myself in the charming streets of Kitzbühel, my ultimate destination. The day’s journey of self-discovery and connection fills my heart with gratitude. Although physically exhausted, I am reluctant to end the ride and leave the state of flow that I’ve been enjoying so thoroughly.
As I lie in my hotel that night, I reflect on the power of these big mountain days – whether by bike or on foot, and finding myself in a flow state. The forest descent, a test of both skill and faith, echoes the essence of the journey – believing in my abilities, trusting the equipment, and embracing each moment as it comes, fast and exhilarating. My overriding emotion is gratitude.