Austria: A Mountainbike Adventure
Forest trails, mountain singletrack, low-level family routes – Austria has endless options for all cyclists. To see if the rumours of Austria as a mountain biking paradise were true, Chris Davies took to the trails of the Kitzbühel Alps
Waking up, drawing back the curtains and seeing the vast mountains of the Kitzbühel Alps towering over the valley, pockets of clouds hugging the trees, I’m filled with excitement. We’re in a chalet in the small village of Zellermoos halfway between the beautiful towns of Zell am See and Kaprun, and we’re here to explore the area on mountain bikes. But frankly, we could have parachuted in anywhere in Austria and had the same feeling. It is a country defined by snow-capped peaks and thickly forested foothills, of azure mountain lakes and deep gorges, of quaint villages and cosy beer houses. These are all things, to a mountain biker’s mind at least, that combine for a seriously hot cycling destination. Mountain bikers embrace Austria, and Austria embraces mountain bikers. The biking possibilities, of all disciplines, are pretty much limitless. There are dozens of long-distance cyclepaths, on gravel, sealed road and singletrack. Hotels actively welcome cyclists and nearly every little mountain town has a cycle shop for hiring bikes, stocking up on inner tubes and asking about the best local trails. I’m hard pushed to think of a country that is more perfect for a mountain biking holiday.
I settled on Zell am See, a picturesque town on the banks of Lake Zell and surrounded by a horseshoe of mountains popular with skiers in the winter. Further up the valley, Kaprun attracts the more adventurous types to its glacier and the 3,000m Kitzsteinhorn mountain.
It is a country defined by snow-capped peaks and thickly forested foothills, of azure mountain lakes and deep gorges, of quaint villages and cosy beer houses.
We reached the forest and followed a gravel track onwards, hairpin after hairpin as we climbed the mountain. After 10km the gradient lessened, the track narrowed, and the ride became easier as we made our way up the Erlhof Ledge.
Bikes loaded on the back of the car, we crossed into Austria at Oberaudorf where we were treated to views of the emerald rivers bringing the snowmelt down the valleys. Alpine pastures with grazing cows gave way to steep, forest-lined mountains, white tips peaking in the distance. The remnants of another busy ski season were visible everywhere, empty car parks at the bases of lift stations, ski buses parked up. It was transition time when the region shrugs off its wintry veil and the fresh colours of spring were beginning to show.
Mountain biking in Austria is an uphill sport. The helpful tourist information provided us with maps before we arrived. There is a vast network of trails – from ‘out-and-back’ routes to the top of mountains through to circular routes lower down, there’s something for all abilities. Many of the routes are along wide forest roads, but there is a huge range of freeride trails and bike parks across Austria.
We began our adventure with a tour to the highest point overlooking Lake Zell. Starting out from the small town of Bruck, we headed out from the base of the valley. A steep tarmac road took us up through farms and past ski chalets. We climbed 300m in the first 4km. Our hearts seemed to be bursting out of our chests and lungs gasped the cold alpine air. Perched on the side of the mountain we could see over the valley below. The only noise we could hear above the birdsong were helicopters lifting off from the small airfield and the giant freight train roaring along. Soon we reached the forest and we followed a gravel track onwards, hairpin after hairpin as we climbed the mountain. After 10km the gradient lessened, the track narrowed, and the ride became easier as we made our way up the Erlhof Ledge. We were now at 1,700M and our lungs clocked the thin air; turning the pedals became much more of an effort. Breaking through the treeline the views beyond were incredible: miles and miles of Alpine ridges, many still with snow on them, stretched into the distance while behind us Lake Zell shimmered in the morning sun. We pushed on to the summit.
At the 2,117m summit, we stopped to take in the view and refuelled with the local delicacy Kaiserschmarrn, shredded pancake, at the Statzerhaus hut, before heading back. In no time at all we were back where we had started, brake discs almost glowing, fingers locked tight around the bars and smiles all round.
The next morning we used the cable car at Kaprun to get into the trails – a common way to get to freeride trails across Austria. We chose the Wüstlau Trail, a technical trail full of tight corners, berms and jumps as it descends through the forest and down into the valley below. It was a delightful downhill trail. We rode along the Kapruner Ache river and stopped at Klamsee, a turquoise lake which flows over a dam into the Sigmund-Thun gorge.
On our last day we headed out across the valley to an area they call the sunny side, as it retains light much longer than in the Kaprun Valley. A big circular route took us up from the small town of Piesendorf high onto the mountain behind Zell am See. With the trail ascending wide forest roads, this was a ride all about the views. At the top we could see across the vast Hohe Tauern National Park and the mighty Kitzsteinhorn in the distance. Even from this corner of Austria, we could see that possibilities for mountain biking are endless, as infinite as our imaginations. We considered what makes Austria such a good place for a mountain biking trip. Variety, for sure. In one route you can experience woodland trails, steep singletrack, Alpine meadows and craggy rocks. Scenery; silencing, stop-in-your-tracks scenery. White-knuckle descents (and, I suppose, the chest-bursting ascents). Good infrastructure to get to the trailhead (hello cable cars!). And it’s as much about the après-ride of course. Tasty coffee, the aforementioned Kaiserschmarrn, crisp, cold beer, cosy restaurants and lively bars. Austria has it all.