Mountains to climb
The shirtless fan in the blue wig has a beer in one hand and a chainsaw in the other. At the appointed time, he puts down his beer and revs the chainsaw to life. The noise is ear-piercing. In the crowd around him, some people whoop, some rattle cowbells and some just gawp at the steep wooded slope in front of them, down which a female mountain biker is riding at a pace that can only be described as insane. I nearly topple over just watching her.
Once she hurtles out of view, the chainsaw is turned off, the cowbells are stilled and the beer is picked up. Eyes then turn back up the track to await the arrival of the next competitor. Implausibly, she bursts into view travelling even faster, a blur of high-spec tyres and branded gear, her bike hurdling tree roots and thundering into hairpin turns. The chainsaw revs madly in appreciation.
I’m in Leogang, Austria, at the UCI Mountain Bike Downhill World Cup. It’s not a contest for the tentative. The world’s best convene here once a year to plunge down a precipitous 1.5-mile downhill course, set against a ferociously beautiful backdrop of June skies and soaring limestone peaks. It’s a two-day festival, with thousands of fans lining the course (chainsaws are only allowed trackside if their chains have been removed, by the way — lots of noise, no lost limbs) and a circus of seats, stages, stalls and team tents at the finish line.
Leogang feels pleasingly Austrian, being affordable, gloriously scenic and full of people happy to bellow along to rock music without inhibition. Aside from the event weekend, of course, the big draw for MTB-loving visitors is the prospect of hitting the trails. The wider Saalfelden-Leogang region has 447 miles’ worth to choose from, ranging from the beginner-friendly to the bone-janglingly challenging. Even the course used in the World Cup event — known for good reason as the Speedster — is open to those who fancy taking it on.
I’m content to sit out the Speedster — I make a judgment call that my wife probably wants me home with two arms and two legs — but I make good use of many of the other trails, initially under the tutelage of local guide and downhill expert Adrian Southey. “The key is not to be a passenger on your bike,” he reminds me, as we scoot round the mini trail at the foot of the main cable-car. “You’re the boss, so you tell it what to do. Use your body to really work the bike. You want to apply equal pressure to both tyres the whole way down. And most of all, enjoy the ride.”
Adrian, a smiley thirtysomething Brit, has been living out here for 17 years, which says something about the appeal of the place. Leogang is an hour south west of the city of Salzburg, set among a natural fortress of jagged mountains and shaggy pine forest. It was once purely a winter tourism destination. Not anymore. “Traditionally the ski season was everything,” explains Adrian. “The whole place used to shut down over summer, but these days it’s open year-round.”
This much is obvious. The restaurant at the excellent Hotel Salzburger Hof is full of outdoor types filling up on fillet steak and Austrian red wine. Sturdy-booted hikers mill around the lobby debating when the edelweiss season might be starting, while thrill-seekers whizz over the valley on a mile-long zip-line. Bikers, meanwhile, are everywhere.
Adrian leads me down the region’s newest downhill trail, the mile-long Matzalm, which descends almost 1,970ft and packs in swinging corners, flowy straights, open meadows and challenging rock-and-root sections. Comically, I collide with a birch tree within a minute. It leaves my ribs aching but, odd as it sounds, also serves as a kind of initiation into the Leogang experience.
I relax more and the bike becomes easier to handle.
Over the next couple of days, two of the trails I ride stand out. The first is Hangman II, which is enjoyably long and speedy without throwing up anything too fiendish. I even have the honour of being overtaken — with a whoosh and a “danke” — by a local teenager already being billed as a future world champion; gifting me a ready-made anecdote to use on future cycling excursions.
The second, which is more a test of stamina than technique, is the uphill Riedlalm, a sweaty 1,640ft climb. The physical effort involved gradually becomes more bearable, drawing me into a rhythm in that out-of-body way that uphill cycling often does. Reaching the top leaves me shattered, but elated too. The view from the summit is a panorama of sunny slopes and cloud-ragged peaks, and somewhere in the valley is a jumbo bowl of kasnocken cheese spätzle (soft egg noodle) with my name on it (they come piled with crispy fried onions — resistance is futile).
Free-wheeling back downhill, I pass an outdoor archery centre that nods to the region’s hunting traditions. Instead of circular targets, the shooting range is populated by life-size models of badgers, bears and other woodland-dwellers. It takes a hard heart to fire an arrow into a fox’s head, even if said head is made of foam, but if I’ve learned one thing from spending time in Leogang, with its kamikaze bikers and power tool-wielding locals: it’s that they breed the folk tough out here.
On the road again
It is, all things considered, a deeply agreeable pit stop. It involves a strong, dark coffee, a flaky, brick-sized cream pastry known as a cremeschnitte and a terrace view of cobbles, flowers and — added Austrian cachet — the twin-spired medieval abbey from The Sound Of Music. There are two of us following a cycle route that loops around the Salzkammergut region, with the prim little town of Mondsee as our refuelling stop. When we climb back into our saddles, life is good.
To describe the lakes, hamlets and mountains of the Salzkammergut as picturesque would be to describe Mozart as passably talented. The region flies under the radar of many UK travellers — certainly when compared with some other European landscapes — although when you look at its dense greenwoods and mirror lakes, you do rather wonder why. Perhaps it has something to do with its old-world, rather stately reputation. In imperial days, the aristocracy would retreat here for weeks at a time, with the noble aim of doing very little. But that was pre-Lycra.
You see a lot of bikes these days in the Salzkammergut. My cycling companion for the day is Jakob Schmidlechner, the young-at-heart owner-manager of Hotel Mohrenwirt, the only dedicated ‘road bike and triathlon’ hotel I’ve come across anywhere (its hire bikes even come preloaded with GPS routes). It sits in the lakeside village of Fuschl am See, a couple of hundred metres away from the modernist headquarters of Red Bull Europe. If the gentry of the 19th century were to visit Fuschl today, their valets would be carrying energy drinks and fibreglass bike helmets.
The area known as the Salzkammergut — which, like nearby Salzburg itself, takes its ‘salz’ prefix from a long history of salt mining — is heaven-sent for road bikers. The region often gets referred to as Austria’s Lake District, thanks not only to the elongated bodies of water that busy the map but also the high, hard-ridged mountains that surround them. Transposed onto this landscape is a web of different cycling routes. Many of these skirt the lakes, but don’t be fooled into expecting uniformly flat rides — there are plenty of hills to deal with too.
“This is one of my favourite routes,” says Jakob, as we roll down into the town of St Gilgen, having earned the right to do so with a sapping climb. “It’s cool.” He stresses the adjective in that pursed, expressive, European way that makes it sound properly cool — which it is. In front of us is Wolfgangsee, a large blue lake bathed in morning sunshine. Mountains rear up on either side, swollen and silent. On the shoreline, meanwhile, the town’s centuries-old rooftops and spires look as delicate as cake decorations.
Pairs of well-dressed schoolchildren are wandering through the town. These days, St Gilgen is home to an exclusive international boarding school, where, in their downtime, the pupils climb mountains, ride horses, ski and, of course, cycle. Having a region like this on your doorstep makes you fit, Jakob tells me, and I don’t doubt him. Two hours later, I’m struggling to keep up with him as he pedals powerfully along country roads. He’s waving at tractors while I’m puffing through the gears.
Back in Hotel Mohrenwirt that evening, while negotiating a gargantuan Wiener schnitzel for dinner, I end up sitting with two professional triathletes. They’re here in the Salzkammergut on a week-long training camp. “We exercise, we eat, we sleep, we repeat,” they tell me. They seem pretty content, even if they do have to forego an evening beer or two. But then, if cycling, food and bed are what you’re after, there can’t be many better places to combine them than in the wide valleys of the Salzkammergut.
There’s a little place in Hochkönig that you should know about. Picture a timber-clad mountain hut that dates back to 1860. It sits high up in the hills, a long way from anywhere. It has no electricity, lots of roaming chickens, and a summer clientele that consists almost entirely of hikers and cyclists. It looks out onto a riotous panorama of high woods and sharpened peaks, makes its own cheese and bread and uses a water-filled trough as a beer fridge. Dining does not get much finer.
Now, a confession: I cheated in getting to Huber Alm, the hut in question — or rather, I had a helping hand in the form of an e-bike. Early that morning I meet local guide Christoph Portenkirchner (‘Porti’ to his pals) at the classy Hotel Eder in Maria Alm, one of three villages lying in the shadow the hulking Hochkönig massif. The mountains are exquisite — a vast, rampant world of harsh angles and bare rock known as Steinernes Meer, or ‘The Stony Sea’. On the other side of the valley, meanwhile, the slopes are greener but no less imposing. All the more reason to have an e-bike.
As we set off into the hills, Porti tells me that he cycles from here to Lake Garda every year, over 370 miles through the mountains. On regular bikes, not e-bikes, he stresses, and the thought alone makes me feel tired. The beauty of e-biking (that is, on a bicycle with its own self-contained, virtually silent motor) is that you only have to be in the saddle for five minutes before it feels like the most brilliant invention of all time. Look, there’s a jay darting out of the spruce trees. Look, there’s a deer in the woods. And look, there’s another cyclist trailing in our wake as we glide up effortlessly hills as serenely as Mary Poppins.
Hochkönig’s appeal as a cycling destination is by no means restricted to its e-biking (there are some excellent mountain and road bike trails too) but it holds serious appeal for those who like their pedalling motor-assisted. There are upwards of 10 different bike-charging points, some in the villages, some in the hills. And in the few years since I last tried out an e-bike, the technology seems to have improved considerably too. The battery life, in particular, is far stronger and more reliable than I remember.
Porti has a catchphrase: alles wunderbar (‘all is wonderful’). During our day in the hills, he has plenty of cause to use it. The morning is one of bird song, bee drone and buttercups, with the deep belly of the valley and the jutting grey spires of the mountains a constant presence in the background.
I grow accustomed to using the different e-gears: ‘eco’ for the gentle slopes, ‘active’ for the tougher inclines, ‘power’ for the sheer fun of speeding along the route. And when we reach the little alpine garden at Huber Alm, I’m not especially tired but the lunch stop comes as a gift from the gods anyway. Alles wunderbar.
Published in the Salzburgerland guide distributed with the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)