Felice and Peter Hardy are co-editors of the ski information website, Welove2ski.com. They have spent many winters skiing in the Tirol, so this summer they have decided to base themselves in the Kitzbüheler Alps, trying out the many sports and activities that are on offer in the area.
This past week they took part in a technical e-mountain bike course in Kirchberg.
If you come around a corner at speed and a cow is blocking your path you have to know what to do. When 255kg of cow meets 25kg of e-mountain bike and 80kg of rider there’s no prize for guessing who’s going to come off worse. “When you’re at sea, steam gives way to sail. In the mountains, bike gives way to bovine every time. Always remember, she was here first.”
This friendly nugget of Alpine advice from a Lycra-clad local, delivered over a beer at a remote mountain hut high in the pastures above Westendorf, took us down to the valley this week to get some expert help.
The Bike Academy at Kirchberg is run by former Austrian team trainer, Kurt Exenburger. From May to October, for the past 17 years, Kurt has been running technical courses and camps from his pro-shop and training ground situated beside the Fleckalmbahn gondola.
The great surge in e-biking makes his technique tuition all the more essential. “There’s no great difference between handling a classic mountain bike and an e-bike,” he tells me, “except an e-bike is much heavier.” E-bikes – still largely unknown in the UK – have taken much of Europe by storm in recent years. It is said that in Austria more people now own an e-bike than a second car. It looks much like a normal bike except you have some assistance. You still have to peddle, but at the touch a button the silent electric motor kicks in and takes the pain out of the gradient.
Battery life on the superb Focus Mountainbike that we’re on this month is up to 60-100km on a single charge, depending on the gradient – enough for even the most adventurous cyclist. But, if you need more, you can plug in at just about every mountain hut. For those aged 20 or 30, an e-bike gives you the opportunity to explore a vastly increased amount of terrain. Going up faster gives you much more downhill in a day – like taking a ski lift instead of skinning. If you’re aged 40, 50, or older, the e-bike takes welcome decades off your age. One of our guides this week told me that his father is happily e-biking…at the grand age of 91.
Rainer, our instructor from Oberau in the Wildschönau, runs the Austrian Ski School in Sun Valley, Idaho during the winter months. He took us through the basics. As weekend road e-bikers we had no idea of the new skills needed for enjoying an outing the Alps, as opposed to exploring the leafy lanes of Southern England. However, our objectives are much the same: depart from Point A, take some gentle exercise, absorb some beautiful scenery, and relax over an enjoyable, long lunch in a country pub or a mountain hut at Point B. But when the trail separating the two points is 1000m vertical on rough tracks and goat paths, rather than tarmac…. you need a Rainer.
My two-hour lesson divided essentially into two parts – how to go downhill safely, and how to go up. To go up, you sit down. Actually, you do rather more than that – the steeper the terrain, the more you lie your body across the top of the bike, pulling your elbows in and gripping the handle bars tightly. What you DON’T do is stand in the saddle Froome-style. On terrain this steep, your rear wheel will immediately lose grip and then you’re in big trouble.
“Each summer 500 biker race up the Streif – the Hahnenkamm ski race course,” Rainer tell me, “the toughest bit is the Mausefalle (where skiers fly 80m off the jump). Only about 20 stay on their bikes to the top. You can only succeed if you have perfect technique.”
To go down, you stand up (Not down the Mausefalle, we’re talking about a normal mountain trail here!). Much time is spent perfecting the basic body position because – as in skiing – if you don’t have it, you’ll always be unstable. Legs extended, upper body forward in a bow shape, arms gripping the handle bars with elbows out gorilla-style; quads relaxed, knees slightly bent, ankles over the pedals – and you must not lean back. “In this position,” says Rainer, “the bike is free to do the work, acting as a shock absorber. As you go over bumpy terrain, the upper body strength in your arms is important.
Our two-hour lesson flies by – at one stage, quite literally. My bike took off in one direction while I went in another. I landed on my head and elbow. Alpine e-biking comes with a health warning: a helmet is essential. If you want to tackle the rougher stuff, protective elbow and knee pads also make sense.
So, we have learned how to go up and we have learned how to go down. Next is how to go around a corner. This may sound pretty easy, but it’s not! On a surfaced road Chris Froome and co. lean over with their bikes, their thin tyres managing to maintain just sufficient grip on the surface. But do that at speed on a goat track and you’ll be testing your body armour to the full.
Instead, you keep your upper body upright, while leaning your bike into the turn by extending your outside leg and inside arm. For a left-hand corner, straighten your right-hand leg…for a right hand corner your left leg.
Easy? No. But actually it’s just like skiing – with your weight on the downhill leg. “WRONG LEG!” Shouts Rainer again and again. But we soon get the hang of it.
So what do you do, when you meet that cow? “You throw the bike forward and then use both brakes.” Rainer demonstrates, coming to a complete stop within just a metre or two, his bike motionless and his feet still on both pedals. When I tried, that was the moment that my bike and I parted company. Somewhere up the mountains of this exceptionally beautiful corner of the Tirol, there’s a cow that should take extra care for a few more days….until I’ve had a bit more practice.
Two-hour Individual Riding Skills workshop costs €130 for one person, an additional €5 per extra person. Book through The Mountain Biking Academy in Kirchberg (+43 664 9597970, www.bikeacademy.at)
E-biking has become so popular in Westendorf where we are staying, that the local Tourist Office arranges a three- to four-hour guided bike ride every Monday afternoon – completely free of charge for up to ten people.
You can also book yourself a private e-biking guide for €25 per hour. We spent the morning being led by local guide Andreas Maier (booked through the Westendorf Tourist Office) in order to explore the Skiwelt area. You can take bikes on all the gondolas.
We drove to Austria from the UK, and to transport our e-bikes we used a very efficient Thule Easyfold 931 Bike Rack for up to two bikes.