Gravel paths, forest roads, long bike paths along the river – up until now you needed various different bikes in order to explore Tirol. But now we have gravel bikes for all these different routes. These bikes with their wide tyres and the light road bike frame promise lots of fun on the road as well as on challenging terrain. Is that true? This bike experiment – three days, light baggage and 200 kilometres – will give us the answer.
„A promise is a promise: Cycling through the countryside as fast as on a road bike.“
“This is amazing, guys!” Valentin shouts. My colleague is sitting quite low on his bike and leaning forwards, pedalling hard. I am cycling directly behind him and can only see his backside and the saddle bag, which is swaying from side to side in a hypnotic way. We are cycling along a gravel path, somewhere in the Kaiser mountains, taking turns pedalling in each other’s slipstream. Next to us, the spruce forest turns into a brown-green wall, in the valley we can hear a stream rushing through the razor-sharp limestone rocks. There is not much time to be flabbergasted though, as we pedal along the flat forest path enjoying the adrenaline rush of speed.
Gravel bikes are a mixture between mountain bikes and road bikes, designed for long cycling tours on unpaved paths. The tyres are wider with a more aggressive profile than normal road bike tyres, the more robust frames and the handlebars with a stronger flare allow you to change your position a lot more often and to bend wide over the bike for more speed. For our three-day-tour we have chosen fast, 33 mm wide tyres and slim handlebars. Our baggage is stored away in bikepacking bags, which are attached behind the bike saddle, on the frame and on the handlebars. That way we can cycle in an even more agile and aerodynamic way. We were promised that we would be able to cycle through the countryside as fast as on a road bike. Let’s see!
Our cycling tour through Tirol starts on a sunny summer morning at the train station in Seefeld. I am doing the tour together with a colleague from back at university and our photographer Olaf. Our mission: bikepacking with gravel bikes and exploring Tirol in a new way. We all enjoy cycling a lot. Valentin crossed Europe and New Zeeland with his road bike last year. I spend a lot of time on my mountain and downhill bikes, but also use my road bike quite a lot since moving to larger city. So far, I thought that gravel bikes were just a marketing gimmick. A road bike with mountain bike qualities? No way. Then I noticed how naïve I had been.
We haven’t got an exact route for our tour, just an idea: We want to cycle from Seefeld to lake Achensee, then continue our journey to Kufstein, around the Kaiser mountains, and of course we want to do as many kilometres as possible. In Tirol there are 1,000 kilometres of bike trails, suited for families and cyclist looking for a relaxing bike ride; there are several bike parks for downhill junkies; and last but not least, the challenging routes such as the “Bike Trail Tirol” with 32 stages are suitable for all the mountain bikers out there. For our gravel bike tour, we do not have to choose between these types of cycling sports – we want to combine relaxation and endeavour: gravel, steep mountains, views rich in variety, as well as comfortable lodging. And at the same time, we want to stay as flexible as possible.
Let’s do this
“Let’s do this, guys!” Valentin puts his water bottle into the drink holder. In this case, “Let’s do this” means let’s cycle to lake Achensee directly through the Karwendel mountains. 1,800 vertical metres along gravel roads, two mountain passes and narrow paths – a challenging route for the first day. Valentin has convinced Olaf and me. “That sound good. Let’s find out what humans and machines can do,” I reply. We fasten the frame bags, munch a cereal bar each for some energy, and get ready to head towards the Karwendel hut.
Our tour section leads us past Seefeld through a spruce forest, and past the sparkling water streams. The smell of damp moss and warm spruce needles is in the air; the sound of the countless cow bells from the pasture reaches our ears. In the valley the gravel road becomes steeper; on the left hand side, you can see the bluff rocks of the Northern Karwendel mountain range rise; on the right hand side, you can see the summit of the Vomper mountain range. Mountain pines and small maple tress border the path, and a buzzard is circling above us in the clear blue sky. We feel confident on our gravel bikes. The tyres are effortlessly rolling over the gravel, even when the terrain is more challenging, the wheels keep turning. Only when we encounter larger stones and rocks, we have to concentrate and choose our lane more consciously.
After the last short climb, we arrive at today’s destination: the Karwendel hut. There are several mountain bikes, E-bikes and hiking poles leaning on the hut. We are the only ones with gravel bikes. An elderly man is observing our bikes wide-eyed. “Are those road bikes?” he asks shaking his head. “No, gravel bikes,” Valentin answers and points towards the wide tires with the aggressive profile. “Gravel … what?” the man asks. “Gravel bikes,” I answer and explain the difference to normal road bikes. “That sounds great! And you came all the way here on these bikes?” the hiker asks. We nod our heads. Yes, all the way here – and we hope even further.
Downhill and uphill
After lunch, we continue downhill on the gravel and tarred road through the Johannestal and Rißtal valleys before turning towards the Plumsjoch ridge and continuing on a narrow logging road. Along seamlessly endless serpentines, we start climbing up, we cross several streams and cycle along steep hillsides. By now, everyone is cycling at their own speed; we are hardly chatting to each other because we are trying to save our strength and energy. My legs are starting to burn, sweat beads are rolling down my face, dripping off my chin and then they burst on the top of the bike. The higher we cycle, the cooler it gets. As soon as we arrive at the top, we feel the cold wind blowing over the ridge. A cold shiver runs down our backs, which are soaked with sweat – it’s time to put our windbreaker jackets on, and then we are ready to head along the gravel path into the valley.
Just two hours later we are sitting at a table with white table cloths. It’s gala dinner night at the hotel “Liebes Caroline” – our accommodation. The waiters are wearing suits, and they are serving salmon tartar, cress cream soup, and roast beef. We treat ourselves to a delicious Cuvée – and a couple of litres of water. It almost seems surreal that we crossed the wild Karwendel mountains on this same day. But somehow that’s what we were promised when starting this gravel bike adventure – the fusion between nature and civilisation. Then the overpowering smell from under the tables reminds us of our performance on our bikes today. In order to save space and to not carry too much weight with us, we only brought one pair of shoes each – and after such a long day on the bike and several water stream crossings, our sneakers stink abominably. “You’ve got your t-shirt on backwards,” Valentin tells me with a grin on his face. Oh no, he’s right. Oh well, it doesn’t really matter – I think to myself – if you’ve cycled through the wilderness all day, you can look a bit wild. The hotel is situated next to lake Achensee – the largest lake in Tirol. Together with the Achental valley it forms the border between the Karwendel mountain range and the Brandenberger Alps. The lake was formed around 20,000 years ago, as lake Endmoränsee after the last glacial period. The lake is also often called the “Tirolean Ocean”. While cycling along the shores of the lake and looking out on to the clear green-blue water the next morning, we understand why. At the northern shore we turn towards Kufstein.
Cycling and swimming
For a while we roll along high routes with amazing views and through mixed forests. Then we decide to fill up our carbohydrate storage with a portion of Tagliatelle and chanterelles at the Kaiserhaus hut next to the Brandenberg river. After lunch we cool off in the water streams and in the afternoon, we jump into lake Thiersee. After our swim, we sit on the wall and let our feet dangle into the water while enjoying the sun, which is warming our back. This is the perfect short break. I am watching the fish splashing about in the water. This is a place I could stay. We take this relaxing energy with us on our bikes, and head towards Kufstein while enjoying the view from Marblinger Höhe in the direction of the Kaiser mountains – tomorrow’s destination.
Tonight, we are staying at the Auracher Löchl – a 600-year-old hotel in the old town of Kufstein. For dinner there is a choice of filet steak, fried beef and onions in gravy, or breaded fried chicken. After dinner we move on to the bar Stollen 1930, which offers 850 different kinds of gins – it’s the largest gin bar worldwide. While sitting in the old cellar vault, we decide to reflect on our journey. “I did not expect gravel bikes to be so much fun, we could do this more often,” Valentin says, sipping his drink. I agree by nodding my head. I also enjoy this new kind of bike touring: light and easy bikes, we have everything we need in our bikepacking bags, and so far, there hasn’t been any path, we could not manage.
After breakfast the next morning, we cycle through narrow cobblestoned alleys of the old town of Kufstein towards the river Inn and from there we take a gravel road which winds through rich green pastures. In the afternoon, we cycle along the hillsides of the Kaiser mountains through clear spruce forest. Just a slight movement of my index finger on the gear lever and my chain jumps into the next gear making just a very quiet noise. I pedal hard and notice how my gravel bike shoots forwards. Another gear higher and another – faster and faster I go over the gravel path. I am right behind Valentin and I am using his slipstream, I can see his saddle bag swaying from one side to the other, next to me the spruce forest turns into a brown-green wall, in the valley I can hear a stream rushing through the razor-sharp limestone rocks. I am enjoying the rush of speed and am wishing for this tour to never end.