Tour de Tirol
Photos: Olav Unverzart
Forest trails, riverside paths, mud fireroads – Tirol is home to a wide range of terrain. Until now, visitors wishing to explore the region on two wheels needed several different bikes to do so. Now, however, gravel bikes have changed the game. With their wide tyres and light roadbike frame, they are fun to ride on the tarmac and the trails. We set out to discover what a gravel bike is capable of. Three days, minimal luggage and 200 kilometres of riding. Let's go!
'Cross-country terrain at roadbike speeds' was what we were promised.
"Sooo cool," cries Valentin as he gets into an aerodynamic tuck low on his bike and pushes hard on the pedals in front of me. All I can see are his legs pumping away and his saddle bag swinging from side to side in an almost hynpnotic fashion. We are gravel biking in the Kaiser Mountains. Like in the pro peloton on the roads, we agree to take turns riding on the front – creating a slipstream for each other – as we whizz along. The pine trees become a single wall of green and brown rushing by to our left and right. Just a few metres away we hear the sound of a thundering stream. Above, the craggy grey peaks of the mountains are set against a cobalt blue sky.
Gravel bikes, in case you were wondering, are a hybrid mix of a mountain bike and a road bike. Designed for long off-road rides, the tyres are wider than on a standard road bike and the frame is stronger. Unlike mountain bikes, however, gravel bikes have drop handlebars – this makes it possible to ride in a wide range of positions depending on the speed and terrain. In our case we have chosen relatively narrow 33-millimetre-wide tyres for a three-day adventure riding in the Kaiser Mountains. The minimal luggage is stored in bikepacking bags attached to the saddle, frame and handlebars – more aerodynamic and better for bike-handling than the classic panniers you see on many touring bikes. 'Cross-country terrain at road bike speeds' is what we were promised. Let's see if the reality lives up to the hype.
Our gravel bike adventure begins on a sunny summer's morning at Seefeld railway station. There are three of us: Valentin, a friend from university, our photograpger Olaf and myself. Our mission? To discover Tirol from a new perspective. All three of us are experienced cyclists. Valentin crossed Europe and New Zealand by bike last year. I do a lot of mountain biking and downhill riding – and, since moving to the city, I have also started riding on the road. When it comes to gravel bikes, I have to admit that I have always been a bit of a sceptic. The advantages of a road bike and a mountain bike in one? Sounds more like marketing spin than genuine innovation.
We haven't planned an exact route for our ride, but we know we want to get from Seefeld to Lake Achensee and then continue to Kufstein before riding around the Kaiser Mountains taking in as many trails as possible. Tirol is home to 1,000 kilometres of long-distance cycle paths ideal for families and cruisers. For downhill riders there are several bike parks in the region, while mountain bikers can cross Tirol in 32 stages on the Bike Trail Tirol. True to the spirit of gravel biking, we decide to do a bit of everything: fireroads, trails, fine views and cosy accommodation. If we want to ride hard, we ride hard. If we want to stop for a break, we do precisely that. Freedom and spontaneity – that is what gravel biking is supposed to be all about, right?
Hair gel in the saddle bag – not a good idea. Time to clean up!
Loved by gravel bikers, loathed by hikers! A long, steady uphill trail.
On their way to the Plumsjoch ridge the cyclists have to cross several mountain streams.
Old barns, new images: Valentin in front of a farmstead in Scharnitz.
Start with a bang
"Guys, let's start this thing with a bang," says Valentin with a dangerously scheming smile. We soon find out that his idea of "starting things with a bang" is taking the direct route to Lake Achensee: 1,800 vertical metres of climbing on gravel roads, including two mountain passes and lots of trails. It is not exactly what I was expecting on day one, but I'm not one to shy away from a challenge. Olaf is up for it too, so off we head. "Let's see what man and machine can handle," I say as we leave Seefeld behind us and head into the mountains towards the Karwendelhaus.
The first section of our ride takes us from Seefeld through pine forests and along rushing mountain streams. The scent of damp moss and warm pine needles hangs heavy in the air. To our left and right we hear the sound of cowbells from the alpine pastures. As we make our way further into the valley the gravel road becomes steeper. On the left, the mighty rockfaces of the Karwendel Mountains tower above us; on the right we see the peaks of the Vomperkette massif. Mountain pines and sycamore trees line the route, while a buzzard circles high above. The gravel bikes feel good – the tyres roll really well on smooth terrain and have enough grip when things get steeper or more slippery. Only when large stones cross our path do we have to choose our line carefully.
After one last steep climb we reach our lunch location: the Karwendelhaus. Leaning against the rocks outside the hut we see mountain bikes, e-bikes and hiking poles. We, it seems, are the only ones crazy enough to have ridden up on gravel bikes. "Are those road bikes," asks a hiker, shaking his head gently with disbelief. "No, they're gravel bikes," replies Valentin and points towards the tyres. "What's the difference?" asks the curious hiker. "Wider tyres, stronger frame," I explain. His sceptical look turns into one of respect and admiration. "Wow. You guys rode all the way up here on those?" We nod with more than a little pride. Our first morning has been a success. Let's hope things continue that way.
Up hill and down dale
After lunch we head off again, up and down on a mixture of gravel and tarmac through the Johannestal and Rißtal valleys before turning off and heading towards the Plumsjoch ridge. We ride up what seems like a never-ending series of switchback corners, crossing several streams en route as we get higher and higher. Each of us is now riding at his own tempo. The chit-chat of this morning has given way to silence as we try to control our breathing and conserve energy. My thighs are burning, sweat drips down from my forehead onto the top tube of my bike. The higher we get, the colder the air becomes. Up at the top there is a chilly wind which sends a shudder down our spines. We have completed most of the climb in just a T-shirt. No place to hang around, we agree. After pulling on jackets, we descend back down into the valley.
Steep gravel trails are ideal gravel bike terrain. This is the descent towards the Johannestal valley.
Gravel bikes are still a rare sight at the Karwendelhaus hut.
Rocky and steep – the climb to the Plumsjoch ridge in the Karwendel Mountains offers perfect conditions for gravel bikes.
Just two hours later we find ourselves sitting at a smart table with a white table cloth. Hotel Liebes Caroline, our accommodation for the night, has put on a gala dinner – salmon tartar, cream of cress soup and roast beef. We treat ourselves to a good bottle of wine – and a few litres of water. It seems surreal that just a few hours earlier we were riding the Karwendel Mountains. Now we are back in civilisation having a very civilised meal. On the other hand, I suppose that's what gravel riding is about: a fusion of the traditional and the modern, the urban and the alpine. The stench rising from beneath our table reminds us of the day's adventures – to save space we have brought just one pair of shoes, which over the course of today's ride have been soaked many times. I feel a bit sorry for the other diners. "You've got your T-shirt on inside out," Valentin says to me with a smile. He's right. I hadn't even noticed. To be honest, I am so tired that I don't really care. The hotel we are staying in is located on the shores of Lake Achensee, Tirol's largest lake. The lake and the Achental Valley divide the Karwendel Mountains from the Brandenberg Alps. Formed over 20,000 years ago, after the end of the Last Ice Age, Lake Achensee is known to locals as the "Sea of Tirol". We discover why next morning. Up bright and early, we are treated to the morning sun dancing on the green-blue waters. What a sight! At the northern end of the lake we turn off towards our next stop: Kufstein.
The "Sea of Tirol": Valentin cycling along a boardwalk at Lake Achensee.
Time to cool off
We ride through sparse forests. After stopping for some carb loading at the Kaiserhaus, a guesthouse located next to the rushing Brandenberger Ache river, we take the afternoon to cool off by the river and then later in the Thiersee lake. Pleasantly refreshed, we sit down together on the wall at the edge of the lake, dangle our feet in the water and enjoy the late afternoon sun on our backs. I observe the fish in the lake as they flit past, turning this way and that. Heaven! We are all a little sad to leave, but it's time to get back on the bike for the final push to Kufstein. It's more or less downhill all the way, so we let it roll into the town. On the horizon we can already see the challenge that awaits us tomorrow: the Kaiser Mountains.
Planning our route during a lunch break at the Kaiserhaus in Brandenberg.
A refreshing swim in the Brandenberger Ache river.
Short break with some fresh fruit on our way to Kufstein.
Our lodgings for the night are the Auracher Löchl, a 600-year-old hotel in the centre of Kufstein. We are treated to a dinner of roast beef with onions and breaded chicken – all washed down with a few drinks at Stollen 1930, with 850 different gins the largest gin bar in the world. "To be honest, I am surprised how much fun gravel biking is," says Valentin. I nod my head in agreement. I am also pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable the experience has been. Our gravel bikes are light and nimble, yet we still have what we need for several days on the road. The route has been anything but easy, but so far there hasn't been a single trail we haven't been able to ride.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we ride out through the cobbled streets of Kufstein's historic oldtown to the banks of the Inn river. From there we take a small gravel road winding its way through lush pastures. In the afternoon we ride a series of trails at the foot of the Kaiser Mountains, passing through pine forests. As the terrain becomes flatter, I flick down into the next gear and push on the pedals. The bike reacts immediately and I pick up speed. Valentin is riding on the front, creating a slipstream I am more than happy to use. I see his legs pumping up and down, his saddle bag swinging from side to side. As we get faster and faster, the trees turn into an endless blur of green and brown. I feel the need for speed – and I wish that this ride would never end.
Ducks join us during a short break by the river in Kitzbühel.
Cobblestones and narrow alleys in the medieval oldtown of Kufstein.
You can do it! Valentin climbing up to the St. Nikolaus Kirche in Ebbs.
Selfie with a plaster! Our reporter Merlin (left) with his friend Valentin (by the way, it was a swimming not a cycling accident).