by Matt Hampton, The Telegraph, September 1, 2017
Mountain biking is a complex sport – not just in its many title classifications, which could give boxing a run for its money, but in terms of defining what it actually is. On the letters pages of cycling magazines, middle-aged men hold forth on what their pastime is all about, just as fashion designers try to explain their spring/summer collections. I should know, because I used to edit one.
Every day I battled with renegade writers at Mountain Bike Rider, who were always lobbying to push the envelope, to move the sport on from its boring cross-country roots, all the while testing increasingly expensive bikes far beyond the means and needs of our readers. Presiding over us was a board of directors who didn’t care as long as we shifted more magazines.
We didn’t, which made my tenure as editor shorter than expected, but a visit at the end of June to Innsbruck, in Austria’s Tyrol, provided a happy trip down memory lane. Crankworx – a sort of Glastonbury for mountain bikers – was in town for the first time, with up to 17,000 spectators gasping as the pros pulled stunts none of us could ever hope to emulate. I can barely do a wheelie (as my erstwhile colleagues would scornfully attest) but I had brought my bike this far. Had I bitten off more than I could chew?
Crankworx began 14 years ago in Whistler, Canada, arguably the home of modern mountain biking. Latterly, it has evolved into a touring circus of derring-do, with headline sponsors, big prize money and editions in New Zealand and the French Alps. Hosting the event marks a giant X in the box marked “gnarly”, so it was a coup for Innsbruck, keen to position itself as Austria’s outdoor capital.
Was it a leap too far? There were grumbles when the trick contest had to be pulled because of bad weather, but the legacy for mountain bikers is undeniable. Not only did the city build new trails to secure the event, it is also busy extending them.
Tom Prochazka, who cut Whistler’s legendary A-Line trail, will oversee the expansion of the fledgling Innsbruck Bike Park in Mutters, about a 15-minute drive from the city centre. Crankworx has already bequeathed the town a pro-standard pump track – a BMX-style park where the goal is to get around by “pumping” the bars instead of pedalling – and its two main trails, Crazy Family and Braking Distance, are getting longer.
Like ski runs, bike trails are graded for difficulty – blue; red; black. Also like ski runs, you get a lift to the top. That is the easy bit. A Bike City Innsbruck pass (see below) covers four separate riding areas and costs from €36 (£33) a day (five days, €144/£132).
Mutters’ Crazy Family, graded red, is perhaps a bit misleading – you would have to be certifiably insane to bring kids down it, although I did see one father doing just this (and without tears). Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the herd of bullocks that congregates at the lower section, as is evident from our online video (see top). On the same lift pass, the Bulgarian Way in Götzens is tougher still; with more jumps, tighter switchbacks and steeply banked corners. Warm up in this and you might – might – want to try the Nordkette.
Located on the other side of the city on the mountain of the same name, the Nordkette is reputed to be the toughest trail in Europe. Superlatives abound in cycling, ripe for debunking, but just one look at the drop-in was enough to convince me to let this one lie.
Luckily, the Arzler Alm – a new red trail on the same face – packs plenty of thrills without the potential for injury. It has a pro line with jumps and bigger obstacles, but a moderately proficient rider can see it all through; there is always a bail-out option that skirts to the side of the jumps. I mostly dodged them, but whether through bravado, stupidity or simply not knowing what was coming next, I increasingly found myself taking risks I never would at home.
“North Shore” sections – stretches of woodwork named after Vancouver’s North Shore, where they first appeared – are a case in point. I usually draw the line at a wall ride; here I found myself inching further up the almost vertical planks, packed tightly around several corners.
Further afield at the Tyrol Bike Park, also included on the Bike-City pass, even the blue-graded trail comes with some of this demonic carpentry. Crazy Heart, as it is called, is the perfect proving ground for anyone wanting to get a feel for the rougher, tougher terrain of the Alps.
Tyrol Bike Park is 30 minutes’ drive from the city centre, and is one of the few local riding spots that isn’t accessible by public transport. Do yourself a favour and book a day with an instructor here. Manfred Stromberg runs bikeride mountainbikeschule, and, despite his apparent fear of capitalisation and word spacing, is a good-humoured coach. He can also ferry you around in his very smart van. He had our mixed-ability group whooping and hollering in the manner of excited teenagers. High-fives were dealt out in pure joy instead of ironic self-awareness. We were stoked, to use the vernacular of cycling magazines.
Now is a great time to ride in Innsbruck – it is truly coming into its own as a mountain biking destination. Next year will be even better: Crankworx finished its 2017 run in Whistler this August but will be back in Innsbruck next June. By then, all of the new trails will have bedded in and the hills will ring to the sound of rubber on dirt; cowbells and gearshifts, the backdrop of the Alps a spectacular auditorium to the noise.
There is no purer bolt of adrenalin to riding by the very seat of your pants, skirting the line between triumph and disaster.
But as to what mountain biking actually is? I couldn’t tell you. Fun, I guess.
British Airways (ba.com) flies twice a week to Innsbruck from London Heathrow, fares from £80 return.
The four-star Hotel Seppl (hotel-seppl.at/en) costs from €73 (£67) pp pn.
Bike City Innsbruck (bikecity-innsbruck.com/en) issues lift passes covering all four areas from €36 (£33) adult, €22 (£20) child; five days costs adults €144 (£132).