Alpine cycling: Get in the right gear

Austria is ideal for mountain biking – especially if you're with an expert. Stephen Wood goes along for the ride of a lifetime
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The Independent Travel

It is more than half a century since I learnt to ride a bicycle. And it is only a few years less since my prowess at negotiating a slalom course consisting of wooden blocks set out on the school playground won me national recognition for only the second time – plus an enamelled, red-and-green lapel badge. My acknowledgement by the registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths came with no such keepsake, so the cycling proficiency award seemed much the greater distinction.

At that point, my cycling education seemed to be over. Certainly I had no further tuition until this summer, when I travelled to Austria and had a masterclass with Kurt Exenberger, the coach of Austria's national mountain-biking team. His task? To teach me how to ride downhill.

You might think that going downhill is the easiest thing to do on a bike. But that depends on how fast you are travelling. The riders whom Exenberger usually coaches go as fast as possible, sometimes faster.

Descending is far from my favourite part of cycling. Perverse though it may seem, I prefer climbing. This is partly for romantic reasons. To go uphill is to get away from civilisation, noise and pollution: it's an escape. And though climbing does hurt, it also feels morally uplifting. It amounts to making a deposit in a kinetic-energy bank, which you then fritter away as you freewheel back to the lowlands. In addition, my attitude to descending has long been affected by the regrettable incident involving a copy of Peter Carey's novel Oscar and Lucinda.

As mountain biking's name suggests, it is different from riding to the shops or commuting to work. Anyone who has used a bike habitually for 50 years is bound to think that he or she has got the hang of the thing; but merely the briefest exposure to the narrow, bumpy track which winds down towards the premises of Exenberger's Bike Academy, just outside the town of Kirchberg in the Tyrol, is enough to make a cyclist stop, sit up, and take notice of what Exenberger has to say.

Briefly, the Exenberger gospel of mountain-biking technique has four chapters, entitled (if only in my notes) weight distribution, stance, braking and rotation.

In chapter one, he explains that the bulk of the body mass – Exenberger points to his navel – should always be vertically above the bicycle's bottom bracket (the axle inside the frame which connects the two pedals). Therefore, a rider must move his trunk backwards or forwards according to the gradient. In "stance", he stresses how by keeping the knees slightly bent and the elbows loose, the rider is best able to respond to unexpected obstacles. The key to "braking" is that on steep descents, the weight of bike and rider are pitched forward, so the front brake is far more important than the brake at the back, which will tend to make the unweighted rear wheel skid. "Rotation" (my term, not Exenberger's) involves absorbing the sudden lift of the handlebars on the upside of a ridge, and then leaning forward into the downside.

All fairly straightforward stuff; but old dogs and new tricks don't go together well, and habits of a cycling lifetime are hard to shift. Plus there were the problems associated with the Oscar and Lucinda incident.

It occurred in the late 1980s, above Imperia on the Italian Riviera. I was riding back down to the coast after a testing climb of almost 1,000 vertical metres and a rest spent reading in the shade of a tree. As usual, I had secured my book beneath the saddle with a strap before setting off. Except that on this occasion, I hadn't secured it; and as I rode down a series of hairpin bends, the book dropped into my back wheel, locking it completely, as if I had slammed on the rear brake.

Taken utterly by surprise, I struggled to control the bike as it skidded towards the edge of the road. There was no guard rail, just some treacherous gravel and then a steep drop into a ravine. Ever since then, I have descended cautiously, in a style far removed from that of a thrill-seeking, bunny-hopping, speed-crazy mountain biker.

What brought me to Kirchberg was not the offer of cyclotherapy for my fear of flying downhill, rather the promise of a bargain. Inserted into the spring catalogue of the Evans Cycles retail chain was a four-page flyer headed "Your biking holiday in Tirol". Its photography made the proposition look attractive; and the price seemed remarkable. Given that Austrian hotels – as I know from my frequent ski trips there – are reliably good, the price of £280 per person for a seven-day trip was irresistible, even if it did exclude flights and the cost of bicycle hire (from about €105 per week). The package did, however, include half-board accommodation, a daily snack lunch, plus "three guided tours and a biking-technique workshop with PC-assisted motion analysis".

Although the flyer promoted Tyrol mountain biking generally, highlighting the province's main, almost 1,000km-long bike trail, the holidays featured were in the area around Kitzbühel, one of Austria's best-known ski resorts.

Among the local towns, Kirchberg seemed the obvious choice. Not only is it home to the Bike Academy, it also has an annual cycling festival, KitzAlpBike, held for the past 14 years (with Exenberger organising its events for much of that time). The festival attracts 1,500 participants for its competitive events, and 5,000 spectators. So keen is Kirchberg on cycling that the town now has about three-dozen battery-assisted bikes available for hire (at €20 per day) from shops and hotels by those who don't trust their legs to get them up the hills. I tried one, and although it was frightfully heavy compared with a mountain bike, it fairly leapt up inclines, at least in the battery-sapping "high" mode. To make it easier to manoeuvre, the bike even has power assistance for when you are just wheeling it around.

Kurt Exenberger, who was born in Kitzbühel, didn't start out as a mountain biker. He began riding on the road, illegally. In Austria, 12-year-olds are allowed to cycle unaccompanied on public highways; 10-year-olds can do the same only if they have passed the Austrian equivalent of our cycling proficiency test. Exenberger ignored this, and had his bike impounded for under-age cycling. He then took the test, but – unlike me – failed it. Only, he says, because he added a few "wheelies" to the safety routine.

Since then, he has done well. In the mid 1990s, he was part of the Mapei road-racing team, the best in the world at the time; and in a few minor races, he rode as a domestique, helping the outstanding Belgian rider Johan Museeuw. But after a couple of years, and despite being a promising sprinter, he came back to Austria and in 1999, at the age of 23, started the Bike Academy. "It had always been a dream of mine," he says. "Just like the good skiers who want to become instructors, I had a desire to help people be better mountain-bike riders."

There are now, he says, mountain-biking operations in many resorts: most Austrian ski destinations are keen to have them, because mountain biking attracts guests in the summer months. But most of them specialise in guided tours. "Bike Academy is different, because we focus on technique," Exenberger says.

Among the Bike Academy's clients, who now number about 1,200 per season (from May to October), Germans are in the majority, followed by riders from Austria, Switzerland and the Benelux countries. "A few come from the UK, and they are a bit different from the rest," Exenberger says.V C "They really want to have fun with their bikes, so they favour the technical routes: very narrow and with lots of stones and roots and drop-offs."

A most unrepresentative UK rider, I dropped in at the Bike Academy during a Monday-afternoon session in the club room. Back from their technical training, the week's new clients watched as their inadequacies were displayed on a television screen in footage shot earlier in the day, the worst offences freeze-framed for educational/ comic effect. The atmosphere was jolly, if a little sweaty.

For those in the group taking the full week's programme (all the elements of which can also be booked individually), the following day would be spent on a group tour led by one of the Bike Academy instructors. Clients are split up – according to their technical ability and fitness level – to tackle what are termed small, medium and extreme routes, or be put on the entry-level "Easy rider tour". The last follows a route which climbs 200-300 vertical metres on dirt roads and trails; on the extreme route, riders climb as much as 1,500 metres and tackle the most challenging descents.

No prizes for guessing which route I followed: a nervous descender whose mountain-biking experience amounted to half a day in Hawaii in 1990 was clearly an easy rider.

Since I dropped into the Bike Academy for only a day and a half, on the way to Switzerland, Exenberger gave me a one-on-one technical session followed by a bespoke 90-minute tour on which he led me around the bike paths above Kirchberg. So numerous are the paths (there are more than 2,000 kilometres of them in the Kitzbühel area), and so well-signposted, that a guide might seem superfluous. But except when, say, a storm is coming in, riding in the mountains is more about travelling than arriving; and as is the case with skiing, going out with someone who knows the terrain adds enormously to the pleasure. Plus you learn things: when my bike lost grip climbing a steep, gravel-covered path, Exenberger told me to push my bottom backwards to put extra weight over the rear wheel, and to lower my shoulders so that I didn't haul the front wheel off the ground.

Although I often ride a mountain-bike-based hybrid in London, getting the hang of the real thing was tricky. The academy uses bikes from the German manufacturer Ghost, whose top-of-the-range carbon-fibre-frame models have front and rear suspension. Unused to the "floating" sensation full-suspension can generate, I chose a simpler "hard tail", with suspension only at the front; but it still felt odd. The changers for the 27 gears took some getting used to, as did the "Juicy Five" hydraulic disc brakes and – most of all – the large, gnarly tyres with their amazing grip. During Exenberger's exposition on braking technique, my overestimate of the €1,200 bike's stopping distance on gravel was comical.

After the afternoon with Exenberger and night in Kirchberg (blessed with typically Austrian-quality hotels and a couple of unusually good restaurants), the weather changed dramatically. My tour the following day, with instructor Karin Feller (who speaks fluent Australian) and fellow riders Sabina and Hartmut (whose English was almost as inadequate as my German), was extremely wet. Rain fell throughout the three-and-a-half-hour ride, in which we covered 25 kilometres and climbed 600 vertical metres. Everything was drenched: grass, tree roots and stones, all much more slippery when wet, and – despite our all-weather gear – hands, feet and bums. Back at base, we hosed down our filthy bikes. Had I thought to turn the hose on myself, my bathroom back at the Hotel Metzgerwirt would have looked less like a pigsty that afternoon.

Yet it was a hugely enjoyable day. Feller's route took us alongside one of Kitzbühel's coach-tour attractions, the Schwarzsee lake, across its celebrated Hahnenkamm ski-race slope, past the superchalets on Aurach's "millionaires' row" and right on to the site where the wife of the mayor of Moscow is building a five-star hotel. We climbed some steep slopes, very slowly: when your bike is in the lowest of 27 gears, it hardly moves, no matter how fast you pedal. We endured some heart-in-mouth descents, again (in my case) very slowly.

But here's an interesting thing: after you have been sliding down narrow trails, skidding on wet tree roots, and hopping over gullies, to speed down smooth asphalt doesn't seem so alarming. A bit more treatment and I think I could be cured of the Oscar and Lucinda syndrome.

Traveller's guide

Getting there

Innsbruck is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com) from Gatwick. Alternatively you can reach Kitzbühel by rail via Paris, Munich and Woergl (0844 848 4046; raileurope.co.uk).

Staying there

Hotel Metzgerwirt, Pollmuhle 7, Kirchberg (00 43 5357 2325; metzgerwirt.at). Doubles start at €99, half board.

Cycling there

Bike Academy, based at Kirchberg and Kitzbühel (00 43 53 52 6 4613; bikeacademy.at). Workshops start at €45 for a group technique lesson, from €27 for a guided three-hour tour and €210 for one-to-one pro-coaching workshops.

The next KitzAlpBike Festival will take place in June 2010 ( kitzalpbike.at).

More information

Tirol Info: 00 43 5127 2720; visittirol.co.uk.

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