A is for Austria
T is for Tyrol
I is for Ischgl
Mountain Biking Paradise
Before I even start to wax lyrically about this amazing place, check out www.ischgl.com. Now there's no need to go printing things out, or ordering expensive topo maps and guide books. They are all free on arrival, at I-sites, bike shops, accommodation and just about everywhere. Who said there's no such thing as a free lunch? and they were right, but the cable cars, public MTB carrying buses, indoor & outdoor swimming pools, road tolls, and museums via the nifty “Silvretta Card” are. It's easy, just book some local accommodation, they print you out a laminated card, and for the time of your life/stay it's all totally free.
So we landed on our feet in Ischgl, from the not so bike friendly Hopfgarten, to gather our maps and guides before heading a little further up the Paznaun Valley to our apartment in the wee alpine village of Mathon. Towering mountains rose threateningly on all sides while splatterings of snow hung to the craggy tops above the tree line. Anna greeted us warmly and showed us around the nicest and best equipped accommodation we had ever had in Europe (Schneider Apartments). Coincidentally she had spent three ski seasons in Wanaka NZ and, as we found out later, she had broken her collar bone earlier this summer while mountain biking just before the delivery of her new baby, a Norco downhill rig.
Human settlement goes back about 4000 years and yes, the Romans were here, where weren't they (lucky NZ is an island), spreading Latin, building bridges, boring straight roads and draining perfectly good swamps, but what did they do for the working man and they never invented mountain biking either. Eventually the 1stWW gave North Tyrol to Austria and South Tyrol to Italy, where it has remained ever since.
The bike arena is massive, extending across a large part of the Silvretta, Samnaun and Verwell mountain ranges with Ischgl at its centre. The absolutely free Bike Arena guide book and topo map in German and Kiwi list 38 rides from easy to impossible, for those that like a challenge. There are plenty of other tracks to explore filling up a whole summer if you were so inclined. Pristine alpine routes and multi-day tours are possible with cosy fully catered overnight huttes, and plenty of cafes along the way. These are famous for their apple strudel with dollops of fresh clotted cream and local cheeses.
Ditte, still in the last throws of broken kneecap recovery mode, was overjoyed with the free lift pass while I was resigned to build moral fibre on some of the climbs. Initially we checked out a few valley rides south of our village and the village of Galtur. They head into the Silvretta Mountains with some great single track trails to return on. Their starts were all within easy peddling distance of our accommodation.
An alpine expedition into Switzerland and down to Heidelburger Hutte delivered stunning ridge-top views at 2800 meters from Idjoch south. The single track down hill was rocky but fun and the 300 meter uphill to the Swiss boarder reminded us of home. These high meadows are home to marmot, bell ringing cows in summer, mountain goats and deer. More single track dropped us down to the Hutte, followed by an ultra fast 4WD track and eventually seal back to town, where a well deserved ice-cream awaited.
A trip back up to Idjoch gave us access to an enduro trail and a nice section of flow trail that dropped us down to Alp Trida for lunch in the sun. Then it was back up to the tops to ride the famous 1200 meter ST downhill, that fair plummets in places from Idjoch to Ischgl via the Velill Trail. The trail start has been carved (not cleanly) through a massive rock slide. This is soon followed by a bony switch-back section over open slopes, then a gnarly enduro section through scrub and new growth forest, before the final pine needle roots-and-all section to the road. A steep ski slope descent finally delivered us smiling to Ischgl and yet another ice-cream gripped by fatigued and shaking hands. My apologies that was a line from the National Rifle Association of America.
I think we jammed a rest day in there somewhere before attempting the Silvretta 3 Lakes Tour. Beautiful weather and an off road climb up to Kops Lake (hydro) set the stage for the day. A never ending switch back descent dropped us into the Schrolawand Valley slightly giddy. I found an interesting enduro downhill track that plummeted to the village of Partenen below, with wet rocks and tree roots hidden amongst the mayhem. From there a 700 meter climb on toll road ensued to Vermunt Hydro lake where single track diverted along the far lake edge. Back onto the toll road for the final 300 meter climb to the higher of these three interconnected hydro lakes, Silvretta Lake. Around 60% of Austria's electricity needs come from the 150 large and 3000 small hydro generators, the big ones built around the same time my dad was working on NZ's hydro projects, Benmore, Aviemore and Manapouri. A stream of motorbikes had been cruising this long and windy toll road but our down hill back to Mathon was off road and ST, a great way to end a day after 63kms and 1700 meters of climbing.
A sequence of lifts and cable cars cross the mountains and Swiss border behind Ischgl to the duty free town of Samnaum. Sixty duty free shops add to the mountain of gold and money secreted in overflowing secret Swiss bank accounts. It's hard not to bump into a Ferrari or Porsche at the local chocolate shop. The over taxed arrive in their droves, in search of cheap cigarettes, alcohol, luxury goods, quaint mechanical Swiss watches and the iconic and far more useful Swiss army knife.
From Idjoch we headed south along the tops to Salaaser Kopf and along sweet ST to Alp Trida. Then ST Smugglers Trail winds its way down to the Swiss village of Laret then up the manicured valley to Samnaum. Our search for a cone of Swiss ice-cream was to no avail and we decided against swiss choc, as it would more than likely melt on the way back up. So we consumed our packed lunch basking in the sun on a park bench, admiring a very shiny Indian motorcycle. This single motorcycle would have consumed a months worth of steel from a Bangladesh ship breaking yard and enough chrome to cover an Egyptian pyramid. Who's to say what the leather pannier bags and tassels were made from, or if indeed they were still alive.
Ditte took the double-decker London-bus cable-car, back up to the top, while those lacking moral fibre were sent on their way to pedal back up to Salaaser Kopf. I didn't mind as the ST traverse back to Alp Trida and Flow Track were well worth the grovel. A final granny gear climb delivered me totally shagged to the top where Ditte relaxed in the sun at Idjoch. The place was deserted, except for a few construction workers building new infrastructure franticly before autumn snow comes tumbling down. We re-acquainted ourselves with the awesome Velill Trail in beautiful late afternoon light, getting back to Mathon just in time for tea.
Ischgl Ironbike is a MTB race the town runs annually, comprising an easy 27km circuit with 900 meters of climbing, a medium course of 46km and 2100 meters of climbing and a hard 79km course with 3800 meters of climbing. It was -2 degs with snow on the tops after raining heavily the day and night before the race, but amazingly the winning time for the big one was just over three hours. The top teams changed wheels at each major change of course terrain. Hardtail 29ers were the go, luckily I slept in, didn't have a medical certificate, racing license, insurance to race and am allergic to the cold.
It's yet another rest day listening to the pitter patter of tiny feet on the roof of our cosy triple glazed abode, as mist swirls around the tops and pools of water congregate where gravity doesn't grip. Our drive trains are clean and new brake pads installed for the next rides, and the ones after that. One of the other guests is a mountain biker from Warsaw Poland, who told me that finding a 100 meter climb near home was a good day out in Poland, so we don't know how lucky we are - as Fred Dagg used to say. Anna showed me her pristine un-ridden Norco downhill bike and I was temped to steel it for a run down the Velill trail, but then I would have to clean it and peddling any uphills on it looked painful.
If the weather plays ping pong we have an appointment on Thursday with a track that sneaks into the Verwalltal Valley, and after that, a couple of trails that go high into the Samnaun Mountains from the towns of Kappl and See. Wish us luck. Happy Biking.
Dave & Ditte