Yes, the Bike Republic of Soelden in the Oetztal Valley officially announced their independence from Austria, to pursue the mountain bike dream un-encumbered by democracy and the ghost of health and safety, its politics and regulations.
From the republic's capital city Soelden, we headed up the valley to the tiny town of Zwieselstein and a studio apartment below a wood carvers workshop and residence. It's a farming settlement where they surround their wooden houses with neatly chopped firewood. A very cute Art Deco church overlooks the town and its rushing river. There is a network of trails on both sides of the valley that utilise the existing forest roads, farm tracks, walking trails and the newly minted single track that flows from the misty mountains above Soelden. There are ski/mtb lifts for Africa and a bus service that can carry loads of bikes to most places worth going.
The Oetztal area has a rather cold history. Its valleys and mountains have been shaped by the massive glaciers that bulldozed their way through much of Europe during the last ice-age and all those that came before it. Tiny glacial remnants still cling to the higher peaks but even they are loosing their grip on reality and rapidly receding. Glaciers leave behind steep valleys and sharp angular rocks, unlike the more rounded variety attributed to water erosion, and this sharpness certainly coloured our riding experience. Interestingly enough, in 1991 the 5300 year old mummified body of Otzi “The man from Similaun” popped out of the Niederjoch Glacier near the Similaun Hut. He was still complete, including an arrow head imbedded in his shoulder.
From Untergurgl we peddled to the ski town of Hochgurgl dominated by its empty four and five star hotels all waiting for the snow. A steep ski-field road took us up to Hinter Wurmkogel ridge top at 3032 meters for a breath taking panorama of mountains and glaciers. A row of rocky peaks stretched north and south making up the Gurgler Kamm and below us the village of Obergurgl and the Gurgler Tal stretched out before us. We celebrated our Austrian high point and the clear day with a massive 1200-meter downhill, stopped to make friends with a flock of clever wooly Oetztal mountain sheep, then single track back down the valley to Zwieselstein. Homemade yogurt and wild fruit salad at a trackside farmhouse cafe proved extremely enticing, perfect on such a hot day.
There are blue (S0 easy), red (S2 Intermediate) and black (S3-S4 Difficult) single-trails lurking on both the east and west side of Soelden Town, and over the course of the week we managed to sample most of these trails. To accomplish this we utilised the many forestry wegs to gain the necessary altitude as most of the ST is designated downhill only. The single track is a real mix from the smooth switch-backed Teare Line flow trail to the collection of panoramic balcony trails, technical challenging walking tracks and the rocky and steep enduro style plumb-bobs that plummet through the forest.
Two brilliant river valley rides took our fancy, and took us well away from the popular riding arena. The first was into the Windachtal via a series of gnarly ST switch backs, then up a remote valley. This was then followed by a great section of balcony trail through old growth pine then more switchback down to Soelden. The second started from the picture postcard town of Huben and winds its way up into the Pollestal Valley above a deep gorge before climbing into marmot country, below the steep rock-trundling Geigenkamm Mountain Range. We would spy these fury long-tailed oversized guinea pigs sunning themselves on the rocks. Once we had been spotted, they would whistle a warning to the colony and make a quick exit into the nearest burrow or under a large boulder. A massive array of these boulders litter the valley floor and annual avalanches take out any trees that dare to poke their treetops above the rock line. The maps optimistic glacial coverage is not reflected on the ground with only snow remnants remaining to wave the white flag to global warming.
A remote farm cafe located below a vertical thousand meter wall of eroding rock was our chance to enjoy a local speciality, kaiserschmarren, a hot scrambled pancake with apple and berry sauce dusted with icing sugar, appropriately washed down with a Kaiser Radler. We found some nice clean ST for our descent back down to Huben, then home in time for tea.
There were buckets of ripe raspberries, blueberries and even a few strawberries growing wild along all the tracks and trails and into the high mountains during our September visit. Uphill progress was often halted when a good patch was discovered while picking and eating ensued. September also appears to offer very stable weather and with the peak holiday season of July & August in the past, trails are very quiet, there are no queues and always plenty of parking.
After a couple of months in Austria we would wave goodbye to Lederhosen (never spotted anyone wearing the MTB version) and a host of German dialects in search of new pastures, single-track, and food. What would Bormio in Italy have to offer a couple of wayward Kiwi mountain bikers?
Since time in-memorial the Tyrollean Alps has breed a better class of goat. With their swirling horns and shiny coats, some may even describe them as handsome and perceptive. Like the indomitable spur-winged-plover they know when to come home to roost and they too recognise humanities second best invention “recreational activity” and mountain-biking in particular. A recently discovered appendage to “Zen and the Art of the Bicycle”