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Chris Cummins

Pedals on Ice

There was a record number of mountainbikers at the Pistenwexl winter downhill race: an event that combines hardcore riding with the spirit of adventure.

By Chris Cummins

Last night the hills were alive with... well, with the whirr of mountain bike wheels, squeaking brakes and crunching snow; as well as the odd whoop of joy or curse of frustration. Tiny St. Corona am Wechsel hosted the 5th stop on the Austrian-wide Schneefräsn Tour the world’s only winter downhill race series; and over 120 riders had turned up.

bikes in the snow

Chris Cummins

Winter downhill racing is a sight to behold. Christoph Berger-Schauer of Lines Magazine, the co-organizer of the Schneefräsn tour describes it as „just sliding around and having fun“ in a season in which you are “not supposed to be riding your bike.”

„Speed is your friend“

Of course, I had to have a go down the parcours, which had been designed and shaped by Phillip Widhofer, using the natural contours of the slope. There were steep banks to ride up, the sort you associate with bobsled runs, and there were little jumps too. But the tricky element last night was the softening snow.

After several nights of deep freeze, there had been a slight thaw and the snow was deep and pulled at the tires of my bike as if I was riding through deep sand. I was, it has to be said, a very poor winter downhill racer.

Phillip’s advice was to go faster: „Ruts make it hard to have balance on your bike so speed is your friend,“ he told me.

„The faster you ride, the more stable the bike is through the snow.“ In Winter Downhill, he or she who dares, wins.

„You can drift and try new things.“

Helena Frühwirt clearly understood this innately, storming down the course to win the women’s event. „It’s fast, it’s fun and the snow feels good,“ she told me. „You don’t get dirty, it is just cold. You can drift and try new things and if you fall it doesn’t hurt.“

The starting field at St Corona was a record for the Schneefräsn tour, which is now in its 4th season and has grown to 7 events. The majority of the 120 riders, many of whom had travelled up from Vienna, were there just to try it out and have fun. Alexander, for example, told me that if he scraped through qualifying it would feel like „an Olympic victory“. But there were high-caliber mountainbike athletes there too, some with experience on the summer downhill mountainbike World Cup tour:

pedals in snow

Chris Cummins

„I say for 95% it is just about having fun and they don’t care about the results,“ Christoph Schauer-Berger told me, „but for the upper 5% who travel to every stop on the tour, I’d say it is very serious.“

Testing Your Limits

With the sport and the tour still young, the odd teething problems. There were some frustrations over a hiccup in the timing system which necessitated a change in the format. Yet it seemed to joy of testing your limits on a bike seemed to dominate the atmosphere.

The range in bike handling ability was, let’s say, very broad, but everyone with a bike and helmet was welcome to try their luck in qualifying, including a father and son duo who, incredibly, tackled the course on unicycles. That meant longer than usual start intervals, but it also imbued the event with the joy of having fun on a bike.

There were hugs and smiles in the women’s event where there is a core of just 8 riders racing all 7 stops. „Yes we get on well and we have fun,“ said Helena Frühwirt. "We are not so many girls, so we have to help each other and look after each other.

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