It’s a frosty winter night somewhere above Mittersill in Pinzgau and I’m on a fatbike plunging down a forest track cloaked in deep snow.
The intense darkness is interrupted only by the tunnel glare of my headlight. It picks out a narrow line of trodden-down snow made by winter hikers and, disappearing quickly around the next bend, the red tail light of my guide Tracy Anderson, a former state champion mountain bike racer from the, USA who has made Pinzgau his home.
I don’t actually know where I am, or indeed, why I am still upright. There is something quite counter-intuitive about embracing such speed in such treacherous conditions on a bike. But my guide Tracy Anderson tells me to just trust in my monster-truck tires crunching through the snow below me. It’s not just that they are 4.8 inches thick, which is about a hand’s width, they are also studded with spikes.
If only I can conquer my instinctive caution, this is going to be a great night.
Anderson, who has founded a guiding company called Bike Austria, knows these trails like the back of his hand but, even for him, the night conditions make the familiar route feel special and intense:
“As soon as you do it at night, it’s like you have never done it before. It’s a completely different experience,” he enthuses. “It is just this tunnel of light that makes it this sort of magical experience.”
I fully feel the nocturnal enchantment at the bottom of the first descent. After a quick transition on a quiet road, where the spikes cut through what would otherwise have been treacherous black ice, we find ourselves on a brief section of cross-country ski tracks through the valley. Condensation from the fast-flowing river has engulfed the valley in a wispy mist. It seems to swirl around Tracy as my head-lights fix on his back. It gives the scene a Lord of the Ring’s aura of mystery.
Our headlights pick out a pair of robust white horses running alongside a wooden fence. What are they doing out? At minus 7 degrees, am I having visions?
A Lack Of Dignity
The ride continues up a trail that climbs along the wooden-fence of some live-stock paddocks. On my left, snow has piled up high on the wooden-slats of the fence and to my right it is bending the branches of pine trees down low. They look like white-clad crouching fans on the Alpe d’Huez climb, cheering us on, some even giving us a snowy pat on the back as we pass.
It has to be admitted, dear reader, that I shame myself on this climb. The trodden path is around 30 cm wide and easy to ride, but when I veer off slightly, the soft snow swallows my front tire and I come to a standstill.
My right foot reaches out to catch balance but sinks immediately to hip-height into the seemingly bottomless snow. I find myself lying in the powder with my bike on top of me.
But the indignity has only just begun. Since I can’t get a foot down on solid snow, it is almost impossible to get started again. In the end I have to push the bike to a fence which I can hold onto as I remount.
Extending Play Time
What I need of course is practice. Oh, to live in Pinzgau and enjoy these trails every evening! Because that is the true joy of riding at night. For the working or studying bike community, it extends the winter riding hours from beyond the snatched hours of the weekend. Every night can be adventure time.
“You can just throw the bike lights on. Sometimes you have to get a bit motivated after work, but once you get out there and you get that feeling of spin in your legs you have, I mean, all the time in the world!”
Tracy, is a qualified medical doctor who oozes with passion for cycling. He has made it his life’s goal to spread the message of the joys and health benefits of biking among the youth community in his adopted home in the Pinzgau. He has been a key figure in the building of a €300,000 pump track, which opened last August and will host a World Championship Qualifier Event this summer.
"My mission to get kids on bikes has grown from strong backgrounds in both medicine and cycling combined with a passion for kids” he says. “Introducing kids to a sport that has given me so many great experiences and a healthy lifestyle is my way of improving the world we live in.”
His work getting local kids from the Pinzgau to manage their first single-track drop offs is probably simpler than helping this ageing Englishman to negotiate the powdery tracks at night. Fatbikes can be heavy and they feel bulky. I feel a bit intimidated by this mass, like a nervous horse rider fearing his borrowed stallion might bolt with him.
“Just keep your weight right over the back tire,” advises Tracy, “and try to keep off the front brake. Then it is a balance of going fast enough so you can keep straight but not going too fast so you lose your control.”
I find it is a bit like water skiing. As it were the tips of the skis, I let the front wheel float above the snow and gradually gather in confidence as the 25km night-time loop continues past isolated farmhouses, where the yellow squares of light hint at coziness and homely safety.
We’ve got one last climb and then the descent down to the wooden-paneled brewery where I am staying. It’s a while since I last felt my toes and the thought of that first wheat beer in the warmth of a Stube is beginning to play on my mind.
Embracing the Speed
At the top of the climb, fortified with Tracy’s honeyed tea, I gather myself for the final descent. Who knows when I will get to fatbike at night again? I’m determined to make the most of it. “Just trust the traction,” Tracy reminds me. “You actually have more grip than you would in summer when this track is covered in gravel.”
By the time I have finished fiddling with my goggles, I realize that Tracy and his riding partner Bianca Hofer are mere dots of red light in the distance; and I’m damned if I’m going to be left alone in this snow-clad wilderness. So, finally, I let go of the brakes and embrace the speed and realize they had not been lying to me.
I whizz around bends feeling as stable as a train on its tracks. It is wonderful. As we whip around the snow-banked corners through a forested section, there’s a sudden strong smell of pine resin, that brings my mind worryingly to Zirbenschnaps. I feel exhilarated and intensely alive.
As we cruise back over the snowfields into the small town of Mittersill, my face is glowing with cold and the elation. The adrenaline rush seems to have even reconnected me with my dormant toes.
It is the dead of night in the Pinzgau Alps. 25km away in Zell am See the night is probably alive with Après Ski hits and all the cliches of mass tourism. But here, crunching along on those fat spiked tires, I seem to have rediscovered that sense of adventure I’d so badly missed.
Publiziert am 10.02.2019