Wexl Trails: Back To School in St. Corona
The leaves are slowly turning brown and it’s back to school time for me. Part of me, is wondering if it is really safe, but, at the end of the day, what gives you a better sense of security than a good education?
Thankfully it is not maths nor geography on the curriculum for me, but mountainbiking. I’m on FM4 Draußen Spot Check duty and my school is in St. Corona am Wechsel, at the foot of the Wexl Trails network and it is run by Austria’s mountainbike star Markus Pekoll, 32 years old and recently retired as an elite athlete.
After over a decade of storming down the most challenging downhill tracks on the World Cup circuit, he is now passing on his skills to the next generation of riders in a school that switches between Schladming and this innovative bike park in southern Lower Austria.
The Next Generation
As Markus and I ride slowly up the Uphill Trail at the start of our day, I meet some of his protégés. Some of them diminutive prepubescents who barely come up to Markus’ midriff but who, encased in dark body armour and full protection-helmets and goggles, are already shredding the high banked corners and ramps of the Wexl Trails’ new advanced Jump Line. Seeing Markus, they stop for a chat and a high-five for their role model and mentor before disappearing in a trail of dust.
“I really enjoy that I can teach them not to make my mistakes that I have been making for years,” laughs Markus, “so they can stop doing those things from the first minute on and can learn mountainbiking as something easy and safe.”
The Calm Of The Forest
The 5km Uphill Flow Trail is a nice introduction to my day at Wexl Trails. There is a shuttle van with a bike-trailer that would have taken us to an artificial dam which marks the beginning of the main downhill train, but my legs are stronger than my patience. Besides, on a sunny day in the age of COVID-19, I’d much rather be riding my bike in the forest than sitting cramped up in an enclosed vehicle with other riders.
Andrea Putz/Wexl Trails
And the half an hour or so of gentle climbing around tight shady uphill corners gives me a chance to get to know Markus Pekoll better.
From Skis To Fat Tyres
Growing up in Schladming, as a child, Markus went to the Skihandelsschule and was on to early path to be a skier. But something about the hot-house ultra-competitive atmosphere of the ski academy system didn’t agree with him at that age.
When he started riding a mountainbike on his home slopes, there was very little infrastructure and scant encouragement. But he had learned some important lessons at the ski academy about disciplined preparation and performing under pressure and make big strides in the new sport.
Yet while trying to break into a career as a skier is something for the whole family to boast about, when Markus announced he wanted to ride his mountain bike professionally he was mostly met with baffled looks. It simply wasn’t seen as a serious sport in Austria.
Getting Kids Out Riding
15 years on, the set-up at Wexl Trails shows how much has changed. There is the infrastructure to get kids involved safely from a young age, there are dozens of rental bikes available, and there is a legal network of trails. This last factor is important because it means bikers are more accepted and no longer seen as rebellious outlaws; and this means in turn that mums and dads are going to be more happy that their kids are out riding.
Andrea Putz/Wexl Trails
Indeed, as I ride I see grandmothers riding with small kids and I see a healthy mix between male and female riders. Markus was a pioneer as a professional rider, but you imagine the talent pool of the coming generation is going to be much more healthy.
And if anyone thinks that having grannies on mountainbikes on ultra-safe trails isn’t a cool development for the sport, well they are simply wrong. “We need sort of this mainstream thing,” says Markus. “It is a sport in nature, it is people breathing in good air, it’s people facing their fears. When kids can ride with their grandmothers and with their granddads then it becomes a kind of a community sport. And that makes it really cool.”
The next generation is thriving at Wexl Trail, but big kids like me benefit too from the infrastructure and from Markus’ school. I’ve been riding mountainbikes for years, but I have pretty much made up the technique as I have gone along; and I have the scars to show that that technique has its flaws. And that’s not good.
„It makes it more easy, it gives you more control“
If I feel secure and confident skiing steep challenging off-piste slopes these days, much of that is down to the basic technique that I learned as a small child kid at ski-school for several years. We all go through that process, right? But few of us get technical training before hitting the sometimes treacherous mountain bike trails. That is a shame says Markus:
“The point of going is really you learn how to distribute your weight on a mountainbike,, how to brake, how to start your corner, how to come out of the end of the corner and all these things make mountainbiking really safe,” he says. “It makes it more easy, it gives you more control, you use less energy and it is the same for kids but for grown-ups as well. Those 1 or 2 hours are well invested and you will enjoy your day way more.”
It doesn’t take long for Markus to spot my technical deficiencies; my weight is far too far back over the back wheel on steep sections, my legs aren’t straight enough, and I have too many fingers on the brakes.
Our first descent takes us down the Flowtrail – a good easy ride to work on my new technical adjustments. Free of most roots and stones and with steeply-banked smooth corners than give you the thrill of sling-shot speed while slowing you down.
Later we tackle the natural Singletrail, which is more of a test of balance and where I have to choose my line more carefully. Then finally we plunge down the new Jump Line with large kickers that can thrill even the best riders.
Markus tries to give me tips, urging me to launch off the lip like a ski-jumper. Cowardice prevails and I roll over the hillocks with a minimal hop but to watch a World Cup veteran like Markus take full flight is a thrill in itself.
Andreas Putz/ Wexl Trails
If it is clear, sadly, that I will remain a mediocre rider. I’m an old dog and these are new tricks. I am happy to say, however, that the future is still an unwritten book for my 3-year old son.
After my lesson with Markus, I take Little C and his Laufrad balance bike on the “Kiddie’s Trail” a snaking track down the lower slopes of St Corona am Wexl. It is serviced by a covered conveyor-belt lift, it’s smoothed of stones and roots and it has a maximum grade of 3% with over a dozen corners to negotiate and some fun wooden ramps to cruise over. My little boy hoops with joy as he rides and my chest almost explodes with pride.
Back home in Vienna he has to learn on asphalt and my heart is in my mouth whenever he rides downhill. On a child-friendly track like this he can learn those essential skills of balance and control while staying safe and having fun. I’ve had a great day with Markus but I would have come to St. Corona for this kid’s park alone.
But there is more to it than that. Wexltrails’ manager Karl Morgenbesser says this child-friendly approach is vital if mountainbiking is to become a broader-appeal sport with greater public understanding and acceptance. The clichéd image of a mountainbiker as a hairy adult male on an expensive bike is being transformed through this sort of infrastructure.
“We believe that if we really give the kids a platform that they like, they can get on the social wall, on the Instagram wall and are really proud. They show it to their grandparents and then the grandparents tell us how super it is what we are doing because we have a meaningful project for their grandkids. So it works in both directions.”
Publiziert am 02.09.2020