jetzt live:

Aktueller Musiktitel:

Riding a gravel bike

©, Björn Hänssler

The Best Of Both Worlds

Gravel biking combines the easy speed of a road cycling with the adventure and freedom of mountain biking. And now Austria’s big resorts are cottoning on.

by Chris Cummins

The clouds had moved in over the peaks of the Glemm valley and, after a night of heavy rain, the dark greens of the mountainside, interspersed by white streaks of mountain cascades, made it feel like I had been transported to Norway. I was riding a borrowed gravel bike in the wheel of Saalbach local Manuel Hirner, a former cross-country professional who had promised to show me the delights of his home valley on a gravel bike.


Chris Cummins

A gravel bike has described as the love child of a road-bike and a mountain bike and that feels apt. Like so many cross-cultural children, it has inherited the best characteristic of both parents. My light-weight ride had the nimbleness and easy speed of the road bike, but with extra clearance allowing for thicker, knobbly tyres, it also had the robust sturdiness of a hardtail mountain bike.

„I want to explore“

“It’s the link between the two,” enthused Manuel. “It combines the best of both worlds.” Coming from an endurance sport background Manuel described himself as more of a roady than a mountain biker, but added that “I don’t want to be limited on asphalt roads anymore. I want to explore and I really enjoy the freedom on a gravel bike.”

Riding high

©, Björn Hänssler

Ahead of the trend, Manuel bought his gravel bike around ten years ago and he has used it to explore every nook and cranny the valley, using the copious gravel tracks built for farmer or as access routes for the lift company workers. But he also uses it on his old road bike routes but then cuts the boring bits off, the tiresome traffic-filled stretches of road, by heading up over a mountain off road. “You can really combine traditional routes with a new spirit,” he told me.

Easy Kilometres

We were riding along, in no rush and chatting about his skiing career and how the whole ÖSV cross-country team powered their efforts with recordings of fm4’s House of Pain. I was loving the ride and if I can chat, that means I am not out of breath. So I was amazed to look back down the valley see how much altitude we’d gained and how much distance we had covered without me noticing. On my mountain-bike I’d have exhausted by now but this felt like easy speed, like on a road bike.

Gravel riding in Saalbach

Chris Cummins

And crucially for me – there were no cars, and therefore no danger and no stress. Instead, there is companionship and nature and a sense of having plenty of time. “That’s true,” said Manuel, adding that since he had started a family his wife was happy to see him away from the roads with close-passing motorists. We could ride side by side, chatting and enjoying the countryside without any hooting horns. That, for me, is the blissful glory of gravel riding.

Panoramic Views

And what countryside it is in the heart of the Austrian mountains! I’ve been riding gravel bikes for a couple of years now, always on borrowed bikes, but mostly in the flat East of Austria or once, memorably, in the forests of the Czech Republic. But I had never ridden in the mountains. This year big resorts like Saalbach-Hinterglemm have begun to see the sport as a way of attracting visitors and that’s why I’d come; to see if this adventure sport fitted in to a resort setting.

Now I saw the joy of it of these slowly rising tracks that clung to the open meadows offering panoramic views over the whole valley and the big mountains beyond. I had such a sense of airy freedom that helped cleared my mind after months of lockdown.

Gravel biking

©, Björn Hänssler

That said, we’d started in a crowd. It has been incredibly busy in Saalbach in the summer of 2021. The streets, the bars and restaurants seemed as busy as in a pre-Covid winter. This must be a relief for the regional economy after a distressing beginning to the year which has meant rural unemployment and anxiety. But, selfishly speaking, it was not the rural mountain calm, I’d been dreaming about.

On the paths close to the village, we rode past dozens of mountain bikers clad like modern day knights in their body armour as well as armies of hikers with their dogs. It was important to show respect and be careful and not frighten anyone by zooming up from behind. But it also felt slightly claustrophobic.

Far From The Madding Crowds

However, thankfully, within 20 minutes of riding the crowds had petered out and it felt like we had the mountains almost to ourselves. That’s another advantage of gravel biking, said Manuel: “Most of the time when you are riding your bike, you’re making big loops, for example, with 60 or 80 kilometres and so on. And you’re always heading towards areas where it’s very calm and quiet and you’re nearly alone. There’s only the nature and you, although we are valley, we have enough space for every sport.”

More riding of gravel bikes

©, Björn Hänssler

Manuel told me that after ending his career as a professional athlete it was hard to let go of his association between exercise and achievement. But gravel biking has helped him forget his obsession with watts of powers and kilometres ridden and Strava KOMs and instead concentrate on the pure joy and freedom of riding a bike for the sheer hell of it; stopping to enjoy the view or to have a chat in a mountain hut.

This is really where the cross-over between road-riding and mountain-biking takes place. Increasing numbers of downhillers who have travelled to Saalbach to shred to trails now also take a gravel bike with them too, taking a day off from the bike park to ride up for a dip in a lake. “I think the whole lifestyle of gravel biking and so on fits perfectly to the mountain bike lifestyle we have here,” said Manuel.

Riding a gravel bike

©, Björn Hänssler

It was a journey of rediscovery for me too. I arrived in Saalbach in late September 2001 to spend 4 days learning, alongside 100 other young Brits and Americans, to be a language assistant for a school year. Or rather for 4 days partying and enjoying the mountains after 9 months in a hot West African city. Each morning I was glued to the TV news of NATO preparations to remove the Taliban from power.

Gosh, looking at today’s news and the lines around my eyes, that all seemed like a long time ago, but I’ve never left Austria for more than a few weeks since. The Glemm valley was where it all began for me, a new life and love affair with Austria that brought be a job, a sense of purpose and even a family. Manuel and I rode from hut to hut, to old Schauplätze of my own nostalgic past, discussing how the valley is changing.

A Changing Climate, A Changing Culture

Summers are becoming busier at the same time as climate change shortens winters; there are more ways to enjoy the summer and, as well as the adrenaline-junkies, there is a younger crowd who attracted to more contemplative forms of movement. No-one knows if the cultures of Schirmbars and coma-drinking après-ski and lift expansion will return to their former dominance. I expect they will, short-term, but then there will be a slow rebalancing between the seasons that is surely in everyone’s long term interests.

Having fun up the mountain

©, Björn Hänssler

But we couldn’t spend all yakking in a mountain hut. I had to bring my bike back and there was a delicious long descent ahead of us. Gravel bikes are stable but, since I ride my mountain bike every day, I felt a little wobbly as we set off a serpentine grey gravel road to the village below. I hunkered low in the drops and followed Manuel’s back wheel as he plotted carefully chosen lines around the tightly winding corners. We arrived back in Saalbach for a beer in the garden of my music-themed Pension, exhilarated and sated. I have to get myself one of these backs and next time, I have to stay for longer.

mehr Sport: