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Verena Krennslehner-Schmid

Spot Check: Fairy Tale Riding

Außerfern in Tyrol wants to establish itself as a gravel bike hub. With its vivid colours, diverse landscapes and laid-back vibe; it’s a heck of a joyride.

By Chris Cummins

On the hottest day of the year, I’m riding behind Außerfern local Verena Krenslehner-Schmid, a former Austrian national mountain bike champion, alongside the banks of sprawling turquoise Lech river. We’re riding through the speckled light under the shade of willow and ash trees. An invigorating cool stream of air is rising up from the rushing river.

Verena has left her mountain bike at home today. She’s on the drop handlebars because she’s showing me some of the highlights of a region that wants to establish itself as a paradise for gravel biking.

There Must Be Ice-Cream

The project is a co-operation between 4 separate local tourism boards to connect and promote 1,000 kilometres of gravel trails with 22,000 metres of altitude.

gravel lech

chris cummins

That’s a lot, but even in just one day you can cover a big distance on a gravel bike, and that’s why I’ve asked Verena to show me as much of her home region as she can without either of us suffering heat collapse.

In fact I only have two requests:

  1. there should be as much shady forest as possible
  2. there must be ice-cream.

Grippy But Whippy

„Gravel bikes are perfect for exploring this region,“ she tells me as we switch on to a wooden bridge over the river. „There’s this great mix of gravel, quiet tarmac paths and trails; and with your gravel bike you can manage them all.“

It’s not just the grippier and wider tires that distinguish gravel bikes from their drop-handled road cousins, but also a forgiving gear-ratio that means you can climb with the ease I associate with mountain bikes.

That means you can get up the mountain, and back down relatively safely. You can get away from the traffic and yet you can still cover considerable distances. Gravel bikes bring, in many ways, the best of both cycling worlds. Mama Road Bike and Papa Mountain Bike (reverse these gender stereotypes as you please) can be proud of their trendy love child.


dominik Somweber

An Englishman Abroad

We’re going to need those gears. Verena and I have hatched a plan to flit between several valleys of the massively diverse Außerfern region, from the riverine landscape of the Lech, over the Alpine meadows of the ski resorts of Berwang and Bichlbach, past the inviting cool waters of the Heiterwanger See and Plansee and over into Bavaria to gawp at the eccentric architecture of Neuschwanstein Castle. Hey, I am a tourist.

English tourists have a reputation for eccentricity, by the way, so Verena doesn’t bat an eyelid at my outfit. I’ve dressed myself up in the UV leggings and arm-coverings that helped me cross Uganda a few years ago and caked my lips in zinc-sunblock.

Luckily the biggest climb of the day, up to the Rotlechstausee reservoir, is entirely in the shade and it is here that I start to understand the delight of this gravel network. After the initial huffing and puffing on a snaking track leading up from the river, we now have a sweeping undulating roller-coaster ride through the mountainous forest and we are entirely alone; apart from a red deer who pops out of the undergrowth to say hello.

a amp


Splendid Isolation

The Außerfern is speckled with low-altitude, small-scale ski resorts but this is not a region of mass tourism and so it is easy to escape the crowds on a bike.

On my first night in Außerfern I meet Thomas Schneider; one of the stalwarts of the gravel scene in the region. He’s a bike mechanic, self-confessed bike freak, vintage collector and, with his wife Vicky, joint owner of the „cycling hotel“ Tannenhof; where each room is decorated with a gorgeous bike from cycling’s golden era. He tells me that in autumn he has often ridden the gravel trails all day without seeing anyone.

Bike hotel


Thomas, who started this century on the brink of a professional career on a road bike, was riding and connecting these trails before gravel biking became a cycling-culture phenomenon. He’d been exploring the unpaved forest tracks for years; firstly on cyclocross bikes or strange hybrid-interpretations of mountain bikes with road bike handle-bars that he had built himself.

„I loved riding mountain passes,“ he explains, „but when I had long hours in my bike shop, I didn’t have time to ride out to the big passes, so I started tapping into all the unpaved routes nearer to home.“

Blue Lakes, Mossy Forests

On a bathing day, of course, it is busy around the Plansee, and we slow to walking tempo as we pick our way past hikers over a narrow path on wooded slopes of the lake. But it impresses me that the focus here is on mutual respect rather than bans and segregation.


Dominik Somweber

A brief 20-minute plunge down sun-blasted roads into the outskirts of Reutte and up to the German border remind me of why I love off-road riding; forest trails are quiet, forest-trails are cool and shady and forest-trails feel safe. And it feels appropriate that the route to the fairy-tale castle of Neuschwanstein is through a forest so mossy, green and mysterious that I feel we’ve plunged into a story from the Brothers Grimm.

Away From The Madding Crowds

Over the deep-blue water of the Alpsee you get a first glimpse of the mad Prince’s towers and turrets away; and from here it feels much more magical than from the madness of the carpark and souvenir-peddlers below.

Verena rides

Chris Cummins

Spot the castle in the background

Indeed so close to this tourism monstrosity there are rich wet-meadows teaming with insect and plant life. With a bike you escape the crowds. Soon after we cross the Lech again across a canyon. The spray of the river here has created a rainbow in the afternoon sun.

Smuggling Borders and Cone-Shaped Mountains

From here, the heat of the day now dissipating, it is a gorgeous ride on a narrow trail through another forest where an old border-hut stands empty at the foot of a cliff. It seems a relic of a distant past until you remember that these crossings were manned once again during the COVID-pandemic.

We’re cruising home, whizzing past flower-strewn meadows, past lethargic cattle that gather around patches of shade, past Lord of the Rings wetland-swamp areas by the river, beneath castle ruins, beneath cone-shaped peaks. My bike computer says we’ve covered 90 kilometres but, given the variety of the terrain, it feels like we have covered several worlds.

the river

Chris Cummins

Back To The Roots

In a way this has been a trip of nostalgia for me. Reutte was my first port-of-call in Austria. Fresh from a stint as a journalist in Africa, I worked as language assistant at the local school in the year before I joined FM4. I’d never been back to Außerfern since; partly because it is an 8-hour trip from Vienna on public transport. Please sort out the train service!

Back then my 9 months in Außerfern were a beautiful time but in many ways a lonely time. Riding with Verena, and the next day with Thomas, I wished that there’d been a gravel scene back then; a way to enjoy and celebrate the glory of this rural area with like-minded, warm-hearted people.

Everyone has a different definition and expectation of paradise. For me, a day in the saddle, away from traffic and in good company is as heavenly as life on earth can be.