Anyone who skis seriously is familiar with that hopefully infrequent moment when it all goes disastrously wrong. Maybe you clip a rock or hidden tree root, or simply catch an edge for no known reason. On skis, you’ve a chance of regaining your balance before disaster strikes. On a mountain bike, as I discovered this weekend, there’s no room for recovery. You hit the deck, and you hit it hard.
In my case, I went over the edge of a steep mountain trail through the pine forest, high above Mayrhofen and the Ziller Valley. I found myself sliding on loose earth and gravel while still gripping 23 kilos of e-bike and closing in at speed on a giant fir tree. As those piste signs tell you in the American Rockies: ‘Trees Hurt!’
Mercifully, just in time, my skier instinct kicked in. What do you do if you fall on the steeps? You self-arrest, dig an edge in (in this case the handlebars). I came to a halt with inches to spare, and clambered to my feet mercifully unscathed, apart from a couple of minor gravel burns.
“Are you always that lucky?” said our guide, Stefan Kroll, after he’d managed to haul my bike and me back on to the path. No, not always, but the near-miss with a hospital bed did nothing to detract from a stupendous day out exploring just a handful of the 1200km of marked bike trails dotted around the valley.
Stefan runs Bike Guide Zillertal in the village of Finkenberg, four kilometres up the valley from Mayrhofen. He guides groups of up to 10 bikers for a morning or a day of riding at whatever pace you want. He takes mountain bikers and he takes e-bikers.
In recent years Austria, Germany, and most of Europe have embraced mountain e-biking as a recreational pursuit and a major sport and in its own right. In Austria, more people own an e-bike than a second car. In the UK it’s still at the embryonic stage. Indeed, diehard British cyclists consider e-biking to be cheating….in much the same way as skiers in the 1920s who used trains for uphill transport in the Bernese Oberland.
“We’ll start by climbing 1000m up to the top of Penken – it shouldn’t take more than 90 minutes”, he announces. Cheating? Anyone who has ridden the Penkenbahn gondola that lifts skiers up to Mayrhofen’s main ski area will know just how steep is the terrain. Trails used by woodcutters wind up through the forest. There are no pistes, and skiers wanting to return directly to the resort have to do so by lift.
We climbed slowly in blazing sunshine on an unsurfaced track with stops every 15 minutes to take on water and admire the spectacular scenery. With an e-bike you still have to pedal as hard as ever, but the four-speed motor, when you use it, makes the going easier. On the flat you’ve a battery range of 100km. On the steeps, using the bottled energy with care, you’ll manage a couple of thousand vertical metres.
Much later we pause to look at the fabled Harikiri, one of Austria’s steepest black ski runs with a pitch of 78 degrees at it steepest. Thankfully, Stefan’s not taking us down anything like that. He opts for another farming trail that winds steeply through a series of hairpin bends towards the pastures below the forest. These are not under any circumstances to be underestimated by inexperienced visitors…as I find out. But all’s well that ends well. I reached the bottom in just about one piece, exhilarated by a truly satisfying ride.
And when the cycling is over, what better way to relax than in a gorgeous spa? Hotel Elisabeth is in Mayrhofen centre, convenient for the Penkenbahn, the railway station, the shops and all the restaurants and nightlife. It also happens to have the best spa in town, with a lovely indoor pool with ever-changing coloured lighting, saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzi (also with coloured lighting), and an indoor and outdoor relaxing area. Oh, and you can keep your swimsuits on in the sauna and steam room – or go to the completely separate ‘nude’ area.
The Zillertal Activcard costs 63.50€ (adults), 31.50€ (for children 7-15 years, free up to 6 years) for 6 days, allowing you to ride any of the 9 gondolas and cable-cars in the valley (6 of them can transport bikes), buses and trains, visit the open-air swimming-pools, and giving discounts on other activities. The Activcard can only be used on consecutive days, which is fine when you’re skiing but slightly annoying in summer when you may not want to use the lifts every day of your holiday.
One week at Hotel Elisabeth costs from £527pp including half board, daily tea and cakes, 5 guided walks, flights and transfers. The hotel accepts guests from 16 years of age.