It’s been really hot and humid here for the last week or so. No afternoon thunderstorms to clear the air, so we’ve been stuck with warm sticky evenings too. I’ve not had a lot to do but pedal around the beautiful Tirolean countryside. Unfortunately, my new shiny camera decided to malfunction last week, thus I’m back to some grainy mobile phone photos. Luckily I got a couple good shots before it’s demise.
I spent a little time messing about in the woods today. I’ve been getting over my weekend cold quickly, but I still wasn’t ready to do any kind of proper ride . Instead I pedalled up to the LanserKopfl – the little forested chunk of land right on the southern edge of town – and pedalled around for an hour or so. I rode some new trails, linked together some others that I’ve ridden a lot, and generally avoided getting too out of breathe.
Beautiful places have problems. Even the most exotic of paradises suffer from their popularity in some way; in Innsbruck its the smog. Its not that bad; it’s hardly even noticeable most of the time. The problem is that Innsbruck, or the Inn valley to be precise, is one of the busiest corridors in Europe. The beautiful limestone lined valley of ski areas, mountain streams and saw-toothed peaks is also the home of the main railway from Germany to Italy, and the most direct motorway route too. There’s lots of traffic in this valley. When you’re here, living, you hardly even notice it. It passes by, on the way to somewhere else. Munich, Verona, further afield. I can ride 10 minutes from the city and ride singletrack for the next 2 hours without seeing a soul on the paths, but the cars leave their mark in the faint haze hanging over the city.
Summer evenings in Innsbruck draw the daylight on until 10pm. My evening routine has developed as such; cold beverage, comfortable chair and some good reading material. I sit back, engrossed in the view over the tops of the high buildings, just as much as the literature in front of my nose.
Race time. It’s a familiar feeling; one that my body has been craving for too long. I have neglected the competitive addiction, one that must be sated for everything to seem right in the world. The internal feelings are unmistakable; restless legs, concern for every unit of energy spent, and food constantly consumed. The external environment is new though. I hadn’t organised a lift with a friend, there was no pick up time, no packing of cars, or friendly albeit nervous banter on the drive to the race. We didn’t pull up to the car park in our own clique, and go through the motions of preparation with the support and backup of close friends.
A pleasing twist of fate decided that today in Austria was a Feiertag, or a public holiday that just so happened to fall on my birthday. A day off work and celebrating to be done too. Perfect. Although I don’t have much idea how Ascension is supposed to be celebrated in the catholic world, I thought it was acceptable to find a high point and ride to it . Unfortunately, this valley has lots of high points, and thus I had to climb a long way to get there. It was worth it though.
The Patscherkofel is a gate keeper to the Inn valley. It sits like a turret on the corner of the Tuxer Alpen, at the meeting point of the Brenner and Inn valleys, and can be seen from almost all sides. It modest height, at only 2200m is surprising considering its prominence.
To get there, I had to ride through some horrible landscapes. Meadows full of flowers in full bloom, springs trickling out of the rock side and across the path, and beautiful alpine farms (Alms) nestled into sheltered nooks on the mountain face.
After two hours of climbing, it was a relief to rise out of the trees and into the alpine air, to see the view which I’d only glimpsed at through the pine forest. The most direct way to the top actually snakes around all sides of the hill, and you approach the summit from the opposite face than town. Rising up the last switchbacks opened a huge view up the Stubai valley, to the really big mountains, where to snow doesn’t melt.
And finally, its not until you step up the final few rocks that the view over Innsbruck finally appears. Only a couple miles away as the crow flies, but its a whole different world looking down from the top. I like being able to take in the entirety of the city with one glance. It gives a great sense of perspective for the days when you’re stuck in the city, and think that all that matters is confined into the small space you are currently occupying. Being on top of the world is what matters!
Of course, being my birthday, it wouldn’t have been right to miss out on the cake. As it just happens, I live with two exceptional cake-makers, who crafted Apfelkuchen just for me. It really did make the day a birthday!
Seasonality is surely the best thing about the Mountains, about the northern latitudes than dip and dive between summer and winter with such little warning. For all the suspense and anticipation I place on the arrival of spring, cycling forces me to live in the moment. If its cold outside, I will put on my layers and ride anyway. But then it happens, and you’re pedalling up a fir lined trail cushioned with a bed of pine needles. You’re wearing just shorts and a jersey, and between the dense forest you can look out to see the green meadows.
The thin slithers of trail that I’m searching for are easy to miss. I ride down the gravel tracks with a head cocked sideways; better to stare into the undergrowth. I scope out a winding path; a trail cutting through the green mossy carpet on the lush forest floor. Everywhere has moisture and life. The ferns unfurling at ankle height meld seamlessly into month old pine saplings, which themselves struggle for air in the shadows of their older siblings. The wire like tentacles of established growth, strengthened after a winter of bearing the snow, jut out at my freshly exposed skin. I investigate each corner of the new found trail, against the resistance of the crowding shrubs; plants whose only contact has been deer and foxes since the last intrepid mountain biker came this way some months ago.
The trail acts as a filter. I pass in one end after a day of work in the city. A day of computer screens and emails. Of buses and roads and overhead power lines. I pass into this tight knit world of turns and roots, of fallen logs resting on the soft carpet of mulch. Each turn peels away a layer of stress, the rolling bed of the path rips away the worries of modern life, and the rocky chutes shake me awake; into a world where real things matter again. Where life matters again.
I hereby formally declare it is summer in Austria!
What was the defining moment? Today I rode outside with bare legs. Finally, my awesomely white calves had a glimpse of the Alps, and they didn’t complain. After a winter of riding in cold weather, you’ve toughened to the elements, and there’s little that can stop you getting out the door for a ride. But when it does finally warm up, the feeling of heading out the door carrying the bare essentials is a lovely experience. It feels light and fast. Your pockets are almost empty, as the skull cap, face mask, thick gloves, extra layer can all be jettisoned.
To celebrate this new found lightness, I went in search of snow. There is a perverse satisfaction about riding to a ski resort, when skiing is still a possibility. Although the lifts at Axamer Lizum closed last week, there is still skiing down to the base area, and the car park was half full with people heading up under their own steam. The resort is perfectly positioned in a bowl of towering peaks, and I was momentarily jealous of the small figures I could see zig-zagging their way up the higher points of the mountains. The stable spring snow conditions make anything possible, and it may have given me a little inspiration to seek out some slushy spring turns before I have no more choice. Nevertheless, my alternative equipment choice was perfectly satisfactory, and I headed back down into the valley in search of the singletrack and trees.
The flowers in the woods are beautiful. I’ll endeavour to get a better picture of them as soon as I decide which new camera to buy! There are also bee hives everywhere around here. I’m not sure whether its more common to keep bees here, but its certainly bringing out my inner apiarist. I’m going to get some hives when I have enough space and time to do so (well, maybe in 40 years then!). There’s something very relaxing about tending to a beehive, and also, I love honey. Maybe I’ll aim for something as impressive as this:
After plenty of time exploring the local roads, I’ve got a good feeling for the Inntal (Innsbruck valley). Each road ride fills another blank area of my map; the empty contours fill themselves with mental images of churches, bridges, rock faces and small villages. When I get home, the anonymous lines on maps now have character; they have been animated by my previous ride, and I can live them from the comfort of my house. Each progressive exploration gets easier to assemble. Alternatives can be cerebrally perused before I even set off.
But, the road bike has limits. Even for me, foolhardy as I may be, the road bike cannot tackle all terrain. Each pedal turned up a beautiful mountain valley is another opportunity to look in the direction of where the pavement ends, where Google maps stops drawing the squiggly lines, and where exploration must happen blindly, without the digital reassurance of a pre-scouted route.
So it is now that the snow blanketed ground is disappearing. The quagmire of run-off is beginning to firm up, and Mountain Biking is becoming a real possibility. If road biking is my way of filling the map with details and memories, mountain biking is the colour of those details, the smell of the alpine air, the feel of the mountain stream as the water splashes your shins.
The area explored is smaller; the detail is greater. You travel shorter distances, and it takes longer.
There are rules for exploring on a mountain bike. Rules to ensure that you don’t leave a trail untracked. For the first half of the ride, you take every turn that points away from home. If the trail runs out, or turns into thick forest, go back and try again. If you’ve been somewhere before, you take the other turn, the one you didn’t take last time. No matter if you know there’s some good single-track waiting for you, go find some new stuff; there is a better trail you haven’t found yet, and you’ll never find it if you don’t keep looking for it.
Life in Innsbruck isn’t half bad. I wonder/wander around this city each day with camera/phone/gopro in hand and snap away randomly at everything that takes my interest. Then those same photos sit on my hard drive and never see the light of day. I almost only write stories to accompany the special photos I take on trips and adventures. But some of the best photos I have are without stories. They are just small independent snapshots of something I was doing that day.
Here’s a photo from my bedroom window. Its 5pm, any day of the week, I’m at home. Kettle has been clicked on before the shoes or coat have been taken off, and I get to look out the window, over the small roundabout and impressive 1890’s built houses, with the mountains framing the background. I drink my cup of tea and watch what goes on. Nothing very exciting. People coming back from work, planes taking off from the airport just across the river. Clouds clinging, dancing and bouncing off the couloir-capped peaks. The sunsets are majestic, but just too distant to be captured into a perfect photo. Too much foreground distraction in the picture to really focus on the subtle changes of shade as the snow reflects yellow, gold, orange, red, purple and eventually blue light back into the city. No photo will capture the true beauty, but this one comes close.
This is the old town. Its cram packed with tourists all the time. its made up of some beautiful examples of imperial architecture which meld together to make a densely packed nest of shadowy cobbled streets. I’ve had a few quick attempts to take some good photos, but they have all failed. They mainly contain blurred bodies in the foreground, where an enthusiastic pedestrian has crossed your shot. Or they have wires, cars, or neon signs in them, detracting from what I feel this central European scene should look like. This photo was taken during the Easter market (Osternfest); the already packed streets were made to accommodate a line of wooden huts in the centre, each one selling artefacts and knickknacks varying from hand crafted Tyrolean authenticities, to made in china Jesus-figurines. Of course, no European market would be complete without the requisite over-fried and re-fried delicacies covered in icing sugar.
Every town has its go-to walk, or activity. The thing that people do. For some people its their exercise; their experience of the outdoors. For others, its just a quick jaunt when other plans have yet to materialise. In Boulder, its a hike at Chautauqua or up to the Royal Arch; short burst of suburban exercise that can be made as strenuous as needs be. In Combe Martin, Hangman hill fits the bill. A mile from town with all encompassing views. In Innsbruck, the short suburban space-filler is the walk up to Hungerburg. I’m not sure whether Hungerburg is really part of the city, but its connected with a tram and a road, and also a meandering half-paved half-gravel path that crosses a couple of cascading rivers, and meanders past some interesting buildings tucked into the trees. You pop out of the woods into the melee of people who have just disembarked from the tram, and stare un-blinkingly at how quickly you have risen above the streets.