The riddle of the grumpy hiker

Picture the day. It’s warm. The alpine breeze is gentle, coming over the top of the exposed peaks above you; cooling your skin. It feels good after the climb up the dirt road to the treeline. You’re stopped on an exposed rocky bend; a 180 degree view of the valley opens up before you. You can see the quiet city resting in the bottom, looking devoid of people on this Sunday afternoon. Its population has migrated upwards and out of the heat.

Looking down the Inn valley from the Zirbenwald weg

The river winds lazily through the centre of the fields, taking up the whole width of the vale. The woodland lapping at the edge of the river gradually melds into the forests further up the hillsides; a patchwork of arable land and crops can be seen in between the trees, and sometimes a small tractor potters its way from one edge to the other. From up here, everything looks miniature; you feel like you could pick up the toy tractors and plop them down in the field next door. The mountains opposite, that is, those on the other side of the valley, look dark and foreboding. Wisps of cloud clinging to their peaks block the sunlight from reaching further down. This is the side of the hill to be on, the sunshine is unobstructed above. You can see down from whence you came; the gradually steepening gradient of the hill relaying how your legs feel; the colour change from vivid green meadows to dark green spruce and pines. And here, in the high alpine, the huge evergreens give way to smaller shrubs and bushes; myrtleberry yet to blossom, some bracken and rhododendrons giving off subtle yellow, orange and pink hues against the blue sky.


The picture is perfect. You’ve earned your reward, and now you can see the way down; The singletrack hugs the contours, not gaining nor loosing height on its way around the edge of the hill. It’s an open trail, wider than most and not too rooty. You can see hikers spread sporadically along its length. They’re easily designated as older couples and younger families. There’s the occasional solo walker out there, ambling along happy in their own world, happy to be out of the hustle and bustle of the city below.

You begin down the trail, the hikers who had been enjoying the same vista wish you luck as you set off. You quickly pick up some momentum, your speed bounded by the terrain to be covered; rocks and roots slow you down, and you keep your head up in anticipation of the next obstacle to overcome. The walkers you’ve spied from above see you coming and move to the side of the trail; you get an amazed look as they see you coming and a hearty hello as you slow to pass them. The greetings vary by demographic, but they all fall into a certain range. The older couples look ahead with a mix of caution and anxiety as you approach, and then burst into a warm acknowledgement as you slow down and say hello. They stand, take a breath and watch as you pass before continuing on their way. The young families are spread out over a great distance; the first child at the outer limit of voice control from the parents behind. You get a ‘Woah’ as you pass, and their fascination with your bike precludes any formal greeting. The parents, happy in their own conversation now that the kids are entertaining themselves, give you a smile and a hello; happy for you to have excited their kids, happy for some respite on the never ending child chasing expedition.

Singletrack on the flanks of the Patscherkofel

Then there’s the other kind of hiker. They’re rare, few and far between. In any one season, an avid cyclist may only encounter a couple of these species. But, like anything rare, you can always remember your last sighting. As you approach, their face is twisted into contortions of agony and anger; before you can tell them to stop chewing the wasps, you realise they are concerned with something else. Whilst the other hikers have seen you approach and moved to the side of the adequately wide trail, this hiker puffs out their elbows and fixes you with a glare. You slow to an almost stop, briefly track-standing on the trail as one of two eventualities plays itself out.

The first possibility is the Diffusion, and this is the most common end to the grumpy hiker encounter. Like the older couples up the trail, they have no idea what to expect from this novel beast known as a mountain biker. Their territory has been invaded, and they feel threatened with the thought of new people using their trails. The grimace on their faces is staunch, but an amazing thing happens. You have stopped and waved them on by; the stench of their self righteousness growing as they approach you. But you say hello, and they relax a little. That thing underneath the helmet is obviously human, they think. They return your greeting, albeit grudgingly, but you have an ‘in’. You work at it: “Are you having a nice day?” you say to them, trying your hardest not to sound like an American waitress. Your question startles them, and suddenly they’re engaged in conversation. Yes, they’re having a lovely day. How could you not when you’re up in the mountains? Sometimes that’s all the diffusion you need, other times the conversation leads to the heady heights of asking where they’ve come from today, or where they’re heading. Invariably, the 10 second conversation ends with reciprocal smiles. The Diffused Hiker is happy to have talked, amazed that Mountain Bikers aren’t the work of the devil after all.

The RinnerAlm weg

Then there’s the second group, the Induffusibles. It starts the same way as before. A face like a bulldog in a beehive. They stand their ground in the middle of the trail, uttering inaudible mumblings; designed to be understood without being heard. You’re Super-Friendly-Face fails to illicit a response, and as they pass within centimetres of your bars, they have a standard phrase. It varies from time to time, but the meaning never does. “Mountain Bikes aren’t allowed up here”. From here, as a rider, you have two choices. The first, as it is such a lovely day, is to entirely ignore this person and carry on your merry way. The second is to disabuse them of their erroneous beliefs. I normally start with something like “Actually we can ride on this trail”. Again, very rarely is the hiker happy in their new knowledge, and often times you get the predictable response of “well, they should be banned”.

Today was one of those days that was just excellent. I was riding some of the most fun singletrack in the area, and after a period of extended rain, the cheery faces I had encountered so far had perked me up even further. So this walker, whose self-righteousness was bordering on the aggressive, needed to be told in no uncertain terms that I was perfectly within my rights to be enjoying myself. After the initial volley, the walker thought they had the upper hand, but they weren’t prepared for someone to actually challenge their opinion. A simple outlet for their grievances is normally enough for them to realise that their excuses sound bitter and twisted out in the open air.

“because there isn’t enough room”  – “I passed the other 15 walkers just fine”

“You’re going too fast” – “This conversation seems to prove that, actually, I am not”

“It’s a walking trail” – “I don’t see any signs forbidding cyclists”

The simple, persistent refutation of their facts rarely ends well; it’s a game I hate playing. Engaging opinionated people often gives validity to their claims. Sometimes, though, it needs to be done, and just sometimes, I really hope these people will go away and consider what I’ve said. That Cyclist that stopped and moved out the way, that said hello, and then had an actual conversation. I hope they realise that the one rider who happened to amble down the trail today is not a menace, but someone admiring the countryside just as much as them. I really hope that at some point, they may realise that there are better ways to spend their day in the hills than carrying a huge great chip on their shoulder, carrying the burden of exercise snobbery.

Look up, look at the mountains, and enjoy your hike.

 Looking at the Patscherkofel from Aldrans, Tirol, Austria