Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Hard Way Over the Alps

Or the story of the...Tyrolean Superhero..  Today we started off  heading by car from Innsbruck in to the Brenner Pass, which connects Austria to Italy, and headed to Vinaders.
Alex, The Tyrolean Superhero
 Just parking the car for the start of the ride after building back up the bicycles was a scenic event and from the car park we headed out, our first goal being Obenberg am Brenner and the beginning of the off-road section of today's what was soon to be epic ride.  Starting on the pave with a nice 10% grade was what is known by the Tyrolean Superhero, Alex, as a nice "warm up" for what was to come. Alex is also the partner of our pregnant and therefore unable to ride and therefore incredibly bored friend, Susanne. The pavement steadily climbed as it wound it's way up the valley and through the small villages or Dorf as they are called here. 

Arriving at the first goal of the day, the parking lot of Obenburg am Brenner, we began the next section, of course climbing, along with hikers, strollers and the elderly. With the 10 to 15% grade of climbing the Californians were passed by walking elderly Tyrolean and Alex was fairly flying, at times lapping back to see where the Slowski's (that would be us) were. Two track climbing up and up, dodging at times the hikers and stollers, mountain bikers racing back down the long extended climb we finally come to the Obenberg See (Lake).

     Riding around Obenberg See, scenic, sweet and flat (insert an ahhh... here), we began the climb of the day. Or more exact, the epic climb of the trip. A hard hiking trail, a mountain biker's nightmare, and Alex's daydream. We were headed to Port Joch, Joch being the German word for saddle. The singletrack turned into a singlertrack of steps and we could see the saddle high above us.

That tiny blue spot you could barely see over the tops of the trees as you hiked and biked up up stair steps. Oh did I mention hike? Hike a bike? Push a bike? Push a bike up a running creek? Why is Alex barely breathing while the Slowski's are gasping for breath? Maybe it was because we were now hiking at 45% and our bikes our on our shoulders.

All along the way the route is marked, as is every hiking or biking trail in Austria. Painted on rocks or trees the Austrian flag in red and white, or the route number with blue and white, identifies the trail or where you are. Signs are posted at crossroads of trails pointing in the various directions with the villages or destinations accompanied by the amount of walking time that it will take to get there.

Up and up we climb with the small speck of bright blue sky peeking out from the trees, beckoning us up and onwards. Climbing up steps, climbing up singletrack that are really small creeks, always with Alex calling us on, waiting at the top of the a switchback far, far above.

      Finally we are rewarded with attaining the saddle and the view of the Obenberg See, far down the valley and the arduous hiker/biker climb we had just finished. Upon arriving at the top, we found Alex sleeping in the Alm (meadow) in the saddle, apparently lulled asleep by the long wait and the sweet sounds of the cowbells in summer pasture.

The Tyrolean Superhero prods the cyclist along with his foot to get moving. Port Joch can been seen far in the background.
But the sweet smell of success was soon dashed as we turned around and to view the next section and the wide grin of Alex. High up over our heads loomed our next goal, the true Port Joch. We had only attained a mid-mountain Alm. So rest we did and looked longingly at the jeep two track that was winding up over the far horizon but not in the direction that we were going. And while hints were made about a cross country trek to the jeep track our Superhero would have none of it, urging us onwards and upwards.

      And it was onward and upward.. on the hardest trail we have ever done, climbing up 1800 feet carrying and pushing bikes. At times the Alex, could be seen riding along doing lifts, but it would only be for 5 meters or so when he would fling his bike up and over his shoulder and stride ever so easily up the trail. We had thought after doing the Scotland C2C that we had attained some level of fitness but we were quickly discharged of that idea watching Alex. Without a doubt it was a struggle. Altitude plus steepness plus stair step trails laid us low and we staggered up the hill, our own Everest. 30 steps carrying the bike, rest. But eventually we arrived at the Joch, to find Alex, shirt off, bib straps down, laying in the Alm on the top of the Joch, sleeping.

At the top of  Joch we crossed over into Italy and began a wonderful rolling single track. On the edge of the Stubai mountain range, 2700 feet straight down to the valley floor, we rode  centimeters from the edge. Like flying we rode along, on the edge of the world,  clouds out in the distance. Looking down you felt like your were being pulled out into space. Singletrack happiness. Mountain biker dream. All led by our friend, Alex. Some days you just get plain lucky. Darn lucky. You get an Alex in your life.

We rode along the single track, always on the edge, Alex leading, taking every opportunity to fly off a ledge, huck a jump, playing all the time. Some of us,hmmmm who would that be.. concentrated on staying actually ON the singletrack. Eventually the singletrack became two track of the most historical kind.

     We were riding along the very edge of Italy and Austria, meeting every so often the barricks and buildings of Italy in their attempt to protect their borders. First starting after WWI and then reinforcing in WWII, the myriad of embattlements and fortesses begged exploring. At one point Alex stopped to explore as did Lowell however someone else ( me?) had Sufferfest going and it was stop and finish the trip kilometers before the end, or just keep climbing.

But finally we reach the the downhill section upon attaining the Sattelberg. True downhill, singletrack, rooting, rocky, steep. One of us is kinda blurry and tired but Alex points out the magic elixir, way, way down at the bottom of the valley. So close but so far away. Beer. The Sattelberg Alm with it's fabulous recovery drink on tap, not to mention rooms, hot tubs, sauna......

Clicking on any photo will enlarge if it doesn't have a caption..

The Hinterhorn..

     Arriving in Innsbruck we deemed it would be great to go to one of our favorite places by bike. There were somethings however that we had not considered. One was we have never been in the Inntal in summer, always in late fall or winter.
     Second we had never been there by bicycle, only the roundabout way by hiking up and into the Karwendal range, down a valley, up, out and eventually to the "Carrot Platter Please!" Place, the Hinterhorn.We called it that as they have an assortment of donkey's and llamas that watch you eat and always laugh about what they would order.
    We started out in Innsbruck and if you haven't been here it is a urban riding heaven with bike paths and bike racks everywhere and with a few exceptions lots of respect for riders. Weekends you will see lots of club riders out. Off we go down the Inn River cycle path to the town of Hall and began climbing up to Absam on a local singletrack.
    With a little negotiation of local roads we got onto the correct one and happily began climbing some more on our way to Gnadenwald. And then we climbed some more.. as the heat of the Inntal became apparent. Starting at 2 in the afternoon we had expected the Inntal to be a cool summer wonderland but found out that it's summer is heat and humidity and soon we were soaked with the effort.
     It should have been a hint of things to come as we made the turn off and in passing the toll booth ( for cars only) that written on the pavement was Hinterhorn Challenge. And challenge it was. The majority of the ride is a series of switchbacks that climb up and up until finally passing the treeline. Rarely does the climb drop below 10% and it was almost always 14-17% at times reaching 21%.
     This type of gradient over long extended climbs is unusual but for here we now know it as a norm. At times we had to stop and we were often passed by the amazingly strong Tyrolean riders on both road and mountain bike, out for their evening ride.Up and up you go on the switchbacks, thinking and hoping that you are farther up the climb and the next switchback would be the last until you see the kilometer mark painted on the pavement, dashing your hopes.
     Riders coming down the hill would encourage us with "Super!" Many of them had passed us and were now on their way down. Hikers coming down the more direct trail would whisk by on their way down. One older gentleman came up to us and after informing us that it was only 3 long switchbacks to go leaned in very closed to my face and said in German, "it's near, have courage" and laughing hard to himself turned and headed off down the trail.
   Finally clear of the switchbacks you exit the treeline. The approach to the Hinterhorn is a long extended climb across a mountain face until finally reaching your goal and the privilege of lining your bike up along the fence with all the other cyclists who have made the climb.
     Cool water and cold beer await, substantial meals for those that want them, all perched on an outcropping high above, and overlooking the Inntal.


After finishing the Scotland C2C we had a rest day in Edinburgh before flying out to Austria and so off we went on a wander around. A great bus system started us off right and we were at Waverly Station between Princess Street and the Royal Mile in a few minutes. 
We knew that August in Edinburgh would be hectic but we had no idea of how much so. The Military Tattoo occurs at that time at Edinburgh Castle and the Fringe Festival occurs all over the city but centrally on the Royal Mile. Packed with people we salmon-ed our way up to the Castle to start our wanderings.
     Heading down the Mile we weaved in and out of people, actors and plays. Celtic singers and Halloween dressed festive participants were liberally sprinkled between the visitors, inviting you to participate in their own little part of the Fringe. Working on down we stopped off into a pub for a respite of cold beer where the manager gave us a souvenir beer glass.
We were on a little mission to go the the Wells o' Weary, or St. Margaret's Wells for as the story goes if one drinks from them you will always return to Scotland. With my little flask in hand, the search was on having visited them some 25 years previously.
Down to Holyroodhouse Palace and around the back, things had noticeably changed in all those years, in particular a new Congress building being added. But with some direction from local security there in the hillside of Arthur's Seat were the wells that I had been searching for. Fenced and grated the only water you could access was the fetid pool of algae filled water in a basin. They say that being a flexible traveler is the best traveler and so then and there we decided that in the changing world the new water of Scotland would be a good Scotch and off in search of our New Well's o' Weary we went.
Not too far either I might add as right behind Holyroodhouse Palace and across from the Wells was a Fring Fest Food Festival and we wandered in. Right past security we went, right through the entrance, right past the ticket booth selling the entrance tickets we wandered. Directly to the free Scotch tasting booth, unbeknownst until we were tasting our new water of Scotland that we should uh..probably uh.. have stopped and paid. However we took our free entrance directly to the new Wells as a welcoming sign from Scotland and proceeded to avail ourselves.
     Thoroughly refreshed we headed off to wander more through Edinburg old town and happened upon a favorite and famous pub, the Cafe Royal. Fabulously decorated and with a large assortment of ales and scotch we each began our own tastings and after much standing in the after-work packed pub acquired a table.
Long and leisurely we enjoyed our choices but notice some tired standers and since we were near the end of our drinks offered up our coveted by many table. It was a great choice as it introduced us to two wonderful couples and we engaged in conversation, sharing stories and laughs, exchanging cultural notes. Admittedly, the small moment in time that resulted from the sharing of a table was the best pub experience one could wish for and with that we ended our tour of Edinburgh and headed out. Unfortunately we had some file corruption and lost photos but we would like to send a grand hello out to our new friends..Margaret, Sandra, Terry and "El Georgio", George. If you happen to see this we would love to get a photo of you folks!
      Finally I would like to say thanks to Martin and the staff at the Quality Inn, Edinburgh Airport. We chose the Quality Inn as it would save us paying for shuttles to the airport and made our drop off with Trailbrakes easy. What we didn't know when we chose them was how wonderful we were going to be treated. They stored our hard shell bike boxes for us while on the trip, they provided an area inside because it was raining to break our bikes down in, their maintenance department provided us with a tool for our bicycles when ours broke. Breakfast was included but they cooked a special vegetarian full breakfast for Lowell and of course free WiFi and the shuttle for us and our bikes picked us up at the front door and cost 1.50 gbp! It was a fabulous stay and Martin was especially helpful and kind. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What Do We Think of the Scotland C2C?

About Guided Trips?... we were hesitant about doing a guided trip since we had previously always done our own  trips independently. However on this trip we were invited so it was a choice on our part to join our friends and it was our first mountain bike tour as all of our previous tour had been on road with touring bikes. What did we think?? Hands down the group decided that a guided tour was awesome!


About Trailbrakes as a Company?..The short version, we loved them. We have to admit that we are tough judges, the majority of us having been professional guides ourselves in one form or another so we know the pros and cons and would like to think that we are fair..  so here's a bit of a breakdown.

Let's start with reservations. We had actually booked with another company almost a year in advance, which was Scotland Mountain Biking.( I don't recommend them. Why?  We made our reservations, paid our deposit and the only contact we received was a Paypal notice and then a sentence that seemed to be auto generated stating that they were changing their website. (Their website was pretty flash) Mind you we weren't the group organizer who did receive a thank you more details to follow email. We gave it some latitude as it was October and we were booking for August but we thought we should have a bit more personal contact.
     However 7 months later there had been no effort on their part to contact us and we began contacting them. To make a long story short.. no emails or contact on their part and finally a late (for us) cancellation by them of our trip. We had to contact them to request our deposit back as they had not addressed it in their cancellation notice. To be fair, when we did ask for our deposit it was immediately returned and we had been told that their guide had had an accident that prevented the running of the trip. However we felt that overall there were way too many holes in their performance, their problems started way before the early June issue with their guide.  In searching for another company we found that they had also canceled multiple other trips, even more last minute than us.

     On the other hand.. with Trailbrakes ( our emails were immediately returned and included detailed answers to our questions. We had an excellent back and forth discussion regarding details of our trip even though it was late in reserving. They contacted every person on the trip not just the group leader. We were accommodated in all of our needs including but not limited to bicycle hire for one of our group, personal food requests including gluten free and vegetarian and multiple pick up points and end trip drop offs including Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Peebles. It was tailored to us.

     The Route...There are multiple routes in multiple areas of Scotland for the C2C. We chose Isle of Skye to Stonehaven. We recommend that you take a look at a map of Scotland when booking a trip as many companys do a shorter version. Trailbrakes has several versions depending on your desires. It IS coast to coast and while the majority of it is off road it is not entirely singletrack and there are parts on jeep track, two track, gravel and paved. It also includes in all it's glory mud, muck, bogs, bugs, sheep poop, hills,climbing, rain, creek crossings, bike hiking and lots of riding.

     Guided Trip versus Self-Guided....Having a guide allowed us to do nothing but ride, no route finding. Yes you can do a self-guide but we really enjoyed the services that our guide provided, knowing just where the creeks are to be crossed, always getting the single track option, add ons of more riding for those who wanted it and shortening sections for others. There was a definate magic of doing absolutely nothing but riding while all was taken care of for you.


     Services... We can't say enough about this part. You get to choose with Trailbrakes your level of services which is not the case with the other companies that we looked at. we chose a combination of hostel and B&B. We can't say enough good things about James, the driver and services manager, who provided most of the non-riding related services. Every night our baggage was in our rooms. Our personal food items in the fridge. If we needed something while we were out riding it was picked up for us. Postcards mailed each day, beer (yes that was important for our trip!) cold in the fridge. Drive to you to the shop for personal items, direct you to the pub that had free internet.. Didn't feel like riding?? He'd show you around. Super funny, a great guy. We loudly sing his praises.

     Our Guide..Pete is a guide's guide. With all of our personal guiding experience we were going to be hard to please but Pete hit all the marks. An strong, skilled rider and extremely knowledgeable in all the different variations of routes, each day was smoothly put together and directed by him. An excellent conversationalist, you felt like you were riding with your long time friend and not just a guide. He made sure the stronger riders were challenged and the less experienced riders were coached and encouraged, attaining levels of riding they had not thought possible. He had a patient way of moving riders along without seeming pushy when we were demonstrating our lack of readiness skills. Always smiling, always organized, Pete could be seen at night while we were relaxing wiping down forks, adjusting someone's bike.

Last but not least.. the Midges.. those famous, small, little no see-um bugs that we had heard so much about..were actually a rarity. Did we see them? Yes. Were they an issue? No.  

     Finally overall experience... of the Scotland Coast to Coast and Trailbrakes..a beautiful country of welcoming, friendly people, warm and inviting hostels, B&Bs and pubs with great food and excellent ales. Ancient history all over the landscape, a plethora of types of terrain to ride, incredible scenery, an amazing trip with a 5 star company that we can only highly recommend. We would do it again in a heartbeat.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Edzell to Stonehaven, The End of the Trail

     Our night in the B&B in Edzell was nothing less than delicious. The owners were over the top in their attentiveness, rinsing our bikes off, putting our shoes in to dry. Clothes hung up to dry, warm snug rooms.. everything the traveling cyclist could want. Our morning was the same. Lunches packed for us, bikes brought out and lined up, a full Scottish made to order breakfast including vegetarian. Why oh why would one want to leave?
    But things needed to be finished and as cyclists know, you always just have that little bit more to make your goal and you just have to finish it was the end of the road and it dawned bright and shiny. Getting so near the ocean and denser populations one would think that back country trails were limited but again we were off in the places and spaces of the quiet.

Eventually we came to more and more populated areas winding up and over the hillsides of the east coast of Scotland interacting with more roads, cars and daily life.

Villages would give way to farmer's fields and then the fields would give way to the people. The trails, single track, farmer's track, sheep track, jeep track, double track finally gave way to the paved..

Until we came into view of our goal, the ocean. The east coast of Scotland. We had made our goal. We would agree, it turned out to not really be what we wanted. It was great to have accomplished what we set out to do but we were done. We are cyclists and  better would have been to have just kept on riding but the ocean and time made that impossible.
Entering Stonehaven
Happy for our accomplishments and sad for the end of our great adventure we made our way through Stonehaven and down to the sea for the ceremonial tire in the water.

Fortunately it wasn't the end of the road and we rode a few hundred meters more to the end of Stonehaven harbour for celebration...

And then to the pub for more celebration..


And with the east coast of Scotland firmly under our feet we reached the end of our trip.

Ballater to Edzell


     Today started with a few less members of the group riding, deciding to spend some time off the bike and walking around the sights of Ballater, Royal Deeside and Balmoral Castle. For those riding however it turned out to be quite a choice day and at the end of this day all of us that rode agreed that this was probably the best day in a whole series of great days. 

     Starting with riding out through Ballater we began climbing up and out using pathways that wound through old established homes and estates and then into the woods. Climbing, climbing we entered into the higher hills of wilderness Scotland.

     At points we traveled past old stone walls circling pastures of sheep, across our usual and daily encounters with streams. Streams became a daily part of mountain biking the C2C but after the first few encounters they became just another part of riding due in great part to the invention of the drying room and judicious use of newspapers. Sheep were also another part of daily riding including the search for the "Sheep of the Day" photo.

 The single track itself was very varied. Meadows, rocky technical bits, fields of ferns, heather and another new one for us which was a long technical stretch of climbing a single track that had turned into a running stream and was all roots with lifts. Sorry, no photos for this one! Too darn busy to shoot photos but it was so awesome

This day was a perfect slice of Scotland with a little taste of every kind of trail and terrain that Scotland had to offer. Riding through giant fields of ferns on singletrack was something that none of us (except our guide Pete of course!) had ever experienced before. It was pure magic and in it's own way was a form of technical riding.


Each rider was in their own groove, moving over terrain and enjoying the freedom of just riding. There is a simple joy in just riding, reaching that level that pushes technical or endurance ability,  learning a new terrain skill, wheels rolling, legs pumping, rhythmic breathing...just riding..

    Every day on our C2C trip was in isolated wilderness just touching in villages as we would move from one mountain range to a valley and onto the next range.  However this day seemed to be hundreds of miles from anywhere..with of course the occasional smattering of sheep on some small  farm..

    Eventually we moved through the rolling hills of Scotland and began climbing in earnest and came upon one of the great single track climbs of the trip, at times reaching 20%.

This required some folks bike hiking while others were able to hold on to the extended climb that took over an hour to accomplish.



One of the great things about climbing is that through all the suffering that you so truly as a cyclist enjoy, there is the reward first obtaining the top..

and then the free miles of fabulous downhill...although we will have to say we would like to talk to the trail builder on this one.. sweet, so sweet single track on the climb uphill , how about taking it over the other side?? Still.. it was sweet, downhill and well earned.

 At last we came to the end of the route and exited onto the last few kilometers to our accommodations, but we had a choice...take an extra off road route or do the paved into the town of Edzell. Each chose their own way and the group split at this point, some sitting on a bridge having a "second" lunch in the warm sun and shooting photos and the other "group" (our guide, Pete, and Scot) taking the "highroad" and riding the trail. While the trail folks might have been having their fun on dirt the paved cyclists had the most excitement. The pave wandered though a game reserve of sorts with partridges scattered all over the field and road. Riding by the birds would fly up into the air and then further down the road, repeating this over and over again. At one point a farmer was out hunting and as the birds flew up and the cyclists rode by on the lower track the farmer shot at the partridges which also happened to be right smack over the heads of the the unseen bikers! It was just a little more motivation to put some leg on the pedals and head for town, a reunion of riders and of course beer.   At the end all arrived in Edzell feeling that feeling that only cyclists have when finishing a great ride. And we all agreed.. it was a great ride.

Sheep of the Day