Trail blazers have made biking in the Wienerwald more accessible.
In the freshness of spring, the Vienna Woods are a paradise for mountain biking. There’s luminosity in the young leaves and between the trees, the pungent wild garlic is like a rich carpet of emerald. If you pedal your way over to the forest above the village of Weidlingbach near Klosterneuburg, you can charge through this theater of nature on the trails of Vienna’s first purpose-built mountain biking park.
The two courses were shaped by volunteers from a group called Wienerwald Trails, who cleared away old tree stumps and moved banks of packed earth, creating a smooth, helter-skelter descent to the bottom that resembles a bobsled run. This means that I, a perennial coward, can finally ease my fingers off the brakes as I plunge down and – just for once – embrace the speed.
Curving smoothly into wide serpentines, the track is a stomach-lurching, g-force-inducing adrenaline rush of a rollercoaster ride. Hemmed in by the banks of earth, I can lean into curves without losing grip and shift my weight for the next hairpin, even at high speed. This is the easier of the two shaped tracks; to my left there’s a more challenging run with some small jumps and steep downhill lurches.
On a good-weather weekend, these two trails are swarming with goggle-wearing, heavily-armored knights on wheels, enjoying the most exciting development in Viennese mountain bike culture in generations.
Kicking up Dust
Shaped earth? Smoothed down trails? Is it really necessary to manipulate nature to provide mountain-bikers with an easy buzz? Before Wienerwald Trails got to work, there were already over 900 km of mountain-bike trails marked out with green signs. However, the majority of these routes are leisurely trundles along wide forest tracks. Mostly passable by 4×4 vehicles, they provide a good off-road workout but no longer offer the sense of adventure and freedom yearned for by modern mountain bikers. With a new breed of light-weight bikes with sturdy full suspension hitting the topsoil, recent technical advances have opened up vast new swathes of potential terrain for riding.
“Mountain biking has developed from an endurance sport suitable for these forest tracks to a sport with an emphasis on flow and technical skills,” says Wienerwald Trails president Alexander Arpaci, “and the old gravel tracks no longer satisfy them.” It was like having a hammer but no nails. Riders felt trapped and would venture off the designated routes to test themselves on steep, narrow footpaths. Conflict was inevitable: Hikers, surprised by rattling, clanking, speeding bikes were sometimes alarmed and angry.
Wienerwald Trails started as a consensus-building project aimed at smoothing over such conflicts. Arpaci, a passionate mountain biker with a background in forestry, was able to bring interest groups who rarely communicate with each other to find a way to share the woods in peaceful coexistence. He found it stimulating and important to sit down and view the situation from the differing perspectives of environmentalists, landowners, hikers and hunters, eventually ending up with a “better understanding and some sensible solutions.”
Forest for all
In addition to the shaped course at Weidlingsbach that opened in June last year, 20 km of “shared trails” have been added to the forest network in recent months. Marked with explicit yellow signs, they provide technically-challenging, root-strewn trails to test your skills on. The onus is on fair play: Bikers are encouraged to brake to walking tempo if they encounter hikers, who are made aware that they may encounter cyclists if they choose that particular route rather than one of the many “footpath only” options.
So it’s all about being reasonable. The more official routes Vienna’s mountain biking community have to choose from, the less excuse they have to roam onto hikers-only territory. “We’ve learned that most riders are prepared to make sensible compromises about where they ride if we offer them a decent selection of trails,” says Arpaci, “But sadly, not all of them do. We’ll never find that 100% solution.”
While 20 km is still a relatively limited network and teething problems remain, great strides have been made in building trust. Arpaci says the conflicts of the past had given mountain bikers an unhelpful reputation as “lawless adrenaline junkies.” Consulting with forestry officials and hiking representatives was a way to confront and rebuke these negative preconceptions: “When we met face to face, they realized that we bikers were interested in constructive collaboration.”
Indeed, collaboration has been a watch-word for Wienerwald Trails: Their volunteers have sacrificed countless hours to promote and improve mountain biking in Vienna. Early in the season, you’ll see them armed with shovels, reshaping the park at Weidlingbach, picking up litter, or re-erecting “Shared Trail” signs that had fallen down over the winter – or were vandalized. The team has grown from its original five riders to a collective of over five hundred, communicating via a Facebook page to share photos of their rides, highlight areas for improvement, exhort fellow riders to act fairly and organize parties.
The emergence of this idealistic community is a blessing for a city fringed by forested hills only a few pedal-strokes from the hustle and bustle of the asphalt jungle. Mountain biking is a healthy and fun outside pursuit, something to be celebrated in an age of increasing inactivity, obesity and diabetes. Yet its potential has still not been fully tapped: A boom sport that keeps on booming, each new technical development wins over new fans. Vienna already boasts 20,000 to 30,000 riders and Arpaci and his team are adding to these legions by organizing special days for young riders. Getting in on the trend, tourist authorities are beginning to promote mountain biking too.
The former backwoods outlaws are fast becoming the poster pin-ups of a new movement, and their beating heart can be found on the swerves and curves above Weidlingbach.