Austria – The Last Day: Maiskogel, not yours !

29 08 2008

Our last day in Kaprun dawned and as predicted the sunshine of the previous day on Hunstein had long gone. In its place were big lumps of fluffy white clouds drifting about, with some higher clouds building in an ominous fashion. The forecast was rain of biblical proportions (Quote from the local forecast : “there will be some flooding in the afternoon following very intense rain”) so we needed to get a move on to stand a chance of at least riding in the dry for a while. The weather here is notorious for sticking two fingers up at the forecast, so we didn’t really know what we’d get.

Early texts from Andrea the guide indicated that a return to the technical and swoopy trails of Saalbach was off the cards, as was the famed Maiskogel descent. For those non-german speakers amongst you, this is pronounced “My Skogel”, giving rise to the excellent and repetitive jokes (e.g. Me to Lisa: “Hey Lisa (points at mountain) Does that Skogel belong to you?” Lisa: “Yes, its My Skogel (Maiskogel)”. You get the idea). Our discussion the day before with Andrea about Maiskogel had concluded that

a. It’s a blimmin’ steep technical plummet, the steepest and toughest around these parts.

b. It’s part of the UCI marathon course that the pro racers use (so is a little bit of a celebrity in the MTB world)

and c. You DO NOT want to ride it in the rain. Andrea reckoned that “the trail comes with you” and left us all wondering what this meant but pretty sure we didn’t want much of that personally.

So, the alternative plan was to ride the Bruckeberg, a low level route that would at least get out on our bikes. Suitably equipped we rode into Kaprun to meet Andrea and Matus. My nerves I always get before riding anything technical were non-present. This was going to be a fireroad-based adventure, with the whole group together. Jolly good, a nice easy day.

Under a darkening sky Andrea had new information – the rain wasn’t predicted until the evening, so Maiskogel was back on. Oh God, here come the nerves again. After many good luck’s and take care’s , we rode back to the apartment to pick up the arm and leg protection, Donna and Lisa rode away to do the Bruckeberg route as planned. This was already a day or surprises – what next?

Mad Matus took the road option up to the top of Maiskogel, whilst Ollie, Sally Rick and I pedalled up the road to catch the cable car. With rain threatening, we needed to get up and down before it got too damp. Amazingly, we met two other crazy Brits in the tiny cable car, and soon we disappeared into the low clouds on the mountain. (Oh, and I think we saw about three times as many Brits on this day – what is it about cloudy and wet weather that brings us out?) At the top visibility was no more than 50m, and everything was dripping wet. A kind of constant drizzle rather than rain and I felt quite at home. Matus appeared after a disgustingly short period of time and looked hardly out of breath. We wondered if he had caught the next cable car up, but sadly he arrived at the top from the other direction. Fit is not the word!

We had a short climb first, its one we’ve done before and we all sweated our way up, waterproof jackets allowing the heat to build up nicely and red-faced we arrived at the Glocknerblick restaurant. The owner offered to put our bikes in the dry, but we had plans that don’t involve stopping for coffee. Pads on, helmet camera on and we’re off. I’d been noticing the moisture gradually increasing, so by the time we’re on the first section of the descent it’s raining. Proper, big alpine rain. Big heavy raindrops and lots of them too. With Andrea’s words ringing in our ears we eyed up the first part of the trail. It starts from the back of the restaurant, through a gate. Fenced on both sides the trail is narrow, steep, and covered with big rocks. Quite a pleasant path to walk down, which Sally and I do for the first part. Rick and Ollie slither their way down, weight way back and hearts in their mouths. After a few hundred metres the rain has got heavier and we sheltered under a tree. We’re all looking at Matus to see if he’s going to pull the plug and take us down the fireroad, but thankfully he’s ridden with us a bit and knew we’re all able to get off and walk when we reach our individual comfort zones (Knowing your boundaries is a much underrated skill in my book). So we continued and the trails eased a little and we’re all on and riding. It’s narrow, either steep or really steep and littered with hairpins. We fell into a order behind Matus based on our own styles. Rick is right behind Matus, elbows out and sliding down everything with a huge grin on his face. Then it’s Sally and I, riding some and walking some, really content to pick and choose what we ride. At the back Ollie’s in his element, loving the slow-speed-ultra-technical style that’s needed to ride this. He’s managing to give Sally encouragement too, quite a feat given the consequences of a mistake up here.

As the rain increased everything got quickly soaked, including our disc brakes and there’s an outbreak of wet disc hooting noises from all our bikes. It sounded like an Italian traffic jam – lots of different car horns being sounded at once and we’re all in fits of laughter given how we’re totally spoiling the peace and quiet of the mountains. Somehow the laughter released a lot of tension and changed the atmosphere of the ride. Maybe it’s the fact that it was raining so hard, maybe it’s the adrenalin that’s sloshing around my system, maybe it’s the smile of Matus’s face as he realised what fun this for us.

I’m amazed – I didn’t think it would be possible to enjoy such a steep and long descent this much, especially as conditions are so bad. It was already truly memorable and we’re only halfway down.

Matus warned us about the next section which maybe a little muddy. What we can’t see was the half dozen cows that have spent the last few days walking up and down the next section of trail, chewing it up and leaving 4 inch deep hoofprints. Rick has a taste of home and charges off, back brake jammed on, carving a 4 inch furrow through the clag. He gained a “Farmer Rick” nickname from that point on. Some parts are utterly unrideable and we’re all off and pushing (including Matus, who for once seemed less than god-like on his bike in the muddy sections). Here we did experience what Andrea had warned us about. Ollie rides past, way off the back of the bike and back wheel sliding. He stops and a few seconds later a wave consisting of the mud he’s disturbed is washed down. Gulp.

Soon the trail improved, and after yet more switchbacks, there was a section with three really horrendously steep rock chutes. I rode the first one, sliding the whole way and being really grateful for the 5 inches of suspension. Properly giddy at the bottom, Matus was waiting at the top of the next and warned me that Rick has made it but “mostly on the front wheel only”. I walked this one, shaking arms reminding me what a good decision I had made. The third is easier but still tricky. The rocks have gotten slippery by this point and the trail is only a few feet wide. There’s a rock wall on one side and at least a 100m drop on the other, so again it’s no time for heroics. The next few sections were again rock strewn, slippery as hell and demanded complete concentration.

We’d seen the lower part of the descent from the road earlier in the week, and it looked fun – a singletrack with hairpins across a meadow. Up close it was a wide track, much faster than expected with big sweeping turns that were crying out for big slidey brake-assisted turns. Still high on thrills, with the knowledge that the steepest parts were over, we flew down the trail and popped out right next to a café. We got some very odd looks indeed from the people sheltering with their cappuccinos. This bunch of soaked, muddy and grinning idiots and a shivering Slovakian guide. Matus showed us a fun singletrack way of finishing and then it was quick pedal back to the apartment to dry off and get warm. Sat having lunch we all couldn’t quite believe what had happened. Here was a new benchmark for any future downhill. “It was a steep descent, but not like Maiskogel” and “What mad a ride, parts were almost like Maiskogel”. You get the picture.

Looking back it was one of those rare times when everyone was able to ride up to and slightly beyond their comfort zone and enjoy it hugely in the process. No egos, no comparing of skill levels, just each having fun in our way and riding in our own style.

Also on reflection it was an absolutely brilliant bit of unobtrusive guiding too. What a great call to let us continue – a real good reading of the group and our abilities. Whenever there was a big hazard, Matus would be waiting to point it out. Thanks Blatovaprdel for an unforgettable ride…Rich (helmet cam footage to follow soon)

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