I was never really much of a cyclist. Growing up in Vienna in the eighties and nineties, I occasionally rode my bike to the nearby park to play soccer with friends or to one of the public pools in the district during summer school holidays. It wasn’t until my college years when I got more into cycling, mountain biking then, as a form of exercise.

Finally, after moving to California towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium, I purchased my first road bike. From there, I discovered long-distance riding and bike touring and eventually cycled across my home away from home, the United States. And now I had a chance to bike across my actual home country: Austria.

Austrians, especially those living in the more mountainous regions, adore the outdoors. Free time is usually spent hiking, cycling, or running, either alone, with the whole family or in larger groups. Cycling routes are numerous. However, there is no nationwide cycleway system akin to the one in Switzerland. In Austria, each state seems to set up its own network of trails and routes, which makes planning a journey across the country a bit challenging. While there are popular routes for road cyclists, those are usually suited for longer outings on a Sunday, coming back in time for the afternoon coffee and cake. Eventually, I opted to string together well-known cycle paths with off-road, but non-technical mountain bike trails and sections on low traffic local roads from Vorarlberg in the west to my hometown, Vienna, in the east. And explore the place I am from like I had never done before.

I left Dornbirn, in the state of Vorarlberg, a place I spent four years of my life, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late August. The spirit of summer was palpable with people out and about, patronizing the restaurants and cafes at the Marktplatz, sipping coffees and licking gelato cones. While I was living here during my college years, I started to get a bit more serious about mountain biking, taking advantage of the trails bringing you into alpine terrain and away from any crowds. More than ten years later, I was about to embark on crossing not only the state of Vorarlberg but the whole country on a bicycle.

Shortly after leaving my friend’s place, I had to concede that I had put a lot of thought into my route, weather conditions, and places to stay but had neglected to check the conditions my brake pads were in: very much worn down. Finding a bike shop in Vorarlberg that was open on a Sunday was a bit challenging, and banking on finding a store that was not closed along the way was very much a Hail Mary. Against the odds, I found Sport Broger, an outdoor store in Mellau, open for business. The owner keeps the shop open on weekends during the summer months to serve the many mountain bikers who frequent the area on Saturdays and Sundays. “I tip my hat to you,” Mario, the head mechanic, seemed impressed. I had told him about my trip, and he seemed especially surprised by me sleeping in a tent.

The west of Austria is very much the country’s alpine region. With each valley having its own character, history, and, sometimes, dialect, plotting a path through this area essentially meant finding ways to make it from one valley to the next in a more or less cycling-friendly way. From Dornbirn, I opted to head to Bregenz Forest and then crossing into Tyrol via Hochtann Mountain Pass as opposed to aiming for the more well-known and more trafficked Arlberg Pass.

My first night was spent in the driveway of a clubhouse of a local soccer club, right along the gravel Bregenz Forest cycling route no. 3, connecting Schwarzenberg with Schoppernau. The following morning was nothing short of magical, the orange hues emanating from the horizon behind the mountain range. The morning dew on the grassy field was glistening as the sun eventually rose and provided some warmth while I was preparing oatmeal and instant coffee for breakfast. As I continued along the dirt path, following the Bregenzer Ach river, sun rays were penetrating the tree’s upper foliage, turning the track into something from a fairy tale.

The ascent of Hochtann Mountain Pass was followed by a downhill into the Lech Valley and crossing into Tyrol, the next adjacent state. The Lech Radweg, a dedicated cycle path, took me northeast along the valley on an ever so slight downward slope. The trail occasionally crossed the Lech River on small pedestrian bridges, enabling views of the turquoise-colored water. All around the landscape was framed by the Allgäu Alps mountain range, with peaks up to 2,600 meters high. I strolled along the cycle path to the town of Reutte, stopping at a Eurospar grocery store for a late afternoon snack, a Leberkäsesemmel, before turning southeast into Zwischentoren valley. On paved cycleways connecting the communities, I hopped from village to village, the path meandering between plots of farmland, before eventually finding a place to camp under a highway bridge.

I reached the Ehrwalder Basin in the early morning hours of the following day, the sun just in the process of evaporating the fog that had settled in the valley overnight. The tranquil and idyllic scenery was interrupted by sounds of heavy machinery, stemming from the handful of construction cranes visible in a few corners of the valley. It seemed that the income derived from tourism was being invested in expanding the real estate market in the area. More and more people are trying to get in on the tourism boom.

Taking the gondola up to Ehrwalder Alm would have been the sensible choice, yet I opted for the path of most resistance, inching up the incredibly steep paved forest road instead, my legs screaming at grades of up to 15 percent. I huffed and puffed, having to take breaks in regular intervals, my quads screaming and my heart about to jump out of my chest. Eventually, I reached the upper slopes where the grade flattened, and I continued past day hikers on a gravel road to the crest. The descent on a gravel road chiseled into the sides of the Gaistal quickly raised my energy and excitement levels, cruising down a narrow alpine valley, going in and out of forests, passing small waterfalls and vistas of the 8,000 feet tall mountains all around. The final steep descent from Seefeld, a village which has played host to several Winter Olympic Games, eventually took me into the Inn Valley. On the well-established cycle path along the Inn River, weaving through both industrial and residential areas, I was gently reminded that I was firmly back in proper civilization, as I approached the state’s capital city, Innsbruck.

The North-Chain mountain range seemed almost intimidatingly close as I continued along the well-developed Inn Cycle Path the following day. On flat terrain, I cruised through industrial areas, smaller settlements, and farmland. Kitzbühel, location for the world-famous Hahnenkamm downhill ski race, introduced itself to me with a Bentley car dealership as I entered the town from the west. The modest inn I found for accommodation was a refreshing counterbalance to the otherwise posh-looking village, with luxury stores and a whiff of pretentiousness in the air.

Saalbach, the self-proclaimed “Home of Lässig” (eng. casual, cool, laid-back) and premier ski resort town was waiting at the bottom of the descent. I had labored up another steep gravel forest road and reached the Wirtsalm, an alpine pasture and the name of a rustic mountain cabin, serving snacks and drinks to weary hikers and mountain bikers.

As much as I enjoyed hearing about my new German friend Torsten’s outdoor exploits that he kept babbling on about, it was time to leave. The downhill bringing me right into the very center of Saalbach was more harrowing than enjoyable, and I was thankful for functioning disc brakes.

I debated for a while whether attempting to ride the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, the highest surfaced mountain pass road in Austria, would be a good idea. Yet as I stood in the parking lot of Restaurant Fuschertörl at an elevation of 2,430 meters, I was probably the happiest guy around. Four hours earlier, I had passed the toll road booths and happened upon a sign displaying the average grade of the road ahead at 12 percent.

I was intimidated but by far not the only cyclist attempting this beast of a climb. Plenty of other road cyclists zoomed past me with substantially less weight to carry. Entering an area surrounded by 10,000-foot peaks, the road snakes up the slopes higher and higher. The numbered hairpin turns gave a sense of progress, yet I used every opportunity I could get for a break to catch my breath. The smile I had on my face upon arriving at Fuschertörl disappeared quickly: this wasn’t even the high point. After a short dip into an upper alpine basin, I had to climb back up in a slight drizzle to Hochtor at 2,504m elevation. What followed was an exhilarating downhill into Carinthia, ending at Heiligenblut and into the Möll Valley before I ended up finding a place to camp in a forest close to Winklern.

Nestled along the western shore of a lake, the village of Hallstatt, population 779, delights visitors from close and afar. Pictures of the town center are omnipresent around the world. With the spire of the hamlet’s evangelical church featured prominently against the backdrop of a mountain range surrounding the area, the town is omnipresently displayed on desktop wallpapers and screen savers on digital devices everywhere. Overcrowding and over-tourism had been topics of considerable disagreement amongst residents as of recent, with the ones with tourism-related businesses pitted against regular residents, annoyed by tourists viewed their town as a big open-air museum.

Passing through in early September, it was luckily past prime tourist season. I continued east and interestingly only a few kilometers away, the Grundlsee provided an almost equally beautiful setting with crystal clear water and forested slopes transitioning to exposed rock toward the upper elevations of the mountains surrounding the lake. Following the Enns Cycle Path, I arrived at Gesäuse National Park in the evening, the road snaking through the park at the bottom of a narrow valley. I pitched my tent at the Forstgarten campground, looking up towards the limestone peaks, colored in orange hues by the setting sun.

The following day I firmly left the mountainous regions behind. I had entered the alpine foothills of Lower Austria, characterized by endless rolling hills and the area providing fertile land for all types of farming, most prominently viticulture. The smell of cow dung seemingly followed me as I moved from one small village to the next, partly on paved cycle paths, other times on gravel tracks between cornfields.

Instead of aiming for the Danube and following its course towards Vienna, I decided to plot a route through the Vienna Woods, a forested highland and popular recreation area. Via a combination of paved local roads and forest tracks, I went in and out of forests, the path very much to myself, only to suddenly emerge at an intersection with a paved local road, leading to smaller settlements. I consumed a long and hearty lunch at Windischhütte, a homey restaurant with outside seating before following a slightly rough mountain bike track to the banks of the Danube. The bumps and rocks, it turned out, were too much for my rear derailleur to handle, which required a mechanical side-of-the-road repair session to get me to the finish line.

With only one gear, I made my way along the cycle path, well-frequented on Thursday afternoon towards the center of the city. I crossed the Wien Fluss at Schottenring, puttered along the Ringstrasse, and entered the first district via the Heldenplatz. Slowly gliding through the narrow and historic inner-city streets, dodging tourists and locals, I made it to Stephansplatz and touched the facade of St. Stephen’s Cathedral on a warm late summer evening. None of the hundreds of tourists around me neither knew or cared about what I had experienced over the previous two weeks. But that was alright with me. I saw my home country in a way few people have: from the vantage point of a bicycle saddle.

Austria has quite an extensive network of cycle paths, however, there is no overarching entity or organization that manages them all. Each state maintains its own routes, with their own type of waymarking. The documented paths are either traditional, paved cycleways or mountain biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty. The challenge is to find the right mix suitable for gravel riding.

From my starting point in Dornbirn, Vorarlberg, I essentially tried to connect one state to the other using the most cycle-friendly routes possible, while trying to add variety, i.e. gravel/easy mountain bike treks), into the mix. OpenCycleMap was helpful to get an overview of established cycle routes throughout the country. I ended up using Komoot to put the final route together.

Austria (as well as neighboring Germany and Switzerland) is very accessible by train. The closest airport to my starting point in Dornbirn would be Zurich Airport from which there are regular connections to Austria.

Alternatively, one could also fly into Vienna International Airport and then either do the tour in reverse or take an Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) train to Dornbirn.

Obtaining food or water should not be an issue on a bikepacking trip through Austria.

Even when opting for a more adventurous route than I outlined, you should pass through settlements with at least a grocery store on a frequent basis. I found Spar/Eurospar locations the ones with the most selection, but others will equally do the job (like Billa, Merkur or ADEG).

One thing to consider is that, especially in smaller towns, stores will most likely close earlier on Saturdays and will be fully closed Sundays.

The vast majority of the route was on tarmac, either on dedicated cycle paths or low-traffic local roads. I did use mountain bike trails a handful of times, especially when trying to connect from one alpine valley to the next. However, those trails were non-technical and not an issue tackling them on a gravel bike.

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