Trekking the Wienerwald

Mountain biking is adventurous - and can make you feel like Indiana Jones in lycra

Mountainbiking Wienerwald

An indefatigable trailblazer in the Vienna Woods | Photo: C. Cummins

When outgoing US President George W. Bush was asked two years ago what things he was looking forward to in this beautiful city, he said he hoped to find time for some mountain biking in the Vienna Woods. Now, however controversial his policies during his time in office, on the subject of leisure activities, the man from Texas showed an uncanny wisdom.  If you are not allergic to a spot of huff, or even puff, biking in the Vienna Woods must be one of the greatest sources of joy the Austrian capital has to offer.

Dive into the woods from any of the access points in seven separate districts of Vienna and you are thrust from genteel suburbia into a genuine wilderness, where it is no rarity to have slam on the disc-brake suddenly to avoid startled roe deer. There are 45 interlinking mountain bike routes in the forests that begin on the very fringes of the city and they cover, all in all, a total of 1,000 kilometres of trail. Although you will constantly find yourself either ascending or descending, the rounded hills are not too viciously high, never getting about 500 metres. That means if you were to draw the profiles of the routes, they’d all trace the pattern of a very healthy cardiogram, contrasting starkly with the killer heart attack charts that you’ll see representing routes elsewhere in Austria.

The most ambitious trail takes you to the top of the Kahlenberg, a sharp 300 vertical metres of climbing (yes, that’s a thousand feet) up from the Danube. Here the historically minded among you can ride up the very same wooded slopes where once brave King Jan Sobieski and his cavalry so famously rode down and sent the besieging Turks packing – thus marking the first and only time that I can think of when the Viennese had anything kind to say about the heroic Poles.

But my personal favourite route is the Hameau, a 4-hour circle that will offer you technical single-track sections over hump-backed roots, around switchback corners and through shallow fords. It’s adventurous stuff, making you feel like Indiana Jones in Lycra.

Breaking up such moments of drama, the route also offers a series gently winding climbs that start among the vineyards and culminate in panoramic views back over the city – the best is at a forest clearing on the Sophienalpe. After all the work, it’s satisfying to see how high you have climbed. And should the old legs feel a little weary and your blood sugar dive, fear not.  You will pass, on this one 30 kilometre route, no fewer than 5 Gasthäuse. These are all charmingly rustic little inns, mostly the low-eaved and weather-beaten sort with porcelain stoves in the corner. Here well-built waitresses in dirndls will serve you strengthening soups or even, in the good old St. Bernhard-dog spirit, a stiffening brandy for the desperate.

You don’t have to sweat up and down the full thousand kilometres of trials, of course. Even if you stick to just one familiar route, the Vienna Woods will provide variety with its ever changing kaleidoscope of colours, so that the same loop can offer a new experience each time you bike it.

In early spring, when the city is still grey and cold, the forest floor is already carpeted in a rich green flora, dotted liberally with violets. Primroses tuft up cheekily from beneath hazels and the sweet smell of wild garlic dominates the forest. Come summer, the shady woods offer, during the day, a cool haven from the caustic Central European sun and, in the evening, a refreshing respite from the cloying humidity of the baking city below.

But it is during autumn that I love the woods the most. Then, a thick layer of leaves coat the forest floor, so that biking becomes like skiing though a fresh new fall of powder snow, and the same closely huddled trees that kept you cool in summer now shelter you from the cold October winds. The colours are magnificent now; with the yellow, golden and even red shades of the oak and beech trees, highlighted by the stubborn green of pines and firs.

At the end of the ride, when you speed down the final brake-searing descent with your face flushed from the cold and the exhilaration, you remember that you are headed to that magical zone where the town meets woods. It’s a fertile zone known for its ample harvest of the second greatest pleasure offered by Vienna – the Heuriger wine-tavern. You can stagger off your bike and straight into one as soon as you are out of the woods. It’s the great way to end what is, for me and many like me, the definitive Vienna experience.

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