Bikers with altitude
Fancy cycling where the air is clear — and thin? Mount up and try the rugged terrain of the Alps. Heather Snelgar steers you in the right direction
In hindsight, I had not given the sheer scale of the Alps, nor the amount of climbing involved, enough thought. We had been riding uphill for a gruelling two hours when I turned to my brother and questioned how much further it could possibly be to the top.
His reply was slightly sheepish. “We’re about halfway up.”
At my look of distress, he continued: “We are in the Alps, Heather. The mountains here are not like the ones at home, they go on forever.”
TransAlp is one of the toughest staged mountain biking races on the planet, with more than 500km of riding across the Alps from Austria, through Switzerland, down to Italy, eventually finishing on the shores of Lake Garda, seven days later. Held every July, it attracts some of the best riders in the world. For some reason, my brother and I decided to give it a go this year.
Over a week we climbed 18,000 metres — that’s more than twice the height of Everest. At times there were not enough expletives in my repertoire to accurately describe the sheer discomfort I was feeling. However, our efforts were rewarded with incredible scenery: snow-capped peaks loomed above lush green meadows, blankets of vibrant yellow buttercups, turquoise lakes and a ribbon of mountain track as the rhythmic sound of cow bells chimed in the otherwise silent valleys. It was magical.
While designed primarily for elite racers, the TransAlp welcomes weekend warriors prepared to finish near the bottom of the very competitive table and accept that they will spend twice as long in the saddle every day as the race leaders. In return, it offers the opportunity to ride some of the most amazing singletrack in Europe. The route is fully marked, and your luggage is transported from town to town.
If this sounds a little too hectic and you prefer an emphasis on leisurely trips to quaint mountain villages and the chance to enjoy delicious alpine cuisine, I would suggest creating your own less hard-core version. Chair lifts and cable cars are available in abundance to whisk you straight to the top of the mountains, thus eliminating large chunks of the arduous climbs.
Whether you fancy something relaxed or full-on, in a mountain range stretching 1,200km across eight countries, there are plenty of epic trails to choose from. If you fancy tackling the TransAlp route, here are my top four pit-stops for the ultimate alpine mountain biking adventure.
The village of Nauders, a short ride from the shores of Lake Reschen, is the perfect place to base yourself for a few days while you explore the so-called Three Country Bike Arena. The lake is bordered by Austria, Italy and Switzerland, giving you the opportunity to experience all three countries in one day: you can have an egg-topped potato rosti for lunch in Switzerland, afternoon espresso in Italy and a schnitzel for dinner in Austria. What’s not to love?
Nauders does not hold the mountain biking prestige of other European destinations, but this works to its advantage: the town is peaceful, the trails are quiet and the views are out of this world.
The Central Alpen Comfort hotel is a cyclists’ dream abode: as an approved mountain biking hotel, it not only offers spacious rooms, glorious views and the plush comforts of a four star hotel, but it also offers secure bike storage, bike hire, guided tours, GPS data on the best tours in the area for those wanting to go it alone and its very own practice area. This hotel will take all the admin of a bike holiday out of your hands. Rooms start at €73 per night. hotel-central.at
A lift pass for the Three Countries area costs €39 for three days. naunders.com
How to get there
Nauders is 250km from Munich airport. If you are driving, you will need to purchase a vignette sticker before driving on Austrian motorways — without one you will incur a hefty fine. Vignettes can be bought from petrol stations. You can also opt to take a three-hour train trip from Munich to Landeck-Zams, which is a short bus or taxi ride from Nauders.
Scuol personifies the picture-perfect alpine village. From the pretty church that sits on the hill above the bubbling waters of the Inn river, to the perfectly preserved architecture on the small cobbled streets, you will feel yourself relax the moment you arrive. The town is also home to one of the Roman-Irish baths popular in the spa towns of Germany and Switzerland — so-called because they were invented by Corkman Dr Richard Barter in the 19th century. This one features an outdoor pool, hot tub, and impressive sauna and relaxation area.
The mountain biking surrounding Scuol is excellent. Twisting single-track and old smugglers’ paths wind their way through ravines and around the Swiss National Park. With 27 routes to choose from, suitable for all abilities, it’s unlikely that you’ll be twiddling your thumbs here.
Hotel Filli, on the outskirts of town, offers the perfect set-up for mountain bikers. A three-night package costs €360 and includes maps, bike storage, bike wash, a repair stand with tools and a laundry service for your biking clothes, as well as breakfast, packed lunches and four-course dinners.
For those who don’t fancy the arduous cycle to the top of the mountain, it also includes access to the mountain railway. filli-scuol.ch
Guided tours are also available for €90 per person, per day. Bike hire is available nearby, from Bikeria. bikeria.ch
How to get there
Scuol is just 26km from Nauders, so if you are planning to cycle from place to place you can take the relatively flat route along the Inn from one town to the next. There is also a bus service that takes 53 minutes. Milan Bergamo airport is 300km from Scuol.
One of the perks of riding in Italy is the food. Mouth-watering pizza and fresh pastas are the perfect fuel after a long day in the saddle. Luckily, the trails are good, too. In fact, I would dare to say that the riding around Livigno offers some of the very best views that the Alps has to offer.
I rode to Livigno from Scuol and, while I did have to contend with 2,500 metres of vertical ascent, it definitely goes down as one my favourite rides of all time. Of note were the piercing turquoise waters of Lago di Livigno as we cycled along narrow paths, with the mountains looming high above to one side and a sheer drop to the lake below to the other.
Livigno offers a huge range of riding, ranging from the 18km, flat path along the river Spöl, to full-day excursions on technical trails: you could base yourself here for the duration of your holiday and never get bored.
The four-star Hotel Spol is another great option for cyclists. Set in the centre of town, it offers maps of the area, bike storage, a maintenance workshop and a spa. hotelspol.it
The hotel is linked to mountain bike tour group MTB Livigno, which offers a range of guided tours for every level of fitness and skill. Discounts on the tours are offered to those staying in the hotel. Rooms start at €128 per night. Bike shops in Livigno are plentiful, and the majority offer rental. mtblivigno.eu/en
How to get there
If you are arriving from Scuol you can opt to replicate the route taken on TransAlp, which is 72km long with 2,500m of ascent. For details of the route, visit bike-transalp.de/en/route/stage-3/. However, those with a bit more sense may prefer to drive: there are a host of bike-friendly taxis in Livigno and Bormio, for a list, visit bormiobike.it/en-shuttle.aspx.
If you are coming straight to Livigno from Ireland, Milan Bergamo airport is just under 200km away.
I have a real soft spot for Bormio. The small cobbled streets are awash with cosy bars, authentic pizzerias and gelaterias. Of course, it’s not all about the food — Bormio has much to offer on the biking front, too, thanks to the Stelvio National Park, which is on its doorstep.
Have lunch in Switzerland, afternoon espresso in Italy and dinner in Austria. What’s not to love?
I recommend riding to Bocchetta di Forcola, which stands at 2,768 metres above sea level. You can access it via the Stelvio Pass from Cantoniera dello Stelvio. Once at the top you will be treated not only to a panoramic view of the surrounding valleys, but also to a memorable descent down an old path built into the snow-covered peaks that was used by the Italian artillery in the First World War, before hitting the hairpin bends that lead up to Cancano.
One of my favourite things about Bormio is the thermal baths at Hotel Bagni Vecchi. Featuring nine natural hot springs, a thermal pool area, Turkish baths carved into the rock and hydro-massage pools, it’s the perfect way to ease achy muscle at the end of a long day in the saddle. bagnidibormio.it
Hotel Alù provides a bike-friendly environment in a great location. It is equipped with bike storage, a maintenance area, a bike wash, free bike laundry and an infinite amount of information about the cycling routes in the area. Rooms start at €128 per night. hotelalu.it
Those needing to rent a bike will be well catered for at Bormio Bike which has two shops in town. The shop also offers a guide service for those who don’t fancy faffing around with a map or GPS. bormiobike.eu/it
How to get there
Bormio is less than an hour’s drive from Livigno and there are bike-friendly shuttles to take you from one to the other. Milan Bergamo is 160km from Bormio.