Words by: Steffi Marth/ Micayla Gatto
Photos: Daniel Roos
CANADA VS. SAALBACH
- Canada is the land of unlimited mountain biking opportunities. The birthplace of Freeride and North Shore bridges, and home of the most famous bike park in the world: Whistler. It also happens to be the birthplace of my friend Micayla Gatto. Although most of you may know her from her hilarious and strong-willed “Ferda Girls” video, Micayla has a much more layered involvement in the mountain bike scene. Up until the end of the 2014 season, Gatto was competing and shaking up the Downhill World Cup circuit before transitioning into a more creative and adventure-seeking career path.
She now travels the world looking for the best spots to ride her bike and tell compelling stories through video, photography, and her artwork. When she told me she was coming to Europe, I immediately took this as a challenge and opportunity to showcase the Alps. Knowing the caliber of the trails and riding in Canada, I chose Saalbach-Hinterglemm to showcase our European version of “Adventure Biking”, and how it compares to her favourite Freeride spots back in Canada.
The cable cars have just opened on this beautiful June day as Micayla and I gear up, full of anticipation, as I take her to Spieleckkogel. I knew of some pretty epic views with technical single track, and was excited to show Micayla some unique “freeriding” in the European Alps. However, as soon as we reached the top, my Canadian friend steers purposefully towards an almost vertical rock face jutting up from the side of the access road. “This looks awesome! Let's climb up and ride down this!”. This is where I learned that, in Canada, “Freeride” means finding lines everywhere and anywhere… a sort of “choose your own adventure” type deal. In Europe, the term “Freeride” simply means getting a shuttle or chairlift to the top, and descending down sanctioned trails. So, with a decent dose of adrenaline now pumping through my bloodstream, I let Micayla teach me the rules of Canadian freeride as we creatively pick a few different lines down a seemingly unrideable rock face.
What a rush!! We nail the lines and, as I roll around beaming with pride, Micayla is already up the backside of the face again, this time pointing her tires down -in my opinion- a completely absurd and inaccessible line. As I stand at the bottom slack-jawed and confused, Micayla drops this nasty rock crack in the middle of a thick pile of sharp boulders comfortably, smiling and cheerfully extending a high-five, thanking me for bringing her to this spot. Although the line could be considered “Freeride” the rest of our adventure that day didn’t have too many line options or room for creativity, due to the topography of the land. I learn that Canada has a lot more of this open freeride-type terrain, and we decide that Canada, indeed, gets a winning point here.LANDSCAPE
Fortunately, we have local rider and Spielberghaus owner Sabine Holl, to show us the best scenic spots in the area. Sabine steers us purposefully to an ascent that will take us up and over to a scenic ridgeline, and I glance over to see Micayla’s reaction. She’s clearly impressed and awe-struck at the vastness and never ending sea of peaks and valleys. The ride up goes slower than usual, because every few steps Micayla pulls out her cellphone to take photo after photo of the views. Point for Europe?
Shortly before the summit, a dense snowpack blocks the last few meters. The slope is steep and off-camber, and we hoist our bikes over our shoulders before digging in our toes to traverse across. Micayla leads the way, well versed in this type of terrain. At first we are all laughing and having fun, until it becomes apparent that one false move and you could be finding yourself taking a long, cold ride down the side of the mountain.
We reach the summit where, in typical Euro-fashion, there is a big white cross and a summit-book to write in. We have a snack and take in our hard work. After Micayla fills her phone memory with more photos, we blast downhill on the new Hochalm Trail, past a big waterfall before looping back towards Saalbach-Hinterglemm. Although breathtakingly beautiful, Micayla and I both decide it is a draw between Canada and Austria.TRADITION & FOOD
Canada has only been named “Canada” for 150 years, so I take the opportunity to win back some points with some old Austrian traditions. We arrive back at Spielberghaus and I hand a dirndl to Micayla as our hosts start to prepare dinner.
Walter Holl was working hard in the kitchen all day while his wife took us riding. In Austria, the distribution of roles works well among men and women. As he prepares a dish called Kasnocken over an open fire in the yard, Micayla and I take a stab at catching the chickens running around in the coop. How traditional this scenario really is, is up to you. In any case, I think we knock Canada out of the park on this one. The Alpine traditions move on into the night, as our traditional Austrian dinner is served to us in the rustic mountain lodge, followed by a glass of wine in an original wooden barrel hot tub, the sounds of cows bells on the mountainous grassy hillsides lulling us into relaxation. ADVENTURE / WILDLIFE
It’s not an adventure if there isn’t any struggle involved, so, after a 3am wake-up, shuttle to and hike-a-bike to the top of the mountains, we enjoyed an epic sunrise surrounded by the glorious Austrian peaks just as we reach the west summit. This time, Micayla isn’t the only one who’s breath is taken away by the beauty. We enjoy the silence and the warm glow of sunrise on our faces before starting on the trail towards Klinger Toerl, the overpass from Saalbach to Oberpinzgau.
We have to cross a large cow pasture where, Daniel instructs us, there is an aggressive young bull amongst the sows that should be fine if we stay a good distance away. Since Micayla is more at home dealing with Black bears and Cougars, I’m less worried as we start our traverse. Not long into our crossing, I hear Bine yelling from behind, and then, I hear the hoofbeats. The bull is charging down the trail behind us, and I jump out of the way before I get trampled. He charges on after Micayla before circling back, standing its ground, screaming at us. I say screaming because I have never heard anything but the lazy “moooooo” come from a cow. This was a different sound; a dangerous warning to all of us who dared step into this bull’s field. My heart is pounding and my eyes are locked as we move slowly past him. Micayla agrees that, although she has seen many bears, has never been threatened by one like this bull just threatened us. One stressful point for Austria? We finish the ride by passing the beautiful Hacklberg lakes, slowly working our way down to the valley for a well deserved morning coffee. Average Adventure Score: Saalbach is still a bit ahead.TRAILS / INFRASTRUCTURE
Our last point of comparison between Canada and Saalbach is now: the Bike Park. Micayla and I can’t wipe the smiles off our faces as we hit step-downs, wood drops, and wall rides on the pro line of the park. It’s no Whistler, but we still have some great trails that are fun, and there is enough choice for all levels of ability on both mountain flanks plus the famous Leogang bike park, which is chairlift accessible and one valley adjacent to Saalbach. There are also numerous other interesting bike parks and trails in the surrounding area, and throughout the Alps, but, I must admit, they all look to Canada for inspiration and building ideas, and I have to begrudgingly give at least a half point to Canada. SUMMARY
Finally we agree that, although Europe is definitely not Canada, and visa-versa, they both have their own attractions. Whether it be the rugged free riding in Canada, or the deep-rooted traditions of Austria, we decide there are two winners here. We also decided that I will work harder on my freeriding lines, and Micayla…. well, she has already commissioned a dirndl and booked her stay for next year in Saalbach!
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Micayla Gatto and Steffi Marth at Spielberghaus Saalbach 27.-29. September 2019.
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