The Ferocious Figure of Eight

Salzburg Saalachtal

“Gravel bike” is no longer an unknown term among cyclists but it is still met with questioning looks among amateurs, “What sort of bikes?” Yup, this was the same for us at first but when we noticed that some of our bike tours were being listed on various sites as being among the best gravel tours in the province of Salzburg, we decided to take a look at this topic. And so it came about that we asked Max and his friend Christoph – two proven experts from neighbouring Bavaria – to check out the Salzburger Saalachtal for its “gravel suitability”.  Have a read for yourself:

If you believe that the same equipment means equality of arms, then unfortunately you will be disappointed. This is evident on a midsummer Saturday morning in the car park in front of the Tourist Office in Lofer.

My friend and I want to ride our self-planned bike tour along the Saalach towards Germany and back again with a few mountain stages. Since the route takes the form of an 8 and can therefore be a short or a long and demanding tour, we have lovingly named it “The Figure of Eight”. At first glance our bikes look like racing bikes but on closer observation they have rough-treaded tyres and belong to the category of gravel bikes which are at home on gravel roads.  And they are, as described at the beginning, both identical.

At almost 30° Celsius we leave Lofer in a north-easterly direction along the Saalach towards Reith and up to the Aschauer Klamm.  The almost 6 km flat route along the cycle path is ideal to warm up which the sun has already done by itself today anyway. After a good 300 metres of ascent from Reith uphill we come to the area of the Aschauer Klamm, which is however, reserved for hikers. We are still able to enjoy a bit of single track which is great fun with our  narrow-gauge companions. I am still able to keep up with my much better trained companion while the forest road takes us quite a bit above the steep cliffs of the Aschauer Klamm. The fantastic views amaze us as much as the approaching hikers are amazed by our racing bikes. We notice that even though gravel bikes are on everyone’s lips in cycling circles they are still a curious sight for the rest of the world. 

The trail annihilates our hard-won altitude quickly on the way down to the valley; we pass the national border without noticing it at all and we freewheel past a military base towards Unterjettenberg.  We come back to the Saalach and look for a refreshment stop which we find right on the cycle path. After a shandy and a sandwich, compulsory for athletes like us, we head upstream towards Unken.  Those, for whom the first part of just under 40 km is enough, can now return directly to the starting point or like us, complete the figure of eight (…. and work up a bit of a sweat).

We cross the same bridge at Reith and begin the really tough ascent to Mayrberg.  It’s not enough that the gradient reaches 21 %, no, the yellow orb is incessantly blazing down on our heads. My companion has long since left me and sportily begun the ascent while I fight through the gravel, turn by turn, on the edge between falling off and another turn of the pedals. It occurs to me that a better name for the tour would be “The Ferocious Figure of Eight” but at some point I master it and I meet my partner again, waiting for me on the Mayrberg, who proudly announces that he rode up in 6 minutes and has achieved third place on the Strava rankings. Gasping for breath, I find it difficult to get excited about it but I have more enthusiasm for cooling off in a nearby stream.

As we still have a few metres of altitude to conquer we continue pedalling diligently until we leave the trail towards Hundalm and the view towards Weißbach opens up. With the winding descent in front of us we let rip over gravel and then tarmac. During a short break I ask whether it wouldn’t be better to do this tour the other way and ride from Weißbach towards Reith. After a bit of discussion we agree that although the ascent would be nicer, the descent with the gravel bikes would be really tricky. At the end we are sure that both are possible and it depends on whether you prefer a more relaxed ride uphill and greater difficulties downhill or the other way round.

Once we have all of our metres of altitude behind us, we wind our way back to Lofer,  very tired (well, I am at least). Here there is a well-deserved shandy waiting for us and the knowledge that the same wheels are not always as fast as each other.

The Ferocious Figure of Eight – 55.4 km, 1360 metres of altitude, suitable for mountain bikes or gravel bikes.

If the route is too steep or too long, I recommend the following alternatives:

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