By Stephen W. Clark
Austria is a country characterized by tranquil mountain villages and rugged Alpine terrain. The pristine landscape and perfect little homes are so peaceful they almost look fictional. But in the midst of this calm beautiful country lays a massive open cast mine that for one weekend a year turns into wild celebration of two strokes, steaming coolant, flying rocks and beer. Crazy enduro fans flock here by the thousands as do the top riders and teams from around the world all coming to revel in the chaos of Erzberg. As much a festival as it is a race, Erzberg is without a doubt the biggest event in the sport of Hard Enduro.
Unlike many top level events, Erzberg is open to and welcomes amateur entrants. Kory Cowan a bike shop owner and amateur enduro rider from Salt Lake City got a wild hair to race the event as a way of celebrating his fortieth birthday. Looking to get the full Austrian experience and knowing that there is no better way to experience a foreign country than from behind the bars of an adventure bike, we reached out to KTM who generously offered us the loan of two KTM 790’s to use on the trip.
A plan slowly formed that involved us flying to Munich Germany. From there we would drive a rental car across the border into Upper Austria to Mattighofen where we would visit the newly opened KTM Motohall. We would then pick up the 790’s and travel through Austria to Eisenerz where we would stay for the best part of the week and Kory would ride a rental KTM 300 in several of the Erzberg events.
After months of planning and the job of packing for two vastly different types of motorcycling, we got on a plane in Salt Lake heading east. Delta did us well with just one connection in Detroit and an overnight flight that landed us in Munich early the next morning. In Munich wwe picked up a European sized car, packed it full of gear bags and headed for Austria. We made a quick stop in Salzburg to drop off a gear bag with the guys from Ride X Power who Kory would rent a bike from for Erzberg.
Mattighofen is home to KTM and with several manufacturing buildings, test facilities, offices and warehouses they are by far the biggest business in the small town. Right in the center of town is KTM’s newest building, a state of the art architectural masterpiece called the Motohall. This 28,000 sq foot building tells the story of the brand with interactive displays explaining the company’s approach to motorcycle technology, a lineage of the history of the bikes and a hall of fame celebrating their biggest wins. The guided tour of the Motohall told the story of the brand dating as far back as 1953 and rapid growth of the brand since the current leadership took over in 1992. It’s remarkable that in this relatively short period of time, KTM has gone from a niche off-road manufacturer to recently surpassing Harley Davidson in number of bikes produced and becoming Europe’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. Ready to Race is the mantra of the brand and KTM’s impressive list of racing accomplishments are celebrated with the actual bikes and dressed mannequins of the racers in the Hall of Fame. Following the tour we enjoyed dinner at the new Garage restaurant on the property at the MotoHall. Eating dinner on a patio between a Dakar Rally Truck and MotoGP bike was quite a special experience.
The next morning we went to the KTM Marketing Workshop where Andreas and Harald introduced us to the motorcycles we would be riding for the next week. A pair of KTM 790 Adventures one white and one orange both equipped with KTM hard panniers. We made short work of packing the bikes, using the space in the panniers and installing a tank bag from MOSKO MOTO along with a Backcountry 40 rear duffle bag secured with their Backcountry Cinch straps. Eager to hit the road, we had a quick cup of coffee with the KTM guys before heading out. We had planned a rough route that included one of the Alpine Passes that we had found through the Rever App. Our route took us right by Red Bull’s global headquarters, and assuming there might be some sort of visitor center or something to see we unknowingly rode into the center of the campus. Nestled in the mountains by a lake, the facility had some incredible architecture with a pond and a bronze sculpture of a herd of charging bulls.
As we headed towards a showroom with a F1 car, we were met by an angry security guard that appeared from nowhere and it became immediately apparent that we were somewhere we shouldn’t be. We got back on our bikes and got out of there as quickly as possible. A little bewildered by the whole experience, we got back on the road and headed to the Postalm pass that would take us from Strobl to Abtenau. This 16 mile toll road is a slice of motorcycling heaven as it winds up to a 4225 foot summit through snow with phenomenal turns and breathtaking views. Riding the high of the incredible road we stopped for a quick lunch but our moods quickly changed when we came back out to pouring rain. With terrible weather we opted for the quickest route to Eisenerz and just slogged it out. It definitely wasn’t the most enjoyable three hours on the bike but we made it to our Airbnb in Prabichl just before dark. There we met the owner of the cozy little ski chalet that would be our home for the next week. With a wood burning stove, relatively primitive appliances and a good selection of VHS tapes and CD’s it felt like we had stepped back in time, but it was also really nice to get back to the basics. Alexa or even WiFi hadn’t yet made it to this little house and that was definitely ok. After a tour of the house from the owner we had to suit back up and head out in the rain again to get some groceries.
The Red Bull Hare Scramble is the pinnacle event at Erzberg but there are actually several other events in the week leading up to the Scramble. For Kory it started on Wednesday with a training day hosted by Ride X Power, the company who he had rented the bike from. The Erzberg mine is an operating mine so any practice riding in the mine is restricted without a guide. Kory got introduced to the KTM EXC 300 TPI that he would be riding for the rest of the week and did some basic training in the morning, then headed out in the afternoon with professional rider Philipp Schneider. Schneider gave Kory a taste of the course with some runs up several of the key sections of the course. Pouring rain and tons of mud conditions made it tough, but it was a good taste for what was to follow.
As the week progressed more and more riders and fans arrived at the mine. It started to become evident that a lot of the fans coming to watch the event also brought their bikes to race the prologue. This explains the fifteen hundred entries for the Iron Road Prologue. Bright and early Friday morning they start sending riders at 20 second intervals up the 12 km Iron Road Prologue, the course is essentially a gravel road from the bottom of the mine to the top. Aside from the corners and some chicanes it’s essentially a flat out rip to the top. Kory felt good about his run but had to wait all day for results as the organizers don’t announce anything until a mandatory 10pm riders meeting that is held in the beer tent. With nothing else to do but wait, we headed out on the 790’s to explore the area around Erzberg. The roads around the area were absolutely amazing with perfect winding curves, the occasional tunnel and epic mountain views in every direction.
Most of the roads we found would head up valleys and dead end at a gravel trailhead. Riding on gravel roads or any type of off-road motorcycle riding is strictly prohibited in Austria but there were a few rare cases of small sections of gravel leading to public businesses that you can ride. At times it’s a little unclear as to what you can or cannot ride but we learned that if you see signs showing distances in time you probably shouldn’t be there. On one section of gravel some locals said we could ride up there only for us to meet a less than impressed farmer around the next bend who quickly turned us around and sent us back down the hill. There we found a little lodge where we got an authentic light Austrian meal of cold cut meats and bread. Back on our bikes we headed back to town only to run right into thousands of bikes in the Raid on Eisenerz. On touring bikes and full gear we were slightly out of place but we pulled right into the parade anyway, plus the guy on the overheating 300 in the fur suit reminded us that pretty much anything goes. Mass wheelies, burnouts, overheating and craziness ensued as riders moved through town and back to the mine. We stuck around in absolute awe of the chaos until the first ambulance came rolling through, sirens blaring.
The results were finally announced and we found that Kory had finished the prologue in 11 minutes 27 seconds putting him just outside the top 500. Disappointed but optimistic for another go the next day we went to bed. The next day he ran again but the time was very similar putting him in 596th, a mere 9 seconds separating him from a starting position for Sunday’s race. It was a tough blow and a hard pill to swallow after so much time and money had been invested, but unfortunately such is the reality of racing.
After what seemed like a week of events Sunday and race day was finally here. The sun was out and the fans were ready to see the riders tackle the mountain. A fighter jet fly over signaled the start of the race. With a media credential the event organizers require you to be with a guide at all times, so we got a guide and we headed out on the 790’s to try and follow the race. Following the race is no easy task as the course weaves its way up and down the mine and as crazy as the on-track action is, the organizers are extremely safety conscious with security and fences all over the place.
We shot the race from one of the first hill-climbs coming out of the bottom of the mine and from there headed up the course towards the legendary Carls Diner. We were able to get there just before Jarvis and Lettenbichler arrived and shot the top riders going through this boulder field. It was absolutely incredible to witness them navigate the massive rocks. After that we went to Green Hell to see the last few finishing riders tackling the section; the cameras do no justice to how steep and technical this section is. All of the riders we saw had to help each other get through the section. You know it’s another level of difficulty when you see guys on factory KTMs in Red Bull helmets needing a pull to get up the hill. During the race, the Red Bull helicopter following the leaders is about the only indication of where the leaders are on the course and as is typical with watching events in real life, it’s almost impossible to know what is really going on during the race; but we left safe in the knowledge that we could watch the race again thanks to the great coverage on Red Bull TV.
The legendary Graham Jarvis once again finished first but not without a good fight from Manuel Lettenbichler. A total of sixteen riders got to the finish line and considering almost fifteen hundred riders entered the prologue, the 1% finishing rate should give some indication of how difficult the race really is. The following day we hit one more pass then hopped on the Autobahn and burned it back to Mattighofen. Then one last stop at an epic bakery in Freidburg and back to KTM to say our goodbyes to the 790’s, the staff at KTM and back on a plane heading for home. The trip as a whole was absolutely incredible. Like any adventures it had its highs and it had its lows, but getting to see the country of Austria on bikes and seeing the home of KTM and the madness of Erzberg was incredible. The racing was tough but in a way it leaves an open end to the story.
That’s the thing with racing, it has a magical way of pulling people back to try again. Akin to drinking scotch in Scotland or eating pizza in Italy, there is something incredibly special about experiencing a motorcycle in the place it was built and surrounded by the people with so much passion for the product. With the adventure and enduro elements we definitely got the full Austrian KTM experience.
5 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE RIDING ADV BIKES IN AUSTRIA
- Get off the main roads and head up valleys; the further off the beaten path you go the better the roads get. These fantastic roads typically end in beautiful little places where you can get something to eat and enjoy the view.
- Don’t ride on gravel. From what we understand any non-paved areas are managed by the private land-owners and they don’t want you there because if there was an accident they would be liable. There were a few rare instances where you could ride a small section of gravel up to a hotel or restaurant, however a good rule of thumb is that if you are on gravel and you see signs listing places in minutes then you shouldn’t be there.
- The Autobahn is great for covering miles in a short period of time just don’t hang out in the fast lane. No matter how fast you are going it’s likely there will be a Porsche going much faster and filling your mirrors in no time.
- Beer is much more plentiful than water and while that’s not always bad it can make staying hydrated a little challenging. However the tap water is really good so take a big water bottle or hydration pack and fill it up as often as you can.
- The further off the beaten path you get and into the really nice terrain the less likely the businesses are to accept cards so always keep some Euro’s on hand.