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Why Most of Austria’s Best Singletrack Is Illegal to Ride

This is what high alpine singletrack looks like in Austria, if you are lucky enough to find some that's legal to ride. Max Ritter photo.

After spending my whole summer exploring Austria on a mountain bike, I found out I’d been breaking the law. The Alpine Republic is home to some of the best singletrack in the world, but almost none of it is legal to ride thanks to 50-year-old legislation supported by landowners and politicians who refuse to acknowledge mountain bikers as trail users.

The issue began back when Austrians first started traveling on two wheels, but was brought back into the spotlight with the boom of mountain biking—specifically enduro and trail riding—in the last few years.

Most recently, in 2013, a harmless incident escalated into national drama when Simon Tischhart and three friends decided to ride their mountain bikes up a gravel road to an annual mountain festival atop the Muckenkogel—a hill outside of Vienna. They shared the forest road with cars and hikers. When they reached the top, local landowner and attorney Dr. Rudolf Gürtler who was also attending the festival approached them and explained he was not happy with their act. Gürtler sued the four riders for 15,000 Euros each, citing a 1975 law that leaves land use decisions in the hands of local rangers and forestry officials.

In practice, this law is often cited as a blanket legislation that forbids mountain biking by not expressly permitting it as legal land use. Forested areas are legally set aside for recreational use by hikers and for economic uses, namely hunting. Any other use requires the permission of landowners or land managers.

After a multi-year court battle that ended in Tischhart nearly facing jail time, Gürtler decided to drop the case on the condition that the riders sign an agreement stating they would never ride the road again. 

The case created such uproar that Austrian riders formed the interest group Upmove to support their cause. They have organized group protest “pushes” up gravel roads, as pushing a bike on a gravel road is technically legal, and have petitioned to lift the national ban.

The interest groups wish to show that mountain bikers have no interest in breaking the law, they simply wish to enjoy the same access rights as other trail users. Acts of civil disobedience are their method of achieving this.

They have had limited success. Some Austrian states, namely Tirol, have created local legislation that allows for riding on designated trails but the national law has not changed. 

Many national and government organizations such as the Naturfreunde and the Austrian Alpine Club support Upmove’s efforts, and the main opposition comes from the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture. It views lifting the ban as not only too dangerous to wildlife, but more importantly, potentially damaging to the lucrative local hunting industry. In discussions about the topic, opponents repeatedly portray bikers as reckless, unfriendly, and only out to ruin the peace of the mountains. On the other hand, hikers and riders have reported many cases of booby traps set to deter bikers from riding on trails and gravel roads.

The good news is that this mindset is slowly changing.

In a country where tourism makes up one of the largest sectors of the economy, local and regional governments have made an effort to include mountain bikers in their long-term plans. Tirol now has a well-developed network of bike paths, gravel roads, and high-alpine singletrack, as well as several bike parks. Their access model works around the existing legislation and essentially pays landowners a small fee to allow bicycle access.

The rest of the country lags behind on this initiative, at most offering up some hard to reach, un-maintained gravel roads for bike access, not the singletrack riders are hoping for. However, locals embrace biking as a legitimate mountain sport, and people are happy to share the trails.

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