The world's toughest downhill race: the Nordkette

This is not just another mountain. The Nordkette, at the north foot of the city of Innsbruck in western Austria is so vast, huge and intimidating it determines the lifestyle of a city.

Rising from the river Inn, the rock face towers all the way up to the horizon. Whenever an Innsbruck local steps outside his porch, he faces the rugged mountainsides of the Nordkette leading up to the peak, 2,334m above sea level. Locals fear the Nordkette as much as they love her. They climb her, they hike her, they ski her… Sometimes they’re rescued by helicopter from her hard shoulders. This, truly, is a mountain you can die on. Through the centuries the locals have learned to live with her; they’ve even tried to tame the stone-cold lady who’s so much bigger than any mere human endeavor, bigger even than the city in her shadow.

Franz Baumann tried harder than most. In 1927 he won the bid to build the stations of the pioneering Nordkette cable car. As he stood high above the rooftops of Innsbruck and looked up, he shuddered at the courage that would be needed by all of those involved. With a 1,040m altitude difference and a track length of just 2,885m this was a massive task. It would take lines of carts, day labourers, farm hands, orphans, sons of the region and beyond, to schlepp all the material up to Seegrube (a plateau 1,905m above sea level) and then on to Hafelekar peak.

Each man working on the project was loaded up with 70kg of materials and undertook two stints up the mountain per day: that’s 2,000m up, then 2,000m down again. These human caravans carved out a goat track taking the most direct route the shortest way up the mountain, snaking tightly upwards. First through the spruce forest and small clearings, then through mixed woodland, finally into stunted mountain pines that thinned out as the altitude increased to open out onto Alpine meadows above the treeline, punctuated with cones of debris from boulders shaken off the shoulders of the giant mountain.

There was drudgery of an epic scale that summer, as streams of men teemed like ants on the last mountain spur of the Karwendel range to tear away a piece of its sanctity. Then, on July 6, 1928, almost a year after construction started, the first cable car ran from Hungerburg all the way up to Seegrube.

Eighty-three years later it’s still quiet in the cable car when it heads off on its journey up to Seegrube. White-knuckled tourists grasp the handrails, several take videos, locals observe the clouds: is something brewing above the Patscherkofel? Are the clouds over the Brenner Pass trying to tell us something? Halfway through the trip, just before the avalanche cone comes into view, some tourists notice the trail under the cable car where a mountain biker plunges his way down, following the old trail of the 1927 porters. “Can you actually do that?” they ask the guys going up in the cabin with their bikes. And they answer, “Yes, of course you can. That’s the Nordkette single trail. Haven’t you ever heard of it?” “Crazy,” say the sightseers, often with a nervous giggle. Those Tyroleans, those wild mountain folk, the tour guide hadn’t been exaggerating. “A photo please, for our loved ones at home.”

Stepping out of the cable car it almost feels that one wrong step would have you tumbling down to the roofs of Innsbruck. Nevertheless, in the mid-1990s, the first mountain bikers plucked up the courage to tackle the historic track, even though in those still-innocent days, prior to the introduction of disc brakes on mountain bikes and full suspension, every metre here would have resulted in sheer self-inflicted injury. Biking down the Nordkette required skills that were needed scarcely anywhere else. The steepness on the one hand, and the loose scree surface on the other nurtured essential sensitivity with the brakes; the tight corners made trials know-how a must.

Hopping sideways with the rear wheel while the front was totally jammed wasn’t just tricksy showing-off, but a basic riding skill. Speed? Not interesting. Dabbing a foot on the ground? Fail! They call this kind of mountain biking ‘vertriding’ – ‘vert’ as in ‘vertical’, and for good reason.

Novices didn’t have a chance on the Nordkette. The mountain was cruel to them and sometimes so, too, were the vertriders. They regarded themselves as the elite in riding technique; they set the standards; they had the pride of mountain guides. OK, others might have ridden faster, executed jumps or style runs – but what was that good for if every one of those oh-so-cool guys was already at their limit after a few seconds of riding on the Nordkette? And by the time they reached the mixed forest, were calling out for their mothers because the trail had cost them skin, gear shifters and brake pads – and at that point the riders hadn’t even reached halfway.

The vertriders named parts of the track after victims: The Prussian Catapult, which today has a more politically correct name of just ‘Catapult’, harks back to a stunt performed by a German who was unaware of the perils he faced. Here, you approach a steep step over a loose swinging root about as thick as your upper arm. If you don’t know what you’re up against you end up in the Catapult programme: maximum intensity.

The track, however, was constantly faced with closure and objections from hikers, and eventually it took a non-native lowlander to give it a lasting shape: Georgy Grogger. Grogger comes from Weyer in the relatively flat Lower Austria. He’s a construction engineer and moved to Innsbruck in 2002 after finishing his studies because he fell in love with the city’s potential. Ground level provided urban life with a twist of Italian flair and 25,000 students as catalysts for positive change; above lay the solitude and breathtaking beauty of the mountains – two poles joined by the Nordkette cable railway.

Grogger was attracted to the vertrider scene and was soon welcomed with open arms by even the chiefs of this stubborn tribe. He went on to be the one chosen to save their trail. “I did it because I wanted to give something back to the sport that had given me so much,” says Grogger, who quickly set about the task in hand. He founded a company – Trail Solutions – lobbied politicians and land owners, had geological surveys commissioned, negotiated a maintenance programme, organised sign-posting and safeguards, arranged national races all in his spare time, while still holding down his full- time day job as a construction manager.

Georgy Grogger is the type of person you give a hammer to on a Thursday, then come back the following Monday to find he’s built a house. His only downfall comes from the voices he hears late at night, some of which make outrageous demands: Bring the top 10 from the Downhill World Cup to the Nordkette, put them up with some of the locals, like one of those vertrider-mountain guide types, and let’s see what the team results say. Let’s put a monster of a track in front of them, then give it to them until their arms fall off. Give them the toughest race they’ve ever ridden, give them fuel for the brain and the soul. A race they’ll never forget. Give them a race that they’ll hate while they’re doing it, but will be etched on their memories forever. Give them the Nordkette!

And so they came.

The Downhill World Cup is a travelling circus that drifts between four continents from March to September with a hardcore of around 200 pros, semi-pros and just as many supporters. There are team trucks, technical support, a retinue of journalists… A likeable microcosm of strong characters who train together and have fun from Monday to Friday, so that come Saturday and Sunday they give their all on the track. With an average race duration of three minutes, rarely is there more than 10 seconds between positions five and 50. So much for the competition.

These are true pros who know their stuff. And they’re supposed to ride a trail at racing speed that’s only a few inches wide in places? One that’s isolated, that hasn’t been excavated, but carved out over decades by mountain boots and, into the bargain, is three times as long as a World Cup track? Where the only safety measure is its relatively low speed and the impossibility of learning each turn and root by heart, as you would in a normal race? The new Nordkette race for 2011 was like inviting the current Formula One grid to the Nürburgring Nordschleife, that other, more storied, green hell. Add to this the extraordinary format: four riders (three pros, one local) making up one team; slowest time discarded.

The pros’ approached this new challenge in various ways. Some riders, like up-and- coming star Troy Brosnan, tried to take the first corner as fast as he could. Others, like Troy’s team-mate Brendan Fairclough, pleaded for a break to proceedings halfway along the trail. (Grogger’s suggested alternative to this common request was typically laid-back: “I’d have to make the trail twice as difficult then.”) Another rider, Nick Beer, spent time training intensively with the locals, while others like the members of the Trek World Racing team with overall World Cup winner Aaron Gwin saved energy and kept the practice runs to a minimum. The prospect of the Nordkette left the world’s best bikers somewhat perplexed, and their mechanics could only partially ease their suffering.

To make allowances for the steepness the mechanics placed the cockpits (riding position) higher, fitted wider tyres with massive tread bars for improved braking and fitted the biggest brake discs they could find from the parts bin. It even got to the point where the stars meekly considered humiliation as a possibility. “The local guys know the trail inside out,” observed American rider Luke Strobel, who is part of the MS Evil Racing team. “Whereas this type of riding is completely uncommon for us – totally different to what we’re used to riding at World Cup races.”

The madness was tangible during race week in August of this year and blended with Tyrolean earthiness to become a mixture of the infantile and the educational. Like when 17-year-old Troy Brosnan was handed an axe for the first time in his life, found himself out of his depth and needed the help of the natives to chop down his first tree. Brook MacDonald instructed the local nightclub crowd in the art of playing warfare with Haribo Gummi bears, displaying brilliant prowess. Andrew Neethling gave a convincing performance as the class clown. And because the gang lived together in the Olympic village, it had the feel of an old-school holiday camp where friendships blossomed. But outside the locals were waiting. They couldn’t decide how best to deal with these visiting dignitaries: treat them like punks, be in awe of them or just pretend like they’re not there?

One mega-punk was amateur Georg Engel, who in the race hammered down the mountain with a cracked six-year-old Intense M3 bike. Its shock absorbers were busted and its forks rickety, but he did it in such an awesome time that it left half the pro field red-faced and spectators thrilled. Georg’s son at this time was just a few weeks old. Not so much ‘daddy cool’ as ‘daddy crazy’.

The specialist when it came to ‘awe’ was Gerhard ‘Gerard’ Senfter, supporting the Trek World Racing Team. He was so star- struck by the superstars Aaron Gwin, Justin Leov and Neko Mulally that he didn’t feel entitled to show them the best line in the root-infested passage of Little Champery. “I thought they were just being polite instead of clueless,” he said.

Willi Hofer, a teacher who was racing in the civilian category, provided the routine. Word had got out that in the week leading up to the race he had tackled the single trail 29 times in 12 hours: that’s an altitude difference of 30,000m, a world record and totally inconceivable for the invited stars, none of whom could contemplate doing the trail even once during training as it’s far too painful.

Quiet and still, Hofer lined up next to the pros, replacing the eliminated Lapierre team at short notice as a solo starter. He ripped down the mountain four times back-to-back and tied for eighth place with the mighty Trek World Racing Team. Clearly he wasn’t satisfied with that, as the next day, Hofer contested a bike race marathon, just for a little R&R.

The Nordkette trail leaves an indelible mark on the common Innsbrucker. Obviously he spends his weekends up on the mountain anyway, and when the world’s elite ride downhill, then it’s an absolute given. He rushes up the Nordkette for the race, he knows the tricky passages and doesn’t hold back with his encouraging yells and cheers. You wouldn’t believe the age groups of the locals who know this sport – they range from seven to 70, men and women.

The paddock area was one big meet-and-greet where autographs hundred were signed by the hundred, and some kids were even allowed to sit on the pros’ bikes. Thousands of spectators lined the trail, more than at some World Cup events, and the highest praise that could be given was, “Well ridden!” The effort, art and craziness of the vert-ride heroes was truly worth every tribute, even if many of them tried to hide the tell-tale stains on their jerseys at the finish, their twisted brake levers, their bloody elbows.

None of the locals truly had a chance against the world’s best, but still MS Evil Racing, an international team organised by a Tyrolean crew, won, trailed by Alpine Commencal and Dirt Norco. And anyway, differences between the locals and the world stars disappeared at day’s end as they waited for the prize-giving, all one big, happy family, all downhillers.

With a suckling pig having given its life for a good cause, and evening approaching, the party finally moved on to the city. People were thirsty, after all, after such a tough day, and the downhillers wanted to put some research into the Innsbruck girls, in what was something of a festival of international goodwill and fraternisation.

All were happy to have survived this mountain, this trail, this race, unscathed, saying things like: “Once and never again”; “See you next year”; “What a great race”; “You too”; “Cheers mate!” Meanwhile, Georgy Grogger looked cheekily into the night sky over Innsbruck and thought about the next escalation of lunacy. His thoughts drifted to Franz Baumann, the man who brought the Nordkette closer to the world. But as ever, the mountain just stands there, unfazed…

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Thanks to Red Bulletin for the feature. Head to www.theredbulletin.com for more on extreme sports.

Photography © Jozef Kubica & Tommy Bause


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