DOMINIK LINSER: VIVE LA RÉPUBLIQUE!

The trails of the Bike Republic Sölden reopened to mountain bikers in June. To ensure that mountain bikers can enjoy themselves, there’s a lot of hard work that goes on in the background, explains Dominik Linser, project leader Bike Republic.

Since it was founded in 2014, the number of mountain bikers coming to the Bike Republic Sölden has virtually exploded. It clocked up an estimated 170,000 rides last summer, with popular trails seeing a mountain biker pass every three minutes. The area is more than a classic bike park, instead it resembles a ski resort. The network of trails currently has over 80 kilometres and is being expanded to 100 kilometres. “We’ve become one of the most-frequently visited bike areas in Europe. And in such a short period of time,” says Dominik Linser. He’s responsible for the project at the Ötztal Department of Tourism and works, so that others can enjoy themselves. Before the project could get off the ground, there was a lot of preparation to do. Linser spent the last five years negotiating with farmers and landowners, eventually signing some 400 contracts to allow bikers to ride through the plots of land. Initially, he met widespread resistance. “The farmers feel passionate about their animals using the mountains in the summer. We had to listen to their concerns. And to take them on board in order to win them to the project.” As project leader, Dominik Linser deployed what at first sight looked like unusual methods. For example, by supporting training for young chefs in Ötztal to use targeted regional food products. “It meant that farmers found a new market for their products due to the growth in tourism,” he says explaining the approach. In the meantime, some farmers even say that they would rather see a mountain bike trail than a hiking path over their land. “Mountain bikers tend not to have dogs with them,” chuckles the mountain bike man from the tourist board. The background here is that there has been an increase in incidents between dogs and livestock, especially where grazing animals have calves and feel threated.

Ski tourism is important in winter and hikers have always been an important target group in summer. However: “Hiker tend to head to areas with something to offer. This is why we made sure that every area in Ötztal addressed a second target group. For Sölden, it was mountain bikers,” says Dominik Linser. The infrastructure including lifts, hotels – and of course mountains – was already in place. The only thing missing was the trails. “We aim to build a mountain bike region that has something for everyone – from absolute beginner to professional rider.” Most mountain bike regions have slopes with a gradient of around 20 per cent. However, this is too steep for average riders or beginners. “As we were late to getting started, we learnt from the mistakes made by others. As such, we reduced the slope gradient on our trails by around 50 percent. Although this meant higher initial construction costs, in the long term we have lower maintenance costs, as the ground is subject to less wear from constant braking, despite the fact that we have more riders,” explains Dominik Linser. In addition, we built our trail network with sustainability in mind with a lot of manual labour and using as little machinery as possible. The farmers played an important role to play here too as they have the knowledge when it comes to soil quality. Without their support and experience, it would have been much harder and costlier to build the trails. “Nobody knows better than a farmer where ground is damp or liable to erosion. It’s important to harness this wisdom and not let it go to waste,” adds the Bike Republic project leader as good advice to other regions.

Conflicts with hikers, as often reported from other regions in the Alps, are avoided wherever possible. At busy spots near the lifts, separate trails and paths for bikers and hikers ensure that both groups can enjoy themselves undisturbed – something that is also particularly important for the re-start after corona. The concept has certainly proven itself in practice. Representatives from other alpine regions have been coming to Sölden to find out more about the mountain bike project. Dominik Linser doesn’t view them as competition. He sees it as an opportunity to further develop the sport of mountain biking – in harmony with nature.

Biking in corona times

The corona virus is also an issue for the Bike Republic. During the current season, riders have to observe special health and safety precautions. These include maintaining a correct distance, following hygiene regulations, avoiding building groups and wearing a face mask in public spaces and when using the ski lifts. However, none of this puts a dampener on the amount of fun to be had on the trails.