I remember as a kid reading an article in a Kayak Session magazine about kayakers on a cool trip using bicycles to reach the next river. Almost a decade later, I was invited to reprise the Bike2Boat project with Olaf Obsommer, Jens Klatt and Adrian Mattern. Nothing was normal about this summer, and this trip was extraordinary.
I jumped at the chance to explore new (to me) rivers by human power alone. But anxiously asked Olaf about the looming mountain climbs with a loaded trailer before I committed to join in …
“You really think a bloke that hasn’t ridden a bike in years and despises training his legs can make it up these mountain passes towing eighty kilos of kayak and camping equipment?”
“Ya ya, no problem. I remember them not actually being that bad.”
Olaf, as I would learn as we began our first mountain climb of the trip, has either a terrible memory or is a filthy liar.
Adrian Mattern and I set off from Innsbruck together, Olaf and Jens from Rosenheim. Riding the first two days of the trip on flat ground, next to the Inn river, I remember being pleasantly surprised as I clocked my two longest rides on a bike ever at 50 km and 74 km without too much struggle. We met with Olaf and Jens and kayaked on the Salazach river, officially forming the full crew for the trip. If I’m honest the opportunity to hang out and learn from Olaf and Jens was the biggest reason I came on the trip; friends for decades, bad ass kayakers and both very talented with a camera. I see parallels between their friendship and my friendship with Adrian. One of them is needlessly tall, the other is the perfect kayaking size!
We set off from Lofer and began our first climb of the trip up Großglockner. With no experience in bicycling up mountains, faced with the strain of the first few metres of a 2,504 metre climb I gritted my teeth and gave it hell. This lasted longer than you might think. Partly because I am nothing if not stubborn but mostly because towing that much weight up a mountain is slow going, bloody slow going.
A few hours later, I lent forwards into my bike, completely spent but happy with my effort. I could safely say I could not have tried any harder for any longer without taking a break. I drank from my water and watched as Jens slowly climbed the hill.
“Nice work Brenny boy, probably another few hours and we should be at the … “
“Haha, No, No, the half way point.“
Either Jens was joking or I was going to be in some trouble to make it to the top.
Jen’s wasn’t joking. I took turns between focusing on my breathing, cursing myself for going so hard at the start, and focusing on just keeping the wheels turning.
If I’m honest this was the other part to the project that I was excited about. The mental battles that come with pushing yourself, it’s a big part of why I like sending hard rapids. You are capable of so much more than you think, you just have to find a way to break those barriers. I gritted my teeth and kept pedalling.
Eventually we reached the summit but not before going up, over and back down a false summit before beginning our final climb to the actual summit. I momentarily considered using my river knife to slash my own bike tyres and the spare inner tubes I had brought, so I would not have to continue. Before watching a fifty-year-old Olaf, towing the heaviest amount of equipment continuing to push on towards the top and deciding I must surely have more left in the tank.
Making it to the top finally, as the sun began to set was a beautiful finish to what was a horribly hard day.
The ride down, with the weight of the trailers pushing you faster still, was wild. Olaf and Jens mountain bike for fun and Adrian grew up riding motorbikes, so they were comfortable with our speed as we went around hair pin turn to hair pin turn, winding our way rapidly down the mountain we had laboured up all day long to climb. I remember hearing their shouts for joy as they enjoyed their effort free ride down, juxtaposed against my own internal panic as I struggled to judge my braking distance, speed and angle into the turns. It is genuinely the most on edge doing something I have ever felt in years.
The terrain flattened, our road speed decreased and we pulled into Lienz. I was excited to visit this area again, I had been there before for freestyle competitions but had never gotten chance to kayak the river runs in the area. Olaf and Jen’s had spent large part of the nineties sessioning these rivers and it was a joy to kayak with them and hear their stories of past descents, glory and carnage.
It was here that we took our first ‘Obsommer short-cut’ of the trip, up a rarely used mountain biking trail.
We enjoyed a few days of kayaking on the Isel river, along with some long bike shuttles! We would bike to the put-in, leave our bikes and trailers at the top, kayak down the river, walk back up the river, collect our bikes and trailers, ride back down to the take-out and collect our kayaks. Thankfully we where camped at the take-out so at least we then didn’t have to cycle there.
Bike2Boat was officially underway and we spent the next few weeks in a steady state of tiredness and soreness as we biked and kayaked our way around the Tryol region. Part of my soreness came from refusing to embrace some habits of cyclists, like using chamois cream on my saddle region. I had laughed at Adrian as he diligently applied it from day one of the trip.
“2020 mate, do whatever makes you happy but I think you just like how it feels, I reckon you don’t actually need that stuff”
A week into the trip I was no longer laughing and was a firm convert to the chamois cream, no matter how awkward the application of said cream.
As a crew we were working really well together, no cross words, endless stories and lots of good times on and off the river. Asides from Olaf’s occasional choice in ‘shortcuts’ and how bad it felt to sit down, I had no complaints. What more could I ask for, reaching new rivers, purely by human power and doing it with two of my kayaking heroes and one of my best mates?
I watched and quizzed Jen’s anytime he reached for his camera, which is pretty often. I enjoyed Olaf’s balance between working to compose and set up shots on the tripod vs run-and-gun style as he drew his camera from the bag on his handlebars, turned it on and filmed one handed from his bike. My first love is kayaking, followed shortly by filming and editing and it was pretty special to be hanging out with people that have shared the same passions for decades.
We looped around the mountains before making it to Merrano. We struck out on the Passer gorge but won big with the local section of the Etsch river at high water, enjoyed some amazing hospitality by local kayakers Matthias Deutch and Simon Hehl before making our final big climb up Timmels Joch and on to the Oetz valley. The difference between the first mountain climb and the last was obvious. My legs had grown stronger, my strategy with pace and nutrition smarter and my mind was toughened by the past three weeks. The final climb remains firmly in my memory as not being actually being that bad.
We enjoyed a few glorious days in Oetz, put up in hotels by the tourism board, enjoying wonderful little uphill sections and enjoying the rivers that Adrian and I are now lucky enough to call our home runs. Our last big push of the trip was to hike up to the glacier at the source of the Oetz and kayak down. A six-o-clock start saw us thwarted by an avalanche and rockfall in the river and we retreated to the parts of the Oetz that are more commonly enjoyed by kayakers. A great high water lap of the middle and lower Oetz saw us finish at the confluence between the Inn and Oetz rivers.
Elated, knackered and stoked, we parted ways with Jens as he rode home. Adrian and Olaf and I made the push in the evening towards Innsbruck. As with every part of the journey, the final ride home was eventful. Including accidentally turning onto a dual carriageway, several shot-cuts and Adrian attempting to ride through a flooded section of road, failing, falling off his bike and taking the only swim of the trip (glorious).
We made it home to Innsbruck and Olaf set up his camera for the final interview:
“Would you do it again Bren?”
“Absolutely not mate, maybe with an E-bike.”
The truth is I would and will take part in part in Bike2Boat project again but probably not on such a large tour, at least not for a while. I think I will keep my Reacha trailer for my kayak and use it to reach my local rivers, instead of climbing horrendous mountain passes with a kayak. At least that’s what I say now, if Olaf where to call and offer me another space on a Bike 2Boat project, I would remember that final mountain pass not actually being too bad, and all of the brilliant times – how can I possibly say no to a kayaking trip with Big O?
The choices we make individually affect us as a collective. A better future is not built by one lone, lunatic pursuing a hardcore fringe movement. It is about us all striving to make realistic changes that add up to pivotal shifts. If anything comes out of Bike2Boat I hope it would allow people to rethink their journey to the river, occasionally, sometimes, if there is not a 2,500 metre pass in your way and you have some chamois cream handy.
Many thanks to Olaf, Jens and Adrian for all the good times on and off the water and to Reacha and Vaude for sponsoring the project.
Check out Olaf’s edit for Red Bull of the trip over at redbull.com.