This post originally appeared as part of my Anywhere Road column for Triple Crankset back in 2012. In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I’m sharing it here as a favorite memory of mine.
I took this photo on a training ride near Graz. I’d just crested a climb, and the play of sunlight across the alm just about stopped my heart in one of those holy there-is-nowhere-else-I-want-to-be-except-right-here-on-my-bicycle kinds of moments. I experience a lot of those moments and will never take them for granted.
However, I often wish I could share this feeling with my parents. Living overseas, I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like, and they don’t ride bicycles. As parents, they worry about me, so they can’t help but think of the physical risks of racing, the frustrating politics and the financial insecurity of what I do. What they don’t get to experience is the kind of visceral and spiritual joy of riding bicycles that so inspires and captivates me (and countless others).
Well, wishes do come true.
Last week — for the first time ever — my mom and I pedaled together through a forested stretch of dirt road on part of my favorite training loop in Graz. She laughed and with equal parts glee and awe, declared, “This is just magical!” I could not have agreed more, but for me, it wasn’t just the exhilaration of flying beneath majestic forest canopy: it was finally having the chance to share this magic with my mom.
When my parents first began planning their visit to Austria, I began plotting a mission to share my favorite bike rides with them. Unfortunately, my Dad caught a cold. My mom, however, agreed to my crazy scheme.
To fully appreciate this story, you must understand a few things. First, my mom doesn’t ride bikes. She knows how to ride (naturally; she was a kid once, after all), but she hadn’t been on a bike for decades. Second, although the terrain around Graz is wonderfully varied with scenic options for flat routes as well as climbing routes, the most stunning views are those earned after some serious elevation gain. I wanted my mom to experience those stunners, and as any cyclist knows, such views are best savored having been earned through solid effort. Driving there in a car simply would not do. The key, then, was finding a way to keep the challenge, without making Mom suffer terribly, and without overwhelming her with things like clipless pedals or scary traffic.
I found the perfect solution a block from our apartment: electric bicycle rentals from Velo Vital. With hybrid-style frames, wide slicks and flat pedals and handlebars, they feature mountain bike gears and an adjustable electric motor, controlled by a throttle on the right grip. One must pedal to engage the motor, and the rider controls how much help she gets from the motor via the throttle.
Here is my mom’s account of our adventure, in her own words:
Our trip to Austria could not have been more delightful and the highlight for me was going on a bike ride, or an eBike ride!
When Amber mentioned taking us both on a bike ride over one of her many training courses in the beautiful, lush countryside of Austria, I responded with great enthusiasm as my inner child has historically been adventurous and physically active, even though I have realistically not been either in many years and so I did have reservations. Atman, on the other hand, was more cautious from the beginning.
Realizing we are pretty sedentary people, Amber encouraged us by coming up with the perfect solution, an eBike (electric bike). The idea of getting a helping hand from the eBike was indeed very encouraging and again I was enthusiastic, but still with reservations. I had not ridden a bike for many years, or perhaps even decades. You never forget, right? Right? Visions of narrow European roads on steep hillsides without guard rails began creeping into my thoughts. I wanted to enjoy the rest of our time in Austria, in one piece, without bandages and/or casts.
The moment of truth arrived. Amber announced she had reserved eBikes for the two of us; by riding one herself, she would be in a better position to instruct me on how to use it. That was a great idea, because she had not yet used one herself, and we could both figure them out together. Atman was able to bow out due to a cold he was nursing, the perfect excuse and no one could blame him.
I had the perfect pair of comfortable capris and tennis shoes, and a helmet on loan from Amber. Off we went walking to the eBike store, sunglasses on, helmets and water bottles in hand.
We checked in, Amber paid while using her excellent Austrian German to communicate with the staff in the office. A young man had already set aside 2 eBikes for us, ready to go. He carefully placed them on the green carpet that was rolled out in front of the eBike store. He gave us very thorough instructions, I’m sure, but they were all in German. Amber nodded and confirmed them in German, as well.
I followed every hand gesture as best I could. We got two keys, one for the motor and one for the locking cable for when we park the bike. We are to press a button to engage the motor when going up a hill. There is a throttle, and two brakes, front and back. I remembered how to use a throttle from my days as a teenager, riding my brother’s Yamaha 90. I saw the front and back brakes then made a mental note to always use both at the same time then I would not have to remember which is front and which is back. Amber confirmed that when I want to stop to use both at the same time. Good, we are on the same page.
Now, it’s time for me to pedal around a little in front of the store to see if I can remember how to do this. After doing so, the nice young man got a very concerned expression on his face and began to repeat instructions, this time in English. Yes, I had a hard time just getting started, and then an even harder time turning while pedaling. I was definitely shaky; well, downright wobbly, actually.
Amber gave me words of encouragement; she had so much more confidence in me than I had in myself. Thoughts of disaster went through my head, and worse, thoughts of failure, I didn’t want to fail, but the odds were not looking very good. A few more instructions, we secured our water bottles through the loops of the cable on the back of the bike, adjusted our helmets and sunglasses and we were off.
Amber paused and explained that she would be giving me hand gestures to indicate her intentions, left arm straight out for a left turn, bent for a right turn, hand on her back with fingers spread for when she is going to slow down and then generally pointing to objects in the road to warn me about bumps, holes and other potentially problematic areas. I was so glad to have an experienced rider to follow, one who knew where she was going and the best routes to take a novice on though a very busy city.
We first had to maneuver through the city streets and sidewalks in order to get out to the country side. There is a lot of traffic in downtown Graz that includes cars, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, cyclists and pedestrians. I had previously noted how well they co-exist, cyclists weaving in and out of traffic while dodging pedestrians, especially the ones who are walking without looking where they are going (me).
I also noticed there are a lot of bicycle and pedestrian paths to facilitate the flow, a truly great idea to foster bicycle use. Another observation that gave me some comfort was the fact that cars do look out for cyclists, they are very aware and always yield to cyclists as best they can, even on the narrowest of streets. There just seems to be a natural give and take amongst the users of streets and sidewalks, a mutual understanding they are there for everyone to use. I love Graz!
Amber said she is going to take me through the nearby park on the way out of the city so we can practice a little before hitting the real roads; she thinks of everything! Pedaling this bike was a lot tougher than I thought it would be, the eBike is heavier than regular bikes, and my leg muscles were already burning, less than one mile out, this was not looking good. Then, my bike wanted to go to the right, I told it to go left but my arms and hands did nothing, so I helplessly fell over, slowly, softly and gently into a little patch of bushes. This was convenient, and much more forgiving than the pavement.
Amber glanced back to see me lying on my right side, the heavy bike had trapped my right foot; I was fine, unharmed and struggling to just free my right foot which I did, but not very gracefully. I scrambled to my feet, well no, I managed to drag myself up and we decided to test the motor. Brilliant! Who needs hills to engage the motor?
Once I turned it on I didn’t turn it off (except for a few times) and I figured out how to use the throttle to help me get going from a dead stop and to give my legs just the lift they needed. WOW! What a difference! The motor does not engage unless you are pedaling, so it is not like a motorcycle; you still have to contribute BUT it makes the whole process SO MUCH easier and SO pleasurable. Then, when you do come to a steep hill there is a “max” button to give you a little more help just when you need it most. I highly recommend eBikes!!!
Note to self: Remember to release throttle when dismounting from the bike. Again? Ah geez. Reminder: Remember to release throttle when dismounting from the bike.
So, there we were, cycling through the park, crossing the street, riding along the sidewalk in the bicycle lane, crossing another street, weaving through pedestrians, riding across a parking lot, going behind some buildings and in between other buildings as though we had done this together a thousand times. Amber, a cycling expert (indeed, she is a pro cyclist) and my personal guide, helped me along with arm and hand signals so I could anticipate turns, slow downs and bumps in the road. She knew just where to go and which way to take a novice. As we rode she would also signal points of interest and tell me about them.
We are climbing a steep hill as she points to new construction commenting on the contemporary style of the new home being built. I look and see the sleek design we often refer to as “Euro” in the USA. A bit further on there is additional new construction in the traditional Austrian style we think of as “Bavarian”. I note how well they co-exist, neither look out of place, they compliment one another well.
As my legs begin to burn while I struggle up the steep hill, even with the help of the eBike (on max now). Then again, my bike wanted to go to the right, I told it to go left but my arms and hands did nothing, so I helplessly fell over, slowly, softly and gently into a lush patch of grass along the side of the road. OK, now I know what to do, been here, done this before so I lift the bike off my right foot, drag myself up and note there is no damage to either eBike or novice rider. We start walking up the remainder of the steep hill pushing the heavy bikes along side when it occurs to us, we can engage the motor which will allow the eBike to essentially walk itself up the hill as we walk along side, holding it. Sweet! I love eBikes!
We are leaving the city behind as we move past homes tucked here and there along the hillsides. It feels like we are several miles away from the city but actually we are quite close, minutes away for folks who live here, yet a real country feel to their environment. I can only compare it to the Berkeley Hills, but there’s a lot more vividly green open space behind the homes. The autumn air is crisp and clean yet moderately warm on this perfectly sunny day. I take it all in, the air, the scenery, the sheer joy of riding through it all on an eBike with my daughter.
As we ride along the topside of a hill I look down at what appears to be a perfectly groomed golf course spreading out across a large gentle slope to my left. I see what appears to be paved golf cart roads crisscrossing the course but then, I see regular cars driving on these roads, what? Amber explains it’s not a golf course; it is one of many open green areas with connecting roads. So much of Austria looks like a perfectly groomed golf course until you get up close and realize it’s a pasture or an open field. And many of their roads are extremely narrow. I look across the green expanse, over to the green trees, on to the contrasting white stucco homes with their red tile roofs and a church’s tall steeple against a backdrop of deep blue sky and would pinch myself if I didn’t have to take my hands off the bike grips.
Oncoming cars, trucks and tractors come towards us and wave as they pass; cars come up behind us then go ‘round when it’s safe, giving us plenty of room. Note: Tractors are commonly seen on Austrian roads and frequently driven by youngsters.
Amber is cruising along; I am occasionally cruising but mostly still wobbling when I pedal and grateful she is in front of me so as not to witness to all of my fumbling. When a car comes up behind me I wobble a little more, sometimes on purpose thinking it will let them know I am a real novice so they have to be extra careful around me. I focus intently on keeping my wheels as close to the edge of the road as possible, but still on the road. The wheels sometimes go off the pavement onto a very narrow shoulder and I don’t panic, I just get back on the pavement, this gives me confidence.
When the road is clear it feels like it exists just for us to enjoy as we gleefully
We are coasting down a gentle slope on the topside of another hill and it feels like we are flying. There’s a pretty steep drop off to the right, another lush green pasture where happy cows graze. There is no guard rail but I am not wobbling as I coast, it is free sailing (with both hands poised over the brake grips). Everywhere we went in Austria, (Styria and Salzburg), one sees vividly green pastures, even in autumn, with happily grazing cows – love it!
I forgot to mention that Amber has a camera mounted on the top of her helmet so that as she rides along she reaches up to turn it on then turns her head in the direction she wishes to video, while riding, chatting and pointing out this or that. She is truly a multitasking cyclist.
One of the coolest things is that many of the roads we ride on are at the crest of a tall hill where the road follows the ridge line so you have drop-offs on both sides and you have incredible views that go on forever on both sides. It makes you feel like you are on the top of the world, on an eBike!
On another section we climbed through a forest on a narrow, winding, paved road and I told Amber “This reminds me of La Honda!”, she laughed and says yes, that what we think too when we ride through this area. Nature abounds as we ride through the different landscapes, taking in a variety of sights and smells, from fresh cut hay to freshly cut grass to the “aroma” of natural farm ‘fertilizer’.
At some point we come to a building, stop, park our bikes and secure the locked cable around the tire and frame. We are going to get a small bite to eat. We walk around the building and down a few steps into a large outdoor dining area with wooden tables, a placemat in the center with a plant, salt and pepper. This area is surrounded by trees with a lush green field in the background on one side, on the other are two buildings in Austrian style, one seems to be the kitchen while the other is a two story high, A-Frame with scalloped dark wood and glass windows to look out on the farm. It is a buschenschank restaurant in a very rustic and beautiful setting.
Amber orders for us in perfect Austrian German: a cold cut plate of cured meats and cheese, and an apple strudel with vanilla cream sauce for us to share. It was delicious and just the perfect amount to keep us going but not be too filling. Looking around we see people dressed in suits, some are dressed casually and we are in cycling attire. People from nearby neighborhoods come by to eat, business people as well. We see a tree laden with what appears to be miniature apples. Austria, famous for Schnapps made from all sorts of fruit and nuts, also makes one from Quince so we are wondering if these might be young quince. I ask the waiter in English, he is happy to respond in English as are most Austrians. He explains that they are a species of apple but he doesn’t recommend eating them as they don’t taste very good in his opinion; I categorized them as yellow crabapples.
As we are riding a ridge line with views on both sides we see a forest up ahead, Amber slows to a stop. She wants to warn me that the next section of road is not paved but is hard packed dirt so riding on it is not problematic. We leave the pavement and begin riding on the hard packed road, which amazingly has no ruts. She’s right, no problem, in fact, the dirt road adds to the almost magical feel of riding through this forest.
After previously riding along the ridge line in the sunshine it was getting pretty hot, then upon entering the forest the air is suddenly cool, the smell of autumn replaces that of grass; the sunlight sprinkles through the leaves of shrubs and trees but rarely reaches the forest floor where all seems damp but not wet. I shout up to Amber as I proclaimed, “This is the ‘Magical Forest!’”, (truly a magical mystery tour).
Then, without warning, there are people, two on one side and one on the other; they have hiking poles and are dressed in hiking clothes and boots. I quickly note the flag of Austria painted on a tree as we sail past. Austria has miles and miles of carefully maintained hiking paths clearly marked by painted flags from one visual point to another to guide the hikers. Hiking in Austria seems to be a national activity, everyone hikes, and travelers from around the world come here to hike. (I prefer to eBike!)
Heading out of the forest and into the sunshine I have lost my wobble and don’t have to concentrate on how to ride my eBike anymore. I finally feel one with my bike as we continue on chatting away and enjoying the countryside. We climb up hills and wind down narrow roads; we ride along ridges while giggling at times like children. After a while, we descend into the city, ride along a river on a bike path, cross streets, weave around pedestrians and other traffic, enter the park and note the unicyclist on a corner. We get closer to downtown and soon find our way back to the eBike store where I proudly ride up without wobbling and dismount like a pro.
Thank you Amber, for this adventure, the memories will be with me forever. Austria is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and one of the best ways to see and experience it is from the saddle of an eBike.
I came away from that experience with an appreciation of how much fun cycling is and how much more interesting and exciting it is to view the world around us when we can be more interactive with the environment.
– words by Carolyn Rais
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you, Mom, for sharing this lovely narrative, and thank you most of all for trusting your inner child and riding with me!
And to the readers, thank you for reading.