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Biking the Slow Hills Of Rural Austria

By Diane Witters / October 26, 1989

WE didn't understand a great deal of the burly gentleman's rolling German speech. But we finally caught the heart of his question: ``Why are you biking? Cyclists are so slow. Get on a train, rent a car, and you can see much more of our country.'' After having biked through the hillsides between Grossklein and Stainz, Austria, my husband and I paused to sip lemonade with Herr Heinrich, who had called to us from his yard. It was during our chat - complete with enthusiastic gesturing to make up for our lack of language proficiency - that he raised his question.

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Why, when we could visit so many more places so much more comfortably by car or train, were we ambling along on our pedal-powered vehicles, loaded down in back with tent, sleeping bags and pads, a change of clothes, and biking tools?

True, in our 10-day exploration of southeastern Austria we had covered a mere sliver of all there was to see in this country. But we had gradually come to the conclusion that our bicycles were far more of a blessing than a hindrance. As we slowly traveled the remote roads that wove through the back ways of Austria, we became part of the life of village and countryside instead of remaining mere observers, detached as if watching a quaint scene on a movie screen.

To us, it seemed much easier from the seat of a cycle to admire the bright bonnet of a woman digging in her garden, to be waved at, or to stop and talk with the local folk than if we were zipping along the rails or speedways. If we hadn't been moseying through the outskirts of Graz, for example, we never would have run into Esther. She was an ardent biker herself who insisted that we follow her home for tea, freshly picked peppers, and goat cheese.

Nor would we have met Gertrude and her son, Helmut, who chuckled at our question when we stopped, exhausted, beside their Gasthaus in Stainz. There was only one dinner on the menu and we asked how large a slab of pork and scoop of fritters we would be served. (Our limited German and constant hunger prompted us to sacrifice verbal etiquette for simple directness.) After a hearty meal with the family, we were treated to hot showers, long conversation over coffee and pastries, and a backyard in which to pitch our tent.

It was also incredibly invigorating to know that we had our roof and bed on our bike racks and that we had to earn our rest by pedaling, often relying on the generosity of the people we encountered to find a place to camp.

Early evening was our favorite time to bike. The pre-dusk light cradled farmhouse, curving pavement, and field in an orange glow. We pushed up the long, bending hills, sweating until our shirts clung wet to our backs, and then let loose at the top and coasted down into some new farm-specked valley. Sometimes we saw children chugging home in tractors with their fathers, or women in faded skirts and scarves forking hay onto long wagons.