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Travel report: Bike Park Winterberg, Germany

The Scandinavian biking season tends to start quite late spring. This year, start of the riding season was further delayed with the spring arriving even later than usual. In Scandinavia, most bike parks don’t open before late-May or June.

Keen on starting the season earlier than what is possible here up north, we decided to kick off the season in Winterberg, Germany. We booked flights and accommodation already in February/March for May 1-5. In fact, season's premiere also in Winterberg was delayed to very late-April, which according to our understanding is a few weeks later than their usual early-April opening. After all, we were lucky that the park finally opened just a few days ahead of our May 1 arrival.

Why Winterberg?
We wanted find a place that is easily accessible by flying from Stockholm and Helsinki taking into account that we could spend no more than four nights at the destination. To maximise the amount of vertical and in order to make most out of the trip we decided to consider only lift assisted riding for this trip. With these criteria we found Bike Park Winterberg to be an interesting alternative. Its location in less than a two-hour ride by a car from the Dusseldorf international airport and flight schedules that were suitable for us made it a quite ideal choice for this year's riding premiere.

April 30 - One night in Helsinki
Our flight from Helsinki to Dusseldorf was scheduled to depart very early in the morning on May 1. We arrived from Stockholm to Helsinki a night before, on a May Day Eve. May Day’s Eve really is something very special for Finns. You may have heard stories about serious party on streets in the downtown Helsinki. Indeed, it can be a very involving experience for foreigners to see streets crowded by people ranging from early teens to pensioners. Behaviour of usually quite reserved Finns on May Day’s Even tends to be heavily influenced by a very liberal use of booze. Some streets in the downtown on that day are blocked from cars for the sake of partying. This really is a big event, probably the biggest party of the year in Finland. Many university students start their celebrations already a week in advance, making the whole event a real endurance test. Most teenagers probably start early in the afternoon while some odd late-comers may wait until the early evening before getting drunk in public. Depending on the weather, streets in the downtown area may be occupied by tens of thousands of drunken and unpredictable locals. For foreigners, it is recommended to watch out for locals who may turn aggressive later at night as the alcohol content in the blood rises. Beware also that this is one of those days when leaking the beer overdose all over the pavement is considered fine by the police.

With these thoughts in mind, we were quite excited but also slightly concerned when we were sitting in a cab and heading to the downtown. We arrived at our hotel sometime at around 8 pm in what appeared to be a quite chilly evening. To our surprise, everything seemed strangely calm. Honestly, we had been expecting more people, more action and more sense of danger. It remains open for a debate if the Finns have learned some more civilised European drinking habits over the past years or whether it was the result of the chilly weather that we didn't witness what we really had expected. After checking in at our hotel, we felt comfortable to take a walk outside for a quick dinner before an early bedtime ahead of the 5.30 am wake up in the next morning for an early flight to Germany.

A word about Helsinki hotels
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Speaking of Helsinki downtown hotels, there are several quite nice alternatives. We stayed at Hotel Glo Kluuvi, located at Kluuvikatu street in the very heart of the city, just next to the city’s most upmarket hotel Kämp. Hotel Glo Kluuvi opened its doors a few years ago and has since been one of our favourites when visiting Helsinki. Despite being already a few years old, it is still in a pretty nice condition. Unfortunately, for some reason they re-built the reception and lounge area earlier this year. Gone is the previous lounge bar that was one of the nicest lounge bars of Helsinki hotels. The new setup has a quite fresh Scandinavian design compared to the previously cozy, Spanish inspired style. Design aside, there is not much bar to talk about anymore. Most of the previous bar estate has been taken over by a restaurant which was previously located in the second floor of the building. The old restaurant premises have been converted to a conference center. While none of this is a too big thing for us, especially considering this trip, we were still disappointed to see the nice and lively lounge bar gone. However, this hotel still remains one of our Helsinki favourites, even though much less so now than before. For those looking for a quality but not too pretentious accommodation in the downtown Helsinki, we can recommend Hotel Haven which is somewhat fancier with an almost equally good location next to the Esplanade Park.

May 1 - Arrival at Winterberg
We are travelling quite extensively (mostly not MTB related) and usually like to minimise our time at airports. However, traveling with a special package we decided to be at the Helsinki airport in good time ahead of our flight and thankfully so. There was not a single parking lot available for a van at the airport area and we had to leave the van further away, outside the airport. Luckily we had time for those extra 20 minutes that it took. After the check-in and the security control we enjoyed a breakfast at the Finnair lounge while watching our bags to be loaded to an Embraer 190 just opposite the lounge. Funnily, the lady at the check-in desk had asked us to confirm with the flight crew that our bike boxes have been indeed loaded to the plane. Well, we got that visually confirmed. Our flight landed in Dusseldorf some 20 minutes behind the schedule at 9.30 am. That was fine considering that we had booked a rental car at the airport at 10 am.

Our car was a brand new VW Caddy that was just large enough to accommodate our bike boxes and other luggege. Everything was made easier by the car being just wide enough to take our bike boxes from the side door leaving the cargo space at the back of the car for other stuff.

Picturesque villages of Sauerland
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From the Dusseldorf airport it took some two hours to drive via Dortmund to Winterberg. This was the first time for us in this part of Germany and we were kind of surprised how nice the scenery was. Small villages were scattered in valleys and looked nice from a distance from autobahn. Almost all houses were white with brown roofs and corners. We had been expecting a much more flat scenery here. Those who know their geography know that Winterberg is located in the rural, hilly area of Sauerland. It is one of the major ski resorts in the central Germany.

Approaching Winterberg a smaller road took us through one or two quite picturesque villages confirming our earlier observations. Everything was nice and clean and houses looked like as they were taken from postcards.

In Winterberg, our GPS guided us to an address near the main square where we picked up the keys to our rental apartment. While we had planned to do some riding already on May 1, we decided to spend the afternoon mounting and adjusting our bikes and riding gear as a proper preparation the the season's first ride next morning.

Our apartment itself was very conveniently located just some 150m away from the bike park. Strangely, while there were sheets for beds, some essential like towels, shower gel and toilet paper were missing. What’s the logic behind that?

May 2-4 - Riding in Bike Park Winterberg
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Due to the late spring, the season opening in Winterberg was postponed at least by two weeks. The bike park had just opened on April 27. Upon our arrival, all trails were not open.

According to the trail map, the bike park has a total of 9 trails. Our Suunto Ambit indicated that the vertical descent from the top to the bottom of the hill was 175m. Not huge in absolute terms but clearly more than an around 100-120m typically found in bike parks of the southern Finland. More than vertical meters, we were impressed by the favourable profile of the hill. It did not involve flat parts unlike many hills in FInland, for example.

We started by riding “Giro Free Cross”, a 1300m long track with 33 banked turns (according to the trail map) and a few tables. This trail used very effectively every meter of the 175m descent with no speed-killing completely flat sections except in the very beginning. We found this track very effective for training high speed cornering on a smooth and hard surface. This trail is very accessible also for beginners.

Another nice one was “iXS Downhill”, a natural trail with the same 175m decent and a length of 1000m. We found this trail very entertaining with number of gaps, rock gardens and banked turns. All more difficult sections had chicken ways for beginners, making the track accessible also for less experienced riders.

While some other tracks were open as well, some were still closed at this time. We rode almost solely those two already mentioned trails. We would have liked to spend some time on “4X” track but it was unfortunately closed expect on the day of our arrival, when we didn’t ride.

Bottlenecks at lifts
At the time of our visit, there were two lifts running, a chair and a drag lift. May 2 and 3 (Thursday and Friday) were great days for riding with practically no lift queues at all. On Saturday, the park started to get packed after 11 am. By noon, waiting times to the chair lift were easily 15min. This felt really annoying considering that tracks themselves are relatively short and fast to ride from top to bottom. While we spent loads of time in the bike park on Thursday and Friday, we didn’t tolerate waiting times on Saturday for more than two or three hours worth of riding.

Let’s go to sauna!
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As a Finn, you probably like sauna. In winter because it feels great after a chilly day. And in summer... well, because it feels equally great. Even those days when it happens to be warm outside. The Finns' obsession to sauna can be described by noting that it is common that even small (50-60 m2) newly built apartments have their own electric saunas. In each and every apartment, that is. For foreigners that is quite difficult to understand.

But what about the sauna at its best? A traditional sauna with a fireplace (i.e. not electric) at your own summer house next to one of Finland's 188 thousand lakes. With preferably no neighbours within a perimeter of at least a few hundred meters. As a comparison, in neighbouring Sweden saunas are extremely rare in apartments (except for some newly build, large, luxury ones). And in houses saunas are usually used as a storage space for crappy stuff that you want to throw away.

Acknowledging certain similarities between the Finns and the Germans, we hoped to find a good sauna in Winterberg. After some searching on the web, the most potential one was at Landhotel Grimmeblick, located some 7km from our apartment. After a hard day’s riding on Friday, we took our car and headed to Grimmeblick. As a pleasant surprise, Grimmeblick had both steam and Finnish (electric) saunas available for a negligible admission of EUR 10 / person for a 4 hour sauna and pool session. After some two hours, we were satisfied and ready for some steak for a dinner. We decided to came back again on Friday.

On our next visit on Friday, we became curious about an exiting looking hut standing on Grimmeblick’s backyard, just behind the outdoor pool. We decided to find out what it is and found some really serious stuff: a traditional Finnish sauna with a proper fireplace (not electric)! We felt ridiculously happy when we put on the fire and heated the sauna to some 80C, in the meantime enjoying a cold beer or two. Overall, we can warmly recommended a visit to Landhotel Grimmeblick for all sauna lowers when in Winterberg.

Culinary experiences
This trip was not about culinary aspects of a good life, but we still found some decent basic food in local restaurants. Upon arrival, we went to a pizzeria whose name we have forgotten by now. However, it was located next to Eiscafe Rialto at Untere Pforte. Their pizzas received our thumbs up. Actually, the same pizzeria was later recommended to us by a fellow rider we met in the bike park. We also got some decent stakes at Blackwater, an Irish pub in the downtown. Naturally, we made sure not to miss daily schnitzels. In the bike park, they were available in two restaurants: Panorama Cafe and Restaurant Bobhaus, both of which have nice views to the valley. And of course, when in Germany you shouldn’t forget to enjoy some tasty wurst with sauerkraut and some great German beer!

What to make of it?
Overall, we feel that our trip to Winterberg was a good kick-off for the season. Riding in a bike park gave the maximum amount of descent within a given time. While we ended up riding mostly only two trails in the bike park, they both were in a good condition and fun to ride. The park's bike repair shop was service minded and reasonably priced when we needed a change of brake pads. The only major negative was the riding on Saturday, when the bike park was packed and lift queues almost unbearable for our taste. Maybe it was because of the season had just started or maybe it is equally frustrating every weekend during the season, we don't know.

While happy with the trip, it is always interesting to ride in new locations. Therefore, for the season opening 2014 we will again be looking for other alternatives.