How to cycle on water in Austria’s Lake District

Helen Coffey
·5-min read
Austria's Lake District: Salzburger Seenland/Hans Ziller
Austria's Lake District: Salzburger Seenland/Hans Ziller

I’m looking across a glittering expanse of inky green water, smooth as a freshly made bed, beneath a gentle sun that’s tucked behind thin clouds. The water stretches forever on all sides, only curbed by mustard-hued reeds in the shallows that give way to soft rolling hills. It would be utterly idyllic – if it weren’t for the sudden, unprompted surge of fear that hits me in the solar plexus.

I stopped pedalling, just for a moment, just to take in the low-key gorgeous Obertrumer lake in Austria’s Salzburgerland in all its glory. And now I don’t know how to start again.

It turns out that riding a surf bike – the totally mad lovechild of a paddle board and a bicycle – is not as simple as one might think. There’s a seat and handlebars and peddles – and, yes, even a horn for issuing an amusing “parp parp” at oncoming boats – but it is a world away from the two-wheeled variant. While the balance side of things is easy when you’re in motion, as soon as you stall and float, whether to rest your legs or to admire the pastoral setting of this undeniably pretty spot in Austria’s Lake District, things become more complicated.

I’m not complaining (too much) – after all, how often do you get to ride a bike on water? I’ll take “complicated” any day to feel like a lazy Jesus. The excitement of initially clambering on board this innovative contraption had propelled me and my partner rather further than I’d meant – next thing I knew we were almost smack bang in the centre of the sizeable body of water, a considerable distance from dry land.

The Mattsee, Obertrumersee and Grabensee are neighbouring lakes (Salzburgerseenland)
The Mattsee, Obertrumersee and Grabensee are neighbouring lakes (Salzburgerseenland)

I pause for a moment of appreciation, letting the bike/board idle, before trying to start things up again. I immediately swerve to the side, coming very close to pitching overboard. Oh. Oh dear.

“Um, I’m a bit nervous!” I pipe up in a shrill voice several octaves higher than normal. My partner grins at me, making his way over with a glint in his eye that suggests he is not planning on actually helping me.

“If you push me in, so help me God!” A few more octaves up. Only dogs can hear me now.

Surf biking is a cross between a bicycle and a paddle board (Helen Coffey)
Surf biking is a cross between a bicycle and a paddle board (Helen Coffey)

What I am really worried about, which I can’t quite articulate right now as I try to grip onto the surf bike exclusively using my toes, is that I will fall off and be completely unable to get back on. I have previous form, you see. There is a video of me somewhere deep in the archives, my sister laughing so hard she is crying as I try and fail to board a one-man kayak for what felt like an hour but was realistically 15 minutes. I still remember the slow but steady evolution from amusement to hysteria – after it dawned on me that, hey, this could continue FOREVER. I do not want a repeat in the middle of a picturesque Austrian lake. It would be unseemly.

Unfortunately the Obertrumersee is so darn tranquil – not a motorboat or yacht in sight – that potential rescue vehicles are completely absent.

Okay, I can do this. I pick up my feet again and start peddling furiously while trying to wrestle the handlebars, which are swinging every which way, into a central position. I’ve been on a bucking bronco machine before, and the feeling is surprisingly similar. After 10 seconds I realise I have wrested control from my steed – I’m back, baby!

The terror all but forgotten, I happily paddle myself around in a circle before remembering that I mustn’t get complacent – I must meet my fear head-on. Well, almost. My theory is that it will be much more pleasant to voluntarily take the plunge back near the docks; then, if my inability to mount water-based vehicles should persist, I can just swim myself and the bike back to shore and sit quietly in a corner somewhere contemplating my shame.

It proves a masterful plan, albeit completely unnecessary: I brace myself, take a deep breath, jump into the wonderfully cooling water… and pull myself back on with zero issues. The giant, sturdy board is very, well, floaty, as it turns out. A child could do it (or a woman with the upper arm strength of a child).

Buzzing from my success, we set off exploring again, only returning so that we can try the surf without the cycle. Swapping bikes for paddle boards and oars, with the scant instructions, “kneel first, then stand!”, we push off from the docks.

I feel a lot more confident this time – now I’m sure no one is going to film me flailing around shouting, “I can’t get on! I can’t get on!” I take it all in my stride. So much so I’m tentatively getting to my feet within 30 seconds, fulfilling the “stand up” side of the “stand-up paddleboarding” bargain.

Exploring the Austrian Lake District on two wheels (Salzburgerseenland)
Exploring the Austrian Lake District on two wheels (Salzburgerseenland)

After what seems like minutes, but in fact has been most of the afternoon, it’s time to go. We leave behind boards and surf bikes in favour of the real thing, two wheels and all. Gliding back to the neighbouring town of Mattsee along smooth cycle paths, we get a different view of the lake altogether – though it’s not quite as immersive, nor as beautiful. But at least if I stop pedalling, just for a moment, just to take in the low-key gorgeous Obertrumersee, I don’t have to worry about falling off.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Ryanair flies direct from London Stansted to Salzburg from around £43 return.

Staying there

Seewirt Mattsee has suites from €256, half-board.

More information

Hiring a surf bike from Bootsverleih Strasser costs €10 per hour.

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