The Trail Doctor

An unusual doctor roams the woods and meadows of Laces. During daily examinations with pickaxe and rake, he tends to bruises and scratches inflicted on the local trails.

  • October 2018

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The Trail Doctor

An unusual doctor roams the woods and meadows of Laces. During daily examinations with pickaxe and rake, he tends to bruises and scratches inflicted on the local trails.

It's a good thing that Gabriel Tappeiner is one of those people who would rather be outdoors than in. After all, this is also one of the most important requirements for his job: For hours every day, he walks the network of trails in Laces/Latsch, ensuring that damaged trail sections are kept in good shape.

In point of fact, Gabriel is an apple farmer, who used to work as a bike guide on the side. When the Tourist Info, which is responsible for maintaining trails, increasingly asked him to prepare a path here or fix a trail there, he began to wonder: "I thought to myself at some point, I either need to stop doing this altogether or I need to found a company." So in 2015, Gabriel founded the "Traildoctors." Since that time, he and his staff have not only been requested to provide first aid for sections of trail in need of rehabilitation, but are also responsible for the long-term maintenance of the 180 km of hiking trails and a further 40 km of bike trails in the community of Laces.

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Diagnosing the perfect trail

The Trail Doctor prefers to perform his daily check-ups on foot, from bottom to top. Wouldn't it be faster to cycle down the track? "If I cycle, I’ll be under the mistaken impression that everything’s OK. On foot, however, I have a much better impression," explains Gabriel. Having a close look is key: Many things on the trail that wouldn't bother a hiker can be very dangerous for a mountain biker. For instance, says Gabriel, "after a storm, when the rain washes out the curves, or exposes roots that protrude.” If the damage is more significant, Gabriel takes photos and sends his staff, who then move in with the right tools and repair the section.

While hiking-only trails are maintained once or twice a year, combined hiking and biking trails or bike-only trails require more maintenance as a result of increased use. About every three weeks, Gabriel and his staff tend the trails. The more it rains, the more work they have to do.

Gabriel's profession has arisen out of demand. Mountain bikers have been coming to Vinschgau valley for 15 years now. The first bike course in South Tyrol and events such as the "Testival," which had their origins here, put Laces ‘on the map’ in the minds of the mountain bike scene early on. MTB manufacturers came not only to test their latest bikes, but also to shoot their catalogue pictures. "Word quickly got around that on some days bikes could already be ridden here at the end of February," Gabriel says.

For some reason, the Trail Doctor, here in the forest with his green eyes, red beard, and tools in hand, reminds me of the busy elves who do their work at night so that everything is perfect again the next day. Have you ever stopped to wonder how the maintenance of hiking and biking trails works? 

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As soon as the snow on the Sonnenberg mountain range begins to melt in spring, the Traildoctors team mobilise to get the trails in shape for the upcoming season. This means cutting grass, clearing branches and stones out of the way, reshaping curves, fortifying walls, collecting rubbish, assembling signs and refreshing trail markings. Then they continue on the other side to the Nörderberg mountain. This is where bikers come when it gets too hot on the dry Sonnenberg mountain. In particular, bike enthusiasts from Germany and Austria appreciate the sunny Vinschgau valley and the long season, which starts here much earlier and ends later than north of the main chain of the Alps. This is why spring and autumn are the busiest seasons here. "On some weekends there are about 3,000 people in Laces," says Gabriel. Which means there is plenty for the Traildoctors team to do.

The Trailblazer

In summertime, Gabriel shifts to designing new trails like the one at the Tarscher Alm Alpine farm. The Tourist Info requires about four km of bike-only trails and an easy single trail. Gabriel only has to look at the contour lines on a map in order to understand whether this is possible: “The landscape determines what is possible; in steep terrain it is difficult to build an easy trail.”

Like a bloodhound, he follows the terrain exactly: "I’ve walked through this area for two weeks on this trail," says Gabriel, "because you have to look for the ideal track.” It has to match the specifications, be scenic, and be interesting from a biker’s point of view. When at last he has found the ideal course, that’s when the many conversations begin. "Here the trail runs pretty much along the border between the municipal area and the Stilfserjoch National Park. Together with landowners, foresters, the community, etc., the route is walked, all interests are discussed, compromises are made until everyone is satisfied," says Gabriel. These discussions with stakeholders usually last longer than the construction of the actual route. 

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Gabriel prefers to work without sketches or maps. "I have the route in my head," he explains. The route is marked and explained stage by stage to the employees, who then dig, pick, shovel, root out, build bridges and curves, and lay drains. The Traildoctors team works about ten days for one kilometre of new trail. That is if they can make use of a small excavator. For manually landscaped sections of the trail, they need about three times as long.

“As if they had always been there” is how the new trails should look once the Traildoctors have finished their work. This means a lot to Gabriel. "A new trail is always an intervention in nature, that much is quite clear. We always try to make the trail as natural as possible," he explains. Oftentimes, creating a new trail is a balancing act: the trail should correspond to the specifications of all participants but at the same time be left in its natural state. On the other hand, it should still be recognisable as a trail so that hikers or bikers can find their way around.

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Not everyone is enthusiastic about such new projects. Gabriel invites doubters or opponents to visit already completed trails. "At this point, all stakeholders actually say: "Ah OK, this is just a narrow trail anyway, it doesn't look as bad as I imagined," says Gabriel, "at such moments I am reassured that I’m being careful about what makes sense and what doesn't". Such a reputation must first be earned.

Share and share alike

Both hikers and bikers can share many joint-use trails in South Tyrol. The new trail from the Tarscher Alm Alpine farm, however, is designed to separate hikers and bikers. "I don't think that separate hiking and biking trails are needed everywhere. With the necessary mutual respect, it is possible to share trails smoothly," says Gabriel, "but on those trails where there is a lot of traffic, it definitely makes sense. Some landowners even block their section of the trail for bikers, while hikers are allowed to use the trail. "Of course, this has to be respected and the bikers stick to it. Oftentimes it’s not so much about the bikes themselves, but about the fear of accidents," suspects Gabriel. "Usage is always at your own risk and you have to know what you are doing." On official, marked trails the trail’s maintainer, the Tourist Info, insures both hikers and bikers. 

The three commandments for the shared use of trails

#1 Dear hikers & bikers: We all love nature. Please treat one another and nature with respect (e.g. greet one another, don't leave any garbage behind).

#2 Bikers: Slow down early enough! Hikers won't hear you, they'll be startled and think they'll have to jump to the side. This can lead to accidents (falls, crashes).

#3 The "weaker", i.e. the hiker, has the right of way. Bikers should stop on the mountainside so that the hiker can pass.

He who brakes, ruins the flow

And then there's the image of bikers: "People think that mountain bikers are always going downhill (in other words braking)," says Gabriel. "Yet only a small fraction of bikers ride downhill. Most take their time, stop, sit on a bench and enjoy the scenery." Some bikers even ride down with the child trailer. Gabriel is convinced that MTB technology has also contributed to making biking a popular sport. "The bikes have improved enormously in the last ten years. You used to need a lot of courage," smiles Gabriel, "today the experience of mountain biking is completely different.”

So going full throttle and then braking hard is not the way? The former bike guide shakes his head: "That's not really how you ride. On the contrary: When building a trail, "the route is planned in such a way that you have to brake as little as possible. Instead of steep descents, taking wide curves is preferable," explains the trail builder, "they are safer and it's more fun if you aren’t on the edge of your bike seat all the time." It's also less expensive for bike maintenance because where you brake a lot, brake shafts and erosion damage occur. "By now the bikers have understood this from personal experience," says Gabriel.

Full e-power ahead?

More and more e-bikes are also on the trails in Laces. How do you expect this trend to continue? "More and more people are coming up the mountain as a result. On the single trails it could become dangerous if there is suddenly oncoming traffic because the e-bikers are riding uphill," says Gabriel. Therefore, new rules would have to be developed. “There won't be many new trails like this one in the future," says Gabriel, "the area is almost maxed out. But when it comes to maintenance, you could still learn a lot from America. They continue to lead the way in all things biking. "If it has rained, the trail should not be used for a day so that it can dry off. We could improve such little things," says Gabriel. 

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The Trail Doctor’s personal favourite trail? Gabriel reflects: "I couldn't say definitively. It always depends on my state of mind. Sometimes I prefer a more comfortable trail, sometimes I’m in the mood to rumble. Maybe the new trail from the Tarscher Alm Alpine farm will become my favourite trail once it's finished."

Text: Marlene Lobis
Photo: Ivo Corrà
Video: Miramonte Film - Andreas Pichler
Translation into English: Covi, Wurzer & Partner