As the son of a Swiss dairy farmer, René Wildhaber is used to enjoying breathtaking views from alpine peaks. However, not many mountain men have enjoyed the wide horizons of this world-class downhill mountain biker, who has won races on four continents.
''Just after the Second World War, Switzerland bought this hill from Liechtenstein,'' René Wildhaber explains as he pedals up ever steeper and steeper turns. Once atop the Regitzer Spitz, he points to Flums on the other side of the valley: ''Over there is where I grew up.'' Then he explains how in spring and summer their cows would graze their way up pastures ever higher up the mountain and his family would move along with them to houses at different altitudes, then back down in autumn. To this day he still loves farm work, especially work done by hand without the help of machines. ''It's like sports. As a kid I always wished they had a world championship in each discipline, for example, in grass raking.''
Growing up, his was a modest lifestyle. Skiing was a part of the culture in eastern Switzerland, but outside of that there was not much of a chance for free time activities in the Wildhaber's household, and also no vacations. There was no talk of their son becoming a professional ski racer, the Wildhaber family could not afford such luxury. So René began training for mountain bike racing and ranked top in the under-23-year-old category. Today his calves are still a testament to his past. ''I got totally burned out. I had absolutely no idea and I trained so hard that my hair and nails fell off.'' The national trainer was of the opinion that Wildhaber was technically strong enough to try his luck in the downhill.
Mountain man and Mountain biker
Soon René Wildhaber was technically so good that he had ridden his way to the top 20 in the World Cup circuit and was the runner-up as European Champion. In order to reach the pinnacle he would have had to concentrate on a single discipline. But doing just one thing is not his thing. So the trained carpenter hammered out a life for himself that would fit his nature: in winters he was a ski teacher in Flumserberg and did ski tours. Once the snow began to melt, he would help his parents and brother on the farm, do carpentry and woodworking or he would cultivate his parents' forests. In addition to all this he would wait and tune his bikes, test new gear, advise his outfitters or organize his race, photo and film trips. ''Biking up the hill to watch the sunset, then racing back down,'' is his preferred method of training, although he himself doesn't call it training. It is simply what he loves to do. When he has spare time, which unfortunately is quite rarely, he enjoys rock climbing or paragliding through the mountain air.
As much downhill as possible
As a child it was his dream to travel the world on his bike. He has been able to fulfil this dream, even if in a different way than he imagined. He finds purely downhill races cool, but the reality is, he prefers a bit of variety. He likes it when there are also some hill climbs involved. The longer the stretch, the better. If it takes more than a half an hour, then René is practically invincible. He has won nearly a dozen races of the Mégavalanche, the most important downhill marathon series in the world. And when it comes to the Swiss counterparts -.the Bike Masters and the Bike Attack - he has proven himself to be nearly undefeatable. Like a snake wriggling its way down narrow mountain trails, he sails over roots and rocks and cruises down nearly vertical slopes then races back up the gnarly ascents. If the event is not timed then he darts around like a rabbit, taking every jump and doing wheelies and slides in order to reduce his speed. ''I still have a lot I can learn when it comes to free riding and playing with the terrain.'' Still the producers of the legendary Kranked films like René's style. The downhill mountain biker from Flums is one of few European riders to earn a role in an American bike film, and he has several to his name.
René knows that he will only get invited to international competitions on all continents as long as he stays on top of his game. He constantly fine tunes his equipment, closely examines each course, and remains concentrated while riding. ''What I lack in competitive drive I make up for in conscientiousness,'' says Wildhaber about himself. However, in his niche event, the downhill marathon, he could hardly be any more successful than he has already been. But the world beyond the race course interests him just as much as the competition itself. He seeks contact with the locals, climbs their mountains and discovers their regional flora and fauna. He has friends on La Réunion and in Ecuador where he has won races and has invited his friends back to his home in Flums in eastern Switzerland. In the Himalayas he was amazed by monks who had never seen a bicycle before and by farmers who sing when milking their cows. The brutal poverty he experienced in India's cities is also a memory he has taken with him from his journeys.
Biking around the world
His victory in the race down Mount Kenya paled in comparison to the overall experience. For three days he hiked with nine other world-class bikers and various local guides up the African mountain. Then, in just one hour and 17 minutes, he raced from 4,800 meters above sea level back down to 2,000. The smiles on the faces of the locals, who hardly have enough to eat, is something he will never forget, he said afterwards. For each participant in the race, 1000 euros were donated to a local development project, which for him was the most important aspect of the race.
As a child René dreamed of riding his bike around the world. He is actually doing that today, however, at much higher speeds than he could have dreamed of. But he always returns home to Flums and the Sarganserland and he could not imagine living anywhere else. As long as he gets a chance to get away for a few weeks at a time to win some races, see some new faces and meet some new friends. ''This is where my roots are and I will be true to them. Although I love travelling, I am always happy when I get to come back home.''
Video of the Mégavalanche Alpe d'Huez 2011