The preparations for the Salzkammergut Trophy 2020 in and around Bad Goisern are in full swing. In the nearby salt village of Hallstatt, Thomas Gschwandtner is crafting ceramic trophies for the fastest extreme-distance participants in Austria’s largest mountain bike marathon.
Meeting point – bathing island in Hallstatt. During the morning hours, a short summer storm blustered through. Now the clouds are beginning to lift. Against the picturesque backdrop of the world heritage village, two men are deep in conversation. One has arrived with his mountain bike complete with all sorts of red paraphernalia and a red figure. “Could the studs on the tires possibly be bit smaller?” one asks. “I’ll think of something. In terms of colour, I’ve also had a few ideas. It’ll be something new, just like every year,” the other answers.
“I’m looking forward to it. As always, we trust your creativity,” responds Peter Perstl. Immediately after the Salzkammergut Trophy, preparations for next year’s edition of the legendary mountain bike race begin for this resident of Obertraun. Since 2008 Peter has been ‘part of the machine’ and in 2014 he fully immersed himself in the matter. As part of a strong organisational team, he has taken on responsibilities that challenge him throughout the year. His essential duties include the coordination of the expo, public relations, social media and organisational obligations. What began as a small event for the extreme athlete has become the largest sport festival for the mountain bike community in all of Austria. From 17 to 19 July 2020, more than 5000 bikers from over 40 countries will meet together in Bad Goisern for the 23rd Salzkammergut Trophy. Their common goal: “To hell and back!” This is the motto of the event. However, if hell is as beautiful as the mountainous landscape of the Dachstein-Salzkammergut region with its meadows, lakes, summits and valleys, then the physical strains will be significantly more bearable for the athletes.
For the toughest bikers under the sun, the ‘ride through hell’ at the Salzkammergut Trophy begins at 5 o’clock in the morning. The first birds are just beginning to sing as athletes silently contemplate what lies before them: 211 kilometres through the mountains of the Salzkammergut. Change in elevation: 7199 metres. At dawn, the marathon’s starting shot is fired from the market square in Bad Goisern. Alongside professionals, who have the daily victory in their sights, more and more hobby bikers put their wheels to the challenging stretch. Their highest goal is to have their names immortalized on the finisher list and to receive the black T-shirt, which has come to enjoy a cult status in the biking world. The absolute toughest and fastest among the bikers have their eyes on yet another prize: the victor’s trophies which are reserved for the best three male and female racers.
“The Salzkammergut Trophy is simply something wild – an angel is not suitable for a victor’s trophy. Whoever wins ‘to hell and back’ must be diabolically fast. Therefore, the logical victor’s trophy is a devil on a mountain bike. As of 2020, I will have created the ceramic figures for the tenth time,” Thomas Gschwandtner explains. The thin, bespectacled man grins mischievously, knowing exactly how one feels as an athlete in this particular ‘hell’. He was one of the earliest Trophy participants. During the very first event, he tackled the long distance but exceeded the time limit. At the third Salzkammergut Trophy in 2000, he was finally able to finish successfully. Thomas has been a passionate long-distance athlete for many years and admits ironically, “crazy sporting events interest me because I generally like crazy things. I also participated in the Klagenfurt Ironman five times – and made it to the finish line.”
In terms of the Salzkammergut Trophy, Thomas adds his personal experiences and the creation of the victor’s trophies to yet another peculiarity. For the past several years, he has supplied positive energy at various points along the race as a living ‘Trophy Devil’. This idea developed from the event slogan and the victor’s trophies which Thomas creates. “I like to dress up and like I’ve already said – I’m always ready for crazy activities,’ he states. And there it is again, that mischievous grin. The work of the ‘Trophy Devil’ begins at 3 o’clock in the morning on event days. In actuality, it begins the night before. “I apply the red base colour the day before, so that on race day, I can get dressed more quickly,” the artist explains. He designed and created his costume which is mainly made of leather. At exactly 5 o’clock, he fires the start signal for the first Trophy participants. Then he appears at various positions along the route, motivating and creating a playful atmosphere. This past year, he even hung from a rope at the Ewige Wand cliff. Even after the last-place biker crosses the finish line, the devilishly difficult work day is not yet over for Thomas. It goes without saying that he is present at the awards ceremony – which can last quite a while. With a wink, he states, “In the past, I’ve been out and about for 24 hours straight during the Salzkammergut Trophy. It’s my own personal sort of marathon . . . “
In the meantime, the men have walked from the bathing island to the nearby ceramic workshop. This traditional building, once a woodcutter’s house, was bought by the ceramist, sculptor and painter Gudrun Wittke-Baudisch in 1945, and the workshops of ‘Keramik Hallstatt’ were set up here. In the early years, the workshop was also known as ‘Hallstatt-Keramik’ or ‘Hallstätter Keramik’. In 1977, Gudrun passed operations on to her long-time employee Erwin Gschwandtner, whose sons, Peter and Thomas, have run the business since 2002. “This is where the victor’s trophies are created for the Trophy,” Thomas states. The first step is the drawing of a sketch. Afterwards the artist creates a plaster form which roughly depicts the figure, which is then formed from clay. Individual adjustments are subsequently made. Thomas explains, “My devils always become a bit more absurd – the three male as well as the three female.” After modelling, the figures must dry at room temperature for two to three weeks before they are fired for the first time at 930° Celsius. Then comes the glazing – which is typically done with a spray gun – and then another firing at 1080° C. The wooden base is applied at the end by a carpenter from Obertraun.
When asked about the market value of a trophy, Thomas humbly states, “If I strictly calculate the amount of work, the lower limit would be at 500 euros.” In reality, the trophies are priceless for the athletes who win them. They are infused with the memories of a top performance at a truly unique event. It has also happened, that a fan of the event suddenly has shown up at the ‘Keramik Hallstatt’ workshop and requested a devil on a mountain bike. Thomas fulfils these requests in the form of a custom order. The creation of ceramic figures, entirely based on his own imagination, is his favourite type of work. A very special creative spirit prevails in this shop and is evidenced by the distinctive art work on display. However, that’s another story . . .