Mountain Biking in the French Alps

Last summer, in a move akin to buying a Bugatti Veyron as your first car, I’d taken up mountain biking in Whistler, Canada.  My bikey friends in the UK had been quite jealous, understandably, as Whistler is the mecca for the sport.  I’d enjoyed it so much that, when I returned to the UK in January, I decided to get a bike and continue riding.


Loving it. First day on Whistler mountain. June 2010

The first problem I spotted was that the bike I had rented over in Canada cost about the same as the car I had sold in the UK a few months prior. The second was that I had been used to hopping on a chairlift or gondola to get up to the top of the mountain, bypassing all of that pedalling nonsense I’d previously associated with mountain biking, and your average British trail park involves powering yourself up as well as down.

Still, I managed to get the money together for a decent bike (not to the same specifications I might add, the main sacrifice was rear suspension), and last week I solved the pedalling issue by driving to the French Alps with three friends to enjoy some lift assisted riding.

My Santa Cruz Chameleon hard tail mountain bike on the Valandry chair lift in Les Arcs

The friends in question included ‘Vine-o’, who I soon found out had near legendary status in the resort. He’d been a few times before and there were even videos of him on the internet flailing his back wheel over cliff edges. On arrival, he was greeted enthusiastically by all the guides, whereas James, who’d been almost the same number of times, was afforded a brief handshake and manly nod (getting your back end out, it seems, gets you attention amongst mountain bike guides). The third of the three amigos was Diego. He’d brought two bikes and a tool box which proved useful later in the week.

Diego in the bike garage at our chalet. I reckon the bikes in there were worth nearly as much as the building!

I sensed that my 2 days experience with bikes on actual mountains may not be enough for the flying start I was hoping for. Everyone seemed very serious and extreme. In a conversation about mountains over dinner on the first night, I mentioned to our guide Ben that I had recently walked the Yorkshire 3 peaks challenge. He went on to tell me about sleeping the night on the Matterhorn with no sleeping bag. You get the picture.

Torrential rain on the first day was a bit of an evener in that no one really wanted to go out, but in the two trails we rode I managed to fall off the bike about a dozen times. It was way more rocky and slippery than I had previously experienced (even though one of my Whistler days was wet), and the hard tail bike was proving hard on my tail, as well as various other parts of my body.

As the week progressed I became more confident and the riding was stunning. The single track trails rip through the forest and you can descend for hours. The variation is massive and you find yourself on steep, technical, rocky descents along with fast and flowing forest trails all in the same run. 

Diego at the bottom of the Cachette downhill run

Being near the back of the pack does have it’s disadvantages. You frequently find yourself arriving at the bottom of the run and setting off immediately, giving you no time to have a breather or admire the views. However, guiding is the only way forward. I took a break from it one morning and spent a lot of time scratching my head over routes and getting held up by herds of goats.

A herd of goats on the trail

Pausing to have a look at my brake pads

Later in the week we rode an amazing backcountry route up to Mont Jovet via La Plagne. It included about 800 meters of climbing, 30 miles of riding and lifts and a half hour train journey home from Moutiers at the end of the day.  It was a mammoth trip which ended in with my rear wheel broken. Thankfully, Diego lent me his spare bike on the last day!  Despite this, I concluded that the best trails were all over on La Plagne. I think it’s because it dried out after rain much quicker and the trails had experienced less traffic so weren’t as broken up.

Vine-o, James and myself on a trail in La Plagne

The break up of the trails does seem to be a cause for concern. The guides had a meeting in the week with local hiking groups, some of whom do not like the fact that
mountain bikers and walkers share the trails. This is understandable, as it can be quite unnerving to have a group of bikes pass you at high speed as you struggle up a walking trail. 

Some trails, like this, are for bikes only but many are shared

We had not anticipated, however, that the relations between the UK biking community and the locals had become as strained as it seemed to be when, on the Friday morning we awoke to the news that virtually all of the UK plated vehicles had had their tyres slashed.  Although there was talk of various reasons why it had happened, the fact that the main targets were outside British run mountain bike chalets spoke volumes. 

The main road in the village of Moulin with nearly all GB plate car tyres slashed and some very angry mountain bikers

Amazingly, our car had not been affected as it was right on the end of the line of vehicles on the main road and the perpetrator seemed to have been disturbed. Still, it put a big downer on what had been a fantastic week and something I’d love to do again. Perhaps on a bike with rear suspension though!

Nice views! (James’ bike)

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