Often you laugh because you are happy, perhaps someone has cracked a good joke, but sometimes you laugh because you are just thankful to still be alive! It was just that kind of laugh that rang out in the woods high above the small town of Bex! The soft woodland silence broken by the infectious, delirious explosion of hilarity that could have only been caused by surviving something very stupid indeed!
But lets rewind a few days where our story begins in Chatel in the Haute Savoie! I have been lucky enough to spend a couple of seasons working in the region, first in the ski industry and then a couple of seasons riding my bike through the summer. Having spent many weeks in the bike park, I was eager to get beyond the adrenalin fueled, red bull swilling, body armor touting crowds and explore some of the quieter routes cutting through the impressive peaks.
There is certainly a special place in my heart reserved for the Portes Du Soleil, it is a place of extremes, incredible views, extensive trails, great French and Swiss towns and like everywhere else in the Alps, some of the fiercest restaurant prices I have encountered. I cannot normally remember what I had for breakfast, but I will certainly never forget when I was forced to pay €50 for 2 small tartiflette’s! I even googled it when I got home, it’s just potatoes, onions and cheese! However, despite the bandit approach to food, the Portes Du Soleil is a ‘must see’ right of passage for a keen rider. I still remember reading about the resort back in the late 90’s in MBUK and the Passportes du Soleil will forever be a legendary, if not very technical experience! But I was keen to find out what else lay beyond the waymarked trails and breaking bumped motorways of the bike park! So I invited a crew of mates over and we set out to explore what lay beyond!
But before we could appreciate getting off the beaten path, it is important to know what is on it, so it was time to check out the Portes Du Soleil, one of the biggest MTB parks on the planet! 22 lifts linking 12 mountain resort via some 650km of way-marked alpine trail. Just a single lift pass opens up a day of huge descending, with a fast and efficient lift system you can cover ground very quickly moving from valley to valley. I think everyone who first comes to the Alps has a vision in their heads of buff, flowing single track, sweeping down through alpine meadows and from high peaks, and to some extent that is true. However, with the massive number of riders who take advantage of cheap deals to ride the resort, the trails do take a beating!
There is nothing more surprising to the alpine virgin, than the first time they rocket down a trail with a massive grin, before being hammered so violently by the deep breaking ruts that their eyes fall out! The later you leave it in the season the bigger the ruts and bumps become. That’s not to say that it is not fun! The bike park in Chatel is awesome, like a mini Whistler it has loads of fun table tops and gaps to scare yourself on, and the Black trails cutting down to Pre-La-Joux are fiercely steep and challenging.
However, there is a hidden danger, ‘Bike Park Fever’, which I first encountered on a ridge high above Chatel! It all started when my good friend Chris rode over and quietly announced that he was keen to take on the Chatel River Gap, now Chris was very new to the sport and had only just hit his first proper gap jump, a much smaller affair than the substantial legendary river gap! I was going to reason, but I could see from the thousand yard stare in his eyes that it was too late, he had been caught by ‘Bike Park Fever’, reasoning had gone out of the window and the devil on his shoulder was screaming loudly through a megaphone. “It’s pretty big dude, perhaps get some tabletops dialed first” was my worried reply. He quietly pressed on though, “how fast should I go, what should I do?”. Not wanting to find him in a heap at the bottom of the rough, debris filled gully gap all I could think of to say was, “as fast as you can and if you go for it, GO for it!” I watched him cycle off, deep in thought, internally mulling it over and I hoped that he would get some more easy air miles before taking on the bigger gap! However, just half an hour later I was sitting on the Pierre Longue lift and as I passed over the river gap I saw Chris determinedly pedaling down the run in, legs churning, I had to close my eyes!
And that is what bike parks are all about, they are a bit like that mate you had as a kid, the mate that told you it was a good idea to poke that grumpy dog, or climb over that barbed wire fence, the one who would disappear the instant trouble arrived. They are the place where progress is exponential and dreams are made just as often as collar bones are snapped like twigs. Some come home with a freshly dialed whip to impress the home crew on local trails, some come home in a cast! Watching riders hit big jumps below on the lift line, thoughts of ‘I can hit that’ are all consuming! Gone is the deliberation looking over a gap, no sharp intake of breath at the distance involved or talking yourself down, you just cruise over it on the lift before pinning it back down to hit it at full gas! You can progress so much in one day without the penalty of constant hiking. However after two days of flat out riding, it was time to seek something a bit more adventurous, off the grid and less impacted by traffic.
For the next three days we explored the region in greater detail starting with some of the local trails high above Chatel. These trails keep the bike mad locals sane during the long off season where the lifts dangle immobile and the descents once again have to be earnt. I do not want to spoil their trails by announcing routes, but any suitably enthused rider could sniff them out using maps and STRAVA, there are challenging trails just a stones throw from the bike park, trails that run smooth and fast without the aggressive braking bumps that plague the resort.
A true highlight that we found were the many trails dropping off from the impressive Rochers De Naye a 2042m tall Swiss Alps peak, overlooking the full length of Lake Leman. The summit, and trail heads were accessed by mountain train, so perfect for those who enjoy gravity assistance. You seem somewhat a strange sight as you wind your way in full gear through the bustling shiny commuter terminal of Montreux Train Station, and we were certainly concerned we would be balancing our muddy bikes amid suited, and impeccably turned out Swiss locals. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the train arrived and we noticed the open trailer on the front for bikes, the Swiss know how to look after us mountain bikers!
It was an enjoyable trip as the train clawed its way up the mountain, into the fog and mist of the alpine summit. After taking on some overpriced and under caffeinated coffees at the restaurant, and pausing for a brief look at the marmots in the zoo, we dropped into the 2000m descending trail, and found a belter! There are a number of trails cutting down the mountain and many routes can be found online – the one we chose was an awesome collection of leafy single track, exposed ridge traverses and a super steep, super fun drifty trail down to the lake. Just in time for an ice cream and swim in the lake to wash of the dust and toil of the day!
In contrast to Rochers De Naye which was an enjoyable, drifty, flowy day of riding, our next location Bex was as subtle as being hit in the face by a gorilla, with a brick! Once again a fast and efficient mountain train hauled us up to the peak, but that’s where the similarity ended. The Bex trails were steep and almost deranged, high speed, high thrills and all natural with not a breaking bump in sight, just awesome! A network of hand built enduro and DH trails threaded down the flank separating Villars from Bex, and every new trail instantly became the new ‘best ever’! It was certainly one of the best days on a bike that I have ever had, and with a train running ever hour, could be repeated again and again for only €18!
Which brings me to where we began! As we ripped down one leafy Bex trail, we dropped into a particularly legendary chute, a 300m long, straight corridor between the trees, insanely steep, like 45 degree steep, the sort of thing that you could not walk up without hanging onto something. Dropping in we all eased on the brakes, the back wheel starting to skip and slide, just holding our speed but not slowing down! One by one we careened into the second part of the chute, the gradient ramping even steeper, brakes now useless, to a man we were all locked up, tyres scraping for traction on the loose dry leaves, looking ahead for the hole shot between the narrowing trees. Just when it was all getting way out of control we rocketed over the last lip, and everything went vertical! At this point resistance was useless, we had made our beds, touching the brakes resulted in a violent sideways slew, nothing for it but to look to the exit, hang on and try not to hit the guy in front, colours blurred and senses tingled….
One by one we exploded out onto flatter ground, brakes clawing for forgotten grip, disks white hot and fizzing. Well I say one by one, as 8 people dropped in and only 3 came out! Disjointed laughter and hoots punctuated the worried silence, bushes shook as riders were reunited with bikes and forged back to the trail. There were a few casual high fives from the victors, like it was no big deal. We regrouped in almost silence and as the last of us was safely down, albeit with foliage collected in his helmet, a small chuckle broke out! It spread like wildfire round the group, first a laugh, then a full on roar! There had been no joke, but we all fought back the tears and sucked in breath between the hilarity, we were laughing just for the joy of being alive!
This is why we ride, it’s not for the shiny components or the latest wheel size, it’s for the shared experience and spike of adrenalin after doing something that to an outsider would look totally demented, we had survived what minutes before had felt like impending doom, there had been crashes, there had been blood, but we had shared an experience that would be with us for a lifetime. We had snatched a chunk of life that would be endlessly retold, just as I am doing now!
Oh and I must not forget the cliff hanger! Did my buddy Chris send the Chatel river gap, his second ever gap jump?
Words and Photos: Trev Worsey