Does having a family and career mean dreams of taking time off to ride are over? Think again! Getting to explore a region, supercharging your riding skills, and precious time with family and friends are all benefits. Learn how the journey can happen, and what’s important in setting it up.
“Hello? Is this a large alpine MTB holiday company? I’d like to come and work for you for the summer please”
“That sounds great! When can you get to the Alps?”
“Excellent! Final exams end mid-June, then I graduate”
“Too bad, we need people from June 1st”
So went my first attempt to become a mountain bike seasonaire, all of 13 years ago. Spending days shredding bike parks, exploring mountains, meeting lovely, slurry people over a jaeger-bomb whilst sleeping in shady accommodation had me interested. Like a magpie’s captivation with a coke can, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I wanted this experience, but couldn’t figure out a way to fit it into my life. Big corporate companies traditionally hire new graduates in September, or so I was told by University careers officers. With the image of my new, shiny expensive qualifications rusting if I delayed entry to the suit wearing, briefcase touting world, this magpie flew away from the idea of a prolonged alpine jaunt and into the shiny nest of a corporate career.
Moving on to the present day. Time, as always, is the greatest commodity. We all have a box which we fill up each day with the things that take up our time. When the box is full, the day is over. 24 hours, gone. We pick up responsibilities family, wife, children, career, job, and mortgage. The daily time/box gets fuller and fuller even before a day has begun. With a second child on the way and my wife suffering some debilitating health problems, my box was filling up like a bath with a tap left running and had begun to overflow. Doubling up with breaking 4 vertebrae last December, life was pretty full-on.
It was time for a change. Like a grown up Ferris Bueller, it was time to pull the parachute cord offered by my employer’s newly implemented sabbatical policy. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it”.
Two months were booked off, bags were packed, car loaded, and off we set to Châtel in the infamous Portes Du Soleil. The time-plug had been pulled, and bath water was flowing away, leaving me and the family with two long months to fill the days.
Choosing to stay in one base for much of the summer was straightforward. The idea of choosing to travel for two months with a four-month-old baby, an under-four, and their Mum with uncertain health would be choosing a minefield of logistical struggles and sleepless nights. We needed quality time for all our needs, and to make this work smoothly, we needed some infrastructure to support the elements of our time away: family, childcare, biking, and adventure.
Life with a baby is a warm cocoon of watching them change, grow, learn, and in our lucky case, smile constantly. Outside the cocoon is the day to day, hour to hour reality of relentless tasks. Feed, change, bottle, comfort, repeat. They have tough nights: spiky teeth burst through soft pink gums. Being able to tough it out with the little guy was a bonding experience, and not one I would’ve been able to whole-heartedly commit to under normal circumstances, of getting to the office at 8am the following day. Hot laps on the perfect flowing trails of Morgins with a ripper ten years younger than me became the perfect antidote to the fog of fatigue. That, and the coffee machine I took with me. Dad-life entered a new realm, as bottles were given in riding gear, in bike park carparks, and at the top of the odd mountain pass.
Riding in a bike park makes riding accessible and efficient. Whether riding, driving, or taking the bus they undoubtedly offer flexible riding options. Turn up at your convenience and ride your bike on purpose built trails. Most seasonaires in the Alps have work commitments, which mean they cannot ride all day, every day. My experience as a mid-30s Dad was quite similar in this respect. Time on the bike regularly sat between the book-ends of bottles in the morning, and a family activity in the afternoon. Road-gaps in the morning, and mini-golf or a swim for the four of us in the afternoon? Sweet! Less jaeger-bombs, more cartoons.
Children need constant attention and care. Pretty obvious, but if both Mum and Dad want to ride, and fill up that time-box with time together, then someone else has to look after them. In the preparation for our trip we booked the sprogs into the local crèche for 2 half-days a week. No matter what was going on, this was free time for Mum and Dad to do whatever we chose. We made full use of this support.
For day-long enduro adventures, the kids were collected at crèche, brought home until Mum and Dad greeted them for dinner with muddy smiles. For the occasional evening out, a nanny came to our house for a few hours. A friend offered to take us riding to a hidden valley – in steps the Nanny with a selection of Star Wars books, and a Batman outfit!
The jump lines and black DH trails of Châtel Bike Park are some of the best in the world, but the bike park doesn’t have any trails which are suitable for family riding. Family riding took place an hour drive away in Avoriaz. Running hot lap shuttles with the boy and his bike in the trailer, being pulled by my wife and her eMTB. He had a blast and we were all riding flowy, fun trails together.
Like stoked bike park shredders all over the world, he was soon asking to ride the chair, and hit another steeper, tougher trail. Off we went, with a lot of excitement, Dad carrying a big bag of nerves behind him. Once on the trail other riders were giving him high fives, taking his picture from the lift; giving him a warm, warm welcome into the world of bike park riding. Such a cool experience for him, and I.
Basing ourselves in Châtel for summer rather than Morzine, the largest resort in the Portes du Soleil, was an intentional choice. I have visited a big chunk of Europe’s top enduro and DH destinations, and whilst all the big resorts offer stunning riding potential this was the best base for us both as a family and as mountain bikers. Châtel has plenty of good quality bars, restaurants, bike shops, cinemas, swimming pools, etc.: but its size is friendlier.
It has retained the charm, and charisma of an Alpine town. There are still farms in the town centre, where you can buy cheese direct from the producer, and many of the bar workers and bike shop staff are people who relocated from Morzine years ago – coming for the chilled community vibe, the friendly atmosphere, and the abundance of incredible riding. While Châtel bike park is a few minutes outside of the town centre, there is also a gondola, linking to a chairlift just off the high street. The Super Châtel and Morclan area is a gateway to ridge-line mountain biking, which skirts the Swiss-French border.
There are a network of trails on this ridgeline alone which beg for exploration. Dropping in to any of the trails, flowing down to either the French, or Swiss valleys throws back beautiful brown-ribbon dividends. There are trails here can offer 1000m of vertical in one hit, singletrack all the way. They thread riders through alpine meadow, like lonely goats in a blur of alpine fauna, before heading into the treeline for roots and switchbacks, finally depositing you into villages, occasionally next to a microbrewery. Bliss.
Morgins bike park which doesn’t directly connect with the broader Portes Du Soleil region, is a fifteen minute pedal from Châtel – the quickest, and simplest way to reach it for an enduro bike rider. Morgins has sublime natural feeling trails, which somehow combine flow, technical sections, wide open flat out parts, fast chutes, the occasional big feature, and the most pristine berms I have seen in a bike park. From the top of their chairlift, the terrain opens up into another ridgeline and a valley dropping towards Champery, which has swathes of enduro riding to be explored.
Châtel bike park links easily with the rest of the Portes Du Soleil resorts: Avoriaz, Morzine, Champery, and Les Gets bike parks are not more than a few trails away, and the ease of bike park exploring meant I was visiting different spots a few times each week. Riding bike parks for the DH and Freeride trails was easy to access, fun, and had me riding trails, lines, jumps and drops the likes of which I thought I left behind in my 20s. Riding at least three times a week for two months sharpened up my technical riding skills, and increased my confidence on features. I ended up going round corners faster than ever before, as well as throwing down some tricks. Fast cornering has never been an intuitive skill for me, but time on the bike, and time in the bike park rocketed the progression of my riding.
With two months to explore, being curious enough to look at maps, and willing enough to pedal for an hour uphill to check out areas and trails which look promising on a map, I had a great opportunity to ride trail in Châtel and the Portes Du Soleil. When riding on my own, heading out before the family woke, I did feel like I was exploring and having an adventure, like the smugglers of the past who created many of the trails in the region. There is a huge amount of trails to explore, although it is only with time or strong local knowledge that it’s potential and trail secrets reveals itself.
Trail riding in the Portes Du Soleil needs to catch up with other locations in this regard. Like an aging Diego Maradona who has great achievements, but doesn’t recognise the game is changing, still looking in the mirror to see what greatness is: the Portes Du Soleil has deservedly built its reputation as the premier Downhill riding location in Europe, but times may be changing. As the boundaries between Downhill riders, and trail riders are blurred by bike technology, and growing participation more mountain bikers want to explore, enjoying trails away from the lifts, outside the “yeah bro” atmosphere of bike parks. Downhill bike sales and bike park numbers reflect this. Whilst mountain biking is growing in participation numbers overall, Downhill is declining as a percentage of this. Diego Maradona’s style and flair are still relevant to the modern game, and awesome as he was he isn’t going to be getting on any first team choices these days.
The Portes Du Soleil carries bikes and riders on chairlifts one million times over the course of a summer season. That is a lot of bikes, riders, and trails – more than anywhere else in Europe. Of course, handing over the keys to the Ferrari, meaning a nicely laid out map of trails through the region, and taking active steps forward to promote and develop the areas off-piste potential could on the one hand be aggravating trail conflict. This could call access rights into dispute with it, and threaten to bring down the generally permissive mindset to mountain bikers throughout the region.
On the other hand, it could re-open the eyes of trail riders to the region, who may be familiar with area from previous riding Downhill as I did, but have not explored its depths, and the trail fruit and joy which lies beyond the bike park. To dismiss the Portes Du Soleil as a destination for Downhill riding alone, is to miss out on the awesome potential the region has to offer trail riders. If you are willing to dig, or find local knowledge, you will find a gold mine.
Taking time out is a luxury and a privilege. The space it makes in your life for relationships, and fun is precious. Spending a lot of time on a bike makes progression inevitable. Châtel is an ideal spot for combining family time with bike time, and trail explorations. All summer’s end, but this one ends with a fresh and clear outlook on the approaching autumn and winter. Having put it off for such a long time makes the experience all the more potent. What am I most looking forward to now this has ended? What challenges lie ahead? There won’t be another two month break happening anytime soon, but I will be taking the lessons of valuing time, and finding fun and adventure as a corporate employee, Dad, and a mountain biker.
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Words & Photos: Gareth Rose