I may look, and feel, like I’ve been hit by a bus, but I’ve just returned from the most amazing week in the mountain biking mecca of Morzine in the French Alps. Although I’ve been to Morzine and the rest of the Portes du Soleil many times snowboarding, this was the first time I’d packed my bike rather than my board.
After a bit of an epic drive from Liverpool involving heavy traffic, channel crossing chaos and torrential rain, we eventually arrived in Morzine.
The slopes didn’t look all that different to the last time I was there, in December, when the snow was still a bit thin on the ground, but there was something strange about seeing the same infrastructure being used by mountain bikers instead of skiers and snowboarders, even if the brightly coloured figures sporting full face helmets and goggles didn’t look too dissimilar.
Although I’ve done quite a lot of mountain biking in the UK, this was to be my first taste of proper downhill mountain biking, and the first time I’d had the luxury of being transported to the top of the hill without having get there under my own steam. Now, I’m not averse to a bit of climbing, but given the option of spending a couple of hours slogging up an alpine mountainside, or a short ride on a chairlift or gondola, uplift wins every time. And besides, with such a vast area of downhill trails to explore, a week is too short to waste any time pedaling uphill.
Looking down from the lift at the trails below, it was clear that these were in a different league to anything I’d ridden back home, in terms of length, gradient and size of features. However, any apprehension that I had was soon allayed when I realised that many of the people riding them weren’t doing so particularly well; rolling over tabletops, braking on berms, and generally looking a bit out of their depth, or rather, height. Of course, there were also plenty of riders who wouldn’t have looked out of place on a World Cup track, but I chose to focus on the former.
The only other concern I had was how my trail bike with 140mm travel would cope on the downhill trails. There were certainly lots of pretty serious DH machines knocking about, but, while I would no doubt have benefited from being on a proper downhill bike, my little Ibis Mojo served me pretty well for my first taste of big mountain biking.
Having said that, I didn’t exactly get off to the best start, crashing on my second run, although I can’t really blame the bike for failing to see the hazard warning sign beside the gap jump. Fortunately, other than somehow scraping off a large patch of skin from under my elbow pad and a case of ‘swelbow’, I escaped relatively unscathed, but it was enough to remind me that this wasn’t Llandegla or Glentress, and I needed to take it a bit easy and keep my wits about me.
However, I wasn’t going to let a little crash ruin my enjoyment of all these awesome trails, so got straight back on the bike and headed for the bike park in Les Gets to session the tabletops until I could clear them all; ready for whatever else the trails presented me with.
Being able to clear (most of) the big tabletops undoubtedly enhanced my experience of riding the trails, but it still didn’t prepare me for just how steep some sections are, and psyching myself up to go down precipitous chutes was to become my next challenge. For some reason, flying over fifteen foot long tabletops or off three foot high drops doesn’t seem to phase me much, but I totally freeze up at the top of a really steep section. I guess it all comes down to practice, and there was plenty of opportunity for that over the coming days…
The network of mountain biking trails in the Portes du Soleil is vast, and despite riding pretty hard each day, we barely scratched the surface in a week. As we were staying in Morzine, we spent a fair bit of time on the Pleney side of Morzine and Les Gets, which are closely linked. Although right next to each other, both areas are quite different, and while most of the runs down from the Pleney lift are through the trees, the Les Gets side is much more open.
I loved the black run down from Le Pleney, which was nice and varied, and challenging without being too intimidating, although I did opt out of a couple of the more gnarly features. Having successfully tackled the black a few times, I thought the red would be an easy cruise down, but some of the sections are so steep that I actually found it more difficult than the black. The blues, on the other hand, were much more straightforward, and a little dull by comparison, so we only really rode those when we had to get from A to B, or on the one day that it rained and the trails turned into mud slides.
The distinction between reds, blues, and even greens, was much less discernable in Les Gets, where most of the runs are made up of endless tabletops and berms, which were a lot of fun. The long red run from the top of Les Chavannes chairlift to the bottom (La Roue Libre) is also great fun, although it was heavily rutted near the bottom, which left everyone complaining of sore hands and wrists. Although, I have to say, that was somewhat eclipsed by the pain of my poor swelbow ratting against my elbow pad.
In addition to Morzine and Les Gets, we also spent a couple of days over in Châtel, which was undoubtedly my favourite of the areas that we visited. Although a little further afield than Les Gets, Châtel is still pretty easy to get to from Morzine and is covered by the same lift pass. All you have to do it take the Super Morzine Gondola on the other side of town, jump on the adjacent chairlift up towards Avoriaz, then follow the trail over to Châtel. Just make sure you leave enough time to get back over again before the Lindarets lift closes.
Châtel bike park is renowned for being pretty hardcore and even the blues are way more gnarly than anything I’ve ridden back home. I didn’t even attempt a black! If you miss a hazard warning sign here, you could find yourself flying over, or into, a massive river gap.
Although I’d been practicing my flying skills, I decided I wasn’t quite ready for the river gap, but managed to find a couple of more realistically sized drops that allowed me to get some air without putting my life on the line. Dan, on the other hand, put my efforts to shame by hitting a massive step up gap and making it look like the easiest thing in the world. Next year…
However, contrary to what the crowds of people clustered around these features would lead you to believe, there is much more to Châtel than massive gap jumps and drops. The trails themselves are awesome, regardless of whether or not you opt to take the big hits. The red under the lift (Ride Humble) was challenging for its steep gradient and tight berms, but my absolute favourite was the top section of People, a (Châtel-graded) blue, which had just the right combination of gradient, berms and tabletops for me to ride fast enough to feel exhilarated, but also challenged.
After having had such an awesome time mountain biking in Les Portes du Soleil, I’m slightly concerned that the trails back home are going to seem a bit crap by comparison. Not only are we going to have to start pedaling ourselves uphill again, but also black runs are likely to feel more like greens! I’m really looking forward to riding more of the UK’s downhill specific trails though, so will need to get some uplift days booked; just as soon as the pain in my hands and wrists has subsided!