Alpine Mountain Biking: Past, Present and Future Part 2
The bikes we ride and the trails that we ride them on are changing rapidly as technology and materials allow for lighter, more robust bikes made for Alpine mountain biking.
Taken from Dirt issue 144, February 2014
The age of the ‘enduro–ist’ is upon us, and aside from full factory gimps giving peacock–like demonstrations of the shininess of their latest piece of essential enduro kit down the local trail centre (there’s always one), our sport appears to be changing for the better. Mountain bikers are rediscovering themselves as exploratory, thrill–seeking, easy–going lovers of all things natural and the fundamental ethos our sport was born from is permeating from every grin as riders of all origins begin to push further out into the ‘back country’ (whether this is defined by simply heading to some Welsh mountains or deep into Alaska’s wilds is not important, it’s the ‘spirit’ of it that has everyone so gripped).
I have an affliction, a deep–rooted love, of Morzine in the Alps. The town was one of the founders of the Alpine mountain bike holiday and has thrived on throngs of downhillers coming to do battle with its steep–sided valleys and extensive broader area, the Portes du Soleil, ever since British companies started offering packages there. Alas my fear is that with the sport reaching further and taking us (the punters) to destinations away from the grip of such purpose–developed ski resorts, that the Brit’s favourite may be about to embark on a tricky uphill struggle. There are endless downhill runs and technical, hand–built steep trails in the Morzine area, but enduro bike friendly trails are certainly few and far between, in the lift–accessed area at least, and the existing runs are completely hammered anyway.
Is it a case of adapt or die for the existing, downhill–centric resorts such as Morzine, or should they continue to do what they do well? I’ve asked another three riders (a craftsman, a long term holidaymaker and a trail builder, all know the area as well as any) their opinions on this to help me come to terms with the reality. They’ve also given a little background info so you can get to know them and their histories.
SUBJECT 1: NICK MAHER, THE ALPINE ‘LIFER’
Nick Maher has lived and breathed mountains ever since he quit his London based job and upped sticks almost a decade ago. He’s ridden the downhill trails of the Portes du Soleil more than you have, and has seen the sport’s progression from ‘do everything’ to ‘choose XC or DH’ and now back to ‘do everything’. His passion lies in exploring: until recently he would drive his van and downhill sled to locations across the Alps on the hunt for the next DH track, but more recently his interests have turned to the ever–so–frequently–mentioned ‘enduro bikes’ and the remote valleys he can access with their help.
“I’ve always loved riding my bike from when I was a little kid but I guess it was around 12 or 13 when I became conscious of what I was doing and began treating it as a sport. I grew up in Gloucestershire for the most part and had pretty much free reign to ride where I wanted. I started off on all kinds of beaters that my old man would repaint and restore, then a BMX and finally a 26" MTB when I was big enough.
I’ve always loved riding trails for the first time, blind, when you really improvise your riding. I guess you can always go faster or smoother when you get to know something but it’s never the same. So I started driving further afield looking for more stuff to ride, then as racing became important it was getting to the racetracks and finally when we saw that you could ride chairlifts in ski resorts it was off into Europe around 1998/99.
Morzine was my holiday location of choice, of course… There was nowhere else as far we (my group of friends) were concerned. Like most people we were loud, drunken idiots who smashed their bikes up during the day and their livers during the night! Bike–wise you’d see all kinds of stuff. I’ll never forget seeing the lad on an engineless MX bike on Morzine’s Pleney hill, you wouldn’t have wanted to get in his way! I also seem to remember lots of Giant ATX 1s and Oranges from the race crowd.
I eventually moved to the Alps to a small town called Samoens, just over the mountain from Morzine, but a whole lot different. It’s way more chilled here, there are no egos or heroes, in fact there are only a few people who ride regularly and everyone knows each other. The riding itself is quite different too: the trails are very natural and technical. As far as I know there aren’t any ma -made berms in Samoens at all. The opportunity for big back–country loops is there too and that’s the ticket for me, I love getting away from it all and onto the sheep tracks and old walking paths. The place rewards a bit of knowledge and exploration, you can’t really make the most of it without spending some time here or getting someone to show you around.
I was on a Nukeproof Mega AM for 2013. It’s the first time I’ve had a more enduro style bike for any length of time in the Alps and, to be honest, if you’re out of the bike parks it’s all you need. I’ve no interest in smashing myself through braking bumps anymore so it’s perfect for me. By having a more versatile bike I’ve taken on a lot more in the way of big tours and multi–day trips which is probably the way my riding’s going to go over the next few years, so I can’t see myself buying another full DH bike for a while.
I think MTB’s shape shift is comparable to the recent revolution in ski and snowboard touring. The gear makes the trip up easier without compromising the descents as much as it used to and I think it’s just the same in MTB. We now have gear that lets us ride up in relative comfort without losing any of the fun coming down. It’s made a lot of the riding I’ve been trying to do over the last few years much more attainable. A few years ago it would be unimaginable to ride a 170/160mm travel bike around the Tour du Mont Blanc for four days, climbing and descending thousands of metres per day.
DH is never boring but the bikes are so specialised that for the same money most people outside of racing, who can only afford to run one bike, would prefer something more versatile. I don’t miss hammering DH runs around the Portes du Soleil at all. Although I still ride there at the start of the season while it’s all fresh and now and again at Les Gets when I feel like it. I think Morzine will always be popular though. It’s pretty much a rite of passage for a UK rider who wants to ride in Europe.
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I guess the Enduro World Series represents the kind of riding most people actually do these days, and maybe have always done. For the end user its influence has to be a good thing as the gear we will all be using the most will be developed in this arena. I hope DH still stays as the F1 of MTB but the enduro side of it is much more accessible for most and I really like the way the EWS has taken the Superenduro format that makes the race part of the host town for weekend rather than having mountain biking hiding away in a lay–by somewhere like most races!"
SUBJECT 2: TOBY PANTLING, LONG–TERM LES GETS/MORZINE VISITOR
“I first started riding mountain bikes and got hooked when I was at school in Somerset, we had some mini downhill tracks and bombholes to ride. My love and excitement for bikes has not changed since the beginning. Instead of taking me up to the local hills it now takes me all over the world on amazing adventures.
When I first started riding bikes more seriously all I wanted was to race downhill; it seemed the cool thing to do and it was what all my friends where into.
[part title="Alpine Mountain Biking: Past, Present and Future Part 2 "]
My first riding trip abroad was to Lest Gets. At the time it seemed such a far–out idea to go somewhere where we could spend pretty much all our time riding downhill and use chairlifts to get back to the top. That’s what drew us to the area for sure. When I first visited it was unbelievable: the mountains were massive and the tracks were so long. I remember having to stop a few times each run to shake off my arms and adjust my brakes because they had pumped up! The town was a quiet little ski village that was ahead of its time, realising they could use their lift system for bikers in the summer as well as walkers. There were bikes about but considering there were only a few main tracks you never really saw many riders on the trails.
I think it was the original ski resort to offer mountain biking in the summer where you could use chairlifts to access the trails. Les Gets has also held World Cup and World Championship races back in the day. This put them on the map. It is also well positioned only being eight hours from the ferry and less than an hour from Geneva airport.
Since 2009 I have devoted all my spare time/life to riding bikes and traveling with them. Two summers spent travelling around Europe in my van racing enduro and riding as many places as possible. I’ve been on two trips to New Zealand and also spent three summer seasons in Whistler, with plenty of road trips. It’s been a pretty damn good few years to say the least!
My riding has changed hugely over the last few years. I used to travel abroad with my downhill bike to ride/race on tracks with the use of chairlifts, whereas now I travel to ride/race amazing trails with my enduro bike. These trails are accessed in a variety of different ways. Big pedal climbs/hike–a–bikes, chairlifts, van shuttles… I’ve even been lucky enough to also use helicopters and float planes to reach some remote places.
Technology has definitely played a huge part in this transition. I can now happily ride uphill for hours to ride back down and feel the climbing/descending efficiency has not been hugely sacrificed. When I first travelled to Whistler back in 2009 I only had my DH bike with me. Back then all you’d see rattling around the bike park was big eight–inch travel bikes that could only go downhill. This summer I’m planning on heading back to Whistler at some point and I’ll only be taking my Orange Five 29.
I have spent a lot of time in the Les Gets/Morzine area of the Alps riding mainly DH bikes in the past, but to be totally honest with the way I’m feeling about the area at the moment I’m in no rush to ride there in the near future. The trail network is not as well suited to my preferred style of riding these days and I’ve ridden there plenty. There is so much amazing terrain to be ridden and explored all over the world and I now have the tools to get to these areas and don’t need to rely on chairlifts and shuttles as much as I once did. I’ve spent time in the Maritime Alps and the French/Italian Riviera. These areas have really opened my eyes to exploring old trail networks and highlighted what bikes today are really capable of. Trust me, the new breed of enduro bikes descend as well as DH bikes from not that many years ago, they can happily be winched up some serious climbs if you’ve got the mind and fitness for it.
I feel there will always be a place for Alpine ski resort chairlift assisted riding. It’s a great place to get a lot of time in on the bike. However, for me it’s more about quality not quantity these days. I’ll happily climb for several hours for an amazing 30–minute descent at the end. Chairlifts and events bring traffic and unless the trails are designed and maintained to cope with this then the riding experience will be compromised in the future."
Alex Evans is a character you will probably be familiar with if you raced downhill in the UK back in the early years of the noughties: as a junior racer he was always there or thereabouts and even graced the pages of Dirt on board his Balfa bike. Since those days he has travelled far and wide to race downhill and also on a search for steep, tech riding… his forte.
I’ll take the focus away from the sport in general now and get down to the point: Morzine, the town that has catered for and nurtured so many of Britain’s riders and racers, most probably needs to adapt fast if it is to continue to thrive. The town holds an important place in my heart as it does for so many others who have holidayed there, and so I don’t want it to lose out on the expansion and adaptation of the sport as we go into the age of enduro… Al Evans is perhaps the best man to have the last word on this as he has lived and breathed bikes and Morzine for over a decade and his integration into the local (French) community gives him a good overall impression of attitudes to bikes.
“I was born in a quietly chavvy countryside town of Dorchester, Dorset. I’m balding and I like long romantic walks on the beach, going shopping and eating at sophisticated restaurants. Seriously.
My local riding spot was Puddletown Forest, as well as many local building sites, sets of steps and quite importantly Dirt’s old publishing place from when it was run by the Noble family. They let us get rad on their trails in the back garden. I guess back then the type of riding that I got into was ‘riding’, rather than anything specific. That alone did lead to some of the most versatile, and slightly silly bikes that ever existed.
My first visit to Morzine and Les Gets was in 2002 with my dad. We camped up in the Les Gets campsite and shredded Les Chavannes (aka Grass DH) all day long. Braking bumps and all. I’m not 100% sure why we ended up in Les Gets, but I am very glad we did. The Chavannes was epic, and my arms buzzed with excitement, adrenaline and arm pump. Magura HS11s weren’t all that… it was a standout bit of awesome in my life, and from then on I was hooked on the Portes du Soleil (PDS). When I rode the first time here, a track was considered to be anything along the lines of… well, not quite a fire road. So in that respect, Le Pleney, Les Chavannes, Mont Chery, Super Chatel and Les Crozets in Switzerland were considered highly developed as those villages all had permanent tracks.
The first proper season I did I was 15/16 years old and it was after my GCSEs, with a bunch of very good friends. We got in to some serious trouble (passports confiscated, etc.), but also had what could quite possibly be described as the summer of a lifetime. All of us just old enough to grow pubes were let loose without adult supervision in a world of beer, bikes and girls.
Bikes, mountains and people eventually led to my permanent move to the area. Maybe in that order too. What is there to not love about this place? Lac Leman replaces the sea pretty well, the mountains replace the hills of Dorset and my friends all moved here with me. Not only that I’ve got some lovely new ones. Interestingly, I don’t think the clientele has changed that much over the years. There have always been families, there have always been affluent males (MAMIL) and there have always been the racers and young shredders. I think that attitudes have changed slightly, though – it’s just the outward definition of people that remains the same.
Unfortunately, the tracks of the PDS have not developed much, with the exception of maybe the last year or two. The resorts have been riding a massive wave of a reputation for the last 10 years and I believe that this wave is now running out of steam. Le Pleney hasn’t changed (like, really properly hasn’t) since it was made. Les Chavannes has only changed because of the addition of a new winter feature. The same applies for some of the other towns.
Up until very recently none of Morzine’s success has been its own doing. I might even go as far to say that there is resentment of mountain bikers, a vibe shared amongst a majority of the ski–centric locals. There are many more business opportunities to capitalise on the number of bikers that come here – there just needs to be more willing from people in positions of power. Austria and Switzerland are very good examples of how to make the most of the mountains and resorts. Early opening and late closing are two things that Morzine could do better. There also needs to be a diversification of the trails: the resorts could take a leaf out of any UK trail centre’s book. There is a very big element missing from the riding here.
I have built a few trails in the Morzine valley myself. Some of them have remained fairly secret for a long time. However I think the most famously secret one would have to be ‘Best: Kept Secret’ (Note to everyone who is reading this: there is a colon in there). The trail was best when it was kept secret, not that it is ‘the best kept secret of Morzine’. It does now deserve its new name of ‘Worst Kept Secret’, but beyond all the sneering and laughing about how trashed it is (and other trails) it is a great shame to see peoples’ efforts (shout out to Bike Gang and Club Tropz) gone to waste in the form of straight lines, ruined berms and ruts. So all of that to say there is a lack of trails, but I hope that can change in the near future.
I’ve done one season working on the trails in Chatel. I think that they are a good base and a lot of the tourists seem to really enjoy them. There is room for expansion and inclusion of enduro riding, and I really think some of the most beautiful trails can be built to cater for this market. Rollers, whoops, changes in gradient, features and terrain movements can be added around naturally existing obstacles. I think that a very important feature needs to be sustainability. This also means less work for trail builders and more fun for the riders. The better a trail is built, the less work will be needed to maintain it.
In my opinion, Morzine’s local ‘King Pins’ need to open their arms to the money bikers can bring by embracing our dirty, smelly body armour and muddy bikes. Respect works in both ways: if locals turn their noses up at potential custom, then potential customers will treat locals with contempt. More trails, more activities and longer opening times would be a great start…
Was this entire feature a message to Morzine’s board of decision makers in disguise? Was it a love letter to the mountains of France begging them not to leave my life, whilst weeping that we can go through this change together? In a word… yep.
As I’ve already said, the town of Morzine and the wider Portes du Soleil area holds a special place in my heart, as it does for so many others and certainly for all of those featured on these pages. Nearly everyone from weekend warrior to World Champion has visited and enjoyed riding there for so many years, but without some changes the lure is going to become less so for the sport’s core riders. Sure, as all of the subjects in this two–part feature have noted, Morzine is never going to just die on its ass; there will always be new folk coming to ride. But the carnival–like atmosphere and buzz in the town and across the famous French Alpine resorts is at risk, especially as more and more folk choose to take their interests away from full–on DH riding.
With a page turned in the history of Alpine mountain biking, Chapter 2 is entering our lives in the form of the Exploratory Enduro Enthusiast, the good times are definitely going to keep coming as boundaries are breached and we will all continue to profit from the development of the bikes. However, even having asked my subjects over the course of this feature their views on the future I am still struggling to imagine where this takes resort–based riding. Time will only tell.