Words by Nick Maher photos by Soren Rickards
One thing that I remember about the UK at the time I left the island was that the seasons were becoming very blurred into each other. You could have a summer’s day in February or a monsoon for all of July and August. Or more the usual steady monochromatic grey overcast dreariness that always prevailed. As a rider I became indifferent to the conditions, I’d always assume the worst whenever I was packing my gear up to go riding and even if it had been sunny and in the mid-twenties for a week with nothing but sunshine on the weather forecast I’d always have an extra layer and a waterproof tucked into a corner of the car.
Since I’ve been in the Alps I’ve reacclimatised myself to what I’d call ‘proper seasons’. Although the mountains are notoriously unpredictable, even dangerously unpredictable at certain times of my year, there are at least some guarantees: In winter it will generally be bloody cold and everything will get covered in snow; this then melts in the spring and flies down the mountain and off waterfalls; the place then goes lurid green as the temperature rises during the summer; then slowly cooling again as winter approaches once more. Sometimes these transitions are like a switch being thrown. There’s been more than one autumn when I’ve been out on my bike in shorts and t-shirt on dusty trails and then the weekend after I’ll have a snowboard on my feet. Instant winter. The seasons are very much part of life here, the tourist industry, farming and simple day-to-day life are all based around these distinct patterns.
I pledged my allegiance to MTB at the start of the winter and vowed to keep the wheels turning through the snowy months. What I didn’t know at the time was that we were on the brink of one of the mightiest winters of snowfall for eight or nine years! Metres and metres of the stuff came down relentlessly all winter, making for some of the best skiing conditions I’ve ever experienced. However, despite this I kept true to my promise to keep riding. I’m good like that.
At the height of winter it was utterly pointless to try to get a bike out there. Fun as it was at the start of the winter to go and thrash about in 20-30cms of white stuff, when you start measuring the snow in metres it’s a different story. Besides, I’d prefer to be out snowboarding anyway! So it wasn’t until there was a bit of a lull in the snowfall in February that I decided to get the bikes out again, shuttling some of the summer haunts with varying degrees of success with a number of other hardcore bike riders. If someone had been out on snowshoes and left a trail this would freeze up and leave a nice crust on the top of the snowpack, which would support your wheels enough to ride reasonably normally. Should you stop concentrating for a split second and let your front wheel stray from this tightest of singletrack a very swift exit over the bars would be your reward! As someone was inevitably doing exactly this at any given point of the ride it was virtually impossible to maintain any levels of concentration in between fits of cruel laughter.
Other times you’d find yourself trudging for hours through heavy slush, feet soaked to the bone and dragging a clogged up and useless bicycle behind you as you’d ‘underestimated’ the amount of snow on a particular trail, caught out by the conditions miles from home. I call this ‘the spirit of adventure’.
Another sortie involved taking the car up the road to the middle station of the local ski hill before bombing back down the pistes. I still remember the look that a Parisian tourist gave me as I overtook him on a bicycle as he was doing his best attempt at a speed tuck! Riding on the pistes was amazing fun but we really thought we were playing with fire after that one go at it. Although we picked a quiet time to try it the reality was that you can’t exactly stop on a sixpence with a bike on snow and ice, no matter how good your brakes are. We thought it was only a matter of time before we collided with a skier, mowed down ski school or, even worse, lost our lift passes. We thought it better to retreat to the forests once again.
The big melt
Eventually after one hell of a winter the thermometer started to creep back into plus figures much more regularly and the lower slopes of the mountains thawed bit-by-bit. By early April spring had well and truly sprung and the lower half of the mountain, including some of the bike trails, had dried out completely. Feeling dry, loamy dirt back under your wheels is such a great sensation after months of flailing around on snow and ice.
One of the gondolas took the frankly groundbreaking step of allowing us up the lift with our bikes (either that or the lifty was such a space cadet that he didn‘t notice we weren‘t his usual clientele, this is a highly likely possibility). That’s a funny scene when you have a cabin full of people wrapped up in ski gear and two blokes in shorts with bikes!
Needless to say we milked this opportunity for all it was worth for the last two weeks the lift stayed open, skiing in the morning until the heat turned the snow to mush and then after a quick change heading back out on the bikes.
Time to shuttle
Spring is not the time to be adventuring deep into the mountains though. For the last few weeks the sounds of avalanches and rock falls have been echoing around the valley as the mountains shake off the last of their white winter coats.
It’s time to re-find the old familiar trails, brush up the skills and get your head in gear. There’s nothing quite as intimidating as steep, rooty chute full of mud like chocolate and ruts as deep as your axles when you’ve been used to pristine white slopes for a few months.
With just a downhill machine to play with at the moment the name of the game has been shuttle runs as the local downhill trails thaw. The amount of snow that fell over winter caused significant damage to some trees in the forest that couldn’t support the mass of crystals on their branches, so leading a group out can be quite a daunting experience as the trails are littered with fallen trees and branches. One second you’ll feel that flow again as you start to remember the contours and ripples of your favourite trail and the next you’ve both brakes locked up skidding along yelling ‘stop, stop, stop!’ to the guys behind you as you find yourself careering towards what looks like a giant sequoia lying across the fastest bit of the trail.
Which monster peak next?
This little taste of summer has awoken all the thoughts and plans I’d been making in the autumn of things I wanted to do the following summer with my bike, and places I’d promised myself I’d get to. As all the loam and leaves start to brush off the trails and the same old ruts and holes begin to form, that desire to get away and up into the hills begins to grow stronger. More and more I find myself pouring over maps and glancing up at the hills, watching the snow recede exposing another part of the mountains I haven’t yet reached with my bike. That’s just the hills I can see from my window, the lifetime of riding that the Haute Savoie contains is truly mind-blowing and sometimes the toughest choice I have is what or where to ride next….
There are quite a few plans nearing fruition that I’m looking forward to putting into words, it won’t be long now, roll on summer.