switzerland mountain biking-29
switzerland mountain biking-29

Awash with glistening peaks, shimmering lakes and picture–postcard villages, Switzerland is a dreamland for those who love mountains and sport. Photographer Victor Lucas and I both thought we knew the country well, yet late last summer we concluded our season of Alpine exploration (Morzine: Out The Arse part 3) with a roadtrip through valleys, vineyards and communities that we had never imagined to exist; a journey led by two of the most passionate bike riders in the Alps...

From Dirt Issue 121 - March 2012

Words by James McKnight. Photos by Victor Lucas

INTRO

In the last issue I finished by describing a Swiss location at the end of Lake Geneva, Les Rochers de Naye, a new experience for myself and Victor and a memorable ride guided by a smiling couple, the Walkers. Our experience of the never ending views, our marathon descent from high in the pastures, to a relaxed conclusion at the water’s edge in Montreux, lit something inside – a desire to search deeper within the country and to find out more about the incredible trails and stunning locations of which Mr and Mrs Walker, Ben and Corinne, had spoken.

That day we retreated to the comfort zone of the Morzine valley as if we were to tour Switzerland, I’d need to earn some money first (the expense of that country is hardly unknown after all). A week later, and a few Euros better off, the convoy was underway; myself in the trusty (well, rusty) Peugeot and Victor in his handy camping van.

Driving east once again along the southern shore of Lake Geneva, we turned right and headed into the wide mouth of a huge and humbling valley, a place not unfamiliar to either of us, yet with a collection of high peaks that neither of us felt we had explored nearly enough. We were due to meet Ben and Corinne the following day and from then on they would show us some of their favourite riding spots that they had come across in their 10 years of hunting Swiss trails. First, though, we had some exploring of our own to do.>>

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[part title="Out The Arse Morzine Roadtrip - Page 2..."]

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switzerland mountain biking-32

Switzerland is divided into 26 ‘cantons’, or regions. Moving from the shore of Lake Geneva toward the canton of Valais, you are faced with a staggering flat–bottomed valley and the mouth of the lake’s main feed, the Rhône, which makes its way through the farms, towns and villages of the valley floor, a journey which starts from deep within a glacier that sits far away, well–hidden in a series of valleys, in a seemingly never–ending expanse of mountains. Following the Rhône upstream and into the valley, the lift–accessed mountain biking possibilities are immediate.

We had done some research before setting off and were surprised to read that a town, which sits in close proximity to the lake and has previously played host to some classic downhill races, continues to quietly maintain its bike facilities apparently late into the autumn. We had to find out, so as we began our journey towards our meeting point with the Walkers, we took a diversion, a left turn at the UCI’s (Union Cycliste International) headquarters in Aigle, and began to climb up a lush green valley towards our first destination.

SPOT CHECK: LEYSIN

GRADE: INTERMEDIATE

switzerland mountain biking-47
switzerland mountain biking-47

Picturesque this view certainly was, and to top it off the lift began to run (with typical Swiss efficiency) at the exact time stated.

A quick call into the ticket office confirmed that there were still downhill tracks and other marked rides available, even in the autumn. In fact, the staff even seemed quite bemused as to why we would think the lift could possibly be closed. “It is always open", they assured. Silly us. You see, it’s easy to get used to the French way of doing things; close for lunch, long and plentiful holidays and relaxed opening dates. The Swiss keep their numerous lifts open for the majority of the year as they rely on them for access to chalets, farmsteads and villages (the country is 70% mountains after all) and for essential activities such as mountain biking and skiing no less.

The summit of La Berneuse cable–car, at 2,048 metres, presents several items of interest:

(1) An ever–so–slightly imposing, aluminium–shelled visitor centre (with a regular circulation of coach–tripping pensioners looking for a high altitude brew); (2) Extensive views over the distant Lake Geneva and the nearer jagged peaks; (3) Direct access to a weather–beaten looking downhill track.

The permanent track, which on the local grading system is categorized as ‘very difficult’, it has to be said, is not going to win any awards. However, this is a big old mountain and as the track makes its way back towards the town there are plenty of fun features: big jumps, high speed piste sections, absurdly difficult roots and several optional expert sections. It having recently rained before our visit, conditions were nothing short of treacherous – slippery, greasy and slimy. I have a feeling that the surface of the track rarely changes but, once we were accustomed to it, it wasn’t at all bad.

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switzerland mountain biking-44

Parking: Free, available at foot of La Berneuse lift

Lift Cost: 27 CHF/day

Opening Hours: 09:00 – 17:00

Opening Dates: 2 – 5th June and 11th June – 23rd October

Lift Altitude: 1263m – 2048m

Distance from Geneva: 100km’s Web: www.leysin.ch

[part title="Out The Arse Morzine Roadtrip - Page 3..."]

switzerland mountain biking-11
switzerland mountain biking-11

Following our day out in Leysin, we made a quick assessment of the map and decided to head a little further into the mountains behind the town to a lake that appeared to be situated as far enough away from civilisation as not to disturb anyone with our pikey camp (my car tends to explode its contents outward in all directions at any opportunity). What we came across, aside from some Swiss military practising manoeuvres, was a lake that immediately took a spot at the top of my list of ‘Places to Camp’. The Lac de l’Hongrin may be an artificial lake, a reservoir, but the peaks that jut out from its fringes, the pines that surround it and the scattering of ancient farm buildings, gave it a special feeling of being in a distant land and gave us a sense of insignificance that is rare even in the Alps. We dined à la Mexican: cheap beer and gas stove fajitas.

In the morning we rose with great enthusiasm, the many beers having absolutely no effect on our mood, and proceeded to silently consume bountiful amounts of coffee and Nutella before making our way to meet the Walkers. Ben and Corinne are a couple whose interests are hard to outnumber and impossible to describe. The two have a never–ending passion for everything they do. Their hobbies and employment range from riding bikes down Alpine slopes to building tracks, organising events and collecting sewing machines (the latter is one of Ben’s hobbies by the way).

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switzerland mountain biking-61

SPOT CHECK: DORÉNAZ

GRADE: INTERMEDIATE/DIFFICULT

james mcknight, lac de l'hongrin, switzerland, september 2011
james mcknight, lac de l'hongrin, switzerland, september 2011

It’s funny to see the many methods that different lift operators decide to be the best to transport a bicycle up a mountain, and Dorénaz is up there in the weird stakes. The lift operator here will be more than happy to take your bike and spin it upside down, ready to attach it to the under–belly of the small cabin, before bungee–tying it in place and wishing you a nice day. Arriving in Champex at the top of the lift ride, the dismount will be less graceful as there is no–one present to help, but it’s hardly a chore (you have just gained 674metres of altitude with no effort, after all). Follow signs for the downhill track which starts 100 metres up the road and gear–up.

There is only one permanent downhill track at Dorénaz, but it’s a treasure. Dropping in, you are up to speed in an instant. The steep drop from the tarmac road ensures this and you need your wits about you. Rocks appear from all directions, trees sail past at high speed and a mixture of loose, dry, rocks and a generous helping of fallen leaves ensure that you will be struggling to find any grip on the steep–sided mountain. This is good, wholesome, chaos. The run is unfortunately broken into several sections by the snaking road that climbs to Champex, but each section of tarmac comes as a welcome rest from the relentless features that are packed onto the track. I like this track, it’s more technical that most resort–based downhills and exciting enough to keep even the most proficient rider on their toes. That is not to say that intermediate riders won’t enjoy themselves though. Approach at lower speed and the track is manageable enough, with optional lines around the majority of features.

ben and corrin walker, riddes, switzerland, september 2011
ben and corrin walker, riddes, switzerland, september 2011

Parking: Free, at foot of Dorénaz’s lift

Lift Cost: 5CHF

Opening Hours: 05:55 – 20:00

Opening Dates: Open all year

Lift Altitude: 415m – 1089m

Distance from Geneva: 134km’s

www.dorenaz.ch or www.dorenazbike.ch

 

[part title="Out The Arse Morzine Roadtrip - Page 4..."]

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switzerland mountain biking-22

GRADE: INTERMEDIATE

Moving on from Dorénaz, a mere two hours after waking (and after much arguing with the men who during the night had quietly removed the entire road surface below where we had camped), we chugged along the valley floor with the ever–intimidating cold waters of the Rhône to our right, and made a beeline for our next destination, Riddes. We were now heading into the main valley of the Valais canton and into the heart of what we named ‘little Italy’. The climate of this area has to be experienced to be believed as it resembles something more Mediterranean than Alpine. The barrier of the high Valaisian and Bernese Alps channels clouds and humidity away, leaving a pleasant and dry climate. You can find leathery old men killing time on street corners, an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables growing and local wine that is sold across the world.

Riddes’ gondola is one of multiple lifts and funiculars that operate in this perma-sun basin. These lifts serve communities, agriculture and sports folk alike and are a complex network that extends to innumerable side valleys. Ben and Corinne were waiting to show us the way and took no time in explaining that this was only one location of the dozens that they had ridden in a decade of exploring the nooks and crannies of this region. En–route to the meeting point, they told us, we had passed several notable riding spots, namely Crans Montana and Verbier but also a myriad of small, simple lift systems that are open all year round and take nothing more than a sense of adventure to discover and brave. They had ridden in so many towns, villages and hidden valleys that Riddes had been left aside for several years making it as much of an adventure for them as it was for us.

We bought our lift tickets and then waited in the summer–like sun (this was mid September) that seemed like it would be there for the foreseeable future. There are two uplifts per hour here, which roughly reflects the timetables of the majority of access lifts in Valais. From Riddes the cable car drops its contents into the curious Isérables, an ancient village dating back to the 13th century that positively teeters on the vertical mountainside at over 1,100 metres.

switzerland mountain biking-17
switzerland mountain biking-17

Rolling at speed through the warm air was a pleasure that made me think of riding in Spain or Italy and the ensuing dusty trail confirmed that this was the Alps as I had never seen them. I probably shouldn’t be promoting mountain biking at Isérables, in fact I must highlight that it is entirely illegal, even if the old man does wave you through. On the other hand, I discovered the most perfect turns and impeccable straights I have ever seen, a faultless trail. Memorable it certainly was, a dream come true for me in fact, with the best corners I have ridden on a downhill bike. You can make your own decision about whether you want to visit, but bear in mind that this is probably the only trail in the entire area that is anti–bikes and I’m sure that with some searching there are plenty more like it with no issues. If you do visit and wish to risk the wrath of the Swiss rule system, as well as a prolonged back–in–time experience, stay at the ‘Auberge du Mont Gelé’ in Isérables and tell them the old man outside said bikes were cool.

 

Parking: Available around Riddes’ streets

Lift Cost: Around 5CHF per uplift

Opening Hours: 06:00 – 20:30

Opening Dates: Open all year

Lift Altitude: 482 – 1100 (metres)

Distance from Geneva: 147km’s

www.riddes.ch or www.isérables.ch

A HAPPY ENDING

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switzerland mountain biking-56

I had one of the best summers I can remember whilst exploring Morzine’s outer regions and breaking out from my typical summer routine in that town. I found trails, towns and even entire mountains that I didn’t know existed prior to this project. I discovered a microclimate that surprised me in an area of mountains that will no doubt accommodate many future adventures. I camped out in some stunning settings and I rode my bike against scores of dramatic backdrops which will stay in my mind and dreams forever more. 2012 then is the year for adventure, the time to break free and an opportunity to explore.