SHAPE SHIFTING - ALPINE MOUNTAIN BIKING’S PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE PART 1
Is the end nigh for resort–based Alpine mountain biking? Snow took skiing to the mountains of the Alps, but are we as mountain bikers better off elsewhere?
Is the end nigh for resort–based Alpine mountain biking? Snow took skiing to the mountains of the Alps, but are we as mountain bikers better off elsewhere?
DIRT ISSUE 143 - JANUARY 2014
Words by James McKnight. Photos by Andy Lloyd
In the beginning…
The day that a small, sweaty man turned up on my doorstep 13 years ago to deliver the message that I had found myself a job in the mountains of France (this is without having looked for one) was the day that the future (as I then saw it) changed shape dramatically.
Somewhere else in the country five other individuals were unaware that the paths of their lives, at that time mostly pre–GCSE, were to take them onto journeys through places and events that would ultimately deem them experts of the highest order on all things bicycle. The common factor among us being that of one particular Alpine village and its small but developing community and personality, elements of a place that would see us all converge on a regular basis from that point on.
Those people I will introduce to you throughout this two–part expedition into the sport that in the last decade has morphed into something greater and more intricate than I could ever have imagined when entering into the world of the ‘bike bum’ when I first arrived into a reasonably quiet French village, which was as–yet undeveloped as a summer resort by the name of Morzine.
My subjects were and still are fully immersed in the world of mountain biking and that will likely never change, so the way in which their sport has developed and continues to do so is of utmost importance for their futures. In one way or another Morzine is also ‘home’ to each of them. I’ll leave them to describe the way the world around them has changed in the time since they started travelling, as well as where it is heading. In doing so, we as a group will also introduce several alternative locations within the Alps – places without lifts or at least lesser–known for their bike riding than the standard ski resort. Perhaps mountain biking does belong in the Alps, but should it be restricted to resorts?
The age of mountain biking for the masses is upon us and it will surely be interesting to speculate as to where we are heading with this. I’ll introduce the idea in this feature and then in Dirt 144 we’ll get stuck right in, plus we’ll get out on one very special Alpine adventure to demonstrate just where the modern mountain bike can take us.
Modern Day Morzine
Over the years Morzine has developed as a town and a location and has taken over from Les Gets (host to numerous World Cup races, and just a few miles up the road) as the number one destination for the Alpine–holidaying mountain biker, as well as the MTB ‘lifer’. Particularly in the last few years the resort has become very much more fashionable among Brits looking to live abroad – so much so that over half the permanent population is now from outside of France (and that’s without including the ‘unaccounted for’ who live in the supermarket car park…).
The mountain has changed as much as the town. It is fair to say that the Pleney (the main mountain/lift) and its numerous hand–built tracks, which have increased in number year–on–year, reached a peak in popularity in recent times. This resulted in even the most ‘secret’ of trails being blown–out and rough as hell, and that perhaps the closing of the old and ever–so–slightly decrepit lift for summer 2013 came as a blessing in disguise. Out with the old, in with the new.
Although the tearing down of the old Pleney lift and the slightly suspicious ‘accidental’ burning down of its top station (which coincidentally contained a large amount of tricky to remove asbestos) came as a shock and a marginally emotional moment for those who have bonded with its rickety gondolas, the new lift for 2014 will no doubt improve access and of course decrease the risk of death… Aside from that though, the closure for 2013 forced riders (local and tourists) into rides further afield.
The whole process was perhaps a metaphor for the future of mountain biking in the French Alps and elsewhere, which is what got us all wondering where the sport was headed in the first place.
Paul Aston and Pete ‘Pedro’ Ballin are two riders who have frequented Morzine since the early days and who have seen the changes in the town, the mountain and the sport in general. Will they continue to ride in Morzine, will any of us for that matter? Both spent a considerable portion of summer 2013 based there, yet their ‘modern–day all–mountain’ bikes took both to locations outside of the resort and indeed away from lifts in general. I’m going to introduce you to each of the riders and let them tell you how they have seen a shape–shift in MTB and Morzine. The photos will hopefully serve as inspiration to take advantage of the adventure possible in the Alps.>>
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Subject 1: Paul Aston
Locations featured: Backwater Morzine, Chamonix valley, Samoens
I have known Paul Aston for a long time; he too was on a similar programme to my own aged 18 – getting up early to ride lift runs and staying out late to truly juice each and every day for its full worth. Paul’s ridden all around the world, mostly basing himself out of Morzine from where he raced in World Cup downhills, explored the mountains extensively and learnt the cowboy builder trade. He’s seen the way in which we ‘Dirt types’ approach our riding and has taken full advantage of the progression in technology to expand his mountainous journey into areas previously unexplored.
“I think it was 2003 when I first went to the French Alps. It was for a week’s holiday staying at the Boomerang Bar in Les Gets. I was on a Santa Cruz Super 8 and my friend had just started importing Chumba Wumba bikes so he was riding one of those; massive downhill bikes… and probably way less capable than the average modern–day ‘enduro’ bike. I don’t remember seeing anything except downhill bikes then really.
The draw for people heading out there at the time was chairlifts and obviously they had some publicity from the Les Gets World Cup – I don’t know how many had happened before I’d been there – but yeah we went there and mainly lapped–out Grass Track (the Chavannes main track) and Les Gets 2 mainline on Mont Chery. I think we rode one singletrack on Mont Chery. That was when you could do Les Gets 2 from the very top of the mountain.
I guess the popularity of the area came as a sort of snowball effect of being one of the first ‘resorts’ in Europe to offer lift access and to host races, which initially made it popular for downhillers and I guess it just grew from there. I guess the kind of people that would go (the younger downhill crowd) would be out quite often building fresh tracks. But yeah… what grew it initially? I guess it was the World Cup mainly.
Since then, well after leaving school anyway, I’ve lived probably most of my time in Morzine, I’ve spent about four years in total there. Then about two years in total in nearby Samoens and six months in Whistler, plus seven or eight months in Italy on the Riviera. I think I’ve been to most bike resorts in the Alps and mainland Europe in that time, most of the downhill resorts I’ve been to anyway.
My riding has changed more recently though, and I think that what the bike is capable of now has made a massive difference. For me the change came when I went to live in Canada and worked there as a guide: I went there initially because I wanted to ride the Bike Park and ride A–Line everyday, but I had to guide XC/trail riding as part of the job and I started to get more of an interest in getting out on the ‘little’ bike, pedalling up and ‘earning my descents’, that kind of thing. Then I realised how much fun you can have on less extreme trails and the fun you can have on a smaller bike, flowing down. I was always either riding the Bike Park on a DH bike or pedalling up during work hours. By the end of the season I had spent most of my personal riding time on the trail bike. The bike was a 150mm travel Scott Genius – pretty lightweight and fairly ‘XC’ angles, but yeah still quite a lot of travel really and you could get away with quite a lot on it.
I think it’s hard to say where resorts like Morzine will go because of the popularity of the whole sport growing. Maybe even if a big percentage of the market strays away from somewhere geared up for downhill bikes like Morzine and goes to more all–mountain/enduro friendly resorts, just because the sport’s growing they might still get a good market share. Say the sport doesn’t expand any more from today, then I think a downhill–only resort is going to be struggling against other riding spots. Obviously chairlifts are always going to be popular with any kind of rider really, any kind of rider who’s into it for the thrill seeking side as opposed to pure fitness. Regardless of what kind of riding you do, getting a chairlift to the top is always going to be a big help, even if you want to get the chair up and then still ride a singletrack or a natural path. Not many people are going to say no to a chairlift.
I think if Morzine was going to invest money they should be looking to build longer, 15–20 minute predominantly downhill trails. Trails don’t have to be steep to be technical or interesting. There’s a lack of that type of riding at the moment. I definitely wouldn’t recommend taking your 160mm travel bike there for the riding right now – there are definitely better places even just nearby in the Alps, as this last summer has proved.
However, I think one of the big draws of Morzine is there’s such a big crowd and it’s so well known that you can just turn up and you can always ride with people. There are shops set up for it and there’s always people on the trails; always a good atmosphere. But I think if you want to ride a 160mm bike there are a lot of places that have much better riding, although I guess not everyone’s going to want to go to a little town in the middle of nowhere to ride a few different trails.">>
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Subject 2: Pete ‘Pedro’ Ballin
Locations featured: Chamonix valley, Samoens
Pete Ballin, better known as ‘Pedro’ for inexplicable reasons, is the staple of all Morzine/Les Gets staples. Having been a regular for over a decade, he’s fully integrated and lived half way between the French and ‘Other’ camps. Working in a prominent local shop has exposed him to nearly every piece of kit that comes into town and has given him as good an idea of the morphing of the general rider’s mountain bike as any. A downhiller at heart, Pedro loves an adventure more than the next man and modern bikes have recently opened his mind… blown it perhaps. The DH bike was left to gather dust during summer 2013 and so it was that Pedro became an ‘enduro’ rider…
“I first went out to Morzine 13 years ago and have been there every year since. Initially when I started visiting the Alps, the big attraction was pinning it down the wide, fast alpine trails on the big DH bikes and then cruising back up on the lifts.
I have mainly ridden DH bikes since then, and summer 2013 was the first time I had the opportunity to ride a decent enduro bike in the Alps. I think the fact that those bikes have become a lot lighter and stronger, combined with better components and geometry, has really made them extremely versatile. Having a bike like this has really given me the opportunity to see a whole new side to the Alps that I never knew existed, and as it is adventure that we’re all after I can see that the same will appeal to the masses.
I’ve worked in bike shops in the Morzine area for the last eight years and I have of course seen the bikes change dramatically in that time, the key area for me being that of the components such as brakes and suspension technology all becoming a lot stronger and more reliable. It is of course these improvements that have created a bike that is light enough to pedal up, but still more than capable for any descent. This in turn has created the obvious trend toward enduro bikes that is starting to tip the scales on downhill bikes in Morzine – even the young riders are on them.
Having said that, I think DH bikes will always have their place in the MTB world, but enduro bikes are definitely enabling people to have a lot more freedom and not be refined to solely chairlift and uplift riding. Morzine itself hasn’t really adapted to the changes in MTB as it still caters mainly for the downhill riders, most of the good trail riding is hidden away and you don’t really know about it unless you know the area well.
The thing is, and this is where the sport has changed since I started visiting the Alps, riding these new bikes gives you the freedom to ride places that aren’t accessible through uplift and they can take you places a DH bike simply wouldn’t be able to go. Even after 13 years of riding out in the Alps, swapping to an enduro bike has opened my eyes to the limitless potential of unknown trails. I’m getting the same buzz as I had all those years ago riding lifts in Morzine, but as the area hasn’t changed a huge amount I can notice myself increasingly riding elsewhere.
A couple of years ago I was living in a remote inlet just off the Sunshine coast in British Columbia, where I was working as a mountain bike trail builder. Out there I only had a GT Force trail bike, which was adequate for anything the North Shore had to throw at me, and after summer 2013 I’ve really seen that modern ‘enduro’ bikes are where it’s at, even for someone with a downhill mind–set like me. For me having one bike that ‘can do it all’ is really important, especially when travelling on a budget, and these days that really is becoming a possibility.
I think eventually the changing trend in the bikes will encourage people to go and explore more exotic destinations. But I do think people will always enjoy the luxury of a chairlift in the Alps, and the social aspect of riding in Morzine. Nothing quite beats smashing out endless chairlift runs on a sunny day with friends then having a beer at a busy bar in town.
I think the town would be stupid not to adapt (although they often need a little ‘prompting’ with these things). If Morzine focused a bit more on enduro they could attract riders long after the lifts had closed for summer and keep the bike season going on longer. Personally, Morzine is my home, and I can’t imagine I will ever stop returning to the town, so perhaps all British riders will feel a little of that connection and always ride there?"
And so to next time…
I’ll let this introduction (long I know) serve as a warm–up before we get acquainted with three more of the Alps’ regulars and well and truly tucked–in to the subject and debate of the ‘enduro’ bike and where it is taking the sport. It’s not simply a fad, it’s serious, and so resorts and destinations need to adapt or die. For people like Paul and Pedro (normal riders) the convenience of having only one bike, most likely 160mm travel, will be the ultimate driving force behind the sport’s direction. Combine this with the EWS race series showing just how much these bikes are capable of and pushing the industry to also adapt, and certain classic destinations could become lost in history.