Travel Guide: PILA
Pila came to our attention in 2005 when they hosted a round of the downhill World Cup. The trail, designed by the former World Cup Champion Corrado Herin, was always going to be good. Things have moved on for the resort since that race, with the bike park expanding and new lifts added, so it seemed a good time to revisit Italy’s premier downhill venue.
Having spent a few days in Pila over previous years I knew the downhill trails were pretty good, but this year there would be a little more development going on, and not just from the trail builders working for the resort. For the 2008 season the Playbiker Iron Horse team had based themselves in Pila and were crammed into an apartment in the town either living the dream – or living the ski–bum life!
The team for this year had Keswick ripper Adam Brayton, Kiwi’s Mike Skinner and Nathan Rankin, and Italian Lorenzo Suding amongst others, and had been notching up Italian national wins and some good World Cup finishes between them. I knew that between those guys and Brendan Fairclough and Sam Hill, who had stayed earlier in the season, that there would be some fresh lines carved out.
So we continued our summer–long road trip driving from Les Arcs through the Mont Blanc tunnel towards Aosta, we were all pretty beat up after a few weeks on the road flat out riding without a day off…we were feeling it now. We had arranged to hook up with Adam Brayton) while the rest of his team were
racing one of the Italian Nationals and gave a shout to Aston, McKnight and Nick Maher
I headed straight up for a run on the World Cup trail, and on reaching the bottom I thought ‘damn that was pretty rough’. Only to hear the guys from Morzine at the bottom saying how they couldn’t believe how smooth it was compared to back in the Portes de Soleil! Adam was shooting photos and going big, there is one step up into the woods and he was just boosting it massive, hitting the loose flat corner before fully committed, it was pretty mint.
Unfortunately he aggravated an ACL injury that had been plaguing him all season, twisting his knee. So we didn’t get to ride much with him, though before he left he made sure he took me down one of his lines he’d cut in up in the bike park. It was tight, fresh, loamy and steep; real fun and very British in style.
That night we hit the local pub Brannigan’s; I guess there’s no drinking age limit in Italy as it was full of 14 to 18 year old kids listening to the worst music I’ve ever heard. Apparently this guy they were listening to is massive in Italy, I can’t remember his name, but suffice to say, I never want to hear it again.
The kids were trying out Murphy’s ale and then screwing their faces up like they had just been poisoned; it was pretty funny and bitter, for most it is an acquired taste. We randomly bumped into another group of British riders, Matt Pinches and friends. Random as they all live about an hour from me. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised as Pila is one of the resorts in the Alps where the word does seems to be getting back to the UK.
The following morning up on the hill we met with the legend that is Corrado Herin (1997 World Cup overall winner remember),
and only one of two men (along with Greg Minnaar) to pip Nico Vouilloz to the World Cup overall during his prime. Corrado, who is based in Cervinia about an hour away, is
responsible for the design of the 2005 World Cup trail and is also a consultant on new trail design at the park. We talked about the park opening up some new trails for ‘09 from
the second chairlift at the top of the ridge, which will be awesome.
Visitors can arrangefor coaching sessions with Corrado in the park on weekends, his contact details are available through the tourist office. Back in our hotel we killed some time in the basement on the fussball and table tennis tables; it wasn’t long before the table football ball, which is a hell of a lot harder than the ping pong ball, was being used on the table tennis table. Naturally this soon led to human target practice and as me and Ralph (Jones) scarpered for cover Zeb (Michael Gray) unleashed one at us, sailing straight by us as we ducked and right through a pane of glass – shit! Why are things always so much funnier when you know you can’t or shouldn’t laugh?
We bolted and hid in our room before guilt set in and we owned up (this was more down to the fact that everyone else in the hotel was over 65, so I think they had us sussed). The hotel owners were pissed, turns out the pane of glass was a special fireproof cabinet for all the buildings electrics – oops! So now we are sat there like naughty school kids outside the head teacher’s office waiting for them to tell us the damage. I guessed we’d be looking at the rough end of £100, so when they said it was gonna cost £600 quid we were gutted. After some negotiations we got it down to something a little more reasonable, but still a total rip–off and Zeb whacked it on the plastic in what goes down as the most expensive table tennis game in MTB history!
The resort of Pila is located high up on the hill above the town of Aosta. It is a small, compact place with a super chilled feel to it; there is simply no rushing about here. The
riding is all centred on the lower station of the Chamole chairlift, which lies just below the upper station of the Pila to Aosta Gondola (newly rebuilt for ’09).
Pila has a few small shops and restaurants, which offer enough to keep you in food and drink, but for any real shopping or something a little livelier you have to turn your hand to the town of Aosta in the Val d’Aosta. This region is one of the smallest in Italy, but also one of the wealthiest, as you may notice if you spend any time down in the town.
Pila is Italy’s best permanent downhill venue, and that is what it is all about, it is ‘an out and out downhill venue’. Even the blue graded freeride trails are pretty rough and challenging and best to ride on a downhill rig.
This is largely down to the terrain and geology of the place, the hill is littered with rocks and boulders, ranging from fist to Nissan Micra size. The trails inevitably either ride over the rocks or soon wear to expose rocks underneath the surface making for great technical trails. On the black sections the steeper gradients soon throw up some hefty roots to add to the mix as well.
Hitting sections on the black World Cup run at full tilt requires commitment and it is pretty savage on the bike. Once we had this down, everyone enjoyed hitting the red and blue runs that run either side of the main downhill. They have been thoughtfully mapped out with plenty of options. In fact heading left off the top of the chairlift it is
unlikely that you will manage to take the same route twice down through the woods as there are so many split sections that drop
you out in different places, you just end up making choices on the fly and putting it together into a run.
For me though, the jewel in Pila’s crown is not the World Cup trail, but the awesome Pila to Aosta run, it quite simply has everything you want in a trail and is so much fun! Steep in places, fast and mellow in others, there are roots, rocks, switchbacks, berms, ruts, drops and jumps. All in a run that is supposedly 11km long! I’m unsure
that it is actually the 11km stated as I timed myself on a full run finishing in around 13 minutes, I was knackered at the bottom, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t averaged anywhere near 60kph!
The good news for ‘09 is that they have replaced the old Gondola linking the town and the resort, and the new faster lift will have bike racks and a mid–station so you
can session the upper and lower halves of the trail. 2008 was also the first year they opened the second chairlift up to the summit of the ridge at around 2,600m. Though in 2008 there were no trails off this lift, except a scary vertigo inducing ridge line trail or a flat out fire road blast, ‘09 will see the opening of the new freshly constructed trail for the summer.
This will also allow 2km of vertical descent from the summit all the way to the bottom of the valley in Aosta when linked to the Pila to Aosta freeride line. They will be kicking this off with a fun race event, so keep your eyes on their calendar for the dates.
The Lion Noir hotel (lionnoirhotel.it) is the best located hotel for bikers in Pila, as it truly is a ‘ride–in/ride–out’ hotel at the bottom of the downhill runs and 200m above the bottom chair lift. If you have a group then it may be cheaper to rent an apartment, try the Ciel Bleu apartments (www.cielbleu.it) located close to the bottom of the chair lift.
During the day grab some food at the restaurant at the bottom of the DH track, they serve good pasta dishes and usually have a BBQ going on the sun terrace. In the night you can get a great pizza at the Belvedere.
Brannigans youth club, sorry, pub, is perhaps the only watering hole up in Pila itself open through the summer. If you’re prepared to put up with extremely bad mixing and really loud dodgy Italian music you can have a good time here. It stays open till the early hours on weekends, though Aosta offers a lot more choice and has some clubs.
The bike shop at the Chamole bottom station will do repairs on your bike and carry a decent range of consumables and spares. There is another bike shop down in Aosta behind the main Gondola station.
There are trail leaflets with the trails on them available from the lift station, though there is no need for a trail map in Pila as all the runs are marked out from the lift and along their route, you just follow the arrows.
The main downhill runs, including the World Cup run, are serviced from the Chamole chairlift in the resort. As mentioned before, there is a brand new gondola linking Pila to Aosta, which you use for the Pila to Aosta freeride run. There is a second chairlift open now, which is a 2km roll down the road from the top of the Chamole chair. This lift takes you right up to the sheer ridge at the top of the mountain.
Lift Pass One day: 15.50 Euros
Week Pass: 62 Euros
Season Pass: 142 Euros
Sitting south of Mont Blanc the weather certainly feels a little more Mediterranean in Pila than on the French or Swiss sides of the mountain. Just one look around at the leather–skinned people here on the abundant sun terraces lets you know that they get more than their share of UV rays. That’s not to say it doesn’t get any rainfall through the summer season, but the good news is the that the trails ride well in the wet and it actually gives you more grip than when the trails are baked hard and dusty.
Flying out to Pila you have the choice of either Geneva or Milan Malpensa airports. Geneva is the one most commonly used, and you can fly there from most of the major UK airports. Malpensa can be reached with easyJet from Gatwick and Bristol, or with Flybe from Manchester or Birmingham. Transfer time is about 2 ½ hrs. Driving time from Calais is around nine hours. Also worth a mention is
The Search, a company who will shuttle you over to Pila to ride for the day if you’re on your usual Morzine week’s vacation.
Useful Contact Info :
Pila’s tourism site www.pila.it
Aosta tourist info site www.regione.vda.it
The Search www.thesearchmtb.com
Team Playbiker/Iron Horse www.Playbiker.com z