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Holger Meyer and his crew go in search of giant mountains and endless singletrack descents (amongst other things) in Italy’s amazing Aosta Valley.

DIRT ISSUE 148 - JUNE 2014

Words by Holger Meyer. Photos by Mattias Fredriksson

My hands feel numb, this trail is too long. My fingers start cramping, I can’t hold the handlebar anymore, we have to stop. Karen (Eller) and photographer Mattias (Fredriksson) are happy. Time to cool off the brake discs. Fabrizio (Charruaz, our guide) is smiling. He is used to this never–ending singletrack, which takes place in his own backyard. We enjoy the great panoramic view towards the glaciers of the Gran Paradiso, whilst stretching our forearms.

Yesterday we arrived from Switzerland rolling into this hidden valley over the Grand St Bernard Pass, going by the monastery/refuge, which is still in use for travellers passing this high alpine mountain pass in need of shelter for the night. With the last rays of the sun our group dropped into the dark valley below, not exactly knowing what to expect for the upcoming days. After a warm welcome and great Italian food in our cosy mountain hotel we awoke in Pila. With the spectacular view of Mont Blanc and the Grand Combin on the other side of the valley we had our first cappuccino and waited for our local guide, Fabrizio. Our host Natascia is the boss of this great hotel and also the boss of the mountainbike association of Aosta. She knows all the bike enthusiasts throughout the valley. And what she says will be done, will be done. She knows who to ask and where to go… and there are many places to go. We stared at the map Fabrizio threw out on the table. Out of the many options we decided to explore Pila and the bikepark this first morning.

To do so we met up with long time World Cup DH Racer Corrado Herin, he lives and works here in Pila. He does a lot of trail building for the bikepark and teaches kids to ride… and he loves to fly his airplane around the Mont Blanc! He is fascinated by the possibility of landing his plane on every glacier that he wants to.

He gave us a quick ride in the park, so we knew the terrain a little. We mixed up some loops with the chairlifts and then we experienced a real trail highlight; Corrado and Fabrizio took us down 2000 metres of vertical descent to the valley floor, all handbuilt, super flowy singletrack with some steep sections, and a lot of bikepark options to choose from. I tried hard to keep up with the speed of the former World Cup champ on my Genius long travel bike, only to see that after the dust had settled that Corrado was using his dirt jump hardtail because his other bike was in the shop for repair!

Corrado and Fabrizio led us through the vineyards to downtown Aosta. A quick coffee stop and soon we took the gondola, which starts right in town, back up the mountain. With the valley floor at 576 metres above sea level, Pila sits at 1800 metres as a little ski station in the winter, offering the perfect environment for the superb bikepark with all the lift infrastructure in place. But the Aosta Valley has much more to offer. Of course there are more bikeparks around, like in Cervinia on the foothills of the Matterhorn, but the real cool thing about the valley is the high alpine trail riding. After a quick pasta stop on top of the mountain Fabrizio took us all the way up to the peak of Pila. From here we had the full 360º mountain view to all the 4000m the peaks of the region: Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn and the Gran Paradiso. After a one hour hike–a–bike section on a pretty exposed ridge to the east, we saw fantastic views with great photo opportunities. Mattias was screaming, yelling, talking and shooting all at the same time. As the light started to flatten and the shadows grew longer he got into the mood. After the last shot we decided to pin it down the mountain. And this was only the beginning…>>

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[part title="IN THE VALLEY OF THE MOUNTAIN KINGS | AOSTA, ITALY PAGE TWO..."]

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Now we are sitting here, resting and our arms are sore from braking. With over two–thirds of or descend to go Fabrizio points out that we head into another valley towards the little village of Cogne, this is the starting point for a lot of Gran Paradiso tours. Gran Paradiso was the first National Park in Italy, founded in the 1920s. The trail we follow is flowy and challenging at the same time, descending all the time. But it’s long, very long and steep. Some tight switchbacks, some wide–open straights. The perfect mixture! It’s like ordering Tris di Pasta (trio of pasta), because you cannot decide on just one, everything is so good.

Finally we roll into Cogne with a big grin and a lot of dust on our faces. The last part is an easy roll–out on the road back to Aosta to catch the last gondola ride up the mountain. It is about ‘beer o’clock’ as we roll into the hotel’s garage.

Next morning we move on to La Thuile, a little ski town at the border of France. A very unique bikepark that gives us a warm welcome – all the runs are organic! Which means they are handbuilt and natural, so it feels like real mountainbiking and not like bikepark riding. We enjoy ourselves in the morning before hitting the trails towards Courmayeur later in the day. We find a very nice trail in the valley, with a clear view of the Mont Blanc glaciers and Dent de Gigantes. The Dent is the tooth of an ancient giant which got stuck in the glacier. Legend says that all the bad demons of the region are caught inside this huge rock prison. Maybe that’s why the spirit on the trails in the Aosta Valley is so positive that even if you meet somebody, coming a little too fast around a corner, they will cheer on you.

Saturday morning and Fabrizio has another secret trail to show us, so we find ourselves climbing up an old military road to the Col de Croix. We got shuttled to the pass of San Carlo on the road and from there it is a one hour grind through beautiful landscape. Larch trees surrounding us on the way up, and with gaining altitude we finally see the big mountains around us. On top we stand face to face with the Mont Blanc reigning over the rest of the peaks. The air is thin but the climbing felt good after the descending of the last few days. After checking out the old military buildings it’s time to shred. Surprise, surprise: we descend on the other side of the mountain and have a technical downhill all the way to the front door of our hotel. Could it get any better. It possibly could… we need a reason to come back.>>

[part title="IN THE VALLEY OF THE MOUNTAIN KINGS | AOSTA, ITALY PAGE THREE.."]

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Aosta Valley Info

To get some general Info about the region, check here

www.lovevda.it

www.bikevalledaosta.it

Hotels

Hotel la Chance, the best Hotel in Pila, great view, killer service, ask for Natascia, she will take care of you and your biking needs.

www.hotellachancepila.it

Hotel les Granges, nice hotel outside in La Thuile, good raclette, some trails end right here, ask for Claudio.

www.lesgranges.it

Bikeparks

Cervinia: Fantastic landscape and some fun descents underneath the Matterhorn, check it out!

www.cervinia.it

La Thuile: Very natural trails, great enduro style riding.

www.lathuile.it

Pila: The Bikepark in Pila has a great mix of everything: Jumps, trails, berms, DH track

www.pila.it

Guides

Fabrizio Charruaz (he has a book with over 60 tours inside)

www.mtbexploring.it

Map

These guys have a pretty precise Topo map with all the trails and their difficulty grade. A must have if you want to explore by yourself.

www.supertrail-map.com

Shuttle

The guys have a truck and trailer system and know the trails in the area. Ask for Bubba, he is former pro snowboarder and loves biking.

www.aostavalleyfreeride.com

Camps

Karen Eller and Holger Meyer fell in love with this place, they offer full organised multi–day riding adventures in the Aosta Valley.

www.dierasenmaeher.de

Beers

Local Brewery with top natural beer, you can find it locally in bars and restaurants. It’s good!

www.lesbieresdugrandstbernard.it

How to get there

Fly into Geneva or Torino. Drive from Torino via the motorway to Aosta or from Geneva via the Mont Blanc Tunnel or Great St Bernhard Pass.