As the saddle rose to thump into my chest followed swiftly by my wheels slamming back onto the ground throwing fist sized rocks into the bushes, I realised this final ride of the week was going to be one to remember. We figured Sam had saved the best ride ’til last – we had no idea what was in store.
We had decided this year that instead of a conventional bike park trip to the European mountain bike Mecca of Morzine, we would go for a guided week and try an all mountain experience of climbing, traversing and descending. After researching a number of locations and weighing up the costs, guide or no guide, catered or not, flying or driving we decided on an Easyjet flight to Geneva airport and to stay at Bike Village in Landry, the Rhone Alpes, France.
There are many reasons to go to the Alps, descending huge mountains being one high on the list and getting a lift up those mountains on a ski or chairlift is another. However this year we were going to pedal up those mountains… Some said we were mad, some didn’t come with us because they were convinced we were mad, for a time I wondered if indeed I had gone mad. But there is something hugely satisfying about earning your right to descend that mountain, paying for it with sweat rather than in Euros on a lift pass.
Nothing could have prepared me for what the week had in store. Well thats not entirely true; I could have prepared me, like some of my friends from Wales who had been training for this “holiday”. Training, for a holiday? Yes. On my usual terrain in Wiltshire I need to ride all day to put in the some of climbing that my accomplices from South Wales ride from their doorstep. Other visitors who were at Bike Village with us came here to train for an endurance event in the US later in the summer. What was I doing here?
Our daily ride routine typically involved over 1000 m of climbing and descending – the equivalent of riding up and down Snowdon. I have done one or two rides like this in the past, but the added effect of the altitude and the daily repeat of these huge rides was harder than I could have imagined.
Throughout the week we rode trails and tracks that have been discovered, dug, designed and linked together by Sam and his Bike Village guides over the last 10 years. This is no bike park, there are no berms and there are very few chicken runs. Dead Yaffile, Laundry Day and Grow Bag are but a few of the imaginative names given by the team to the amazing technical single track descents we rode throughout the week. Some were yet to be christened – they were waiting for a defining event so they could be named after the individual involved. We had no intentions of being immortalised on one of the Bike Village tee shirts as a trail!
As the week progressed, so did our riding. Each trail more technical than the last, the slopes steeper, the switchbacks tighter, drops more deadly and the ground looser…. Coaching and encouragement from our guides was an added benefit to the trip that I hadn’t realised was part of the deal. Riding on such steep and dangerous terrain requires higher levels of skill than you use on your usual trails. A very tight double switchback down a near vertical slope required some guidance and guts. Soon we were switchback kings and they became our bread and butter allowing us to link together long sections and descend the steepest slopes with growing confidence and speed.
At times we would be staring over a sheer cliff, or traversing a mountain side where only blinkers could stop us from peering down the steep tree lined slopes. I remember at one point noticing that the trees had become uprooted, there had been a rock slide and the trail was narrowing well within the boundaries of my wide bars and thinking “nature has given up clinging to this slope, what hope have I got?”. A dab of the foot, a swift adjustment of riding line and importantly simply looking ahead and the moment passed.
There were times it felt like we were the only mountain bikers to have set foot or tyre tread on these trails – we didn’t meet another cyclist other than on the roads in and out of civilisation at the start or end of a day. On one or two occasions this was actually the case as the trail ended due to some recent forestry work and we would have to freestyle a little to pick the trail up again. On our second day we were thigh deep in a swollen snow melted river, carrying our bikes to the other side in search of dry land. This IS mountain biking!
The end of each day would find us sitting around the dinner table eating, drinking and reliving the days events and trails. Checking the photos and occasional video footage for evidence of the exploits and events of the day. How big was that drop? How steep was that trail? Did you get him falling off? Our friends Strava and Garmin told us how high, fast and far we had ridden – evidence for our friends and loved ones at home of just how much hard work this was and it definitely wasn’t in the traditional sense a “holiday”!
Before we relaxed too much running repairs and tweaks were required on worn brake pads, bent rear mechs, the odd puncture and snapped spokes. Then the beer and wine could flow a little before turning in ready to do it all again tomorrow.
Our final day riding in the French Alps with Bike Village had seen us ride some steep single track in the morning to reward us with amazing views over Bourg St Maurice, followed by a 16km road trip amid 30 foot snow banks to cross the Italian border just so we could say we did it. After refreshing with Italian coffee and some sustenance in the form of the now familiar dried apricots, jelly babies and fresh cut rolls we were about to make our final descent of the week.
Starting way up on the Italy – France border we had begun our final descent in a historical pass, thought once to have been trodden under the thunderous feet of elephants ridden by the great Carthaginian leader Hannibal, and now a stretch of road used occasionally as a Tour de France stage.
Now a few hundred metres below the road, after making some very quick line choices and occasionally putting more trust in my bike than I would my own mother, I was feeling almost indestructible as a week of Alpine riding was coming to a climax and a blistering crescendo. We were now brimming with 5 previous days worth of confidence inducing rides, as we hit a slope that days before may have phased us, and while there was caution it was now balanced with the knowledge that we knew we could do it.
The remainder of the ride will long live in my memory as one of the best days riding I have ever experienced. It felt like the final test on a week long training course and we all knew that we had a shot at a Grade A. Like any good examination we were taken through everything we had learnt that week about how to ride this terrain. Steep descents and tight switchbacks came and went, rocky drops that would have previously slowed us down, suddenly became the quickest and safest way down and long rooty tree lined passages simply flowed under our wheels as the suspension and bike did exactly what it was designed to do.
Eventually a 1000m further down we hit the bike path back to Landry and a strange silence descended on the riders. Was it exhaustion? Were we absorbing the scale of what we had achieved? Was it the sad realisation that this was the last ride of our week? It was all of the above. We had had the ultimate mountain bike experience and were trying to make sense of it all, frantically trying to hard wire the memories of all the riding of the week into our brains and most of all trying to figure out how we could convince our wives to let us go again next year.
I originally wrote this piece back in the summer when the trip was fresh in my mind and the idea was to convey the excitement and thrill of this week away. Reading it back almost 5 months later and with plans in place to go again in 2014, the memories come flooding back and the excitement and anticipation of going again next year is almost unbearable! Sounds over the top I know, but this was an amazing week of riding and we were so well looked after, guided and catered for by Sam and Lyndsey and the team.
For details of the location, prices and the riding visit the website – http://www.bikevillage.co.uk/