Mountains of fun
Cycling trails, and tales, in the Swiss Alps
All Alps are steep and pointy, but some are steeper and pointier than others. Verbier, famous for its extreme winter sports, sits among notably steep Swiss Alps. As the snow recedes and spring kicks in, so the precipitous slopes above the village will empty of skiers and boarders and welcome a different breed of thrillseeker, on bikes. The first mountain bike runs here, built 20 years ago, were demanding and until recently Verbier was for experienced riders only. Now, however, ingenious trackbuilders are opening up the resort to intermediate and novice bikers.
When I arrive last northern summer, I find incredible, varied riding. Indeed “mountain biking” no longer suffices as a definition. When the sport began, that term covered it all. You were a mountain biker if you cycled off road. Now there are as many subgenres of the sport as there are Inuit types of snow. Downhill, cross-country, all-mountain, slopestyle, freeride, north shore, enduro, bike park, dirt jump … the list goes on.
Local expert Vincent Riba meets me at the panoramic La Marlenaz restaurant and explains, over a plate of delicious mushroom rosti, that the resort now aims to cater for as many categories of rider as possible. “From families to downhill racers … we’re making trails for everyone here.” I start the next morning in La Tzoumaz, the bike park. It has seven downhill runs comprising 12km of trails with a total vertical drop of more than 880m. Sylvan Haederli, guide and trail-builder, shows a group of us around. We swoop straight into Tsopu, the long blue run (they’re graded like ski pistes), and link up with a red called Tu cuci by way of an easy bit of the Tire’s Fire, the official racetrack. From there we head up to the 2475m summit of Fontanet and try two new red runs, Bortabitche and Rodze.
I’ve ridden in plenty of other bike parks and the grading here is optimistic; a true beginner would struggle on the blue run and the reds feel black in places. Mindful this might be the case, we wear body armour. Sadly, we need it (except for Sylvan). One of our group, pressing to keep up with his effortless jumping, hits a steep, pointy Alp hard. The crash sounds like someone dropping a crated rhino from a crane, and puts him out of action for the weekend. This slows down the rest of us, giving me more time to think about the trails we’re riding.
They’re excellent. Rodze sends you over 65 (doable) jumps (no gaps) above the tree line. Also up high, Bortabitche includes a long section of (north shore) planking across a moonscape of lichen-frosted boulders. I’ve not ridden much north shore and ask Sylvan for tips. “Don’t fall off it,” he suggests, adding that they close the trail in the wet. Lower down, Wouaiy (another red) twists straight through the rutted, root-strewn forest, with rocky drops and jumps among the pines. As well as being varied, the runs are largely empty; it feels as if we have the place to ourselves. No queues for the lift, no breaking bumps (caused by lots of riders skidding in the same place) on the trails. It’s heavenly (if challenging) riding.