A long ride around Mont Blanc

Leaving the house, 7am. It's not quite rolling out over the Florida Keys on a crawler transporter, but it's still a good backdrop.

At some point today, the Artemis 1 rocket should have been launching on the first stepping stone mission to go back to the future moon. Obviously, space travel is hard and complicated, so that’s been cancelled. Again.

The last time a human stood on the moon was the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, near 50 years ago. Before even that though, there was Apollo 8. In December 1968 the 3 astronauts of Apollo 8 became the first humans to see the dark side of the moon. Apollo 11 gets the plaudits for landing on the moon, but Apollo 8’s hard, complicated, journey into the completely unknown was what made it possible.

This is not the moon. But it did feel a bit grey. Or maybe that was the climb...

It wasn’t easy. In 1962 Kennedy gave his famous speech ” We choose to go to the Moon in this decade….. and do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Obviously, this was little to do with doing hard things for hard things sake and mostly because the USSR had kinda jumped ahead by firing man, dog and tortoise into space and he needed a big bold statement to put the U.S. back on the top of the world. Initially he’d thought of creating drinking water for the whole world, but later settled on shooting for the moon.

Which is where Apollo 8 comes in, as they had to shoot for the moon, and miss. By about 100km (or miles as those imperial heathens insisted on using)

This descent is very good.

The entire project is maybe the best example of what humans can do if you put enough clever, motivated people in a room together and throw lots of money at them. Or maybe the reason how a team of over 400,000 was able to achieve what most thought was impossible is that they were all simply too young and inexperienced to know it wasn’t possible. The average age in mission control was 28. Just kids. Can someone remind me again which generation seems to be doing the running in dealing with the climate crisis again? Funny that.

Places you don't expect to see a road bike. also, 7th July and this was the only bit of snow I had to cross on the whole ride. Not right.

The run up to Apollo 8 ‘s flight had been dogged by setback and tragedy. In April 1968 the Saturn V rocket still wasn’t working. Not just a little bit not working, the last test flight before it would be used for the manned Apollo 8 mission saw all 3 of the 3 stages that the rocket would use to get into space fail in one way or another. Despite this, with the deadline of putting boots on the moon by the end of the decade fast approaching, it was decided that something big needed to be done and something big would be to send a mission round the moon in a few months’ time, way ahead of schedule, way ahead of when people thought they would be ready.

Astronaut Bill Anders was asked by his wife what he thought the chances of success were. His reply: one in three that the mission worked, one in three they at least made it back to earth, one in three they didn’t manage that. Which isn’t great odds really, but still, on 21st December 1968 he said goodbye to his wife and headed to Kennedy Space Centre none the less.

There's something quite cool about going for a long journey on your own and getting to really see distance for yourself. Next col, somewhere far away at the end of that valley. Only in this photo, I'm looking back where I'd been.

Obviously he wasn’t alone. The crew of three, Frank F. Borman II, James A. Lovell Jr. and William A. Anders, should be as well known as Gagarin or Armstrong, Aldrin and Lightyear and definitely better known than Columbus.

Their journey might not have the first man in space, nor first on the moon titles, but the mission was there to prove it could be done. Think of it as the first time a couple visits Ikea. Sure the mission is only to get to the cafe and eat a Daim cake then return home without an argument, but the trip proves it should be possible to buy a full Billy storage system when they return next.

And it’s Michael Collins, not Buzz Lightyear.

Coffee stop #1 Les Chapieux.

There were computers in ‘68, they just weren’t very good.

More accurately, they just weren’t very good compared to what we have now. Unlike the people, who very much were very good compared to what we have now. It’s about a ¼ million miles from earth to the moon. To change direction in space you need to invoke Newtons third law; every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and fire a rocket a bit. Obviously every time you fire yon rocket, you use fuel, and fuel is heavy, and heavy is your enemy when trying to leave earth’s orbit, so you need to carry as little fuel as possible, so you need to make as few corrections as possible. Imagine a straight road a mile long and trying to line your bike up to go straight without corrections for the entire length of the road. Now try that for a distance two hundred and fifty thousand times greater.

If I just line the handlebars up a llliiiiitttttttttlllleeee bit straighter, I can nail that 250000 mile singletrack. Grand Col Ferret, dropping into Switzerland.

Not only that, the only way to make the trip was to use the gravitational forces of both the earth and the moon to slingshot the craft around the moon. All these forces, influences, vectors had to be calculated to allow the astronauts had to arrive at the moon at exactly the right angle; too steep and the moon’s gravity would pull them in and there wouldn’t be enough power in the rockets to prevent them hitting the surface (everyone onboard talked of their desire to have been the first crew to land on the moon, but presumably they all wanted to be the first crew to take off from it again and all) whilst arriving at too oblique an angle and they’d just bounce off the atmosphere and skip off into space.

Forever.

So they kinda had to get it right.

Entry into Italy. Due to a failed front brake and a failing rear brake, descent proved more challenging than expected. But substantially easier than entering lunar orbit, so best not complain.

These calculations were all done by hand, well brain really, with the added stress that computer simulations really weren’t what they are now, so finding out if you’d got the numbers right wasn’t theory. Finding out if the numbers right would be if Apollo 8 came back after it went round the dark side of the moon.

Images from the far side of Mont Blanc

Being behind a big lump of rock meant there was no signal with earth. Those onboard would be alone, looking at a side of the moon never seen by human eyes, and with only a rudimentary onboard navigation computer and a sextant for taking course readings from the stars out the capsule window to know if they’d got it right. Those in mission control would be completely in the dark. And you thought the phone signal blackspot in the Argentiere basin made it feel a bit remote. Imagine sitting in mission control, with no radio contact, no communication at all, just waiting and watching the countdown clock for the estimated point signal would return as they came back round.

I had better computing power onboard in my pocket, it even took this picture, but I somehow doubt it's as robust or failsafe as what was on Apollo 8.

And waiting.

And still waiting.

And then signal.

The numbers were pretty much bang on and Apollo 8 was orbiting 100km above the surface of the moon. To mark this momentous occasion the first message to mission control went “Ok Houston, the moon is essentially grey”.

Stirring stuff.

Ok readers, the Grand Col Ferret is essentially grey.

Then, on the way to the fourth orbit, Bill Anders took one of the most famous photos of all time; Earthrise.

Listen to the radio recording, the awe in the astronauts voices as the earth comes up into view is palpable, the vision of the brilliant blue spec, this tiny planet, in the vastness of space. How alone it is. “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth” said Bill later. Which I guess mibbies shows that the whole Apollo project was just a very expensive way of proving what every Pixar movie since ever has told us. That the answer always lies within…

This photo is definitely not Earthrise, but it's my favourite from the ride despite many technical failings, probably because I kinda knew here that even though it was going to get dark soon, I was going to make it, and that maybe I was in better physical and mental shape than I thought I was, certainly than I had been a few months ago.

Eleven weeks ago I didn’t go to the moon. I didn’t risk my life, I definitely didn’t take any great photos, I didn’t need to tell my wife I had a one in three chance I might die. But I did try a big journey that I really wasn’t sure if I could do, and went round the dark side of Mont Blanc and back. Having been round, over and under Mont Blanc umpteen ways, I’ve wanted to try a day version of the Tour du Mont Blanc for a while now. I’ve also not really felt particularly fit after injuring my knee in the winter and, liking the comfort of knowing I’m strong enough for any day in the guiding season to take away some of the anxiety that I’m not good enough, giving the ride a go seemed a good way to either kill two birds with one stone. Or fail spectacularly and go back to rehab. It would be very boring to tell you about it, so I won’t, but I’m glad I did the ride and learnt a lot* plus hopefully it gives me confidence to leave my comfort zone again sometime.

I have history with the climb to Grand Col Ferret, this was no exception, 3 from 3 feeling like the wheels were falling off the wagon, figurative lowest point of the trip, whilst simultaneously the literal highest.

It might not have been seeing the entirety of the earth in a whole new light, but I did get to see the Mont Blanc massif in new way. Specifically, in a very dry way. After a low tide winter and one of the earliest heatwaves on record, the mountains look parched in a way I’ve never seen before. Actually, in a way no one’s seen before, unless Methuselah walks amongst us, as it seems we’re in the worst drought in 500 years.

Coffee #2 Val Ferret. Better than coffee #1.

And this could be a chance to complain and throw hands in the air and say something needs to be done by someone. And we should, near ¾ of global c02 emissions are courtesy of only 100 corporations. In fact, your top 3 are Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco), Chevron and Gazprom OAO. But we don’t need to just do that. If you stop eating beef once a week you’ll save about 350kg c02 a year, which is roughly 0.1% of fuck all in the face of an estimated annual 23.5 thousand kilotons of CO2 from the U.S. military. Individual actions don’t really work, do they…? We’re near enough 8 billion individuals strong on earth. Imagine if we all did a little bit, if we all made some little changes, imagine the power we’d have then. The answer lies within, have you never seen Toy Story?

The bike had two water bottles, seventy-five grams of banana, five slices of high powered peanut butter and honey sandwich, a bag half full of banana flapjacks, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored cereal bars...   Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious food collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. With apologies to Hunter S.

*So one thing I learnt was that I’ve been pissing about with shit bike lights for too long. A friend hooked me up with some moonlight mountain gear lights, the bright light is laughably, ridiculously, bright. So I took the tiny wee light, and instead delighted in blinding any oncoming traffic that wouldn’t dip their headlights by giving them a burst of the full power 😆

And the rider said, Let there be light: and there was light. And the rider saw the light, and it was good.

Once upon a time in the Southern Balkans

Saddle up and head for the sunset, we've got a ridin' trip to write about....

“No time to explain, can you leave for Macedonia on Monday?”

Is not the exact message I got from Luke, but it’s probably only out by 4 words. Due to chain of events too arcane to enter into here, Luke was in the process of arranging a promotional trip to Macedonia and Albania. A crack crew of MTB journalists, photographers, tourism industry operators, guides, social media influencers and an actor were to head to Skopje for a week of magazine article shooting, promotional video interviewing and development of MTB tourism advising in the aid of promoting the new High Scardus MTB trail.

On Monday.  

Then Wednesday.  

Then Thursday.  

Welcome to Macedonia. Just above Skopje to be exact. Paris doesn't have trails like this.

We left on Friday*. 

Amazingly we all arrived, with bikes, on Friday too. Trundling out the covid secure space of Skopje airport into the evening light and waiting crowd, Dimitri was easy to spot. To be fair, with our lost looking expressions and massive bike bags we were easier to spot, but a smiling face, waving arms and “hey guys, you made it!” was hard to miss from his end too.  

Loaded into the 4×4 van that, unbeknownst to us at the time, would prove to be the greatest vehicle ever made and had even been spotted from the plane on the autoroute below (you can trust a bike guide to spot the shuttle rig from several km above) we headed to Skopje, unpacked, went for a donner about the centre of town (they do big fountains very well, and landlocked boats with political analogies) before heading for food with Dimitri, Stojan, Risti and Goran, some of the many folk behind the trip. 

Night time in Macedonia and Albania

Enough of the set-up, some riding. Day one trail one came after a long drive and a short pedal to the rounded peak of Skopska Crna Gora high above Skopje.

This was not a known trail.

In fact, this often turned out to be not a trail at all, we were on a scouting mission with some locals. There was a lot of an old trail in there, under the bushes and behind the trees. And once it’s been cleared out it’ll be pretty mint. Today though it led to a lot of scratching of any exposed skin. It didn’t only lead to that though, it also led to the village where the same local riders had laid on a lunch of epic proportions in Jorgos’s back garden.  The fire pit was already reaching the embers stage ready for the food to start grilling, salads and veggies were being washed and chopped in the water fountain, beers appeared from the fridge and toasts to the promise of future trails and trail building were made. 

Luke and Hugo making the magazine magic happen, day one trail one.

We weren’t done yet. The second trail came at the end of another shuttle, but now only because covid restrictions kept the telecabine closed. On Vodno hill above Skopje sits the millenium cross, which at 66m high makes it pretty easy to see where you started. It’s worth remembering too, cos this ride was a lot of descending on a trail straight outta Finale, all the way down to the capitol. That’s hard to beat!

Back into Stojan’s mighty van and a 2hr drive off to the Popova Shapka ski area where the Scardus Hotel serving staff had been kept up until 2300 to finally serve us food.

This was a pattern to be repeated.

Full value was had of our week.

Vodno hill overlooking Skopje. Macedonia definitely has one of Europe's cooler flags.

One of the many advantages of milking every hour out of a day is that if you arrive by night, the morning views are an unknown. All week the 2 token grumpy old Scots (that’ll be Ross and me) were put in a room together. As we eventually made our way down to the terrace to join the enthusiastic youth for breakfast we discovered we’d been transported to the Cairngorms.

Who knew the High Scardus trail went so far west. 

Turns out electricity and water DO mix just fine.

And then we rode e-bikes. Which was interesting and a fine example of what e-bikes are great at; covering big distances easily, turning steep fireroads into fun experiences and powering through unlikely river crossings. But will be skipped over in the interests of moving the narrative along (after saying a big thanks to Mihail and Metodi of Sharoutdoors for the experience and pointing out you should really, really check out their skiing options), and we fast forward to being back on our own bikes and Stojan leading the charge out of Popova Shapka headed for Tetovo far below. Yesterday’s yin and yan trails were kinda repeated. After a cruisy morning of battery powered assistance and scenic gravel roads we were back on singletrack.

It's June, we're in a cat and heli ski area. There's always some added adventure when you're amongst the first into an area for the summer.

Which was plenty fun, but we were finding the cultural distractions to be the real interest.

Article one, a recently abandoned ski lift which had taken folk from near town up to the ski area. Or had until in about 2001 the Taliban decided it was a legitimate target and bombed it. The only time we saw any sign of sectarian tension in the whole trip, and if you’re from the west of Scotland, you’re usually quite good at spotting that kinda stuff.

Article two, once down in Tetovo we headed to the colourful mosque of Sarena which was exactly what it said on the tin. No shorts, no uncovered heads so we assumed we weren’t getting a looksee, but the gardener was having none of that and ushered us into a serene space that could have been in Kyoto instead of Tetovo. Glimpses of women inside pointing out the window and laughing at us whilst the mosque cat ambled about hawking for attention only added to the experience. 

It's a colourful mosque

Back on the road for our next destination. Mountain Hut Caravets. A hidden wee lodge in another of Macedonias hidden wee ski areas. 

Some notes I made after tea;

Sat in a wee nook in the house, 12 round a table best for 8, we start eating. And drinking, as these go well together. Raki and aubergine sauces are the highlights. Chat moves between skiing and biking, which shuttle vehicle is best, cherry chocolates or mints, the history of Yugoslavia (complex and painful) opium and 9 other facts about Macedonia.

Throughout we eat. And drink. 

Hugo under a fine Albanian fez. 'Tash model's own.

Maybe it’s because we’ve all had a few days together that we’ve now relaxed into each other’s company, but after several days of luxury surroundings and beautifully presented (and delicious) food it’s in this rustic mountain hut with plenty of rustic but tasty food served by our hosts Vladimir, Sonja and an aussi/columbian volunteer couple that we all seem to have relaxed and gelled. 

Relaxing into company. Michel and Stojan.

The next days dawns a little fuzzily….

Macedonia claims to have 300 annual days of sunshine. This doesn’t mean that it’s out of practice at raining.

Today it is raining.  

Galichnik basket ball in the not yet rain.

However, we have a lot of photos to shoot and Luke isn’t one to let a bit of water get in the way. Team culture load up with Stojan and head off to enjoy the riding around Mavrovo ski area. Although still in development, by the time this bit gets published it will be home to a fully fledged bike park. Team media meanwhile get dropped in Galichnik and waved off in the direction of a scenic trail to Janche to go make the media magic happen. 

Fortunately we were doing it on a banger of a trail. I say fortunately because shooting photos generally means riding the same bit of trail ‘one more time’ many times as you try and get the light, body position and facial expression to the liking of the camera.  

Hugo nailing the facials and t-shirt, Macedonia does the rest.

Obviously, these things take time. Slightly more time, it turned out, than we had. The sky lit up with lightening. The air thrummed with thunder. We were stood up riding bikes and drowning. Soaked to the bone we floated into town, found the hotel, removed as many clothes as was decent, left them in a sopping wet pile at the front door and squelched into a hotel so vast and ornate it had a FIAT 500 as part of the dining room decoration.

We looked slightly out of place. 

In the absence of a photo of the inside, or us looking drowned, here's my bike outside the hotel drying off in the drizzle.

Next day. With Martin and me swapping duties as token EU bike guide, I joined Team Culture and Martin headed off for a day with Team Media. This was a good call. With locals Stefan and Viktor joining us, Stojan was a very excited lad about to lead the first ride of a trail they had been building.

Things started auspiciously enough with leaders of the flowy traverse sending two black bears scampering across the hillside. You don’t see that often… 

None of these animals are bears it's true, but given my proximity whilst taking the photo I'm quite happy about that.

The trail kept delivering. With a blank canvas of gently rolling hillside, Stojan and the boys had made that rarest of trails, something that’s fun for all standards. Scandi flick hip wiggles and small gaps if you’re running hot, supportive berms and open lines if you’re feeling a bit more relaxed. A pause at a wee village before we hang a right and hit the lower section. Similar vibe but this time in the woods and a little tighter, a little more technical.

And also, still with bears.

Stefan getting the fright of the day when he slaps a berm to be presented with Yogi sprinting off down the trail in front of him. He relinquishes leading the train for the rest of the ride.  

50:01 Teaching the world anglophone numerology one shreddit at a time...

We didn’t take much convincing to get a bonus shuttle back up for a second lap of the lower half, stopping only to coax team Media further down the hill so we could all head for a beer.

The light was going anyways.  

Ross heading away from bears one and two, towards bear three and beers one through three.. Who knew it would get this complex.

Let’s step to the side for a moment. If we just wanted to ride sick trails, we could probably have stayed at home. The Alps aren’t exactly short of options for that. So if we’d not gone on the trip because we were only interested in the trails, we must have been interested in the difference.

Differences like the dusty corner above the village we were sessioning for the camera that was soundtracked by the call to prayer.

Like cruising into the village after this, looking for a bar, high fiving every kid as we rode past before getting into the bottles of Zlaten Dab

Like taking a detour on the road to Albania to visit the Monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski. 

Obviously not the monastery, but it's got a nice feel to it (well, mibbies no nice, but you know what I mean) and doesn't fit elsewhere, so here it is.

As Dimitri had already told us the story about him and his friends sneaking into the mosque as kids and swapping the tape of the call to prayer for a tape of Iron Maiden, we weren’t expecting a great deal of reverence for this visit. I guess it was a bit different. Conveniently as we walked through the massive gates we were greeted by an elderly monk with a beard. A quick chat with Dimitri later, where we discovered there’s no word in Macedonian for “Social media influencers” and we were granted permission to wander about and photograph what we liked. It still didn’t really feel right for me, so if you want to see what I’m describing, try this. Which has better photos than I’d take anyways.

This isn't the monastery, it's the colourful mosque and everyone fawning over the mosque cat. Chronological narratives are overrated

So after our introduction by the elderly monk, who it turns out is one of the most holy men in Macedonia, another brother proceeded to give us the tour, seeing the bones of John the Baptist and a shard from Christ’s cross (the gold standards of relics) and then the most intricate carvings I’ve ever seen in a church. Actually, the most intricate carvings I’ve ever seen ever.

Outside the shrine another brother walked up clutching a box. Expecting him to be performing some crucial administrative task, he instead wanders over and produces an ice cream from the box. Did we want any? They had too much and it was going out of date. 

You don’t get that in Chamonix. 

Off to Albania 

Albania. It's not all Merc's and poppies....but there's a lot of that none the less

Which was much easier to write than to achieve. Given these times of covid anxious travel, the formalities of vaccinated or PCR’d border crossings were easy, the issue was having to prove we were taking our bikes into the country, so we could prove we were taking them out again (strangely given Albania’s reputation, they seem keen not to let vehicles leave suspiciously. Entering suspiciously is just fine however….) Then there’s the general unease you get when held up at a dark border post when you’ve grown up in the Schengen zone on a diet of cold war thrillers. Like, is it really necessary to have such a long no man’s land between the last post of Macedonia and the start of Albania…?

Anyway. Into Albania we drive, and obviously the first vehicle we see is a Merc. 

OK, so this is actually leaving Albania in the sunshine and daylight not dark and rain, but there's still a bit of a feeling of unease for us Schengen zone folks

We’d been warned that the roads in this region of Albania weren’t quite the same quality as down by the coast. At least it kept average speeds down. We turned off the potholed main road onto a back street. We progressed through increasingly interesting lanes until we bumped off the tarmac and onto the gravel. Food and tonight’s bed can’t be far away?

Thirty minutes later, it still can’t be far away?

Forty five minutes after leaving the road we were starting to wonder if there was any truth in the organ harvesting rumours.

We needn’t have worried. After a truly heroic piece of trailer reversing by Stojan we were safely in Guest House Sabriu, our home for the next 2 nights. We sit down at the outside table to beer and inquisitive cats and assorted pancake delights and Raki and any tension disappears into another night of laughter and bad translations of the worst yet best jokes you’ve ever made.

A moment in time. 

We ate very well. Very very well.

We go off roading. Orgest, our Albanian guide for this leg of the trip, has a beast of a Russian made 4×4 jeep. Stojan has his Japanese 4×4 van. National pride is at stake. Orgest takes an early lead, buoyed by a combination of local knowledge and, perhaps more crucially, a huge rear mount bike rack as opposed to Stojans 10 bike trailer. Not to be outdone by the Russian bear’s lakeside driving, the Japanese, err, also bear goes for some 3 wheeled off camber. Things step up when tasked with a shuttle up to the top of Maja Grames at over 1800m.

I don’t care how extreme the shuttle driving is at Bike Park Wales, it ain’t this! 

Not bike park wales..... Off roading with Orgest.

Orgest wasn’t taking us up here just for the fun of the driving mind. Although that was for sure part of it. Nope, he’d promised one of the most diverse trails in Albania, along with their red hued version of France’s Terres Noires or Utah’s rampage.  

The last photo I got. Moral of the story, take a spare battery, and charge the ones you have.

About 30 mins after leaving the shuttle drop off the sky decided that this day of epic views wasn’t to be and started falling.

Heavily.

Then added in some thunder and lightning for full effect. Orgest (having passed control of his Russian jeep to Risti, who was looking forward to something a bit bigger than his usual quad bikes to play with….) wasn’t phased and simply opened the door of a heaped collection of corrugated iron and carpet that turned out to be shepherds hut. I wouldn’t want to sit out the winter in it, but for passing showers you couldn’t have done better.

Not only that, but it gave Luke, the actual photographer, and Michel, the actual actor, a chance to show the rest of us how content creation should be done. You wouldn’t think it was possible to make a mess of opening a door and looking intrigued, but we proved time and time again it’s a job best left to a professional.

My camera’s battery then died. 

Albanian rain. As well as being particularly good at saturating you, it's pretty pretty too.

Content captured and random puncture repaired we headed off. Sure enough the trail was exactly as billed. Fast and flowing singletrack traversing round the hill on a fast surface leading into increasingly steep but consistently entertaining fluted terrain of grey dirt. Then white dirt. Then red dirt. The downpour meant a fair bit of the trail was collecting colourfully on our downtubes and I’d be lying if I claimed there was great amounts of traction, but it was far better than what happens at the Terres Noires. 

Not only that, it kept going. We got lower and lower but the interest remained. Eventually the ribbons of red dirt through the lush bushes gave way to more traditional singletrack. What wasn’t traditional for us was the tortoise slowly traversing the trail. Bears and tortoises. If only David Attenborough rode. 

Obviously on a trip like this you’re getting to see the best of the smorgasbord of singletrack options available, but Orgest had dug out an absolute stunner for us, probably joint best trail of the trip and one of the best of the year too.

Macedonia not Albania, but see earlier comments about dead camera batteries and Dimitri enthusing about riding open steppes

And it still kept going. All week Dimitri had been raving about big open fields of grass to freeride across. I’ll be honest, none of us were really getting it. Can we just have some singletrack please.  

Riding four abreast, popping off rises and lips, freedom to turn and skip where you want, the landscape stretching out ahead of us…. We all got it. Honestly, just so much fun. 

Team culture. Some strong benefits to being in this team....

Being in Team Culture meant we hit the bar long before Team Media got off the hill, time to sit and drink the conveniently apposite Skopje and Tiriana beers, chat to colourful locals, listen to stories of Albania past and present and maybe future, and watch whilst the youth took goes at riding our bikes whilst hoping none of them got run over by the near constant stream of Mercs and Audi’ s cruising past our roadside bar. I think this was pretty much what we’d been looking for. 

Assorted kids definitely not trying to steal out bikes or cameras

It’d be easy to describe the riding in detail, but that’s not really the point of a trip away. Far more interesting was turning up at a 200 year old fortified house, drinking beers on the balcony whilst the fattest rain you’ve ever seen falls outside (rather than on you as usual) then listen to the stories from Lulzim, the house castle owner, of his great grandfather fighting off invaders before yet another incredible meal and night of raki and laughter. 

Beers on the balcony, sun and rain and yet no rainbow.

We don’t just get to travel through space to find the, to us, unusual. Looking back a year at the complexities of cross border travel through peak Covid seems bizarre even this close. Time that would be spent riding now saw us going for PCR tests to let us travel home the next day, strolling through the town of Peshkopi with Orgest explaining all the things a local can see and a tourist can’t. The way you could tell the period of communism a building was built in by the bricks, the hidden messages in the street art. And getting to eat in locals cafes, banter in broken English with the obligatory hoards of kids that appear whenever in an urban environment with bikes and cameras. We were all here to see and be somewhere different, Peshkopi delivered.

Ross and Ricki. Riste was the main driver for the trip and, well, when you first meet him he' a bit intimidating! But, honestly, there can be few more genuine, warm people on the planet, the man is an absolute legend and it was a real pleasure to spend the week with him!

The journey home is never to plan. Traffic problems, too long at breakfast, too long over lunch, too long to pack bags. We never got to do our planned urban ride in Skopje. Instead we got to chat longer and have more time to awkwardly say goodbye to the legends Risti, Stojan and Dimitri at the airport, plans made to see each other again, possibly sooner rather than later for those of the group who weren’t sure if they were getting back into Zurich airport….  

Skopje. The future looks good. For biking at least.

We checked in and were told to leave our bikes in a corner of the again quiet airport. As we got onto the plan the same guy told us the bikes were on the plane. Thanks for the personal touch, from everyone we met, I don’t think you realise how much it meant.  

If I could pick one image to sum up the trip, it'd be this one. Stojan saying bye to our Albanian host Sabri

This article couldn’t have happened without the trip, and the trip most definitely couldn’t have happened without the generosity and hard work of:

Active Experience Balkan – The North Macedonian based tour operator, also offering trips in Albania and other Balkan destinations.

– Association For Active Tourism. The tour operator, Explorer 2018 invited us on an 8-day journey in Macedonia and Albania to promote the trans national MTB product – Riding along High Scardus Trail. This project was founded by GIZ from Macedonia and thanks to their financial support we have the opportunity to visit these two countries, their people, traditions and culture

OHRide – The hidden MTB paradise in the heart of the Balkans

Ride the Balkans

And most importantly of all, Orgest, Rishi, Stojan and Dimitri who showed us experiences of their countries we would never have had without them and put so much effort into making the trip a success, thanks so much guys.

This article is also the kinda behind the scenes, less-about-the-bikes-more-about-the-place version of the story of the trip that’ll hopefully appear in IMB Magazine one day, which in turn was talking about Luke Jarmey’s piece in the ever excellent misspent summers work, Spent and MBUK. I know, complicated innit.

Thanks. It was wheelie good....

*When I say Friday, I mean Friday 4th June 2021. Yes, it’s taken a while to get this online.

The men, the myths, the legends.... The headgear! Dimitri and Luke, primary instigators of the trip, ready for the rain.

 

Lift openings 2022 // Third time lucky 

Loads of information about when lifts open in and around Chamonix, so obviously illustrated by a lift that's not featured in the article. #lazyjournalism

Remember 2016? Halcyon days now that.

2020; global pandemic, world in lockdown… still, at least it’ll all be over by Christmas.

2021; what another variant!?! What next, WW3, pfft.  

I guess we should learn not to joke. Go fuck yourself Putin 

Finale trail on point, weather on point, turn bar style on point, bright clothing on point, athletes facial expression......4 out of 5 is pretty good.

Assuming there is a summer here’s when the lift companies reckon they’ll open their lifts, gleaned from umpteen hours checking through websites and some emails. Or, of course, I could just make up a load of dates. Prarion is open from 1st May to 25th November. Boom. Who needs researched and verified information when you can say what people want to hear? Why accept being an adult sometimes involves things you don’t like and a small loss to you might mean a life saving change to someone else? The world isn’t what you want all the time. If only I could disconnect any website that disagreed with my newly made up dates and then the lie would be true. Doesn’t matter when the lifts actually opened, who’s going to go and check after all.

Support actual, free journalism. Social media is not a substitute. 

I think this was the first "winter sun" bike trip I've been on. Doubt it'll be the last

As for the last 2 years I’ll keep updating it if/when dates change (update score: 15/04/2022, 30/04/2022, 05/05/2022, 25/05/2022), but with any luck it’s not going to be as volatile as before.  

Why I’m invoking luck is anyone’s guess. 

Chamonix, from CdMB, but provisional dependent on evolution of government advice etc. etc.  

Bellevue: 11th June – 18th September (closing 2 weeks later than 2021)  

Flegere: 9th June – 11th September (closing 1 week earlier than 2021, opening a couple days earlier as replacement for Montenvers which is closing for works)  

Planpraz: 11th June – 11th September  (same opening as 2021) then 22nd October – 6th November 

Brevent: 11th June – 11th September (same opening as 2021) 

Tramway du Mont Blanc: 11th June – 18th September (closing 1 week earlier than 2021) 

Le Tour: Closed for 2022. Both lifts closed for replacement of the Charamillon telecabine, so only Vallorcine telecabine for uplift in 2022  

Vallorcine: 11th June – 11th September (opening 2 weeks early, closing 2 weeks later….but really just the same as Le Tour dates as 2021) 

Prarion: 18th June – 11th September (+ weekends from the 4th June, closing 1 week earlier than 2021) 

Grand Montets: 2nd July – 4th September (same dates as 2021 but crucially, 7 days a week not weekends only) 

An interlude, for Fiona and Tim to blast through some fine Finale singletrack. Wearing bright clothes, cheers for that guys!

Away from Chamonix you’ve got: 

La Thuile: 25th June- 4th September are the current dates, and no EWS this year to clutter up the season. https://www.lathuile.it/en/chairlift_time.html 

Megeve: 25th June – 11th September. Megeve is really 2 resorts, so the Mont Blanc natural resort bit is staggered between 25th June and 11th September (1 week longer than 2021) https://www.montblancnaturalresort.com/fr/horaires-tarifs-megeve and the Jaillet side is….still unknown. https://megeve.com/fr/ete/se-depenser/remontees-mecaniques-ete/ 

St Gervais: 25th June – 4th September (same dates as 2021)  https://ete.ski-saintgervais.com/fr/e5-liens 

Les Contamines: 2nd July – 4th September. A week shorter than the last few years, but at least it’s still open. If more folks went there to ride mibbies it would stay open longer? http://www.lescontamines.net/home_calendar.html 

Grand Massif: 3rd June – 11th September. Assorted start and finish times across the area, with a usual caveat that these are their target dates and it might change yet, and that not all the areas have decided when they’re opening yet. Les Carroz is go from the 18th June to 11th September, Samoens is hosting the Velo Vert festival over the first weekend of June, so it’d be grand if they’re open from then but it’s possible (likely…) they’re then closed until 25th June. Prove me wrong Samoens! Flaine is busy cancelling the Magland – Flaine lift that would have opened up 2000m+ bike descents, so we’re not talking about them any more  https://summer.grand-massif.com/mountain-biking 

Pila: 25th June – 11th September. The best bike park in all of the world, Whistler has terrible coffee, unlike Pila. Although it has published summer 22 opening dates, again, unlike Pila (although now it has, and I guessed right. Go me. Plus Couis 1 chair runs 30th July to 21st August) https://pila.it/en/summer-season/

Portes du Soleil: 29th May – 24th September. Morzine is first to put up its 2022 dates with 17th June to 11th Sept. Les Gets Chavannes side open weekends only from 26-29th May and everything open from 17th June, then 4th Sept to 18th September weekends only. Chatel is weekends only from the 10th June, then all the time from 24th June to 4th September, then weekends only again to 25th September. Champery and Morgins will probably run until late October, but that’s just assumptions, and you know where assumptions get us.  en.portesdusoleil.com/ 

Verbier: 4th June – 30th October. Weekends only from 4th June all the days from 16th June. Le Chable to Verbier is only open from the 2nd July, although apparently there’s going to be a bus replacement service… 16th July – 28th August for Bruson. Woop. http://www.verbierbikepark.ch/horaires_fr.php 

Les Arcs: 4th July – 29th August. All the info now on the website, but crucially and early communicated is that there’s no funicular for summer 2022, just the sketchy-yet-better-than-nothing bus shuttles. https://en.lesarcs.com/hiking/summer-area-les-arcs-peisey-vallandry-opening-hoursprices.html  

La Clusaz: 2nd July to 28th August, and weekends only from 11th June and to 25th September. New addition to the table for 2022, here by popular demand, although hoping demand doesn’t make it too popular, fresh trails only stay fresh for so long…  https://www.laclusaz.com/ouvertures-tarifs-remontees-mecaniques-ete.html

Are we turning a corner in the political upheaval / pandemic / war? I don't know, but Martin was turning a corner in Finale.

Usually there’s a bit of a ramble here about some of the stuff we’ve been riding, what trails are in good nick, snow levels and all that jazz. Usually, but not this year. Usually I have knocked out 100+ days skiing in all kind of shitty snow without a hint of injury. Usually came to an end in late February with my first ever knee injury. This also put an end to what had been a pretty good winter of biking. Lots of pumptrack, some Finale action, good dry trails on slopes in the sun. The recovery is pretty much done but I’m being very cautious so the riding I’m doing is too boring to write about. So I wont. Instead you’ve had a selection of images from Finale in January, which was right good.  

Headed for aperitivo

And if you zoom in really close, you can see the martian surveillance ships gathering intelligence for the forthcoming alien invasion. 

Yeah Finale

 

Smells like Digne spirit* 

MTB ing at the Terres Noires and Evo Bikepark. What else do you want me to say SEO robots?

Cast your mind back to when you were wee.  

No, a bit further back.  

Better.  

What job did you want to have when you grew up: Astronaut? Train Driver? Vet?  

I don't think Lorne ever wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, but he does look like he's on the moon.

I wanted to be a digger driver, possibly due to growing up on a housing estate in the process of construction. Then I went skiing and digger driving got binned in favour of being a ski bum. Few people get to say they’ve achieved their childhood employment dreams (could Buzz Aldrin dream of being paid to walk on the moon if the job didn’t exist?) but I’m happy to say I’ve ticked that box.  

November light is way way better than November rain. Just ask Guns n Roses. Or Patrick

Since as long ago as I can remember, the first snow of winter has got me well psyched. Not for the skiing right there and then, I’ve always liked my skis to remain mostly intact and don’t fancy blowing my knees out on a rock at the very start of winter. Nope, it’s the anticipation of what this winter could be that gets me. 

The first snows of winter fell on Chamonix last week and…. 

So what bikeparks have you ridden that look like this?

Well, kinda nothing.

I was happy from an environmental perspective that it can still snow, but really I just wanted to keep biking. Only now it was cold and everything about 1500m was covered in snow. 

This is definitely not Chamonix

Time to make like a migratory bird and head south. 

The Terres Noires around Dignes Les Bains and Evo Bikepark have been on the to-do list for a whiles. I’ve been to the areas over by Guillaumes but not their freeride cousins to the west. Plenty friends have, to varying degrees of success (top tip, don’t try riding Terres Noires in the rain…) and it’s hard not to be aware of Evo if you watch French VTT propaganda. 

The puddles were giving us the fear....

Arriving at the carpark two-ish in the afternoon after a five hour drive south, group enthusiasm was high. Arguably higher than the temperature which was hovering a bit above freezing in the sun and definitely below in the shade. Navigation wasn’t a problem, Fiona and Patrick had given it a go in the wet 6 months earlier. 

Apparently the trail is much easier without a body weight’s worth of dirt stuck to your frame and wheels.  

Fiona and Lorne trying to move at the speed of the dying light.

We pedalled up, and then rode down. The up was easy, tarmac and gravel road at an agreeable gradient. The down also started at an agreeable angle, fun singletrack through nicely spaced trees still in full autumn bloom.

And then, with no warning, we burst out into the open and a rollercoaster trail along a rib of dark grey (I’d say slightly darker than Zeb Ultimate, not quite as dark as a Lyric Select+. How else do we know colours?) wound, meandered, then dropped, in front of us. 

The world seemed a pretty good place at this point

The trail just kept doing this; flatish fast bit, steeper bit with trees, until we hit some jumps and drops to play on. Which obviously we stopped to do because, you know, jumps.

And the light was dead good for photos.

That lovely low golden glow you get about 30/45 mins before the sun sets.  

So this post has been brought to you entirely by the medium of phone photography. Which sometimes just isn't quite as good as real cameras, but I look pure dead good in this, so it's going in anyways.

Turns out we still had quite a bit of trail to go.

More than 30/45mins at least… 

It was still a lot of great riding, but the photo stops got shorter and less frequent as it dawned on us (or maybe ‘awareness set’ would have the closer connotations) that the sun was going to finish its descent before we did.  

I mean, you canny deny the light is stunning. And it's always good to have more trail to descend...

Turns out phone torches are of limited use for bike riding, but just about sufficient to stop you getting run over by cars… 

Some navigational faff later, we got to our Airbnb. Which is where I’ll give a big shout out for Beatrice et Gilles at Le Doux Coin. Ok, maybe not for the precision of their directions, but the welcome, the unlimited yogi tea bags, the coffee machine, the comfy beds, the local VTT trail knowledge, the tarte aux pommes and homemade croissants for breakfast all beat that. 

Day 2. By this point in their migration a Canadian Goose would be 2400 km south already. We just drove 6km to get to Evo Bikepark.  

Evo Bikepark. Patrick playing about on the dirtjumps whilst we wait for the shuttle van to turn up

Then sat in the car for a few minutes. It was warm in the car. It was not warm outside. 

Wearing pretty much every item of clothing in the boot, we got out and braved the park.  

Whip it. Not just about jumps. There's berm things too.

I guess if you don’t live in the alps, Evo is probably the kinda set up you’re most used to. A selection of battered vehicles trundling up a logging access road dragging an equally battered trailer behind it. For us used to chairlifts and gondolas, it was a novel experience. With 220m of height gained each lap you soon get used to it though. Depending on what trail you hit depends on how long it takes, but laps are pretty quick. 

Light bro. Last laps at Evo when trails and riders had defrosted.

The park stays in the shade through most of the day, which must be grand in the height of a southern summer, but in an early November cold snap it meant a lot of the corners were still just a touch too icy. The new French winter tyre rules don’t cover bikes, and summer rubber isn’t designed for ice, so keeping speed for the jumps could be a bit tricky. All the better excuse for casing. 

Whip it. A wee turn bar is obviously not a whip, but no one was watching when I was more sideways than Kade so this is what's getting run with.

By the afternoon both dirt and riders had warmed up and things were flowing better. The tech trails were all fine for us misplaced Scottish folks, but the black jump trails were a wee bit rich in taste for our case-ability.

Red on the other hand, braw. Whip it is as close to A-Line as I’ve ridden outside of BC.

We probably had the most fun on the blue Savage Train though. Mellow, low stress and well built. And just fun to be out in a (not particularly savage) train with friends as we all tried in our own ways to learn, or re-learn, what to do in the bit between wheels leaving and returning to the ground. 

Some people are good at blowing their own trumpet. Fiona learnt to play the fiddle however, so obviously never quite got the hang of brass instruments. It's always good to see friends progress and grow.

Will be back. 

When it’s warmer. 

In the present we had food to find and the multicoloured fountains of Dignes Les Bains to watch. Oh, the cultural highlights we see on bike trips. 

The classic it's steeper than it looks photo. Steep enough you wouldn't want to try walking down it in 5:10's at least

Day 3. The Great Snipe could potentially have covered 6800km by now. We did about 0.2% of that. Armed with a GPX trace from a friend’s previous visit and the hope that wearing just a t-shirt and shorts in November wasn’t going to be a mistake, we started pedalling up hill. Same story as Friday, lots of tarmac, lots of easy angled logging road etc etc.   

November in Alpes de Haute Provence. There's worse ways to go up a hill

The descent even started the same way. Albeit a bit better. Fast open trail through wide spaced trees resplendent in autumn orange. It almost felt Canadian, between the trees and the way the trail had been built up subtly with added support to keep the flow on the corners.  

Lorne's been watching Cathro's how to bike series. Can you tell?

Then we came to a halt.

You know that bit in a Pulp Fiction where the case is opened and eyes widen at the golden contents inside. 

Well, kinda like that. A playground of dirt lay below. 

Can you hear the choirs of angels singing?

I’m not sure I’ve had an experience like that on bikes before. Skiing is the closest, the times when we’ve quested about in the trees in the hope of finding something we’ve only really imagined, and popped out to the top of a perfect blank canvas of white and drops and slashes.  

I'm not a good enough writer to describe just how much fun we were having at this point. Many. Many funs.

The trail snaked through a labyrinth of ribs and ridges stretching far down into the trees. It was flippin’ amazing. 

Don't you just want to be here? Also, stands out great that yellow in photos, is it a good colour for a bike?

We could have pedalled up and gone again. If it wasn’t for our experience of Friday, and the drive home to look forward to, we probably would of. Instead, we dropped into the lower trails.

These were back to the perfectly worn in singletrack through the trees game. Only this time the dirt had dried to perfection, ridiculous amounts of grip to let you really push into every corner. The low light through the trees made everything look like you were riding in an advertising photo, only you were actually just ripping down a trail in a train with friends. Oddly, stopping for photos wasn’t a priority here, so use the imagination you’ve got and have a wee smile to yourself. Unless you’re reading this on your phone in company. Because then you’ll just look a bit weird and folk’ll start edging away from you. 

Smile if you're having fun. Or want to worry people...

Giddy with the shared stoke that comes with a stunningly good trail like this, psyche was high. There were a few wee climbs and changes in trail from hero dirt in the trees and the weirdly grippy grey shale that makes up most of the photos, but the trail remained consistently amazing.  

It is way more intimidating on the ground than it looks in the photos, the ridge isn't wide and slipping off would mean going a long way, but it's well addictive fun!

Hitting an open field of blind drops-to-flat on the grey shale where a trail that avoided the worst of them had been marked out (and obviously ignored) we all got away with some serious miscalculations.

So, obviously, instead of learning from this I took it a step further and hit the ground. Well, somebody had to do it.  Snow is definitely softer, and doesn’t take quite so many chunks out your skin. 

Looks fun eh. Turns out the grey stuff doesn't give much.

It didn’t really matter; the trail was still going and still grand. Finishing with a short section of switchbacks before dropping into the final cruise down the road, we were nearly ready for unironic post ride high fives. But we’re Scottish, so we just muttered something along the lines of it were good that and got on with packing the car to go home.  

Ok so the picture is from Friday evening, but it nicely conveys the end of ride going home feeling, so lets bung it in here regardless

The forecast is looking like stubbornly high pressure in Chamonix, it’s definitely not time to pack the bike away yet, but at some point sooner rather than later it is going to snow properly. The ski season will start. The biking will drop away. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that, but if this was the last trip of 2021 it was good to end on a high. Oh well, whatever, never mind. 

 You can't see it in this picture, but the Airbnb cat is sat on Fiona's stem and she's telling it that one day, all this will be its. Hakuna matata y'all.

*Full credit for the title goes to Lorne, I’ll take the credit for writing 1700 words based on the closing 9 repeat refrain. Patrick and Fiona need to up their game when it comes to helping get words out onto paper. 

Park dug. Because bike life is just all about cute dogs and cats

I am just going outside and may be some time // La Grave

I considered "One foot in La Grave" as a post title. Glad I decided naw.

The year is 1912. Captain Scott’s mission to be first to the south pole is not going quite to plan. Having been beaten to the bottom of the world, they now face bad weather, worse food and multiple injuries. Knowing his gangrene and frostbite were reducing the remaining three member’s chances of survival, Lawrence Oates says those fateful words and leaves the tent to die in the storm.

Alone.

Terribly English.

This is not Antartica. This is the Glacier de la Girose and a way better place to go for all manner of reasons.

We’re way past the Victorian era now (yeah I ken, it was the Edwardian, but the mindset of the stiff upper british lip prevailed. Still does if you ask the right tory) so going outside is just a good way to clear the head of demons. For some at least.

Not La Grave. A hut trip to Cabane du Mille in August. The riding was grand too, but the photos of the sunrise are going to impress you more.

I’ve had an outstanding 6 week spell of riding. Guiding on some amazing trails with great people, organising hut trips, hitting a prime selection of bike parks with friends, playing out in groups of 1 or 2 or 10. Almost every time someone in the crew has been able to progress or ride something they’ve never ridden before. Been watching friends achieve big things too, be it newly crowned Masters World Champ Emily Horridge casually smash the entire field or best of all, riding with Lorraine Truong, actual singletrack riding with Lorraine which can’t be anything but the highlight of the year.

It’s a whole lot of good, if you ignore a couple of unpleasant injuries and some broken bikes along the way….

Lorraine doing Lorraine. And hoarding all the headsets and Fox 38's in Switzerland.

Which confuses my poor wee west coast Scot brain. I’m a grumpy soul and all this positivity and friendship got a bit too much for me. Fun and enjoyment can’t be good for you, where’s the misery? What am I playing at just going and enjoying myself and doing a job that’s fun and rewarding when there’s so much that’s shite in the world and I could be trying to do something about? Why do I want to just play bikes to the detriment of all the other things in my life?

This is La Grave. Riding solo means just shots of trails. Don't like it? Tough.

Everyone seems to suffer from some sort of mental block. Makes sense, how many folk get through life never getting a stomach bug or injury? How exactly can you be expected to live your 3 score and 10 without the brain needing a lie down and a warm mug of soup occasionally? Being triggered by happiness is probably not that common, or at least I hope not, but variety is the spice of life eh.

Eitherways. After 6 weeks of riding with friends and having the time of my life, a ride on my own to look at hills and let my mind go where it wanted was needed.

This is a trail. Honest. Squint a bit, you'll see it. Just by the rocks....

Handy then I had a week in the Haute Alpes with Endless Trails MTB and the “bike park” of La Grave to learn. If you’ve no heard of La Grave you’re probably not that into skiing. I am into skiing, and La Grave has an almost mythical status for us lot.

La Grave in winter. Lorne and Fawcett head into La Voute....

This is summer however, and we all know how the ‘good in winter = bad in summer’ ski area rule goes.

In winter there's some grand tree skiing just here. Summer, just singletrack and a load of multi-coloured lifts.

I’ve put bike park in ” ” up there for a reason.

It’s not exactly a bike park.

I mean, there are trails built for bikes, but it’s not Pila. Singletrack with surprises…. There’s a few berms, drops and kickers, but they’re pretty rare. And unlike most parks, don’t assume every feature rolls or goes. I mean, it all goes, just mibbies not the way you think it should. There’s also no grading. Which is very similar to the winter La Grave. If you have to ask it’s too expensive can be translated to if you have to ask it’s too hard. Bring your A game or you’ll probably be walking at least a bit of every trail.

What are the trails like then? Pretty good.

Trails are pretty good. And not all about the gnar either.

First off you need to get up the hill, the La Grave lift system is just as idiosyncratic and interesting in summer as winter, but you get up there eventually.

The trails feel a lot like La Thuile did before enduro was cool (strong bit of I’ve been riding this longer than you superiority name dropping there). Rough because they’re rough, not because they’ve been battered into submission by a million Megaplowers. I made notes if you want it though, because I was kinda working after all, and professionals take notes don’t they? Goes something like:

Vallons. Scenic , ok.

Cote Fine. Favourite trail, almost fast and flowy. Almost. Huge fan all the way down, especially in the lower trees. Lots of throwing shapes and hanging off the back buzzing ass on tyre to get it round stuff.

Honest, there is a trail down here. It's the rocky bit. Chavala.

Avag One. Rowdiest trail, a lot of looking for an exit and holding on until you get there.

Desoutter. Tried to eat my stanchions, so that’s a black mark against it, but lower part might be better than lower part Cote Fine, so if you swap trail at that point…

Chavala. Aye, pretty fun. Has slabs.

King Stone Road. Well! I guess if you’re in La Grave you got to ride it. There canny be many “bike park” trails like it, the trail “Top of the World” wishes it was. Stunning ride in a stunning place, do it even if you’re going to walk half of it.

There. I feel like I earnt that carte prof now.

La Grave. Does good backdrop. Like a lot of places to be fair.

Anyways, the trails are pretty engaging. Which is exactly what I was needing. Somewhere to get lost in the moment and get to yon place where only the now exists and all those things that have been clogging up the head have gone leaving the simple joy of riding a bike as well as you can.

This is a La Grave liaison trail. One of the easy bits.

I also felt a lot better at the end of the day than I did at the start. There’s plenty to be said for a day moving at your own pace, making decisions based entirely on what you feel not your perception of what other people want, not having the nagging doubt that someone’s not having a good time or finding it too hard or just hates your guts and is only out because they didn’t know which way the trail goes. And a lot to be said for having the time to think all that through and realise you’re probably worrying too much, like almost everyone probably is, and just get on with life. Which it turns out isn’t fair, and has little interest in what you think.

Bikes are good for all that eh.

Mountains make me feel better. Usually. Other things make other people feel better. Usually. We're all different.

With any luck there might be some more content appearing here in less than 5 months. It’s not that I’ve not been writing stuff, it’s just I now get paid for it to appear in IMB magazine, and much as it’s nice to vomit words into the ether here, money is kinda handy.

What's your first coffee of the day outlook?

How to ride a bike in Chamonix 2.021

Riding mountain bikes in Chamonix. There's loam in amongst the rocks, roots steep and gnar.

“There’s no such thing as a new idea”. A phrase well kent in magazine journalism…. Is how I started the 2018 version of this, explaining why I was mining old content for a new post. Well, it’s meta squared now as I take that post and update it for 2021, because a few things have happened since then.

This photo is a repeat from 2013. It was a really good ride though, and just look at those colours eh! Worth a repeat I'd say. Aig des Houches descent with Lorne and Spence, October 2013.

It is pretty amazing how much information is out there for free right now. Between Strava, trailforks, mass tracking via the 5g microchips we’ve all had injected during vaccination and all the other apps I’ve never heard of and will need to ask a young person about, you can find near every trail in existence. Instagram and Youtube have you covered for images of any feature that looks halfway good too. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction though, as we go image heavy we’re light on text; there’s not many folk still blogging in the ski, climb or bike world. So much information, so little context. So little quality frankly.

Here then is what you need to know to go play bikes in and around the Chamonix valley. Text heavy, image light. All the other posts on this site are more interesting, but it’s likely this is all you need so just read below and don’t bother with the rest of it I guess.

Also, I don’t work in marketing or sales.

You use lifts to ride this. And a bit of pedal too....but not too much if you take the right route. Somewhere above Vallorcine, August 2015.

Lifts.

These are the lifts you can take your bike on, you can find roughly when they are open here.

Le Tour/ Vallorcine: Lift info here Mellow angled flowy riding on the whole, with some great stuff down into Switzerland. Le Tour gondola is being replaced from spring 2021 so disruption is possible.

Grands Montets: Lift info here Limited riding, but some good trails worth a look none the less. Limited is a relative term in Chamonix after all. The original GM lift burnt down in autumn 2018 and currently scheduled to be rebuilt in 2023. Until then, the Plan Joran lift opens for bikes but the liasion between lift and start of the trails is a little bit too moonscape freeride. Still, easier than pedalling up.

Flegere: Lift info here If you don’t like rocks, tech, or big views you’re unlikely to enjoy Flegere.

Brevent: Lift info here There is a LOT of riding from Brevent, but it’s all on the steeper, more technical side of things.

Les Houches: Lift info here The much overlooked, underappreciated hotspot of Chamonix biking. Huge amounts of trails with more being added all the time and also the gateway to the larger Portes du Mont Blanc area.

Tramway du Mont Blanc: Lift info here 100 year old lift infrastructure that works great for bikes, getting you back into the Chamonix valley. Huge investment is going into new trams and stations, so there’ll probably be disruption over the next few years.

Then, not actually Chamonix, but covered by the “unlimited” Chamonix lift pass (lift pass stuff below) you have:

Mont d’Arbois Petite Fontaine & Rochebrune: Lift info here The Portes du Mont Blanc are a bit like the whole Les Gets/Morzine area, but without any people and only a couple of purpose built trails.

Jaillet: Lift info here Riding out of Megeve, and with a maze of great trails underneath it.

Bettex St Gervais: Lift info here Home to one of the best greeny/blue flow trails in the alps.

Les Contamines: Lift info here Hidden away at the top of a long dark valley, doesn’t get the attention it deserves from aficionados of lift accessed big mountain scenery riding.

2km across and 200m above the centre of Chamonix. Local features for anyone who wants to try the transition.

Lift Passes.

So you know what lifts you can use, but what lifts can you afford to use? In 2021 you have 4 choices.

1) 25.00 euro VTT day pass which gives you a day unlimited use of the lifts at Le Tour OR Les Houches OR Grands Montets OR Megeve.

2) 35.50 euro gives you all of the above on the same day, but you need to get between the areas yourself.

3) 70.00 euro “Unlimited” pass which means you can use all the lifts listed above, and the non bike accessible lifts too, so also the Midi etc. If you’re fitting bikes around tourism then this pass is for sure the best bet, and if you’re out for a week then the full area summer pass is actually pretty good value (in Chamonix lift terms at least) at 137 euro for 6 days, and worth getting for the access to the Tramway Mont Blanc and Portes du Mont Blanc region alone.

4) Buying individual tickets each time you go up the hill which, if you want to ride Brevent or Flegere without a season pass, is sometimes the only way to do it. Or maybe you’re just off on a mission and only need the one go on a lift. Either way, the costs are here. If you want to ride any of the Megeve, St Gervais or Les Contamines lifts WITHOUT having the Unlimited pass then you need to buy tickets at those resorts. Those passes cover all 3 areas and at €18.50 are a bargain for the amount of riding available

The lift pass prices page is hidden on the CdMB website here. Another option if you’re riding here a lot during the summer is the rapidcard, which is a one off purchase of 25 to 50 euro for the card, then every day you use it is much reduced compared to the normal daypass price, with the added advantage of covering the lifts that aren’t on the VTT pass so you can easily ride the Brevent/Flegere/Tramway lifts without a fight at the ticket desk….

If on the off chance you’ve accidentally gone to Chamonix for a full season, you’ll probably want a full season pass. Info for that is actively hidden on the CdMB site, it’s actually part of the residency test to work out how to buy the pass. Here’s the start of a breadcrumb trail for anyone who think’s I’m joking. The Les Houches Bike Crew (more further down) is trying to get a VTT season pass started, so that should hopefully be a thing by summer 2021 onwards.

Chamonix in a picture. Lots of sports, lots of geography, lots of blue sky.

Trails.

There are some restrictions on where and when you can ride a bike in Chamonix and surrounds, but it’s really not that hard, you just need to ask yourself one question: Is it July / August or not?

Brevent. Class trails, but only outside July & August. This would be September 2015, so not July or August.

No- Outside of July and August you can ride anywhere that isn’t the Aiguille Rouge National Park. The park is well marked on the IGN maps and with little posts on every trail that goes over the park boundary. Simples.

Some Chamonix trails you take a lift to, some you pedal to. This is a pedal to. And it's fine to ride year round, no bike ban issues here.

Yes- In July and August Arrete du Marie 010605/2020 comes into force and you can only ride those listed tracks in the valley. This really isn’t an issue. All those other trails are covered in walkers and trail runners and you canny get any flow at all. At either end of the valley, Les Houches and Le Tour, you have some different rules. Les Houches only limits bikes on the “Grand Sentiers”, so the GR5/Tour du Mont Blanc trail from Bellevue. Fine, just use the recently resurrected DH track. Le Tour has the same limits on the Chamonix side, but the Vallorcine side is a different commune, so no stoppage, and the rest of area accessed from the lifts is in Switzerland where again, bikes are allowed on all the trails as long as you give way to walkers and don’t damage the trails. Saying that, the Tour du Mont Blanc route from Tete du Balme round to Trient has an unofficial ban (think like the voluntary Snowdon ban) during the busy periods of the summer. Fortunately it’s also not the best, or even second best trail round there, so it’s no great hardship to miss it out during July and August.

If all that’s too much hassle to deal with you could always just hire a guide, me preferably: Alpineflowmtb, guiding you to your new best trail ever. If a guide is too much like someone taking away all the fun of getting lost and riding the blown out knackered trails rather than the finest, gold standard, alpine singletrack, then try getting hold of a copy of the Chamonix Bike Book. Still available from local bike and book shops.

It's on a sticker, so it must be right. Le Tour, August 2017.

Trail etiquette. Guess what. You ain’t that important. The town, authorities, lift company, none of them really give a shit whether you come here to bike or not. The biking euro is useful, but compared to the money brought in by walkers, trail runners, alpinistes and skiers… it’s nothing. So if one user group is going to get banned, it’ll be bikes.

Simply put, we are worth the least to the valley. So we kinda have to play nice and not give anyone the excuse to extend any of the existing restrictions. For 99% of the folks biking in Chamonix, this isn’t a problem but there’s always someone who doesn’t quite get it. A refresher if you need it; Say hello (or bonjour, salut, ciao, whatever you’re comfy with), smile, make eye contact, slow down when passing other trail users, slow down to a stop at the side of the trail if it’s narrow, don’t skid every. damn. corner, don’t make cut lines. And some of you really won’t like this but outside of the bike parks, maybe don’t wear a full face helmet. If you’re riding quick enough to think you need the extra protection, you’re probably going too fast for a shared use trail. If you are worried about the trail being too technical and you think you’ll be crashing lots on the way down, perhaps an easier trail will be more fun for you, and most folks walk at least one section on a long descent. A full face lidded, goggle wearing rider barreling down the trail is pretty intimidating and freaks folk out. But, if folks can see your face and make eye contact, conflict is way less likely. Almost everyone you meet is going to be friendly and encouraging, so please don’t give the 1% any more ammunition than they can already make up.

Since 2018 there’s been a wheen more riders out on the trails…and building trails. This is great, but is also causing a bit more friction in a few places. So, the Les Houches Bike Crew came into being as a trail advocacy group to both campaign for new trails, coordinate building new, sustainable, trails and work on keeping and expanding the access we have. It’s early days and like all new groups, not everything is perfect, but there’s some new trails and events in the valley that wouldn’t have happened without them and the crew provides a vital link between the lift companies, Maries (who aren’t always as anti bike as you might think) and other parties with the riders of the valley. So, if you want to try and help have the MTB voice heard, or want to support the building and maintaining of trails in this bit of the ’74, you can join or donate to the leshouchesbikecrew.com

Or to summarise, again: Be nice, say hi. Don’t be a dick.

There's a simple way to avoid conflict with trail users. Go somewhere quieter. Waaaaay off the back of Brevent with Sandy and Wayne, October 2014. Come back Sandy!

Public Transport. 

Sometimes you want to take your mode of transport onto another mode of transport. In the Chamonix valley you can use both bus and train with the bike. There are bike buses that run from late June to early September each year and are in practice free (best carry your carte d’hote just in case, but you’ll rarely be asked to show it) and take you from the town centre to the lifts at Prarion and Le Tour. You can also fit up to 5 bikes on the trains, or considerably more if no one is being a jobsworth, but don’t count on that. The train is free between Servoz and Vallorcine with your Carte d’hote, you have to pay for it from Le Fayet up to Chamonix or from Vallorcine onwards to Switzerland. You can check the train times here.

What’s a carte d’hote I hear you ask? Well, when you stay in a chalet/airbnb/hotel/campsite/whatever, the proprietor will charge you “tax de sejour” or a day tax for being a tourist in the valley. Part of what this tax gets you is a business card sized, umm, card which is for free transport in the valley. If you don’t get given this either your accommodation provider has probably forgotten, so ask them for it. If you’re staying with friends the tourist info office will happily sell you a card for about the cost of 1 train journey, so it’s a fairly simple cost/benefit analysis to make.

Can you tell what bike Lorne's riding? Do you think it makes a difference to this photo? It's the rider not the bike. En route to Nid d'Aigle, September 2013.

Bike hire and repairs.

Sometime you break your bike and it can be fixed. Sometimes it can’t. Sometimes that super lightweight rigid singlespeed fat bike just ain’t gonna cut the mustard. Sometimes you decide you want an e-bike. All and more of these issues can be dealt with at the following places: Slash, Zero-G, Legend CHX, Sport Spirit

Does your bike look as good as an Airdrop Edit? It looks even better after a couple of pints of Sapaudia beer...

Other stuff.

What is the best bike to ride in Chamonix? Any bike you want really, but the Airdrop Edit is hard to beat… DH focused geometry without being a DH bike, 155mm travel at the back with a bit more at the front, solid reliable build but more than capable of going up the hill under your power too.

I’ve finished riding, where do we toast a successful day shredding the gnar? Anywhere that sells Sapaudia beer. Obviously. Which just happens to be Bighorn, Le Vert, Delice and Beckett & Wilde, with other bars having it occasionally on tap.

Yeah, pretty blatant, but Airdrop and Sapaudia have both believed in me and this blog enough to help out when they have plenty of other things to be cracking on with (like making excellent bikes and fine ales), and continue to do so despite me cranking out recycled content like this which in turn is helping you out, so why not support them a bit too for the help you’ve just got.

Chamonix does this sort of stuff really, really well. It's worth a visit. Lorne below Nid d'Aigle, September 2013, probably the single best months 'big' mountain biking I've ever had.

Lift openings 2021 // Roll the dice

Les Gets opening day, 30th May 2020....bets for 2021?

Last years version of this was easily my most edited post ever as I tried to keep up with when lifts would actually open. Anyone want to put money on this year going to the original schedule below?

Nope, me neither. But here’s all the dates you want and need anyways, with updates coming thick and thick as I have them. Last update: 08/04/21 (post is up for a day and updated already)  09/04/21 18/04/21 27/04/2021 03/05/2021 19/05/2021 21/05/2021 29/05/2021 (and all lifts now updated so any changes from here in means la merde has met le moulin. Again.) 21/06/2021 (quelle suprise)

Not all lines are immediately obvious...

Chamonix, provisional dependent on government advice  (https://www.montblancnaturalresort.com/fr/ouvertures) 

Flegere: 12th June – 19th September,  
Brevent/Planpraz: 12th June – 12th September, then 23rd – 7th November
Tramway du Mont Blanc: 12th June – 26th September
Le Tour: 12th June – 12th September (but work has started on replacing the lower gondola, so this has even more chance of going wrong)
Bellevue: 12th June – 5th September
Prarion: 19th June – 19th September (+ weekends from the 6th June)
Vallorcine: 26th June – 29th August
Grand Montets: 3rd July – 5th September, WEEKENDS ONLY!. 

There’s rumours that good riding exists somewhere that isn’t Chamonix. If that’s true, it might be at one of these places: 

La Thuile: 26th June- 5th September although mind it’ll be closed 7th – 11th July for the EWS. www.lathuile.it/en/chairlift_time.html
Megeve: 26th June – 5th September. Mont Blanc natural resort bit is www.montblancnaturalresort.com/fr/horaires-tarifs-megeve and the Jaillet side 3rd July – 29th August but subject to change megeve.com/fr/ete/se-depenser/remontees-mecaniques-ete/
St Gervais: 26th June – 5th September. https://ete.ski-saintgervais.com/fr/parcours-vtt 
Les Contamines: 26th June – 5th September. Information up on their website, obviously, because Les Contamines is about the only place in Haute Savoie that can do in informative website. www.lescontamines.net/home_calendar.html
Grand Massif: 26th June – 5th September. Or at least, that’s what Les Carroz is running, plus the weekends either side of those days. Samoens, Morillon and Flaine are a week shorter either side of the Les Carroz season at 3rd July to 29th August. summer.grand-massif.com/mountain-biking
Pila: 26th June – 12th September, plus bonus weekends of 5/6th, 12/13th and 19/20th June for the gondola for 2021. Woop. pila.it/en/summer-season/
Portes du Soleil: 28th May – 01st November. That got your attention didn’t it… Obviously, that’s not everywhere. Champery and Les Gets open 11th June with Les Gets open fri – sun for the 2 weekends before that (then maybe not the 13th – 16th, bit unclear) , Avoriaz and Chatel open the 12th, 13th, 19th and 20th June, then all the days from the 25th June, Morzine 27th June then Morgins opens 4th July. Closing is 1st to 6th September except Champery and Morgins, but that’s all far to far away to worry about, lets see if things open first. for  en.portesdusoleil.com/
Courmayeur: 11th July – 30th August. Apparently the Mont Blanc Unlimited pass gives you 1/2 price tickets for the lift, and bikes seemingly now travel for free on the Courmayeur lifts. woop, etc. https://www.courmayeur-montblanc.com/?q=access_parking&language=en 
Verbier: 19th June – 31st October. The Verbier – Ruinettes lift is being updated this spring, so a slightly later opening. All the lifts open 3rd July – 20th September and a selection outside those dates. Also, Bruson 17th July – 15th August, now that is interesting…. www.verbierbikepark.ch/horaires_fr.php
Les Arcs: 26th June – 28th August. There’s a bit more effort getting put into the bike park, hopefully also into running a longer lift season one of these years….starting this year with the Funicular and Cachette open weekends from 5th June. lesarcs.com/hiking/summer-area-les-arcs-peisey-vallandry-opening-hoursprices.html 

Shimmy shimmy left, shimmy right, shimmy yah. Wu Tang is for the trails.

Here is usually the bit where I whimsically ponder on early season riding and try and mention stuff that’s new in the valley. Only I’m nearly done updating the “how to ride a bike in Chamonix” post from 2018 so that should cover the news, and early season riding has mostly consisted of either going ski touring (which I guess is not what you’ve come here for), or getting all my post brexit paperwork in order to still be able to guide in Switzerland and Italy as well as France (which I guess you also did not come here for, even if you might be pleased to hear it worked: alpineflowmtb.com) 

Patrick somewhere off the Col de Beugent, March 10th 2021. Honestly, would you go biking if you could be doing this?

So, you’ll just need to hold tight for another few days until there’s some readable content and make do with photos of the fruits of one man’s labour on a hill above Les Houches when he decided he couldnay be doing with skiing much this year and instead did a bit of trail work every time he took his 2 dogs for a walk.

And watched too many edits from Squamish of riding stoopid stuff. 

If you wonder why we run our brake levers at bit higher in the alps, this should answer your question. Cheers Toby

Stealing Autumn. 

No need for division, play nice now y'all.

Back in 2016, I imagined what would happen if the then president elect went biking in Chamonix. Four years later, leaving office with the legacy of being the first president to be impeached twice, he’s here in his own words again*; A timeline of how autumn was stolen. 

04/11/2020 Election night speech: “I want to thank the first lady, my entire family….for being with us all through this. And we were getting ready for a big ride. We were riding everything and all of a sudden it was just called off. The rides have been phenomenal and we are getting ready… I mean, literally we were just all set to get outside and just ride something that was so beautiful, so good. Such a trail, such a success for riders of Chamonix to have come out in record numbers. This is a trail. There’s never been anything like it to support our incredible riding. We rode trails that we weren’t expected to ride. Flatiere, we didn’t ride it. We rode it a lot. 

And all of a sudden everything just stopped. 

This is a fraud on the Chamonix public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to ride this trail when it was stolen by the snow. Frankly, we did ride this trail. We did ride this trail. So our goal now is to ensure the weather for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud in our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we’ll be going to the Supreme Court. We want all weather to stop. We don’t want them to find any snow at four o’clock in the morning and add it to the trail. Okay? It’s a very sad moment. To me this is a very sad moment and we will ride this. And as far as I’m concerned, we already have ridden it. “

Last of the park days. Morgins in the clart, late October. Photo Toby Bradley

Tweet 04/11/2020 How come every time they count snow falls they are so devastating in their percentage and power of destruction?    WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT? 

Tweet 04/11/20 We have claimed, for riding purposes, the Commonwealth of Flatiere (which won’t allow legal observers) the State of Servoz, and the State of Les Bois, each one of which has a BIG dry trail network. Additionally, we hereby claim the State of Les Houches if, in fact,..there was a large number of secretly dumped snow as has been widely reported! Our lawyers have asked for “meaningful access”, but what good does that do? The damage has already been done to the integrity of our trails, and to the riding itself. This is what should be discussed! 

Tweet 05/11/20 STOP THE SNOW! 

Flatiere. Where it's at in Autumn, Fiona and Patrick on one of the first laps of "Kenny Loggins"

Tweet 07/11/20 09.41 Lawyers press conference at Four Seasons, Philadelphia 11.00 A.M. 

Tweet 07/11/20 09.45 Big press conference in Philadelphia at Four Seasons Total Landscaping – 11.30 A.M. 

Tweet 07/11/20 Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia: To clarify, President Trump’s press conference will NOT be held at Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia. It will be held at Four Seasons Total Landscaping— no relation with the hotel. 

These things don't find themselves you know, "Kenny Loggin's" and creator. If you're not sure, google it, but add Top Gun to the search.

Tweet 07/11/20 Winter should not wrongfully claim the trails of Chamonix. I could make that claim also. Legal proceedings are just now beginning! 

Tweet 07/11/20 I had such a big ride on all of these trails late into November 4th, only to see the trails miraculously disappear under snow as the days went by. Perhaps these trails will return as our legal proceedings move forward! 

Tweet 09/11/20 Chamonix meteo, meteo france, meteoblue were so inaccurate with their forecasts, that it really is tampering with the weather. They were so far off in their forecast and in their attempt to suppress – that they should be called out for weather interference…

This claim about weather fraud is disputed 

If you can dodge the hunters, autumn is a grand time to explore. Somewhere above Les Houches on a trail that didn't work out. Photo Toby Bradley.

Trump and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, phonecall 02/01/2021: “So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 dry trails, which is one more than we have. Because we won the season. The people of Chamonix are angry, the people in the country are angry” “And there’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.” “So what are we going to do here folks? I only need 11,000 dry trails. Fellas, I need 11,000 dry trails. Give me a break. There’s no way I lost Autumn. There’s no way. We won by hundreds of thousands of trails.” Brad Raffensperger: “Well, Mr President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong, winter always follows autumn.” 

Winter follows autumn. 74 million is less than 81 million.

Tweet 12/12/2020 Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!

06/01/2021 Address to rally near White House: “But our fight against the big winter, big snow, big ice, and others is just getting started. This is the greatest in history. There’s never been a movement like that…. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have dry trails anymore….Because you’ll never take back autumn with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong…. And I had to beat Oprah, used to be a friend of mine. You know, I was on her last show, her last week, she picked the five outstanding people. I don’t think she thinks that any more.”

06/01/21 Pre recorded address to ask protesters to stop storming the Capitol: “I know your pain, I know your hurt. We had an autumn that was stolen from us. It was an endless season, and everyone knows it, especially the other side…. But you have to go home now. We have to have skis. We have to have ice and snow…. We can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have winter. So go home. We love you; you’re very special.”

Tweet 06/01/2021 “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred season is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great riders (on Orange Patriots presumably…) who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”

Toby back when we discovered that despite it not raining for over a week; Morgins was still mochit.

12/01/2021 Alamo Texas, Trump address to crowd: “Free trails are under assault like never before…. The 25th amendment is of zero risk to me but will come back to haunt the snow and the snow administration as they call, I call it winter

13/01/2021: Congress voted to impeach D.J.T, Presidential pardons released: NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT KNOWN that I, D. J. T, President of the United States of America, in consideration of the premises, divers other good and sufficient reasons me thereunto moving, do hereby grant clemency to the said Autumn, and 70 others.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength

19/01/2021 Farewell address to the nation: “I did not seek the easiest course; by far, it was actually the most difficult. I did not seek the path that would get the least airtime. I took on the tough rock slabs, the hardest corners, the most difficult line choices – because that’s what you elected me to do.”

“I go from this majestic season with a loyal and joyful heart, an optimistic spirit, and a supreme confidence that for our bikes and for our trails, the best is yet to come. Thank you, and farewell. God bless you. God bless the United States of Flatiere.”

20/01/2021 Final public words as President: “So, have a good life. We will see you soon.”

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Once again, all of the above is basically his own words, this time culled from tweets and press conferences and public addresses since he lost both the popular and electoral college vote.  

The last go at this, back in November 12th 2016, saw an interesting anomaly this site’s analytics. The number 1 and 2 countries for the most hits are always the UK and France. They swap places, but it’s always one or the other. For the month after I posted Post Truth Biking, Russia rushed the number one spot, being responsible for 32.3% of all traffic to the blog between 12th November and 11th December 2016. Anyone care to hazard a guess at why that happened? 

Weird wee blip that eh.

*So I had been chipping away at this post for a while, with a nice document listing tweets that I might use and with simple to follow hyperlinks to show that yes, Trump really did say that, when he staged a rally on the same day that congress was certifying the election of Joe Biden. At the rally, Trump encouraged his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol” and you know the rest. Alas this also led to Trump being permanently removed from twitter and all his old tweets disappearing. Along with my links. So if you want to check, the date and shape of each tweet is there, I’m sure your favourite conspiracy theory approved search engine can do the rest.

The problem with getting involved in all this is, no matter who's right and who's wrong, everyone ends up covered in shite. Airdrop Edit V3 covered in neutral Swiss clart from the final days of autumn.

Dorenaz

 

Dorenaz. A long way above the valley.

I got a fair bit of feedback on the last post here. Apparently the physics of time and space and time were/are/will be a step too far. Folk were worried. It’s nice to know people care. And read the blog.

With that in the mind, lets bring things back down to earth with something more cheery.

Parasites.

Where is this going? Well, Wayne's going down and north, I've no idea where the blog's headed.

Damn they’re amazing. Take toxoplasmosis. Until recently all I knew about it was you get it in cat poo and it caused Tommy’s death in Trainspotting (err, spoiler). Well, it didn’t really, his death was the result of a chain of events that surely couldn’t have been foreseen but that doesn’t help my point, whatever, choose life.

Some of this is relevant. Toxoplasmosis is a parasite that lives in the guts of cats. To proliferate it needs to spread from cat to cat. Obviously, this is difficult when you live in the gut of a cat. So, toxoplasmosis leaves through the usual channels and sits on the floor. Cats don’t eat cat poo. Cats eat rats and mice. So instead the parasite waits for the rats and mice to eat the poo and get one step closer to the guts of the next cat. This would be interesting enough, but the really good bit is about to come. Normal mouse and rat behaviour is to stay as close as possible to the edge of a room or some other shelter. Not those that have been infected with toxoplasmosis. These rats and mice throw off their agoraphobia and make a b-line for the middle of the room, maximising their chance of ending up as cat snack. It gets weirder. Some studies into rats have shown that after being infected with toxoplasmosis they might become sexually attracted to the scent of cat urine. Which raises some interesting questions about the perfume industry.

Doesn't that bike look good....

This tiny wee parasite completely alters the behaviour of a host animal for it’s own gain. Where could analogies with day to day life be found in that?

Thinking about it, is this blog parasitic? Does it alter your behaviour when you read these posts and keep seeing yon lovely Airdrop Edit on the finest trails in the world, you start associating the two. Probably not your behaviour, but does it alter my behaviour? I’m keen to keep riding the bike (it’s the most fun bike I’ve owned), and I’m also keen to keep getting them, so does that worm its way into my mind and alter my picture choices?  How about when you see ideas for rides that are notchamonix and they work on your mind to change your behaviour to do that, leave the safety of the bikepark, head out into the open. Does this blog make you attracted to the smell of marmotte pee?

Pedal back up hill this way for the telecabine. Oh look, Mont Blanc.

So many questions with no intention of finding an answer. On with the riding.

In a valley not so far away there is a magical lift. Ok, maybe magical is pushing it a bit, but unique should cover it. Dorenaz is public transport, a quicker easier way up to Champex than taking the bus. That makes it fairly rare. It takes bikes, at least 6 of them, for a small extra fee. This makes it rarer. You hang the bikes from hooks on the underside of the lift and hope they’re still attached when you get to the top. There’s not many lifts that make you do that.

It might be autumn, but it can still be damn hot out.

Normally when you use uplift you sling the bike into the carrier and forget about it until you have to unhook it from the chairlift at the top. Not so much in Dorenaz where I challenge anyone not to have a quick glance at their axles to make sure everything’s done up good and tight. It’s funny the things that get inside your head.

How does this image make you feel about the security of your wheels?

No matter how amazing, the lift only gets you so far. We stood about in the slightly cooler air of 1124m altitude, looked at a map, discussed options, and decided it was way too much like effort to go all the way to the Tete du Portail, and definitely way too hot and dry for the descent. The lower trails on the south facing aspects from the Dorenaz lift are loose and dry at the best of times, as it doesn’t seem to have rained this century in Valais we couldn’t really call this the best of times.

Pointing at maps. We have to pass 6 separate modules on the subject at guide school.

Instead we started traversing and climbing along the west facing slopes, linking trails we knew with trails we’d heard of.

It went pretty well. We basically ended up with 2 descents, the first steep, slow and technical the second faster looser and more flowing.

Technical or flowy, your call.

The first was what I guess BC Canada would feel like if it rained less and was warmer. So BC in about 10 years then. The dirt didn’t quite have that hero tack of Whistler, but it wasn’t just loose dust either, and the rock lined trail dropping down through old growth forest with the early autumn light filtering down to the green floor made you feel like you were in another Frenchie-living-in-Squamish shredit. Stills make this myth easier to perpetuate than video.

Just like BC. Well, green and forested at least.

I can’t really remember the climb, which is probably part of the bike being a parasite thing, altering memory to suppress the bit’s that aren’t fun, so maybe the first descent led straight into the second?

It didn’t, but we get to make our own truths, so it did. Which will be part of the parasitic behaviour of society thing.

Brake hard, tip'r in and look for the exit. Textbook.

The second course was a much quicker affair, which was good and bad. Lot’s of fun, but it’s all over so much quicker. It was good to be in nice wide spaced trees, and being early autumn there was a fine combination of orange on the forest floor, orange in the canopy, and less intense orange sunlight dappling down amongst the shadows.

Orange, truly the colour of our time.

Orange. Here until November at least.

I alluded to it being quick, 850m had been lost in a dusty, slidy, hairpin-y flash and we were left with the pay off from going right for the last few hours. A sharp turn to the left and heading back home. We can but hope. Turned out the fun wasn’t over. Whilst going right had been a steady downhill trend, going left still had some fun singletrack next to the Rhone to pump and pop along before the final few kilometers of vineyard track back to the car. Chat turned to where next in 2020’s adventure. No idea, but I’ll probably write something for it. Photos for this week come from the phone’s of messieurs Oliver Carr and Juan Coatez, ta muchly!

I said it was loose....

Plaine Morte.

Plaine Morte. Where to start, 3000m altitude by a glacier perhaps?

Plaine Morte. Literally dead flat. A plateau devoid of life. A place where time has ended. But then, what is time….?*

Is time a linear constant thing, do we all start at the cradle and progress at 60 seconds a minute to the grave? Physics says no, we all take our own journey and the faster you go the longer it takes. If Sam Hill and me sync watches and agree to meet in 1 years time, he’d be late. The faster you go, the slower time moves. Which is why Greg Minaar has maintained his form, he’s younger than his age measured at our frame of reference.

Wayne is almost as ageless as Minaar, the rocks of the half way point on the other hand, very aged.

That’s the non controversial part, Einstein’s theory of general relativity explained in downhillers. More fun is when you move onto the theories of time progression. Do we move along a fixed chronological line (that’ll be presentism) where neither the past nor future exist only the now or has/does/will everything that happens/ed/ing exist in the same instant (this one’s block theory) and can be located by coordinates in the same way a geographical location in a cube (…or block)?

Dude, what are you on about? We're here for the pictures of bikes, give us pictures of bikes. First turn of the trip, downhill from 3000m.

You don’t get intros like that in MBUK do you? It was/is time to go biking.

Following a 7am start in Chamonix, which is no damn time at all to be dealing with riding bikes, the ChamonixMTB party bus was parked in Sierre and a motley selection (a more sophisticated, European way of saying crew) of riders were headed for the first of a long series of lifts.

Safe to say it was a bit cloudy to start.

And our first pleasant surprise. At the Sierre-Crans funicular the convivial conductor quickly established that the 8 of us trying to buy the cheapest possible ticket up the 900m to Crans were out of our depth when confronted by the automated ticket machine and directed us to the book of 6 passes, which we could split between us. Thank you friendly conductor.

Well out of time sequence, but that's just something you'll have to deal with today.

From the funicular we progressed with classical presentism the short distance along the road to the Barzettes-Violettes lift. Once again, the Swiss failed completely to live up to their national stereotypes and the lass behind the desk correctly surmised we a) wanted to ride the Plaine Morte trail and b) had a limited idea how to deal with the lifts. Eight discounted online purchase tickets later (visit here for cheap lift passes in advance should this piece convince you to follow in our footsteps), we were headed for block theory.

Block theory mtb stylee.

Yes, the Barzettes lift exists in multiple times simultaneously. Both in the now when bikes are allowed on the lift, and the past when lifts didn’t need to take bikes. Even the 26″ Yeti needed its front wheel removed to fit inside. All good practice for things to come.

Will you look at the colour of that rock!  Sets off the black/red Airdrop Edit combo something lovely.

________

And then, it was time for lunch. At the pleasingly named Plan des Roses lac. We were back over the rosti line.

We were still at 2360m and with a bit of wind running through the valley, we were all aware of the approaching change of seasons. It wasn’t just the season changing, the trail character moved too. Less gradient and more playfulness.

Block theory. All events exist at the same time, like all the pages of a book exist in the same time and you need to choose the order to read them in. Theoretical physics jokes too much for you?

_________

The final lift, in and out of the clouds in a small box containing a lot of bikes.

1700m down (or up) 640m to go. A coffee stop whilst we waited for the next telecabine rotation then it was on to the summit. At a kick to the nads (or a Reverb for Jamie…) shy of 3000m, the views were stunning.  At points in time before and after, just not the point in time we were at the summit. I’d love to write that we burst through the clouds to the stunning summit views, and I guess we did burst through some clouds, only just to emerge into another layer. We hung about for a bit but even in August 3000m is chilly. It was time to go bike.

Oliver on the edge. Well, Karl's closer I guess.

With no trees or grass, no real sign of life, at this altitude the trail is simply a worn line through the rocks. Surprisingly smooth, almost bikepark flow trail like in the way it rode, we worked our way along the plateau on short climbs and short descents past the out of sight glacier. The biggest distraction was the in your face nature of the geology all around you. In the past all this was ancient seabed or shore, the varying energy of the water moving sediment apparently deciding how friable the rock would be. As the rock breaks smaller and the planet warms, grasses then trees take hold and the plateau is a verdant loam filled forest. Block theory can really mess with your head when you’re pushing up in the mist.

We might have just done 2600m of height gain in the lifts, but we still had a bit more to go the old fashioned way.

The first few km of the ride follow this up down traverse theme, it’s a long day out so why rush. Still, reaching the Wisshorelücke (you ain’t in Kansas now Dorothy, there’s umlauts in that and everything) and a short section of snow to pass, it’d be fair to say the descent truly started. It’s 44km of mostly down though, so a precise start point isn’t exactly crucial.

The crew. Possibly discussing fruit based desserts. Or Sean Bean saying bastard. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tE8d-uGmIWk

Perhaps you could say the Wildstrubelhütte (anyone else hoping for a Germanic forest fruit based dessert here…) is the start of the descent? Maybe it was just where we popped out of the cloud and could finally see that most fabled of bike photographers vistas. Big mountain backdrops with a thin singletrack line snaking off into the blue lake’d distance. It was certainly where the trail started getting more interesting.

And like that we were out of the clouds. Although Jez still seems to be going the wrong way....

Off camber slabs, loose gravel hairpins, chaotic rock steps. There was something to puzzle anyone, and to provide entertainment for everyone else as we worked out way towards lunchtime (lunch time, the best of all known types of time?)

Confused by the gap? Blame your understanding of block theory.

Then that changed too, back to plummet, more rocks and consequence, our first tunnel, the first indications of the exposure to come (which time model are we working with again?) and the return to proper human footprints.

Benoit drops into the glare of a hundred social media accounts.

The Barrage de Tseuzier is small by Swiss standards, but it’s still well impressive to hang your head over the edge and look down. And assume all that damage has been repaired… If you looked just a bit further out than straight down you could in theory see our trail down the valley, but I could just see cliffs and scree. This should be a clue as to where the trail character is going. I guess you don’t need to be a physicist to theorise on the future, you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows. etc.

Still some way above the barrage. Infact, still above lunch, but you should be ok with being outside of chrono-logic by now.

Sure enough, the next section of trail starts innocuously enough, with some pretty fast riding and just technical enough to stop it getting silly sections. But every glance up confirms that the cliff wall is still approaching and there’s nothing remotely like a breach appearing in it.

Looking for a breach in the ramparts.

When the trees finally part to see the narrow band hacked out of the side of the cliff it’s almost a relief to finally know that at least there is something like a path ahead. You’ve still got to ride it though…

Skinnies, swiss stylee. s'alliteration....

And then you’re at the bisse. An old open viaduct to transport water between fields, now a conveniently only just graded downhill trail next to a cooling stream, that flows efficiently into the next cliff face.

So when was the last time you started a ride at 3000m altitude and had to take a subterranean water way to get to the end of it?

Stepped round the face of the cliff are the remains of the ancient wooded walk and aqua way that carried water and people around the cliff. In 1991, which really isn’t that long ago, it was decided that a tunnel through the cliff would be better. Whether or not the residents of the 1800’s version of the valley imagined bikes would be trying to use their walkway is an interesting but irrelevant point. Whether the architects of the 1991 tunnel did is more pertinent. Perhaps they had seen John Tomac race DH on his drop barred MTB and assumed that was where the future was, a tunnel only needed to be a human plus 450mm bars wide. Perhaps they had a portal to now and could see gravel bikes. Perhaps Tomac is not just a farmer, but a preeminent physicist. I don’t know. I do know the tunnel was bloody tight with a bike.

At least the lights worked.

Have you any idea how damned hard photos are to take in light like this!?!? Very hard. Which is a shame, as they're some of the best moments, beautiful light, contemplative trails. Bliss innit

Back to the bisse, back to flow.

We weren’t done with the surprises yet, there was still one more tunnel to go. And this one was proper small.

Claustrophobic? At least no one was on a geometron.

Remember the throwaway comment in the early paragraphs about removing wheels for the lift? Well, that shows that the human perception of time is relative. The amount of time you feel has passed, and what your watch will have recorded, are not that same. One is much longer. And that we now have to remove our front wheels again. It was a pretty small passage and I’m glad I’ve neither the biggest frame or frame because both would have got pretty scratched. The lights weren’t working either.

In the absence of working lights, this photo was brought to you by a handful of phone torches and some very quick playing with the dials in the dark. Ben seems fairly non-plused.

Back to back to the bisse, back to flow. Then back to junctions. With a selection of mapping devices at our disposal you would imagine the navigation went smoothly, but GPS was obviously channeling time confusion and those of the group that had ridden the trail before were called on to remember which trail was which.

But if we’re running on block theory, surely the trail we would take was as known as the trail we had just finished? If all of the days events were occurring simultaneously but experienced concurrently then we had no more free will to choose which trail we would ride than under presentism, where our choices are shaped by our environment and the genes our ancestors pass on rather than anything happening in our 3lb lump of head jelly that makes us build bikes.

Stop making me think, take me back to that lunch time time.

I know, it’s all a bit much when really you just want to know if the trail is worth the effort of the logistics. The right choice was made and we were back to some of that fine low mountain singletrack that Switzerland does so well.

Swiss singletrack. Also, #26aintdead

A final wee sting in the tail, the last drop of tech down through the vineyards, and we were out on the peleton chain gang spin for the van.

Worth the logistics effort? Most definitely, especially when someone else has done all the effort on your behalf, hence a big cheers to Wayne, Oli (also on photos, double cheers!), Karl, Jez, Ben, Benoit and Jamie for doing all the hard previous bits and making a pretty big day out happen with (broken derailleurs excepted) no mishaps. 2875m of down for 525m of up over 45km. Finally some plain and easy to understand numbers.

Oliver nailing the last tech section, quite a contrast to the moonscape of the trail start!

*This is not the greatest blog in the world, no. This is just a tribute. After the ride over a week ago a post was slowly crafted, full of wit and clear eyed scientific explanations. Then the laptop died. During backing up files. Taking inspiration from several prominent world leaders, my complete lack of education, knowledge or experience in computer repair was ignored and I set about the Toshiba armed with a screwdriver and access to google. Hence, this was written on an unfamiliar “azerty” french laptop using memories. Just imagine how good the first draft was…

Always finish on a banger. Lucking out with the light about half way down, spot the 4 riders. Also, what is finish if everything is concurrent?

 

 

  • Chamonix Bike Blog

    Mountain bike blog for Chamonix and the Western Alps

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