Pila, Near Perfect

Nina: Wooden berm on the IXS downhill course

Well, Graham is out of action for now with a thumb injury and currently 72km into his 100km ultra marathon (yeah, sounds no fun to me either), so he asked me (Lorne Cameron) to do a spot of guest blogging of any big biking days for the time being.  I’m not as good with the biking words as Graham, but here we go anyway for yesterday’s roadtrip to Pila in the Italy’s Aosta Valley, just 45 minutes’ drive from Chamonix through the Mont Blanc Tunnel.

A few friends here rave about Pila, but Spence and I had never been before and Nina only once or twice.  Parking is easiest in Aosta town then access to the main bike trails is by a long gondola, with day passes costing €18 plus €5 refundable deposit for the lift pass card.  The cafes up the hill are reportedly pretty good, but being cheapskates we brought sandwiches which we left in the car so that we could just split one backpack between us and make a run down to the car at lunchtime which worked out pretty well.

Mechanical problems?  No problem!

Things didn’t start off well with Spence somehow coating his rear disc in lube while tending to his chain, but luckily the mechanics at midstation were pretty friendly and gave him free-reign of the tool station to change his pads while coke and window cleaner got the disc cleaned nicely.

Spence: Setting off on the more natural trails, rider's right of the lift line

Up the main chairlift, we quickly realised what’s so special about this place.  Imagine Morzine with less bumps, less crowds, more interesting trails and far more variations on the way down.  There was a bit of everything to ride, from tall tight berms, singletrack, gaps, drops, northshore, the works.  Rider’s left of the lift line and directly underneath it were pretty manicured trails, while far rider’s right had a much more natural feel but built up just enough to ride smoothly and the odd kicker scattered around and any bigger features very well marked with JUMP or DROP.

Spence: Making good use of the built features on the more natural trails

The photo of the map above shows the upper mountain trails, but if it included every little variation there would be twice as many lines marked (especially rider’s right), but with everything leading back to the chairlift it was really fun to find our own variations and regroup when the trails merged.  We had one run down the IXS Downhill run which is all rideable for mere mortals such as ourselves, but it’s pretty scary to think that racers ride the whole very technical course flat-out without a break!

Nina: Powering through the more natural trails

Laps off the top lift took us about 35-45 minutes depending on which variations we took, so we did 3 run up there before riding down to town for lunch which is an 18km run of not overly built-up trail with a lot of different variations through the wooded sections, excellent stuff.  Staying left near the end on Nina’s recommendation gave us the best exit back to town then a 10 minute ride on the road back to the car – best to ride this with someone who knows the way to avoid getting lost.

After lunch, pretty much the same again finding new variations up high and getting to know some sections better so riding them much faster.  The first few minutes of the trails rider’s right before everything started splitting were definitely my favourite; technical but flowy, exactly what I like.

Spence: Drop on the home run

So, definitely some of my favourite riding I’ve ever had.  A very different feel to La Thuile, possibly overall better but unfortunately we didn’t make it to La Thuile this year so it’s hard to compare them directly.

Some sections were quite loose and dusty despite 36 hours of rain finishing two days before we were there, so best to ride Pila in moist conditions if possible with fresh tyres.

It’s pretty amazing that Pila isn’t talked about more or isn’t more popular with tourists – we only had to pass a few people all day and never got overtaken, but it was still easy to watch riders from the lifts including some very good locals.  It’s definitely not a beginner-friendly resort though, and I wouldn’t take a hardtail anywhere near it.  Some sections had quite bad brake bumps but Nina and I got on fine with 150mm all-mountain bikes; in early-season this wouldn’t be an issue at all.

Unfortunately Pila’s lifts stop running next weekend (8th September) so we might just have to take a return trip next Thursday!

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