Beyond smuggling ourselves in on cable cars from over the border for a smash and dash on the fearsome Champery World Champs track, or transferring from Geneva down to the French mainstays, Switzerland is a place we’ve largely kept our noses out of.
Put off by the airport caviar bars, hordes of suited business types and hefty exchange rate, we were pretty happy leaving it be and finding our thrills in other bits of Europe. We’d written it off as too expensive and best left alone. However, when Swiss tourism got on the phone and told us how wrong we were, we decided it was finally time to take the plunge.
Former 4X World Champs medallist Luke Cryer and back-wheel-lover Nikki Whiles drove over from Crankworx Les Gets to join us as we headed away from the bikeparks of the Portes du Soleil and to see what the Eastern edge of the mountainous crown of the Alps has to offer.
Locarno was our first port of call. Nestled in Ticino, the only Italian speaking province of Switzerland, on the shores of Lago Maggiore, it’s a popular holiday spot for Swiss nationals looking to escape from the chilly mountains for some Southern European heat.
We stayed in Hotel La Campagnola, a small way up the imposing slopes of Monte Tamaro, the site of Greg Minnaar’s 2003 World Championships win. His triumph occured in the bike park around the other side of the mountain but on the Locarno side it’s singletrack paradise.
On the first day we took the public bus to the top of the Alpe di Neggia pass. The ride was free thanks to the Ticino Ticket that comes with any hotel room - just strap your bike on the back at the bottom stop and it shuttles you up to the top. Our goal was the Carbon trail, at 8 km long and with more than a kilometer of vertical, it’s a 30 minute wild ride.
Open turns at the top soon give way to flat-out straights that hasten you into safety-pin switchbacks. Fleeting glimpses of the enticing lake shore rising up to meet you, encourage you to keep the hammer down all the way.
"Be nice to people, respect your responsibilities and have a good time!"
Nikki and Luke start to get playful, searching for high and low lines on each corner, trading places and buffeting dust upwards in each other’s faces. You have to admire the amount of work that’s gone into this one trail that costs nothing to ride - skinnies on the side to stop and play on, levees crossing rivers to keep winter meltwater at bay and, down the bottom, a staircase of chopped up logs that drop you into the town.
It’s a trail that needs a few runs to perfect but luckily Stefano, the hotel owner, was happy to oblige. A Swiss national, he moved to America in his twenties to become a professional poker player. He’s ended up the landlord of this plush set up after somebody bet their ranch against him… and lost. He runs a shuttle service for mountain bikers and takes about a third of the time of the bus, straddling lanes and chucking it into the hairpins faster than we would come down them. But this is a man who has rolled on the biggest tables in Vegas, he thinks of risks a bit differently to us.
Stefano is a generous host too. It’s his wife’s birthday and he invites us along to the party. A Tom Waits tribute act serenades us, jugs of beer are brought to the table and Stefano holds court extolling his opinions on ebikes (good) and Brexit (good) and giving us his three rules for life: “Be nice to people, respect your responsibilities and have a good fucking time!”
Slightly bleary-eyed the next day we spend a morning chilling by the lake and shooting some extra footage. It’s the closest you’re going to get to a beach break in Switzerland so you may as well enjoy it! Watching the tourist boats on the lake and enjoying a refreshing Gazzosa ticinese is a great way to rest battered bodies and livers before heading up to our next destination.
We’d heard of Davos mainly due to the Enduro2 race that moved from Les Arcs to the Swiss resort a couple of years ago. Les Arcs is one of our top Alpine resorts so we knew we could be on to a winner here.
It was a two hour drive North but what a drive it was! Sweeping hairpins on roads as smooth as a dolphin’s back, then down valleys entombed by daunting peaks to arrive just over the hill from Lenzerheide.
Sitting at 1,500 metres, Davos is a major ski resort that’s yet to feel an influx of British mountain bikers but is well loved by Germans and the Swiss. With six cable cars, 27 marked routes and a separate bike park we were never going to be able to hit it all in the 48 hours we had available but there's definitely potential to spend a week or longer here.
"It's a battle to kill speed through zig-zagging corners before dropping into wide open forest trails with a hopscotch of roots to pick lines through"
It’s a trail and enduro focussed area with most descents taking more than 10 minutes to complete. There’s no lack of technicality but you’ll feel like a bit of a wally if you turn up with a downhill bike. The highlight of it all has to be the Bahnen tour. A mapped out route that uses a number of chairlifts to get you 10,000 metres of descending over 86km. It can be done in a day if you’re really pushing or spread over two and taken a bit more chill.
This is high Alpine riding at its finest as rocky trails cut through meadows, along ridgelines and down steep rooty forests. It feels totally unspoilt and the trails at the top were deserted when we rode them so early in the season. A highlight comes along at the Rinerhorn ridgeline overlooking Davos itself, hucking in off the fireroad, it’s a battle to kill speed through zig-zagging corners before dropping into wide open forest trails with a hopscotch of roots to pick lines through.
The Bahnen tour overlaps with the Davos Epic trail, Switzerland’s only recognised IMBA Epic trail. At 45km long, it’s a proper backcountry experience that we’d love to go back and hit properly with a bit more time.
Instead, we had our sights on the bike park and the Gotschna freeride trail on the Prince mountain (so-called because Prince Charles’ bodyguard died in an off-piste avalanche testing if it was suitable for the Prince to ride).
The trail is full of wallrides, table tops and some of the most impressive woodwork we’ve ever seen. There are plenty of black options to get loose on and progress. The bike park definitely isn’t the focus of Davos (there's probably half a day's worth of riding in total) but as a way to wind down after a long few days in the saddle, throwing shapes and flowing through the tarmac-smooth berms isn’t a bad way to finish the trip.
And so our eyes have been opened to Switzerland. In 72 hours we had everything from summit-to-shore riding to backcountry epics. It’s still not cheap but for the complete riding experience, we've not found many spots that offer as much as this.
Carbon Trail - Autopost bus - travel free with Ticino Ticket, bike extra
Bahnen trail/Gotschna freeride - Lift pass included with a hotel room stay