We Went Ski Biking In The French Mountains And It Was Actually Surprising Fun
Is this unconventional snow activity a worthy alternative to more traditional winter sports?
This is it. This is my Marlon Brando in The Wild One moment. I'm heading up a biker gang. Admittedly, not a gang of motorbike riders in small town USA but it'll have to do.
I'm on the slopes of Le Grand Bornand, astride a bright orange ski bike. Looking somewhat like a mad Frankenstein-esque creation, ski bikes, also known as 'VeloBikes', exist on the venn diagram where skiing, mountain biking, and BMX overlaps. In a nutshell, it's a shrunk down mountain bike with skis where the wheels should be. Somewhat surprisingly, considering my initial scepticism, I'm having way more fun on it than I thought I would.
"... ski bikes, also known as 'VeloBikes', exist on the venn diagram where skiing, mountain biking, and BMX overlaps."
“I am the only person who works with the ski bikes," says our instructor Jean Francois (who prefers to be called Jeff) when we stop for lunch, "When I first started many other ski instructors complained and said 'No, no, they're too dangerous to be on the slopes. People will get hurt.' But ski bikes aren't dangerous, it's just about how you ride them. Skiing can be dangerous, snowboarding can be dangerous, mountain biking can be dangerous... if you don't do it in the right way."
Earlier in the decade, Jeff was teaching just a few hours of ski bike lessons a season. Last winter though, he did 96 hours. By no means is he over run with bookings, but the increase highlights how more and more people are looking for alternative experiences on their ski trips.
As a further case in point, on top of ski-biking my four day adventure in this corner of France features a go on a pair of Sled Dogs Snowskates (rollerblading x skiing), the SkiColor event in Les Gets, and some night time skiing and paragliding in La Clusaz. It's undoubtedly a very different kind of ski trip to the usual, but it reminds me of just how much fun can be had by embracing the silliness and not taking things too seriously.
Riding a ski bike is super easy to pick up when you're on the nursery slopes, with the difficulty level and bravery required only really ramping up a notch when you get it on the steeper pistes. Turning the handle bars works for gentle turns but if you're giving it some beans, you really have to commit to the weighted body leans. Our boy Jeff, who also had no problem whatsoever popping "wheelies" at the drop of a hat, brought a lot more style to these turns than we did with our wobbly, occasionally nervous, efforts.
You can slow a ski bike down by putting your feet on the snow, waterproof boots recommended for this, or more effectively you can brake by putting some pressure on a pedal near the back which'll cause a pair of upside down scoops to dig down into the white stuff. Our attempts to bring some big-time flare to our stops, with sideway skids straight out of a supermarket carpark circa 2003, are mostly unsuccessful.
The bike's front suspension and rear shock soak up the bumps superbly and help to deliver an extremely smooth ride. The fact we're all slightly disappointed to give up our "hogs" at the end of the day says a lot about how comfortable, and generally enjoyable, ski bikes are to slide about on.
"It's how rare Pokémon must have felt in 2016 when grown adults were losing their minds over Pokémon Go."
Getting off our bikes at close-of-play, we're approached by a small group of teenage park-rats all wanting to know more about our chosen mode of transport. It's the type of enthusiasm we've gotten used to as our ski bikes have clearly been catching people's attention all day; with most of that attention being positive.
At one point in the afternoon, a stranger on the slope asks our group of five to pose for photos with her. Despite the fact they're becoming an increasingly common sight, it turns out they're still enough of a rarity in Le Grand Bornand that people are excited when they see you. It's how rare Pokémon must have felt in 2016 when grown adults were losing their minds over Pokémon Go.
Final thoughts. If you love mountain biking and want something a little bit different from fat biking, you'll have a great time with the ski bikes. Likewise if you're a skier/snowboarder who fancies mixing it up for a day or two in the French Alps, you seriously need to get on this.
Stay in La Clusaz as it's the livelier town and then nip over to enjoy the slopes of Le Grand Bornand on the free shuttle bus. Get yourself the Aravis ski pass as it includes all 135 runs across the ski areas of La Clusaz, Le Grand Bornand, Manigod and Saint Jean de Sixt.
Crystal Ski Holidays offers a week's self-catering at the four-star Residence Mendi Alde in La Clusaz from £627 per person (based on six sharing) including flights from Gatwick to Geneva and transfers (price given is for departure on 6 January 2018). Direct flights available from all major UK airports.
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