As the downhill mountain bike season wraps up, people have started looking back at some of the greatest achievements (and the greatest fails) of the year.
But although the riders have given us more than our fair share of thrills and spills, one of the most impressive achievements of the season had nothing to do with them, or even their teams, but rather with one of the host towns.
Four years ago the French resort of Meribel couldn’t boast a single downhill track. Yet a few weeks ago it hosted the final of the World Cup series, on a course that was widely hailed as one of the best of the season.
So how did this remarkable transformation come about?
Get the experts in
“We’ve worked hard,” says Christoph Mugnier, head of the events team at Meribel and the man responsible for bringing the World Cup to the resort. “For the last four years we’ve hosted a Coupe de France [a national championships race] and the team has gained in experience.”
“So we’ve created a course, all built by our team, which was challenging, varied, and good enough for the World Cup finals.”
He’s not lying. The track, which Mpora walked several times in our four days in Meribel, was seriously steep, requiring almost no pedalling. It offered huge variety, from technical rock gardens to crowd-pleasing road gaps, and proved popular with nearly every rider we spoke to.
Which is just as well, because this probably won’t be the last World Cup hosted in Meribel – at least if Christophe and his team have their way. “Our ambition is to promote Meribel as a mountain biking destination,” he says.
“So there will be more. Not in 2015 because we’re hosting a skiing World Cup but in 2016 we’d be interested in hosting another Coupe de France, and afterwards another World Cup.”
“Christophe has a stellar reputation, having made Les Gets into the mountain biking Mecca it is today.”
The very fact that Chritophe is in Meribel at all is a sign of how serious the resort’s intentions are. He brings with him a pretty stellar reputation, having spearheaded the transformation of the previously sleepy French village Les Gets into the mountain biking Mecca it is today.
“I worked in events and developing events there from 1992 until 2004, when we had the World Cup. In 12 years we started with a Coupe de France and built that up.”
While a lot of things go into creating and maintaining a flourishing mountain bike scene, the impact of that 2004 World Cup, one of the first to be held in France, cannot be overstated. Meribel are hoping that by employing him to take a similar approach, they’ll reap similar rewards.
“There is a big opportunity here,” he says. The resort, he points out, has a number of natural advantages.
“There’s the proximity of the airports at Geneva and Lyon, that’s the first point, they’re not far away.”
“We also have a lot of lifts open and they’re not too crowded, we have plenty of space. And we have the capacity to welcome lots of people in the summer in terms of accommodation, shops, bars etc.”
“We’re really making an effort to attract more downhillers here to Meribel.”
But is it working?
This concerted push by the resort is having an effect, according to Romuald Treuil, a keen mountain biker who runs the Sport 1600 rental shop in Meribel. “Mountain biking has been growing every year,” he says. “There are now three shops renting proper bikes in Meribel now and we’ve been growing our numbers every year.”
“[In Sport 1600] we started out with just five bikes but the demand means we’ve been growing and adding five more each year,” he says, setting up two of the new Nukeproof downhill bikes they already have for Mpora to take out.
When Romuald and his girlfriend take over ownership of the shop next year, he explains, they have plans to expand the fleet even further, making mountain biking a major part of their business. “The shop only used to open in the winter, but now we can open in summer too. It’s great for us.”
“Mountain biking is still more of an English thing, it’s like the French aren’t cool enough!”
So, if the trails are being built and the shops are stocking bikes, is there a local scene developing?
“Well actually, mountain biking is still more of an English thing,” says Romuald, who’s something of an anglophile himself and speaks excellent English. “There’s not really a mountain biking culture here. Even with the general bike culture in France, it’s like the French aren’t cool enough for mountain biking,” he laughs.
Interestingly, this is something that Meribel seem to be aware of on an official level. As Christophe Mugnier explains, most of their mountain bike marketing efforts are focussed on the UK market. “Meribel already has such a strong reputation as a skiing destination in the UK so we want to market it to English people.
“We want to take the relationship that we have with the English and develop it in the summer.”
If that strategy seems to make sense for such and anglicised resort, it also goes some way towards explaining why the lifts currently don’t run on Saturdays – there’s not much of a domestic market for French weekend warriors.
Surely keeping them switched off is something of a Catch 22 when it comes to attracting locals? “Well yes,” says Romuald, “but they say the plan is for the lifts to open on Saturdays from next year”.
Regardless of whether the riders hail mostly from Moutiers or Manchester though, one thing is certain – Meribel’s mountain bike scene is bound to grow over the coming seasons.
You don’t have to move mountains
This of course has a lot to do with the official backing of people like Christophe – who’s team spent a cool €500,000 on putting on the World Cup. But without the right terrain, all this investment would mean nothing. Thankfully, as we discover when we head out with Romuald for a ride, Meribel has the natural assets needed in spades.
The same gently-sloping open faces that make it such a popular destination for skiers are also perfect for building mountain bike tracks. The blue and red pistes we explore are excellent. Well-maintained berms and jumps punctuate long sections of single-track that lead you through a wide variety of terrain, from scree slopes to open alpine meadows and dappled forests.
It seems the Meribel shapers have put a lot of time and effort into more than just the World Cup course.
“Stunning views you get over the vast three valleys area hint at the near-endless potential”
We only have time to ride the bike-park and prepared pistes, but the stunning views you get over the vast three valleys area hint at the near-endless potential for enduro-style exploration.
As Christophe points out: “People who are into mountain biking always want to see new places, try new trails, ones that are less well-known. And Meribel is creating new ones each year. There’s a big opportunity to find new riders who are interested by a new resort.”
With influential individuals like him working on an official level and local enthusiasts like Romuald helping develop the grass-roots, it’s hard to see how the plan to make Meribel into a world class mountain biking destination can possibly fail.
Going from nothing to a World Cup in four years in undoubtedly impressive. But it seems for Meribel, that’s just the beginning.
How to ride Meribel:
We rented bikes from Sport 1600 Meribel.
Thanks for all your help.