For years the Portes du Soleil area of France, with the town of Morzine as its hub, has been at the epicentre of Mountain Biking in the Alps.
Pros like Tahnee Seagrave (who lives in Les Gets) base themselves here. Downhill World Cup races are held here (the legendary Champéry Downhill course is in the Portes du Soleil). And mountain bikers both French and foreign flock in their thousands to ride what is, by most measures, the most popular network of trails in the Alps.
“In one fell swoop, Verbier has become the largest rideable area in Switzerland.”
All that however, may be about to change. At least if the resort of Verbier has anything to do with it.
Playing on its (well-deserved) reputation as the capital of extreme skiing in Switzerland, the resort is making a bold bid to attract a similar crowd of thrill seekers during the summer months.
This summer they not only extended their bike park, but also opened up a vast network of enduro trails (206 kilometres of them to be precise) transforming it in one fell swoop into the largest rideable area in Switzerland, and one of the biggest in the Alps.
Given the scale of the project – and the scale of their ambition – we thought it was high time we went to check it out.
New trails and tribulations
“We have two brand new downhill trails this year,” says Fabrice ‘Trifon’ Tirefort, the designer and head of Bikepark Verbier. “We’ve put in 65 new jumps and there’s 300 metres of new North Shore features.” And that’s just the downhill.
“For the enduro we have 206 kilometres, with 65 kilomteres of singletrack. The rest of it is fire roads, but all of it is new.” Trifon is pointing to a large map of the area on the wall by his office above the Medran – Verbier’s formidable main gondola.
Its fortress-like base-station is currently sheltering us against a torrent of Old Testament proportions that’s raining-down on the village. Our group seems to have brought the British weather with us, and Trifon has decided it’s best to show us the trails on paper before we see them in the flesh.
They certainly look impressive on the map, snaking down the contours of the slopes where the pistes would be in the winter. Given Verbier’s reputation and the fact that the trails seem to fit so perfectly why did they wait until now to build them, I wonder?
“In the past it was illegal to ride the walking trails on a mountain bike [and] it’s been hard work to convince some people.”
“Well, it’s been a war,” says Trifon, remarkably frankly. “It’s been hard work to convince some people.” The enduro trails he tells us, could only open this year because of a change in the regional laws in the Canton of Valais. “It took 6 years to change the law” he says.
Trifon has a team of three other shapers who work with him, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s he’s lead the charge when it comes to pushing biking in Verbier.
A former pro (he’s even raced World Cup Downhills before) he has a background in the Geneva dirt jump scene and clearly feels passionate about the sport. With his sleeve of tattoos and shaved head, if there’s anyone you want fighting your battles it’s this man.
He’s also softly spoken and clearly something of a diplomat – both useful skills if you want to deal with the inevitable ski resort bureaucracy.
“It’s a long plan, but now we are finally winning,” he says. The change in the Canton laws was a big step.
“In the past it was illegal to ride the walking trails on a mountain bike,” says Trifon. “Even now some people think the law doesn’t let you ride but we’ll try it this year and we hope the mountain bikers behave themselves…”
Misbehaving is furthest from our minds as we head out to explore the new trails for ourselves. We’re on downhill bikes so we’ll be staying in the bike park, but it’s still pissing it down and it’s obvious that things are going to get messy
The two new trails at the top, long, winding reds, are apparently closed because of the bad weather so we’ll have to start on an easy blue. This suits me fine, because the sum total of my previous downhill experience is basically nil.
“It’s hard not to get excited about the scale of what Trifon and his team have built.”
Thankfully, as it turns out, I’m not the only one in the group who’s not done much before and we have some very experienced heads to show us the ropes. Before we get cracking though, Trifon is keen to show us the new area at least.
We leave our bikes in the top station of the Medran lift and clamber into another gondola which rises steeply into the swirling mists above. It’s mid-July, but as we go up the rain hammering on the windows turns to snow.
The gondola takes us over an epic narrow stretch of North Shore planking that snakes for more than 200 metres over a gnarly-looking rock garden below us.
The snow might make it impossible to ride, but seeing this white stripe cutting through the rocks from above, it’s hard not to get excited about the scale of what Trifon and his team have built.
Back on our bikes, we set off down one of the park’s blues. Conditions on the trail are far from ideal, but the way they’ve been built to drain surprisingly well and there’s a lot less mud than you might expect.
We soon forget about the rain as we work our way down the hillside, hammering the open sections and (in my case at least) negotiating the berms carefully. Despite my lack of experience and the less-than-ideal conditions, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
“We want those same people, the Swedes who love their extreme skiing, to stay here for the summer.”
When the trail drops below the tree line and snakes through the pines, still heavy with rain, it’s hard not to be impressed by the beauty of the place – and also by the emptiness of it.
OK so it is raining hard and it is a weekday, but there are very few other bikers out. It feels like despite its formidable reputation as a winter resort, Verbier is still relatively unknown when it comes to mountain biking.
Going to extremes
That evening we meet Verbier’s head of marketing, Pierre-André Gremaud, at the awesome Chez Dany restaurant.
“We want to attract more mountain bikers,” he explains. “We have a reputation in the winter, home of the Verbier Xtreme and things” he says, explaining the thinking behind the resort’s mountain biking push “and we want those same people, the Swedes who love their extreme skiing, to stay here for the summer.”
They’ve certainly got the terrain to attract gnarlier mountain bikers. The more experienced riders in the group had found plenty to challenge them earlier in the day. And while I’d struggled when we tackled one muddy-as-hell red run, my ego had been soothed somewhat by them explaining that “it would’ve been a black anywhere else”.
These slopes are the same that attract insane snowboard freeriders like Xavier de le Rue in winter, so there’s definitely enough to keep better riders busy in summer.
Of course, it’s not all about catering to super-experienced mountain bikers. The following morning we trade in our heavy downhill bikes for enduro models, and head off to explore one of the more sedate itineraries on offer.
Riding along fire roads and occasionally dropping onto patches of single track, it’s very pleasant – and relatively easy – riding. We pass a herd of the fighting cows for which the region is famous chewing their cud sedately.
There’s thick cloud hanging over the valley, but it’s obvious the views would be absolutely stunning. We head down into the mist in the afternoon winding our way through the steep streets of Verbier village. And after an uphill traverse of a kilometre or so drop right down to Le Chable, the town at the bottom of the valley.
Having ridden almost the same route on a snowboard previously, it’s a thrill to bounce down here on a bike. Especially as the trail includes lengthy sections of single track and weaves through forests and pretty wooden farms on the way down.
“Having ridden almost the same route on a snowboard previously, it’s a thrill to bounce down here on a bike.”
The more experienced members of our group have chosen to head off with another guide (an expat Brit who works for Bike Verbier) on what can only be described as an epic journey taking in most of the four valleys of the Verbier ski area.
When we meet up for dinner that night, they look somewhat the worse for wear, but tell us epic tales of technical trails and gruelling bike hikes, culminating in an epic descent of more than 1,000 vertical metres, all of it single track.
It couldn’t be much more different from my own experience of the afternoon. But there is one thing in common – neither group has crossed paths with any other mountain bikers.
In fact, we’ve not seen many other riders all trip. Numbers, according to Trifon, Pierre-Andre and the rest of the Verbier crew are increasing dramatically year-on-year. They sold nearly 65,000 liftpasses in 2013, a 300 per cent increase on the 2012.
“Surely somewhere this good can’t stay a secret for long?”
But yet the trails still feel blissfully empty, and while the weather’s been bad, it’s seems incredible that such a major resort with such extensive infrastructure isn’t swarming with people.
I’d parted ways with Trifon and the rest of my group earlier that afternoon, heading up for a final solo lap as they headed in. It was late, but the sun had finally come out. Yet it was almost spookily quiet as I headed up the gondola.
And as I bounced down the trail (taking it at my own leisurely pace) I couldn’t help thinking that Verbier is criminally under-rated as a bike destination. Surely I thought, somewhere this good can’t stay a secret for long?
Info on our trip
For more information on mountain biking in Verbier visit verbierbikepark.ch
We flew Swiss Airlines (swiss.com) who operate up to 19 flights daily from London airports to Zurich.
We stayed at Hotel L’Ermitage, where rooms start from 94chf per night based on two people sharing ermitage-verbier.ch
We ate at Le Caveau, Vieux Verbier and Chez Dany, all of which were excellent.