When I booked us both onto a cross country Alpine MTB week (with a company called Trail Addiction, in the French Alps near Les Arcs) I had the idea we’d be riding on beautiful contouring trails, through Alpine wild flower meadows, under snow-capped mountain peaks. The chap I liaised with assured me that the riding was cross country, not technical downhill. He was keen to create compatible groups, so asked me how experienced we were. “Oh yes we’re really experienced” I said “we’ve been riding mountain bikes since they were invented”. Which is true, up to a point…but I certainly didn’t feel very experienced when we arrived at the chalet and I found we were in the company of 20 seemingly macho, shaven-headed male mountain bikers, all of whom had expensive 27.5 or 29 inch Enduro bikes with 180mm of suspension front and back, and half of whom were wearing body armour and full face helmets. The sense of intimidation was complete when our new friends advised us that our bikes were inadequate for Alpine riding. (We’d taken our 2004 full suspension Stumpjumpers with 26″ wheels and 100mm of suspension, which we’d thought would be just fine. We were wrong.) Furthermore, apparently riding an MTB bike in lycra shorts is old hat (I mean, come on) and it was suggested that we might be wise to wear knee and elbow pads. Why would we need all this to ride through Alpine meadows, I wondered?
The next day we loaded our bikes onto a succession of ski lifts and found ourselves at the top of an Alp in an “Alpine improvers” group, with three lovely blokes who, like us, were keen to return to the UK unscathed. The rest of the riders in our chalet seemed to have no such compunctions and went off in different groups, full of talk about “beasting” the trails, injuries sustained in previous trips, and how they could find “gnarly” routes with “legendary” drop-offs. We left them to it and went off with two guides. Gareth, who rode at the front, knew the area really well, including hundreds of kms of unmarked switch-backing trails; and Lisa rode at the back, and the two of them turned out to be great company, talented riders and patient coaches.
We sort of coped, just, on the first morning, but after only two runs down the mountain our forks were shot, my front wheel had worked its way loose twice, and our hands and wrists felt like jelly. So the nice people from Trail Addiction organised bike hire for us, and we were soon the proud borrowers of two huge bikes, with 27.5″ wheels, impressive suspension and what seemed like ridiculously wide handlebars – but we soon learned how useful these were, in negotiating the twisty, rooty, rocky trails we were riding. I also learned the art of putting my saddle down to ride downhill, which completely transformed my balance and confidence – definitely to be recommended, although it felt rather odd when we had to pedal – which wasn’t often. Generally Gareth would say “saddles up” or “saddles down” before a long stretch – everyone else had dropper seatposts, handlebar controlled, and they’d wait patiently whilst Kev and I stopped to make the necessary adjustment.
We didn’t do much riding uphill – which felt a tad unethical, if you believe that a good descent has to be earned by climbing uphill. But the ski lifts were brilliant – and presented a nice opportunity to chat, enjoy the beautiful views of the mountains, and rest – and they were invariably followed by a couple of hours working our way down to the valley bottom via beautiful but often very technical trails, through Alpine meadows, forests and open mountainside. As soon as Kev and I had to pedal uphill, we could show what we were made of, and on the downhill Kev did brilliantly, but I generally rode at the back of the group for fear of stopping a rider behind me in their tracks, on the not infrequent occasions when I bottled out of a particularly tricky drop off.
I did improve both in skill and confidence, and the new bike cruised easily over every obstacle. I learned to ride switchbacks, which all seemed to have a man size boulder, or slippy root, just at its apex; and I mastered much bigger drop offs than I would normally consider attempting. But I had a setback on my third day, when I flew off my bike on an innocent fire-road descent, banged my head and right hand side really hard, and ended up in the local hospital having two stitches inserted into my elbow. My injuries, and fairly spectacular black eye, seemed to enhance my reputation with our fellow riders, and after one day off (going for a hike up to a beautiful mountain lake) I got back on again on the Thursday, and managed two more days of riding, now protected by knee and elbow pads and a new helmet.
So – we had a memorable week, but I was quite relieved when it was over. Trail Addiction were fantastic and we’d highly recommend them, for the guiding, the chalet hospitality and the excellent dinners every night. We enjoyed the company of the other riders in the chalet, particularly those in our group. I’m not sure I’d do it again though, I don’t think the thrill of swooping down the trails compensated enough for that sense of trepidation I experienced every morning when setting off for the day. I reckon the Whitegate Way is more my style!