Why wait all summer for the mountains? Plan a biking trip now for next year

I was asked by Carolyn of Chalets Direct to contribute a post about biking in the Alps for The Ski Blog.

I first met Carolyn in 2001, when we were both living and working in Chamonix, so she knows how much I love mountain biking. I was happy to write a few words.

Here’s the blog post I wrote, originally posted on the Chalets Direct Ski Blog:

It’s that time of year when the days shorten, the temperature drops and you realise it’s only two or three months until your annual trip to the mountains, right?

But where have you been for the last six months? The mountains you long for each winter are there the whole year round and, if you’ve never visited in the summer, you have been seriously missing out. Don’t spend your time from May to October dreaming of the Alps, Dolomites or Rockies when you can experience them amid the beauty of green meadows and sparkling lakes instead of snow and ice.

If you love the excitement of skiing or snowboarding, the best way to enjoy the slopes during the warm snowless months is clear: mountain biking. Skiing, boarding and biking share a similar buzz, and all three let you pick a route down the mountain to suit your appetite for excitement. Challenging gradients or easy cruising – it’s up to you.

And like just like the après-ski of a winter holiday, there’s no better way to reflect on a day’s biking adventures than over a meal and a couple of beers with friends.

If you have concerns about your level of off-road cycling skill or about the necessary equipment for Alpine cycling you needn’t worry. Many ski shops become well-equipped bike hire shops in the summer and ski instructors can often be found offering their services as bike guides once the snow has melted.

But why talk about this now? This may seem entirely the wrong time of year to be oiling the chain and pumping up the tyres as the snow starts to fall. Well, yes, but now is the time to start planning a week in the mountains for next summer. That way, when you fly home from this winter’s alpine excursion, you can smugly remember that it will be only a few short months before you head out for some clear mountain air once more.

So where to go? The choice of summer alpine destinations is no less overwhelming than the question of where to ski or snowboard.

Here are just three I have ridden and loved:

Verbier, Swiss Alps

The beautiful bowl that surrounds the Swiss resort of Verbier is criss-crossed with singletrack trails that swoop down and around the hillside. Flower-filled meadows, icy streams and small furry mammals are all part of this Alpine paradise. All levels of mountain biking are on your doorstep, but intermediates find Verbier a particularly rewarding arena for improving skills and taking on new challenges.

Verbier Self-Portrait 3 Stu and Sal Traverse

Verbier Bike Park features several impressive downhill mountain biking routes, though a wider network of trails may also be shared with walkers. Verbier’s mid-mountain location, with lifts and trails stretching both up into the hills and down into the valley, means that, much like a day of skiing, trails can be picked off for multiple short rides, with frequent refreshment stops in the resort centre.

Longer rides that traverse the higher slopes are also worthwhile, and the new resort of Tzoumaz is just a lift ride away in the next valley, welcoming bikers with its freshly built downhill routes.

Good for:

  • Intermediate riding
  • Convenient resort layout
  • Frequent short rides

Not so good:

  • Expensive eating and drinking
  • Can get busy

Chamonix, French Alps

The grand-père of the Alpine resorts, Chamonix in the summertime is a fabulous green valley flanked by dazzling blue glaciers reaching down from the giddy heights of Mont Blanc.

For mountain biking beginners, the riverside trails of the valley lead from Les Houches, through Chamonix town, up to Argentiere and toward the Swiss border. Keener riders can explore some of the Alps’ most dramatic landscape using the lifts to gain altitude before following challenging trails leading from the snowy ridges back down to valley level.

IMG_4560 IMG_4585

Chamonix is not perfect for everyone. Intermediate mountain bikers may feel caught between the easy riding of the valley and vertigo-inducing lift-accessed descents.

The town’s authorities have a self-confessed ambivalence toward bikers, tailoring the valley’s infrastructure toward walkers and climbers. During the peak summer season, when the lifts re-open for a couple of months, a defined network of sanctioned routes is enforced. Riding ‘off piste’ is frowned upon and bikers have been known to receive fines for infringements.

But despite a few limitations, the Chamonix valley remains one of the Alps’ best summer biking destinations, especially if you’d like to mix your holiday cycling with other activities like walking, paragliding or rafting. The arrival of Chamonix Bike Park also suggests promising new developments for mountain biking.

Good for:

  • Amazing landscape
  • Beginner mountain biking
  • Expert riding
  • Walking, climbing and other Alpine pursuits
  • Excellent dining and bar scene

Not so good:

  • Intermediate riding
  • Limited route map
  • Lifts limited to peak season

Whistler, British Columbia, Canada

When you arrive in Whistler, you instantly realise that Canadians take mountain biking very seriously. Whistler in the summertime is certainly not a ski resort simply making do until the snow comes – it’s a full-on mountain biking playground where the whole infrastructure has been  designed to make off-roading huge amounts of fun.

In Whistler Bike Park, chairlifts are equipped to ferry bikes with ease, and ski hire shops become sources of serious mountain bikes and accessories. Whistler is a popular spot for some of the world’s best riders, and has featured on some amazing mountain biking films like The Collective and Roam.

Whistler Bike Park - Si in the Air Comfortably Numb - Sal

The easy, efficient lift system helps bikers access a superb array of world class trails. Graded green, blue, black and double-diamond routes encourage you to advance your skills and surprise yourself with wooden ramps, see-saws and other new challenges.

Whistler isn’t all about gravity-assisted riding, however. The packed trail map includes a range of stunning cross-country routes, from the fun trails of Lost Lake to the epic excursion known as Comfortably Numb.

Good for:

  • The breathtaking British Columbia landscape
  • Efficient infrastructure
  • Some of the world’s best trails
  • Combining with visits to British Columbia’s wild interior, and/or some time in Vancouver

Not so good:

  • 10 hour flight from UK to Vancouver
  • Depending on your tastes, Whistler resort feels like Disneyland, whatever the time of year!
  • Evening dining and entertainment can lack variety
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