‘Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise’ – Alexander Pope
Soaring, majestic mountains, loads of rich history, and fantastic mountain culture combine to make the Alps one of the coolest places in the world to ride your bike. Finding a good place to mountain bike in the Alps is a lot like fishing in Alaska; cast your bait and the fish will bite. While this prolific and spectacular alpine terrain has long been revered for exceptional hiking, it is more recently that towns have added mountain bike trails and additional infrastructure specifically for bike tourism.
In a crescent arch stretching from Monaco to Slovenia, the Alps span over 12 000 kilometres, with eight countries (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia and Switzerland) claiming a share. Whereas the microstate of Monaco has only a small fraction of peaks within its borders, countries like Austria and Switzerland are considered true Alpine landscapes. Indeed Switzerland is, as Hemingway once noted, ‘a small, steep country, much more up and down than sideways’, with 65 percent of the country´s 41 285 square kilometres consisting of mountains.
Tourism in the Alps began in the mid 1800’s when many of the highest and most classic mountain peaks were ascended for the first time. The Meyer brothers climbed Jungfrau (4158 metres above sea level) in 1811, but it would take another 50 years for Matterhorn (4478 m) and Monterosa (4634 m), two of the most iconic peaks, to be conquered. At that time however, there was little to support tourism. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that hotels and other visitor infrastructure began to dot the landscape, opening villages to increased tourism. Things accelerated quickly once initiated, thanks largely to wealthy Englishmen who made it fashionable to travel through the Alps; to wander, to rest, to take in the fresh mountain air, and to hike in the alpine.
Today, most villages have trams, lifts or trains enabling visitors to journey high up in the mountains in an easy and convenient way. It is a wonderful system that allows access to views and experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible for many. It also happens to be the best method to access the most interesting bike terrain. To ride all the way from the valley floor is time consuming and for most people, quite tiring. By allowing yourself some tram luxury at the start, you can enjoy more of the high alpine environment that awaits you. This is probably also a good place to note, that while you do not have to be an elite rider to enjoy the Alps at high altitude, it is advisable to put some miles in on your home trails before you go.
If you haven’t yet been to the Alps to ride your bike, now is the time to go, and here’s my guide to some of my favourite places.