Issue Twenty Three

ATTACKING THE ALPS

A Guide To Mountain Biking The Alps

WORDS & PHOTOS x Mattias Fredriksson

26 July 2017
Part One

The Alps

‘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.

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Part Two

Chamonix, France

Chamonix represents the Alps in its purest sense. This capital of alpinism is surrounded by the most impressive mountains in the region; rugged 4000 metre peaks, glaciers, seracs and of course, stunning Mont Blanc – at 4810 meters, the highest peak of all. Chamonix is a wild and unique place. The jagged mountains directly around Chamonix are almost too steep for mountain biking, and while wandering the village looking up, you get the sense of breathtaking enclosure by high, rocky, peaked walls.   

Le Tour is located further up the Chamonix valley and here you will find more rolling and gentle mountains. Though preferable for mountain biking nothing is lost in views, and the vistas over the Mont Blanc massif are spectacular. From Le Tour you climb out of the valley towards Vallorcine, near the Swiss border. A more expedient alternative to this climb is to take the Charamillon gondola in Le Tour and then pedal up towards Col des Posettes (1997 m) where you have several great options. Continue over the pass to the Swiss side, via the Tour du Mont Blanc – one of Europe’s most popular long distance routes, circumnavigating part the Mont Blanc massif – or follow the trail from Col des Posettes back towards Chamonix. The spectacular trail on Aiguillette des Posettes – where eventually you will be conveniently spit out at the parking lot by the lift station in Le Tour – might be one of the most scenic bike routes you will ever ride.

Best trail: Col des Posettes to Aiguillette des Posettes and down to Le Tour. Amazing scenery, good flow and fun riding!

Bike shop: Zero G Board & Bike Shop on Avenue Ravanel le Rouge in the middle of Chamonix is the best bike shop in town. They have rental bikes, new bikes, gear and a good workshop.

Eat/Drink: For apres enjoy post ride beers at Moö, across the street from the train station in Chamonix. In addition to great beer, the food is good and the ambience warm – and with plenty of locals also enjoying the libations it’s a good place to get connected and get advice for further days of exceptional riding. For dinner, Munchie on Rue de Mulin is a favourite spot. Incredibly tasty Asian food infused with European influence, served in a welcoming, warm environment.

Stay: Hotel Gustavia across the street from the train station offers good value for your money.

Getting there: Geneva is the closest airport and from there it is 1.5 hour drive with rental car or 2 hours by bus/shuttle. If you plan to travel to various locations in the Alps however, a road trip by rental car is the way to go.

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Part Three

Verbier, Switzerland

Verbier is the quintessential vibrant ski resort during winter. Come summer however, tourism drops, the pace slows and out from behind the luxury chalets and temporarily closed fine dining restaurants emerges another season of mind blowing mountain biking.

While there is a bike park on Les Ruinette, it is not these machine built trails that you should propel you to visit Verbier. Do use the lifts in the bike park though to get to the trail riding and beyond into the alpine. Some of the trails go the entire way down to Le Chable and other villages in the valley where you can take the yellow post bus back up to Verbier. You will find that for a few extra Swiss francs, all busses have bike holders that can take up to six bikes. It is also possible to take the gondola back to Verbier if you reach the valley during operational hours.

The other side of the mountain is called Medran and is also served by a gondola lift. There are more single tracks here and it is possible to ride down into Martigny, a small city in the main valley. This excursion could quickly turn into a full day’s adventure, as could the more challenging Tour du Mont Fort – a 60 kilometre all mountain tour for riders who are in good shape and looking for a little more adventure in their adventure. This tour includes a lot of climbing but the reward is a total of over 3000 vertical meters of downhill.

Best trail: From the top of the Ruinette lift, ride east and follow the signs to La Chaux. Eventually you will see a rocky trail below the ridgeline that will lead you towards an enjoyable trail that ends in Le Morgnes in the valley. From there you can follow the road to Le Châble and take the gondola back up to Verbier.

Bike shop: Médran Sports was one of the first ski shops in Verbier to convert to a mountain bike shop during summer. That was nearly 30 years ago and with their experience, this is the place to go to if you need to rent, buy or service your own gear. www.medransports.ch

Eat/Drink: The Pub Mont Fort, near the Ruinette lift, is one of the classic Verbier bars and remains a great destination for a burger, beers and live music.

Stay: Hôtel de la Poste in Verbier is a family owned hotel and was one of the original hotels in town. www.hotelposteverbier.ch If you prefer to stay in Le Châble in the valley, check out Hotel La Poste which is newly renovated and near the lift to Medran/Verbier. http://hotellechable.com

Getting there: Geneva is the most convenient airport. From there it is easy to go by train to Le Châble, a great place to stay. If you are lodging in Verbier there are busses and a lift for the last leg of your journey. In general, travelling by train in Switzerland is great. The trains are on time, there is lots of space for bags, and it is not a problem travelling with bikes. The only down side is the price. It is expensive so if you are with a group of friends it will be cheaper renting a car or minivan.

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Part Four

Livigno, Italy

There was a time when Livigno was a poor agricultural village, isolated between high mountain passes near the border to Switzerland. By the Napoleonic era however, Livigno was granted advantageous customs rules, and in modern times this special tax status has helped the region to become an attractive tourist destination. Since the 60’s Livigno has been a customs free zone.

Originally a winter sport destination, Livigno has catered to summer’s mountain bikers since 2005 when the town hosted the World Championships. Since then a lot has happened and today Livigno is known as one of the premiere destinations for mountain biking in the Alps. There are 600 kilometres of marked bike trails around Livigno and the region of Alta Rezia. Add to that two bike parks, 12 bike shops and 16 bike hotels and you understand why the village is a paradise for mountain bikers.

Livigno is located at the foot of the mountains in beautiful Stelvio National Park. With an altitude of 1816 metres it is one of the the highest villages in the Italian Alps. This altitude, and the many trails that reach over 3000 meters, make Livigno popular for athletes in various endurance sports who are seeking to push themselves under particular atmospheric conditions.

Best trail: Livigno-Passo di Val Trela, a 30 kilometre loop with 1200 meters of climbing and as much downhill. After the climb you can look forward to an amazing tour on perfect trails in pristine surroundings, followed by lunch at Alpe Trela. If you prefer to lessen the climb, take the lift to the top of Mottolino.

Bike shop: There are 12 bike and rental shops in Livigno. 360° Sport is the best and most complete shop with new products and rentals of all type of bikes.

Stay: Hotel Lac Salin is one of many bike hotels. It is a 4-star hotel in a quiet area near the center of town and boasts a wonderful spa for treating yourself after a long day of riding.

Getting there: Although Livigno is still somewhat isolated with a long transfer from the airports in Milano, Zürich and Munich (3-3,5 hours), it is worth the detour and extra travel time to experience some of the best trail riding in the Alps.

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Part Five

Zermatt, Switzerland

Zermatt is located 1620 meters above sea level at one end of the Mattertal Valley, and is only accessible by train. Car traffic is forbidden both up to and inside the village, giving the town a relaxed and intimate atmosphere. One of the first things you will see when leaving the train station is the silhouette of the picturesque Matterhorn standing at impressive attention in the distance. This fabled mountain has given Zermatt a magnetic attraction and ensures year round visitors. It’s easy to understand the fascination when you are standing in the village looking up at the peak of one of the world’s most famous mountains. The view is ravishing.

The Swiss canton of Valais is famous for its trifecta of excellent wine, cheese and chocolate. In some circles it is also known for amazing mountain bike trails. By the foot of the iconic Matterhorn you will find hiking trails hundreds of years old, and with the share-the-trail philosophy you are also welcome with your bike. It is wise to take it easy however, as there can be many hiking tourists on the trails. Mountain bikes will remain most welcome with the appropriate amount of attention and respect to others. You will find this is less of a concern in the alpine as the terrain is vast and you can see much further ahead.

In Zermatt things are put into striking perspective; very big mountains, very small mountain bikers. And by the time you reach Gornergrat (3131 m) – the end station for the train starting in Zermatt – it is possible to look over more than 40 mountain peaks covering over 4000 meters. In Gornergrat you have the option of several epic single tracks down the mountain, a few of which are considered the most spectacular in the world. 

Best trails: The Mark Twain trail on the Gornergrat side follows the edge of the mountain and provides spectacular views towards Matterhorn. If you want a longer decent try the trail from Rothorn to Täsch, the village below Zermatt. The trail starts just behind the lift station at Rothorn. Once in Täsch there is a train back to Zermatt.

Bike shop: Slalom Sport has a good variety of bikes if you wish to rent a bike or need to service your own. 

Hotel: Hotel Alpina is a traditional hotel built in 1903 with a simple style and a good location, only 500 meters from the train station in the middle of the village. It is a 2-star hotel and for Zermatt, is very affordable.

Getting there: You can fly into Geneva or Zürich as it is about the same distance from both airports. Train travel is advisable for the entire journey as Zermatt is a car free village. A rental car will prove more hassle and expense to park than is necessary. 

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Part Six

Aosta Valley, Italy

The Aosta valley is located on the sunny side of the Mont Blanc massif. This vast and beautiful region begins just south of the Mont Blanc tunnel in Italy and extends to the borders of both France and Switzerland.  Though the valley may be most famous for skiing and climbing, it is well worth a visit for the mountain biking. In fact, it is quite possible this is one of the very best regions for mountain biking in the whole Alps!

The Aosta valley is lined with amazing single tracks that boast impressive views, and as in many other well-known mountain towns, it is the hiking culture that has made this region so great as a bike destination. Large stretches of the famous hiking route Tour de Mont Blanc are terrific for biking. Conveniently, there are several rifugios along the route as well if you wish to stop for lunch or an overnight stay. A highlight is the tour into Val Ferret where Tour de Mont Blanc goes by Rifugio Bonatti. Ride the TMB from the valley and back towards the Courmayeur, on the balcony. The views over Grandes Jorasses and Mont Blanc from this world class trail are mind blowing, though be advised it is difficult in places.

It is a good idea to base yourself in the Roman town of Aosta. The vibe in town is great, there are plenty of restaurant options, and most importantly, lots of rides waiting for you near the city. Two other areas worth checking out are La Thuile, a bike park with only natural trails, and Pila, one of the better bike parks in this part of the Alps. Contact Aosta Valley Freeride for guided tours, bike shuttles and everything you may need in the area.

Best trail: From Punta Chaligne down to the town of Aosta; first a climb up the mountain from Rifugio Chaligne and then a descent lasting a few hours to town. Incredible mountain biking with everything from alpine riding to fast sections in the trees.

Bike shop: Cicli Lucchini has rental bikes and sells new bikes and gear. They also have a good workshop. 

Stay: Hotel Diana is an affordable and pleasant 3-star accommodation just outside the city of Aosta. It can be hectic in the town center so unless that is your thing, it is preferable to stay just outside. 

Getting there: Fly into Geneva or Turin which are the same distance from Aosta (2 hours). There are airport shuttles though in the summer it’s expensive. Transport is smoother with a rental car and provides you freedom once there; a nice perk as trailheads can be far from each other.

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Part Seven

Lenzerheide, Switzerland

Lenzerheide in Graubünden is now an excellent destination for modern bike tourism. Originally a sleepy summer town, once the decision had been made to develop mountain biking it was quickly surmised that sticking with the older ‘lifts up, old cow trail down’ model would not do. Consultants were hired and in five years Lenzerheide was transformed into a bike destination. Their strategy seems to have worked. Through hosting multiple events – everything from World Cup races to public grassroots events –  word has spread. Lenzerheide is now a popular destination for both DH and free riders who enjoy one of the best bike parks in the eastern alps. It is also desirable place to be for all-mountain riders, who are offered lift access trail riding and tours in the valley and the neighbouring village of Arosa.

In the Kanton Graubünden (state of Graubünden) there is a network of 17 000 kilometers of both hiking and bike trails. There is an unwritten rule allowing all trails in the state to be used by anyone; a policy unique in the Alps and globally. Graubünden, Switzerland’s largest and least populated state, is known as one of the most progressive regions in the world when it comes to bike tourism. There are 4000 kilometres of specifically marked mountain bike trails and several regions are leading the charge in Europe when it comes to bike tourism, including Lenzerheide, Davos Klosters and Engadin St Moritz. A visit to a few of these places on the same trip is a great idea.

Best trail: from Parpaner Rothorn via the Schafalpi trail to Arosa via Alpisee, one of Switzerland’s most beautiful alpine lakes. From Arosa you take a few lifts back up in the mountains to Fuerggli, and drop back into Lenzerheide.

Bike shop: Pesko Rothornbahn is the best bike shop in Lenzerheide. It is located nera both the gondola station and the bike park. Here they have a variety of different bikes for rent and a good workshop, as well as a store with all the essentials.

Stay: Hotel Schweizerhof in central Lenzerheide is a classic Swiss hotel but with a modern touch. Great food and service and a fantastic location in the heart of town, pedal distance to the gondola and the trail heads.

Getting there: Lenzerheide is only 1,5 hours from Zürich making it the best airport for access. It is easy to go via train to Lenzerheide, but you have to switch to a bus in Chur, about 30 minutes away.

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Part Eight

Ötztal, Austria

Sölden and the Ötztal valley is one of Austria’s main biking destinations. This famous ski resort has developed their bike trails and infrastructure over the years, and while the alpine riding is scenic and enjoyable, it is the trails through the trees are the real gem in this beautiful valley.

The 65 kilometre Ötztal Valley is one of Tirol’s longest, stretching north to south from Inntal. With Innsbruck and its mountain town conveniences nearby in the north, and Italy to the south, it is a perfect place to spend a long weekend or enjoy a full week of biking with your friends. It’s not only the valley itself that appears endless, so do the single tracks. The trails around Sölden are the only ones in Tirol which are legalized. This means you officially share with hikers, but they are rare. There are three Gondolas serving the trail system in Sölden and Ötz but be mindful that trail riding is the focus in Ötztal, so no full-face helmets are allowed on the lifts or the trails.

Best trail: From the mountain hut Kleble Alm is a fantastic mix of technical stuff with switchbacks, roots and rocks, and flowy high speed stretches. You climb up almost 600 vertical meters from the top of the lift but after a drink and rest at the hut, you have a long, fantastic ride all the way down to Sölden and a total drop of about 1000 vertical meters.

Bike shop: There is a handful bike shops in Sölden and Glanzer is one of the better. They have lots of rental bikes from various brands and a good workshop. 

Stay: Designhotel Bergland Sölden has become a popular hotel for health-conscious and luxury-minded travelers. It is the first designer hotel in Sölden and was crafted by local tradespeople. The mix of old Austrian style and modern influence is stunning. 

Getting there: Fly to Münich or Innsbruck and then it is easiest to continue with rental car. From Münich it’s approximately 2,5 hours and from Innsbruck, 1,5 hours.

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Part Nine

Val Gardena, Italy

No other mountain range in the Alps is as dramatic and unique as the Dolomites – a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Sella Group near Val Gardena is world famous, perhaps more so for the hiking, climbing and skiing than for the mountain biking however, the Dolomites offer some of the most jaw dropping mountain biking in the Alps. This is especially true around the Val Gardena region in Southern Tirol where there are endless possibilities before you.

The trail network by Passo Sella is monumental. Trails disperse in all directions thanks to the strong mountain culture among the people who have been hiking this area for decades. There are longer rides if you drop in towards Marmolada, which at 3343 metres is the biggest mountain in the Dolomites. Rewarding rides can also be found on the plateau and back down to Selva Val Gardena. Truly, regardless of where you go, the surroundings are impressive and powerful. Rugged alpine peaks of limestone equally imposing and striking, set in a verdant landscape, lush and green. Simply put – a stunning location for a bike ride.

Allow yourself some of that relaxed seated luxury here and ride the tram to the foot of Seceda, 2450m above the village of Ortisei. From there you can set off on a variety of tours under the impressive Geisler group – another well-known mountain area around Val Gardena. Take trail number 6 on the map and follow the green meadow to Pieralongia Hut for a recommended break of fresh squeezed juice and home-made sausage. This rustic hut has been in the same family for over 100 years and is well worth a stop. Continue on, enjoying the phenomenal trails of these epic mountains. If you ride long enough and you will reach Regensburger Hütte, the perfect place for the cold beer you definitely deserve.

Best trail: Seceda via Pieralongia to Selva Gardena, amazingly beautiful ride that anyone can enjoy. Climb from the valley floor all the way up or take the trams to Seceda. If you want a longer tour, try the Sella Ronda MTB that takes you around the Sella massif via four classic passes in the Dolomites: Gardena, Campolongo, Pordoi and Sella. You can do the whole tour in one day with the help of lifts.

Bike shop: Specialized Elite Store Dolomites in Selva Gardena has rental bikes and new bikes for sale as well as a workshop. 

Stay: Hotel Astor in Selva Gardena is a 3-star and bike friendly hotel with reasonable prices.

Getting there: From Münich it is only 300 kilometres to drive to Val Gardena so either drive all the way or fly to Münich or Marco Polo Airport in Venice, which is 270 kilometres away.

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Thanks
Issue Twenty Three
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Thanks to the many people who jump in from the camera for me, including: Aiguille du Midi, Andreas Tonelli, Elle Cochrane, Fabrizio Charruaz, Hans Rey, Holger Meyer, Janne Tjärnström, Jonas Sundstedt, Julia Hofmann, Karen Eller, Lisa Breckner, Lundo May, Matt Hunter, Tobias Woggon, Trond G Hansen, Wade Simmons.

The End
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