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Walking the Talk of Alpenrock

Photos, Words and 3 Vids

Words by Stephen Matthews.
June 23rd, 2011

As I sat back and watched my group descend toward the ski village of Verbier, I took a breath and did my best to take in the dramatic location. With Mont Blanc in the distance and a meadow of purple and pink flowers all around, I grasped my handlebars, took grip of my pedals, and dropped in on the perfectly winding singletrack that would drop me over 4,600 feet in a single run.

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The dramatic loss in elevation from the rocky peaks to the wide-open valley floors is part of what makes Switzerland a mountain biker’s paradise. Chris Winter offers adventure mountain biking to those who seek the most memorable and unique riding experiences on the planet, through his company, Big Mountain Bike Adventures. Famed through movies and magazines, Big Mountain has taken some of the industry’s most published riders to faraway locations, and made unforgettable riding memories for people like you and I.

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Having never travelled to Europe alone before, and not speaking a word of German and very little French, I expected to be pretty much on my own when I arrived in Geneva. Big Mountain had organized a hotel in the old sector of town for me to stay at, so I boarded a public bus and made my way through an unfamiliar city. The following morning I met our famed guide, Joe Schwartz, and he took us into the heart of the Alps for our first ride.

Cruising in Big Mountain’ s van around Lake Geneva, and up past Lausanne, Switzerland already offered views that were unlike anything I had ever seen. Joe teasedus with the idea of putting in days of over 20,000 feet of descending, creating an indescribable excitement within the group. Driving deeper into Switzerland, fully knowing that I was staring across the lake into France and approaching the foot of the Alps, I really began to see the potential for the best riding in the world. The sun was a pounding 32 Celsius, the peaks were rising, and the valleys were widening. Passing the city of Martigny, we turned up the Vallee de Bagnes and I was greeted with not only a location I had seen earlier in the summer (Stage 15 of the Tour de France), but a view of the Verbier Bike park and our beautiful, rustic hotel La Vallee.

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Day 1: A Warming Descent in Lourtier
Big Mountain had organized the night’s stays to be in the small town of Lourtier at the Hotel La Vallee for six nights, and at Le Petit Hotel in Zermatt for two. I found that being based out of only two areas allowed us to cover a lot more ground with the freedom of not worrying about routinely packing our gear. The first ride after arriving from Geneva was a 3,300 foot descent; it was a nice warm-up to the terrain and it gave everyone’s remaining jetlag the boot! The trail was full of high-speed doubletrack with some surprisingly challenging corners, and it dropped us right at the foot of our hotel where a lovely meal had been prepared.

Day 2: Bike Parks of Verbier & Tzoumaz
It was a nice cruise down to the village of Le Chable where we boarded our lift to Verbier. The trails were fast and buff for us in the Verbier bike park, and they were full of gnarly lines and committing jumps. This year’s Big Mountain Alpenrock DH trip was conveniently scheduled only a week before Verbier would host a Swiss Cup race, so the track was in beautiful condition. With some of the fastest corners and most intense rock gardens, this course was one hell of a way to open up the morning! Crazed root sections with funny off camber lines and beckoning gaps forced me to see why this place can be more than just dreamy cruiser singletrack. We rode 3 trails on the Verbier side of the mountain, and one on the backside of the col, which spit us out in the town of Tzoumaz. The trail on the Tzoumaz Bike Park was brand new and full of loamy loose corners, deep trench-like chutes, and of course the picturesque Swiss singletrack we had all been admiring. The riding on Day 2 was what can only be described as a seriously big day! The last run of the day was nicknamed the La Vallee Express, and it led us from the top of the Verbier Bike Park, down 3,600 feet to the front door of our beautiful hotel. The Express was full of technical switchbacks and rock gardens, mixed in with the classic Swiss-meadow singletrack. With a total descent well over 20,000 feet, day 2 was a peak through the window on how the rest of the trip would look.
Have a look at the La Vallee with some highlights from Tzoumaz:


Day 3: Crans-Montana Kona Park
Packed full of fresh meat, cheese, fruit, and exquisite coffee, we drove from Lourtier to the town of Sierre located in the heart of the Rhone Valley. After Joe insisted on devouring yet another Pain au Chocolat, we boarded the longest funicular in Switzerland that brought us to the Crans-Montana resort. Dubbed a ‘Kona Bike Park’, the Crans-Montana Park definitely put focus into the quality of their trails.

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What could only be described as a high-speed, smoother version of Whistler’s famous “B-Line”, the Red Trail had such deep, fast corners that you could almost drag the inside end of your handlebars on the ground. Beautifully steep corners allowed brake control to be abandoned, and adrenaline levels to boost as you could hear your tires folding in compression. The Red Trail was perfect for learning or advanced riders, and could be anything from the tamest downhill cruise, to a tool when learning to trust your tires.

The Black Trail was the Crans-Montana DH course, another track that has hosted Swiss Cup races in the past. The course started in an open meadow, and quickly descended into daunting tree lines that became the only option as your vision began to blur with the ever-increasing speed of your bicycle. Filled with root lines, large gaps, off- camber turns, and canyon-setting rock gardens, the Crans-Montana DH was a seriously gnar course. Guiding the group down the track, we lost all of the 1,800 feet of elevation before we knew what hit us. The trails were buttery smooth in the corners, with nice cutty pockets to link up in just as you started to doubt your decision to lay off the brakes. There is no question in my mind that Crans-Montana hosted two of the best trails I’ve ever ridden.

Have a look at the Kona Crans-Montana Bike Park:

Day 4:
Riding the Rhone Rolling Orgy, Medieval Flow, and Brusson were the day’s beasts to conquer. The 3 different trails on this day put in a grand total of 10,000 feet of logged descending. Full of spirit, the members of our group tackled each one with confidence and enthusiasm. Riding the trails from the back of the pack allowed me to catch the boisterous chuckles and laughter that came from the other riders as we rode some of the best flow lines of the trip.

The trails that spit out in the vineyards of the Rhone Valley had sections that felt like you were riding a downhill pumptrack where there were 3 to 5 different lines through 1 section of trail. Joe and I were up front leading and decided to let loose and slide corners, scrub the bumps, and generally just work ourselves as hard as we could on the trail. In one of the most memorable trail sections of the trip, we found ourselves both brushing our shoulders on tree trunks in corners, drifting around one another trying to pin it on a faster line, and jokingly hitting transfer lines to cut one another off.

Tonight was another wonderful dinner at the Hotel La Vallee. The highlight was a dessert of freshly-picked apricots that hotel owner Patricia gathered from the orchard, in between shuttling riders back up the hill for ‘one more run’. Long descents for hours on end, the best food I’ve ever eaten, and perfect weather that allowed you to see for miles, all added up to making me feel as if I was living in a dream.

From Martigny to Saxon, here’s a ‘peak’ into the Rhone Valley:

Day 5: Vallee de Bagnes
Gently cruising to the lift at Le Chable, I observed the mist rising up from the ground beneath my tires. The grass to the sides was vividly bright, and there at 9am, the air had warmed enough to confirm another remarkable day. Riding the ancient hiking trails of the valley floor towards the lifts, I was unaware of how intense and exciting a 2nd day in Verbier would be. On Day 2, riding the Verbier area behind Joe and our guests allowed me to study the setting and really get a feel for what we were doing here. Reflecting on the trails we had ridden, and reviewing some topographic maps in the evenings, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on each of the trails we would ride, and how the group members were feeling about each of them. Joe put me in the lead of the group on some of today’s descents, and it was a great sense of accomplishment for me to have the experience to be up front. We did as many laps as our bodies could take on Tzoumaz and Verbier, charging lines that not half a week ago seemed impossible. The progression of the group’s skills and confidence was made possible by their persistent positive attitudes, and their love of the ride.

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The day went flawlessly until the final run when after a few mechanicals from Joe, Howard, and Scott, they decided to safely download to the town of Verbier. Clark and I got to do a wicked fast descent down a nice exposed ridgeline. Sweat dripping from my forearms, we charged the blissful Swiss meadow with confidence. In an 1,800 foot descent, Clark and I raced our friends in the Gondola. Stopping only once for courtesy as hikers climbed the mountain bowl, we arrived at Les Creux, winning the race by under 30 seconds.

Day 6: Chandolin – Zermatt Transfer
Today was a transfer day to the famed area of Zermatt. Mid-way up the Rhone valley, we stopped at Sierre to do an epic 5,000 foot descent. So far our transportation to the top of mountains had been through the use of our van, funicular railways, and gondolas. Today we used the bus service to bring us from Sierre to the high-altitude village of Chandolin. Slinking up the valley along rugged cliffs and exposed bridges, our bus quietly drove past busy town squares and small farming communities, and quickly brought us into Chandolin.

alpenrock, big mountain, switzerland, mountain biking, nsmb, whistler
  Photo ~ Chris Winter

Insanely fast sections of trail and nice drifty flat-corners were the name of the game for today’s ride. Stopping frequently for water and the majestic views, the entire group was thoroughly enjoying today’s trail.

The bottom 1/3 of the trail was a really cool side-cut with elongated rock sections that definitely kept the group on their toes! I came flying out of the woods to be facing directly at Crans-Montana across the valley. As the corner took a tight right, I was positioned with a rock wall to my inside, and a massive cliff to my left. I’m sure the frequent riders of these trails get used to the mass exposure each and every trail has, but for me it consistently caught me off guard. I loved the feeling of pushing the limits of sensible, for me it’s all part of the experience in extreme mountain biking.

Zermatt is a town that is famed for its location and used as an access point for spectacular areas like the Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn. There are no vehicles allowed (except for electric luggage carts that are driven about as carefully as a bumper car), so the group took the train from the town of Tasch.

alpenrock, big mountain, switzerland, mountain biking, nsmb, whistler
  Photo ~ Chris Winter

Day 7: Zermatt and ‘the Horn’
It was an early start for us as we boarded the Gornergrat Bahn cog train first thing in the morning. This was perhaps the best shuttle service I’ve ever been a part of. A relaxing ride up through Swiss meadows to the dramatic scenery of the Monte Rosa glaciers and overwhelming peak of the Matterhorn was the ideal way to warm up for long and windy descents.

The most picturesque views of the trip were seen on this day. With such long descents, stopping to catch your breath happened a couple dozen times. After a hell of a night at The Papperla Pub in Zermatt, we stopped mid-descent in Riffelalp for another one of Europe’s amazing café lattes (and I am pretty sure Joe had another Pain au Chocolat). Out of the epic alpine, we cruised fast and technical trails all the way down to the heart of Zermatt. After 3 insane descents, the whole crew went back to The Papperla for one last kick at the cat!

Day 8: Zermatt DH and Conquering the Unterrothorn
The last day of riding started out with a morning schedule that offered a pretty open time frame. With the enthusiastic group we had, we got a couple extra runs in before our long backcountry descent to Tasch. We rode the Zermatt DH track, recommended by a local bike shop dweller, and it was an insanely committing course. With some seriously technical gaps and fast, rooty chutes, our friendly bicycle mechanic in Zermatt was correct when he described the course as having “many stones”.

alpenrock, big mountain, switzerland, mountain biking, nsmb, whistler
  Photo ~ Chris Winter

The shuttle to the top of our main descent for the day used another funicular out of the town of Zermatt, followed by a standard gondola car, followed by a large capacity gondola. From Zermatt to the peak of Unterrothorn, we were brought up 4.500 feet and were anxiously waiting to descend over 4,800 feet to Tasch.

Most times I find that I hit a singletrack section, and by the time I really get into the cruising zone, the dreamy section of trail is ending. From the Unterrothorn, this was not the case. Kilometre after kilometre of super buff, high-speed singletrack was what was served. Facing the wide-open valley, surrounded by glaciers, I watched Joe lead the group down around the corner of a ridge. Then it was my turn. I shifted into my high gears, put my mind to focus, and launched down the trail ahead, cruising at speeds which would put any sane human in a state of anxiety. For me, I was buzzing on the feeling of testing the envelope of what was possible. Carving the corners, and tucking the straights, I descended the trail at an extremely great rate.

Big Mountain’ s Alpenrock DH brought a whole new level of professionalism into a unique and exciting adventure. Every detail was considered and dealt with, yet Joe did an amazing job at keeping a relaxed and casual pace. The growth of our group dynamics surprised me, and I was impressed to see how well we all dealt with each other’s riding weaknesses and strengths. The trip to Switzerland is amazing, and was a truly great vacation. When the leaves begin to fall, and the air becomes nice and crisp, we all know it’s time to get ready for winter…So check out Big Mountain Bike Adventure’s 2010 Costa Rica trips guided by Freeride legend Wade Simmons, and get yourself a mean tan!

Switzerland Alpenrock DH trips:
2011 Dates: · · Friday, August 12 to Saturday August 20, Saturday August 20 to Sunday August 28, Land Cost: $2,695 USD

Costa Rica Pura Vida DH trips
2011 Dates: · Friday, February 19 to Saturday, February 27 · Saturday, February 27 to Sunday, March 7 · 2010 Land Cost: $2,200 USD · NEW! Pura Vida Junior, 7 day/6 nights, March 20-26, 2010. $1,650 USD

alpenrock, big mountain, switzerland, mountain biking, nsmb, whistler

I’ve almost gone on a Big Mountain trp several times – but it just hasn’t worked out. Hopefully I’ll sort that out soon. Which would you rather hook up – Costa Rica or Switzerland? Dream Big here…