I waited patiently on the far side of the dusty track whilst the huddled armadillos shuffled to the edge of the wooden drop and peered into the abyss. Adrenaline just bubbling under a solid ceiling of focus, full commitment guaranteed. Machine-gun Spanish conversation incomprehensible, but the tone was clearly recognisable and matched the furrowed brows just visible below full-face lids. They backed away sheepishly, awkwardly manoeuvreing DH superbikes, opening a gap just wide enough to squeeze through. Half a pedal rev, small bunny hop to clear the gap and ‘whoosh, whump’ into the steep downhill landing fifteen feet below. I never got to see their faces but heard sharp exclamations as they realised how much engineered assistance softened my landing; zero, zip, nada, barring the natural titanium flex of the most eye-catching machine in the whole Portes du Soleil. The remainder of the trail was a peach, steep roots into perfect catch berms and the grin got wider and wider as I smashed rapidly to the bottom of Chatel bike park, by now a total convert to the experience.
Headaches and Hatred
Rewind eight days and the story was intensely different as I disgustedly powered up the 3km road climb to our idyllic mountainside campsite. A combination of heat and dehydration, but mostly bitter disappointment and frustration, generating a debilitating migraine. Day one at Les Gets bike park had been all I’d feared and worse, boring, predictable and just a bit shit. Berm, tabletop, braking bump and repeat, again, and again and again. Mounting a chairlift and feeling a fraud as elevation was gained without tangible effort, no pedalling, no trees or roots, just man-made motorways lacking variation or physical challenge. Granted, with hindsight it’s clear that the revelation of my own inadequacies hugely exacerbated the hate, Irish riders aren’t too tuned to deep dust and gravel, and corner timings were as misguided as stiff attempts to clear the jumps. A fish out of water, I craved the familiarity of damp forests and the remainder of the evening was spent in unjustified huff as I genuinely contemplated selling my lift pass.
‘Armadillos’ – it had come to me on one of the many peaceful chairlift journeys, with legs dangling free above trains of riders whooping distantly, and plenty of time to think. Crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, pretty much summed up every rider there. Full-face de-rigueur, along with knee, elbow, chest and back protection. Plastic Robocops encased in armour. Wife-beaters and even bare skin beneath, everything from factory jerseys, the ubiquitous checked shirts and even comedy gold lame jackets on top. Bikes with more travel than Ian Paisley Jnr, I’d never seen so many pure DH rigs together and haven’t seen so few dropper posts on the trails since about 2009. To say I stood out is gross understatement, open face POC lid with matching glasses, just kneepads for safety and most standout of all, perched on the magnificent Stanton Switch9er Ti hardtail. I was a traffic stopper, rarer than rocking horse shit, but more on that later.
Conversion wasn’t a gradual affair, not the creeping suggestion of the cult leader, more the moment of full-scale religious clarity. As I moped my way round the pool that first evening conversations were had, a WhatsApp appeal to a mate of a mate in Morzine, beta sourced on the underground off-piste that has to exist in a place like this. Day two saw tentative exploration and the discovery of a seam of gold beneath Morzine’s Pleney lift, smacked in the face by the realisation of my stupidity as tyres skittered over the parched soils of the super-steeps. Holy fuck these trails are good, from the official black line to the numerous off-shoots that criss-cross the 30% hillside, steep enough that my rucksack was falling forwards and bashing the back of my helmet, and techy as hell. Skidding, sliding, threading the needle between angular rocks and polished root, on my game and passing armadillos, some pushing, some shaking arm pump, some lying in dusty clouds and all loudly commenting on the Stanton warrior with solid metal where springs should be.
Reactions were constant, shocked exclamations and whispered comments in foreign tones. Admiring looks and chats with ever-friendly lift assistants, and plenty of face-to-face comments, the ice breaker of all ice breakers. ‘Aah mate, that must be a right c*nt on these trails’ from the brash Ozzy, ‘fair play lad’ from the Yorkshireman and ‘heeeey, hardtail’ from the Italian crew I passed on the natural end to Da Trail, my favourite run of the holiday. Several times a day without fail, a rider on a £6k DH sled would stop and compliment the bike on the quality of the build, natural polished Ti looks and the ballsiness of bringing it to this playground. Doing my part as a brand ambassador a hundred times over, I’m pretty sure the sheer presence of the bike was the best sales pitch possible, and plenty of riders asked for more details with a view to getting their own. There’s a reverence amongst those who’ve only ever been on bouncers, as if piloting without suspension is akin to missing a limb. Some of us know the truth; granted, it may take more skill and precision but unless you’re flat-landing epic gaps and drops then the hardtail is extremely capable in the right hands, there’s a few thousand riders in the Portes du Soleil with eyes opened a bit wider now.
Cynic to Acolyte
Day five completed the shift from cynic to full-blown acolyte. A 73 mile excursion into Switzerland featuring a near Everest’s worth of ascent and descent on a pilgrimage to the infamous Champery DH track. Realising that lifts aren’t just about repetitive loops, and discovering the potential for epic exploration was mind-blowing. Barring a masochistic road detour over a 700m climb thanks to the detail on the trail ‘map’ seemingly being drawn by a bored four year old, I barely had to pedal at all to gain the huge distance. Champery itself was a blast, re-living Danny Hart’s stupendous exploits through my own eyes, dropping into the damp bobsled corners that flood the senses, no stopping, no resting, how do I sit down with balls that big? In truth it may have just crept into the five steepest trails of the day. No longer suffering the athlete’s guilt of not earning the thrills through sweat and tears, 73 miles of full-attack downhilling requires its own efforts, next year I’ll start early and do a ton. Bike parks rule, how could I ever have been so wrong?
As an old school master, the natural trails are second nature, with three decades of instinct providing the key to flowing where others lock and slide. The ten-thousand hours theory (as much as it’s proven bullshit) does still have some underlying truth, if you’ve done something for 80% of your lifespan then you should have developed the requisite higher-order movement skills. The joy of the parks was that they were also littered with features that rendered me a hopeless amateur once more. Berms I can do, and as the days progressed so did the confidence to give beleaguered pads and rotors a rest and hit them without slowing, but jumping is a different issue altogether. Kids will laugh at this but in the early nineties, people who could get two feet off the ground were considered total Jedis. We lacked the trails, the technology and the understanding to learn the techniques required, and so plenty of riders of a certain age (ahem, forty-ish) view jumping as some kind of Voodoo shit. The endless tabletops and doubles strewn throughout the parks allowed gradual, painfully incremental progress as I applied techniques I regularly coach to others into my own approach. There was no ‘eureka’ moment when it started to work but at some point the landing zones moved from the flat summits to the angled downslopes and the jarring was replaced by the wonderful softness and silence of wheels aligning with dirt. I’ve returned psyched for more, never too old to learn, old dog, new styles. Conscious incompetence truly is the most powerful motivator.
Best Laid Plans
The final day arrived too soon and a plan was hatched to swiftly link all the best experiences of the previous ones in a continual loop. From Les-Gets to Lindarets, back to the Swiss border, all the blacks in Chatel and the brilliant Vorachatak red dropping into it. Da Trail (more than once) and the original Supermorzine. Best laid plans never quite come off though and the French National DH track, on which I was putting together the run of a lifetime, finally exposed the weakness of my set-up as both tyres tore simultaneously. More latex than an S&M convention, sprayed all over the place and holes that would never seal. Tubes in and a tentative scoot home on 40psi where a no-holds-barred glory run should’ve really been occurring. A mildly disappointing end to an insanely good experience but an even greater appetite whetter, I’ll be back, and sooner rather than later.
What’s the Damage?
Bike parks batter bikes and people, tearing, wearing and smashing them into submission. In eight days (but really only about four and a half full days) I saw off three tyres, a full set of pads, a set of discs, some ODI Ruffians and the pulley tendon in the middle finger of my left hand. I didn’t crash once and only came close on one occasion. Certainly an indication that limits could’ve been pushed harder but riding solo has its own repercussions if things go wrong and the trails I frequented weren’t the most commonly visited. Progression was sensibly gradual and the final day witnessed the completion of all the features that’d been swerved previously. Of course there are others, huge gaps, ridiculous drops, downright terrifying sections that will be attempted in future when accompanied by a collection of eggers-on, those with the ability to know how hard to push and the first-aid knowledge to pick up the pieces. In the meantime the skills will be polished to shift ability and boundaries towards the features seen.
Wear and tear is all well and good but what about genuine damage? I’m clearly a vocal advocate of the hardtail and the Stanton Switch9er Ti is by a country mile the best example that I’ve seen or ridden in over thirty years of experience. I never felt outgunned on the Portes du Soleil trails despite others clearly viewing me as a bit of a freak, and there’s nothing more satisfying than passing lads on World Cup standard DH bikes as they fearfully scope lines that the hardtail pings through smoothly. I’ll not lie, I love the attention it brings and revel in spreading the gospel far and wide. If you only own one MTB (as I do these days) then the versatility of my bike is unparalleled. Next up is a five day high altitude hike-a-bike along the Haute route from Chamonix to Zermatt and I already know it’ll revel in that situation too.
I was astounded to find that despite hundreds of cased landings, rock gardens, and the impacts that destroyed three tyres, my Ibis 942 carbon rims are still true to the same sub 0.3mm tolerance as when I built the wheels over a year ago. My Bike Yoke Revive dropper needed a lower service but that took twenty minutes and three tools to get it as good as new. The Cane Creek EE-Wings have had the numerous scratches largely polished out and were superbly stiff, noticeably better than the XTR cranks they replaced (as they should be at that price) and ten speed Shimano still serves me better than any more modern option has. Pikes with an MRP cartridge are still the best all-round fork available and even the Maxxis rubber which eventually gave up the ghost still performed very well and none of the three tyres were anywhere near new when I arrived (I was planning to bin them when I got home anyway). Some of these companies help me out, others don’t, but credit where credit’s due, I only ride what I consider to be the pinnacle of current bike design and these bits are the best. It’d be a hell of a long trip back from Champery with a broken frame or wheel!
So what began with humbling and headaches concluded with religious style conversion. I get it now, those tens of thousands of annual visitors definitely aren’t wrong and as climate crisis decimates ski seasons in the coming years, the phenomena of the bike park will continue to expand. Next year back to Morzine and probably Chatel, the following year surely Whistler, I’m buzzing just thinking about it!
As ever, big thanks to companies who help support my lifestyle, most notably Stanton Bikes. They put me under no obligation to do anything, to race, to write, nothing. They just simply provide me with the best bikes available and I go spread the word. It’s a pleasure to do so.