What to expect and a an overview of what's on offer
The resort of Verbier provides an excellent base in which to explore the surrounding areas. Firstly there is a huge surplus of rental accommodation which makes prices significantly cheaper than the winter. The town itself has excellent infrastructure which is open by early June, when the lifts open for Summer.
There is a thriving family of bike tour operators in the area offering excellent guided weeks, with all the facilities that a biker would expect. Also, Verbier is a great base for exploring other resorts and areas. For example Chamonix and the Portes du Soleil are only 1-1.5 hrs drive away. We know many people who may travel hours to get to their local spot back home. Here in the Alps the options are limited only by the time you have to take your holiday.
With over 200kms of trails and it's own downhill mountain bike park, Verbier is definitely the place to do a spot of mountain biking. There are some serious downhill tracks running down the slopes of Ruinettes and Médran covering 6kms of terrain with a 700m drop in altitude so really only suitable for speedsters and hardcore downhillers. If you prefer to take life at a more leisurely pace then there's plenty of mountain biking that is suitable for families and/or individuals who want to discover Verbier and its surrounding villages without having to furiously pedal uphill or kit up in full body armour.
If you're not sure where to head and which trails would be best for you, then during the summer months, the Tourist Office run two free guided bike tours around the area. There are plenty of bike hire shops in and around town offering Mountain bikes and protection kit for rent or sale. (NB: In French, mountain biking is called VTT (Vélo tout-terrain!).
Accommodation for Mountain Bikers
These days there are many companies taking the thought process out of it all and offering a tailor made mountain biking specific holidays. There are many specialist Chamonix based chalet companies and apartment rentals offering such packages.
Several local Tour Operators offer an active mountain biking programme. Most of the above companies will all offer comparable deals with little extras here and there so perfectly suit a range of riding levels from beginners up to skilled riders.
Most companies listed can recommend where the closest or best trails are to them, and some will happily organise a guide through a local company if you need it. The various biking trails surrounding Chamonix offering some great cross country riding and single track trails with spectacular scenery in the background.
Wherever you choose to ride you will inevitably have a thoroughly enjoyable experience in and around the Chamonix Valley. The mountains are there to be enjoyed by everyone so remember to be considerate of others when on your bike, following the 'Mountain Bikers code of conduct' at all times.
Lift Access for Mountain Bikes
The lifts are open from early June until mid September and they either allow you to put your bike fully inside (cable cars) or they have specifically adapted racks on the side (gondolas & chairlifts) allowing you spend more of your time riding incredible alpine terrain rather dragging yourself up steep inclines! By using the lift system you can increase the number of great trails for riders of all levels in the valley as most of the lifts within the valley permit bikes to be taken on board free of charge. Here's an example of how to easy it is to put your bike on a gondola lift .
Lift passes can be bought at the lift stations on an individual ascent basis. However if you're here for a few days and are going up and down many times during your stay, it's more economical to purchase a Pass Sports Activity Pass which gives you 6 days of unlimited access to the main lifts and cable-cars in the valley.
During the summer, all of the yellow Post buses that operate between Le Chable and Verbier are equipped to carry up to 6 bikes on specially adapted racks on the back. These racks are in operation from mid-May to mid-October each year and you have to pay a small additional fee to put your bike on the bus (approx CHF 2,-). It is recommended that you book your bus in advance wherever possible to ensure that there is space, although there is always the Le Chable gondola option to save you pedalling all the way back up the hill! A similar bike service operates between Nendaz and Siviez.
The Verbier Bike Park is a must for downhill fans with 6km of serious downhill tracks running from Ruinettes to the Médran in Verbier. The 700m vertical drop in altitude makes it more suitable for speedsters and hardcore downhillers, however, you have to start somewhere and the park offers 4 different gradients of trail – green, blue, red and black – for beginners, intermediates and experts respectively.
There are 4 downhill tracks proposed in total, stretching for over 20 kilometres. They will break down roughly into the following percentages; 10% green, 20% blue, 40% red and 30% black. Also there are plans to develop a lot more obstacles and ramps which should gives riders of all levels more variety of terrain to ride on.
You can either buy a day or half day lift ticket to use the park which will give you unlimited access to the Ruinettes gondola. Alternatively, each afternoon, pro-riders from the Verbier bike team are available to show you around the trails (min. 2 people), telling you all you need to know about the park and the obstacles on the way. Advance reservation is recommended for one of these “Brakeless” sessions, but bear in mind that your lift ticket, bike hire and protective equipment are not included in the price. To check your progress during your stay, you can hire a “Freelap” timer gadget that will tell you the time of your descent on 3 different sections of the black “Tire’s Fire” piste.
The park is open fromearly June to late October every summer. See the Verbier Bike Park official site below for the latest dates and info (in French only).
There are plenty of sport shops in and around town offering mountain bikes and protection kit for rent or sale.
If you don’t own your own mountain bike and plan on renting equipment then there are plenty of Verbier mountain bike hire shops hiring out both full suspension and hard tail mountain bikes. The cost of daily rental varies from store to store and on the type of bike you choose to rent. On average you can pay anywhere between €16 - €80 euros for a days hire. Prices vary depending on whether you select a basic bike without suspension, or a full on free ride descent bike. (It is also possible to hire mountain bikes for children from around €15 a day.)
If you bring your own bike then there's no point loading up your excess baggage with spare bike parts either (unless your bike requires specific specialist component parts). Verbier has some excellent biking shops that sell plenty of spare parts and components for your bike. However, remember the spares list does not extend to some obscure pivot in your one off special downhill rig. We are talking rear mechs, pedals, cranks, chains, cassettes, brakes, brake pads, cables etc from the more popular manufacturers. The exception to this rule is the rear gear hanger; bring one with you for your bike, especially if it’s of the super funky alternative/rare type. The bike shops do not carry this part for all the different bike manufacturers and the models they make and it is probable the most frequently damaged part in the event of a crash. Even a relatively innocuous fall can damage this part and although they can often be bent back into shape, it would be a shame to ruin your holiday if this were not the case. (Most of the rental shops will also do a good line in helmets, body protectors, repairs and servicing.)
It is highly advisable to ensure your own bike is in tip top condition before lugging it all the way over to France. A days riding in the Alps equates to many rides out in the UK and the wear and tear on your bike reflects this. If you start the week with your bike in a poor to average state of repair it will let you down at some point and spoil the day, if not the weeks enjoyment. If you are not a competent mechanic then your local independent bike shop will provide a service for your pride and joy to ensure you and it remain friends for the week. It is money well spent to upgrade your tires if they are of the lighter weight cross country variety and purchase some free ride tyres with a 2.3 section to smooth your way and avoid the punctures. There is every chance a set of brake pads will disappear in a week so bring a spare pair and carry them with you on the trail to avoid that metal on metal effect! If you run out of time before you come away, Verbier local bike shops will be able to carry out a service for you. Charges are approximately €40 per hour on a pro-rata basis depending on how serious a service your bike requires!
It is important to remember that the trails around Verbier and the wider the 4 Valleys area are used by others and are not just for mountain biking. Many walkers use the same trails during the summer months.
Currently the walker/rider relationship is generally amenable. To keep it this way slow down for walkers and pass in single file to one side. A ring of a bike bell is more conducive to alerting walkers to your approach and getting them to step to one side of the trail whilst you pass on the other than an intrusive shout! A friendly “bonne journée” as you pass usually goes down well too.
Some trails are marked ‘piétons’ meaning walkers only; please comply, you wouldn’t be too happy to meet a walker half way down your favourite downhill course! It would be a shame if the restrictions applicable in Chamonix (July and August are walker orientated with many trails closed to bikers) were to be introduced in every resort.
The following 6 mountain biking rules were introduced by the International Mountain Biking Association, and should be understood and followed by every mountain biker before venturing out.
Ride on open trails only. The mountainside and it’s environment is precious, ensure your cycling is environmentally sound and socially responsible.
Leave no trace. Stay on existing trails and don’t create new ones, so no cutting off switchbacks!
Control your bicycle. Where safety notices are displayed, take note and follow them!
Always let your fellow riders know you’re around. Many trails are also used by hillwalkers who have priority over mountain bikers. There may be trails which are off limits at certain times of the year so it’s best to check this out before you venture out.
Never scare or intimidate the local wildlife. Remember to leave gates as you found them
Plan ahead. Check out your equipment before setting of to ensure it’s in good repair, taking puncture repair and basic tool kits with you. Carry necessary supplies including food and waterproofs. Always wear a helmet and appropriate safety gear for the terrain you’re about to tackle.
Tips & Techniques for Mountain Biking
Ride your bike harder & faster
Having removed your stabilisers, here's a few ideas on how to tackle the local terrain...
Full Suspension or Hardtail Mountain Bike?
A full suspension (FS) bike is one with both front and rear suspension that is effective at absorbing lumps, bumps and jumps thus providing better performance and a smoother ride. A hardtail refers to a bike with no rear suspension. Suspension forks may be added to the front of the bike but its back post is rigid. There are numerous makes and models of both types available to the potential buyer so when deciding on which type of bike is best, it is important to consider the following:
The type of riding you and your bike will be undertaking
The typical terrain and angle of decent you will be riding
In general, hardtail bikes tend to require less maintenance and perform better on steep uphill climbs and sprints to the finish line, whereas full suspension mountain bikes are much more comfortable and arguably have more control over the rough stuff. Sadly, along with an increase comfort, FS bikes increase in price quite significantly.
Whether to go full suspension or hardtail is one which can create a lot of healthy debate amongst the mountain biking community. Inexperienced or beginner riders may prefer to start with a hardtail complete with front, lockable suspension; progressing to a full suspension bike after they have got a feel for their preferred type of riding. Although a full suspension bike will give you more options to adjust to suit the terrain, it can be more energy intensive on the uphill as unless you have a ‘lock out’ facility on the rear suspension as energy can be lost through ‘suspension bobbing' as you climb. And there is a weight penalty for all that bump proofing suspension. Furthermore, you could potentially have more moving parts to repair should anything go wrong. On the positive side, it is worth remembering that you can make a full suspension bike ‘lock out’ so the experience is like riding a hard tail, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a hard-tail ride like a full suspension bike!
Climbing hills on your mountain bike
Traction is the key to successfully climbing hills on a mountain bike, this can be hard to achieve on loose rocks, roots and mud as is common place in most mountain biking areas. The biggest problem to overcome is the rear wheel spinning and slipping as you climb, or the front wheel lifting and you ending up doing an unforced wheelie. To get the right traction, you just need to learn how to distribute your weight evenly across the bike whilst feeding power to the right areas of the bike; oh yeah whilst picking the best line, pedalling at the right time and in the right gear. Piece of cake eh?!
Shift your weight slightly to the back of your seat and lean your upper body forward - Remain seated. Learning how far to slide back and how much to lean is where the finesse of hill climbing becomes a real skill. It takes practice to learn how simple variations in forward and backwards movements of your body can help you get over obstacles and up steep hills
Drop your elbows and keep them close to your side, lowering the centre of gravity - as you become more expert you can start to shift your weight slightly further forward which should additionally help with the front wheel lifting
Keep your head up to pick your line - we all do it, we all look at the next dangerous obstacle and panic about how we're going to negotiate round it. For beginner riders this invariably means that you tend head straight for it. Turning the handlebars to avoid an obstacle can more often than not upset your balance rather than just going over it. Where it's not possible to power on over, you should see the obstacle and focus your attention immediately on the best route around it. Keep your focus on this point of reference and you will usually successfully navigate the tricky obstacle
Get in the right gear - When approaching a hill a common problem is to flick into the lowest gear (aka 'the granny ring') and attack the hill. Instead, select the gear that's just low enough that doesn't mean you have to stand on the pedals. Keep your pedalling motion constant and rhythmic.
Riding downhill on your mountain bike
Downhill mountain bike riding has to be one of the most exhilarating, adrenaline pumping activities you can do on a mountain bike. It's also one of the most dangerous, where wipe outs are all too common. Before heading out to do some serious downhill mountain biking you should make sure you have all the correct safety equipment. Full face helmet, relevant limb protection and suitable back and torso protection. It's pretty obvious, but make sure that your brakes are in full working order too, you don't want to spend several days licking your wounds!!
Place your weight over the rear of the bike - Keep your rear end as far back as you can without losing control of the front of the bike
Stay Low, holding the front of your body as close to the bike as possible - On steep sections, place your belly on the saddle
Keep your legs and arms relaxed and flexible - Even though you may be riding a full suspension downhill mountain bike, your arms and legs are the most effective shock absorbers you have, and flexibility in your legs is key when riding over humps and bumps. When riding over the bumps, get your weight back over the rear wheel, and either grip the saddle with your thighs, or place your belly on the saddle keeping your knees bent and relaxed. Your elbows should also be slightly bent
Keep your feet in line with the ground - Unless negotiating sharp tight switchbacks or corners your feet should be in a 'platform' position at roughly 3 and 9 o'clock. If you start to loose control it's easy for you to just jump off the back of the bike. Trying to dismount over the top of the bike is not always the most practical on the steep stuff.
Brake evenly using both the front and back brake - Sure, you'll want to rip down the trail at high speed but control your speed in case of unknown obstacles, there could be another rider or leisurely hiker that's lurking around the corner. Some people prefer to use the back break to stop them being thrown over the front handlebars, but theoretically, if you weight is correctly positioned across the bike then there is no problem using both. Additionally, if you overuse one or other break it could potentially overheat and fail
Pick a line and stick to it - As you descend, look ahead 15 to 20 feet. The route you choose and your brake control contribute to a fluid descent as well.
Riding switchbacks on your mountain bike
Tight switchback turns are tricky enough for even the most competent of riders. Tight, steep trails taking you up or down the mountain mean that switchbacks are commonplace in the Alps. It is not a good idea to skid round a switchback not only does it rip up the track, but you end up with less control and run the risk of falling off. If you're not an expert at bunny hopping, then you'll need to slow right down.
Stay on the uphill side of the trail as you approach the switchback this will allow you to make the widest circle possible and avoid any obstacles lurking in the inside of the corner
Place your weight over the rear wheel and put your outside pedal forward (that's the pedal closest to the corner!). This is important to ensure that you remain flexible to move the bike and rotate your upper body
Pick your line - As you approach the corner, ensure your weight is on your outside pedal and slightly back on the saddle. Put your wheel to the outside of the corner and lean your the opposite direction until you are almost falling to the inside. Ease off the brakes and let the your bike roll under yourself. Remember to look at the exit of where you want to go, try to avoid looking at the drop off! When you have passed the tightest point of the inside corner and are beginning to come out of the corner, let off the brakes and start accelerating away.
Some riders will naturally favour one foot over another and therefore find switchbacks to the right (left foot forward) easier than switchbacks to the left (right foot forward).
Packing Your Bike to Fly
There are a few options available in transporting your bike. Hard bike boxes tend to cost in the region of £300 and like a hard case suitcase it will minimise the risk of damage occurring to the your bike. A soft bike bag is the cheaper option, costing around £100. Whilst this will provide your bike with a little more padded protection it is not as reliable as the hard box. On our recent trip from the UK to Geneva, we transported our bike in its original cardboard box, protected the key areas with bubble wrap and cardboard and it arrived safely and undamaged. Most airlines stipulate the following:
Bikes should be contained within a protective box or appropriate bike bag;
Only one bike should be carried per box/bag, and no other items (except protective padding) should be included within the box/bag;
Handlebars and pedals must be fixed sideways against the frame or removed; and
Tyres should be deflated slightly to reduce the risk of damage.
If you are transporting your bike, you should also check out your travel insurance arrangements. A lot of travel insurance companies will not cover your expensive mountain bike without an additional excess payment, and a lot of airlines will not be held responsible for any damage sustained whilst the bike is in their care. Check out your household insurance policy to see whether it can be covered as 'contents away from home'. There may be a slight surcharge for this option, but it's potentially better than having to fork out for a new bit of suspension, or a brand new bike!! We travelleavod using this option, paying an additional £50 to Direct Line for our £1000 bike. This option offered us up to 60 days European coverage which is plenty for a week's break or month touring the Alps.
Top Tip: In addition to bubble wrap, purchase some pipe lagging and zip ties from a DIY store to put around the frame of the bike for protection during transportation. In addition, if you don't have your original cardboard bike box, ask your local bike shop for one. By choice we would always use the manufacturer’s box and have adopted this approach on many flights without damage to our bike. However, it is worth noting that the most frequently damaged part of a bike is the rear gear hanger. Remove the rear gear mechanism and tie wrap loosely to the frame to avoid this scenario. This applies almost equally to disc brake rotors if your bike sports them. Take them off, likewise pedals, its only a five minute job and will prevent you engaging in a fruitless search for an obscure part in resort.