Chris HuntBASE Editor and Bristol-based adventure writer with a penchant for travel by bike, interesting coastlines and adventures that end in the pub.
Rolling cautiously along the narrow singletrack path that clings to the edge of the mountain, we traverse the loose scree high above the valley floor. Ahead, a roaring waterfall punctuates the postcard view of the cirque at the head of the valley. Water cascades from the rocks onto the rocks below, a violent genesis to the Tièche river as it makes its first moves from the Glacier de la Plaine Morte above.
High in the Swiss Alps, this is not somewhere I typically find myself riding a bike. We’re exploring the outer reaches of an out of season ski resort. These tracks are ordinarily the reserve of hikers and – in winter – ski tourers, and right now there’s not another soul up here.
It’s the first time for me setting foot in these mountains, and I’m revelling in this glaciated basin our small group now finds itself in. What perhaps feels like the more significant of firsts for me though, is that this is my first experience on an electric bike. A fat tyred, full suspension, unbelievably capable one at that. There’s no denying the weight of this thing (which I made no delay in learning as I tried to manoeuvre it out of the rental shop in town) but here, where it counts, the fully charged Bosch motor on the down tube, doesn’t flinch.
With a smile stamped firmly across my face, accelerating over exactly the kinds of awkward rocks that would force me off my standard mountain bike, the e-bike feels like it could just be the greatest invention the world has ever seen. The entire mountain resort is ours and I’m having a blast.
We ride to the shore of the trickling stream that flows from the foot of the waterfall. I cup my hands, submerging them into the icy water to pour over my head, down my neck and another up to my lips. Besides the cold shock of the glacial melt, I’m overcome with a smugness of simply having made it here. E-bike or otherwise.
I’m here with a group of journalists to discover what Crans Montana, a well-known luxury ski town in the Swiss Alps can offer adventure seekers in the summer. With shorter winter seasons and unpredictable snow, much like the rest of the Alps, the town is finding ways to attract a wider range of tourism streams. Not just across seasons but also as they seek to explore more environmentally friendly ways of operating.
There’s a gondola serviced bike park, newly built wake park, a huge indoor skatepark-cum-trampoline complex, an indoor climbing wall and down below in the valley beneath us an artificial wavepool – the snowcapped peaks providing the backdrop. It’s a mountain paradise for action and adventure sports and not even just those traditionally have a place in the mountains.
But stood here besides the trickling Tièche river, it’s all much more serene. Far from the restaurants and bars, bike shops and adventure centres, just the solace of an alpine meadow. Silence but for the gentle flow of the river besides us, still besides the odd bird of prey circling not far above our heads, the occasional marmot bouncing through the scrub. The hot sun beats down on our necks but there’s a freshness in the air.
Besides the cold shock of the glacial melt, I’m overcome with a smugness of simply having made it here
Our guide for the day, Julien Cave, has made these mountains his playground. A working ski guide in the winter months, he teaches mountain biking and leads e-bike tours like this in the summer. We stop for a moment on a ridge line with far reaching views to Switzerland’s southern Alps.
‘You see the triangle peak there, through the gap…? That’s the Matterhorn,’ he says. As it turns out, Julian’s well versed on the mountains regardless of the craft he’s on, telling me of a single push ascent to the Matterhorn just weeks previously. He pans further west, following the same ridge line of 4000m summits, ‘that one with the flatter longer top… that’s Mont Blanc.’
Back down the valley, weaving in and out of the shadow of the trees, I’m amazed at just how capable these machines are. Floating over bumps and rocks that would normally deem this unrideable. In and out of the shadows projected by the forest canopy above me, I’m flying through singletrack and still more than 2000m above sea level.
Waves of uncontainable childlike joy spill from out of me as we leapfrog each other up steep technical climbs we’d usually be forced to walk. I’m under no illusion though, this is not somewhere I’d want to lose battery power, dreading to imagine how my legs would deal with the weight of this bike unassisted. I rein it in, cautiously flicking the switch back to eco mode.
Waves of uncontainable childlike joy spill from out of me as we leapfrog each other up steep technical climbs we’d usually be forced to walk
We continue on, across rough rocky winding rough gravel roads, many used only as access for ski infrastructure maintenance. Looking over my shoulder, the group is sprawled out over the trail. There’s a problem. Before we set off we were warned by the rental shop in town not to over juice our batteries. Despite how much fun, sport mode is, eco is there for a reason. Without a usable battery, these machines are just outrageously heavy mountain bikes. His battery is dead. Our guide Julien nobly swaps with him. We can’t be far out of town by any normal measurement, but realising how slow this thing is going to be now withdead battery, it dawns on us how remote we are.
Resorts like this, built around ski pistes and chair lifts are easily navigable in the right season. But none of that is available to us now, and with a dead e-bike it’s a long way back. Fortunately there’s not a whole bunch of ascent between us and our return. Our journey is mostly downhill and besides the short sharp bursts of energy with the occasional scream of energy exertion, we’re soon back in town.
Being a well established ski resort – the first hotel but in 1893 and today is a regular part of the ski world cup series – there’s a complex network of gondolas and chair lifts in every direction that heads up. At this time of year though, just a handful remain open. With our batteries dwindling now after a long day on the hill, heading to the very top to make one long descent back down is the only logical move. We squeeze our bikes into the gondola that takes us almost to the height of the resort – 2500m high.
From here the bike park offers various routes snaking down the mountain with huge panoramic vistas across the Rhone Valley. Three of us follow in tandem as a group snaking through the berms and over tabletops, combing several runs into a single adrenaline fuelled thousand metre descent. I find my limit more than once.
Our bikes returned to the rental shop, our egos mostly intact, with a beer in hand we toast tales from the day and for a few of us share the stories behind some fresh scrapes. It strikes me this could just have been one of the funnest days I’ve ever had on a two wheels.
The perfect tool to discover so much territory which would otherwise be totally inaccessible in a single day, once again, the humble bicycle presents itself as such an inspiringly powerful machine capable of so much. This time with the addition of a 500w motor. And counter to any preconceptions I may have had – I’m here for it!
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