‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,’ wrote Ernest Hemmingway, ‘since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are.’ Well, Ernest, since I rode the Swiss new classic mountain bike circuit, the 5 day, 200km long loop around the craggy slopes of Ruinettes and Medran taking in 3,600 metres of altitude as I pedalled, I can assure you that the contours of these jaw dropping plummets are firmly etched in to my heart.
At the top of our final climb on the last day, my biking partner Alex and I , burst into the idyllic wooden chalet in Etiez ruddy faced and in a bow-legged stagger. In rasping voices we demanded peanuts and water, the only things we could imagine would replace our salt and fluid levels. The small but comfortable lodges clustered together on the edge of the village of Etiez in Verbier was our base for the trip. When we arrived on the gravel path the mountain refuge was bathing in the surreally sharp sunshine of the late afternoon. Our hostess, Jenny, a tiny blonde girl with huge blue eyes was unfazed by our dramatic entrance. She gave us a knowing look and quickly fetched a pitcher of homemade lemonade. ‘The sugar is good,’ she said.
The loop around the mountain is just one of several easily accessible circuits that have been marked out across sections of Switzerland’s most spectacular landscape in recent years. Worried by the impact of climate change on the Swiss tourist industry, lower lying resorts and tourist boards have been investing heavily to make sure that mountain lovers stay even if the snow disappears. Although Verbier is not a well established mountain bike destination quite yet it has made some big steps in the last few years to embrace the discovery of the sport.
The routes keep you away from civilisation for most of the day, but it’s so well signed that you would have to work minor miracles to get lost. Away from the ski lifts, simple huts still exist and serve wonderful food. As an instant post-ride hit, afternoon tea comes with a homemade cake baked freshly that morning.
Ten minutes before we dragged ourselves up to the top of a 12km steep climb, we had felt on the point of collapse. Now, as our hostess served up our towering calorific bomb – bacon sandwiches made with hunks of thickly buttered bread and delicious mountain cheese, we felt as if we had died and gone to heaven.
Make no mistake, a five day climb in the Swiss Alps is a big ask for your legs and an even bigger ask for your lungs. This was the first time we had taken our bikes to the high mountains and we were feeling it. The final climb had started fairly gently along a pebbly fast-flowing stream, but, after a good hour of climbing, the forest path had started to spiral tortuously upwards, and the loose gravel had reflected the furious rays of the summer sun straight back at us.
The big mountains have remote and often challenging trails and back country riding. As a consolation, mountain bike holidays do seem to trigger the most extraordinary bouts of amnesia. As soon as you reach the top and take in the views the effort is all but forgotten. The long, downhill sections are worth every bead of sweat. You glide down the technical single tracks, the mountain peaks providing an amphitheatre around you, dropping seemingly forever, with your ears popping and your eyes concentrating wholly on the balance of your bike, studying the rough road ahead for potholes and larger rocks. Like skiing it is totally absorbing.
Then there’s the adrenaline. If you are a keen mountain biker you can opt for extra ‘black’ loops that hook back on to the main ‘blue’ route and offers more single track sections, the off-piste of the mountain biker. Here your concentration is doubled. Everything is rushing towards you surprisingly quickly now, and you are hanging on for dear life at the tight bend and in to a tunnel of trees. The root-strewn forest floor is against you, the front wheel biting up like a snappy dog at your feet and hearing the clunk, clunk, clunk sound of your chain as you hit the bumps.
Like driving on ice, you have to apply the brake gently, so you grit your teeth and you let it go and you are trying not to think ‘what if.’ But suddenly it is softer because the roots are gone and you are no longer just fighting the speed but also embracing it, and your teeth are still gritted but a smile is spreading from within. Now you can feel things flattening out, but you can’t relax because the loose gravel is never to be entirely trusted, so it’s softly on the brakes and you have made it, you’re down, your legs are like jelly but it was worth every minute.
After just ten minutes of downhill, if someone were to ask you what about the 90 minutes of climbing you would ask them:
[tags]Mountain biking, switzerland, verbier[/tags]
Article by Alanna Jane Allen