Heading abroad for some gravity riding? Here’s some tips to make sure you’re prepared and get the most of your holiday, from how to setup your bike to what to pack.Make the most of your time in the Alps (Photo Chris McIntosh / Flowmtb)
Every summer, hoards of British mountain bikers flock to the French Alps for a dose of chairlift-assisted gravity riding, with many focusing their trips around popular events like the Megavalanche, the massively insane mass start downhill race at Alpe d’Huez.
There’s so much riding in the Alps though, and much of it designed for every level of rider, from beginner to advanced. From the downhill focus of Morzine to the high quality technical singletrack at other resorts, there really is something for everyone. And most of it with gravity on your side (which makes a change). So let the chairlift take the strain and enjoy the descending.
Hurtling down mountains on rock strewn tracks requires a few changes to your approach. With hundreds of metres of altitude to play with, chairlifts taking the strain and the hot sunny weather, it’s a good recipe for the best riding you’ll ever experience.
And with the ease of getting from the UK to the French Alps, it’s no surprise many make the annual pilgrimage.
On the bike
Bikes, bikes, bikes
The riding in the Alps is very different to the UK. Extremely rocky terrain almost demands long travel, so something in the 140/160mm region at both ends would be the ideal bike. Although that’s not to stop you riding something with less travel, or a long-forked hardtail.
The most important thing is to ride a bike that you’re comfortable on. But if you’ve got the choice, the current generation of 160mm travel machines are perfectly suited to hammering away all week in the French Alps; light enough for riding technical singletrack and capable enough to have fun on the downhill tracks.
Whatever bike you take out there though, you’re going to have fun. It’s worth making a few changes to ensure you do have fun and don’t spend too much time beside the trail fixing a mechanical.
Wider tyres, 2.3/2.4in, provided your fork and frame can take them – would be a good investment. Look for gravity/downhill tyres with a robust carcass, dual ply, beefy sidewalls and a softer tread compound. There’s such a vast range of tyre choice that we don’t have room here to go into detail.
We would set them up tubeless, but failing that a thicker downhill tube will be harder to puncture. And treat your bike to some new tyres if yours are half worn.
Ensure your brakes are in proper working order. You’ll be doing a LOT of braking in the Alps, so you don’t want them to let you down. Or worse, fail on you. So bleed them if they’re even a little squishy, and ensure you’ve bedded in a nice new set of pads before heading out.
Don’t forget to take some spares with you, they can be expensive or hard to track down in the French resorts.
Now is the time to get your forks and shock serviced before going away. You want them to be in perfect working order. Make sure to correctly set the sag on both, and remember that the body armour, full face and loaded hydration pack all add to the weight. Take that into account when setting up. Other than that, you can run the same settings as you would in the UK. Some prefer to go a little softer, and as you’ll be hitting stuff harder, a little more rebound can be dialled in.
Add some clear tape to the downtube to prevent rocks scratching it, and wrap an old inner tube around the chainstays on the driveside to stop the chain slapping against the metal, damaging your paintwork and making a load of noise.
Your bike will take a hammering. So take some spares, including spare tyres, plenty of tubes, a spare chain and/or spare links, spare brake pads and a spare rear mech hanger.
Off the bike
It’s not just your bike that needs setting up. There’s plenty of kit you’ll need yourself.
Riding all day, every day for a week ups the chances that you’ll take a tumble at some point. With the increased speeds any crash is likely to be a harder impact than what you might be used to at home. So get yourself a full face helmet, knee pads, elbow pads and a back protector.
Some may prefer to wear less padding; others will want to ensure every part of the body is padded up. Knee pads are the bare minimum, and how much you wear is down to personal preference. We’d advise, especially if it’s your first time in the Alps, to err on the side of caution.
Crashing out and injuring yourself on the first day is a very realistic proposition – body armour can be the difference between sitting out recovering for a couple of days or getting straight back up and on your bike.
Goggles are preferable if you’re focusing on downhill riding and will be wearing a full face helmet, otherwise your favourite pair of sunglasses will do the trick. It’s likely to be brilliant sunshine all week, so pick a pair with darker lenses to keep the glare down.
It’s necessary to be self sufficient out on the mountain. So you want to carry all the tools you would need to fix your bike in the event of a mechanical mishap. Clearly we’re not suggesting you carry around a bottom bracket removal tool or anything, but a high quality multi-tool, chain breaker and zip ties should see you well in most cases.
Although it is most likely to be hot and sunny, it’s not a bad idea to take some wet weather clothing so that, if it does rain, you can still ride. It can also get nippy at the top of the mountains so a lightweight jacket you can carry in your backpack is a good idea.
Take some pain killers
Your body can get sore after a few days of hammering down the mountain! It’s well worth taking a medical kit too in case you need to attend to any cuts and scrapes.
Make sure you’re covered for your week out there.
A large hydration pack, with enough storage space for carrying spare body armour when you’re not wearing it.
And finally, suntan lotion
Heading south to the Alps doesn’t guarantee good weather but, fingers crossed, there’s a high chance you’ll enjoy plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures, so make sure you pack suntan lotion.