You’ve got to hand it to the French. Who else would get away with holding an event that simultaneously sends thousands of riders of all abilities around a 75km loop of alpine singletrack, fireroad and world cup downhill courses, across national borders and with a generous packed lunch included in the price? Attracting everyone from downhill demons in full-faces and body armour to virgin off-roaders on fully-rigid catalogue specials, the Freeraid Classic is the perfect antidote to the confines of the occasionally rather factionalised UK riding scene.
Made up of a circuit of networked trails and chairlifts in the Portes du Soleil area of the French and Swiss alps, the Freeraid Classic traditionally heralds the opening of the summer mountain biking season in the region. Morzine and Les Gets are established riding hotspots for UK riders and form part of the 75km circuit that takes in breathtaking scenery and some of the best riding you’ll find anywhere in the world.
We’d assembled a large posse of riders for the Freeraid and, after a couple of days warming up on the various downhill courses around Les Gets and Morzine, were itching to tackle the main event itself. Run over a long weekend, demand is so high for places that it’s run over two days with several thousand riders setting off from a variety of start points. More festival than competitive event, the atmosphere at the Freeraid is relaxed in the extreme. Chairlifts are used as refreshment stops with fresh fruit, cold drinks and energy bars all included in the very reasonable 30 Euros entry fee. This gets you lunch too, available at one of three points along the route plus mechanical support if the testing terrain is too much for your steed. At the event HQ in the French border town of Chatel, a 4X race, trials arena and trade fair offer further distractions and the chance to pore over the latest trick kit from all the big names.
Spot the Brits
Making an early departure from our start point at the deserted and rather spooky ski resort of Avoriaz, it was clear we’d either missed the early rush or that our fellow Freeraiders were still tucked up in bed. Riders’ nationalities are easy to guess from attire and equipment, the Brits tending to favour baggy shorts, body armour and plenty of travel with the French opting for anything from fully-rigid Decathlon XC machines upwards. Crimes against sartorial good taste were plentiful and it’s safe to say that when it comes to riding attire the French like it tight, colourful and not necessarily coordinated… Other obvious trends were tight-knit groups of highly organised Germans, tackling the event with typical Teutonic seriousness with their matching strips, walkie-talkies and immaculately prepared bikes.
Riding standards on the Freeraid vary wildly and, again, broadly separate according to nationality. The majority of Freeraiders are French and it’s clear that, while their enthusiasm can’t be faulted, their riding style is best described as erratic. This all adds to the fun though and, with most of our party equipped with medium travel freeride machines, the first descent into Les Lindarets was a riot of sketchy overtaking, manuelled water bars and flying gravel.
Pausing at the top of the next chairlift offered breathtaking vistas and a grandstand view of the impending descent. Wide, fast and strewn with loose rocks, in the five minutes we spent watching our fellow Freeraiders careering down there were two casualties of the treacherous gravelly hairpins and the ‘crosser-riding first-aiders were kept plenty busy.
More lycra-clad chicanes added to the fun on the long descent to Chatel with the added spice of vertiginous drops to the valley below and rockier, more testing terrain. A couple of pinch flats in this section prompted a visit to the Maxxis stand at the trade fair in Chatel and the purchase of a pair of burly downhill tubes for a very reasonable 7 Euros each.
Pushing on across the border into Switzerland, the terrain under tyre mellowed with views of the ragged Dents du Midi providing suitable compensation. The midday heat and a couple of small climbs took their toll and a refreshment stop in the deserted ski resort of Les Crosets was very welcome indeed. A pair of suspiciously burly and tricked-out Rocky Mountains were among the bikes parked at the feed stop, the owners thereof turning out to be none other than Wade Simmons and Richey Schley. Invited along to bring a bit of star status to the event, both were happy to be mixing it with the punters but said they were looking forward to riding terrain a little more demanding than the rolling Swiss gravel tracks. They weren’t about to be disappointed…
A flat-out, Mammoth Mountain-style screamer led to a roller-coaster rut-ride to the lunch-stop and from there it was back into Morzine on a new section of trail apparently prepared for the event. Traffic was heavy here and, despite aching muscles, our competitive streaks were very much intact and the lycra-ed masses were left behind in a cloud of dust and stench of burning disc pads through hairpin after hairpin. Giggling like naughty schoolkids it was a quick hop over to Les Gets and a blast down one of the taped-out downhill courses into the town.
From here the course headed back to Morzine and our hotel, via a grinding grass climb and the bonkers-fast Avalanche Cup downhill course. Having ridden this the previous day and with muscles begging for mercy we instead decamped to the nearby Boomerang Hotel for beers and over excited anecdotes from the day’s exertions. With the sun still beating down the Boomerang’s terrace became a throng of weary, babbling Freeraiders, tired arms miming exaggerated reconstructions of key moments as the beer took effect.
Freeraid Classic or not the lifts are now open around the Portes du Soleil and if you fancy tackling the loop yourself the local tourist information offices will be only too happy to supply you with an easy-to-follow map. Forget talk of XC jeyboys or downhill hooligans, around the Portes du Soleil there are only two elements you need to consider; mountains and bikes. Now there’s a revolutionary concept…With thanks to Nathalie Philibert at the Portes du Soleil tourist board. All photos © Dan Trent.