Chamonix, at the heart of the French Alps has always been an emotive name within mountain biking, with its wealth of stunning natural riding – which many people consider to be the finest in world – it remains a legendary name nearly 20 years after people first started travelling to the area with fat tyred bikes.
Legends, however, tend to fall into the category of remaining respected, but run the risk of becoming overlooked by newer choices. The modern perception of Chamonix is that it’s all about lung-busting cross country riding, and that it’s failed to move on as newer resorts, such as Les Gets, Morzine, Verbier, Les Arcs, Alpe D’Huez, Les Deux Alpes and many others jockey for riders’ attention with flashy marketing, huge man made trail networks, extensive lift systems and, importantly, bike-friendly attitudes.
Chamonix has never really specifically marketed itself as a biking destination, it just happened naturally due to the incredible trails nature put there, and its mind-warping scenery. Attitudes to bikes have become less tolerant over the years due to the shared nature of the trails – and as for man-made routes…well, until a couple of years ago there were none at all.
Things in Chamonix however, are changing – and they are changing fast. For starters, the local riding scene has continued to develop – whilst many tourists may now flock to join the long queues to ride the trails in the nearby meccas of Morzine and Les Gets there has always been a committed core of riders in Chamonix pushing to draw a new generation mountain bikers into the area.
The problem has been twofold though – firstly in this age of waymarked and constructed trails there’s been a perceived lack of options for actual riding (which anyone who knows the area well will no doubt fall over laughing at), and secondly there has been some local resistance to actively pursuing the MTB market. In July and August Chamonix even imposes a very bizarre “bike ban” on many of its trails in the valley, which does little to help matters.
Recently things started to evolve – in 2007 a new DH trail was opened at nearby Vallorcine – at the top of the Chamonix valley, and it’s enjoyed some success, but it was a bit isolated. There’s also a new sheriff in town, or rather a new mayor. Apparently the new chief is somewhat more youthful than his predecessors – and the mixture of lobbying from riders – and more importantly, the realisation that a huge amount of tourism revenue is being missed out on – has led to the birth of several new projects aimed at putting Chamonix firmly back into its rightful place as the Alpine capital of all things mountain biking.
A couple of summers ago Vallorcine was joined by a small bike park at Les Houches – a few kilometres down the valley from Chamonix town centre. Unlike the trail at Vallorcine (which is pretty unforgiving) there’s a choice of runs aimed at different ability levels – with everything from gentle double tracks for beginners to some truly crazy north-shore structures which will challenge the most fearless of riders.
However, both Vallorcine and Les Houches suffer from a lack of marketing – even in the height of summer there’s very little to tell you that they even exist. Les Houches is doing a better job of improving its awareness this year with a local poster campaign around the area- but the overall valley trail maps are still pretty woeful in comparison with the well thought out glossy plans and guides found in other resorts.
Getting up to date
What Chamonix needed was a catalyst – something to really draw the new breed of all-mountain and downhill riders into the town, whilst continuing to provide for it’s traditional cross-country clients. Chamonix needed new trails – well marketed ones located close to the town centre that don’t require transport to reach.
In probably the most significant trail development in the area for many years, July 2010 saw the opening of what may just prove to be that catalyst – the opening of the first trails in what is being described on the maps as the “Chamonix Bike Park”. Primarily this consists of three new downhill trails which are accessed via the Flegere lift, a few minutes ride from the town centre.
The Flegere lift has opened in the summer for many years, and will be well known to anyone who has visited the famous Lac Blanc to see one of Europe’s finest views across the valley to the continent’s largest glacier, the Mer de Glace, and the towering summit of Mont Blanc above. The cable car starts at 1030m in the valley, and deposits you at the 1870m mid-station, from where you can then either descend back into the valley, or jump onto the Index chairlift, which takes you all the way up to 2385m – giving a pretty tantalising prospect of over 1300m of vertical height loss back to the valley floor.
As mentioned, there are thre new runs to explore – a blue (called Ushuaïa) and two red runs (Planet Mars and Elfe Secret). So, the big question: what are they like to ride?