Acrophobia; the irrational fear of heights or Basophobia; the fear of falling; both both genuine phobias and both the current personal experience between which I’m shuffling frantically.
It’s a mental shuffle of course as I’m actually frozen to the spot, extreme terror rendering me immobile, plastered against the back of the cable car with my eyes shut, whimpering and clinging on for dear life.
I should probably point out that this is no life-threatening situation, the lift bubble, in fully functioning order, is just swaying languidly up its final ascent of the mountain summit. I on the other hand am a complete wreck and this is only day one. Not liking the idea of extreme heights, or falling from them, I have to fight long and hard with my natural reaction to run screaming from any of the very flimsy looking ski lifts that flow up and down the mountain area of Tignes.
The trade-off however for enduring the humiliation of having to be scraped out of the cable car like a lump of jelly is that my bike and I get a gloriously quick ride to the summit, after which, I can scare myself nearly as much by riding the trails back down the mountain.
Welcome to fear 101 and the joy of mountain biking in the Alps.
Following on from a baptism of fire last year in the bike parks of Les Gets and Morzine, I’ve chosen (yep, it was an actual choice) to return to the Alps this summer, this time to the French resort of Tignes (pronounced ‘Teen‘), a purpose built ski resort/Olympic venue in winter and mountain bike paradise in summer. This year it was also meant to be the finishing point for one of the final Tour De France stages until freak hail storms and mudslides dramatically stopped the race.
Comprising of 5 villages (I know this from the hotel quiz) Tignes sprawls up the mountainside between an elevation of 1,440 and 2100 metres. I’m staying near the upper end in Tignes Le Lac and the day after arriving I’m really feeling the altitude.
As I puff and gasp my way up the road to the bike hire shop I can only hope that this altitude training will have spectacular gains when I return to sea level as right now even carrying a cup of coffee is making me gasp for breath. I’d expected the trails to cause my heart rate rise of course I just hadn’t foreseen it to be quite so elevated before getting on the bike!
Day one and I’ve discovered that in Tignes, bikes and suspension forks are big….and hire prices are even bigger.
As there’s a definite difference in the ratio of male to female riders (a quick straw poll would say 75-80% male), frames are also geared to the larger biker, presumably why the hire shop offer me a child’s bike at first! Having declined my only remaining option is a Kona Stinky which, with 200mm of fork travel both front and back, is ridiculously over-sprung for what I need. Add to this the set of body armour and full face helmet I’ve been strapped in to and I feel I should be taking on Red Bull rampage, not the lowly green trails on which we’re starting.
M, whom I’m with, has of course lucked out and managed to hire a reasonably priced, perfectly sized Kona Process 153 for the week. Grrr.
Decked out like robocop, the first stop is the Palafour lift, dead centre of town. Unlike Les Gets this lift is free and has lovely assistants who lift your bike on and off, so all terrified first timers like me need to concentrate on is getting themselves in situ – easier said than done.
It’s a chilly 10 minute ride up to the frigid heights of the mountain to 2564 metres. The view of snow drifts and gambolling marmots offers some distraction at least from both the altitude and the distance from which one would crash to earth.
As in the UK, French MTB trails are generally graded green (easiest), blue, red and black although as I learned last year, a French green trail and a UK one bear little in common indeed French green is UK green on steroids.
Being early in the season (the lifts only opening the previous week) there’s still snow on some of the trails and as we start off down the green trail we are immediately skidding everywhere on icy drifts, it’s an exhilarating start. The trails are in good condition though, free mostly from the annoying washboard effect of braking bumps and immediately enjoyable!
They’re still surprisingly technical but after our initiation in Morzine last year maybe we’ve revised our expectations, or just got a little better. Whichever, the swoopy descents and hairpins make a technical but satisfying first run.
The runs may be better than expected but the bike certainly isn’t, the big front end making it heavy and hard to steer. The saddle is also set at its lowest point meaning you can’t sit and pedal unless you have your knees up by your elbows like a toddler. This kind of arrangement is fine if you’re shredding down the black runs but exhausting if you have to pedal the flatter sections and my leg muscles are already on fire.
That morning we give the Palafour lift a work out covering all the green and blue runs. The blues, surprisingly, differ little from the greens, a bit steeper, looser, rockier but great to ride albeit with shakier and shakier legs.
A quick coffee stop and we tackle Le Lac’s opposing mountain via the next scary ski lift.
The Toviere bubble (enclosed car) takes you up to 2704 meters to intersect with the chair lift from Val Claret. From here there’s the option of a multitude of green, blue and red runs either back down to Le Lac or to Val D’Isere on the other side of the mountain.
The day’s adrenaline is catching up both from biking and from surviving the lifts but for some reason we opt to return to Le Lac down Gunpowder, 4.5km of fast blue trail and a full on 600 metre rapid descent of steeply sloping berms (banked corners) which just keep on coming. Already fatigued, legs wobbling we hit the downward trail after which there’s little stopping. By the time we reach the bottom my fingers are like claws, frozen to the brakes and my legs are shaking so much I can hardly pedal, but we’re down, in one piece and you might say it was nearly fun. Nearly.
The next day the stinky and I have gone our separate ways and I’ve managed to find a brand new Mondraker Stealth, 170mm of travel both ends and mercifully, a dropper seat post, in Tignes this is classed as an enduro (cross country) bike but it’s more than sufficient for my needs and skills.
Happier already we have a quick warm up via the Palafour trails before heading up Toviere as today we’re intent on exploring the trails down to Val d’Isere.
At around 13km in length from the furthest lifts station these are some of the longest trails in the Alps and oh so worthwhile. The creatively named Borsattack, Val Bleue and Popeye are beautifully built and are a joy to ride. Twisty, flowy tracks that wind sinuously ever downwards they are packed with table top jumps which you can dispatch or avoid as required, rock gardens and boarded bridges as you descend down the stark upper slopes into lush green alpine meadows and pine forests on blue grade (or green if preferred) trail until you’re finally spat out, breathless, exhausted in the pretty (and ruinously expensive) resort of Val D’Isere for a much needed rest and recovery stop.
After lunch we headed back up via the Olympique/Bellevarde bubble lift, a staggeringly steep 1000 metre ascent that seems to go on forever before disgorging into a large, chilly station 2827 metres above sea level.
Again more descending on the fantastic bermy Val Bleue (blue) trail, winding past lakes and snow, through the middle of the mountain before reaching the final Borsat lift. Here there’s the option to return directly to Val d’Isere on the same Val Bleue trail or to ride it from its highest mountain source (Blue Lagoon) via the lift.
It had to be done! The chairlift takes nearly 15 minutes to ponderously dangle you over a range of frightening drops and ice fields before looking like it’s going to smash you directly into the bleak grey mountain, only cresting a ridge at the final moment before impact. When you reach the top station at 2800 metres, unlike the other lifts, this chair doesn’t really lose speed, meaning a hasty leap off at the top and a mad scramble to clear the cornering chair and grab your bike before the lift kneecaps you on the way round.
The top of the Blue Lagoon trail is stark but worth it just for the completeness of going as high as you can. Heading down quickly (as it’s freezing at this height) steep, loose shale tracks descend for a km or two before giving you a final choice, carry on down back to Val D’Isere or return to the Val Claret resort. As it’s begun to rain we opt to head back via Val Claret.
Gone are the pleasant trails which cut across the mountain, you’re now riding down the side again, steep, zig zaggy loose paths with a long, long drop on either side are amazing for focusing the mind.
Trusting the bike probably as much or more than my skills we plummet downwards, the ground getting slippery with the falling rain. After the initial plunge the trail does level out for the next km or so for some smoother, enjoyable cross country riding before finally linking up with the Val Claret descents from yesterday, Gun Powder and Kangooride. We took the latter of these not having experienced it and in the falling drizzle continued the final 3.5km of downhill on a roller-coaster of a trail carved into the steep face of the mountain.
It was certainly a relief to be spat out, intact, shaky, and happy at the foot of the Val Claret lift leaving only the last, calming pedal around the lake to complete the day’s riding before a well-earned cup of tea and cake back at the hotel.
A day off for some road biking and an ascent of the col De L’Iseran before the final day on the bikes. By now I’m adding in some bits of the red trails although I’m cautious. Most of them give a chicken run around larger obstacles and jumps but occasionally no such opt out is offered which leaves an embarrassing and difficult heaving of bikes down the trail to bypass these features.
The last thing that we want to tackle is some of the All-Mountain trails, these having a more cross-country focus i.e. you have to pedal up as well as down, but we’ve been warned, this being Tignes, they tend towards the extreme and the technical. Because of this we’ve chosen WonderBoisses, graded as ‘Improver’, the only other options being advanced and expert!
We should have been forewarned when even the start was gruelling. Heading directly up under the Palafour lift, the innocuous gravel trail doesn’t look much but it’s a lung buster given the altitude and not helped by the fact we’re still wearing all our robo-cop body armour and full face helmets. With sweat dripping copiously the trail veers across a field of disinterested cows, necessitating climbing under various electric fences, before heading up the side of the mountain.
We wind steadily upwards for the next km or so along ledges that are barely wider than the bike, a precipitous drop on or right hand side. In places the trail rounds a bend and seems to disappear in to nowhere. Not nowhere, just plunging downwards, keeping you on your toes. I’m walking bits of it too where landslips have covered the trail leaving you to haul the bike over slippery humps of rubble. It’s actually good to be pedalling again too, even if it is upwards. Eventually the climb tops out and the descent begins, still on the narrow-ledged trails before heading inland fractionally and beginning a highly technical downhill on dusty forest trails covered in boulders and drop offs down which the bike slithers and bounces, throw in the odd hairpin and it’s blood-pumping stuff.
The trail emerges briefly on the grassy roof of one of the road tunnels, carved into the mountain which you pass under on the drive up to Le Lac, before rising and falling in a delightful series of forest trails, not quite so demanding but still requiring focus before disgorging you in the lower village of Tignes Le Boisses. Here a handy and much appreciated free Navette bus service drags you and the bike back up the mountain where, if you like, you can do it all again!
Having learned to quit on a high we do just that and, after saying goodbye to the lovely Mondraker and not so lovely body armour, we head gratefully for the nearest bar and a well-earned beer.
Tignes is certainly a full on experience which I’d heartily recommend to those with a little mountain biking knowledge. I’m no Rachel Atherton but with a few years of riding, quite a few lessons and countless falls under my belt this was technical, demanding riding, for which I had just enough skill/luck to be able to enjoy it.
I chose not to fly my bike out as I was concerned it wouldn’t stand up to the trails and, despite the hire cost – 70-85 euro per day – I think that was a wise decision. In addition all hire bikes tend to come with full face helmets, body armour, pads and optional insurance, with the added benefit of wearing out someone else’s bike parts.
It was without doubt a spectacular place to ride and despite the week of full-on adrenaline I leave with a definite sense of that peace and contentment which comes from spending time in the mountains doing what you love and the happy knowledge that I won’t have to brave another ski lift for at least the foreseeable future.