Last week I went to Val D’Isere with my son and parents to see my brother and sister-in-law. They live out there now, but it’s ok, I’m not jealous at all, oh no. Ostensibly I was taking the boy out to see his uncle and aunt, but when visiting the Alps in summer it would be terribly rude not to bring a bike along too, especially given that Val D’Isere and neighbouring Tignes are so desperate to attract VTTers like me that the lifts and bike trails are completely free (you have to get a wrist band thing from the tourist information people to use the lifts, but it costs nothing).
We left Manchester and its drizzly, horrible weather to be greeted in Geneva by exactly the same stuff. All Western Europe was apparently blanketed in damp cloud. The three hour drive was sountracked by windscreen wipers and the incessant yammering of a six year-old. It did not bode well. But the weather picked up the next day, and my brother and I headed straight out to make the most of it while it lasted (the six year-old was being entertained by the rest of the family).It’s a great luxury to have your bike (and yourself) hauled up several hundred metres of mountain, and it only took me a few seconds to stifle the guilty sense that I was somehow cheating, and not earning the upcoming descent. And as soon as I started riding I decided that any guilt was totally misplaced; even riding downhill at over 2,500m leaves you out of breath at first, you have to work noticeably more at this altitude just to hang on to the bike. If I had had to ride to the top of these trails I would have been too knackered to ride back down again.
Tignes and Val D’Isere’s bike park has attracted some opprobrium online, being viewed as inferior to places like Alpe D’Huez or the Portes De Soleil resorts. I’ve not ridden anywhere else in the Alps, so I can’t compare, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself here. Yes, some of the trails are a bit worn now, and a few sections lack variety and imagination, but there’s a lot to be said for just rolling downhill for a full half-hour, on deserted tracks built specifically for bikes, surrounded by spectacular scenery and views of Mont Blanc. When you’re used to plodding through drizzle along the margins of unfriendly British tarmac for miles, just to get to a stretch of muddy footpath that may well now have vanished under mud, water or council tax-funded road-planings, the idea of being given an entire mountain of dedicated bike tracks to play on, and with free lifts, is rather appealing. On the first day we stuck to greens and blues, trails that my brother knew reasonably well, and we spent a good four or five hours riding all over the resort area, finishing off with the run down to Val D’Isere which goes on almost for ever and includes some lovely bits through the forest at the end. There was nothing seriously challenging anywhere, and I felt more confident as the day went on, although I did skirt round a pair of ropey old gap jumps in the name of discretion. The landings were very washed out, not safe at all, no.
After a day out walking with the rest of the family we fitted in a second outing, and I determined to explore the Wonderboisses trail from Tignes Le Lac down to Boisses, about which I had heard good things. Little more than a walkers’ path, this was very different to the groomed bike park stuff we’d been playing on, and was much more reminiscent of the riding I’m used to back home. Only it was much, much better. It’s about five miles of winding, pure singletrack, narrow and sinuous all the way down, with hairpins, rock gardens, modest drops, neat little bridges, a bit of exposure, a splendid ridge-line section, and spectacular views throughout. Some of it even went uphill for a bit, so you felt like you’d worked for your fun. I had a bit of a moment rattling over a load of loose rubble where I barely held it together, and I had to dab and scoot a bit on a couple of the tighter hairpins, but I rode all of it with a massive grin on my face. It was the best bit of mountain biking I’ve done all year.I was surprised to discover that I was the only one enjoying myself at this point. My brother is only used to the purpose-built bike-park stuff, and has never really ridden anything else, so he was rather unimpressed at the necessity to pedal and push upwards, and also at the distinct lack of margin for error presented by the ribbon of path, and the frequent big drops off to one side. He is a fearless snowboarder, and I’m used to being left behind by him on the mountains, so I have to confess to being ever so slightly pleased to discover that I was completely happy on something that took him a little way out of his comfort zone – it’s normally the other way round.After a bit of an enforced rest waiting for the uplift bus at the bottom of the hill (French lunch-breaks are quite long) we headed back up to meet the family and make our way home. That was the end of my Alpine riding for the year, our flight home was booked and school started on Monday. But I had had a splendid couple of days’ riding in a quiet, well-run resort, and I’d happily go back again for more. Perhaps there are more trails like Wonderboisses hiding out there?