Ripping at Courchevel|
Gary Jennings, www.justride.uk.co
Friday, February 24, 2006
Like Christmas and Easter the justride calendar is not complete without a bit of chairlift assisted alpine action. After previous outings to the mighty Morzine and last year's switchback-laden Chamonix we tried something just a little different this year.
Courchevel sits at one end of the enormous three valleys area, linking with La Tania, Merribel and Val Thorens. For snow shredders it offers up one of the largest pisted areas in Europe with a wide variety of terrain and modern lift system, and we were keen to see what it could offer summer bikers.
While it doesn’t offer the dedicated downhill courses and freeride parks of Morzine / Les Gets the official 16 marked descents and 13 XC routes would be a good starting point and, hey, it’s a big old mountain with mechanical uplift so it will be either good or great.
We timed our trip to coincide with the three valleys VTT challenge, based on the hugely popular ‘passportes du soleli,’ which celebrates the opening of the summer season by inviting bikers to loon around the mountain.
On Saturday we were offered up a 20Km enduro (and I use the description loosely), starting from the highest accessable point - the top of the saliure lift at 2700m. From here the only way is down and the course did exactly that, plummeting all the way to the valley floor some 2000m (6500ft) below and gravity assisted for 99% of the duration.
|Photo courtesy of justride.co.uk
We weren’t sure how the riders would treat the timed run but the big rig bikes and full body armour of many showed that in reality it was a 20K downhill race. Fortunately, there were plenty of others in ‘trail’ gear so we didn’t feel out of place.
As it was our first full day we decided to take it easy and regrouped shortly after our individual starts. The first 1000m (vertical) was an intense sensual hit. With eyes wide open and arms pumping, we sought the best line through the multitude of high speed, loose gravel turns while tires roared and frames pinged under the barrage of rock missiles. The whiff of burning rotors completed the intoxicating concoction.
The lower half of the course headed for the woods and served up some of the sweetest single track we have ever ridden. The action came thick and fast as the course weaved its way relentlessly down. Flicking the bike between roots and rocks, wall riding the natural gulleys and flying a couple of large drops we were in heaven. It was a truly awesome journey with each section a little more fun than the last until some 50 minutes after we’d started we crossed the finish line.
Slugging back the variety of drinks and nibbles laid out banquet style we were amazed that a few riders had done 28 minute runs. We were not pushing and had even stopped to help some Frenchie mend his bike so knew we could do better. So, fueled up, we hopped into the bubble lift for the 55 minute trip back to the top to do it all again. With increased confidence we hit everything a little harder but with loads of riding days left we were not going to go balls out and posted a more respectable time just under 40 minutes.
Catching the uplift again we were all really buzzing as we made our way down another 1000m descent back to the resort. The best event ever? Well, probably, yes, but tomorrow we had the 70K rando tour to look forward to.
The rando tour is a 70Km enduro loop around the entire three valleys with the option of starting at any of the five different resort centres passed en-route. It also uses five chair lifts to take some of the sting out of what would otherwise be an overly enormous undertaking. We could tell from the route information that this would not be the downhill blast of yesterday’s Freebike and, in slightly more XC mode, made our way to our designated start at Courchevel.
With multiple start points and a start time of 8:30 – 9:30 there was none of the sense of occasion found at say, a Merida event, but once out on trail we soon caught some other riders and the fun began as we hit the first descent, a tightly switchbacked, heavily rooted affair. Fast gravel connecting tracks sped us along to the next singletrack of the same supreme variety as the first.
|Photo courtesy of justride.co.uk
With over 300m already descended we dropped again and the surface changed from a firm, rock base to loose soft soil as we entered another awesome gulley run before a technical climb and a short fire road brought us to the first checkpoint.
Again there was a wide array of refreshments with fruit, bread and cheese offered up instead of the usual half an energy bar. Having made good time on what was about a fifth of the course we enjoyed the hospitality before moving on to the first mechanical uplift at La Tania.
From the top of this lift we flew down and then around the mountain predominately on fast double track to the neighbouring valley of Meribel for more fueling before another pair gondolas deposited us effortlessly at the top of another very high peak and another massive descent awaited us.
Flat out fire road soon gave way to a very narrow goat track which headed straight down the grassy slopes before branching off to traverse the hill. Climbing gently as it headed up the valley, the sweetly winding track interspersed with the odd rain ditch crossing kept you on your toes and the height gain was painless. Arriving in the valley resort of Les Menuires just after 1:00pm we decided a spot of lunch was in order and we were in for a treat as the BBQ was in full force and sausages in baguettes were readily devoured. As we laid out on the lush alpine grass in the strong summer sun we wondered how Dave was getting on at the Builth Wells 100.
We had covered about half the distance now and could see the next section of trail shooting down the valley so dragging ourselves away from the barbie we set off and cruised the gravel track to the next chair lift at St Martins.
We could tell from our route map that we would exit the lift about half way up leaving us to climb back into valley two on our own power. It didn’t look like much so we clipped in and headed out.
Boy, were we wrong; cresting the first ridge the double track disappeared and the single track snaked its way as far as we could see, relentlessly up the mountain. And it went on and on, every time you got to a bend in the trail, rounding it you were greeted by the sight of it soaring upward some more before finally after a cruel false flat we reached the peak after an hour of solid climbing.
It was a real challenge but strangely enjoyable as it was nearly all singletrack and the incline and terrain very variable from middle ring powering to nose of the saddle steep and steppy.
With nowhere to go but down we dropped saddles a touch and shot off once more, this time on a very fast, hard-packed slither of trail kicking up a dust cloud of the magnitude more normally seen on a motocross track. More nibbles and another tough climb brought us back to Merribel, ready to tackle the final two sections.
The sheer volume of climbing in the last section had really taken its toll on our pace and we cursed our early morning cruising as we set off again knowing we had only 15 minutes to catch the last lift out of this valley and back into our own resort. Unfortunately it was more than 200m vertical above us. We pressed on but soon realised we were going to overrun but hoped for a late closedown. Sadly it was a sizeable climb and we missed out by 15 minutes or so.
Accepting defeat we descended in seconds what had taken minutes to climb up and set about the ‘could be a couple of hours’ road journey around the base of the mountain. Stopping for ice cream lifted our spirits a little and we made like the peleton and sped on.
We finally arrived back at the chalet at 7:30. The trip wasn’t as bad as it looked, taking about an hour. Chomping down our tea we agreed that despite missing the last 15k it was still an awesome day. Superbly organised the event had an excellent vibe and was really well supported by the locals cheering everybody on at the many checkpoints. It was also a fantastic way to see the area and make some plans for the rest of our stay.
We’ve already sworn to come back in 2006 and complete the route fully.
For more information on the area check out www.courchevel.com and www.Pleisure.com.