Mountain Biking in the Hautes-Alpes
- Monday 5 September 2016
In late August John flew out to France to do some riding and catch up with Eleanor and Steve Mallett. Steve is a qualified MBLA guide (and currently the only British guide with French ‘equivalent’ status – more here) and the author of our Alps Mountain Biking guidebook. He and Eleanor run Bike-Alp, which offers guided MTB holidays in the French Alps. Having been based in Samoëns in the Grand Massif region of the Alps for almost fifteen years, in the last year they’ve relocated to Briançon in the Hautes-Alpes – a switch that they attribute to the great riding they discovered down there while researching the guidebook.
What’s the background to Bike-Alp?
Bike-Alp was born when Eleanor and I were finishing university. We had no idea whether it would work or how it would come to shape our lives, but we were passionate about biking and the mountains and really wanted to give it a go – fifteen years later we're still here! Also, my job at the time was for the local council – retrieving dead animals from the local rivers – so it was an easy choice really. Our aim has always been the same, to offer the best Alpine-biking experience available and that is why we settled in Samoëns, an undiscovered big mountain wilderness away from the crowds. There we had the bonus of ski-lift-assisted riding, but with a real backcountry, adventure feel that you don't get in the better-known resorts. We bought a chalet in Samoëns, offering a package of accommodation, guiding, airport transfers and catering. Those who've stayed with us over the years will know that Els is in charge of most of this and I don't kid myself – the delicious feasts she serves up each night are the main reason people keep coming back!
What prompted the move to Briançon?
I had ridden a lot of places throughout the Alps, some of it really incredible, like the stunning singletrack of Zermatt, Verbier and Crans-Montana in the Swiss Valais, the wild and rocky descents of the Provence Alps and the stunning backdrops of Chamonix. But it wasn't until riding to research for the guidebook that I rode in the Briançon area, which for me is the ultimate in big mountain, flowing singletrack – the sort of stuff we all dream about when thinking of an Alpine bike trip. I just knew we had to move here after that, and so we made the tough decision to sell our place in Samoëns after a very happy time there. We’ve just finished our first summer season in Briançon, and after spending a few months here I've realised it's even better than I could have imagined, and we've only just scratched the surface so far. The fact that it never, ever rains in this southern region of the Alps is also a massive bonus!
How did you find the process of writing Alps Mountain Biking?
The book was a pretty incredible experience, taking me to places that I would never have ridden otherwise. Although I was mainly focusing on the western and central Alpine regions, it really gave me an idea of just how vast this mountain chain is and just how much potential riding there is out there – far more than I could ever hope to cover in one book. There are some really spectacular places that you will have never even heard of, and I'm forever finding others, so more than anything it just reinforced my view that you have to look beyond the obvious when travelling to the Alps, as, believe it or not, there are more trails here than just the Pleney run at Morzine!
It was also interesting to ride in these places and really think about what they offer and who they're best suited to rather than just smashing the trails for a couple of days, going home and forgetting about it. It gave me the chance to chat to the locals, get a much better idea about the areas and really gain some intimate knowledge of the Alpine region for the book.
It's the first book I've ever written too, so I'm not sure if the challenges I faced are shared with other authors and guidebooks, but if any have dealt with the French service industry, then I feel their pain!
What can riders expect from the Briançon-Serre Chevalier area?
Quite simply you can expect the best Alpine riding of your life! Fast, flowing singletracks litter the mountainsides here (most accessed straight from the ski lifts) and are truly epic in length, with descents often lasting well over an hour. The climate is unlike anything you will have seen in the Alps before either, with a dry and hot Mediterranean climate providing blue skies and dusty trails day after day, so you'll never have one of those wet and sloppy weeks that you can often experience in the northern Alps. Our immediate area – the Serre Chevalier valley – easily has enough to keep you entertained for a week, or for the rest of your life come to that, but there's so much close by to ride too, such as Montgenèvre and the huge descents back into Briançon, the fun, flowing Italian parks of Bardonecchia and Sauze d'Oulx and the all-round epicness of La Grave and the Écrins glaciers.
The city of Briançon is a really cool place to be as well – a proper mountain-activities hub with tonnes of restaurants, bars, live music and Alpine sports to enjoy, such as the via ferrata climbing routes, world-class rafting on the Durance and just chilling with a beer on the huge ramparts of the old town. An urban DH race is held here in July too, where you can watch the big names charging through the citadel and over some massive jumps and drops built into the city walls.
You can find out more about the Briançon-Serre Chevalier area, Montgenèvre, La Grave and many, many more Alpine-riding spots in Steve’s book Alps Mountain Biking.
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