I sung along to the old Cat Empire CD blasting out of the VW van’s tinny speakers and tried to interpret the GPS’s mangling of French street names whilst looking for the Bike Verbier chalet. It should have been somewhere nearby, but all I had was the street name. Thankfully, as I inched along the small road, someone came out and started waving me down. It was Mandee, a fellow biker, who was also here for the T-Mo Women's Skills Week. After looking forward to this trip all summer, I was finally here.Verbier, Switzerland: not a bad place to learn some more biking skills
When I first heard about the chance to attend a women's skills coaching week with pro-rider Tracy Moseley, I got super excited. But then I realised it would be in the middle of the probation period of my new job. After um’ing and ah’ing for a fortnight, I emailed HR and asked if I could take a week off, assuring them I would never normally do this, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and to my delight, they agreed.EWS 2014 Champion Tracy Moseley enjoying the Swiss mountain air. This is the third year in a row that Tracy has run a women's skills coaching week with Bike Verbier.
Four months on, after a terrible summer in Switzerland, the wettest since records began, I’d had family visits, a busy and stressful end to my previous job and a painful flare up of an old back injury. It was not the preparation for a week of coaching and biking that I’d planned. I’d been keeping an eye on the (unreliable) long term forecast, praying that we’d get a week without rain. Unbelievably, it predicted sun for the whole week. Summer had finally arrived in Switzerland, and not before time.Everyone assembled their bikes on the Saturday evening. Bike Verbier has a fully kitted-out bike workshop and lots of space to store our precious machines.
By six in the evening all eleven participants and our two coaches, Tracy and Anja, had arrived. Most of the girls had come from the UK, with two Swiss-based expats (including yours truly) having had much shorter journey times. All were experienced bikers, and all were stoked to be in Verbier for a week of riding. We sat around the big dining table with our hosts Lucy and Phil, who’d been re-christened Philippa for the week, and got to know each other.Nicky ready to learn some new skills
The next morning, after a big breakfast spread, we started with a bike-check. Everyone was riding flats for the skills sessions, which caused some anxiety among the girls who normally rode clipped-in. Flats were important for learning the proper technique for some skills, like a back wheel lift, and by the end of the week two girls had actually been converted and ditched their SPDs. We checked tyre pressure, suspension set-up, headsets, and wheels. There were a few bikes set-up for 80kg blokes, rather than 55kg girls, and most had been riding with tyre pressure way too high, but it was all easily sorted and we soon headed off to a nearby quarry for our first skills session.Mandee finding her balance with the help of Tracy and Anja
.Slow skills and switchback practice were a big part of our first skills session
.Learning to wheelie!Tracy and Anja help Emma to feel just how high you can lift the front wheel without losing your balance
Over the course of the week we had three mornings dedicated to skills. We covered everything from the basics like body position, all the way through to the different techniques for dealing with drops. In between there were technical uphill techniques, switchbacks, cornering, braking, wheel lifts, the whole lot. When we weren't in the quarry practicing skills with Tracy and Anja, we were out exploring the amazing trails that the Valais has to offer. Lucy and Phil shuttled us to the tops of mountains with their bus and bike trailer; all we had to do was enjoy the descents. On the way down we had plenty of opportunity to stop and session different trail features and try out our new skills.Anja demonstrating correct body position for rolling down steep terrain. "Elbows out!” turned out to be one of Tracy’s favourite sayings.Suzy tackling a steep pinch climb
.Sometimes shuttling didn’t quite get us to the top. But that just meant an opportunity to learn the hike-a-bike technique.However, the views (not to mention the descents) were worth the effort all week
.Technical climbs were a regular feature of the trails we rode on the third day. Finding the right line and keeping speed is not always that easy.
The girls had a real mix of backgrounds, from hospital administrators to handbag creators, nuclear engineers to project managers, science writers to armed services personnel. Not surprisingly though, the conversation was rarely about work and mostly about biking. Popular bike parts included the pink ODI Ruffians and the Bontrager WSD saddles. We also found that Dakine makes the most interesting and colourful ladies MTB gear, POC helmets don’t fit small heads that well and long socks are all the rage in Switzerland. There were discussions about local enduro races, people’s favourite trails in both the UK and Switzerland, stories of past injuries and of course a bit of bike swapping. In the evenings we were treated to big home-cooked meals with lots of wine, and afterwards we’d review photos and videos from the day. Many of us also took the chance to stretch out tired muscles, but we otherwise lazed about on the couches, drinking tea and chatting until it was time for bed.
The muddy faces of happy mountain bikers
Before the course we each answered questions about our experience, style of riding, bike choice… and what scares us most on a mountain bike. Most of the British girls chose switchbacks and exposure as their main challenges, not having encountered a lot of that terrain in the UK. As an Aussie, my main fear was mud! After our first morning of skills we headed up to the Verbier Bike Park, and just as we reached the top it started to rain a little, then some more, then it was a massive downpour! The short storm had transformed the mostly dry trails into greasy, slippery death traps. I immediately got on the brakes, became super nervous and, not surprisingly, least of all to me, ended up sliding down the sides of berms multiple times. Anja remarked that they’d assumed from my questionnaire that I just didn’t like getting my bike dirty; now she knew I hadn't been kidding. When Tracy demonstrated how to ride berms in the wet (ie. more or less at normal speed), it was an eye opener for me. And when we rode a slippery, switchbacky trail at the end of the week, I managed to ride almost of all of it, although I did spend a large portion of the descent repeating “Relax! Relax! Relax!” loudly to myself.
After the storm, rolling home a bit soggier than we started
.Reviewing iPhone videos with Tracy. Being able to see yourself made it a lot easier to understand what adjustments to make.
During the week it became clear that everyone had different strengths on the bike. Some girls picked up the techniques for getting the wheels off the ground in no time, and were soon bunny hopping like they’d been doing it since they were on training wheels. Others found the tight technical switchbacks a fantastic challenge and were confident enough to try more advanced techniques, like hopping the back wheel whilst on the trail. Still others had the speed and quick reactions to smoke the group on flowy trails. No matter where each girl’s talents lay, by the end we’d all improved and added to our arsenal of on-trail tricks.Tracy demonstrating high speed cornering
Of course nothing is as much fun as getting out on the actual trails. The trails in Valais are varied and plentiful. There is an abundance of technical, steep singletrack, including the Valais speciality: lots of switchbacks. But there are also fast and flowy trails that have you whooping and laughing all the way to the valley. Trail access is fantastic; whether by shuttle, chairlifts or old fashioned pedal-power, it never takes long to get yourself to the top of a world class trail. It’s not just Verbier either, there are trail networks on both sides of the entire Rhone Valley, many boasting descents greater than 2000m, enough to encourage you to toss an extra set of brake pads in the bag. If bike parks are more your thing, many of the ski resorts, like Verbier, Crans Montana and St-Luc, have purpose-made bike runs to suit different levels of riders.Great views were a pleasant distraction on the only (thankfully short) road ascent of the week
.A fast and flowy trail overlooking the Rhone Valley
.The famous Valais vineyards which line the valley side
At the end of our last day of riding, Lucy shuttled us to the top of a trail we’d ridden earlier in the week. It wasn’t long (at least for this part of the world) but it was great fun, finishing with a set of roughly a dozen rollable switchbacks, bringing me into that lovely, often elusive, state of flow. It was the perfect trail to finish on. We rolled back to the chalet and were greeted with prosecco, cake and a gorgeous sunset. As we sat around enjoying the last rays of sunshine, we relived the highlights of the week, exchanged contact details and promised to meet up again next summer. It may have taken a while to arrive this year, but Summer in Switzerland was worth the wait.Prosecco and homemade cake was definitely the best way to end an amazing week
For more information about the T-Mo Women's Skills Week, check out Bike Verbier
and Tracy Moseley