Every once in a while, for whatever reason, if you're really lucky, you might find yourself in an experience that's never happened before. To anyone. In the summer of 2003 I was fortunate enough to be on such a journey. Led by Chris Winter and his Swiss co-hort at the time, an adventurous mountain biker named Francois Panchard, myself, Sterling Lorence, Wade Simmons, Andrew Shandro and a small gaggle of Whistler shredders headed out on what would be Big Mountain's
first ever mountain bike tour. The trip? An 8-day long pioneering adventure through the Valais Region in southern Switzerland. Under the towering peaks of the Swiss Alps, on a vast network of trails that had barely ever been ridden before, we descended nearly 80,000 feet during the trip. Using chairlifts and gondolas, our legs and our lungs, and stringing together an insanely complex maze of trail, path, road and everything in between, we accrued what is still, to all of us, one of the most astounding mountain bike adventures of our lives.
At the time, it didn't seem right. The only other mountain bikers we saw were XC lycra locals riding gravel roads. We were some of the very first to hit these amazingly epic trails in downhill/all-mountain fashion. And at the time we knew it. We were pioneers, pirates almost, hoarding singletrack gold in an entirely foreign land - right from under their noses.
I recently returned to the Valais and was quite surprised at the scene that has risen since our group of marauding Canadians first ventured there. Not that our trip, and the subsequent feature in the March 2004 issue of Bike Magazine started the scene. No, this is not a feeling of entitlement, more one of warm reflection--that we were the first to catch on to what is now a thriving scene. It would be like being the first to ride Vancouver's North Shore, or Moab's slickrock, discovering G-Land or Mavericks if you were a surfer. Being a pioneer has a certain gravitas to it. You were there.
My visit to the Valais this time was spent riding trails vaguely familiar. I recognized peaks and draws from relatively minuscule moments of many months past. I talked to immigrant "bike bums" who have moved from Germany and France just to ride here. Trails were still being discovered, while old standbys like "The Brazilian" which Simmons named on our inaugural trip, are heavily ridden tracks known throughout the region.
As the seemingly infinite mountain loops and descents continue to be catalogued and explored, and as the Valais begins to emerge as one of the world's top mountain bike destinations on the planet, I thought it would be cool to take a look back at Swiss Bliss, pasted below the photos as it was submitted to Bike eight years ago. Incredible photography by Sterling Lorence, words by Mitchell Scott. Insane riding action by Andrew Shandro and Wade Simmons. Epic adventure by Chris Winter and Francois Panchard. Singletrack, gondolas, chairlifts and spectacular culture by the Swiss. Swiss Bliss
Burning brake pads, francs and vertical in the land of perfection
Words: Mitchell Scott
Photography: Sterling Lorence
The acrid stink of burning brake compound, purpled steel and seared flesh rises through a cloud of man-sweat. In the Valais region of south western Switzerland, where grapes grow beside the Rhone River and cows with brass bells graze alpine meadows 8,000 feet above, and gondolas and trains and chairlifts zip between the two with uncommon ubiquity, we’ve stopped because we had to. Our forearms are so pumped they could be full of spinach. Eyes are so watery and red they could be filled with sorrow. But they’re not. The trail beneath our tires is ancient. It is also perfect.
Formed by a scintilla of actions incremented to millions by great periods of time. 1,000, 3,000, 5,000, who knows, as the glaciers of the last Ice Age began to recede it’s possible people roamed this path 10,000 years ago. Now, the trail is four feet wide, worn that way by the traffic of civilizations come and gone. Primordial stones lay buried at each edge. Packed one step at a time, one age after another. It contours downward through mountains carpeted by tall evergreen forest. And it is fast. On one side lay a ditch with water trickling towards the Mediterranean, channelling its descent in and out of village; past slate-roofed farmhouses and cafes; meadows; and views…always views.
Down and down, the trail’s center worn to a smoothed rut from the plod of infinitesimal footsteps, an effect that burms corners magnificently. Miraculously, almost sacrilegiously, this trail has no name, but it does indeed exist.
What is perfect singletrack? You hear it often, from friends, the guys at the bike shop and even right here in this magazine. What exactly is it? What does it look like? Feel like? How did it get there? Where is it? Perhaps these questions can be answered in Valais, a 2,000-square-mile region in the Pennine Alps on the eastern edge of Lake Geneva, home to one of Europe’s most famous mountains, 12,700-foot Mont Blanc.
Ten mountain bikers from Canada have gathered in Valais to ride perfection…or at least, that’s what they’ve been told. With Whistler, British Columbia native Chris Winter and lifetime Valais local Francois Panchard as guides, with a host of local Swiss rogues as companions, this band’s mission is to pillage singletrack. All the while no one aware of what they are doing except themselves. “Why do those men laugh and hug?” the locals ask. “Why throw head skyward and scream with joy?” This voyage presented them with 80,000 vertical feet of descending in eight days. They are some of the first foreigners to ever experience Switzerland like this. The first to blend the modernity of lifts, the technology of all-mountain full suspension bikes and the antiquity of trails built from millennial leg, lung and foot.
Raggy mountain bikers don’t usually blow big cash on a plane ticket that goes halfway around the world to one of the planet’s most expensive country’s…just to ride a bike. Surfers go to budget beaches. Climbers dirt bag on desolate peaks. Mountain bikers go to Utah. What would make riders like Wade Simmons and Andrew Shandro leave the world-class trails of their North Shore backyard? Why would a government statistician blow off his fiancé, half his vacation time, and a good chunk of his savings to ride in the same clothes for over a week? Why would a bike shop manager from Whistler leave A-line? Our stories could all be laced back to friends who had their minds blown on a trip to Valais last year. They promised perfection.
Three years ago, 32-year-old Chris Winter, an entrepreneur and avid rider, started researching the possibility of guiding bike tours in the Swiss Alps, a place he had spent a portion of his childhood skiing, a place he had always had an infatuation for. His quest led him to 33-year-old Francois Panchard—a fellow not normal by Swiss standards. The son of a mountain climber, Panchard’s freaky green eyes and conniving grin belies a certain imbalance. He is not following the footsteps of his thirty-something peers, taking high profile jobs in New York and Paris, making heaps of cash in Geneva playing with oil baron cash, driving BMW’s with in-dash DVD players and wearing designer clothes and fancy watches. Instead, Panchard runs his own CD-Rom trail mapping business, spending day after day documenting the labyrinth of singletrack that drapes his country like a giant gill net. He lives high in the mountains in a tiny little cabin with his beautiful Hungarian wife, and almost every summer day he explores his homeland by bike. In the last four years he has gone from a tight, light cross-country rig (the Swiss mountain bike of choice) to a four and four all-mountain machine with disk brakes and wide rubber. Even still, he wants more suspension. Like I said, he is not a stereotypical Swiss.
But Panchard knows something most of his countrymen don’t. He is one of the very first in Switzerland to discover what could be the greatest jewel in the mountain bike universe. Lifts. Yes, lifts. Ski lifts, gondolas, tiny double chairs, trams, quads, funiclaires, trains that go to 12,000 feet. Hundreds of them. Everywhere. Idiot, you say, that’s easy. You’ve skied at Swiss resorts that have hundreds of lifts. You’ve travelled 50 miles in a day and barely walked. Everybody knows that. But that is winter. In summer it is a landscape dominated by hikers. Mountain bikers are nowhere to be seen.
“The Swiss mountain biker rides up the gravel road and down the gravel road,” explains Panchard. “They don’t ride singletrack and they think lifts are for wimps.” But Panchard, like he’s done most of his life, has gone against the traditionalist ways of his countrymen and swallowed his pride. He rides lifts with his bike all the time. Almost all of them—of which there are hundreds—allow bikes, some on platforms, some on little hooks, some you have to hold yourself. From the top of each one spreads a weave of hiking trail, cow paths and doubletrack that meander through some of the world’s most spectacular mountains. Some traverse, some go up, but once you’ve won an elevation of 8,000 to 10,000 feet, most go down—for a long way.
Worn smooth since the Dark Ages, by a people confined to a relatively small, rugged and mountainous land, with a knack for perfection and industry, the Swiss have made a labyrinth of walking paths, many linking farms and churches and villages from peak to valley bottom. And just like everything else Swiss, they are of superb quality. This is a country obsessed with time, so it makes sense everything is built with an ageless quality—local villages even hire unemployed residents to rake and manicure its proximate trail network. There are some 42,000 miles of them, they are naturally contoured and wonderfully irrigated, with drinking fountains and benches in the furthest reaches of every valley. But they are also special for another reason: very few have ever seen the roll of knobby rubber. They are virgin, fresh, unspoiled. Yes, Panchard is a lone sailor on a sea of gold.
On this day, Panchard has a capable crew—who understand the unclaimed treasure that envelops his very existence. We find ourselves high above the glitz of Verbier. Earlier that day we traversed narrow, derailleur claiming cow trail through alpine hued by an August dawn, descended to a decommissioned road, through winding, dipping singletrack as it runs beside a medieval aqueduct. Wondering across a steep forested slope, we then climbed 3,000 feet on gravel road high into the alpine, to a cross, and a hike-a-bike up a steep path that tops out somewhere near 9,000 feet. And here we sit, fairly blown.
The starting point of our ride, a quaint stone and log lodge hostel near the top of a ski gondola, is barely visible across the valley. We sit, eating cheese and sausage and chocolate, marvelling downwards at 7,000 feet of vertiginous relief to the Rhone. Francois readies his home fashioned helmet cam. He has a crazed look, like we’re about to ambush unsuspecting prey, absolutely certain we’re going to get away with it.
It seems like hours go by until we stop. Steep singletrack melds to wider, more rhythmic trail that rails through sub-alpine meadows with groundcover that is brick red, mustard and rust. Rotors sizzle. Eyes caked with dust. There is a collective tingle when we notice the Rhone is still an age away; it’s patterned vineyards and orchards and roads barely enlarged from the vista of before. And then into forest, where the trail widens even more, and burms and jumps emerge with regularity, and flow and speed and the clang of cow bells and bright green and cramping fingers and aching feet and rattling biceps and blurred forest and focus and elation rush upon you in a single wave of sensation. At the bottom, you don’t know what to say…so you say nothing.
After 12 miles of solid, uninterrupted descending we whiz through vineyards to a village where we buy beers and cappuccinos and sandwiches. We load our bikes into the trailer, crowd into our van and drive an hour up the mountain-walled Rhone Valley to another neat little gondola, two at a time, up to a mountainside village. We spin through the narrow streets where cute blonde children wander amongst shiny little sport scars and stilted houses from the 1300’s. We stop at a grocery store where the Camelbak is stuffed with wine and cheese and more sausage and bottles of weak European beer. Then it’s off to another gondola, this one smaller than before--a ski lift, up to a modern little hostel tucked above the bullwheel. On a sun draped deck we indulge on Lowenbraus and views of glaciers and ragged peaks and lush green valleys. We drink and eat and try to recall the thousands of spectacular intricacies of the day, and the day before that, afraid we’ll forget because there are so many worth remembrance.
This goes on the next day and the next until it’s a blur of rightness. Flow comes easier now. Over the course of eight days we ride an average of 25 miles, 2,000 feet of up, and 10,000 feet of down per day. We begin to feel like animals, travelling wide and far and long, each mile the bike becoming more an organic extension than a piece of metal, plastic and rubber. Rolling through villages, rushing to repair bicycles at rest stops, airing off of retaining walls, storming lifts rife with reek. The locals ask us why we’re so lazy. Why we don’t ride up the road like all the other cyclists. Panchard rambles in French that we like to ride downhill and that we’re Canadian, and the lean, weather-wrinkled old men with felt hats slap back disapproving looks. But they don’t know. No one here seems to know.
In Zermatt, a picture perfect ski village in the German-speaking Upper Valais, we cruise like a pack of wolves through streets lined with geraniums and Rolex shops and fur coats. We’ve got these five and five suspension bikes with overly stuffed daypacks and we’re not wearing spandex and we haven’t showered in days. People stare a lot. In the train station, littered with glitz and leather and wealth, we stand out like sore thumbs. We look like rogues that are up to something. We’re not cross-country riders, they’ve seen those before. We’re not boisterous British climbers, they’ve seen those too. We pile our bikes into gondolas and funiclaires, speak bad French and laugh overtly. We’re here to take their treasures without them even knowing what their treasure is.
We ride the apogee of Swiss ingenuity, a train up to Gornergrat, a lookout at 10,270 feet, where a four star hotel stares out at views of Europe’s highest peaks—the 15,200-foot Monte Rosa, right there. The Matterhorn, in your face. Mega glaciers close enough to refrigerate you.
We wait until the people with Tilley hats and graphite walking poles finish their business. The sun begins to set and the hikers and the trains have all gone. I fall in behind Simmons and Shandro and submit to a path that is more a living, pulsing vein than a trail. We are cells coursing to a preset destination, our direction already known, already pre-programmed. We travel in unison and only need but react to the subtle turns and dips and switchbacks of hard packed earth. The moment is otherworldly. Instinctual.
We spend the night in another immaculate chalet, high above the shimmering opulence of Zermatt. The Matterhorn fades through the window and someone says we may as well be kings. And there is that feeling that we have found it: Raiders that have sailed forever and finally landed on that dreamed of shore. The one that was promised to you, that made you take all the risks to get here, a place of copious treasure, too much to even conceive and there is no one else to fight it from, no rush to horde it. And now we’re here. In the land of perfect singletrack. Not in a single stretch, but in a trail that goes and goes…and then goes some more.
Maybe perfection is the addition of the infinite. Maybe perfection is built by the foot and exhumed by the tire. It’s hard to tell. But I ask you one more question: What will your little stash in the woods look like if you padded it down foot by foot? And you and your kin and their kin did that for 500 years? And there would be lifts up to the top of each one. Energy efficient, self-loading lifts and upward monorails, gondolas and pretty little red trains. Not because you are lazy. It’s that these rides are so huge, the relief is so damn big, riding from the bottom would kill most mortals. You toss in convenient villages and cafes to refuel. Lay down a complicated network of glacially fed runoff to dug out logs so you could stay hydrated. And benches with views and, oh yes, character rich chalets at the top of each one so when you wake, the alpine is right there, your trail is right there. And then, one day you snip the ribbon. Open up all the trails to be ridden by you and yours for the rest of all the days. Could this be perfect singletrack? “Yes,” you say. “Yes it is.”