Role reversal is a curious thing, just over a year ago Serge Mermillod introduced me to the Firem VS, his unique brand of freestyle pegger skibike and showed me how to ride it. Since then I occasionally have had the pleasure of skibike riding with him, usually he is the guide and I have to rush to keep up, meanwhile he has a cigarette and/or shot of Genepe at the bottom of the piste. Today it was different, I had suggested we meet at Samoëns for a skibike safari all the way to Flaine and back. He agreed to my plan, today I was to be the guide, although it is a bit strange guiding from the rear, at least I got to decide whether we were going left, right, up or down. Joining us were Serge's friend and engineer Thiery on his custom made and very individual skibike.
|SkiBiker - leading from the rear|
The route is one I have followed several times before and covers a hefty chunk of the best riding that the Grand Massif Domain has on offer. It makes sense to start at Samoëns, because it is practically a level drive from Geneva, a fast gondola gets you quickly to altitude, saving you fuel and time. The alternative is to drive to one of the other entry points to the lift system, but be aware that the 11km stretch of road from Cluses to Flaine can take almost an hour to cover when it has a couple of inches of snow on it and chains are the only way to get a grip on the steep and twisty sections.
Once at Samoëns 1600, it is a 30 second run down to the bottom of the Chariande Express, this fast detachable chair will wisk you to the Tete de Saix in minutes. From here you have a variety of routes down to Les Carroz. This sector is branded as the "Canada Experience" with a 1000m drop through broad tree lined runs, I opted to keep us on the sunnier and softer runs and keep away from the shaded icier ones.
On route I heard an English voice say, "I would love a ride on that" so we stopped and I suggested "Why don't you give it a try?". The skier unclipped his bindings and hunkered down on the Firem VS 512, I explained the braking system and he was off and away. I thought he would only go for a few feet, but was at least 100m down the slope by the time we caught up. He loved the braking system a lot and said that it gave him the confidence to try it without any feeling of risk. Serge arrived shortly on foot carrying an armful of skis and poles looking very relieved that the British hadn't stolen the VS512 factory prototype.
|Failed British attempt to steal the secrets of the Firem VS512|
I then received a stern lecture from Serge than I was in France, skibiking with French men who take lunch very seriously and which will be consumed at midday in exactly 10 minutes time.
Eager to go completely native we set up camp at the base of the Moulins chairlift. I am about to go off at a tangent, so feel free to skip this paragraph if you want to read about skibiking in Flaine.
It never fails to amaze me that you can combine the simplest common ingredients in France and enjoy a mouth wateringly delicious meal, such as; the simple plain crusty baguette bread bought on route from Le Panier, the President brand of Couloumiers Camembert sourced from Carefour and the bottle of Bougoine Aligot, a delicious crisp dry white wine, buried up to the neck in the snow pack and chilled to perfection.
Incidentally you don't see that many fat or obese people in France. This is a nutritional anomaly in spite of the oily French diet. It has been written that the secret is that food is general consumed whole, not factory processed, it is eaten fresh, made locally and most important of all in small portions. Obese Americans and Northern Europeans could improve their health prospects greatly by switching to the French Mediterranean diet and cutting out on the hidden sugars, palm oils and sundry chemicals and potentially carcinogenic additives lurking in processed foods.
|SkiBiker musing on the zen of a fine French lunch|
Whilst I mused on the zen of a fine lunch, Serge chatted with a SnowScoot rider, who expressed great surprise to see how light skibikes are, he borrowed mine, took it a short walk up the hill and rode back on the pegs. There was quite a gleam in his eye when he got off, I can see him testing one out at Grand Bornand quite soon.
Returning to the Tete des Saix we zipped down to the very fast Vernant chairlift to get to the peak of Grand Vans. This lead on to my favourite run in the Grand Massif the Tourmaline, in the past I have rode this flattering run time and again. My idea of nirvana would be to skibike down the Tourmaline for all eternity, splatting over the bumps and pulling outrageous drifts with the back ski at 90 degrees.
Possibly due to an administrative error, skibikes aren't allowed to use the chairlifts belonging to Flaine sector, but SnowScoots are. Hopefully this might be resolved for the 2013 ski season. In the meantime our sole choice of uplift is the large Granes Platiers Gondola, this is not quite the restriction you might imagine as a huge selection of runs branch out from this point. There is usually about 5-10 minutes of shuffling forward before you can get on, it is a good idea to carry your skibike vertically to take up the minimum of room and it causes the least fuss for other passengers if you are either the first or last to get on.
|Serge and Thiery - Setting the trend in French Freestyle SkiBiking|
Flaine markets this sector as "Red Run Speed" so I particularly wanted to take Serge and Thiery on the Mephisto Superior and Mephisto runs back to Flaine, which are fast, wide, variable grade, roller coaster trails. I believe they rather enjoyed themselves, I know I did. At Flaine, we had a shortish walk uphill to the base of the Grand Vans chairlift, which luckily is outside the jurisdiction of Flaine and can carry skibikes. Then we had a fast return back over the Tete des Saix towards Samoëns. The links can close as early as 4pm, not wanting to get stranded we weren't taking any prisoners.
Once back in Samoëns sector we enjoyed some truly splendid runs from the top the Tetes des Saix back down to the gondola top station. You can choose from fairly easy grade blue runs such as the Dahu to the steep and quite heavily mogulled Marmotte red, there is even a black run straight down the face for those with nerves of steel or simply better skibiking technique than I.
Amusingly Serge was pursued and stopped by an all female fan club, who seemed very interested in the whole skibiking concept and details were exchanged, hopefully his wife won't get jealous.
Overall we had enjoyed excellent snow for the whole day, the weather was very spring like, at around 12 degrees Celsius it made for a lot of fun splatting through "mashed potato" slush and bouncing over the bumps.
|Pegger SkiBiker - The joy of the "hockey stop"|
In conclusion, a skibike safari across the Grand Massif remains once of the best day tours I have ever ridden, on par with the best of the 3 valleys or Espace Killy. It is quite pricey at around 40€ for the day, but can be considered good value due to the scale and variety on offer. Even at peak times queues are rarely, if ever seen. There are currently some odd restrictions on chairlift use in Flaine, but hopefully a representation from the French skibike club should be able to resolve the situation.
I have never ventured into the Morillon sector, as I was advised that there were restrictions there too, it would be a suitable investigation for the 2013 season. Likewise I have never tried access from the smaller Gondola station at Vercland, this would allow you to skibike all the way back to the car park at the end of the day, which I always find a thrill.
|Samoëns, Les Carroz and Flaine - Ideal for SkiBikes|