Where to SkiBike - La Chapelle d'Abondance (Portes du Soleil)

Posted: Tuesday, 21 February 2012 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , ,

The Portes du Soleil are a string of resorts dotted along the Franco Swiss border from the environs of Lac Leman (or Lake Geneva as it is known to English speakers) to within spitting distance of the Mont Blanc where France, Switzerland and Italy meet.
The resorts vary in size from tiny ski stations in farming villages, right up to luxury purpose built resorts. The likes of Avoriaz and Morzine would be a the top end of this scale and La Chapelle d'Abondonce at the other.

The SkiBiker SkiBike Blog has previously visited both Avoriaz and Morzine, two resorts well known for summer downhill mountain biking that have recently become skibike friendly. Other resorts in the domain, most notably Les Gets have been actively anti-skibiking, displaying a level of prejudice that if it was based upon; skin colour, religious beliefs or sexuality would have landed the Mayor in jail.

It came as a welcome surprise to receive an email from the tourist bureau at La Chapelle d'Abondance instructing me that if the skibike had the infamous STRMTG AVEL, I could ride it. The AVEL is a homologation system run by the French association of lift mechanics to authorise leisure vehicles for use on chairlifts, etc. There are only a handful of skibikes with these authorisations, namely, Brenter, Firem VS and Winter-X Bike, mine comes under the later classification. Altough I suspect that if your diy skibike looked professional, at La Chapelle d'Abondance they would be unlikely to turn you away.

La Chapelle d'Abondance is relatively close to Geneva, my journey was about 45 miles door to door. For the most part it was on minor (departmental) roads, so took about 90 minutes. For the most part I followed the South side of Lac Leman / Lake Geneva passing through a number of small towns and villages following what I suspect was originally a Route Napoleonic. Napoleon created these roads to move his army around France on what was the first system of turnpikes created since the fall of the Roman Empire roughly 1500 years earlier.

Turning off at Thonon close to its famous neighbour Evian les Bains, which almost everyone in the civilised world will recognise for its brand of spring water, you head into some craggy mountains. Some 20 minutes or so later you arrive at La Chapelle d'Abondance, a charming little town wedged into a narrow valley.
The domain is small, but then so is the cost of a lift pass at 23€ or £20 a day.

Chapelle d'Abondance - lots of pretty tree lined runs, but the best are only accesible on skis
There are 2 chairlifts heading up the Cret Beni, that give access to around half of the usable area, these lead to a couple of good cruising blue runs as well as some quite steep red runs. My favourite run was Renard (Fox), once you had managed the first steep slope, the rest was pleasant and interestingly varied. However, the snow was particularly hard and icy in places, leading me to skid out on too many occasions, I can't comment whether the riding is always this firm though. This made my attempts on the Cerf red run somewhat sketchy and amateurish, going much too fast and having to wait for the right moment to scrub off speed.

My one gripe about the layout of the runs is that to return to the village you can only follow Ourson an easy but boring green run or choose Cerf, the very steep and icy red run down the face of the hill. I found Cerf to be one of the most intimidating gradients I have come across, in such an icy state, it could be classified as a black run. Luckily, it is very wide, so I opted to do some super wide traverses and leave the turning until the rough stuff at the edges. Even there, it was still a test of your courage and skill and I confess that I got off the skibike and rotated it through 180 degrees and got back on at least once.

Having exhausted all the possibilities I returned to the car and switched from SkiBike to SnowBlades to explore the area served by a very long Poma drag lift called La Combe. For your information, currently skibikes are banned from using drag lifts in France. A warning sign alerts you that it is "A Very Difficult Drag Lift"; which is probably to prevent the common practice I have seen of parents riding up with small children between their legs. The initial jolt is sudden, but I have experienced Scotland's rocket launch drag lifts and took it in my stride.
Once at the top, which takes quite a while, I discovered La Chapelle d'Abondance's hidden gem. Some delightful and fun, moderate grade woodland runs but with plenty of lumps, bumps and off camber turns to negotiate. If you were allowed to use the drag lift with a skibike, this is where I would have spent most of my day.

In conclusion, La Chapelle d'Abondance is a fun little resort, possibly somewhere to spend an afternoon and use the combined Portes du Soleil lift pass system to do somewhere else in the morning. There are a few other stations around 10km away, which should be about 20 minutes drive at most.
The vertical drop is limited, but many of the runs are challenging and could equal any I have experienced in super resorts such as L'Espace Killy. The atmosphere is a little bit rough, rocky and wild, you feel that you are truly in the mountains and not a giant outdoor shopping mall.