SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Wayne's Le Weekend

Posted: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 by Waynemarlow in Labels: , , ,

OK being involved with The Skibiker Shop at Internet distance is one thing, but at some stage you have to get into real time and as the saying goes “if you want to talk the talk you have to be able to walk the walk”. Sooner or later Mark and I were going to have to meet up in the Alps and put all this Ski Bike waffle into real time action. We plotted a very last minute excursion to France to meet up and not only enjoy a bit of skibiking together; but to also join others off the Facebook Group, visit some new resorts, make lots of beer and wine fuelled conversation about an awful lot of, well not a lot really and just to really test me, try my latest ski bike iteration out on the slopes.

Time to try my latest skibike iteration out on the slopes

So not a lot of pressure then when we finally met up on Saturday at Combloux ( particularly as I had a rather tender head from where a good friend living the Swiss way, near Geneva, had kept me up rather late the previous night supping a delightful local vintage, catching up on the previous year since we last met. ) to meet up with Mark and five other local French ski bikers. Firem VS skibikes, I perhaps thought and sure enough five Firem VS skibikes of various guises with five very typically French gents astride.

So to finally meet up and get some ski biking action in, was a bit like a star spangled night, they don’t come along very frequently and you must take the moment to its fullest. Well seven kids aboard seven skibikes hit the slopes on a beautiful sunny day, down the gentle blues for a quick first run, then straight into the Boarder Cross gates where five hit the first corner together, a bit of nerfing action between the front runners eliminated a couple, then I was just behind the front pack taking things steady on only my second run on the skibike and then it all broke loose.
The three bikes in front hit their brake and those big ugly claws spawned big rooster tails of snow and ice, straight at me. Now that’s dirty but what a laugh. What was even more of a laugh was how five middle age gents all revert to what we thought we used to be able to do, as soon as we hit the gates. What a wonderful and rewarding day in a stunning smaller French resort, highlighted by seeing Serge ( Firem VS skibikes designer ) bin his bike out of the top of a berm, overtake the skibike, with legs pin wheeling to its stopping point, get back on board and still beat us all down, I think that was adrenaline doing the talking. A magic day.

Group ride at Combloux - a magic day

So onward to Les Houches, near to Chamonix and to meet up with a fellow self builder, Thierry, to talk about bikes and skibike design and snow and the sun and swap bikes and play in the powder and simply enjoy a great day out. Les Houches is very much a steeper resort and not one for the learner although it does have a number of blue runs, it is taxing at times, but one of those resorts which makes for a great day out. Learning the Firem VS skibikes way of tackling steep slopes fascinates me, simply put the claw in and head straight down the hill, you reach a slow fast speed and then the speed simply tops out. My skibike doesn’t have that luxury and given its head would be off at warp speed. From being a total anti-brake man to actually thinking well it does have a purpose and it does work, was an eye opener to say the least.

Les Houches - a steeper resort and not one for the learner

Monday was a gentler day at Les Carroz and Flaine and for me a reminder of why I no longer ski in France. Long wide blues and not so steep reds all leading to the bottom of the hill where the restaurants and infrastructure want to relieve you of all your available jewels and baubles, without giving anything back. Sorry I just don’t get why so many want to visit these large manufactured resorts, when there are the likes of Combloux which has better quality lifts, less lift queues, cheaper costs and far nicer architecture.  Enough said.

Monday our last day, Mark had advised to visit a nearby resort called Praz de Lys - Sommand, it's near to Morzine, but a small resort on its own, totally French speakers only and a small but well formed resort. Nice with some really tough blacks, with their slick and hard packed snow intermingled with bits of ice, but a rewarding challenge and they had to be ticked off.
Some easy blues but absolutely no detachable chairs and the quite antiquated infrastructure makes it limiting to experienced skibikers only I’m afraid.
I’m all for these smaller resorts but I have to say France really has fallen some way behind Austria and on a like for like basis the smaller Austrian resorts are far more advanced in the quality of infrastructure and quite some way cheaper in the beer and food department. But France does have its upsides, the smaller resorts do have a rustic sort of  charm and it is an easy commute for the Brits with our return journey from Praz de Lys - Sommand taking only 6 hours door to door, it is very commutable for le weekend.

So a trip well worth the time, great days out and everything a skibiker would want.

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - 3 Days Off

Posted: Tuesday, 25 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

After yesterday's excellent ride with Wayne and Lucille I went back to  St. Jean d'Aulps to gather together my kit and enjoy a final debrief. Then it was back to Geneva to unload the car and prepare my travelling kit for next week's adventure with Avalanche Skibikes in Bulgaria. It took quite a while to sort through and make sure I had everything I am likely to need, there's nothing worse than arriving in destination without your boots, eh Lucille?

The second challenge was to get it all to fit into an oversized wheeled suitcase and still weigh less than 20 Kg. This was achieved by wearing my boots and salopettes on the flight. The next challenge was getting from Geneva base camp on the border with France right by the customs post to the airport. It's too close for taxis to be interested, even if you book, they don't always turn up and there's no direct bus service either.
So my only option was to put in a bit of a yomp, this involves walking through a road tunnel underneath the airport runways, all very sneaky and exciting. A good Samaritan with a minibus stopped and drove me the last kilometre or so.

My only option was to put in a bit of a yomp

Geneva airport has a tiny French sector, complete with their own easyJet check-in desks, annoyingly they are for French internal flights only, so I headed through to the main area where the queues were enormous. It was airless and roasting hot, stood in my salopettes, I was sweating like a rapist.
easyJet manage their cattle well though and I was at the gate with time to spare; even so, you really have to be at the airport a whole two hours before your plane flies, long gone are the days when you could rock up with 30 minutes to go.

If the weather stay reasonably clement I will ride a push bike to work for the next few days, wow wheels and tyres are going to feel odd for a while, as will that pedalling malarkey.

Whilst I have been away most of the UK has been subject to extreme rainfall and consequential flooding of low lying areas. Just down the road from my home Whyteleaf has been inundated; the main road completely closed for nearly 4 miles and pipework installed by the fire brigade to pump out the deluge. All quite extraordinary and it is a great relief that I have always been fortunate enough to live in properties on a hill.

Pipework installed by the fire brigade to pump out the deluge

Tomorrow I snap back to reality and have a few days work to complete looking after the technical needs of a medical conference. Once that is done and dusted the fast pace will resume as I get a taste of Bulgarian freestyle skibiking, wowser.

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - The Grand Massif

Posted: Monday, 24 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

The last couple of days have been challenging but rewarding, I have learned some new techniques off Wayne and I think he has been surprised at just how well you can ride a skibike without needing to be standing on the pegs the whole time.

As contrast to the steep runs of Les Houches, I wanted to take Wayne and Lucille on a leisurely tour around the Grand Massif domain. By selecting only the most modern lifts to ascend and mostly cruising wide blue and red runs to come down, I hoped it would be a relaxed ride.

There were really big lift queues at Morillon, a very unusual scenario which didn't bode well for a stress free day. If it was busy here, it meant that the resort was running at 110% capacity. My fears proved to be correct, but the crowds were good natured and didn't resort to some of the pushing and shoving I have experienced in the past.

There were really big lift queues at Morillon - which didn't bode well

In any case the trip heading from Samoens and Morillon towards Flaine always seems to be slow process, because you are actually ascending a fair amount. The plus side is that end of the day, you get a lot of "free" vertical range to exploit. We finally made it to the Flaine bowl by late morning and stopped for a quick vin chaud in the bright sun.

The break gave me a chance to test Wayne's "emergency freestyle footskis", they a very tricky (for me) to use as they are so short, the sensation was exactly the same as roller blades, another torture device designed to put me on my ass at every opportunity.

We took advantage of both of Flaine's gondola lifts to explore the high bowl, but we were receiving a roller coaster ride of strange and conflicting messages from the lift operators. One thought that skibikes, were now and for the first time, allowed to use all the chairlifts in Flaine whilst another thought that the old rules applied and it was just the two gondolas that we were allowed to use. We tried a chairlift anyway, but were turned away; the worst news came when leaving Flaine via the Grand Vans chairlift, which has been skibike friendly for the last 4 years. The operator announced that skibikes have been banned from all the chairlifts in Flaine for the foreseeable future, including Grand Vans. We were allowed one ride to the top to get home, but wouldn't be allowed a second!

Wayne - not impressed with Flaine

Without this lift, riding from Flaine towards Les Carroz, Samoens, Morillon or Vercland would mean using the dreadful "navette" shuttle bus service I experienced earlier in the month. In effect this really will sound the death knell for future skibike riding in Flaine, which would be quite a blow. That said, there are now many more skibike friendly destinations in France than there were 4 years ago, skibikers will just have to take their skibikes, friends, families and spending money elsewhere.

We stopped for a hard earned beer at the start of the Sairon piste above Morillon the sun was getting low in the sky and it was clear that most people there were taking a break before their final run home. A band assembled and started playing Gypsy Jazz a personal favourite of mine. We then rode down to the top of the gondola station. Once again the queues were enormous, so Wayne and I took our chance on the closed piste running down to the village, whilst Lucille opted to join the scrum.

Sagely advice

Perhaps I am getting better, this time I was able to keep going till the snow ran out and there was nothing further to ride on but mud. I can confirm that skibikes do not work on mud, but do remarkably well on the bare minimum of snow over grass.

Skibikes work well on the bare minimum of snow over grass.

It was a fitting end to what had been a very taxing, but immensely enjoyable few days; now I have to turn it all around before my next adventure starts in exactly a week.

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Les Houches SkiBikes

Posted: Sunday, 23 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

I wasn't expecting to be back in Les Houches quite so soon, but neither local skibiker Thierry Avrillon, nor Wayne or Lucille had visited; so it seemed an obvious choice to explore once more. Wayne was impressed by the laid back, almost Italian feel to the resort; perhaps not so surprising, as Italy begins just the other side of the Mont Blanc aka the European Community's biggest hill. Thierry was struck by the steepness of the slopes and vertiginous vistas, quite a difference from his local resorts of Grand Bornand and La Clusaz.

Thierry was struck by the steepness of the slopes and vertiginous vistas

We were here for a pleasant Sunday ride, but the day also lead to some interesting bilingual conversations about skibike design and the future of skibiking in Europe.

It is fascinating to see how European skibiking is diversifying, with the passing of each season it appears that we have less in common with our American cousins than the previous. Whilst many America designs are being driven by the demand for ever stronger (and heavier) machines to do increasingly wilder park stunts; the European market seems to be heading towards multi-purpose, light-weight touring and all mountain designs.
Both Wayne and Thierry's prototype rides seem to be ahead of the curve with this trend. As we made our way around the mountain, we swapped around skibikes and each of us gave them a full run to see how much they would compare and contrast.

European skibiking is diversifying

Wayne was riding a prototype design he has self-built from carbon fibre; with its lightweight skis, air shock and air forks, it's a weight weenie, a gnat's whisker over 8 Kg, remarkable for a freestyle skibike. Lightweight skibikes are normally Brenter territory, but this one has fully damped modern suspension, everything looks so right and the ride is great too; with plenty of feedback through the steering to let you know what's going on at the front end.
The skis fitted are Gaspo SnowBlade style units, I found the break-away to be a little bit sudden on the rear ski when drifting. I suppose you would become accustomed to it over time, but I guess some better quality boards and a bit of shock tuning would improve matters no end. If anyone wants to sponsor Wayne some fancy pants skiboards, you know who to contact.
Oh and did I mention how light it is? If this is to be the future of European freestyle skibikes, I can see great appeal for those who currently ride skibobs making an upgrade to exactly such a lightweight freestyle skibike. One that's easy to lift over a turnstile or haul back from the bar after hours. Something that can be used with comfy warm snowboard boots and no more waddling around on clumsy footskis.

Weight weenie freestyle skibikes - is this the shape of things to come?

Thierry Avrillon has built three skibikes in his home workshop, he is quite the handyman. But these are not crude D.I.Y. efforts, but inspired one-off designs built to a very high standard and often involving many hours of painstaking craftsmanship. He was riding his current favourite, with components carefully specified for an off-piste machine. The frame appears to be formed of ultra heavy duty T.I.G. welded aluminium, but like Wayne's ride, it too is another 8 Kg weight weenie.

The day also lead to some interesting conversations about skibike design

At first glance your attention is drawn to the modified Cannondale Lefty mono fork, apart from being a top end fork in its own right, Thierry explained that it creates very little drag when riding in deep snow and has the added advantage that there is less to strike should you make an "involuntary dismount".

For the ultimate glide off-piste, Thierry is currently running Romp Revel8 skiboards. I have to state that I had my doubts about the skis designed for American skibikes; in Colorado powder might be the norm, but over here in Europe, after two days it is often all gone for the season. I expected them to perform well in the rough, but how did they run on steep sections of Les Houche's rock hard and compacted piste? I am pleased to report that they also bite surprisingly well into the hardest of snow. Yes, there did come a point of sudden break away when they would let go, but this was on pistes scraped right down to icy caterpillar tracks, exemplary behaviour for such fat skis. Needless to say, performance on soft and fresh snow was delightful and lived up to their reputation as a premium product.

Testing skibikes on the steeps

Thierry has a brake system fitted, produced in association with Firem VS skibikes, such things are not my cup of tea, but Wayne was impressed by the systems ability to work on the steepest slopes and hardest of snow with great efficiently, even whilst mid turn. I know why this is so, but a confidentiality agreement with Firem VS skibikes prevents me from sharing this with you.

So how does my own retro D.I.Y. skibike compare to these futuristic rides? Much like the owner, it is hardly cutting edge, and as regards weight, a bit of a diet is in order, the legacy of a number of D.I.Y. modifications where cost and sturdiness have taken precedence over weight considerations.

How does my retro skibike compare?

Wayne was impressed with the performance of the Head Big Easy skiboards fitted to my skibike, complimenting their gentle and forgiving ride. He even acknowledged that my Alpine Skibikes mountain bike conversion has come along way since we first met and is now dialled-in pretty nicely. Rare praise indeed.

Head Big Easy skiboards - Wayne impressed

So how did Thierry get on riding my skibike? Rather well actually, he seemed to be able to perform the huge drifts I love so much. He headed straight down one of the steepest runs, before remembering that, unlike his skibike, mine has no brakes. Still, he can do a pretty neat impression of Fred Flintstone with his heels, Yaba Daba Do!

Although each skibike had their differences and took a good few minutes for you to acclimatise to the different sensations. It was noticeable that all 3 skibikes had common characteristics that made them a joy to ride.

They all gave quite a lot of steering feel, you always knew what was going on at the front and back ends. Whether the skis were fat or narrow, you were able to go from edge to edge smoothly without any clunky dead spot in the middle and all three skibikes drifted very predictably and progressively. Given some loose snow or better still, late afternoon slush, you could be a hooligan on them and get that tail ski wagging like a happy puppy. But they all carved to a greater or lesser extent, maybe not perfectly, but well enough to follow a predictable trajectory.

I think some of the skibike manufacturers might be so focussed on creating a device that tracks down a slope as if riding on rails, that they have forgotten how much the average person likes "vector motion". This is why people devote so much money and time to recreational devices that incorporate skidding into their D.N.A. For some it is called motocross, for others power sliding rear wheel drive sports cars or even sat on the latest big boys toy, drift trikes.

Our three strangely similar skibikes all had the naughty grin factor derived from sliding just a bit too much sideways. Perhaps in future skibike manufacturers may to accept a few imperfections in order to keep the fun element firmly in the equation.

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Combloux Super Melange

Posted: Saturday, 22 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , , ,

Here's a recipe for an interesting day out. First, take one ski instructor, blend in three engineers, a web designer, a youngster, one blog writer and season with a rapid skier and the result will be a super melange, a volatile mixture, moderated by a love of skibiking.
Today was indeed quite a special day, one that brought together a quorum of the French skibiking movement, enhanced by the presence of both website writers. This is the first time that Wayne and I have skibiked together on real mountains, previous attempts have failed to be practicable and indoor skibiking doesn't really count.

Skibikes at Combloux - a hassle free place to ride

We are riding at Combloux, I can't even recall why now, other than that it's a hassle free place to ride, with plenty of runs to play on. On any other day I could just turn up and ride, safe in the knowledge that there is nothing to prove. Today though, in many respects the pressure is on, I am riding with some of the best and most experienced freestyle skibikers in France. Some only know me through the Blog and Facebook group, will I live up to their expectations?

Cafe racers - coffee pit stop

It turned out that I shouldn't have fretted, today was much more of a social ride than a competition. That said, after some easy warm up runs, the lads were keen to test their form on the Boarder Cross course; a roller coaster ride of bumps, jumps and banked turns (berms). In some respects, it is as difficult as any black run, there is no room for manoeuvre and once you are committed, slowing down is all but impossible. I have to confess that it is yet another discipline that I need to work on. Even after familiarising myself with the all turns, I still found myself over cooking bends and getting ejected off the banking into the rough.

Today was much more of a social ride than a competition

On one long chairlift ride, I had a great opportunity to discuss skibikes with Jef Exertier who is both a regular E.S.F. instructor in winter and is also a pro Mountain Guide /  Alpinist in the Summer months. Unlike any other E.S.F. instructor in France, he now owns enough Firem VS skibikes to teach skibiking to groups of up to 6 at a time. Based at skibike friendly Grand Bornand, he is putting in many hours over the season, with most students ready to ride alone after just a couple of hours of tuition.
For some disability or age is preventing them from doing mainstream winter sports, others have issues with their confidence and some are just out to try a new sliding flavour. He heavily endorses the Firem VS brand and sees it as the only model for teaching in complete safety. Novices are sent straight on to the slopes using the unique rear braking system, safe to control their speed no matter how fast. He admitted that he was having a great day riding with peers, but tomorrow it would be back to teaching yet more English how to snow plough during half-term holidays.

After riding, we celebrated the occasion with an impromptu round of crisp Cremant d'Alsace and I bid a fond farewell to our riding chums. I was heading for St. Jean d'Aulps, to join Wayne and wife Lucille, where we will be staying for the weekend in a cosy "Coin Montagne". The irony of leaving one ski resort to drive for over an hour on roads covered in wet snow, to stay at another for a couple of nights was not lost on any of us.

These tiny rental apartments remind me of living on a yacht or caravan, you have everything you need, but it's a constant squeeze. If you want to sit down, someone else has to stand up and when sat on the toilet your knees are wedged against the door. To avoid claustrophobia we took a stroll down to the liveliest night spot in St. Jean d'Aulps and enjoyed some live jazz-funk. The band improved in direct proportion to the amount of beer we consumed, sadly their looks didn't, let's just say they had perfect faces for the radio. The odd couple blog writers holed up at high altitude, with time to talk skibikes and drink beer, as Jim Morrison might have put it "On a night like this we could plan a murder, or start a religion".

On a night like this we could plan a murder, or start a religion

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Leysin Almost Got Away

Posted: Thursday, 20 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

Throughout the Alps there are so many resorts and ski stations that it is easy to miss the odd one or two. Leysin was one such resort that almost slipped under the wire. Fortunately I love maps, it was the part of Geography lessons that appealed to me most, I can pick up a map of a known area and immediately recall the sights, sounds and smells associated with it.
Whilst I was pouring over the map for the area around Glacier 3000 that I visited a few days ago, it dawned on me that I had missed out Leysin, Les Mosses and La Lecherette thinking they were part of Les Diablerets. Some research on Google revealed that you could hire SnowScoots in Leysin, it had a gondola and chairlifts, it was looking promising, this had to be worth a second visit to the Vaud.

There was no need for sat nav or maps to find Leysin, it was exactly the same drive along Lac Leman past Montreux to Aigle before heading into the hills that I had so recently made. One left turn and I had quickly arrived in the village of Leysin and headed for the car park at the base of the gondola station.

Marshalls lined up the cars in the car park like the Concours d'elegance at a classic car show, Swiss precision, I love it, so different from the usual parking bun fight. I was able to get a lift ticket almost straight away, slipped into skier mode and went up in the gondola to explore.

I am so glad that I chose to start with skis, the snow was as hard as concrete, I overcooked my first run and ended up doing a neat pirouette on my derrière. The piste map looked like a small area, but when the piste markers start at 150 you know the runs will be long.
I worked my way across to the Brion, Choulet and Solepraz areas, served by tiny 2 seater chairlifts. Had there been two days to explore and not one, I would have checked out the Les Mosses and La Lecherette areas, served by a shuttle bus link.

When the piste markers start at 150 you know the runs will be long

Oddly the snow had a yellow/brown tinge to it, the locals said it was dust from the Sahara brought on the South wind that had settled. Curiously I had noticed the same dust on my car yesterday and blamed it on the high volume of renovation work taking place at the apartment.

Working out where the best off-piste stashes were

Many of the slopes are South facing, I made an assumption that things would have softened nicely by lunch time, so after 11 I headed back to the car. Whilst doing my quick change routine into skibiker mode, a couple of locals stopped to watch me assemble the skibike. They turned out to be downhill mountain bike riders in Summer and were very enthusiastic at my offer of the chance to ride together in future.

My quick change routine into skibiker mode

In the afternoon I focussed on the blue and red runs heading from the top of the chairlift back down to Leysin, carefully working out where the best off-piste stashes were and exploiting them to maximum advantage.
Towards the end of the day all the runs back into town were very heavily scraped, right down to ice. A couple of steep sections were like a recreation of the Battle of the Somme on skis, bodies and kit were scattered about willy nilly. With the smug satisfaction of one who has paid his skiing dues, I nonchalantly picked my lines, taking full use of the run off areas the skiers avoided and made it down without a tumble.

Late afternoon run down - like the Battle of the Somme on skis

Leysin made its name as the location of tuberculosis sanatoria, where patients were lined up on balconies to inhale the pure mountain air in order to speed their recovery. Many of these facilities now provide the perfect place to watch the sun go down with a Gin & Tonic for the contemporary visitor. Even by local standards, which are high, it is a very pretty village, mostly comprised of wooden chalets; some huge and others modest. If I understood the poster correctly, Leysin is now a heritage site and there has been a policy of sustainable development, using locally sourced wood as the favoured building material.

Leysin - very pretty

Today Leysin is a small but perfectly formed little resort, with a good selection of runs, good infrastructure, quick links to Geneva and has proved to be very skibike friendly. What's not to like about that combo?

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - New Skibikers

Posted: Wednesday, 19 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

It's supposed to be another poor weather day at altitude, from my vantage point at McDonalds in Segny, the Jura mountains look to be getting a top up of snow and the webcams confirm this. Tomorrow I must get up there, but I needed a bit of a break today; long drives, long days skibiking, evenings writing the blog and editing pictures and under 5 hours sleep a night is too much to keep up for more than a few days at a time.
So let's leave stories of monster black runs and daring do for later and take a look at some new skibikers, hitting the slopes for the first time and representing both disciplines of the sport.

First up we have Clayton Wells, who due to arthritic knees thought he would have to sit out a ski holiday, pining to be on the snow. Luckily, his eagle eyed wife had spotted skibobs on a previous holiday and set about arranging hire and lessons for him.
Having chosen a Brenter skibob due to the convenience of a local hire shop in Les Arcs and the familiarity of the sensation for a former skier, the latest news is that after a few days riding he is loving it and eating up those late afternoon mogulled runs. Well done Clayton; A+ for effort and achievement, go to the top of the class.

Clayton Wells - eating up those late afternoon mogulled runs

Next up we have Gregory Vansillette who has been riding a Firem VS at Grand Bornand for the first time and seems to be jolly enthusiastic about the whole experience. In the last couple of days a new shop has started hiring out these bikes in Grand Bornand, so now you have no reason not to give one a go. Vivre la difference!

Gregory Vansillette - hire one like this at Grand Bornand

If you are reading this and think that your body is too old for any more skiing, or you are a mountain bike rider or motorcyclist wanting to take your riding into a new dimension of speed and control, please use the contact page to send a message, join our Facebook Group or leave a comment below. If you don't try skibiking this season you will be another year older when you do.

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Les Houches & The Kandahar Run

Posted: Tuesday, 18 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

Les Houches is one of a number of resorts dotted along the Chamonix valley and the only one, so far, with a skibike friendly policy. The sport of recreational skiing was born in this valley, the locals were bemused at the first British alpine skiers, pelting them with snow balls at every opportunity. Hopefully my reception would be a bit less painful.

My sat nav system pessimistically predicted a 2 hour journey from Geneva base camp, which turned out to be a much more respectable 90 minutes door to door. Les Houches is the closest resort I know to a motorway, it is situated just 5 minutes off the A40 "Autoroute Blanche".

Les Houches - just 5 minutes off the A40 "Autoroute Blanche

Initial impressions weren't that favourable though, it seemed horribly overcrowded with a huge queue for the gondola at 9am. I also seem to have missed the memo from the British Embassy that the only vehicles permitted with British registration plates in Les Houches are shiny new Land Rovers. It all seemed a bit, well, Morzine, to be frank.
I almost turned tail and headed for the tranquillity of nearby Combloux, but I am on a mission that can't be shirked.

Les Houches - 900m of vertical drop

Not wanting to piss off the lifties by carting a hulking skibike through the queues, I headed up on SnowBlades, incognito, to check out the slopes and lift infrastructure. The piste map for Les Houches looks a bit minimal, but there is 900m of vertical drop and the runs, though few, are quite long. It should be noted that many of  the runs are also quite steep. I haven't been skiing that much this season and it's taking a while for my ski mojo to kick in.
I had to really think about how to stance and engage edges with the snow. Then, suddenly in the space of moments, it all came back to me and it felt like I was carving up the mountain like a slalom champ. I could have played for the rest of the day, but it was time to head back to the car and switch to skibiker mode.

Even at the highest points the glaciers hang menacingly above

With the bike assembled and a bite of chocolate consumed, I was back at the gondola within 20 minutes and ready for round 2. One thing that became apparent quite soon was that the chairlifts are not of the detachable type; nor are the lifties used to slowing them down for skibikers. I was doing alright, until one positively insisted that I had to ride the skibike both on and off the chairlift. I have done this before and as Carl Day will testify, the results were pure comedy gold. Today was slightly better, but I would prefer to perfect my ride off technique somewhere else, so I changed strategy.

I missed the memo that the only vehicles permitted are new Land Rovers

You can get to all the slopes just by using the gondola at one end of Les Houches, or the cable car at the other. So this is what I ended up doing, then taking monster runs from top to bottom with stress free uplift back up to the top.
As mentioned previously, there were plenty of steep reds to test your mettle, the gem I discovered late in the day was the Kandahar black run, named after the World Cup ski race. As is often the case, the black grade scares most people off; but whereas many of the red runs were becoming icy and mogulled in the afternoon, this run had sufficient crunchy snow cover to be relatively grippy. There was one section though, which was to all intents a wall, fortunately you could by pass it and enjoy the rest of the run to your hearts content.

Kandahar black run - the grade scares most people off;

In conclusion, Les Houches is a wonderful new discovery to add to my list of skibike friendly haunts. It is easily accessible from Geneva and has a very skibike friendly infrastructure.
You are riding on the shoulders of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the European Union, it dominates the skyline, even at the highest points in the resort the glaciers hang menacingly way above you, when the sun catches them they turn an extraordinary shade of blue, like massive sapphires.
Another gem to add to my cache.

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Les Diablerets

Posted: Monday, 17 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

On a typical day I either head South towards the Alps or North towards the Jura mountains; today was a little different as I headed East, toward the French speaking Vaud region of Western Switzerland and an investigation of the resort of Les Diablerets.

The mountain communities of the Alpes Vaudoises are replete with legends and folk tales and Les Diablerets, its name meaning “abode of devils” is no exception. It is one of those lesser known places, that you may have heard of but can't quite place where it is. To give you a rough idea, Geneva is situated at the Western end of Lac Leman, Montreux is at the Eastern End and Les Diablerets is 1500 metres above Montreux.
It is roughly 80 miles from Geneva airport and thanks to a fast motorway connections, took 90 minutes door to door. As you would expect, the Swiss motorway system is exemplary, tolls are not charged, but you do have to buy an annual "vignette" which costs around £30 for a car. You leave the motorway system at Aigle and head up some steep mountain roads. The region is a big wine producing area, the vertiginous South facing slopes are meticulously terraced to Swiss precision and replete with vineyards.

I arrived at Les Diablerets and more by luck than planning found myself at the base of the Glacier 3000 cable car station. It was just before 9am, the car park was empty and the few people I saw looked pretty hard core judging by the kit they were carrying. I didn't bother to ask about permissions I just assembled the skibike, got dressed up, bought a ticket and went for it.

More by luck than planning - the base of the Glacier 3000 cable car station

I'm happy to report that there we no problems with access at Glacier 3000, in fact no-one so much as raised an eyebrow. A huge cable car takes you from the road up to the middle station then a smaller one makes the trip up to the glacier level at 3000 metres.
It gives access to a very short red run, served by a chairlift, perfect for my early morning warm up runs and a number of longer blue runs served by T-bar drag lifts. Bear in mind that at this height they are able to run summer skiing and I think they build a snowpark up here too.

3000 metres - at this height they are able to run summer skiing

The only way to ride back down involves crossing the glacier and taking a black run down to Oldenegg. The piste was both steep and quite narrow and was a test of one's abilities, but I seem to be getting the hang of these black run things and made stately progress down the run. There were plentiful off-piste opportunities too, but the avalanche risk is currently very high, I am riding alone and there's no-one to miss me if I end up down a deep hole.

I am riding alone - there's no-one to miss me if I end up down a deep hole

Arriving safely back at Oldenegg I found the chairlift that gets you back to the Glacier 3000 middle station. Alongside the chairlift is a fun and challenging red run, which I gave a jolly good seeing too. I could have continued playing in this sector for the rest of the day, but this was a data gathering mission so I headed back down to investigate the runs out of Les Diablerets village.

One very big cable car

The town itself is the sort of place you find pictured on boxes of Swiss chocolates, it is mostly chalets, with none of the unsightly or inappropriate developments the French have a taste for. In many ways it is very similar to Morzine and judging by the accents, equally popular with British holiday makers and ex-patriots. Though unlike Morzine, in Les Diablerets wealth doesn't shout, it whispers.

I duly presented myself at the Isenau gondola station and the lifties pointed out the part of the piste map I had not noticed yet.
Mountain bike conversions, Snow Scoots, Sledges, Dogs and Pedestrians are neither allowed on the lifts at Les Diablerets, nor the pistes.

OK then, back to the car, soft boots off, hard boots on, clip on SnowBlades and off we go. Initially the area seems quite small, but it is a surprisingly large area and very spread out, I covered about half in one day, it would certainly keep you entertained for a long weekend.
It is vexing that they are anti "Nouvelle Glisses", the infrastructure is ideal, there are plentiful low speed detachable 4 and 5 seater chairlifts, plus cable cars, trains and gondolas. There are many cheeky red runs and gentle cruising blue runs, plus plenty of little off-piste stashes that would be entertaining and challenging to ride.
But for the moment no; still, at least we have the glacier to play on, things may yet change at Les Diablerets.

Skibike Riding For Oldies - Age Is Just A Number

Posted: Sunday, 16 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

I had some interesting feedback recently in the comments section.
Everyone on the blog seems to be young and experienced with no little info for us oldies that have skied for years and want to continue. I tried hiring with a lesson in Grand Bornand, but no foot skis, only pegs, so would have preferred foot skis to start with to get confidence.

It's a fair comment that a lot of the writers here are experienced, but none of us are exactly spring chickens, in just over a year's time I will be eligible for SAGA membership. The skibike blog has always focussed heavily on freestyle riding, as its the type of riding I was interested in from the outset. It's only recently that I have felt at home riding this way, having started with skibob style riding, like so many others.

Anyone who is new to the sport should join the blog's Facebook Group, where you will find plenty of kindred spirits, building their first skibike and making those first tentative turns in the snow. If you need further inspiration, here is a picture of Fred Tissue.

Fred Tissue - 75 years young

He is 75 years young, has recently started freestyle skibike riding, as disability has prevented him from continuing with skiing. This week I watched one of his latest videos; he was tanking down the slopes, standing up on the pegs whilst riding off piste and even managed to feed himself a fine snow sandwich when he overcooked a turn.

With a skibike age really is just a number.

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Grand Bornand Slush Puppies

Posted: Saturday, 15 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , , ,

The weather forecast for today looked to be pretty grim, I had no intention of doing any riding and organised to visit Serge Mermillod at the Firem factory in Villards sur Thones. I got up stupidly early expecting a painful drive over and ended up arriving 45 minutes early. I took a stroll around the village to pass the time, it was a ghost town; one church, one bar, one graveyard.

Back at Firem, Serge and I went through some recent additions to his website mainly connected with the recent arrival of a new model, the VS 614. By the time our chores were accomplished it was nearly lunchtime and contrary to the forecast the weather looked quite promising for the afternoon.

Villards sur Thones is only about 15 minutes from both La Clussaz and Grand Bornand, both of which are skibike friendly. Serge suggested we ride in the afternoon and offer I gladly accepted. It was 3 years ago that I first rode with Serge, it's always fun, his passion and enthusiasm are infectious. I always end up going too fast, today was no exception.

The temperature was so high it felt positively muggy and although the sky was quite overcast, the snow at all levels was melting into slush. This made for sticky conditions, hell for the skiers falling over their tips; we were able to just blat through it with impunity. For once the stickiness of the snow meant that you could head down the fall line and the speed would built to a point where you couldn't go any faster. I think I surprised Serge that I could almost keep up with him now, it must be all the time I have spent trying to keep up with Carl Day.

The speed would built to a point where you couldn't go any faster

On our final run we swapped skibikes so I could sample the VS 614. There might be better skibikes for making a 30 foot cliff drop and others that are lighter or cheaper. But as an "all mountain" go anywhere machine it is without equal. You can take it on piste at blistering speed with stability and poise. You can take it off piste without bottoming out. Sit on the saddle or stand on the pegs? Yes both positions work equally well. It is probably the best skibike for carving out there, no need to run a foot in the snow for balance, yet it will drift too. Then there's the foot brake system, love it or loathe it, it works. For some it is what they want and what makes them choose Firem over other premium skibike manufacturers.

VS 614 - as an "all mountain" go anywhere skibike it is without equal

Me, I just like the opportunity to have a go and ride with Serge.

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Back On The Dole Part II

Posted: Wednesday, 12 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

I have had such long days recently and with so much commuting from the North side of Geneva to the Alpine resorts 40 miles away, adding up to 3 hours a day spent in the car. I needed a break and wanted to stay this side of Geneva, so chose to have another go at skibiking at La Dole.

I had an extra hour in bed and relished the 40 minute drive up the Col de la Faucille and along the ridge to the ski station. The morning was a little misty, but looked like it would soon clear and best of all, the chairlift was running today, I bought my ticket and headed over to it.

The chairlift was running today

As promised there were absolutely no issues, I was straight on and off the whole day long, over and over again, without so much as a raised eyebrow. This is the way French skibiking should be, but of course, I am not in France now. La Dole is an anomaly, the ticket booths by the road are in France, but most of the pistes are in Switzerland. As far as I could tell, the clientèle are exclusively French and Swiss, they all seemed genial and chatty, one old boy gave me some useful local knowledge about Les Diablerets which is on the hit list for next week.
The bad news I gleaned, is that from tomorrow, the weather is set to become turbulent again with (gasp) rain and the freezing level rising to 2100 metres. This is depressing, all the lovely fluffy snow will slump and if it re-freezes will be hard and crusty, exactly the sort of snow no-one likes, good bye joyous off piste excursions, you will be missed. Today was a day to cherish every available second.

Today was a day to cherish every available second

I have to ride with Macedonian based Avalanche SkiBikes in two weeks time so I focussed on improving my off piste riding at higher speeds and turning on steeper gradients. The two aspects are inter-linked, if I mucked up the turns I found myself going blisteringly fast. It is worth all the effort; inevitable involuntary dismounts and fresh bruises. There is something so special and free about blatting across the hills, suspension going ten to the dozen, without constraint or limit, laying down first tracks in the snow.

Laying down first tracks in the snow

I also took advantage of the emptier pistes to let the skibike go, safe in the knowledge that for a change there was no-one out there to run into, I even bagged another black run in the process. I began to wonder whether my long awaited Jedi skibike skills had been delivered, but the truth is that the snow, even on piste, was deep, soft and yielding. If you can't put in a good turn in these conditions, take up a different hobby.

I even bagged another black run

In conclusion with its 4-seat chair lift, La Dole offers one of the most diversified ski areas of the Jura mountains.
It is situated between 1230 and 1678 metres of altitude and has around 20 km of slopes, from the easy green one to the black one and is therefore suitable for both beginners and the experienced. What an awesome day, if it rains tomorrow I can lie in and do some domestic chores.

La Dole - suitable for both beginners and the experienced

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Combloux Hello Old Friend

Posted: Tuesday, 11 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

Combloux is another one of those places that no-one has ever heard of, which is surprising, because it's across the valley from Megeve, a discrete resort for those seeking the classier end of ski holiday market.
Combloux used to be a favourite of mine, mainly because it has been consistently skibike friendly since my first visits to France. I've not been back for at least two seasons, as other domains have taken precedence.
Today, I was to renew my friendship with this little known area; a clear and crisp morning in Geneva was a good start. But the clouds had lingered over the mountains and when I arrived in Combloux the dull morning sky looking like burnished steel.
I chose to have a quick scout around on skis, familiarise myself with the layout and check with the lifties regarding skibike access. I always feel that if you ask them as a skier half way up, or down, a mountain they take you a bit more seriously than some fat English duffer with bad French who's plodded over from the car park.
Combloux is part of the "Evasion Mont-Blanc" Domain, so the lift prices are a little higher than you might expect, but still below the Grand Massif and way below nearby Chamonix. So what does the price get you? Almost all the chairlifts are now of the slow loading/unloading detachable design and are 5 or 6 seaters. This is ideal for freestyle skibikers who can step off safely without risk of being mowed down by the chair if they are not the fleetest of foot (like me).
The lift pass covers the adjacent areas of Jaillet, Le Christomet and I think La Gietaz too. Whilst still on skis I went down to Jaillet, as I have a work colleague who rates it highly, the main uplift is a gondola system, the lifties confirmed that if a skibike can be fitted inside they will carry it.

Jaillet gondola - if a skibike can be fitted inside, they will carry it

At about this point the leaden skies lifted, the flat light gave way to bright patches of sunlight and I headed back to the car park to make the transformation into skibiker mode.

There are plentiful wooded blue runs above Combloux to flatter any rider, with 800m of vertical drop served by a relay of two chairlifts, it makes for a great training area. There are some steeper red runs, which are all worth attempting, even if you are not the strongest rider, as there are run off areas to the side of the piste to escape into if things go pear shaped.
I made a trip over to the Le Christomet side of the station, the ride down appears short on the piste map, but is actually a long descent along what appears to be a summertime mountain access road. Once down, a chairlift will whisk you up to the summit of Le Christomet from which there are some splendid challenging runs back down. The Chevreuil was an absolute treat, feeling somewhat trickier than a blue, I gave it a few goes so that I could learn the curves and know when to go faster and when to hold back.
I got a little over confident and headed onto the Aigle black run, it was very mogulled but seemed way to easy to be considered a black until I found myself at the top of what can only be described as a cliff. For once I followed my own advice, as given to Mark Bayston just a few days earlier.
When the slope seems impossibly steep and you don't want to risk turning across the fall line. Ride wide traverses from one edge to the other and when you reach the edge, get off the skibike, turn it around and get back on.

I got a little over confident and headed onto the Aigle black run

Yes I know it's cheating, but if you don't like it, as the locals keep telling me, "go stick your head in a pig".

It is worth noting that to get back over to the Combloux side you have to use the Pres chairlift, as it is non-detachable you are supposed to ride straight off it. The lift operator had a few choice words even though I only put a foot down before getting on the pegs, pretty slick by my usual standards.

I found my visit to Combloux to be like meeting up with an old friend, but one who now cooks a wicked curry, does massages and owns a pub. The whole area seems so much bigger now skibikers are being accepted outside of the core of the station. Maybe one day we'll even see skibikes parked next to the Mercedes in chic Megeve.

Combloux - the whole area seems so much bigger now

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Praz De Lys Or Sommand?

Posted: Monday, 10 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

I didn't really want to go out today, but if I don't push myself now I will only regret it once the season has passed. So I headed for the ski station of Praz de Lys / Sommand, located roughly between Mieussy, Taninges and Les Gets, it is almost part of the Portes du Soleil. If it was, the prices would be double and the car parks would be full of Range Rover Evoques and not battered Peugeots 306s, in my books this is all good news. Wikipedia says similar and explains why it is so.
Sommand is noted for the beauty of its varied landscape of beautiful forests and open panoramic views. It has almost none of the over development and mass tourism infrastructure characterised by many nearby resorts. This is due to the area being a protected nature reserve which allows only low impact sustainable development. Its focus is on providing a uniquely family friendly resort while leaving other resorts, like Les Gets/Morzine/Flaine to cater for the Northern European "package holiday" and "youth" market.

One unique feature of Praz de Lys is they have a ticket kiosk in Mieussy so that you can sort lift passes en route, once you arrive you are straight out on the slopes. I have been here a number of times before, normally by following the road running from Cluses to Les Gets, taking a left turn not long after Taninges, then driving up what must have once been a goat track, to the mesa high above.

A squall blew in, bringing driving snow and poor visibility

This time I tried the route up from Mieussy, which turned out to be a thoroughly gnarly hairpin climb up an extremely steep escarpment. I followed a Peugeot 306 up the hill, its exhaust pouring black smoke as the owner thrashed it mercilessly to avoid being overtaken by an Englishman. At the top of the hill the road leads off towards the ski station of Sommand, having taken one wrong turn I found the car park by the chairlifts set about my business.

The lifties were a little bit confused about my apparatus, went into a huddle and collectively decided that I was OK. I have skibiked this area before, but never made it over to this side of the hill. But from that point onwards there were no issues elsewhere, all the chairlifts are the older constant speed type, each was dutifully slowed down and sped up for me without issue. Now I know how Royalty must feel when they pay places a visit.

A great snow stash at relatively high altitude just an hour from Geneva

What I particularly wanted to do was the off-piste below the Haute Fleurry chairlift, I had a moment of Nirvana riding that slope at the very end of last season and wanted to feel it again.
Unfortunately last year the weather was calm and balmy, this year no sooner had I got to the top of the chairlift than a squall blew in, bringing driving snow and poor visibility. Furthermore, I learned that slope quite well last year and I was on the looked out for a particularly evil set of rocks that defined my line of entry. They had completely disappeared, such has been the volume of recent snowfall. I made it down, but my descent had not been as elegant as I would have wished. I wasn't to have a second bite at it either, as the Haute Fleurry chairlift closed soon afterwards due to the wind and didn't reopen.
I took a lower level route back to Sommand and warmed myself up with a vin chaud, eavesdropping on a bunch of French retirees having a typically Gallic post lunch conversation about the life preserving virtues of Royal Jelly.
I went back out on the hill for a couple more circuits and then decided to finish the day on SnowBlades, I needed the loo, so used the facilities of the nearby restaurant and had another vin chaud, just to be polite. A friendly fellow who works there wanted lots of information about skibikes, I offered a demo ride when I get my spare bike back, who knows, we might have another skibike fan.

In conclusion, if you're the sort of person who likes bling and glitz or wants snow to be accompanied by 24 hour entertainment, you would absolutely hate Praz de Lys / Sommand. For me, as a great snow stash at relatively high altitude, just an hour from Geneva, it's a gem.
Access can be an issue when the weather is severe, both roads are steep and narrow. You don't need a 4x4, but winter tyres and snow chains are a must, even if the chains never come out of the boot.
It has a wide variety of runs, about 75% being accessible by the chairlifts. There are some advanced areas that I still haven't had the chance to test, so I hope I can get back when there's snow and I can see better where I'm going and exactly what I'm running into.
Best of all, the lift operators seem to be laid back about what you bring on the lift and have been consistently skibike friendly for two years running now.

SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Morillon Mentoring

Posted: Sunday, 9 February 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

OK I will have to take back what I wrote about the Grand Massif in my last post, today was the sort of amazing day I remember having in this area. I was back to meet with Mark Bayston, who is hiring my bike for the week, the last time we rode together was on a sledging hill in Derby about this time last year. He then took a late season holiday in this area and had a reasonably good time, but did manage to crack a rib in the process. It takes a lot of guts to "get back on the horse" after such an experience. Today I could see how he was getting on and perhaps do a bit of mentoring to point him in the right direction.
He had only arrived last night after a bad ferry crossing followed by 500 miles of driving in heavy rain. The plan was to ease him back into the saddle gently, with a succession of pleasant, easy, blue runs to cruise along and maybe the odd spot of unchallenging off-piste.

We met in Morillon and kicked off with a couple of warm up runs on the wide Sairon piste, Mark seemed to "dial-in" very quickly and soon settled down to some very tidy linked turns working his way methodically down the run. We met up with Mark's family for a quick refreshment break and the weather, which had been snowing quite heavily on and of suddenly abated and the sun burst through.

A couple of warm up runs on the wide Sairon piste

We headed in the direction of Les Carroz and its charming wooded runs, but Mark was unimpressed with the firm nature of the runs immediately above the town, so we headed over towards Vernant taking advantage of the bountiful off piste areas. Both of us managed at some point to get ourselves sunk in the "quick sand". Next we hit the bowl under the Grand Vans chairlift above Flaine.
We made out way down in Flaine Forum for a well deserved beer, I checked the time and to my amazement and horror realised that it was nearing 4 O'clock, I couldn't face the prospect of getting stuck in Flaine for a second time. We postponed the beers for later and hurried towards the Grand Vans Chair.
Scurrying off I was accosted by a wildly gesticulating snow boarder, who turned out to be local lad and Blog regular, Fabrice Mercier, hopefully we will ride together soon.

Mark Bayston - his skills were progressing so fast

We then had to head down the Dolomie run which had developed monster mogul fields, just what you don't need when you're in a hurry. Mark did amazingly well, for someone with a weeks freestyle riding behind them, to get down a steep monster mogul at a steady speed and in control is quite an achievement. To do it the first day of your holiday, when your body is telling you to it's had enough, doubly so.
We made it to the Corbalanche lift with time to spare and arriving at the Tetes des Saix, realised that we were home dry, from that point on it would all be downhill.
This gave us an opportunity to savour the ride, stop for that well earned beer and give Mark's family a chance to catch up with his eventful day and do a final grand run at sunset back to their Morillon 1100 base camp.
By the time we got back, the lifties told me that the telecabin down to Morillon village had officially stopped, but I could still jump in if I was quick; or take my chances by riding down the closed piste to the village. I had a few last minute arrangements to make with Mark, so opted for the latter option. It was a remarkable experience riding in the gathering twilight through the trees and chalets back down to the village, the pink and orange glow of the setting sun bouncing off the snow on the high peaks all around. With around 500 metres left to ride, I discovered why this piste was closed, the surface was little more than icy slabs and bare earth. At which point it was time for an evening stroll through the woods.

Both of us managed to get ourselves sunk in the "quick sand"

Why was this ride so different from the last? No crowds and on a Sunday too, this defies explanation. The weather wasn't too god at the start of the day, with snow and grey skies, but from mid day one of the first few bluebird days had arrived. There were no issues with queues anywhere at any time.
I shall meet up with Mark at the end of the week to ride again, his skills were progressing so fast he will no doubt have a few recommendations for me by then.