SkiBike Tour 2013-14 - Meribel Two Decades On

Posted: Thursday, 13 March 2014 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , , ,

Brides les Bains looked like I ghost town when I arrived shortly before 10 last night, everything was closed or closing. My main meal of the day was some biscuits and water, yep I'm living the dream dear reader.
My temporary base camp for a couple of nights is the Hotel les Gourmands, a cute little hotel at the start of town. It is exactly the sort of minimalist, but clean, place I prefer; the free wifi works and it is under €45 a night, what's not to like.

Brides les Bains

Brides les Bains made its name during the Victorian era as a thermal spa, I suspect that it is a busy spot in the summer for pampering and preening. It is also an excellent gateway into the the three valleys ski lift network, the Olympic gondola at the top of the town will drop you into the heart of Meribel in around 20 minutes. For convenience sake, I chose to drive up the hill in about the same time and found a parking spot within a few minutes walk of the slopes. Unlike most other places I have visited, this costs €6 a day.

Breakfast on the go - skibiker style

It is the first time I have been to Meribel in nearly two decades. This is the place where my ski obsession started, snowploughing down the green run by the Altiport at what seemed then like warp factor 9. It all seemed so grand and exotic back in the day, today it seemed like any other resort I might visit, only bigger, a whole order of magnitude bigger. It is claimed that the Three Valleys have the largest interlinked lift system in the World; countries such as Austria, Italy and Switzerland may beg to differ though. If you came here for a week and rode the three valleys and the additional fourth valley "Orelle" you could be hard pushed to cover every possible run more than once. But is biggest necessarily best, or perhaps sometimes is it that "Less is more"? All will be revealed over the following days.

I don't care much for "Supermarket skiing" in giant industrialised resorts that, with the efficiency of a conveyor belt, feed fat wallets in one end, extract cash and spit out the owners after their week is over. So the sight of huge crowds of people packing the slopes as I went to buy a lift ticket didn't fill me with joy. However there was no queue at the ticket office and I soon worked out that the worst bottle necks were caused by ski lessons filtering off to the novice areas. I side tracked these and headed for the Saulire Express gondola for a swift ride up to the top of some of the best cruising runs.

Saulire Express gondola - a swift ride to some of the best cruising runs

All those years ago, I was so keen to learn to ski that I habitually hit the very first lifts and skied till the last. I remember those early morning jaunts for the unrelenting hardness of the snow, it amused me that after all the years, nothing has changed. Even the blue and green runs were a challenge on a surface that would be better suited to an ice rink, I did my best foot down carves and made it to the bottom of the 3000 foot descent unscathed.
I wasn't that keen to continue immediately and anyway I was due to make my first rendezvous of the day within half an hour. John Ashlee lives on the West Coast of Scotland, like myself he is self-employed and has started taking extended winter breaks to feed his passion for the mountains. Originally from Scandinavia, he has grown up on skis, snowboards, skiboards, mountain bikes and more recently, SnowScoots. He recently accepted my invitation to try out a mountain bike to skibike conversion; as he has been giving some serious thought to converting his own.

We started off with some gentle runs, ironically at the Altiport, where I spent so much time all those years ago. I soon began to appreciate what a natural he is, so I don't think there was much I could tell him, other than perhaps some skibike survival strategies for coping with difficult conditions. Luckily, the sun had warmed the slopes and we had better grip and could enjoy speed whilst retaining lots of control. I didn't want him to be stressed, so we took it easy to start with, but soon I was having to play catch up.

John Andree - I was having to play catch up

It was then time for the second rendezvous of the day, with Cedric Sabatte, who is the sole agent for SledgeHammer Skibikes in France. He brought with him the new SH5 model, an unusual and unique mix of stylistic cues from the World of motocross, new era skibikes and traditional skibobs. We continued to cruise around some easy and flattering runs, messing around and having fun. The best fun run was the boarder cross circuit, it was only the baby one, but still an epic challenge on a skibike. The worst run was a killer red heading down to Courchevel, all the snow had been scraped bare, so we slewed around on the ice and did our braking wherever the snow lay in mounds.

John Andree - skibikes more stable and much less work that the SnowScoots

We were soon running out of time and had to return to Meribel, John had snowboarded across from St Martin de Belleville, his board was in my car and he had two more lifts to catch before his home run. He really liked the skibikes, he felt they were more stable and much less work that the SnowScoots he had tried. He really enjoyed drifting them around like a speedway rider and hitting bumps to get some air under the skis. Apparently he made his lift with 6 minutes to spare, now that's cutting it fine.