SkiBike Tour 2014-15 - Avoriaz

Posted: Saturday, 28 February 2015 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

Today's visit was to a perennial favourite skibiking spot, Avoriaz. It is a relatively high altitude resort, at least by the standards of the Portes du Soleil and holds the current French record for the highest average snowfall. It offers a good mix of runs; with difficult and steep open skibiking on one side and more sheltered, easy tree line skibiking on the other. It also has a number of links to neighbouring Portes du Soleil resorts, but you have to do your research, because many aren't so skibike friendly, Châtel being somewhat notorious for allowing you to come down, but not go back up again.

Châtel - still not fully skibike friendly

For the first time ever, I arrived at Avoriaz ahead of the French skibikers and had already got in an exploratory ride before they made it to the top station. Sadly, the most testing runs where murky in the extreme and this is also where the best powder pockets are to be found. But it isn't much fun and can be downright dangerous when you can't see the drop-off points.

Off piste - can be downright dangerous when you can't see the drop-off

So instead we headed over to the lower, Les Lindarets side, below the level of clouds and played on some very nice runs through the woods, darting from the slope to the trees and back again. We then went even lower down to Ardent, where we encountered an E.S.F. instructor who seemed very keen to convert his downhill bike, so hopefully we may have a new advocate by next season.

Avoriaz - above Les Lindarets

We headed higher to the top of the Col du Bassachaux on the frontier with Châtel, where skibikes are not allowed on all chairlifts. Moving further along to the Pointe de Mossette above Champery les Crosets and the border with Switzerland it was a different story. The lift operator said he could see no problems as SnowScoots use his lift all the time and as if to prove a point one rode past. On our next visit we will have to get the Portes du Soleil (whole domain) pass and give it a try.

Champery les Crosets - new skibike horizons

After lunch we headed over to sunny Super Morzine and some lovely quiet and enjoyable glade runs, on which I could gladly have spent all day. But the sun had finally broken through the dense cloud at Les Haut Forts, so we headed there pronto in order to get the last run from the top all the way down to the car park. With lots of piled up snow in some spots and scraped bare to ice in others it was quite challenging, but a great way to end a near perfect day at Avoriaz.

Avoriaz - last run down from the top of Les Haut Forts

Special mention should go to Thierry who put in some truly audacious off-piste riding and Stephane who's riding is progressing at lightning speed and many thanks for lunch too.

SkiBike Tour 2014-15 - What's La Plagne?

Posted: Friday, 27 February 2015 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

With good weather looking likely to hold out, I decided to stay in the Tarentaise region and managed to bag a last minute bargain at The Auberge de Valezan. A more charming and rustic mountain location would be hard to find; the proprietor was a star, both he and the locals all piled in to get me free of an icy patch in the parking lot and on my way for some secret shopping at La Plagne.

After a length drive through fresh snow, going first down then up many hairpin bends, some of which may have contained scenes of mild peril; my initial impression was that I had slipped through a ski centric worm hole and found myself in Avoriaz, only bigger. I won't even bother to do the research, I've sat through a lifetime of business meetings and I can feel it in my waters that the same architect or design team was involved in the project management of La Plagne.

La Plagne - a compromise between the natural features and commercial necessity

To be fair, although I have a penchant for authentic mountain villages, of all the artificial "supermarket skiing" styles, this has to be the most sympathetic to the environment. It is a tasteful compromise between blending with the natural features and brutal commercial necessity.

I know that skibobs have been quietly gaining traction at La Plagne along with the ubiquitous SnowScoot as the new alternative snow pursuits. So the purpose of my visit was to establish whether a modern era freestyle skibiker would be able to get around without any issues.

I had chosen to head for Plagne Bellecote, which is situated a smidgen below 2000 metres altitude, hence the long climb. I decided to use it as a starting point, as in a worst case scenario, there would be gondola lifts in addition to chairlifts to use. I found a spot to park, got myself organised and headed for the ticket kiosk.
I though I had misunderstood, when told the price for a day pass, but no, the lady behind the partition really did want €50; that's Chamonix prices but this sure ain't Chamonix lady.

La Plagne - €50 day pass, hey this ain't Chamonix

I was going to start with the gondola lift but there was a long queue, so I decided to bite the bullet and simply picked a chairlift at random and headed for it. The only concern for the lift operators was that I had a leash, they had never seen my Firem VS inspired bandoleer design, but they were very happy with it and hurried me on my way.
The day had started with some light snow, which was good, but as it progressed conditions became more foggy by the minute and by foggy, I mean you couldn't see the handlebars pea soup type foggy. Typical, yesterday I could see but not ride, today I could ride but not see.

My first impressions are that a great deal of La Plagne's runs are of the flattering blue variety, they are the perfect "Goldilocks slopes", not too steep. nor too shallow, not too flat, nor too bumpy, they're just right. Interspersed between them are a profusion of cute little Teletubbies type hillocks, just right for practising some free ride, but without risk. There were even a number of natural half-pipe shaped gullies, although working out how you could get to them was a challenge.

Eh oh! Teletubbies and their hill - source DHX Media

Hoping to get above the murk I headed for the Roche de Mio, just below the glacier. You could almost feel the sun trying to break through, but still not see it. I tried the fun tunnel piste, which unsurprisingly takes you through a tunnel, darkened and with spooky looped music. I wanted a second go, got a bit lost in the fog and found myself on the Inversens red run; at the bottom of which the Crozats black run starts. I baulked at the prospect of doing this, for the first time, on a skibike, in white-out conditions and opted for a rickety old high speed chairlift to get me back to civilisation. I didn't know whether skibikes were allowed on such quick lifts, but the operator at the bottom was too busy shaping snow to notice me and the one at the top was too engrossed in the book he was reading to even look up!

La Plagne - Hoping to get above the murk I headed for the Roche de Mio

I was surprised to see snow cannons at all levels, right up to 2500 metres, something I have not seen before. I can but assume that this is in response to the demand for reliable snow conditions from top to base station, regardless of Mother Nature's munificence. You could feel the difference though, especially at the end of the day when the volume of traffic had scraped some tricky sections bare.

So despite some appalling conditions, the day was a resounding success. You can get around without issues, but novices might do well to avoid the older chairlifts or just ask for them to be slowed down a bit.
The vertical range is astounding, the highest pistes start at over 3000 metres from which you have the potential to descend down to 1250 metres, that's an astonishing 2000 metres or 6000 feet of vertical range. So perhaps this does put La Plagne on the same level as Chamonix and go some way to amortising the high cost. It is also a large area on par with Meribel that links with Les Arcs and the intermediate resorts.
In conclusion there's no reason why the well healed novice skibiker shouldn't spend a week at La Plagne. There is ample variety for practising, miles of cruising, expert terrain, plenty of easily accessed free ride and a vertical range that would be the envy of many other ski resorts.

There's no reason why the novice skibiker shouldn't spend a week at La Plagne

I thought I would get tomorrow off, to recover, but no, I've just been informed by text that I should be skibiking Avoriaz of all places and the sun may even come out to play too.

SkiBike Tour 2014-15 - Tignes, Almost But No Cigar

Posted: Thursday, 26 February 2015 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

There has been a lot of mixed messages coming from the direction of Tignes, I had no problems way back in 2011 and managed to cover the whole of the Espace Killy by skibike. The following season it appeared that any skibike device with a saddle was totally banned (I hope I wasn't responsible) and as a result it has been off my radar ever since.

Recently a novice English skibiker went on a holiday to Tignes and reported no problems whatsoever, whilst at the same time the Tourist Office had informed French skibikers that skibikes were still not permitted.

Seeing as I was going to be in the region, my solution was to go there, do a bit of secret shopping and see what occurred. I had previously stayed at the Hotel Melezes at Tignes Les Boisses and I chose to stop nearby as; the road runs right next to the pistes, there are free parking spots and you can ride down to a selection of chairlifts and gondolas in minutes.

Hotel Melezes - Tignes les Boisses

I got my lift pass and as there was a huge queue I jumped on the Brevieres chairlift without issue and then the Boisses gondola. This got me into Tignes proper, but it was at the Marais chairlift that things got awkward. The lift operator got in touch with base and escalated the query right up to "Le Chef" and by this I don't mean the person who cooks lunch.

So it seems that the situation is as follows:
  1. Skibikes are permitted on all the pistes at Tignes, provided you have bought a lift ticket.
  2. All skibike devices must have a leash to use the chairlifts.
  3. If your skibike device has a saddle you must wear foot skis to ride the chairlifts, except those shared with pedestrian traffic.
The lifts where I was stopped are of the old fashioned and fast loading design, but in the core of the resort the majority are slow loading detachable types. There is no reason on earth why these can't be used by foot traffic other than out dated thinking.

Chairlifts - better knock up some foot skis

I could have driven up to Tignes le Lac, to see how these restrictions would limit the available terrain, but to be honest, I couldn't be bothered with the hassle. Instead I stowed my skibike stuff, grabbed some brunch from the car, put on my bobble hat and went on a mission to ski the shit out of the place.
So there was this natural, ungroomed black run, yeah whatever and I also got down a shed load of steep and icy red runs, picking my lines around the wounded and fallen, ho hum and I even did some fast cruising blues which I could really get on my edges and carve, hmm...
Skiing for me has now become too safe and boring, all fear gone; it lacks the challenges or rewards of skibiking. Maybe this is why you see skiers buying new skis and boots every other season, they're trying to rekindle some of the excitement of first love, oh those honeymoon moments spent in triage.

So there was this ungroomed black run

But travelling on the chairlifts, to which freestyle skibike access has been denied; all I could see was miles and miles of stunning off-piste and envision how brilliant they would be to go skibiking on. Bugger, might be time to get a SnowScoot.

SkiBike Tour 2014-15 - Maxed Out In Sainte Foy

Posted: Wednesday, 25 February 2015 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

It was a delightful and quick drive along tiny mountain roads from where I am staying at The Auberge du val Jolly in Séez to the ski station at Sainte-Foy-Tarantaise. The recently overcast weather is clearing and the sun has reappeared which makes riding so much easier.

Max couldn't join me till a little later, I assumed he had chores to do, but it later emerged that there had been some serious partying going the night before. When I received a text to say that Max was ready to meet up, we arranged a rendezvous, the look on his face was priceless when he saw me with two skibikes, one for each of us.

Two skibikes! - the look on his face was priceless

We spent a few hours gradually working our way higher up the mountain, first on piste, then  off. I had expected there to be lift issues beyond the first level. which is the limit for Yooners.
I checked with the liftie, who said I was allowed to use the higher lifts, but crazy as the slopes were too steep for skibikes; it was time to disprove that theory.

Slopes too steep for skibikes? - it was time to disprove that theory

After lunch Max swapped to snowboard to join his mates and co-workers making the most of their day off. We headed to the highest point and began a huge traverse, I did my best to keep up but eventually crashed on a steeper section, tumbling about 20 feet down from the skibike. Powder snow doesn't give you much purchase on a 30 degree slope, I thought I would be there all night scrabbling away, but managed to trample down enough snow to make a staircase eventually; by which time my companions had long disappeared.
Every day you can learn something new, sometimes painfully so, I will ride with my leash hooked on for future powder sessions.

My brief visit to Sainte-Foy-Tarantaise has been very memorable, it is a charming and down to earth place with excellent skibike potential whether for a novice or an expert, the off piste on the shallower grades was epic, on par with the best anywhere I've yet found.

SkiBike Tour 2014-15 - Sainte Foy The Portal To Narnia

Posted: Tuesday, 24 February 2015 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

Most people into winter sports will have heard of the two most famous of the Tarrentaise Valley's resorts; Tignes and Val d'Isère, but there are quite a few more smaller areas nearby that slip far too effectively under the radar.

La Rosière would be a good example and my current destination Sainte-Foy-Tarantaise would be another. They are areas that have an enigmatic quality, I never imagined that people would come here on package holidays to snow plough by day and trough on the "all you can eat" buffet by night. Quite the contrary, I saw them as the sort of places where weather beaten and grizzly people would show up in rusty old Volvos to head off piste on telemark skis, or monoskis, or skibikes even.

Places where weather beaten people head off piste on telemark skis or skibikes

This particular jaunt has been in the pipeline for a while, pretty much ever since I heard that BMX rider and self-build skibike fan Max was coming out here to be a seasonaire and then later discovered that Skibike Ltd. ran an operation here for more than 10 years, with a fleet of 35 skibobs for hire.

I took the scenic route from my base camp by Geneva airport and it took me just over 3 hours door to door, if you took the fastest route you might just do it in 2. I left around 09:30 with a view to getting a half-day pass in order to spend the afternoon exploring the skibiking potential.

Sainte-Foy-Tarantaise is just a traditional small Alpine village, with a neat little ski station 15 minutes further up the hill. The weather was somewhat overcast and snowing lightly when I arrived, the place itself seemed relatively deserted, which considering it is still half term for some parts of France, was a surprise.
The tourist office have confirmed that skibikes are still permitted on the lift system and pistes, but I wanted the simplicity of skis to get a feel for the place before properly testing the waters tomorrow in the company of Max.

The weather was somewhat overcast and snowing lightly!

First impressions of Sainte-Foy-Tarantaise are of a very nice mini domain, there are some charming cruising blue runs, some nice steep red runs and huge areas of off-piste to explore. Chairlifts dominate the infrastructure, some detachable and some not, there are no drag lifts at all. There is a smidgen over 1000 metres or 3000 feet of vertical drop from the top to the base station.
Perhaps I have been lucky, but the quality of the snow was exceptionally good, there was powder in abundance and where it was more compacted it had a wonderful squeaky quality that you so rarely find.

The snow was exceptional, it had that rare and wonderful squeaky quality

I am already looking forward to tomorrow's ride with eager anticipation.....

SkiBike Tour 2014-15 - Falling Head Over Heals For La Clusaz

Posted: Sunday, 22 February 2015 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

I headed out early following an invitation for a Sunday ride with Thierry and Stephane at La Clusaz. It is a resort I have been to a few times before, located adjacent to the neighbouring stations of Le Grand Bornand and Manigod and forming the Massif des Arravis domain.
As I crossed Geneva, it looked like it was going to be a fine day over the lake, but as so often happens in the mountains it was misty with the occasional flurries of snow. Despite the recent fresh snowfall it was not going to be the much fabled bluebird day one would have hoped for.

We made a rendezvous by the skating rink and began working our way around the resort. Skibikes can use all the gondolas at La Clusaz, including those that form mixed chairlifts, i.e. one gondola to every five chairs on the same lift. For a smaller resort there is quite an abundance of such lifts, giving you access to most, but not all areas.

Skibiker Stephane - he kept this smile up all day!

There was something most odd going on with either me or my set up; I would be perfectly in control one minute, picking lines and maintaining speed, then suddenly accelerate away at rocket speed the next. Perhaps it was the meagre 3 hours of sleep the previous night, perhaps it was such a sudden accumulation of heavy snow right on top of a rock hard base, making a schizophrenic contrast of riding mediums.
More than ever before I was left feeling that my mojo had deserted me and I had to pull every skibiker survival trick I could think of out of my bag just to get down in one piece. The last time I have fallen over so much in one day, was the first day I tried riding without foot skis back in 2012.

The bottom line is that you need to be able see what you're riding on; in the few intervals of watery sun that broke through cloud later in the afternoon, I could see finally see where the giant mounds of mashed potato snow were lurking and not just ram into them unawares.

I was impressed with La Clusaz, there is a wide breadth of different runs, including a lot of steep sections. The off-piste potential is enormous, if a little daunting in places. There were some bottle necks with the lift system, as is pretty much the norm anywhere over half term; before this visit I considered it a "family resort", but after today I can see that it has teeth too, sharp ones.

SkiBike Tour 2014-15 - Lazy Day

Posted: Saturday, 21 February 2015 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

I awoke to the sound of rain pounding on the windows; one of the joys of being based this close to many resorts for a number of weeks, is not having to feel the need to go out and ride each day, regardless of the conditions.
So I turned over and carried on sleeping, later its pitch changed and finally ceased, when I looked out it was snowing heavily, what a result.

I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and watched the snow come down

I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and watched the snow come down, I couldn't see more than a few Kilometres, which never bodes well for good visibility at altitude, maybe tomorrow I will head for the hills again.

SkiBike Tour 2014-15 - Monts Jura

Posted: Friday, 20 February 2015 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

I was aiming for a nice gentle warm up day to shake down both myself and my skibikes, before the prospect of social riding becomes a reality. The easy slopes at nearby La Faucille in the Jura mountains always provide the ideal spot for such a day. But I wasn't expecting a text from Thierry at 07:00 to say that he would be joining me at 09:00.
It was pretty nippy as we assembled our skibike kit in the car park at, Thierry deserves a medal for his patience, as there was some unexpected last minute fettling necessary.

Finally everything was ready and we could get out and ride. The snow was pretty hard and getting thin in places, but the ability to ride all conditions is the mark of the accomplished skibiker There were a few unscheduled dismounts, but luckily there weren't too many buttock clenching moments.
La Faucille is quite a small ski station, in a couple of hours we had covered most of it, including the run down to Mijoux in the Valserine valley.
After a quick lunchtime snack we decided to head a few clicks West to the neighbouring ski station of Le Crozet - Lelex. It is somewhere I have been to in the past, but this was my first time using Lelex as the starting point.

Thierry at Le Crozet - a 2 hour journey each way

We spent a very pleasant few hours going over the various sections in the pleasant late afternoon sun. Some of the red grade runs were quite challenging in the current conditions and seemed to go on for much longer than the relatively modest vertical drop would suggest. I was recommended to try the border cross course by the local SnowScoot riders, I don't remember this from previous visits, when you have no idea what is coming next it is pretty terrifying. I had been riding almost exclusively "freestyle" or "pegger" as they stay in the US and found myself quite fatigued by close of play. The few occasions I had a good sit down, I found myself being covertly filmed by Thierry, which he will be able to use for instructing novice "Arravis Skibikers" as how not to do things.

My heartfelt thanks go to Thierry for making a 2 hour journey each way to come and ride a ski station somewhat smaller than the ones just 5 minutes from his home. As ever in the Monts Jura ski stations, the lift operators were friendly and helpful, in spite of the half-term holiday crowds and have also now adapted their smaller telecabins to hang SnowScoots and skibikes outside.

The weather forecast looks to be a bit daunting for the next few days, but at least it brings with it the prospect of some fresh snow to liven up the slopes.

SkiBike Tour 2014-15 - Better Late Than Never

Posted: Wednesday, 18 February 2015 by Mark Kinnon in Labels: , , ,

It's been a thoroughly frustrating season for me so far, having beavered away all summer and autumn to raise the cash, I was all set for a nifty Christmas get away. But frustratingly anything vaguely resembling normal volumes of snow failed to arrive. To make matters worse, I also had a terrible cold that just wouldn't go away and left me with endless wheezy coughing fits, which sounded like I had swallowed a party whistle.
New Year's eve finally brought the big dump of snow that everyone had been waiting for since the start of December, but I was kiboshed by unexpected car troubles to sort out and with those sorted, had to head off to a job in Rome that took a huge chunk out of my January diary.

The mega storm of the year was perfectly timed for the group "Occupy the Alps" meet up at the beginning of February; Carl, Andy, Wayne and others had huge volumes of fresh snow to play with. Back at base camp, I was stuck preparing for a big event in London and could only watch the pictures appear on Facebook with envy.

Blog tour 2014-15 - pre-flight preparations

Never the less I have managed, against all odds, to keep the next few weeks free and get myself out before the season is over. Of course, with a couple of days to go, I got the offer of four solid weeks of work and turned down over £3000 of easy money, why do I do this, am I crazy? Well the following video pretty much sums up my mood right now....

WARNING - contains expletives, do not click if you are easily offended!