Teeth clenched, eyes fixed ahead in a state of complete focus and with the almost audible buzz of a brain doing overtime, processing the rapidly changing scene flashing past. This is what it was like to experience downhill mountain biking during my time in Chamonix. The rush of hurtling down a mountain, on what I can only assume is usually a ski run in the winter, clad in impact padding and relying on a combination of balance, balls and the sheer hardy and tough awesomeness of the incredible bike I was riding, was amazing and I am so glad I decided to bite the bullet and hire a bike for the day, even though I was convinced that I was going to break myself in the process.
Having only ever mountain biked maybe twice before, and neither time being that extreme, I wasn’t really sure what I was signing up to when I headed into the rental shop in Chamonix and spoke with the friendly British owner, Spencer. I ended up agreeing to rent the best bike in the shop, a downhill monster (Nukeproof, for anyone who cares to know), with all the pads and helmet thrown in for good measure, and so I returned later that day to pick up my steed for the following day, in addition to some tips on where would be a good playground for a novice such as myself.
The first challenge I faced, even before getting to the top of any run, was how to get my swanky new yet beefy bike into my tiny car! After being somewhat put off the idea of removing the front wheel – something I later discovered was stupidly simple to do – I faced the puzzle of fitting the bike into my little Skoda, which I just about achieved, albeit after having to ‘close’ the boot with the use of my Sat Nav’s power cord to tether the door closed, followed by a very careful and smooth drive back to the chalet, all the while praying that I avoided any local members of the Gendarmerie.
Apparently I had rented quite a nice bike unbeknownst to me, as several of the guests at the chalet soon gathered to collectively ooh and aah at what to me was simply a heavy yet bouncy bike. It did leave me with a sense of being that person who has all of the gear but generally no idea – some pressure, it seemed, now existed to do something with my apparently awesome toy the next day. Two of the guys at the chalet, brothers Rob and James, were both there solely for the purposes of spending each day hurtling down mountain tracks on their bikes. They very kindly offered to take me under their collective wing and let me join them the next day, which in hindsight was a much more enjoyable and rewarding option that just going off on my clueless own. I was assured that the next day would be epic!
And epic it was! A relatively short drive up the valley saw us arrive at an area known as Les Tours, right on the French-Swiss border, and a classic Alpine picture postcard of grassy slopes with small herds of bell-clad horned cattle shuffling along or sitting leisurely chewing their cud, all with an acoustic soundtrack of gently chiming bells, which had the effect of making me feel as though I could have been in Tibet.
Padded up and psyched up, with lift passes excitedly clutched, we headed up for the first run of the day, and my moment of truth. I think it would be safe to say that the first descent for me was somewhat slower and more leisurely than Rob and James were used to and in spite of their excellent tuition, especially when it came to effective sharp cornering, I still ended up off the track and on my backside more than once. Still, with the amount of padding I had on it didn’t actually hurt so there was no disincentive to feeling a little braver and bolder as the day wore on. In fact, by the end of the day I found myself hurtling down the green run feeling almost like a pro, and whizzing past other groups, whilst the guys went and got their fix by tackling the championship downhill course that was on-site, complete with rather insane looking jumps!
After a leisurely mountain-top lunch and an attempted descent into Switzerland, which was quickly abandoned when it transpired how a) technical the route was and b) the fact that the time was pushing on such that we’d have more than likely had to catch a train back round to ‘our side of the mountain.’ Several more descents, each one getting a little faster and way more exciting, and it was the end of the adrenaline fest that was our day mountain-biking. The journey back into Chamonix was a little more assured now that I had been shown how to remove the front wheel, and I returned my steed to its stable in plenty of time. A great day and no broken bones or missing teeth, so a result all round!