Friday, December 28, 2007

Mitchell Scott's Swiss Bliss story, July 2004

MITCHELL SCOTT uncovers mountain biking 'perfection' in the Swiss Alps, plunging down ancient trails by day and dining on raclette and fine wine in chalets by night

ZERMATT, SWITZERLAND -- In the Valais region of southwestern Switzerland, where gondolas, trains and chairlifts bridge the gaps between river and ridge with uncommon frequency, I stop my mountain bike because I have to. My forearms are pumped from braking, but this isn't the only reason I must pause: The trail ahead of me contours downward through mountains carpeted by tall evergreen forest, providing yet another stunning view.
The path beneath our tires is ancient,and right now, on a bike, it is delivering otherworldly joy. Slightly more than a metre wide, it has been worn by the traffic of civilizations coming and going.
Ten mountain bikers from British Columbia have gathered here to ride "perfection" -- at least that's what we've been told.
With Whistler native Chris Winter and Valais local François Pançhard as guides, our crew will cover 25,000 vertical metres of single track over eight days, dine on raclette and fine wine in Alpine chalets at night, and stop for cappuccinos and pain au chocolat halfway down 2,600-metre descents just because we can.
We are some of the first foreigners to experience Switzerland like this -- the first to blend the modernity of lifts, the technology of full-suspension bikes and the country's historic trails.
Three years ago, Winter, an entrepreneur and avid cyclist, started researching the possibility of guiding downhill bike tours in the Swiss Alps, where he had spent a portion of his childhood skiing. His research fuelled the formation of his tour company, Big Mountain Bike Adventures, and eventually led him to Pançhard.
The son of a mountain climber, Pançhard's green eyes and conniving grin belie a certain imbalance. He is not following the footsteps of his thirty-something peers, taking high-profile jobs in New York and Paris, making heaps of cash in Geneva playing with oil baron cash, driving BMWs and wearing fancy watches.
Instead, Pançhard runs his own CD-ROM trail-mapping business, spending day after day documenting the labyrinth of single track that drapes Switzerland like a giant gill net.
He lives high in the mountains in a tiny little cabin with his beautiful Hungarian wife, and almost every day during the summer explores his homeland by bike.
"The Swiss mountain biker rides up the gravel road and down the gravel road," explains Pançhard. "They don't ride single track and they think lifts are for wimps."
But Pançhard has gone against the traditionalist ways of the Swiss and swallowed his pride. He rides lifts with his bike all the time. Almost all Swiss lifts -- of which there are hundreds -- allow bikes, some on platforms, some on little hooks, and some on which you have to hold them yourself. From the top of each spreads a weave of hiking trail, cow paths and double track that meander through some of the world's most spectacular mountains. Some traverse, some go up, but once you've won an elevation of 2,400 to 3,000 metres, most go down -- for a long, long way.
Worn smooth since the Dark Ages by a perfectionist people confined to a relatively small, rugged land, much of the 67,000-kilometre-long lacework of walking paths links farms, churches, villages and peaks. And just like everything else Swiss, they are of superb quality. This is a country obsessed with time, so it makes sense that everything is built with a timeless quality -- local villages even hire unemployed residents to rake and manicure their proximate trail networks. As a result, they are naturally contoured with drinking fountains and benches in the farthest reaches of every valley.
On one particularly perfect afternoon we find ourselves high above the glitz of Verbier, with the 4,807-metre Mont Blanc massif -- Western Europe's highest peak -- in view just across the Rhône Valley.
Earlier that day we traversed narrow, derailleur-claiming cow paths through Alpine meadows hued by an August dawn, and descended to a decommissioned road through winding, dipping single track as it ran beside a medieval aqueduct. Wandering across a steep forested slope, we then climbed 1,000 metres on gravel roads to a steep path that tops out somewhere near 2,700 metres. Here we sit, with the starting point of our ride -- a quaint stone-and-log lodge near the top of a ski gondola -- barely visible across the valley. We snack on cheese, sausage and chocolate, marvelling at the vertiginous relief leading to the Rhône.
It seems like days go by until we stop again. Steep single track melds into wider trails through sub-Alpine meadows with ground cover that is brick red, mustard and rust. There is a collective tingle when we notice that the patterned vineyards, orchards and roads along the Rhône's banks are still tiny details in the vista before us. We speed into forest, where the trail widens even more, and banked corners and jumps emerge with regularity. With cramped fingers and rattling biceps, the thrilling speed and blurred forest rush in upon me in a wave of sensation.
After 20 kilometres of uninterrupted descent, we whiz through vineyards to a village where we buy beer, cappuccinos and sandwiches. We load our bikes into the trailer, crowd into our van and drive an hour up the mountain-walled Rhône Valley to another little gondola that takes us, two at a time, up to a mountainside village. We spin through narrow streets past stilted houses from the 1300s to a store, where our backpack is stuffed with wine and cheese and more sausage and bottles of weak European beer.
Then it's off to another gondola that carries us up to a modern little hostel tucked above the lift. On a sun-draped deck we sip Löwenbräus and savour views of glaciers, ragged peaks and lush green valleys. We drink and eat and try to recall the thousands of spectacular intricacies of the day, afraid we'll forget because there are so many. Over the course of eight days we ride an average of 40 kilometres a day on our bikes, routinely climbing 600 metres and descending 3,000.
In Zermatt, a picture-perfect ski village in the Upper Valais, we ride the apogee of Swiss ingenuity: The train up to Gornergrat, a lookout at 3,130 metres where a four-star hotel offers views of Europe's highest peaks. The sun begins to set and the hikers and trains have all gone and we ride a path that is more a living, pulsing vein than a trail. We are cells coursing to a preset destination. We travel in unison and only need to react to the subtle turns, dips and switchbacks of hard-packed earth.
We spend the night in another immaculate chalet, this one high above the shimmering opulence of Zermatt. Through a window the Matterhorn fades into dusk, and someone says he feels like a king. Not kings, but raiders that have finally landed on a legendary shore. In Switzerland, or the Land of Perfect Single Track, the trail goes on and on . . . and then on some more.

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