We arrived late after driving over the two Saint Bernard Passes (and repairing our brakes). Fortunately it’s still not too busy, and we were able to camp in the small car park in front of his house. We were exhausted, and drifted off to sleep as the storms finally hit.
I’m not sure why we’re so tired, but it was a struggle to get up – though the grey skies, cool temperatures and drizzling rain probably had something to do with the lack of motivation.
Today was the first day of the season, with the lifts and trails officially opening. I just found out that lifts are completely free over summer. Free for walkers, bikers, whoever! Our friend got up early to go mountain biking, but I decided to save it for tomorrow, as it was only going to be a morning session.
Instead, we slowly made out of his apartment, and into town. It was really weird walking around here out of season. The shops are still open, but everywhere has sales, with discounts ranging from 30-50% off. That said, things aren’t cheap, just a little more affordable! I’m always tempted by nice outdoor clothing, today I was able to resist and keep my wallet in my pocket.
The town organised a large weekend event for motorbikes, and there were hundreds of bikers in town. The organisers must have been a little disappointed that the hot and sunny weather had ended a little prematurely, as this cold, grey and wet weather is somewhat less fun – especially with all the peaks shrouded under the thick and low lying clouds – yes, I know this photo makes it look like nice weather, but it was just a small break in the clouds.
There was a small motorbike trials show put on. The rain seemed to have kept many people away, which was a shame. Still, we were there, and we enjoyed the freakish display of balance, coordination and control – though, he did tap some of his volunteers with the bike!
The main events in town were taking place in a large marquee, so we went to check it out. We’d heard that there was good food and music last year, so hoped for more of the same this year.
The band was finishing up their sound check when we arrived. I got excited, as it sounded like they were playing a cover of an obscure song by Tool (No Quarter, from their live/b-side album Salival). I never realised that it was originally a Led Zeppelin track, and Tool were also covering it.
It was an enormous tent, and while there were loads of middle aged men in black motorbike clothing (more waterproof jackets than leather), there was not enough to make it feel busy.
We didn’t stay too long, and returned to cook dinner at home instead.
The weather wasn’t much better this morning, with thick clouds hanging low. But, I didn’t care, it was time to go riding. We went to the hire shop, only to find out that the bike I wanted to rent had been rented to another. Fortunately there are plenty of other shops in town.
European bikes have their brake levers reversed to what I’m used to (I’m used to rear on the left, and front on the right – much like a motorbike, which is universal). They kindly agreed to swap the levers for me, because I would struggle to adjust my brain – and the risk for mistakes are way too high.
We got as far as the gondola, and I noticed the rear brake getting softer, and softer, and then a pile of hydraulic fluid on the floor… It went back to the shop, and they re-attached and bled the brakes for me.
This meant that it was nearly 11AM by the time we got started, missing the first hour of the day. We co-incidentally met one of Christophe’s friends (Léo Taillefer – check out one of his winning videos on YouTube to see just how crazy he is) at the top of the Olympic gondola, and proceeded to hit the trails.
It was the first time for me on a downhill bike, and the difference was huge! Just like when we were skiing/snowboarding with Christophe, he disappeared down the mountain, and I did my best to not lose sight of him.
It took some adjusting to the beast of a machine, especially the flat pedals, which I seemed to come attached from at the worst of times, doing un-wanted Superman impressions over the jumps. The full face helmet was giving me tunnel vision, but was happy to be wearing goggles with all the mud that was flying around.
But, the riding was fantastic. Incredibly well maintained, with huge bermed corners that linked into more bermed corners in a never ending link of fun. The bike had incredible grip once I’d learned how to take advantage of it. I was amazed at how physical it was, and was panting for breath for the majority of the time we were descending. I was using all my (limited) strength, as well as absolute concentration.
But, of course, we’d used up all our fun point, and eventually had to recharge them on another chairlift back up. I always laughed at downhill riders getting shuttle runs, or pushing bikes up hills, but these things are really, really hard to ride up the smallest inclines. The seating position makes sitting down and pedalling difficult, and the suspension absorbs the majority of your force if you stand up to pedal. Plus, they weigh well over twice what my cross country bike weighs!
The clouds were ruining the views, but the weather was holding, with no rain falling. We rode over to the Tignes side, where the trails seemed to be even more fun, and the berms got even larger – I swear some were taller than me.
My photos from my phone were rubbish, but Christophe snapped some that perfectly caught the weather today – but he is a professional photographer here in Val d’Isere, so I’d expect nothing less!
I thought I’d be able to ride downhill all day long, since the usually taxing climbs have been removed. I managed to stay out until the end of the day, but only just. My entire body was exhausted, and the final long run back into town was so long and rough I thought I’d developed arthritis in my fingers!
We’d craved it last night, but found out at the last minute that we didn’t have any reblochon cheese to make tartiflette – one of the many incredible French comfort foods. While us boys were out having fun, I tasked Risa to shop for the ingredients, with the understanding that I’d cook it. If you’ve never had tartiflette, it’s a potato bake, with bacon/onion/garlic in a reduced white wine sauce, with cream, and then slabs of creamy cheese melted on top. I hope I’ve made you hungry.
As predicted, the weather cleared up today. It was a gloriously clear day, with moderate temperatures. Today it was just Risa and I, which meant I’d have time to stop for photos, as well as (hopefully) let my body have a little rest.
We made sure to get the bikes as early as possible, and then caught one of the first chairs of the day. I felt sorry for Risa, as the bike weighed half as much as she did, and simple things like lifting it up stairs, or onto the gondola required all her strength.
Did I mention that the views were epic? I’m used to mountain biking in a dusty forest in Brisbane, where the best views might be seeing Brisbane from 300m up – though usually it’s just the view of the trail. Here we were riding under the gaze of some phenomenal mountains – including Mont Blanc! It was actually distracting, because I wanted to enjoy the scenery, …but I also wanted to enjoy the bike and ride as fast as possible.
The riding was much slower, with me keeping a small distance behind, yelling at her to do things differently – not that I really know much about riding a downhill bike! As the day went on, I started giving her more space, allowing me to go fast for a short section, and wait at the next intersection.
We treated it more as a day of sightseeing on downhill bikes, rather than a flat-out day of riding, like yesterday. Risa was excited to see the marmots, or the horses that were out in the giant field of flowers.
And speaking of, we’d flown through this section of flowers yesterday afternoon, in grey weather. Today with the vivid sunshine, it was truly glorious.
She did well, taking a cautious approach to the riding, but still managing. We started on the green trails, but since they are a little limited, I pushed her to try some blue, as I didn’t think they were that much harder. They were definitely steeper, and it stopped being fun for her – so we went back to the greens. The other benefit was very few other riders were using the green trails, so there was less pressure to get out of people’s way.
We’d done a little over 50km of trails, and Risa was exhausted. We made it back to the bottom just in time to do one final solo run, so I ditched Risa. I saw a red run on the trail that I hadn’t done yet, and was keen to give it a try. I hadn’t seen any signs for it, so I asked one of the guys from bike patrol how to get to it – unfortunately it’s not open/ready yet. So, I took off on another run down Val Blue, this time as fast as I could. This wasn’t captured on Strava, to my bitter disappointment! As they say, if it didn’t happen on Strava, it didn’t happen.
I was actually exhausted from today’s ride, even without that final solo run. We had ramen for dinner, and had a much needed early night – if you call 11PM early.
It was beautiful and sunny again this morning. The inner-me wanted so much to go riding again, because it’s going to be a while until I can ride again. However, my body complained at the thought, so today was a lazy/rest day. We probably would have left Val d’Isere today, however we’re waiting for Risa’s photo to be returned back from UK – it was damaged by a faulty USB charger in our van, and had to have an IC related to charging desoldered and replaced, which is far beyond my skill set.
It felt a bit of a waste to spend so much time indoors on a day like today, so eventually we went on an afternoon hike. I say hike, but we caught the Solaise Express, and had a short walk down to the alpine lake. It was surprisingly busy, with people like us, outside and enjoying the beautiful weather. The clouds had started to gather on the horizons, however, we were still surrounded by a near 360˚ collection of stunning peaks.
There were people fishing in this lake, which I thought odd, but later learnt that they introduce fish for people to fish for here.
We weren’t really paying much attention to time and were very lucky to have caught the last gondola back into town. If we’d been a little later, it would have been an hour long hike down some steep/loose trails.
We joined Christophe and his friends for a BBQ dinner down in the lower part of town. It was lovely and sunny – until we arrived, then the sun disappeared behind the peaks above us. Temperatures instantly dropped, and we returned to our van for jumpers, wondering what happened to summer!
I woke and checked the status of Risa’s iPhone. It still showed as being in the customs in Paris. I was starting to worry, and consider alternate plans. Do we continue on our journey, and have Christophe ship it to somewhere down the road for us? Or do we wait? We decided to wait one more day.
Out of habit, I refreshed the tracking status one more time, and saw that it was in Val d’Isere! It was going to come today, which meant we could continue on our travels. It didn’t arrive until later in the afternoon. It turned on now, and charged, so it was a very well spent £50 – Apple suggested I swap it for a refurbished model for £250. However, I still had to replace the broken screen. In testing later, I realised that the microphone wasn’t working, nor the proximity sensor, so I had to pull it all apart again – the proximity wasn’t seated correctly, and there was a film of protective plastic I’d left on the microphone when I replaced the Lightning port earlier.
It was yet another beautiful day, and I was starting to take them for granted. By the time I’d finally fixed Risa’s phone, and motivated myself into action, it was late in the afternoon, and the usual clouds had started forming around the mountains. We caught the Olympic gondola up again, this time walking to the peak of the mountain above Val d’Isere town. The views in all directions were phenomenal. Christophe showed me some of the lines that they ski in the winter, and I had pangs of vertigo thinking about it. I’m so, so far from extreme.
We’d had tartiflette, and now the other French food we’d been craving, but unable to cook, was raclette. While both of these are technically winter foods, we had them tonight. We didn’t get any strange looks from the deli when we purchased our EIGHT HUNDRED GRAMS of cheese, so I guess it wasn’t so odd after all – or he was exceptional at hiding his surprise.
We boiled potatoes, prepared charcuterie and pickles, and set about melting and consuming all of that cheese. We had three types, one regular, one smoked, and one sheep. They were also delicious, but after a few slices each, we hit the wall. In a combination of me not wanting to waste food, and me not wanting to miss out on food, I pushed through the barriers, and finished the last of the cheese and potatoes. I may have been able to make it fit in my stomach, but I then spent the rest of the evening in discomfort – and incredibly thirsty. This was our last evening together, and thankfully Christophe hadn’t grown tired of us cramping his style.
I managed to convince Christophe of just one more morning ride! Fortunately he loves it as much as I do, so it wasn’t too hard.
It was surprising just how much the conditions had changed since our first rainy ride. It had completely dried out, and was now a little loose/gravelly on the corners. We had to slow down considerably, as there was far less grip to lean into – OK, I had to slow down, Christophe was still outside of my focused tunnel vision.
I was getting more of a feel for the bike, and the way you have to push, lift and lean the bike to make it flow. But, I still struggled with the flat pedals, with my feet coming away every time I got a little too cocky on the jumps, pulling my confidence back down to the ground.
We went to some of the more challenging trails over in Tignes, at my request. I thought I’d give one of the black runs a go, because the green/blue/red have been pretty easy – even if I’m not riding them close to the limit. Kamasutrail (who comes up with the trail names) was another beast. It started quite easy, but things got pretty epic mid-way through. We saw some of the gap jumps from the chairlift, and I thought it looked OK – but not something I’d want to do. Standing in the vicinity of them, there was no way I would go near these death traps! Some of the gaps were enormous, and I’m not exaggerating that it would have been well over 15m. But, thankfully for us there were b-lines allowing us to safely continue.
But, it got steep. And it got loose and rocky. I thought I’d see what the bike could do, and pointed it straight down some of the more technical stuff, only to realise that a combination of me and the bike weren’t able to do those trails. Thankfully the full face helmet saved my face from further disfiguration. My confidence and ability rating had dropped back to reality – I probably can’t ride anything, not even close, and it was ridiculous of me to think so.
We headed back to Val d’Isere, this time returning via one of the Enduro trails. It was fun, not quite as manicured as the downhill trails. It felt much more wild, and at one with nature – as we were ripping it up. There were short rocky technical sections, and the bike felt fine over them – though, being a downhill bike, it should feel fine over some small rocky sections.
However, the last section of the day was underneath the Olympic Gondola. I’d slip most of my way down this on my arse in winter, as it’s so steep and icy. I basically did the same thing today on the mountain bike, as it was so steep and loose gravel. It was honestly terrifying, in a state of barely being in control. Somehow Christophe managed, and was standing at the bottom waiting for me.
It was only three hours, but it was truly exhausting.
We showered, ate, and packed. Val d’Isere had once again been amazing. It’s harder to leave this time than it was last time.
I was now going to have to drive several hours north towards Annecy, though all I want to do is sleep.