Seeing the Châtel Mountain Style contest in France a few weeks ago got me to thinking. While it’s not the kind of riding that I am into, it certainly is impressive. But is it where mountain biking is headed? Has “freeride” become the new “extreme”?
Probably 3,000 people watched the event, most of them with bikes, lapping the countless tracks in Châtel (which is as close to Whistler as exists over here in the Alps). Freight trains of Troy Lee-clad downhillers, all on €3,000-plus bikes, fully kitted-out with battle armor, neck braces, full-face helmets, and don’t forget multiple GoPro mounts. 10-year-old kids with full-suspension (that’s good parenting!) and motocross outfits. It’s amazing to see the sport exploding right before your eyes. The Red Bull Rampage is in the middle of the desert, but this is in the middle of a resort, and they leave the course open to the public all summer after. Can you imagine a 50-foot drop in any American resort?
Which is what made me start to look deeper into “mountain biking”, and get a little bit introspective. Any of us who got into this in the 80s, even early 90s, knew that without suspension, or even the initial rudimentary stuff (remember the forks with stacks of “elastomers” that you could change out and dial in the stiffness? How about seatpost and stem suspension? Thank god those have gone away…) know that mountain biking was about using trails to go further than you would go on a hike, was faster and more exciting. Freedom — you were in on something that most people didn’t know about, or didn’t get. You probably broke something (on your bike) on every ambitious ride, as the gear wasn’t up to task. A little like three-pin leather-boot telemarking.
Then suspension improved, and so did the riding. You had XC and the early DH sides of the coin – with little to nothing in-between. Then everything got lighter, and better (I’m skipping through a lot of history here), and the “all-mountain” or “enduro” class – that some would begin to call freeride – came into play, taking the plush ride of a downhill bike and making it pedal-able. And light enough to ride on all day “epics” (why an “epic” ride needs to hurt, according to the current nomenclature, I have no idea). DH racing is like F1 (or road racing) now, with big budgets, top-secret skunkworks, corporate espionage, etc. And is beyond any riding that mere mortals can comprehend. XC is more for everyman, a combo of bike path to light jogging trail, unless you live in a mecca like Sun Valley, Fruita, or most ski towns in the West – where lift-access isn’t an option, yet. Then you might have a six-inch bike that sets you back four or five grand, because you deserve it – rightly so.
Living 16 of the past 20 years in Jackson Hole, we had to work for all the down we could get – the Teton Freedom Riders hadn’t made their moves yet and XC was about the only game in town. You could shuttle the pass to get a Phillips’ or Black’s canyon, but you still had some climbing to do. So this whole lift-accessed riding came only recently to me – when I moved full-time to the Alps. In a mountain culture where nobody’s going to look at you funny when you take a flying saucer and your dog up to 3000m on a tram that holds 200 people, it’s only natural that they would let you take your bike up there in the summer – go wherever you want, accountability is in your hands. And with the world’s best infrastructure of lifts and hiking trails, the possibilities are endless.
TRIBES, SUB-TRIBES, AND SUB-SUB-TRIBES
Mountain biking, like skiing or any of these non-team sports that people are passionate about, has “more disciplines than the periodic table,” as our colleague Mitchell Scott put it. Nowhere is that more apparent than here in Europe, where you will see them all in the course of a given day (just like skiing over here). You’ve got the lycra-clad climbing freaks on carbon Scott hardtails, still ultra-keen on training for races like the Trans-Alp or the Grand Raid. You’ve got the moto-chic DH crowd, lapping the manicured (or not so, in the case of here in Verbier) race tracks in intimidating freight trains (full-face ski huckers? slednecks?). Casual dirt-road comfort bikers, straight out of a late 90’s REI catalog (piste skiers, “parabolic” skis, and rear-entry boots – not quite ready for this new technology, thank you). Skinny-jean and t-shirt clad dirtjump hipsters (park rats – maybe the skinny jeans have crossed over there now, too? At least the bikers aren’t wearing bandannas – yet).
And then there’s us. Mitchell penned an excellent piece for Pinkbike recently, posing the question “Is the free ride over?”.
It’s obviously a hot topic, as there are 372 comments as I write this. Some people (mostly Euros) are angry that a Canadian could decide that their segment of the sport is done, or at least not “cool” anymore, according to the “pros” who now compete in “freeride” events. I think Mitch is just asking the same question I am – what do you call it then? Being as the Canadians are somewhat responsible for a lot of the last decade’s progression in mountain biking – with trail and bike design that coincided with of each other’s development, he has the right to ask this question for sure. His countryman, Chris Winter, who paved the way here in the Alps doing the same kind of thing that we now do, immediately re-tweeted and Facebook posted that he agreed with Mitch – they had stopped using the term “freeride” five years ago for what they do.
What we do is pore over topo maps to find the best, longest, high-quality descents in the Alps. It’s all about the down for me, just like skiing. I am happy to climb for hours (though you don’t usually need to), so long as the reward is a deserted, remote, not-necessarily-unridden-but maybe-rarely-ridden singletrack downhill. Something that gets me somewhere I wouldn’t normally have been able to find. Something that no one in your group knows about, or has memorized every nuance of. We are happy to use a lift or two (or three, I’m no purist), a train, a Swiss Post bus, a shuttle to get an altitude bump. Sometimes it’s pretty technical – places where a fall would be a career-ender. But more often, we look for those flowy trails where the topo lines aren’t too tight. The magic exposure and altitude for good dirt. The right kind of forest, geology, conditions. We’ve got a daypack, about as heavy as your ski pack, with everything you need. Maybe knee-pads. Technical, practical gear. Prepared for a full day out, and maybe more if you run into trouble.
So what do you call that part of the sport that we’re obviously so passionate about? All-mountain? Seems like if you’re mountain biking, you should be riding all of the mountain you can. Enduro? That was a kind of motorcycle last time I checked. Freeride? Maybe like extreme, that term has been hackneyed. Off-piste? We’re on chemins pedestre all the time, many of them hundreds, if not thousands of years old. Generations of mountain people kicking rocks out of them for years are why they are so good. So what is it?
I feel like we have the world’s best technology at our fingertips, the lightweight materials to be able to go farther, and the infrastructure to do more of it than you could find in a lifetime, here in the Alps. In the Rhône Valley alone, there are literally hundreds of lifts and trams that run all summer (not all to ski resorts), and some all year. We have sussed out about 20 percent of them. Then you start getting into the shuttle-able terrain, the trails you can get to from the summer cheese cowboy alpage-access roads. Endless. It’s like having a pair of S7s with Dynafits and the lift systems that make the Alps what they are – a skier’s mecca. We rarely see anyone where we ride. Sort of like skiing powder and never crossing a track. We are so lucky.
And that’s the segment of riding that “isn’t cool” anymore? I thought that’s what it was all about: Exploring. Big vistas. Solace. The Search. You know…adventure.
Jack Shaw is the owner and operator of Epic Europe, which guides clients on mountain biking, skiing, and hiking trips through the Alps, with emphasis on culture and food. Photo is by Tim Tadder.