Lee Fieldsend charges down the Verbier slopes in the quest for adventure…
The sun had been up for a few hours yet it was still early and surprisingly cool. Across the valley lingered thin, remaining wisps of morning mist, reluctant to relinquish their hold on the stunning landscape of Verbier. Around us, massive, snow-laden peaks reached skywards like one large, white Toblerone. Below, lush, green forests stretched down into the Val de Bagnes.
There were three of us and, like knights before a battle, we had donned our armour with meticulous preparation, inspected our trusty steeds for any signs of fault or weakness and now we sat astride our downhill mountain bikes, making final adjustments and discussing our intended route – a vertical drop of just under 2,000 metres of twisting dirt tracks, single-track tarmac roads, quaint Swiss villages, forests and flower-filled pastures. We closed our helmets and put on our gloves to complete our armoured shells.
A quick check, a push forward and we were off. The first 500 metres down to Verbier were to prove the most difficult. The resort was days away from closing and there were still large patches of snow and ice. Where the snow had melted the ground was still sodden and muddy which meant a lot of peddling through boggy ground. Great sprays of mud shot up behind the bike and into my face, covering my goggles as I struggled to gain some momentum on the flat start.
The lift area and signs of man became a haze in the background as the fall line steepened, freeing my thoughts from bills, work and responsibility for forests, speed and enjoyment. The ground became drier and firmer as we neared the first forest track. We stopped peddling as the fall line took the bikes and riders into its embrace. From the edge of the piste I could look over and see the path, about the width of two tyres, disappearing into the seemingly impenetrable tees. The path itself was not so much a path as an established route. Exposed tree roots and rocks presented constant obstacles that were negotiated with subtle braking, good balance and continuous forward momentum. Deeper into the woods the trees got closer and the track seemed to tighten. I was totally focused, one mistake could mean a punishing fall, or hitting a tree. At times the track opened into a clearing requiring great care when crossing fields of pine cones with their hazardous tendency to roll out from under the bike wheels on the steep mountain side. The track zigzagged through the forest for about ten minutes of glorious, uninterrupted, challenging riding, until we came across the piste once more and joined it.
Here we picked up speed again, I could feel my bike’s suspension constantly working, taking out the bumps and shocks. Our first big sweeping corner was taken smoothly. As the other guys pulled level, I pushed ahead slightly and leaned over into the corner, taking it fast and stable and setting myself up perfectly for the next one, as it approached rapidly. After a couple more corners I built up quite a lot of speed, and the surrounding trees blurred into a kaleidoscope of greens and browns.
The next part of our route saw us pass through the resort, then through the middle of a picturesque village The streets were narrow and twisty and it was great fun to be on stable, smooth ground. The tyres gripped to the dry, solid surface like they were glued to a racetrack. At the end of the village, a grassy, single track opened out and stretched into the distance. I left the houses behind in a cloud of dust, peddling hard to squeeze every last bit of speed possible from my bike, the combination of speed and incredible views across the valley was intoxicating. Ahead were more corners. I attacked these switchbacks as fast as I dared, applying just the right amount of brake whilst leaning into the corner and hanging a leg out so as not to over-slide and fall. When you get the timing right it is the most sublime feeling of control. However when you get it wrong the results can be laughable or painful or both. I threw a dust cloud up at every corner. As I pulled away, I saw the other riders bursting through our collective dust clouds in a ferocious cavalry charge.
As on my snowboard, I kept an eye out for terrain features to play on and, as we neared the start of the next wood, I looked to the right of the track, and there was a jump going up the bank which landed back onto the track. Needless to say I hit it at full speed. The bike’s suspension soaked up the landing and it gave me just enough breaking time for the last corner before we hit the next forest track. This one was dry and wide with tall conifers on either side. Hot sunshine was now streaming through the gaps, creating a dappled camouflage of shadow and light on the forest floor. The pattern ebbed and flowed with the light summer breeze, giving the impression that the forest floor was alive.
This last part of the forest was the hardest pitch with a sequence of steep switchback corners in relentless succession. The only way to navigate them all was to keep attacking aggressively, with lots of well-timed breaking and good balance. Sliding the bikes between tightly-packed trees gave such an intense feeling of power and control. Eventually the track spat us out down some steps onto a quaint chapel courtyard.
The chapel interior was cool and peaceful, outside, the birds chirped and a large fountain bubbled away, begging us to kick back and relax. The heat by now was intense and we lifted off our dust-covered helmets and rinsed our sweaty, dirty, smiling faces in the water. The difficult riding was behind us now and what lay ahead were the last roads and tracks down to the lift station in the valley below. We laughed and joked about our near misses, jumps, speed and scenery.
The remaining twenty minutes of riding on firm, dry, wide roads gave us plenty of opportunity to enjoy the scenery, as the trees opened up and the track once again stretched out across the side of the mountain. We had ample time to view our route ahead for hazards and open up our speed, as we screamed down the tracks between flower-filled pastures. Civilisation brought a much-appreciated cold drinks machine, then a comfy lift back up to the top of the mountain, a rest, and time to discuss our next route and recount our daring, adrenaline-fuelled escapades. We all had the feeling we were going to enjoy the rest of the day. Hot sunshine beat down over the magnificent scenery and birds flew overhead, as free as we had been for those few hours, a gift, given and taken with appreciation.