Head buzzing from wine, stomach full of cheese, meat and bread, I careened haphazardly down the mountain, the Rhone Valley far below and a group of howling bike riders in the exact same boat as I following closely behind.
We were mid-way through an eight-day sampling of some of the finest Swiss and French downhill mountain bike gems. Some days took us to established bike parks, and other days to obscure trails hidden to the general public, and only discovered through a combination of bribing locals, studying maps and some good ‘ol fashioned luck.
This particular day we were on trails that had been shown to us a couple years earlier by a local friend, who then swore us to
secrecy. Accessed by shuttling up a winding road that doubled as a stage in the Euro Rally circuit, several trails dropped straight down a mountain that abruptly ended in valley-bottom vineyards thousands of feet below and split off in different directions. The top section was shared by all trails; a ripping singletrack down the ridgeline, cow pastures to the left and terminal air to the right. While keeping it safely in the middle, one had to keep an eye out for electrified fencing that was constantly being moved around as the cows grazed different parts of the mountain. There’s nothing like untangling yourself from an electric fence as a result of not stopping in time.
This exciting upper section of trail ended in the yard of a picturesque and very quintessential Swiss chalet. Usually empty and shuttered, on this day there was a party at the cabin. People spilled out of the house and into the yard/trail, laughing and chatting. On our first lap through, immediately assuming we were trespassing, we kept our heads down, literally parting the crowd with our motley crew covered in stinky body armour and continued down the trail. We approached with trepidation on our next lap, not wanting a confrontation, but resigning ourselves to going through the crowd again, as it was our only option.
As we approached, some of the partygoers began striding towards us purposefully. Bracing for an argument, I stepped out in front our group and readied myself. “Why did you not stop last time? We have too much food and drink for us alone! Join us!” exclaimed the Swiss partiers. Surprised, and embarrassed for reverting to our “us against them” North American attitudes, we leaned our bikes against the wooden fence (not the electric one) and joined the party. Wine bottles were opened, cold beers emerged from baths of ice, and loaves of bread, local cheeses and meat were brought out. In fractured French we shared stories of our travels and home, and our generous hosts regaled us in broken English tales of their families and the land upon which we rode.
Drunk on this hospitality, and the Rhone vintages, we finally tore ourselves away from this little hamlet in the hills, and hopped our bikes, the valley still far below. Inspired by the change in events we decided to keep the adventurous spirit alive, and ride a trail we had passed by before, but never actually ridden. With thousands of feet to the valley, a decision like that is not usually taken lightly, but on this day we felt we could do no wrong. The trail had not seen traffic in a year at least, as there was a thick layer of pine needles carpeting the track, which plummeted down the mountainside, broken intermittently by sinuous switchbacks. It was as close to tree skiing as I have come on a bike, ripping down through the dry pine needles, letting the back end of the bike roost out around corners, and hearing everybody else hoot and holler in their own little world of fun.
Eventually the trail spit out into valley floor vineyards, and we each picked straightlines between rows of grapes as we ripped towards the small town where our extremely bored shuttle driver sat waiting. Giggling with excitement over the discovery of a new trail, and the impromptu Swiss party we had experienced, we loaded up the van to head back to the hotel for the evening.
I spend days planning out an itinerary for trips like these, but in the end, it is the unexpected moments that are part of travel that stand out as highlights. This was an out of the blue encounter with locals that knit together the essence of the trip so much better than my itinerary ever could. It was a look into a side of Swiss mountain culture that not everyone gets a chance to experience, and we got to top it all off with an epic mountain bike ride.
Joe Schwartz hails from British Columbia, where he has spent much of his life exploring the mountains, both on his mountain bike and skis. He is a certified guide, bike coach, sponsored MTB athlete and is a marketing student at BCIT.