This outdoors feature is part of Global Geneva’s ‘Youth Writes’ initiative.
I began riding as a kid in the south of England before joining a mountain bike club in my teens. Pretty soon, I was riding and digging local trails in the woods before venturing further afield and into the mountains whenever we went on holiday to Switzerland and the French Alps. This experience was a big motivation for me to look for job in the Lake Geneva region. Obviously, joining CERN for two years was an exceptional privilege, but being able to develop an outdoor mountain lifestyle was just as incredible. The Lake Geneva area is amazing for that; you can get up into the mountains in less than half an hour’s drive.
Of course, the Alps are renowned for mountain biking all over Europe. And anyone in the United Kingdom who is serious about leaping onto your saddle will have heard of places like Morzine (France) or Verbier (Switzerland), both prime mountain biking pilgrimage locations. So I already knew where to go before even moving here. And since living in the Pays de Gex, the French Jura side of Geneva, I have discovered a host of new mountain biking trails both in the Jura as well as across the lake in the Alps. You don’t find such variation so close to a city anywhere.
I generally ride the Alps most weekends from spring to the end of summer, maybe as late as October. And I like changing locations, so I am lucky enough to have visited an incredible number of some of the world’s most beautiful and challenging bike areas. I still manage to find new bike paths and trails; there is so much diversity as well as incredible mountain views. From the Jura Mountains, which are north of Lake Geneva facing the Alps and where you get rugged forest descents, you can enjoy what I reckon must be some of the earth’s most spectacular vistas. Whether in the morning or at sunset, you can gaze out to daunting mountains such as the Mont Blanc, Les Dents du Midi and even, to the east, the Eiger and Mönch.
For anyone new to the Lake Geneva area, or even just visiting for a weekend, it’s pretty easy to get hooked up. When I arrived I went straight to the nearest bike shop called Bikes and Buddies (https://www.facebook.com/bikeandbuddies/) – the name was obviously a clue in case I might need some riding friends. The place is run by Stéphane, a Frenchman who lived for a number of years in Oxford and speaks perfect English. He knows all the local trails and the people I could hook up to ride with…I quickly met a lot of riders, both expats and locals. And so now, two years later, I am good friends with Stephane and part of a very active and fun mountain biking community. There’s never any problem trying to figure where to go.
From “feel good riding” to “super technical” – something for everyone
Deciding where to go, however, also depends on a lot of things. The weather, for example, or perhaps if you’ve partied too much the night before and wake up with a hangover. So I know places where it’s all “feel good riding” with nicely groomed bike parks and lots of easy flowing tracks. Then, if you’re feeling fit and raving to go, there are the super technical places with steep, rocky trails with lots of jumps and obstacles, such as boulders or trees. These are places where you can find real challenge or go really fast. Sometimes, there are tracks which are really hard so you become obsessive. You go back again and again in order to improve.
What really helps are the races, particularly the enduro races. These are awesome and consist of a series of time downhill tracks over the period of a day. This is a totally different type of riding. You have to be fit and super-focused and generally be prepared to ride as hard and as fast as possible. Even though the enduros are exhausting, you feel really amazing at the end of the day. It’s also an endurance challenge that you can do with one’s friends. They don’t have to do all the stages, but can pick and choose. Then, at the end of the day, you can eat and drink, and talk, lie and impress about everything that you did. It’s a great way to bond and meet new people.
Mountain biking every weekend can be expensive, but you can do it in a manner that is affordable. You can stay in nice hotels or cheap Alpine hostels. Some people come up with their vans. I’ve slept in cars sometimes. Or you can sleep on someone’s floor or couch. But in the end, I am lucky. I already live very close to the Alps so I can just go out for the day, even if I have to head back by car or train late at night. Before moving to the area, we used to rent a chalet for a few weeks in Morzine. It wasn’t cheap, but compared to the ski season, it’s about half the price.
Even winter biking…
Furthermore, most ‘bike parks’ use ski chairlifts to bring people up to the trail heads in the summer, so this is great fun! And allows you to do far more runs. Downhill bikes are created to go down, not to climb. It’s almost impossible to cycle to the top of a mountain on one. So the lifts are a godsend.
A lot of people, particularly the fanatics, like to continue with their mountain biking in the winter. This year I cycled the Jura at Crozet – a resort overlooking Geneva – using the telecabine, or lift. There wasn’t much snow, so it was almost as if you were riding in the summer. You just had to be careful about sliding in the snow patches.
Mountain e-bikes are becoming increasingly popular and in general are far more ‘doable’ for cycling in the snow. There are also a few big downhill enduro races in the Alps which start in the snow. Megavalanche and Mountain of Hell are popular for this. I have ridden in the snow a handful of times; it’s a lot fun but not really my thing. Generally, when the snow is good, I much prefer skiing. So my bike stays in my room, nice and dry. It’s good to change and you use different muscles – and meet different people. Mountain bikers, too, tend to be skiing or snowboarding passionés. I get a buzz going down a hill on just about anything. Sure, I much prefer cycling, but nothing beats skiing in really good snow.
In the end, it’s all about the mountains, particularly the Alps. When you live in this area, you can choose between France and Switzerland, and even Italy (an hour and a half). France has great bike parks, which are open all through the summer. France is also cheaper, particularly for lift passes or lunches. But Switzerland has great riding, too. Verbier, with trails open really late, is amazing. And so is Crans-Montana and La Berra. You can also ride from one country into the other.
The Jura Mountains, both French and Swiss sides, are different but still amazing. And they are much closer to Geneva. You can do Crozet and Metabief (a bike park) in France, which is part of the French Jura Regional Park, or go a bit further east, and do St Cergue in Switzerland. In some places, you can also do night riding after work.
The telecabines in the Jura are open in the summer on weekends and the trails are awesome. They’re hand-built, fresh and less-groomed, and much more ‘eco’ as they say, than most bike parks in the Alps.
The Alps: Steep and techy – The Jura: more natural and wilder
The big difference with the Alps is that the Jura trails are steep, techy and made by people who love riding in the woods and in nature. Alps riding is more for those who want big ‘steeps’ with huge jumps and corners. It’s also where most of the tourists go. The Jura is more natural and wilder, perhaps even old school, notably for those who love nature and the outdoors and wish to be at the ‘heart’ of riding. The same goes for the Salève at the foot of the Alps on the southern side of Geneva. Here the terrain is more like the Jura. These are ‘unofficial’ biking areas, so you have to know the trails, which are also more difficult to ride.
For those coming to the Lake Geneva and Southern Alps area for the first time, the best thing to do is to join one of the various Facebook biking communities. There are quite a few. But even if you don’t know anyone, you’ll meet people pretty quickly. And everyone has suggestions on where to go and want to do. It’s pretty laidback.
My advice to novices who want to try? Just give it a go. But you may have to work up to it. Good bikes are expensive, but quality makes a huge difference. You need to be comfy on two wheels. Go to a bike park such as Les Gets in the summer and simply hire a bike – and protection. The runs are similar to skiing with green, blue, red and black bike pistes. So it makes a nice transition to skiing or snow boarding in the winter. And gets you up in the mountains all year round.
Eddie’s choice: Best mountain biking locations near Geneva – all within two hours.
Morzine/Les Gets/Pleney/Morgins/Chatel: These resorts are all part of the Porte Du Soleil. I buy a season pass and go every weekend in the summer; many different tracks, for complete beginners and advanced riders. https://en.morzine-avoriaz.com/mtb.html
Saleve & Crozet: the most local to Geneva for serious mountain biking! Salève: https://www.cycling-challenge.com/mont-saleve-the-mountain-bike-routes/ and Crozet: http://www.monts-jura.com/en/meteo-hiver/16-ete/activities/33-mountain-biking-another-way-to-trek.html
La Berra: only two trails but among my favorites! https://www.la-gruyere.ch/en/V1051/mountain-bike-tour-la-berra-vounetse
Finale Ligure: The most fun I’ve had on a bike. Great holiday destination, full of companies who take you up the mountain and guide you down! https://www.ultimatefrance.com/mountain-biking/northern-italy/finale-ligure
Verbier: Always challenging. https://www.verbinet.com/biking/guide Plus see this piece in our media partner, Le News. https://lenews.ch/2017/10/18/guides-to-swiss-mountain-biking-verbier/
Métabief: Known for its Himalaya and Rocheuse black runs. https://www.station-metabief.com/fr/vtt-descente
Alpe D’Huez: high up and rocky! Known for the Megavalanche https://www.alpedhueznet.com/biking/guide
Les Arcs: Great enduro event called Enduro 2. Done in pairs, very fun! https://www.lesarcs-peiseyvallandry.ski/en/bike-park-les-arcs-peisey-vallandry
Château d’Oex and Gstaad region: Very good out in nature riding. https://www.chateau-doex.ch/en/Z7776/bike-vtt
Crans-Montana: Fantastic views, lots of sun. And hard riding. https://www.crans-montana.ch/en/bike/bike_vtt/#cat=VTT&filter=r-fullyTranslatedLangus-,sb-sortedBy-0&ov=mtb
For websites, see: Pinkbike for news as well as buying and selling. https://www.pinkbike.com/
The Swiss consumer mag Bon à Savoir reviewed 10 mountain bikes in 2018. Its conclusion: a number of cheap mountain bikes can be dangerous: the frames of three of them busted during texts! Top rated: Ochsner Sport CHF599 scoring 5.6 out of 6 (LINK, French: paywall)
Bon à Savoir also has a review of electric bikes entitled “good for climbing, dangerous for descent” but it dates back to 2012. Its top choice: Coop’s Basix CHF1290 scored at 4.9: even this rates only 3.0 out of 6 for its fork and it was penalized for its brakes. (LINK, French, paywall)
Eddie Andrews is a 23-year-old engineer currently travelling but normally living in France’s Pays de Gex near Geneva.