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Descending towards Arosa, Switzerland.

The Alps are easily one of the most legendary mountain ranges on the entire planet. Even if you’ve never been there, simply uttering the name brings to mind jagged, rocky peaks, glaciated couloirs, scree-filled slopes, and innumerable miles of rugged singletrack.

Ever since I was a child I’ve dreamt of visiting the Alps, and this summer I finally had the chance! While riding in the mountains can be a remarkably similar experience no matter where in the world you ride, I couldn’t help but notice the many differences between mountain biking in the Alps, and riding near my home in the Rockies.

1. Chairlifts, gondolas, and cable cars can whisk you from the valley floor to the high alpine in minutes.

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Top of the cable car station, way above tree line! Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

While you can find plenty of resorts that offer lift-accessed mountain biking in the Rockies, the lifts–at least, the ones open for mountain biking–don’t generally climb as high up the mountains as they do in the Alps. In Lenzerheide, Switzerland, we took a combination of a gondola and a cable car, which delivered us from the valley floor to one of the highest ridges in the mountain range in a matter of minutes. Almost instantly, we went from our hotel to way, way above tree line!

Once there, we weren’t limited to mere bike park trails. Instead, this uplift allowed us to access rugged, high alpine singletrack heading off into the backcountry, saving us the arduous chore of pedaling thousands of feet up a gravel road to get there.

2. The mountainsides–and trails–are steep, and the peaks are rugged.

Hardcore freeride trail in Morzine, France

Hardcore freeride trail in Morzine, France

While the Rockies are no joke, the mountainsides and singletrack trails found in the Alps are, on the average, drastically steeper! Prepare to drop straight down the fall line as you plummet down a rutted singletrack to the valley far, far below.

For instance, the mountains around Morzine, France are littered with illicitly-built “hardcore freeride trails,” as my local guide, Jo, put it. While the building of these trails might not have been legal, unless there’s a sign saying that bikes aren’t allowed, the actual riding of these trails is fair game! Toward the end of day 1 we dropped into one of the “hardcore freeride trails,” and it was one of the steepest stretches of dirt I’ve ever ridden! But aside from a few dabs and scoping a few sections before I dropped in, I made it through unscathed. At the bottom I turned to Jo and said, “that was one of the easiest ‘hardcore freeride’ trails, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it was,” he responded with a knowing smile.

15,777-foot Mont Blanc off in the distance, the highest peak in the Alps

15,777-foot Mont Blanc off in the distance, the highest peak in the Alps

When it comes to the peaks of the mountains themselves, they are, if anything, even more rugged and formidable, on average, than the peaks in the Rockies. I never thought that a mountain range would make my home mountains look cute, cuddly, and inviting, but the Alps are undoubtedly on a whole ‘nuther level!

3. You’re constantly passing mountain huts and small villages, and are never far away from civilization.

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Restaurant with a view!

When riding through the alps you’ll undoubtedly pass several mountainside huts serving food and drink, or pedal through small farming villages nestled high up in the hills–you’re never far away from civilization. The upshot? If you get thirsty mid-ride, swing by the alpine hut for a quick beer, or maybe some wine and cheese. Hungry? Grab a sandwich on the side of a mountain!

4. Interconnecting trails and roads are all over the place–a massive web.

Unlike some of the epic point-to-point trails found in the Rockies, where you can sometimes go for 10 or 15 miles without meeting another trail, the network of singletrack, doubletrack, and roads found in the Alps is very dense, interconnected, and complex. Oftentimes one continuous descent will require a near-constant switching from one trail to another to the next, making it difficult to be sure that you’re taking the right turn at every Y in the trail… and not the wrong one.

As a result of this complexity, signage is minimal. What a European considers to be a well-signed, easy-to-follow trail would barely qualify as a sign of any sort in the States. If you want to keep from getting lost–or at the very least, if you want to successfully locate the trail that all the locals are raving about–hire a local guide to remove the guessing game from the equation.

5. Most of the trails outside of the bike park are ancient social trails.

Lenzerheide, Switzerland

Lenzerheide, Switzerland

Apparently building purpose-built mountain bike singletrack outside of a lift-serviced bike park isn’t a thing in the alps. For that matter, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem like building any new, legal singletrack–purpose-built, multi-use, whatever–outside of DH bike parks is being done in the Alps at large.

In the Rockies, trail clubs and advocacy groups are constantly striving to build new trails–big mountain trails, trails close to town, new sections of epic long-distance trails like the CDT–you name it, we’re trying to build it. This new construction might not happen fast, but we’re constantly adding to our trail inventory.

In contrast, in the Alps, essentially every backcountry singletrack trail is an ancient social trail, most of which had their origins as a historic thoroughfare to access a mountainside farm, village, or some other point of interest. Aside from DH tracks, trail building doesn’t seem to be a thing here.

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# Comments

  • mongwolf

    I’ve always heard that the San Juans and Ouray are the closest Colorado has to the Alps. In your opinion Greg how do the San Juans compare to the Alps?

    • Greg Heil

      The San Juans have some rugged spots, specifically around Ouray, but it’s still not on the same level as what you’ll find in the Alps. The closest terrain I’ve personally encountered in North America to the Alps is probably the rugged Canadian Rockies around Banff, Lake Louise, and Canmore, Alberta.

      But the beauty of the mountains is that every single mountain range is radically different and unique–that’s why I keep traveling, to experience as many of them as I can! Even from Morzine to Lenzerheide, the differences within the Alps themselves are a sight to behold!

  • bonkedagain

    The San Juans are still “mini-alps”. You don’t have as many rugged peaks, and deep valleys, or the glaciers, that you have in the Alps. IMO, if you want to see “mountains” then you have to get out of the Rockies.

    Greg, I thought the signage was really good in most of the places I visited. Also, if you use an app like Backcountry Navigator, you can download the 4umaps.eu maps, which I found to be amazingly detailed and accurate. I mean, practically every cow path was on that map. There is also an icon on the map for the location of every sign-post.

    I found it interesting that the Europeans don’t seem to dwell on “sustainability” as much as we do. There are a lot of crappy, rutted out trails, and not a lot of evidence that anyone is trying to make them better. On the other hand, their mountains aren’t made of decomposed granite like most of what we have here in Colorado, so it holds up a lot better. Bottom line, you won’t find a lot of buttery, smooth, singletrack in the Alps — more often than not it is rugged trail that has been there for decades with no thought given to mountain bikes.

    • Greg Heil

      I didn’t have that app, so maybe that was the key that I was missing 🙂

    • Nick vonT

      imho there’s no need to buy these 4umaps. Simply download maps from openmtbmap.org. These are good for your Garmin or other sat navs.
      In case you need maps for your Android device, get them from openandromaps.org.
      All maps are free, though the folks behind these projects certainly appreciate donations; the materials are based on OSM.
      I have been using their maps for many years, great stuff. Maps are being updated frequently, lots of details, way better many commercial products.

    • bonkedagain

      4umaps are free, at least in Backcountry Navigator. In any case, there are lots of good navigation aids available. I think the biggest problem for me is the overwhelming variety of options available. Local knowledge is definitely an advantage when deciding where to go.

    • jimcummings

      Backcountry Navigator is a great app and the free 4umaps are good but they are no magic bullet! And I found the signage very variable!

  • Ben Moeling

    Greg, I am surprised you didn’t mention how open and widespread access is in the Alps, and how MTB and hikers coexist; none of the bitter feuding and closed trails, except for occasional areas blocked for the protection of wildlife and restoration of habitat. (I am making an exception for Chamonix, where the densely crowded valley trails are closed to bikes in July and August – but the sheer number of hikers on those trails would make them impossibly frustrating to ride during peak tourist season and so the closure works out well for everyone.)

    • Greg Heil

      While I didn’t observe vast Wilderness closures like we face here in the states, there is still plenty of strife and conflict brewing in the Alps. In fact, we encountered some hikers in France who told us off for riding the trail we were on, and my guide pointed out that he’s a local, he knows the laws, and that that trail was indeed open to mountain bikes.

      Certain trails in that area have been closed to bikes, and there’s the possibility that more are on the way. So while riders don’t face the Wilderness issue that we face in the States, there’s still plenty of conflict to be had.

  • joe@mountain-bike-diaries.com

    Hey Greg,

    If I only had a couple of days to mountain bike in the Alps and I needed to “Hire” a bike, what would you recommend? I am an advanced rider and prefer long, scenic singletrack as opposed to bike parks.

    Thanks,

    Joe

  • davidmarkweitzman

    I rode The Corviglia flow trails above St Moritz in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland. Super flowy and not too difficult. There were some techy parts above the tree line. I rented a bike, a guide and took trains and lifts up. Overall, quite an expensive few hours, but completely memorable and worth it. Oh, and the scenery was amazing!!!

  • BBelfield

    Suggestion for next article: 11 body parts you can sell to fund your mtb trip to the Alps!

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