11 Ways Mountain Biking the Alps Is Different from Riding the Rockies

6. Cows, pastures, and fences are everywhere.

Ok, you got me: this photo is actually from the Pyrenees in Spain, but this same scene was repeated many times over in France and Switzerland as well.
Ok, you got me: this photo is actually from the Pyrenees in Spain, but this same scene was repeated many times over in France and Switzerland as well.

The low pitched “dong, dong, dong” of the cowbells are a constant musical accompaniment to every mountain bike ride in the Alps. While they may be off in the woods chowing down on the undergrowth and you may not see them, you’ll definitely hear the clanging bells hung around the necks of the cattle, sheep, and goats. It’s amazing how far that sound can carry, too–I’ve heard a cacophony that sounded like thousands of sheep right around the corner, only to spot the herd off in the distance on the next mountainside over.

7. Uninterrupted singletrack is a rarity.

All of the cattle trails, the lack of maintenance, and no new trail construction mean tons of trail braiding, alternate lines, and doubletrack. Finding a long, sustained, uninterrupted singletrack trail that doesn’t require you to hop on a dirt road for a couple hundred yards before heading back onto the one-track is rare. I encountered precious few lengthy stretches of singletrack in the Alps, and after riding the few long stretches of trail that were available, I realized that we had quickly exhausted the very best singletrack available to ride.

8. You may only need to carry one water bottle.

While I had a tough time paring back on the amount of water I carried with me, the locals often head out into the mountains with just one bottle of water. Unlike the Rockies, which are often very high and dry, clean drinking water can be found around every other bend in the Alps. On our rides, we were constantly passing springs bubbling up from the ground, fountains, water troughs, crystal-clear streams–and the locals drank from them all without any filtration, treatment, or a second thought.

9. Transportation from one place to another is a cinch.

One of many train rides
One of many train rides

Generally speaking, transportation around all of Europe, even without a car, is an absolute breeze! During my 3-week stint in Europe I relied on public transportation and a mix of private shuttles to get where I needed to go but in general, especially in the Alps, the train and bus system is so stellar that even if you get lost, end up in a town you weren’t planning to visit, or generally need to hop from one destination to the next, you can easily roll up to a train or bus station, buy a ticket, load your bike, and go!

Even within the confines of a mountain bike ride, getting from A to B is simple, thanks to the expansive system of chairlifts. While they do function to give you free vert, they also work to move you from one area to another. For instance, in Portes du Soleil near Morzine, France, there’s an interconnected network of 25 lifts in the immediate area, with the ability to connect to even more over the mountain in Switzerland. A network of lifts that big is incomprehensible by Rocky Mountain standards!

10. On average, the singletrack in the alps is brutally technical.

Lenzerheide, Switzerland
Lenzerheide, Switzerland

It’s possible I self-selected a little bit by asking to be shown the most entertaining trails that the Alps had to offer, but even the “easy” trails that rode were anything but easy. In fact, I don’t know if I rode any singletrack that I would label as “beginner” difficulty, and honestly, almost none I would rate as “intermediate.” Instead, everything varied from “advanced” to “expert.”

Steep fall line trails, endless boulders and rock gardens, webs of roots, mind-bogglingly-tight switchbacks, loose scree, narrow trail treads, heart-stopping exposure–these were the status quo for trail after trail and ride after ride.

The riding here isn’t easy, and it isn’t relaxing. The faint of heart and the makers of excuses need not apply.

11. The history!

Bregenz, Austria
Bregenz, Austria

While this applies to basically anywhere in Europe VS the States, the ancient history of the towns and buildings constantly made me stop, pull out the camera, and squeeze off a few shots. Only in Europe can you head out for a mountain bike ride and roll by tumbled down mountainside huts, thousand-year-old churches, ancient military forts, and finish in towns with massive cathedrals. For the history alone, riding in Europe’s finest–the Alps–is undoubtedly worth it!

Your Turn: What have you always wanted to know about mountain biking in the Alps? Ask away in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions!