It’s late June, and patches of snow dot the peaks of the Alps towering above Chatel, France. Cows graze in the fresh green fields at the base of the mountains, while bells hanging around their necks ring at different pitches to weave the sound of a giant, living wind chime in the distance. Add amazing food and the best wines in the world, and you have the fixings for one of the best mountain bike adventures on earth…even before you get to the epic trail system.
The Pass Portes du Soleil should be on every rider’s bucket list. Here’s why…
Mountain bike activities in the Portes du Soleil area started in the early 1990’s when ski resorts on the Swiss and French sides of the Chablais Alps region started to open the lifts to mountain bikes. By 2004, the robust network of lift-serviced trails in the region was seen by many as a bucket list-worthy cycling destination. In an effort to celebrate the start of the summer season, and to promote the world-class mountain biking in the region, the Pass’Portes du Soleil MTB was born.
The riding found at the Pass’Portes du Soleil MTB is simply amazing. The views are breathtaking, the trails are truly epic and the route traverses in and out of both countries. Most of the trails are lift-serviced runs that mostly all point down, but there are a couple options on the route for some great XC-style climbing. Either way, be sure to have fresh brake pads when arriving at the event.
To conquer the entire 80 kilometer loop in one day, start early and keep your rest stops and photo-taking breaks short. Your 46.00 euro registration fee covers one day of access to the network of lifts, trails and food stations. Additionally, you also receive a voucher for a one-day lift pass for the region, worth 47.50 euro. You can use this voucher anytime in the summer or winter, though it does not include access to the food and drink stations. Many people use this voucher to ride other parts of the region the day after (or before) they complete the whole Pass’Portes du Soleil. This means you can spend more time on your favorite parts of the route. If you want to save that voucher for skiing or boarding in the winter, you can purchase a 23 euro day pass to ride other days of the weekend. While the trails are all one-way, the route is built so you can do sections in whatever order, and however many times, you wish. For example, I spent a lot of time at the Pre-la-Joux bike park outside of Chatel.
No matter what options you choose to ride, prepare to be out on the bike all day. Well-stocked food stops in all nine of the resort towns welcome riders to graze local fare such as sausage, cheese, chips, cake, water, coffee and a variety of other food and drink. Covered by your registration fee, you can stop to eat and drink as much as you like at all rest areas. That’s worth repeating: All you can eat, all you can drink, all you can ride.
Around 1,300 people attended the first event in 2004. 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the Pass’Portes du Soleil MTB, and more than 6,700 people registered this year. That’s a lot of people on bicycles, but the event is spread across nine resort towns in both France and Switzerland. People registering can choose to be based in any of the nine host towns, but capacity limits ensure even distribution of attendees across the region.
While you might see some long lift lines at certain times of day, and at more popular sections of the route, they are manageable. One would think an event with this many people would create a hassle when trying to book lodging. Not so. These are major, world-class ski resort towns. Mountain biking is popular here, but it pales in comparison to the crowds that swarm the region in the winter. There are plenty of options for where to eat, drink and rest at the end of a great day in the saddle.
Ski shops in the area transform into bike shops for the summer months. If you prefer not to get gouged by airline baggage fees for your bike box, you can call ahead to get a bike rental for the whole Pass’Portes weekend. Arrange things early or risk getting nothing.
Even if you bring your own bike, you have the opportunity to demo a new bike from most of the bicycle companies set up at the event. A 6000 square meter expo area features 60 vendors, representing more than 150 brands of bike manufacturers, clothing companies, component brands, and much more. You’ll need to make a reservation on-site to ride one of the demo bikes, but you’re sure to get the newest rigs available for a seriously long test ride. Most vendors in the expo also sell their wares, so bring some money.
Local governments and businesses support Pass’Portes du Soleil MTB, and organizers have dialed in the details quite well. Bike washes and public showers are set up in each of the host villages. These were quite welcome after the mud bath caused by all-day rain on Saturday. Registration and check-in are easy, and all of the trails are very clearly marked with direction and difficulty.
In a smart move to broaden the attractiveness of the mountain bike event and the region, organizers set up the first ever Pass’Portes Pedestre for 2013. Event officials tell me that 91% of attendees are men, while 9% are women. As such, many non-riding significant others and children come with attendees. The Pass’Portes Pedestre offers this often overlooked demographic, “A hiking day to introduce the area’s landscapes and yummy specialties.” Hikes take three to four hours and stops at local farms and other points of interest.
Geneva is the closest major airport to all of the nine host villages, and you can get to any of those towns by car within an hour or two. You can arrange for a car rental before you arrive, but I recommend getting set up with a transfer shuttle. Magic Transfers picked us up at the airport, and quickly shuttled us, our bags and our bikes to Chatel. The driver was also very friendly, giving us inside tips on riding and places to eat and drink in town. They can also pick you up at any of the train stations closer to the event towns in Switzerland or France.
Pass’Portes du Soleil MTB is always the last week of June. Registration starts in February, and more than 4,000 people registered within the first 24 hours for this year’s event. It does sell out, and you could get locked out of your first choice of towns, so you’ll want to be on the ball and book early.