11th Aug 2012 12:17pm | By Jahn Vannisselroy
I'm halfway down the trail when I’m reminded of the unforgiving nature of mountain biking, the rider in front of me taking a tumble, the noise of his brakes and almighty skid followed by a dull thud and then a pained groaning.
When I wondered just how tough this sport could be, I never expected an answer so brutal. “Hard luck,” I offer as I help him to his feet. “It’s alright,” he replies. “Just a bruised ego.”
Earlier, on the half-an-hour cable car journey to the 3200m top of Les 2 Alpes, I watch a team of riders snake down the mountain, blazing along the trails that separate the resort’s alpine meadows.
From the safety of the gondola and through the warm glow brought about by my ever-improving skiing abilities, I wager that I’ll be able to do it, no sweat.
My confidence is further buoyed after watching the Crankworx Freeride Mountain Bike Festival, held in the resort each July. Sure, there’s no way I’ll be performing the flips, the supermans, the revolutions that the professional riders are managing, but surely I’ll be able to shoot round those corners with a little of the smooth ease these guys are employing. Surely.
If there is any place to come to grips with the sport, Les 2 Alpes is it. A two-hour drive from Lyon, the 50-year-old resort prides itself on being Europe’s largest skiable glacier and remains one of the few spots where you can ski in summer.
And when the slopes close at 1pm, there’s 40 other activities to get involved in, from parapenting and bungee jumps, to white-water rafting and 12,000m of mountain biking slopes. For the active traveller, it’s the stuff of dreams.
However, my own dreams of mountain biking turn out to be far from the reality of my skill. My experience is minimal; my proficiency non-existent.
It all becomes horrifyingly apparent the next day, 2100m high at the top of Le Vallée Blanche, on the opposite side of the resort from the glacier.
My companion on the lift, Rupert, a longtime mountain biking exponent, soon remembers he has to be somewhere and races off down a trail, stirring up a tail of dust as he gathers speed, seemingly surfing the rugged track.
“We’ll do something a little easier,” my instructor Benj grins. “We’ll start green.”
A wide-open trail beckons, a slight decline and a pair of crossing marmots my only challenge as I apply the super-reponsive brakes a little too cautiously, juddering to a halt at the slightest bend.
A stop at a skills station sorts me out and I quickly learn to turn at (a kind of) speed along a series of ramps and bumps, before haring back off down the mountain, this time on a far more narrow path, cutting a swathe through knee-high grass. I’m feeling it now.
Benj isn’t impressed, though. “Use more attitude,” he demands. “I want to see it in your riding. Don’t hesitate.”
I make it to the bottom, incident free, discovering the perversity that the faster a rider travels, the safer mountain biking actually is. “Good attitude,” Benj nods.
The next day, I’m back on the ski slopes of this summer playground, wobbling down the gentler of Les 2 Alpes’ 100 hectares of runs. Away from the bustle of London, among the tranquility of being so high up, I relax, the fact that I’ve escaped injury on the mountain biking trail filling me with a fresh sense of courage on the slopes.