I’m exhausted. It’s the good kind though. Our son is also tired, and yes, it’s also the good kind. We just spent an entire day together doing something we’ve never done before, and we had an absolute blast! What did we do? We we rocked at downhill mountain biking Morzine.
If you didn’t know, Morzine is this ridiculously cool little ski resort town in Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France, very close to the Swiss border. We’re in the swing of summer, and this town is right off of a postcard. And since it is the summer, there’s not much skiing, but there’s a metric ton of bicycles going down the same hills that the skiers do in the winter.
Getting Geared Up for our mountain biking Morzine experience
For this activity, we partnered up with Mark and his crew from Alpine Sports Morzine. I told Mark what we were interested in doing some downhill biking, and he nodded his head, and said, “Yep. We can set you up!”. And he wasn’t joking either. He set us up with the bikes, protective gear, and made some great recommendations on where to ride.
Neither our son, nor myself had ever ridden downhill bikes, so I was thinking we should go with a normal full-suspension bike. When I voiced my concerns, Mark encouraged us to go with a downhill bike. “Trust me. You’ll like the downhill bikes”, he said with the slightest twinkle in his eye. Well who am I to argue with a guy who knows the equipment and the area?
What’s So Great About Downhill Mountain Bikes?
For many of you who aren’t familiar with what makes a downhill mountain bike so different, let me give you a brief explanation. All of the bikes on the mountains in this area are mountain bikes. A few are hardtails (only front suspension), but most are full-suspension. That means the suspension in the front that has roughly 6 inches of travel, and the rear has 7 inches. These are bikes that can do a great job of going up and down mountain trails.
The downhill bikes are very specialized, and have a lot more travel. For example, our downhill bikes had 9 inches of travel on the front, and 10 inches on the back. That’s a lot of suspension travel. That specialization comes at a price. And that price is you can’t really climb hills with them. Why? Well, all of that suspension gets activated when you pedal, so you’re bobbing up and down a lot, and that really kills your pedaling efficiency. We test rode our bikes around on flat roads by the shop, and they felt really bouncy, like an old Cadillac. But a Caddy that will fly down the hills!
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So what do most riders of downhill bikes do when they need to climb. Some pogo up the hill, or most others, just walk their bikes up the hill. Pretty crazy, huh? You wouldn’t want to ride a downhill bike as a daily ride around town, but if you have a way of getting the bike up a mountain, so that you can ride down, well then, that would be the Cat’s Pajamas! It turns out that the same lifts that are used to cart skiers up the mountains are also used for the bike riders as well.
Let’s Hit The Trails!
Once we had all of our gear on (helmets, chest/back guard for uur son, elbow/forearm pads, and knee/shin pads), we were ready. With the gear thing out of the way, Mark pointed us in the direction of the lift, and we were on our way. We rode the bikes over, while Heidi walked. She wanted to see us off, and get some pics. While he and I are riding, I start having some anxiety. I’m not really familiar with the type of bike, or terrain, nor is he, and I start worrying that he’ll be OK, and have fun.
Luckily, the lifts were very close to the shop, we were able to purchase the lift tickets, and get in the lift quickly. Once we were in the lift, we discussed what we wanted to do. I had mapped out a number of trails the night before, and wanted to take it easy. So it was to be the Green (family/beginner) and possibly the Blue (intermediate) trails for us. At the top of the lift, the view of Morzine was stunning. I would love to see this place in the winter. (Hint…Hint Heidi!).
At the top of the hill, we could see a number of trails fanning out, and we knew we wanted to go to the other side of the mountain to a town called Les Gets (pronounced “lay-ZHAY”. So off we went. Both of us were getting used to the bikes, and there were a few tense moments, but the trip down the other side was great. There were nice trails off the main road, and we kept riding until we hit the proverbial bump in the road.
Making Our Way To Les Gets
I think I missed a turnout or something, but the trail marker ahead of us showed a red trail marker. Red is advanced, and that in no way represents our skill level. I thought about forging ahead, and to try to make the best of it, but that hasn’t always worked well for us. That’s another story altogether.
Our other option was to take a street road into Les Gets. It was only a couple of kilometers, and it was all downhill, so that’s what we did. It actually worked out well for both of us, so we could get better acquainted with the bikes on a flat surface. As we pedaled into Les Gets, we discovered another postcard-picture type of town. And we found the ever important lift. Check out the Les Gets webcams now!
Les Gets has a lot to offer in terms of hills. There were 3 or 4 lifts operating, dozens of trails ranging from green to black (expert riders only), and some of the most gorgeous scenery you could imagine. Now I always say that the Wagoners are Ocean/Sea People, but with mountains like these, I think I could easily become a Mountain Person.
You can generally tell what is important to a town by looking at its center. What was in the center? The ski lift! We already had our day pass, so it was just a matter of getting on the lift. I’ve gotten on/in dozens of ski lifts with either skis or snowboards, but getting on with a bike was new to me. While we were waiting in line, I was watching how people were loading the bikes and themselves.
The Science Of Bike Lifts
It’s not exactly rocket science, but from a process standpoint it was kind of interesting. As you approach the lift, you need to wheel your bike through an entrance with a very short entrance. It would be very obvious to onlookers that a person is trying to get in through the bike entrance. While the bike is lying in that entrance, the bike owner swipes his card, and goes through the turnstile, and grabs his/her bike.
The next part is fairly simple, but it was tripping up a lot of people. You basically get the bike on one wheel (the rear one — duh!), and walk it to the lift. The interesting part was that you actually put your bike on the lift in front of you, and then sit on the lift behind you.
There can be problems though. The lift in front supports the bikes by the front tire, so sometimes, it was difficult getting it to seat properly. I’ll admit that I missed one, and had to wait for the next chair. I think that happened to our son as well. It’s pretty embarrassing, but it’s probably one of those things that happens to everyone at some point, and by the time you get to the top, it’s forgotten.
Once we were on the lift, the thought occurred to me that how are we going to get our bikes down from the lift in front of us, when we’re not there? Will the lift riders get our bikes, or is there an employee who handles that? I figured we would cross that bridge when we got there. For now, we were soaking up the view. Holy cow, it was stupendous! We both spoke up at the same time, and said, “I don’t think Mom would like this…”. Not the view, but the ride up.
No Place To Go But DOWN!
As we got to the top, sure enough, there were a couple of employees taking the bikes off of the racks. Everything happens at once, and you need to get off of the lift, and get out-of-the-way, and grab your bikes, and get out-of-the-way. With all of those items done, our sonand I looked at the big map right off of the lift, and decided we were going to be smart and take it easy. It was going to be a Green Trail for us. Being the concerned father that I am,
I wanted to keep him in front of me so I could make sure he was doing OK.
The ride down was broken into segments, and we would ride a segment, stop, and then yell and whoop about how much fun we were having. I might throw in a tip or two to help our son, and we would rinse and repeat. Some of the trails were actually fairly steep, and I was worried that he might freak out, but he handled the bike extremely well for a beginner.
Once we were at the bottom of the hill, we decided to do the same run again, and we were back in line for the lift. With the first run down the hill on the books, we were talking about the run, and it was a great Father-Son Moment. I enjoy those immensely. Especially now, since he is becoming more independent.
Rinse And Repeat, But Faster
Our second run down he suggested that I take the lead. I’m sure he was uncomfortable with me behind him as he thought I might be pushing him to go faster than he wanted. I’m more comfortable with speed than he is, so I would go down a segment, wait a bit, see him, and then continue. It worked well. During our runs throughout the day, we would trade-off wearing the GoPro, or setting up shots for the video.
I think it was our third or fourth run down, where we just went down the entire hill, with little to no stopping. At the end of that run, both of our legs were shaking. With downhill biking, you spend very little, if any, time in the saddle. You’re up on the pedals, pretty much the whole way down. I was amazed at how the suspension just soaked up the bumps. That really helped with the confidence, and we were really starting to enjoy the speed/flow of the trails. With tired legs and being slightly out of wind, we figured it was time to get some nourishment.
Feed Me, Les Gets
We rode the bikes into the town, navigated around the cars, dodged the occasional pedestrian, and found a place to get some grub. As you would expect, the prices were high, but we split a sandwich and some fries, and the water was free! Man, that never happens! At least not in Spain.
Sidenote: Now that our son is a teenager, the butt-head alter-ego occasionally makes himself known. As I offer the big plate to hum, so he can grab some fries, he spots one of those highly prized dark, crispy french fries. And he proceeds to twist and dip the plate around so that it falls on his plate. And as a parent that’s trying to raise a respectful, polite, Citizen of the World, I call him on it. “Not cool, Dude!” Without looking up, he smiles. And that butt-head did it…twice! He probably gets that from his mother.
We didn’t eat a lot as I didn’t want to be lethargic the rest of the afternoon. After all, you gotta stay sharp, right?
We’re Improving And Getting Faster
With everyone out to lunch, so to speak, there were no lines to get on the lift. Woo hoo! We did another run down the hill, and our speed is definitely picking up. I followed him a bit on one of the windier sections, and tried to get some footage of him, so I hope the footage comes out OK. We’re both really enjoying the scenery, the speed, and becoming one with the bikes.
After another great run, it’s time to head back up the hill! As we’re riding up, I tell him that I want to do something that he’s not going to like. I tell him that I want to go on the “tabletop” section. We’d seen it on our rides down, and it looked like fun. He was worried about the speed, and catching air, and he didn’t want to wreck. I explained to him that there was a path between the table tops that would be easy for him. He expressed some doubt, but agreed to go through the area.
What’s A Tabletop?
If you don’t know what I mean by tabletop, let me explain. There might be a proper name for them, but when I was a kid, they were called tabletops. There is a ramp up (dirt, wood, or whatever), connected to a flat top, and then a ramp down. The idea is that you hit the ramp up with enough speed so that you catch some air, and land on the down ramp. You don’t even touch the tabletop if you’re doing it right.
Once we got to that section on the hill, we stopped, and watched a bunch of riders go over. There were two trails that had four or five tabletops each, and then a path in the center with no tabletops at all. I told him that he didn’t need to catch air, or even go on them, but I wanted to catch some air. As we started down, hesurprised me, and rode towards one of the tabletop trails. That’s my boy!
What a rush! He didn’t catch any air, and I caught only a little bit, but it was fun. At the bottom of the section, he stopped, and yelled, “Let’s do that again!”. It was definitely a kick in the pants.
It was around 3:30-ish by this time, and while I really want to do the tabletop thing again, I’m worried about getting back to Morzine. The maps make it seem easy to get back home, but the trail maps haven’t exactly been accurate, so I make the call to head back home. Once up the hill, we go left. We’ve been going right all day, but left means home. The other concern is that I want to take the easiest path back to Morzine, and there are a lot of Red Trails (Advanced). I don’t want to end the day with an accident, so I try to get us back the safest way possible.
We find one trail that looks promising, but guess what? There are uphill sections. Remember what I said about downhill bikes being awful at going uphill? Well, we experienced that first hand, and had to walk the bikes up those sections. We were coming down the trail, and passing some hikers when I spotted an uphill part. I said, “Crap!”, or something similar, and one of the hikers started laughing. All in all, we only walked the bikes uphill a total of 300 meters, so it wasn’t too bad.
We started our journey back to Morzine at the yellow dot in the top right. Our goals were either of the red stars. The trails we actually took started with the purple hexagon. Whoops!
There was an unmapped junction. We could go straight, and go up a very steep hill, or we could take a wide fire trail down. My gut told me that we should go up and further towards Morzine. By my reckoning, the fire trail would put us down way outside of Morzine, but it was wide, and somewhat easy. I opted for easy, and we zigged and zagged down the hill, until finally coming to an area where there were ski lifts. They weren’t in operation, so that had me a bit worried, but I could see a paved road.
No…As A Matter Of Fact, We’re Not Lost
Luckily, it was downhill. After a kilometer or so, I saw a sign for Morzine. WHEW! At least we were going the right direction. We only had to worry about a few passing cars, so it allowed us to wind down the hill, and make it into town. Once we made it into the center of town, we passed our initial lift, and headed towards the bike shop.
Once there, we took off our gear, and told Mark what we did. He had a big smile on his face, and told us that next time, we should take the other main lift out of Morzine. I guess that means we need to come back to Morzine. Sounds good to me!
Mark at Alpine Sports Morzine set us up with some first-rate equipment and safety gear, so many thanks to him and his staff for getting us situated and pointed in the right direction. We had a crazy-good time doing the downhill mountain biking in Morzine! I can only imagine that Mark’s winter services (ski and snowboard rental) are top-notch.
Hint: If you want to give downhill mountain biking a try, I recommend bringing your own gloves and goggles. Those are personal items that many places may not have available for rent.
If you want to experience this adventure look up Alpine Sports Morzine!
Address: Route De La Plagne, 74110 Morzine, France
Telephone: +33 450 49 11 57
Website: Check here for current pricing info on downhill mountain biking. In the summer they are a bike shop, but in the winter they are a ski shop!
Disclosure: Alpine Sports Morzine partnered with us on bikes and gear. All opinions are our own.