Family Cycling Holidays in the Alps
Exploring the trails in and around Les Saisies
Meeting fellow-riders flying into Geneva airport reveals just how much of a challenge it can be to negotiate the French sector exit. Once we’re safely out and onto the open road, however, we’re soon dropping down on the long-familiar route through Megève towards the Val d’Arly.
As we approach Flumet we take the left-hand turn signed to Notre-Dame de Bellecombe, a wayward route which passes through the ski village and keeps climbing all the way to 1650m at the Col des Saisies.
Laid before us on the other side is the pleasingly low-rise skyline of Les Saisies, looking very different from how it appears in winter guise. This is one ski resort which certainly doesn’t go to sleep outside the ski season, having attracted a loyal following among walkers and mountain-bikers.
You need wheels…
After locating our accommodation we make ourselves at home, relax and plan our time here. The following morning we collect our bikes from Piccard Sports, one of the best-known equipment hire shops in the French Alps, thanks to Franck Piccard having taken the Men’s Super-G Gold medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and putting his home village on the map. His bike technicians soon have us nicely equipped with pristine, lightweight Scott hardtail mountain-bikes, and minutes later we freewheel smoothly down towards the Télésiège de la Légette, one of two high-speed chairlifts which open during the summer season. Loading bikes onto the detachable chairs is pretty simple for the lift staff, the front wheels simply resting securely on their tyres, so there’s little risk of damage to vulnerable light-alloy rims.
Once aboard we sit back and relax for a smooth haul up the mountain between tall conifer forests planted to shelter the return ski runs. Once over the topmost ridge things open up and we’re gliding onwards above a landscape of mellow alpages – summer grazing pastures whose wildflowers add an extra something to the flavours of the local Beaufort cheeses. It’s an agreeable way to travel, and the warm sun makes a welcome change from the winter snow-flurries to which we’re more accustomed on chairlifts.
At the top-station the lift slows and we walk, rather than ski off. There’s no drama, and we wait calmly while the lift operator removes newly-arrived bikes from their carriers (chances are you won’t be sharing a chair with your bikes). Simple, but it obviously works.
The chairlift ride having provided occasional overviews of other riders exploring the trails, we already have some idea of what’s on offer, and which of the trails might best suit our own technical and fitness levels. There’s something for most riders here, and the challenges of the more advanced runs tell you all you need to know about just how serious Les Saisies is about listening to the feedback from its loyal summer mountain-bikers and then responding to them.
Our own aspirations are split evenly between bring-it-on and
let’s-take-it-a-bit-easy-for-now, we decide to split up, our companions heading off to test the mid-range terrain, while we opt for the tamer stuff. We’ve seen from the lift what they’re up for, but our choice is probably more typical of what family bikers and new arrivals will be tackling.
Not that things are exactly boring – our ‘low-technicality’ trail takes us on a two-kilometre roller-coaster ride through a succession of serpent-like swirls, some of them quite tight, which take us down the mountainside via dips and humps, with a brief foray into the forest along the way. We reckon it equates to the bike equivalent of one of the longer boarder- or skier-cross runs which in recent years have made family skiing more varied in many mountain resorts (and which have been scaled-up to achieve Winter Olympic status). In other words, a lot of fun, but nothing life-threatening.
When it finally eases we find ourselves at the other (upper) end of the village, beside the Mountain Twister tracked luge, where we meet the others and compare our experiences. The smiles say it all – this is some place, whether you’re experienced or just getting a first hands-on experience of real mountain biking. The bikes have proved themselves to be responsive, helping build our confidence, so we spend some time doing more of the same and seeing the sights.
The following day we find temperatures predicted to reach the high-30s and remain there, so exploring some of the shaded forest trails seems like a good plan. Putting more distance under our wheels also sounds good, and taking a run over towards the Val d’Arly, which we last explored on skis. This time, however, we want to string things out a bit, and cover some real distance, which means we go up before we start going down. The road up to the high-point of Bisanne 1500 is a slog to our unaccustomed legs (and in climbing temperatures), but wouldn’t be overly demanding given a couple of days limbering-up on some of the shorter trails.
Once we’re over the top things immediately become not merely easier, but also a lot more interesting, any sense of being in a managed landscape slipping away quietly behind us, to be replaced by timeless Alpine scenes, complete with grazing cattle, whose clanking bells provide a cheerful soundtrack to the sensational setting. The views up here really are sensational, and we make the most of them before diving into the silent, more enclosed world of forest trails which lie ahead in the Forêt de Bisanne.
Among the pines
There’s something magical about being in a sizeable mountain forest which you simply don’t experience at lower altitudes, and we revel in the heady exhilaration of descending near-effortlessly through silent woodland between craggy, exposed rocks and tantalizing glimpses of neighbouring valleys flashing by amid the pale, pastel vastness which lies somewhere out there beyond the pines and larches. Here and there we splash our way through one of the streams which cross our path, and when breaks appear in the tree-cover, we pause to take in the surroundings and take a drink.
When we finally emerge from the forest the trail gives way to tarmac and we’re rolling smoothly once more, this time on the zigzag runs into the village of Cohennoz and a few kilometres further on, Les Chandelières. It’s late summer, but the valleys are still a picture of green freshness, unlike their counterparts heating up steadily on the plains far below.
After more luxurious freewheeling we’re approaching the village of Le Cernix, looking as pretty as a picture postcard, yet completely deserted, for lunchtime is now upon us. It’s also the ideal spot for a relaxing break, so we pull into Le Télémark, a cheerful-looking bar restaurant with a welcoming terrace of tables, complete with parasols. It’s perfect, and so is the food (and the welcome), and when the time comes to climb back on our bikes and continue our run we make a mental note to return sometime soon.
When we do it will no doubt all look very different, for Le Cernix has a direct high-speed chairlift connection to Mont Lachat (1591m), for skiers joining the Espace Diamant circuit, but for now our focus is the final gentle run into neighbouring Crest Voland. Here we pause briefly, this time to check another high-speed chairlift, as this one is open in summer, and looks like it might just offer a useful kick-start to our return to Les Saisies. In fact it would, were we feeling up for some more uphill effort, but in the heat of the afternoon the idea loses much of its appeal, so we continue into the village for a chat with the tourist office staff about timings for our planned option, namely a bike-carrying bus service.
It seems that we have an hour or so to wait for the bus, but since we can think of a lot worse places to be hanging around while waiting for a bus, we’re happy to spend some more time simply ambling lazily around the village, before relaxing with a couple of cold beers on the terrace of another bar. The location is in its own way similarly perfect, being not only opposite the tourist office but also right next to the bus stop.
The bus arrives bang on time and our bikes are carefully secured on a skeletal trailer, which is reassuring since the onward ride is at times a high-speed affair, the driver taking a spirited run at steeper sections of the tortuous route. There are no dramas, though, and things ease on the climb up to the Col des Saisies, at the entry to the village. Minutes later the bikes are safely back on the tarmac and the energy saved by taking the bus is put to good use on the final climb back to our accommodation. So, the verdict? As bike-days go, we suspect it just can’t get much better…