Driving into Tignes Le Lac in the first week in July, it was hard to believe that the snow was still retreating. Harder still to reconcile the thronging ski resort I knew with this sleepy lakeside settlement. Sure, I could make out the shapes of the runs I had snowboarded from their naked contours but instead of the confusion of coloured bodies and clacking planks, the streets were quiet and spotless. The lake sparkled crystal azure and as hikers, bikers, joggers and fishermen passed by languages mingled before becoming lost on the breeze.
Last January I made a list. Part way down I wrote ‘bike in the alps’, vague, given that ‘alps’ just means high mountains. I knew what I meant; somewhere European, high enough to be a ski resort and preferably somewhere I had visited. After research I decided on Tignes. Deep within the Tarantaise Valley in the Rhone-Alps of South Eastern France, Tignes is one of the highest ski resorts in the country. Not only have they have been working on their mountain bike trails for a number of years, they also offer free lift passes to mountain bikers. Sold.
The alpine experience begins before you get there. Outside the windscreen the land grows shoulders and a spine. It is mysterious and threatening how the hills shrug up, following you deeper and deeper into the valley. You are funnelled between them. The highway begins to snake, pressing you up to a rocky, impassive face; hostile but preferable to the nothingness on the other side. Beyond, you can see huddles of trees, high up on jagged, ridges. Below, water beats the valley floor. There are secrets in the mountains and you will not escape easily. This is the beginning of enchantment.
I had only ever seen Tignes in a cloak of white. On our first day, sweating in pads and a full face helmet, I gawped at the landscape rising beneath our glass bubble. It was green, strewn with meadow flowers and scarred with a savagely twisting track, descending steeply towards the lake. I quickly checked the map – ‘Black Metal’. Many of the ‘downhill’ trails in Tignes are like this; flowing, man-made dirt tracks where riders might find jumps or descents that range from the do-able to the downright scary. One evening our chalet host, Ollie (a dirt jumper), recounted his first experience on black run, ‘Moustache’. The route traces and delves into rock formations, not unlike teeth, above Lac de Tignes. Ollie told us how he preferred to clamber up them instead of pinning his bike over short ascents, afraid there was nothing on the other side save oxygen-light air.
We stayed away. Instead, spending time on the slopes leading into Val d’Isere and La Daille, cruising almost-deserted blues and greens, stopping from time to time to session a jump, capture scenery or point out yet another marmot before it shuffled into hiding. Over 12 km to the bottom, Val Bleu takes you down the hillside through deep berms, table tops, lips, hips and doubles before running into Popeye, which storms through the trees over sun splotched hard pack that just seems to want you to go faster.
When the lifts weren’t open or when our arms could not take another hammering we hit the All Mountain trails. On ‘Wonderboisse’ we were swallowing gasps of anxiety as we traversed the steep hillside, wrapping around left hand corners so tight that the trail seemed to end just inches beyond our front wheels. Turn the bike! a voice in my head screamed more than one. But this was only an ‘improver’ trail. ‘Wild 10 Nez’ is classified ‘expert’ and wraps from the Val d’Isere slopes to the Lavachet Wall above Tignes, negotiating rock strewn climbs and descents. A family of walkers (all the All Mountain trails are also footpaths) regarded us with doubt, ‘it’s steep, you know,’ one muttered helpfully before striding on. It was and we made it. ‘Forest Bump’ was steeper. When Dave lost his front wheel on a dusty traverse we crashed before we got to the start proper. But the real challenge was around the corner; a series of steep, berm-less switchbacks through the forest. Having watched footage of it on You Tube I wondered how it could be classified ‘expert’, but with my bike pointing down it, I took some of the trail on foot, stepping gingerly down through the loose dirt using my bike for support.
This trail ends in Les Brevieres, one of the communes that make up Tignes, where a sleepy bar and its wrinkled tender were the only sign of life. Pedalling up the mountain road (there is a free bus if you are patient) is a chance to see some of the other communes and the dam, barrage de Tignes, that shores up the great Lac du Chevril. Proudly signposted EDF, the dam can provide the energy for around many thousands of homes. But it is also shores up the history of the ski resort. Drowned in 1952, the original settlement of Tignes lies at the bottom of the lake. It wallows there, emerging when the dam is drained. The only visual reminder is the lady, a metallic giantess, who keeps watch from the shoreline with the unmistakeable dignity of one who refused to leave.
We were not so stubborn. We left Tignes tired, with aching arms, hands and hearts. We left reluctantly, not ready to unravel the path we had followed into the valley, nor to walk away from the existence we had enjoyed for the last week. Because what mountain biker could easily leave the simplicity of rising simply to fuel to ride a bike all day. Not only that but ride it at over 2000m above sea level, where the sun is brighter and the people are fewer and where the trails have been carved just for you.
I left Tignes with unfinished business. Midway through the week, I felt my confidence growing. I had begun to pump through the huge berms and clear the smallest table top or double. But then my tiredness grew in equal proportions, pain replacing the aggression that drove me faster or higher. And so I left some things undone. Up on the ‘Red Hot’ red route I starred at the north shore platform that jutted out several metres from the hillside. Perhaps half a metre in width it gave out into nothingness; one big drop off. I need to jump that, was my immediate thought. But it is high, quickly followed. I can jump that, was the next thought. But when my companions were not as enthusiastic I could not find the strength to go it alone. On three occasions I paced around it, walking the ramp, side stepping part way down the hill to look at the angle and the height of the drop, waiting for another rider to come over it and inspire me. But they didn’t and I didn’t jump it.
As we rolled into Le Lac for our last post-ride beer, the conviction I felt about my ability became a lump of regret I had to swallow. I forced it down with a small Grimbergen Blonde, aware of how a failure to do so might taint a place and experience that had exceeded my expectations when I typed out that list last January. And there is only one thing for it, when I sit down to write a new list in January 2017, ‘bike in the alps’ won’t be far down the page.