Interview by Rob Purver
If you’re in the area and riding mountain bikes you’ll no doubt have some appreciation of the amount of work that goes into building a trail network like we have in the Portes du Soleil. If you’ve ever built your own MTB tracks you’ll have an acute knowledge of the time it takes to build a single jump or corner.
Without doubt, locally, the team at Avoriaz MTB have been the biggest winners in terms of new track development and maintenance over the last few seasons.
Three years ago, during the disastrous #summerofmud most of the Avoriaz network was not only rideable, but in pretty good nick. In other local bike parks, the tracks literally melted into a quagmire. Some of it’s to do with soil type, but only nominally. The rest is down to hard work and good planning.
We caught up with Neil from Avoriaz MTB to find out how they do it.
Three summers ago it was ridiculously wet. Most tracks were pure mud. Early last summer seemed to be determined to be the hottest and dustiest it could be. You guys don’t get a break do you?
Evidently not. In stark contrast to last year, the biggest problem this year has been lack of water. It’s not easy to maintain tracks when the earth doesn’t stick together. Luckily we’ve had a bit of rain now so it should make life easier. Dusty, dry trails are great, but when you have to clean the 4×4 everyday to keep your lungs healthy, it becomes a bit of a drag!
How do you choose a route for a new track? Is it as simple as ‘here’s the start, there’s the end, and we need to avoid this and that, go!’?
If only. Things are never that simple. Especially when the land is not yours. First we come up with a general idea. Scope out the land, see what we think will work and what obstacles are in the way. Then we tell the boss. Then he has a look to see whose land it is. Then we seek permission. A lot of the time this goes smoothly, especially in Lindarets, as most of the land there is communal, so we just have to ask the Mairie at Montriond. On Super Morzine things are more difficult. Most of the land under the Zore lift is communal, but it is also used by the farmer, for his cows to graze on. There are also the ski pistes, which we can’t really do anything on. Oh, and the Office National des Foréts, we can’t cut down a tree without their permission. Added to that, there are parcels of private land that we can’t touch. On the lower half of Super Morzine, from the Telecabine downwards, it is all private land. This is why we only have one official piste that runs down to Morzine, and the 4×4 track. We strongly advise people to not ride where they are not allowed; it creates tension between landowners, users and ourselves. Hopefully, one day, we will be able to build a couple of tracks down to the bottom to supply the demand. This in turn should stop people using the illegal tracks, and then the land and homeowners will be happy too!
How do you build a new track?
With a couple of diggers, some shovels, rakes, hoes, pickaxes, a chainsaw and lots of elbow grease. Depending on what kind of track it is. For the bike park style (wide and smooth), one digger roughens up the earth and does the general pre-form and line. Then the second digger comes down and shapes it up and packs it down. We then come behind with rakes and shovels to shape the corners and pat them down, ready to be shredded. We tidy up the sides (roots etc) and make sure that if someone flies off into a tree they don’t get poked in the eye by a branch. For the other, more technical tracks, we try to build by hand as much as possible, to keep the track more natural.
What’s the hardest bit to get right?
All of it. It’s not easy to build a track and get it right first time. We are, hopefully, getting better with experience and learning from our mistakes. We’ve had to adjust one of the tracks we built [a few years ago] to help the flow a bit more. Things change as we build, and the final result will always be a bit different from the original idea.
And the toughest part of track building in general?
The weather. It’s best when it’s not too hot, cold, dry or wet. Sometimes it’s just right. We do a lot of work between May and the opening at the end of June, and again after the season. It’s easier to do when the earth is a bit more humid and there are not hundreds of bikers coming down the tracks.
What measures do you take in the off-season to preserve the tracks?
There aren’t really any specific measures to be honest. We try to make sure that drainage is clear so that there are no massive puddles come springtime. Other than that we fill in holes here and there and try to leave them in reasonably good condition. Around here, there is nothing to stop people riding the tracks in the off-season. Lots of locals are motivated to do uplifts when the lifts are closed.
What are your plans for the area in the future? Are there any long-term plans to open up other areas, Arare or Fornet maybe?
In the near future, the plans are to finish off the tracks on Super Morzine and get good numbers on the lift throughout the season. Then the aim is to improve Lindarets so that we get more people riding there. If we can make it so that the tracks need little maintenance that would be great. That means changing or adding sections and improving drainage. Perhaps then we can expand and add new areas and tracks. We’d probably have to employ more track builders too, and more workers for the lifts. It’d be great to expand the area, but we’d have to convince people higher up the chain. I think there is some real potential in the terrain we have. First of all we have to show that we can look after the tracks we have.
Do you get fed up with the negative comments about the wider area in generals track maintenance quality, when you guys are pulling your weight? Do you feel ‘tarred with the same brush’?
In a way, yes. A lot of people don’t realise that Super Morzine is part of Avoriaz, not Morzine. If we could, we’d change the name. Though I’m not sure if “Super Avoriaz” has quite the same ring to it! A lot of people credit Morzine for the work on Super Morzine, but it’s actually us!! There are positive and negative comments, but the negative ones get heard more and are quickly passed around. We do the best job we can with the resources we have. If people aren’t satisfied, they just go elsewhere. It’s true that Morzine was once at the forefront of biking in the Alps, but they have now slipped behind. Other resorts have come on leaps and bounds and attracted new customers. To keep people coming back you have to change and adapt and keep things fresh. Hence why we try to build new tracks or re-do old ones. If the tracks are the same, with endless braking bumps, or there aren’t enough tracks, people won’t return.
Is there potential for any large races or events held in the area in the future? Samoëns hasn’t got the biggest mountains but it just successfully hosted an EWS (Enduro World Series). Is there scope for something like along those lines?
Probably. I would guess that there are certain criteria that need to be met to hold such races. It’d be fantastic to hold an event on Super Morzine, but I don’t think the set-up is quite right for it. The last race we held was in 2007 in Lindarets, part of the French National series. Perhaps if we improve the tracks there we could have another one. I believe the EWS event at Samoëns was a great success. There are not a lot of permanent trails like we have over here, but the scope for natural terrain biking is immense, and if you go top to bottom you can get some really long runs.
It’s well known that Pleney is riddled with ‘secret’ or ‘illegal’ tracks. Are we just not in the loop enough to know about Lindarets secrets or is it because it’s a bit more out the way than Pleney, it doesn’t encourage DIY trail building?
I’m aware of one secret track on the Lindarets side. It’s actually used by a bike school for beginners! But seriously, I think the Pleney lends itself really well to secret tracks. There is a lot of terrain there that is ideal. Steep, rooty and with plenty of earth. On top of that, it’s next to town, so easy for locals to get up there and dig. There are also not a whole load of legal tracks, so that leaves lots of space for the secret ones. Lindarets is further away, harder for uplifts out of season and is mostly bedrock, so hard to dig in. We even struggle with the digger sometimes. Having said that, there is potential for some awesome tracks there, in my opinion.
Do you think the rise of the do-anything trail bike or ‘enduro’ bike as it’s commonly misnamed, will force a change in bikepark design and do you have plans to create longer and more pedal-y tracks to accommodate this increase in popularity?
Tough question. I think bike park tracks will always be popular as they are accessible to any level of rider, from the day-tripper to the World Cup racer. They are good places to learn basic skills. To advance and improve, people need to ride more technical and, most likely, natural tracks. This is where the trail bike is king. There are plenty of natural tracks in the Portes du Soleil for this type of riding. I think bike park tracks will stay the same. Perhaps opening more lifts to higher and more remote areas will open up more areas for trail bike riding.
What’s the hidden gem or your personal favourite of Avoriaz MTB trails?
My personal favourite is the “Bleue de Brochaux” in Lindarets. It’s only a blue but can be challenging to ride fast, especially in the wet. It’s had a revamp this year so is even longer and more fun. Also, the start of the “Coupe de France” in Lindarets is one of my favourite sections.
And finally, do you have a message for the kids?
Ride bikes, any type. They are more fun than you think and take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise go.
You can keep up with Avoriaz MTB on Facebook and Instagram. Neil Sharp is also a badass photographer, check out his work at Sharpography.co.uk