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Is Switzerland the World's Greatest Destination for Mountain Biking?July 26, 2016
|Photo by Fernando Weberich|
by Paul Hart, The Daily Telegraph, July 26, 2016
Mountain biking has come a long way since I purchased a first Dawes Handmade bike some 30 years ago. In those days there was no suspension and the only real difference from a road bike was the thicker tyres, chunkier frame and flat-line handlebars.
Initial forays could be painful: routes were limited and a lack of suspension and disc-brakes could make it a white-knuckle experience. Technology has improved, opening up vast areas to mountain biking, now often the summer counterpart to winter skiing – and Switzerland is leading the charge.
A regular visitor to the country for 20 years, I have concentrated on winter sports and was unaware how far it had turned into a superb mountain bike destination. Then I visited three resorts more commonly known for their skiing and winter sports activities. It’s not as expensive as you might think, either: bike-friendly hotels, including lift passes for your bike, can reduce the cost, as can rail transfers.
These days, you can visit the mountains whatever your age, as I realised after seeing so many people on E-bikes. I’m planning on taking my 80-year-old father next year, along with my children. And as an average mountain biker, I was well placed to make judgment calls on the difficulty of the routes and tours on offer.
These adjacent villages are set in a truly stunning playground for outdoor activities. Mountain biking will suit all levels of ability. For easier options there are some superb routes around the beautiful Flims Forest. Cycling around the forest routes is serene and accompanied by some breathtaking views, including the opportunity to look down on the Rhine Gorge from the 970m-high “Spir” viewing platform at Conn. The entire family can cool off with visits to the stunning Cauma and Cresta Lakes. Lifts offer an easy option to reach the more than 200 miles of varied trails, including family-circuit routes available here.
I chose to push my boundaries on the “Runcatrail”, billed as an easy-medium “freeride” (a downhill route) descending 740m over six kilometres (3.6 miles). It was such a superbly enjoyable ride – if a little challenging in places – that I immediately went back up and did it again.
Overall, the Flims-Laax resort provides everything that a family could want for a great mountain biking holiday. One reason that it is such a good family option is that it offers a whole range of other activities, such as the Cauma Lake for swimming if children reach their limit on a bike. At Laax, there are also other options at the “Freestyle Academy” ( freestyleacademy.com/en/laax ), which offers skills training in biking, skateboarding and even ski jumping, throughout the year.
Best for: families with young children or those getting into biking for the first time.
The resort of Lenzerheide sits in a narrow valley, bookended by the historic Swiss city of Chur at one end and a tributary of the Rhine at the other. The mountains on either side offer almost 200 miles of bike trails and routes, with beautiful, flat routes around a lake. There are also routes across the tops of the mountains and down steep single-tracks through woods and open fields, with trails or lifts to take you up. I stayed in the bike-friendly hotel the Collina ( hotelcollina.ch ), and on my first evening the hotelier, Fritz Stalder, took me for a guided cycle on a popular route up the mountain and then back down into the valley to enjoy the trails through the woods. It was perfect for young children and less-confident, older children and adults. There was only one section of uphill cycling that was a challenge and the whole route could be achieved without the need for going on the lifts.
The great thing about Lenzerheide is that the abundance of routes means there is always something that you can do to challenge yourself. Easy-grade flow trails (purpose-built mountain bike trails), suitable for children and adults alike, allow you to ricochet around banked earth walls at a speed you decide. I watched all ages and abilities constantly repeat the process of descending these runs, all the while getting faster and more proficient. There was a sense of fun competition between children and their parents – just like a typical family ski holiday.
There are also superb long-distance mountain routes such as the one from Piz Scalottas all the way down to Chur, providing incredible views across the mountaintops while descending a heady 1,850m. The route crossed the valley and had me cycling through woods and then grasslands and then back into woods. A stop for a great lunch at Chur allowed me to rejuvenate and then make the uphill return trip to Lenzerheide. If there were ever a moment when I thought it was a bit of a push, I simply had to remind myself of the two female mountain bikers I had passed on the way down, who were going in the opposite direction towing small children in bike trailers. Lenzerheide also boasts an impressive bike school (0041 81 385 10 74; bikeschule.com ).
Best for: sheer breadth and variety of routes; there is something for everyone.
St Moritz and the Engadin
Watching the sunrise over the mountains of Switzerland from the 3,056m-high vantage point of Piz Nair is a truly magical experience. As part of the mountain biking opportunities in St Moritz, it is possible to be the first up the mountain with your bike to have a breakfast in the mountaintop restaurant and watch the sunrise, then you can take any of the hundreds of bike routes down into the valley again. I was staying in the superb, bike-friendly Hotel Palü (0041 81 838 95 95; palue.ch ). I watched a beautiful morning dawn with the owner and his young son, while indulging in steaming coffee and an array of breakfast offerings. Then they set off at speed down one of the more challenging routes into the valley.
I asked my guide, Heinz Luthi (organised through bikeschool-engadin.ch ), if we could do something a little more scenic and orientated towards keeping me out of hospital. As someone who had biked every route in the region, Heinz was brilliant at working out a combination of routes that allowed me to have the the best morning cycle. I was able to enjoy what were, quite simply, the most stunning views I had yet seen.
Heinz took me on the Panorama Route, one of more than 400km of single-track, marked cycle routes in the region. While some uphill sections demanded I get off and push due to the altitude, none of it was beyond the capability of the numerous youngsters I saw enjoying the trail. It was a fantastic route and one of the highlights of my time in Switzerland.
Heinz and I returned to Piz Nair several times and enjoyed alternative trails from this high spot. One that was particularly good fun and offered lots of different levels of challenge was the Suvretta Pass down to Bever. I did have to walk short sections of this, but as it was all downhill, it was easy going. The vast majority, though, was well within my capability and Heinz confided in me that he regularly takes his 12-year-old son on the route. While there were many people out cycling, the endless miles of tracks mean that you are almost always in your own company.
For those who want to ride flow trails, the VM, Foppettas and Corviglia routes are superb. If you have teenage children, expect to leave them riding these routes as, from what I saw, they act like magnets for the young. Even for the not-so-young, they are great fun and I found them as exhilarating as any of the other trails I had done.
For those with younger children, the Engadin offers a vast array of easy but equally stunning rides. I travelled with Heinz and his son to see the Bernina Glacier and then cycled around the lakes of the Engadin down to the scenic town of Maloja – a route that could be tailored in length to suit the needs of any age.
Best for: the stunning views and hard-core mountain biking descents.
Paul Hart was a guest of the Swiss tourist board (see myswitzerland.com ), which also has details on bike-friendly hotels in its accommodation tab.
SWISS (0345 601 0956; swiss.com ) operates more than 170 weekly flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal during summer) and Dublin from as little as £71 one-way.
The Swiss Transfer Ticket offers a round-trip between the airport and your destination. Prices from £99. See the Swiss Federal Railways website ( sbb.ch ) for more details and to book online.
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This article was written by Paul Hart from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.