by Garry Cook (published in Daily Star Sunday)
“ALLEZ!” shouted Bruno as we skidded down the terrifying forest trail.
“Allez!” shouted Bruno as we bounced our bikes through a craggy boulderstrewn alpine stream.
It had all started with the same “allez!” six hours earlier when Bruno, our French mountain bike guide, launched his machine through the snow to begin our 2,000-metre mountain descent.
Welcome to La Plagne, in the French Alps, in the middle of summer!
And, yes, I did mention snow.
There was no sign of the white stuff at the bottom of the valley as we stood in the baking heat watching children play under a huge fountain while others sunbathed by the edge of the lake at Plan d’eau de Macot. It was as if we’d arrived on a different continent!
Going from snow to sweltering in a few hours after a white-knuckle ride down through the high-altitude villages is a great way to experience the Alps.
From a barren, rocky, lunar landscape, through rolling grasslands to thick forests – plus amazing views of Mont Blanc across the valley – La Plagne makes the Lake District look like your next-door neighbour’s garden.
I’d never even been on a mountain bike until that morning. But Bruno was there to turn us into pros. He took us by telecabin (the cable car which Bruno called “the bubble”) to the peak of Roche de Mio, 2,739metres above sea level.
The air is so thin up there that pedalling up even small slopes leaves you gasping.
But the beauty of mountain biking in La Plagne is that most of the ups are by cable car. After that it’s downhill all the way.
What with slippery rock paths, narrow grass trails and bumpy forest routes, it could have been holiday hell – so thank goodness we had Bruno to give us confidence.
At 41, our guide was a glowing example of what mountain life can do for you. He charges around `35 for a half-day of unforgettable fun on two wheels.
Fitter than a man half his age, he even inspired me – a half-fit thirty-something – to aspire to becoming a mountain biking hero.
At least that’s how it felt.
Mountain biking is all about balance and braking. Your fingers are permanently glued to the brakes, while you stand on the pedals and lean back to negotiate drops as Bruno encourages you with another “allez!”.
If you’re going to try something new and out of your comfort zone, you might as well try it against the backdrop of the stunning Alps.
La Plagne, only a 90-minute drive from Grenoble and just over two hours from Lyon and Geneva airports, is best known as a winter ski resort. It is made up of several picturesque villages linked by cable car, ski lift and mountain trail.
And the lush alpine mountains are stunning in the summer months when the slopes lend themselves to a multitude of activities.
For every hardcore sporting event, there are a dozen less challenging activities. As well as adventure sports like kayaking, white-water rafting, climbing and quad-biking, there is also archery, paintballing, paragliding, trampolining and pony riding.
Plus there are adventure parks, festivals, wildlife walks, spa treatments, a walk inside a glacier and even circus training.
The resort has even made a big effort to make the summer activities cheaper. Some of the lifts are free while other services, like the daily shuttle bus up from the valley, have been reduced in price.
Look out for the Pass’Plagne (or Pass’Bike for cyclists), a card that offers big reductions on activities, entertainments and meals.
You can see – or attempt – some impressive tricks at the skate park in Plagne Bellecote and there are loads of smaller mountain bike trails with jumps and see-saws dotted around the villages.
We tried them out on day two, when Bruno took us across the mountain from our base in Belle Plagne to Montchavin via some stunning woodland trails, used both as crosscountry ski routes in the winter and for the gruelling 6000D – a 70-mile running race that goes up the mountain and back down again every July. Competitors are encouraged to finish within 25 hours, so mountain biking is definitely the easy option!
The highlight of the forest trail was ploughing our way down through a field of 2ft-tall grass and wildflowers and not falling off.
After the exertions of a downhill run, French cuisine on a mountainside terrace restaurant is heaven.
I can definitely recommend a meal at Le Matafan in Belle Plagne and Les Carons in Les Coches.
We stayed at the impressive Chalet Hotel des Deux Domaines in Belle Plagne, which has stunning views across the valley.
The trained staff – all British – run plenty of activities for kids and you can choose when they are looked after.
That leaves you free to tackle some of the delights the mountain has to offer. Baby listening and child patrol services also allow evening relaxation in the hotel hot tub, sauna, pool or bar.
Loads of extras are included if you book your break early in the year – including free wine, free food and soft drinks for the kids.
There are even free holidays for children and infants on offer.
Yes, there is no better place for kids, teenagers or even first-timers like me to learn a new skill or try something adventurous for the first time. So come on, allez!
LA PLAGNE FACTS
Package deals stopping at the Chalet Hotel Des Deux Domaines are available through Esprit Family Adventures, with prices starting at £75 a week per person, full board. Visit EspritFamilyAdventures.com or call Esprit on 01252 618 300.
For mountain bike guide Bruno Chavard of Evolution 2, Montchavin, 73210 Bellentre, call 04 79 07 81 85. Visit evolution2.com or e-mail Bruno.firstname.lastname@example.org For more information about la Plagne visit la-plagne.com
All images © Copyright Garry Cook