PART ONE: Explore the mountain bike mecca of Zermatt, Switzerland in this three part series!
Words and photos: Mike Blewitt
Cover Photo: Dario Furler
The world comes to Zermatt. And it happens every day. Zermatt and the Matterhorn are alpine icons. Hordes of tourists catch a train to the car-free town in the canton of Valais every day. From the train station, tickets to the Gornergrat are booked, and said horde then boards the mountain train to be taken up to the top station which looks suitable for a Bond villain.
The building affords expansive views across to the Monte Rosa, but most importantly to the Matterhorn. Its pyramid shape is said to be the essence of what a mountain should look like. Zermatt is famous the world over for the Matterhorn, and the mix of people on the streets of Zermatt are akin to an international terminal in any major airport, or when taking in the sights of New York or London.
Zermatt is a mountain playground in summer and winter, with year round skiing, and over 38 4000m peaks that can be scaled in the area. This mix of climbers, skiers (in summer as well, thanks to the glacier skiing at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise) tourists and hikers has also had a growing number of mountain bikers. With the Swiss Epic finishing in Zermatt for five years in a row, a Continental Enduro round and the announcement that the Enduro World Series would call Zermatt home for the final round in 2019 and 2020 – it's clear that this alpine mecca is broadening its horizons.
We first visited in 2014, and the raw trails, huge mountains and full-service infrastructure blew our minds. Unlike many mountain bike hotspots, when you’re off the bike, Zermatt truly delivers on the holiday front. From high quality restaurants and hotels, to experiences in the mountains that are as varied as the people visiting. This is no backwater with some money to build trails. Zermatt is a thriving tourist hub, and their mountain biking hasn’t had the attention it deserves until recently.
There wasn't too much for a beginner mountain biker to do in Zermatt when we first visited. The trails were steep and often very exposed, where a mistake could result in a much faster trip to the valley floor than anticipated. But far from just being hiking trails, they were farming trails first. The trails snaked along ridgelines and down valleys, along water courses in the forest and between boulders in glacial moraine.
The trails had a really natural feel – and while sections were steep, the overall experience was one where the trails felt like they had been there forever, creating a really immersive feeling when riding. Nothing was machine-built, but you had a variety of trains and lifts that could take you to over 3000m before you descended. And if you wanted to stop at a restaurant for lunch on the way down, you had more options than you could visit in a week of riding.
Zermatt rivals many global mountain bike hotspots not just for how many kilometres of trail are available, but the variety, and the vertical drop that's possible. And there has been a lot of work going on to make sure they can really offer more riding options for a greater variety of riders. For sure, they can cater to the needs of an EWS race already – but those who want to come and watch will truly enjoy some of the new trails.
As an alpine town, Zermatt is quite high already at 1600m elevation. So the trails aren't super easy, which is why there has been a focus on making flow trails. “Right now it's more for the experienced mountain bikers, as many of the trails are difficult” says Jasmin Marti, who looks after mountain biking at the Zermatt Tourism office. “Now Zermatt is starting to make all the flow trails. When the flow trails are finished then Zermatt will be great for beginners and families.”
Zermatt Tourism states there are 150km of marked trails for mountain biking. The truth lies somewhere closer to 400km as all the trails are open for mountain biking, they're just not all marked. Add up to 45km of flow trails to this (by 2023) and it's clear Zermatt is only going to grow as a mountain bike destination. We hear there are even plans to build some more demanding technical trails, for mountain bikes only.
Like most alpine resorts, eMTBs are popular in Zermatt. As the town is car free you'll notice just about every local gets around by bike, and increasingly it is by e-bike. Sports shops are renting out eMTBs in summer, and often none are available on the weekends. Even with lifts and mountain trains, an eMTB does help riders stay out for longer, and access trails in a different way.
While our visit was to see the new trails – we also wanted to see what would be in store for the EWS next September, so we lined up a ride with some of the guides from Bike School Zermatt, who have played a key role in the event coming to Zermatt. Keep an eye out next week for the second instalment as we take a look at the trails for the upcoming Enduro World Series round!