Published by Lyn on 22 February 2011
Amie Marsh is founder of Dirty Girls Ride, a mountain bike group for women based in the Alps. She chats to us about getting into mountain bike riding in France.
Can you tell us about the first time you went mountain biking in France?
My first MTB experience in France was in Morzine last summer (2010). I was new to the sport and I had the opportunity to try something new. I’ve always been sporty and I knew from watching it that I was going to like it, but I didn’t realise how much – I’ve never had so much fun.
Had you cycled much before that?
I grew up in London, so mountain biking was never an option I had. I always had a bike when I was younger and cycled to school and to work, but I never had a mountain bike. The good thing about different disciplines of cycling is that bike skills are transferable, so even if you haven’t ridden certain types of bikes, chances are you will pick it up a new type quite quickly if you have some basic bike skills.
How did you end up in Morzine?
I decided to give up the London rat race for a while and do a ski season. Due to applying very late, there were very few jobs left, but I got offered one in Morzine at the last minute. At that point I would have gone anywhere and had no idea what Morzine was like. I was pleasantly surprised to find a proper town, rather than some pre-fabricated concrete apartment block ski town that is common in the Alps, plus friendly people and a great atmosphere.
How did Dirty Girls Ride come about? (Great name, by the way!)
Thanks! Dirty Girls started last summer when I started biking. Morzine in the summer is nicknamed 'Manzine' due to the lack of women here. I found myself chasing guys who had been riding for years, who were much better and stronger than me. My chances of keeping up, let alone enjoying myself with them were slim. I felt like I was holding them up all the time.
I asked around town if there were any other women who rode and I got introduced to a couple of women who were riding together every day. This was great for me as we were all into riding the big tracks but not being competitive or feeling like we were holding each other up if we come across something we weren’t too sure about trying (there’s some scary stuff around here!)
After deciding our little threesome wasn’t enough, I set up Dirty Girls Ride to try and find some more riding buddies and organise a few things for us to do. We managed to round up a few more local girls, and get some great days out together.
Since then, Dirty Girls Ride has become known locally and many local shops around town are supporting us this coming summer, offering us great discounts as well as lots of freebies such as free coaching from a local MTB school and free bike mechanic classes. I've also managed to organise some race coaching days with some professional riders, such as 4x world champion and Olympic medallist Jill Kintler from Transition Bikes. Some bigger companies have also been generous and have offered us free kit for some prize give aways over the summer.
Is it easy to get into mountain biking?
Mountain biking isn’t the easiest sport to get into but it's not impossible – it just takes a bit of time. Firstly, depending on where you ride, you need a good bike, as well as the right type of bike. If you are riding some smoother walking tracks with minimal height variations, you can use a cheaper hard tail bike. If you want to ride downhill or more serious cross-country trails, then having a reasonable bike with the right suspension, brakes and tyres is essential. An unsuitable bike will break very quickly.
You will also need the correct protective gear. Cross-country riders tend to wear knee pads, a standard helmet and Lycra clothing. Downhill riding, due to its speed, requires a full face helmet, upper body armour, including a back protector, as well as knee pads. In places like Morzine, where mountain biking is very popular, there are bike rental shops where you get find top of the range equipment you can rent by the day, so you don’t need to worry about spending lots of money for a one-week mountain bike holiday or if you only want to try it for a day.
Once you have your bike and protective gear, you'll just need a backpack with some essentials. You can cover a lot of ground by bike, often well away from civilisation, so carrying a spare inner tube and puncture kit is essential. There's nothing worse than a long walk home carrying a bike. Some food and water is also a must, as well as a waterproof lightweight jacket. The weather can turn very quickly in the mountains.
If you've never biked before, I'd recommend hiring a bike and the protective gear for a few days. Once you've decided the sport for you, then look at purchasing your own equipment. Mountain bikes are very expensive. A full downhill bike can cost a£3000-£5000 new. Many people buy a cheaper second-hand bike and build it up over time. You can buy a good second-hand bike from £500.
I found my first bike, a Kona Stinky, on eBay for £650. It needed a small amount of money spent on it throughout the summer, but overall it handled itself very well. Pink Bike is also a good place to find second-hand bikes, as well as local bike rental shops who want to sell of last year's stock.
How does France rate as a MTB destination?
France is a world-class mountain biking destination. Some of the world's best riders come out of France and many of the world's biggest bike races are held here.
If you could ride anywhere in France, where would it be?
It's hard to say – Morzine has the biggest network of lifts and world-class trails but it comes at the price of being a little busier than the smaller resorts. I would like to find somewhere a little more unknown but still accessible. Maybe this summer I'll find somewhere new. I'm not into pushing up the hill, so it must have lifts!
And where would you avoid?
This often depends on your ability, the weather and other factors. The worst place I've biked as a tourist is Chamonix. The terrain and scenery are amazing, but many of the bike tracks are also walking tracks, which can be a hindrance to bikers and walkers. But for slower riders or family trips, Chamonix would be great. With many of the bigger resorts, you need to get to know the best spots before you can enjoy them to the max.
What are the seasons like?
The French mountain bike season generally runs from june to mid-September. The summer in the Alps is normally quite hot with little wind but when it rains, IT RAINS! There's still riding to be done in the winter but it's often muddy and snowy, so it's not ideal for learning. There's also no way to get your bike up the hill, so you'll need to push. Many of the best French MTB resorts are ski resorts in the winter. Living in Morzine means that I mainly ski or snowboard from November to April.
What three items can’t you ride without?
A good helmet, spare inner tubes and puncture kit, and water.
What advice do you have for anyone thinking about a mountian biking holiday in France?
I'd recommend heading to an established resort where you have the facilities and support you'll need. You can’t bring your garage and tool box, so it’s essential that you can find these things when you are away. More established resorts will have more options for rental, better facilities and a bigger variety of trails for you to ride, making them suitable for a group of gung-ho guys who want to go as fast as possible or a family day out.
Cycling can be tiring, too – I'd advise staying in a resort that has other options available, particularly on a family holiday, so that there is lots to do if you want a day off the mountain. Speak with your hotel or booking agent – people who live in these resorts can tell you exactly what’s best for you and what’s available.
See the Dirty Girls Ride website for more information on the club, and to contact Amie.