PAYDIRT PROFILE: L'ASSOCIATION DE VÉLO ALTERNATIF DE LA GRAVE (AVAG)
PAYDIRT PROFILE: L'ASSOCIATION DE VÉLO ALTERNATIF DE LA GRAVE (AVAG)
PayDirt Profile: L'Association de vélo alternatif de La Grave
March 01 — 2022 | Santa Cruz, California
Smashing a 5900 ft descent in one go
La Grave – known as one of the world’s most extreme ski resorts – might be one of the best kept mountain biking secrets. The massive glacier is home to some of the steepest slopes in the French Alps and a small town filled with an active mountain community.\
At first glance, the steep alpine slopes of La Grave might not seem suitable for anyone. But try telling that to L’Association de vélo alternatif de La Grave (AVAG) and their president, Pascal Vallin.
They’re finishing a new trail that starts at the very top of the 10,500 ft. mountain and finishes in the little town of La Grave at 4,590 ft. Plus, you can get to the top from town by using the historic cable cars.
First, can you explain what La Grave is all about and its riding style?
PV: La Grave is not your typical bikepark. It’s more of a wild area with various MTB trails within it. The playground is huge and riders evolve in this big mountain territory. Riding in La Grave provides a true backcountry experience with it's rewards but also risks. Trails here are rugged and demanding but provide a truly epic experience for those willing to tackle them.
The historical cable car goes all the way up to 10,500 ft with a mid-station at 7,875 ft where most of the trails start. We have one trail starting from right at the top - called 'Kingstone Road' and 5 tracks from the mid-station all the way down to La Grave.
Tell us a bit about how the existing trails were developed and by whom?
PV: 15 years ago, a few dedicated mountain bikers were willing to make the most of the cable car in the summer, as it was running for mountaineers to access the alpine anyway.
They started to ride hiking trails and whatever they could find up the mountain such as animal paths or rocky chutes. Just the same way they were doing on skis in the winter.
When I moved to La Grave, more mountain bikers got onboard and were willing to use the mountain. Trails needed to be more accessible, with a better flow and less of an extreme approach. And so eventually, a wider group of mountain bikers (that I was part of) started to put together a bike trail that was a mix of hiking trails and previous mountain biking routes. It became the first official track, called 'The AVAG One'.
Tell us more about this new project that you had in mind for a long time.
What was your primary objective with the creation of this trail and what has prevented you from building it previously?
PV: Since our previous big project in 2016, 'Kingston Road', which was our first trail from the top station, I dreamed of the development of a similar track on the other side of the mountain that would be quite a bit different, but with the same epicness. Another trail from the top will bring a totally new dimension to our riding area and expand possibilities.
Riding in this landscape, at such a high altitude provides a unique experience and there are not many places in the world where you can smash 5,900 ft of descent in one go and take the lift back up for another one!
Trail development in La Grave occurred in 3 different phases: The first funding came from the EU government and allowed the building of most of the trails of the lower section, then 'Kingston Road' was built in 2016, and we have this 3rd and final project now that is made possible thanks to the PayDirt funding.
The trail you intend to build will start at 10,500 ft. - can you tell us a bit about the challenges that you expect to encounter with high mountain trail building and the kind of terrain that you are going to be working with?
PV: At this altitude, the biggest variable remains the unpredictable weather as well as late snow in the spring. This year, we started with a new lower section to replace a piece of a trail that got destroyed by an avalanche last year. Then, when the snow finally melted, we could do some work in the mid-section and build a new really cool traverse.
Next year, we’ll improve the bottom part, and only from early August, it should be possible to build the top section from scratch. It should take us 3 weeks if things are going to plan. The ground on top is covered with massive boulders and the biggest challenge for us is to move those huge rocks to create a path.
La Grave is a relatively 'untouched' place with limited lift access- a huge part of its appeal are the views of the glacier and the natural park which means that conservation will be key. How has this affected the project?
PV: We make sure to cause as little damage as possible. 100% of our trail building work is made by hand; and because we strive to take old paths or existing trails that need reconstruction, our impact on the environment remains limited.
The small lift and its productivity also play a big role in this direction and naturally limit the traffic in the mountain. The top section only consists of moving rocks that create paths that are actually used by wildlife and the wooden part at the bottom remains as natural as possible. We avoid cutting trees and go around anthills when they sit on our planned route.
What is your long-term vision for the resort with regards to bike trails?
PV: This trail project is our last big one. Once achieved, the goal will be to maintain the existing trails as best as we can and improve them. Let's be clear, La Grave will never become an overdeveloped bikepark, hosting hundreds of riders per day. That is not the objective here, partly because of the lift capacity and also in terms of difficulties. La Grave remains a secret treasure that must be earned and will gladly remain an exclusive, almost mystical place – one that must be discovered to have a truly epic experience on a bike.
Have you encountered any resistance from other people or groups?
PV: We’re lucky that local organizations such as the National Park Service, Environmental groups, the Hunting club as well as land owners are really understanding and supportive.
We aim to cohabit in a respectful way with other mountain users - we value the heritage of this place and actively display our respect for nature and as a result of this, we now have the freedom to achieve our vision for mountain biking in La Grave.
How has the development of summertime trails been received?
PV: Mountain bikers represent only a small part of the cable car users in the summer, but beyond the figures, mountain biking offers a lot in terms of image and notoriety for La Grave. It helps restaurants, hotels, pubs and brings an interesting and diverse mix of mountain lovers to town. It definitely feels like a special place to hang out. It’s not rare that summer visitors come back in the winter to check out the place for skiing.
The funding of a project like this also helps the local economy as it allows us to contract trail builders from the area. It’s good to see locals being able to work in town and get away from having to move to the next big cities to find some work.
La Grave is notorious for its 'extreme' element with regards to skiing - will you preserve this image or make the area more universally accessible?
PV: The nature of the terrain gives this extreme aspect to deal with and this is the beauty of La Grave. It’s not something that we’re chasing and trail building work definitely helps to mellow down the difficulties but it’s fair to say that the area will never become universally accessible.
How do you want people to feel when they have ridden this new trail? What kind of rider would you like it to appeal to?
PV: I hope they’ll feel that they’re riding something very special. I’ve been living here for many years and I’m still amazed by the epicness of the landscape on that side of the mountain more than anywhere else. While Kingston Road is quite open, this new trail will coast through big boulders and hidden valleys, going through technical rock gardens from high alpine glaciers all the way down to sub-alpine meadows and Larch woods. Your eyes constantly need to focus on the trail while your head just wants to look up at the high peaks surrounding you.
I hope riders will feel the same way and will appreciate the beauty of this place just like we do when we’re out trail building. Everything is quite overwhelming around here and the riding makes it even more special!
What will it be called and when will it be ready to ride?
PV: Les Valloins de la Meije. We plan to open it late summer and hopefully we can have an inaugural weekend at the end of August/early September.
Length of Trail: 7.5 miles
Elevation: from 10,500 ft. to 4,590 ft. / 5,900 ft. of descent
Contractors: 5/6 paid trail builders
Hours/time to build: 40 days per year
Years of development: 2 years of building + many years of scouting and planning
How many members of AVAG: Between 15 and 20