singletrack issue 127 van girls

Singletrack Issue 127 | Van Girls

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Emma and Carly show how much fun you can have by being badly prepared and under-equipped in France’s best-known mountain bike event. 

Words Emma Whitaker

Photography Emma Whitaker & Carly Frame

The wildly popular annual event Pass’Portes du Soleil is a mountain biking shindig like no other. There are no teams, no winners, no timings, no pressure. It’s just you, your ride of choice and a handful of determination. OK, and maybe some beer…


When I first brought up the idea to take part in this event, Carly glanced at me, pulled a pained expression and continued on with her pint. That went down well then…

After a little more pestering, a heap of inspirational YouTube videos and a massive downplay on the amount of hill climbing involved, Carly finally warmed to the idea. Frankly, this change in tone didn’t matter a jot to me as I’d gone ahead and bought us both tickets the previous month anyway.

singletrack issue 127 van girls

Our riding experience lies at opposite sides of (an extremely long) scale. On one hand, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to downhill riding in my teenage years, so I’m almost a decade in and feel as at home on a bike as I do in front of the telly with Netflix filling my eyes and a deep dish, stuffed crust, six-cheese pizza filling my belly. Then we arrive at Carly’s experience. Three years ago I thought it would be hilarious (and it bloody was!) to ship Carly off down a black trail in Morzine on a borrowed bike, under the pretence that it was in fact a blue. Bless her socks, she pedalled down that thing like Napoleon riding into battle. Yes, she spent most of the descent on her arse and she’d ruined her favourite slip-on Vans shoes (she still talks fondly of them to this day), but she did it! After that traumatic encounter, Carly forgot about the bikey world until last summer when I spotted a beauty of a bike online that would suit her perfectly. Knowing nothing about bikes, when Carly saw the orange and camo green highlights on the frame, she was sold. My years of gentle brainwashing and subliminal messaging were beginning to pay off. You know those parents who force their – clearly unwilling – children into ballet and gymnastics, despite a hurricane of ensuing tantrums? Well, I was a bit like that. But in a completely healthy ‘I know what’s best for you’ way.

Going all in.

Fast-forward a couple of months and our lives had changed fairly dramatically. We’d turned a Citroen Relay Panel Van into a comfortable (by that I mean, we have a bed) campervan and quit our jobs. Our bank accounts were looking healthy enough to sustain frugal travelling for a couple of years and the general plan was that we’d effortlessly live the Instagram #vanlife dream, cruising through the French countryside with our hair flowing in the gentle breeze and finding sweet secret trails every other day. The reality was somewhat different. Turns out that the countryside roads are fairly bleak and take literally years to drive through. There was minimal hair flowing as the humidity had turned Carly’s locks into something that resembled the coiffure of Hagrid’s significantly shorter sister and, despite our initial intentions, we’d become abysmally lazy. You know the kind of lazy where a week goes by and you have absolutely no idea where you’ve been or what you’ve accomplished? Aye, that. Anyway, come June we had just completed the French coast, drank an obscene amount of €3 wine, consumed the weight of a robust toddler in stinky cheese and put on our winter timber about five months too soon. It wasn’t looking promising.

We looped Travis (yes, our van is called Travis, it’s cool, I know) around and headed to Châtel, my favourite Alpine destination. Châtel happened to be the host village of the Pass’Portes du Soleil 2019, which meant that tons of brands would be setting up shop in the market square and really kicking the atmosphere up a notch. It was at this point, with my shorts feeling a touch snug, that I realised that maybe we’d bitten off a little more than we could chew. Alas, we headed back to the van with a takeaway pizza cradled in our arms, content in our delusion that it would all come together when the day arrived.

The day arrived. It didn’t all come together.

Full of hope and enthusiasm, we set our alarm clocks for 6am intending to get on the first lift out of Châtel. Now, bear in mind that we’re currently on an elongated holiday, which means that we only see the clock hit nine once per day. Naturally, the snooze button received a fair amount of abuse and we didn’t actually get out of bed until nigh on 7am. In a sleepy daze we stepped into our riding kit and slung our pre-packed bags (we were well aware that packing our rucksacks the morning of the event would culminate us packing one tyre lever and a packet of crisps between us…) over our shoulders, dragged ourselves onto our bikes and with last night’s pizza explosion rattling around in our tummies, we rode down to the registration area.

After registering, we collected our free Pass’Portes du Soleil-branded Bell helmets, sent a quick picture to our mummies, and squeezed ourselves into the télécabine.

We arrived at the top of Super Châtel and began the short dusty descent towards Torgon, Switzerland. So there we are, floating along on prime Alpine dirt, bleary-eyed, but having a marvellous time and then with the suddenness of a bug hitting a windscreen at 180kmph we were onto our first climb. Mercifully it was fairly short, but by God, that boy was steep. So steep, in fact, that it quickly became a pusher-upper. Our shame swiftly evaporated when our calf-wrenching walk was interrupted by numerous e-bikers doing exactly the same. Dignity restored. High five!

An hour or so later and we’re at the bottom of Torgon, arguing about whether a cheese fondue would constitute an adequate breakfast. I was more than keen, but after taking into account that it was 8.30am and given Carly’s tendency to spontaneously throw up, we decided that a Clif Bar would do the job just fine. Making the decision to abandon the melty cheese fest was probably the hardest choice I’d had to make for a couple of months. 

Hitting the trail back towards Châtel we encountered a poor lad who had succumbed to a drainage ditch and bust his collarbone, so that was encouraging. Anyway, we flew down the fire road descent, arrived back at Châtel, scooted back up the télécabine and began the longest climb of the day up the road to Morgins. Having not previously informed Carly of this climb, my guilt bubbled slightly as she began to softly weep. Her aversion to anything with even the slightest of gradients (she once complained that BikePark Wales had “an under-advertised amount of pedalling” despite an uplift…) really did not do her any favours. In fairness, the morning coolness was beginning to subside and we watched as the temperature slid up to 28° Celsius, which is obviously well outside the (very small) comfort zone of Carly’s very Scottish skin. Once I’d verbally dragged Carly to the top of the climb we were rewarded with exceptional vistas of the Mont Blanc Massif and the Dents du Midi. It was honestly stunning, so we took the opportunity to recover a little before we trundled off in the direction of Morgins village. This involved some of the sweetest singletrack in the Alps. By this time, the ground had become so dry it was like riding on the beach. So there we are, bouncing down the golden dirt, mouth, eyes and nose clamped shut to avoid sucking in the equivalent of the Sahara Desert. Bizarrely, despite the 7,800 participants taking part in the event over three days, it’s all so well organised and spread out that we’d regularly go for 20-minute slots without seeing another soul.

Is that a hole in your hand?

Blasting through Morgins we followed the signposts, which unfortunately led up another shortish climb, to Champoussin where we decided that it was time for some well-earned scran. We were welcomed with cheesy potato rösti, bread, cheese, charcuterie and chocolate, along with beer straight from the 7Peaks Brewery, which is based in Morgins. And, for entertainment, a lad jamming on the accordion like he was playing to Wembley and his great-great-great grandfather who provided some sterling backing vocals. It was glorious.

Thirty minutes later and, as if on cue, Carly throws up her lunch off the back of a chairlift and we continue on our merry way. By this point I’m certain that she was having trouble deciding whether it would be best to hurl me off the chairlift now or later.

Having ridden the route around Champéry the previous week, we decided to save a little of our depleting energy and reroute ourselves towards the top of Mossettes. This entailed yet more flowing singletrack (and another climb *insert evil laugh*) that sliced cleanly into the silently tranquil mountainside. Honestly, I can’t rave enough about the quality and tranquillity of this singletrack. Or, at least it was silently tranquil until we thundered along on our dust-coated, burning hot bikes with our brakes squealing like Chewbacca on a rollercoaster and a mysterious creak coming from somewhere within the depths of my frame. Suddenly the heavy skies broke and collapsed into a gentle bout of thunder and raindrops the size of golf balls. We continued on some of the prettiest singletrack that I’ve ever experienced and dropped into the Lindarets valley with a gentle, but constant, stream of either sweat or rain running down our backs. Of course it was all running a little too smoothly, so Carly breaks the flow by hitting the deck like a sack of loosely packed potatoes. Fortunately she got away with a handful of colourful bruises and a nice puncture in her hand, from which a chunk of fat was trying to escape. With the fat teased back into the wound, some magic cream, some Steri-Strips™ and the promise of more pizza, we sought shelter from the rain and thunder in the food station.

By this time, we were pooped. Really, really pooped. Recognising that we’d reached our limit, we decided that we should play it safe and head back towards Châtel. Up the lift we went and down into Bike Park Châtel where we ended our adventure with a lap of our favourite trails and fell into the bus back into town and into the metaphorical arms of Travis.

Despite completing just two thirds of the event, we were more than happy with our wee day out. The beauty of the Pass’Portes du Soleil is that there is literally no pressure to get yourself around the route – it’s as serious as you want to make it. This enables the event to maintain an extremely chilled atmosphere where everyone and every style of rider feels welcomed and we all go home feeling accomplished. Gather your pals, give it a go, and if worst comes to worst, the French do a great bottle of vino. We will definitely be jumping on the chance to secure tickets for next year’s event, maybe we’ll even do some forward planning and get a little fitter! 

Probably not, but everyone loves a dreamer.

Avid socks and sandals wearer. Sort of skilled bicycle rider. Not too shabby with a spanner. Little bit handy with a camera.

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  • Singletrack Issue 127 | Van Girls
  • kayak23
    Full Member


    Full Member

    Great article, reminds me of our first PPDS trip !

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