Zermatt in Switzerland's Valais canton is a classic destination in a slightly new costume. Historically, people visited for mountaineering, hiking, skiing, and simply the stunning views.
With car-free streets, a mountain culture deeper rooted than anywhere and perhaps the most iconic mountain silhouette in the world, Zermatt always had a particular drag.
One of the Alps' classics with all its beauty, but honestly a bit boring and conservative. Naturally, it took a long time for mountain biking to get rooted there.
I remember my first trip to Zermatt about 20 years ago. Together with a few friends, I was exploring a few different places in the Alps. We had skied in Zermatt before, so we knew the terrain and figured it would work well for mountain biking too. We had a great time on our bikes – we found endless single tracks in the mountains, and the vistas were mind-blowing.
Weithaler and May explore one of the many high-alpine trails above Zermatt.
We boarded the Gornergrat train at the town square, jumped off 1500 vertical meters higher up – at the world's highest located outdoor train station. As we departed, the panorama view was simply stunning; some of the wildest glaciers and mountain peaks in the Alps were right in front of your eyes. And the best part; trails in any direction. Dreamy feels like an understatement – it was almost too good to be true.
A one-way ticket to endless routes.
We kept coming back, year after year and as experienced mountain bikers and used to the Alps' culture, we were okay with the pretty rough trails and the slow process of getting the "new sport" accepted.
Unfortunately, the vibe was not so welcoming, and that killed the stoke a bit. Back then, the hikers even told us we were not allowed on the trails, and honestly, the trails were probably more spectacular than good at the time. So, after a few visits, we ventured to other places, and it took a while before we returned.
Luckily things have changed, and nowadays, Zermatt is transitioning into one of the most exciting mountain bike destinations in the Alps. As a mountain biker, you can now feel a much more friendly attitude, and it sure is a welcoming change.
As one of the original villages in the Alps and at the foot of the famous Matterhorn (4447 m/14,692 ft), Zermatt certainly has a unique appeal. People would come just for the incredible views and the exciting history.
Julia Hofmann and Stephen Matthews spot their bed for the night ahead at Fluhalp Hut, resting at 2,620 meters (8,600 feet) above sea level.
A room with not just ‘a’ view, but ‘the’ view Fluhalp Hut, above Zermatt.
Still, instead of sitting comfortably on the sofa and collect the tourism money, the entrepreneurial spirit of the Zermatters has created a never-ending progression as a mountain town.
Most recently, they have decided to take mountain biking seriously, and they have done their homework. For a few intense years, Zermatt has created a mountain bike product worth the name, which has put them on the global mountain biking map.
Alpinism as we know it started once the pyramidal peak Matterhorn was conquered for the first time in 1865. The first climber on the mountain was Edward Whymper, a young British climber and artist. After a disastrous descent on the north wall that killed three of the seven on the expedition, the mountain’s allure grew, and Zermatt landed on the tourism map.
Once Matterhorn – one of the last peaks over 4000 meters – was climbed, everyone wanted to come to Zermatt to see the deadly and stunning mountain.
Leisure excursions were organized to the Alps, and Zermatt became the original place when the British aristocracy ventured to the mountains to climb, hike and enjoy the fresh air.
Over time, this grew into a massive tourism industry, and Zermatt became one of the most well-known mountain destinations globally.
Dedicated mountain bikers have been riding on the trails around Zermatt for many years, but there was no official mountain biking program for a long time.
When other destinations in the Alps like Lenzerheide, Pila and Morzine went all-in on mountain biking years ago, the resort management in Zermatt tried to figure out if this was something for them as a tourism project. It took a while, but once they realized mountain biking had good potential, l they did not hold back.
Holger Meyer seeks out yet another spectacular Swiss landscape.
With a US $13 million investment spread out over five years, a fantastic mountain biking product is being created in the shadow of the Matterhorn. The ongoing project in Zermatt is probably more significant than any other mountain bike development project in Europe, perhaps in the world.
Weithaler finds her flow on one of the new machine-built trails down in the valley.
Besides a growing number of purpose-built mountain bike trails – both flow trails and single tracks – regular maintenance is going on, good signs all over the mountains and a welcoming approach to mountain bikers generally.
For a few years, Zermatt also puts on a big bike festival, Trail Love, and they have been hosting the Enduro World Series annually. So, it is more than just a marketing push and a few bike trails. That becomes clear when I visit Zermatt and meet with strategic director Adrian Grenier at Bike Plan, a company specializing in bike destination development, concept, and master planning.
Bike Plan is busy with many ongoing projects all over Switzerland, Norway, Scotland and Croatia. They are partly based in Zermatt, and that is where Adrian lives.
"We got involved here in Zermatt in 2016 when the resort decided they were ready to create a better mountain biking product. Until then, there were just a few trails designated for mountain biking, and they were not very good", explains Adrian.
Since Zermatt decided to become a real bike destination, Adrian has kept a team of up to 20 trail builders and regular maintenance crew busy in Zermatt during the snow-free part of the year. So far, the result has resulted in a handful of long machine-built flow trails with berms and jumps.
Trails hunted, goods scored. Matt Hunter finds his zen in Zermatt.
"Here in Zermatt, it was essential to build some purpose-built mountain bike trails and make sure bike-and-foot traffic became separated as much as possible. That was a big problem before", says Adrian, while adding "Zermatt is one of the Alp's most popular destinations for hiking".
I can relate to this previous issue, both in Zermatt but generally across the Alps. Especially in the lower parts of the mountains, it can be hectic on the trails, and the different user groups often conflict with each other. Having separate trails simply keeps things less problematic.
Adrian and his crew have also shaped up many old hiking trails and rebuilt parts to eliminate water problems and create a better flow. These trails now function better for both biking and hiking.
"We fixed up one of the oldest trails in the valley, the Smuggler Run from Trockner Steg down to Furgg, for the Enduro World Series. That is a 500 vertical meter trail that was used already in the Roman era. We could put some money into rebuilding this old trail because of the event and make it much more bike-friendly. Now it has so much better flow, and you can enjoy it even if you are not a pro rider", says Adrian.
Mountain biking is changing in Zermatt, and the most significant difference is the accessibility and the increased number of trails you can choose between as a mountain biker. There are already 100 kilometres of specific bike trails in the mountains, and more are in the works.
"As mountain biking has become more accessible, there is a better acceptance and understanding of the sport locally. The average mountain biker is now over 40 years old, likes hiking too, brings the family along, and enjoys skiing in the wintertime", says Adrian.
"Before, Zermatt mainly attracted expert mountain bikers, downhillers and experienced adventure riders. The numbers were tiny, as the segments only make up a small percentage of the market. Now we can grow the mountain biking offering as it's a sustainable product", adds Adrian.
Stephen Matthews and Chris Winter near the top of Rothorn, high above Zermatt.
I have always been going to the Alps for the high alpine trails, the long rides and the linkups you can do, from one valley to the next. There is nothing else that can be compared to the Alps when it comes to that style of riding – and you get introduced to a completely different culture at the same time.
The dramatic evening light in the Alps is like no other place on earth.
As much as I have enjoyed the alpine riding in the Alps during the last 20 years, I have constantly been frustrated regarding the not-so-friendly attitude towards mountain biking and the lack of bike-specific trails.
Holger Meyer and Karen Eller in a landscape that reminds us all why we love mountain biking so much.
It's just not a very high priority for many destinations. With hiking being such a significant tourism drag in the Alps, the conflicts have been impossible to avoid.
The progression throughout the Alps has now been years in the making, and as mountain biking is growing, we see more and more destinations looking at biking with a more professional approach. To see how a traditional and influential place like Zermatt is becoming such a great bike destination confirms that.
Railway to heaven.
A one-way ticket to endless routes.
Life moves at a glacial pace for Stephen Matthews in Zermatt.
What a place to reflect.
Weithaler and May taking shelter from a storm by old trailside barns.
With the mighty Matterhorn as a backdrop, Janne Tjärnström finds his line.