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The wheels on the piste go round and round

Alpine resorts in winter aren't all about the skiing...

You may think there's no place for a bicycle at a ski resort but, in fact, there are all sorts of sports involving wheels at today's mountain resorts, in winter as well as summer. 

The ‘fat bike’ can be ridden across even very fresh snow. These cycles have extremely knobbly 4-5 inch wide tyres (a normal mountain bike’s tyres are around 2.5 inches wide) which are designed to be used at very low pressure (5-10 psi as opposed to 35-45 psi) so that they ‘float’ over soft terrain, including snow.

These fat bike tyres have evolved from a design by French engineer Jean Naud, who had them made in 1986 so he could cycle across the Sahara.

Around the same time, competitors in the Iditabike race (following the Iditarod dogsled race) were tying 2-3 tyres together to avoid sinking into the snow, and in New Mexico, a dune rider began making wide rims and tyres which then appeared in Alaska for use on custom-made snow bikes.

The first commercially manufactured fat bike was produced in 2005 by a Minnesota company called Surly Bikes.

For dedicated cyclists the appeal is obvious. With a fat bike they can cycle all year long - through mud, slush and ice whether it's their daily commute or an off-road weekend safari.

For snow-bunnies the appeal is equally clear; the grip provided by the tyres makes riding one no more difficult than a conventional bike.

Many resorts now have fat bike hire shops, or guided fat bike rides for novices as well as advanced riders, and some companies are now offering winter holidays where the main activity is fat biking rather than skiing.

The massively thick tyres make it possible to pedal over all kinds of terrain that could not be tackled on a conventional bike.

They also absorb more shocks, giving a secure, comfortable ride.

Speed isn't really the point. Fat bikes are heavy and tend to turn slowly, making the experience a bit like snow-shoeing rather than downhill skiing. Most organised rides include a shuttle up to the top of the trail so you just get to enjoy the fun of pedalling downhill.

VTT thrills

Mountain bikes (VTTs, as they are known in France) are a completely different matter.
They are ridden on downhill pistes, either before or after they are opened to skiers, and the whole point is to get an adrenalin rush. Fast and furious, they are hard to control round the corners, and braking is practically impossible.
Riding them requires courage, strength and full body armour, including a helmet. Falling off is, for aficionados, part of the adventure.
Popular ski resort Alpe d'Huez organises a mass snow bike ride down their 16km black run, La Sarenne, which descends 2,000 metres. It will take place on April 15, 2017, and is only open to advanced, experienced riders.

On four wheels

Another popular off-piste activity is ice-driving. In some centres, the accent is on having learning to race and have fun, but most aim to teach you how to control a car when it skids on ice or snow.

Useful and instructive for drivers who are nervous or inexperienced at driving on snow; it is also enormous fun for those who enjoy driving, and of course the skills learned will apply to any kind of skid.

Resorts offering ice driving include Val Thorens, Val d'Isère and Tignes (open until May). Many of ice driving centres also offer ice karting and buggy tracks.

An ice kart is a bit like a dodgem car and only seats one person, whereas a buggy seats two people side by side. Both are slower, safer and easier to drive on ice than a regular car, and don't require a driving licence.

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