Once on the trail itself, riders are presented with a fairly gently contouring descent, with a gradient that never really gets too severe. This is fine in principal – but the incredibly loose surface really desperately needs to see several thousand tyres pass over it to get it bedded in, and in some areas we got the impression that it really wasn’t finished – some parts need raking to remove excess scree and loose rock, whilst in one or two places there are strange isolated bits of trail marked with fluorescent orange tape to try to guide riders towards them.
The biggest issue with the blue trail however, is the continuing theme of poor signage, which continues down its entire length. In several places on your first run you will stop, scratch your head, and wonder where the hell it’s gone to. Behind you will be the last section you exited, but the next section seems to have vanished into thin air. This is never more true than about two thirds of the way down, where you emerge into a meadow. There’s a blue sign stood in the middle of the field – but it was hard to tell whether this was leftover from a winter ski piste, or simply indicative that there’s a section that hasn’t been built. Either way, the only way to continue is to ride through the grass over to the adjacent red run – and after a few hundred metres the trail becomes blue/red shared again.
The trail itself twists its way down the mountain, avoiding the more technical areas that the red ventures into –and in many places it’s good fun – especially the last section down to the lift station where a series of sweeping bends help build cornering confidence for less experienced riders. Considering the intended market, if the top half of the trail had a more user-friendly surface the blue route would have the potential to be a major winner – as long as the signage issues were resolved! As it stands, we felt that the trail surface was much too sketchy to be fun for less skilled riders – in fact, traction was harder to find on the blue than on the reds in most places….Overall we got the impression that the builders and designers had a lot less passion (or perhaps involvement) in the construction of the blue trail than the red routes.
So, we’ve started on a slightly negative note – and by now you may be wondering whether the red trails suffer from similar problems….and at the end of your first run down the Planet Mars trail you might feel frustrated by a lack of flow. However, Planet Mars is a route which rewards repeated runs –and the second time you ride it you’ll feel much better – by the third you’ll be hooked and you will want to spend all day riding it again and again!
The two runs, Planet Mars and Elfe Secret feel very different to one another – Planet Mars sits above the treeline, and features drops, jumps, skinnies, boardwalks and the odd tabletop – all set on a primarily rocky moonscape (or maybe Mars-scape) – which reminded us of the higher trails at Alpe D’Huez. Elfe Secret is entirely below the treeline, in places is a bit steeper, but often has a much smoother surface – at times this is more like a Les Gets run….but without the annoying braking bumps!
The two runs, to all and intents and purposes are one long red descent – where one ends the other begins. According to our GPS the total run from the top of the chairlift to the bottom of the main trail is a pretty impressive 7.4km, and equates to about a 25 minute blast from top to bottom.
Anyway, back to the top – we’ll look at the Planet Mars descent to start off with – which, as we mentioned earlier starts in the same place as the blue run – the top of the Index chairlift at 2385m. Before you set off, take a minute to admire the view – it is without a doubt the most impressive from any man-made trail you will find in Europe! Having said that, the first few hundred yards of the trail feel anything but man-made – it’s all natural to begin with – with tight, rocky corners, some tricky cambers, natural rock drop-offs and a couple of moments which will have you breathing in as the trail squeezes through narrow gaps between enormous boulders – it’s a great way to start, and speaks volumes about Chamonix’s biking heritage.
After emerging from the initial section you join the blue descent for a fast contouring sweep across the mountainside, before hitting a slightly contrived section – you follow a double track for a brief spell, but instead of simply using the main trail there are a couple of features which have been built to the sides, with a rapid succession of berms, which when you get them just right can really satisfy.
Exiting this section it’s back onto real singletrack – which ducks and dives its way through several hollows and mini-valleys. There are some very tight twisting sections in here – and some short rises. As mentioned earlier, on your first run you’ll feel that Planet Mars lacks flow – and it’s this section where you may feel the pain. You really need to know the lines through here, and staying off the brakes in some of the tighter corners allows you to maintain some momentum. Its mind over matter through here – avoiding slowing down and using the full width of the trail is the way to defeat it!
Another, faster section awaits as the trail opens up across the contours once more – it can get pretty fast here – and is made challenging by the camber and the slightly loose surface which conspire together to drag you to the lower edge of the trail. At one point there’s a step-up jump option which, whilst easy enough to ride, increases your speed on the landing – which is loose and off camber….and you’ll find yourself slithering towards the drop at the edge until your tyres find traction!
Towards the mid-station is the centrepiece of the red descent – sort of a mini Freeride area if you like, with lots of great trail features. It’s a bypass-able option – but once you’ve ridden it you’ll realise it’s been designed to be quite accessible. The features give it the look of a black bike park trail, but they’ve thought things out and built it quite sensibly. It is entered via a skinny which is probably 15 cm wide, but this has been placed directly after a very tight corner to force riders to slow down and take it carefully. A quick blast of a descent into a gully takes you to a very impressive looking boardwalk which shoots up the rise on the other side – with an optional jump at the top as it delivers you onto a brief section of slickrock. A small drop off the rock and you are into a section of fast berms punctuated by a series of natural rock gardens – most of these won’t challenge your chainrings, but they look quite imposing at first glance – however they are all completely rollable. There’s a wooden wallride, a few more berms and then the main feature which can be seen from the chairlift – a cambered north shore section which leads into a fading drop– it has a similar feel to Caddon Bank at Innerleithen, but on a gentle bend. It’s actually very easily ridden; the drop is small – but again, it looks imposing. There are always a few people stood looking at it – but so long as you exit the ramp in the right spot for the runout and keep the front wheel up it’s really good fun.
Planet Mars needs repeated back-to-back riding to get the best from it – in places it punishes braking; it’s the sort of trail that needs to be attacked a bit to find it’s flow – it rewards smooth riders who remember the lines, which we think is a good thing.