Baaarp ba ba baarp. I’d just stepped off the funicular railway at the top of the Muottas Muragl mountain in the Engadine near St. Moritz. It was a beautiful summers evening and I was sure I could hear a musical instrument. Instead of heading straight into the restaurant, I made my way up the gravel track to the actual summit to investigate. Lo and behold there was a guy sat on a bench playing the tuba.
This article was published in Cranked Magazin, Issue 13, 2018 - Words by Henry Iddon - Images by Henry Iddon and Filip Zuan
After sitting quietly enjoying the impromptu recital I struck up conversation and was informed by the ponytailed musician that he was rehearsing for a concert in St. Moritz the following day. The sun was setting, and across the valley the 4048m Piz Bernina sat majestically as the sky turned from bright blue to black via pink alpenglow. I’d only just arrived in the eastern Swiss Alps for a few days riding and was struck how engaged locals were with the environment. Why practice for a concert indoors when you can take the train up a mountain and do it while the sun sets over a 4000m peak? The outdoor option makes sense really, especially if a train is available to carry the tools of your trade. The original railway construction started in 1905 and finished in 1907, and on opening it was able to transport 1144 people along over 2kms of track at a maximum gradient of 56% to an altitude of 2456m; uplift that wasn’t intended for elegant visitors to enjoy a flow trail but to simply enjoy the view. Or practise a musical instrument. It was the first railway built in the Graubünden region with the sole intention of providing pleasure for tourists. In fact the region has a history of being at the forefront of tourism development. Although originally populated with peasant farmers, things changed 150 years ago when those with vision could see the opportunity to to develop tourism and hotels - remarkable when at the time there was no running water or electricity. As that economic development occurred, so did the quality of life of the locals, and every generation added to it. St. Moritz evolved into being the first winter resort in the Alps, having the first tourism office in Switzerland, the first European Ice Skating Championships and the first Bobsleigh run. And so on.
On returning to the restaurant I found myself talking to a tall, dark haired and thoughtful Romansh local, Darco Cazin, who grew up in a mountain village with a population of 160 and only two other kids his age. If anyone ticks the box for mountain local it’s Darco. We talked local history, art, heritage and the importance of thinking outside the box. Indeed it was only late in the conversation that I discovered that Darco was the man behind much of the development in mountain bike tourism in Graubünden - a Canton that includes Lenzerheide, Davos, Laax, and Val Müstair. Indeed Graubünden seems to be leading the way in Switzerland for MTB tourism, and the progressive, joined-up approach could be considered one of the best in Europe. It’s reliable, and on time. Like the Swiss Railways.
Having studied for a business degree Darco then started a PhD in Design Thinking in Barcelona. He didn’t submit a final thesis though, as the draw of the mountains was too strong. Here we have a cultured man who loves mountain biking, has a business degree and also the knowledge gained from studying design thinking. Design what, you may wonder. Design thinking is a method for practical, creative resolution of problems. Solution-based thinking with the intent of producing a constructive future result. It’s all very Swiss. It’s what’s behind the vision and efficiency of the Swiss Trail Ways. His wife’s family is also from the Engadine, and their children’s Grand, Grand, Grand Grandfather was one the visionary farmers who developed a hotel 150 years ago.
“Why I’m developing mountain bike tourism? I see it as an opportunity for my generation to contribute to the legacy of life in the Alps. Mountain biking is a tool of our time.” Darco comments.
He didn’t ride off road as kid, and in fact only took up mountain biking in his early 20’s when his mother fulfilled a dream and rented a 70 bed hotel in Santa Maria Val Müstair, the next valley over from St. Moritz. It needed guests. Darco took to two wheels as a guide which helped fill the hotel with bikers, realising in the process that there was a market for mountain bike tourism. As he took visitors to other areas of the Engadine, it became apparent that there was little foresight or infrastructure in place to support them, and that the destinations had no idea of mountain biking’s potential.
Having called time on his studies in 2003 the time was right to set up a development company to advise on MTB tourism. Allegra Tourismus was born, and he soon picked up a project in Livigno. At first there was trial and error, but the approach to projects has evolved into a clear method covering not only consultation and design, but also trail construction, installing transport infrastructure and ticketing, hotel infrastructure, educating guides and regional marketing.
“Our method is always very simple, based on three elements. Trails, services, and identity. You can look at these elements from two perspectives. The first is the one of the client, and of course for the client the main element of the experience is the trail. It doesn’t matter if you're a downhill rider or just want to cruise along the river, the main carrier of the experience is the trail. Then there is services - guiding, rental, shops, mechanics, hotels, food and so on. For the guest those things are just about convenience, making it all easier, faster, more accessible. And the identity is important because this mountain bike thing has become a lifestyle more than a sport. And so if you go on vacation and want to live your lifestyle, you want to do it somewhere where you can find that lifestyle, and not feel foreign or isolated.”
Obviously a destination has a different perspective.
“Trails are mainly an investment, it’s a cost. We don’t have a model where we can ask for money for trail use directly. That’s why the services are important, because that’s where you get your return on investment. You can ask for money for an overnight stay and food etc. So if you're talking about a return on investment it always has to be services and trails together. The identity is important to destinations for two reasons. One is if you already have a local mountain biking culture you already speak the mountain bikers language, so that makes you more credible and more authentic in communicating to the market. The second thing is if you have a local mountain biking culture you already have mountain bike know how and your destination can evolve, with the evolving market.”
Developing a destination involves having these three elements working in harmony.
One thing the Swiss have in their favour is the network of legacy trails, paths and tracks that were built for other purposes - wars, smuggling, trading, farming and hiking. Yet mountain bikers are permitted to ride on them. The Engadine Valley alone has 700km of rideable hiking trails, Graubünden region having 17,000km. These legacy trails include technical high mountain single track and panoramic mid altitude trails, as well as a multitude of rideable valley bottom tracks. Through the ‘Trail Tolerenz’ system riders are encouraged to ride safely and with an understanding that they may meet other trail users. You can even buy small bells to hang off your pack so hikers hear you coming.
These trails have been supplemented with purpose built flow trails such as the Corviglia Flow Trail above St. Moritz, which required helicopters and the logistics of getting equipment in to place in a big mountain environment. One big difference of course between hikers and bikers is that for a person walking the usual objective, and highlight, is to enjoy the view and attain a summit, with that occurring midway through their day out. Meanwhile, for a rider the peak experience is more than likely the descent so the highlight comes at the end of a trail.
Successful projects always start with meticulous work in the planning, in the policy, in the politics, in other words in meetings with other stakeholders. In the Swiss Alps that involves farmers, hunters, local government and environmental organisations. Finding the common denominator is often the crux of any development, and it’s something the Swiss are very good at.
As Judith Matloff points out in her excellent book ‘The War is in the Mountains’ Switzerland is a country made up of four cultures and language groups ( German, French, Italian and Romansh), in most places in the world this would result in disharmony and strife. Yet through dialogue, pragmatism and direct democracy aka endless referendums, the Swiss are able to work together.
Once the planning process and consultation is completed, it’s all about the design and execution, bringing together professionalism mixed with art and experience. One of the key factors is that the trail design is based on discussion with riders, with the question always ‘What do we want to do, for whom, and where?’. Not surprisingly for someone who has a curious nature and a broad range of interests, Darco is always willing to learn, and in 2006 made a visit to the UK to checkout the trail centre scene. One thing the UK has that Switzerland doesn’t is single track trails that are accessible to a wide range of users, from the less experienced to experts. While our Alpine cousins have miles and miles of legacy trails, they’re often found on the higher slopes requiring either fitness or lift access, and can result in long days out.
“We learned in 2006 what a single track can provide. In the UK the trail centres are built metre by metre for mountain biking. We thought our existing legacy trails were great, but we weren’t aware that such an experience of riding was even possible until we rode in Scotland [Seven Stanes trails] and Wales. We learned that our mountain biking routes are 50, 60, 70km, but that a route can also be 10 or 12km if those kilometres are good. The experience is enough, it’s not about the distance, it’s really about the quality. We also learned a lot about building sustainable trails. The first time we were in Scotland it rained all week but the trails were dry. They know a lot about water management ! “
However learning can be a two way process and Darco is of the view that the UK can learn from aspects of the Swiss model, increasing the economic benefits of trail infrastructure, something that destinations in The Alps do well by integrating their whole offer. This can also be seen in the adoption of eBike rental which also opens up trail networks to riders recovering from injury, the less fit and those who wish to try mountain biking and have been intimidated in the past.
“We have more need for sustainable trails, more people can get out, the mountain becomes flatter, physical condition becomes less important. We mustn’t underestimate the democratisation of riding through the development of eBikes. One thing that the industry is now looking at is uphill flow. So sections of the track all of a sudden have a new quality, which adds to the rider experience. The big factor why electric mountain bikes will be huge is the one resource that is increasingly limited - time. In our society no one has time anymore, and so whether this is on vacation or on your evening ride, in less time you can now have more of the experience you want. It doesn’t matter if it’s Alpine singletrack, if it’s a flow trail or a gravel road. You can have more of what you want in a shorter time. This why eBikes will not only be for the older or less fit. I have three kids, most of the time I just have an hour to ride, I can now ride trails in that time that would have taken me too much time in the past on a standard mountain bike.”
One of the newly opened MTB trail sections in the Engadine, that has the Darco and Allegra stamp all over it, is the Bernina Pass Trail which is part of the uber classic 29 mile Bernina Express trail that shadows the UNESCO World Heritage Bernina Express Railway. This is an example of a legacy hiking trail that has been adapted to accommodate both hikers and riders. The full trail, one of the finest trails in Europe starts in Samedan (1721m) near St. Moritz and weaves it’s way up the valley to the pass summit at 2328m before heading down to Poschiavo (1014m).
The main section where adaptations have taken place is between Pontresina and the pass summit, particularly around the 20% gradient area above Morteratsch Station. This area has seen separate uphill and downhill flow sections added to take the stress off the shared footpath and to increase rider experience, as well as new singletrack added away from the hikers closer to the pass summit.
This project involved liaising between several stakeholders including two town councils; local government architects and engineers; safety officials and last but certainly no means least Pro Natura who are Switzerland’s oldest and most powerful environmental organisation with over 200,000 members. Their mission statement states “We love nature, defend its interests, and give it a strong voice. The natural diversity of animals, plants, and habitats needs to be preserved and improved.”
Darco and his site manager Sevrin Gisler’s team had to move several tons of soil and rock in a nationally recognised nature area to construct the short flow trail sections. Project Leader for Leisure Activities and Conservation at Pro Natura, Andreas Boldt says:
“We have the image of the party killer of the nation, but we want to get rid of this image as it’s not the case, and leisure will grow. We cannot prevent it, and we have to find ways that we can work together and nature can live here and people can experience it. We want people and nature to live together. Tourism needs nature, if it’s not there anymore the tourists will not come. For us this project was a good thing. In Switzerland we have a good culture of things like this, private organisations and government departments working together.”
“We’ve been working on this trail project for two years with a budget of 250,000 Swiss francs [£190,000], the summer is important for tourism and this is an investment for our guests including hikers and trail runners. What was important in this was that we could accommodate all our guests on the trail, and add some downhill bike sections. The feedback from the bike rental shops is very good.” Roland Hinzer, Municipal Council, Pontresina.
And the newly added flow trails blend in due to that close relationship between stakeholders, who are able to set guidelines and parameters that the trail builders can work to. This means that, as local government appointed engineer Corsin Taisch says: “It is important for the future, now Pontresina knows how we work and have confidence. In some areas groups don’t always work closely together, or have a defined plan, and that can cause problems.”
A trail still under construction, and at the time of writing maturing under several meters of snow, is the Albura Pass Trail, which again is a hiking trail that is being expanded and developed to accommodate riders. Although not served by train it isn’t far from a road, and has a car park at the top of the pass (2315m) as well as a traditional Gasthaus and kiosk serving food and drink. Ready placed infrastructure. It’s another project being managed for Allegra by Sevrin Gisler whose university thesis looked at how much visual impact purpose built flow trails have on an area. As they normally occur in areas that are highly fragmented and impacted by ski infrastructure, he came to the conclusion that the effects were minimal. (He then worked for a while in viticulture, advising vineyards on how to optimise their yield and wine quality.)
“The impact is small compared to a gondola station or big restaurant. On a big mountain it is construction work but most of the trails don’t have ‘volume’ - they’re built in to the ground in one dimension.”
Interestingly there are systems such as the Hintermann and Weber Method used for scoring the impact of development on aesthetic grounds in protected areas based on visibility, volume, material used and size, but they’re often geared towards large physical structures like ski developments. But similar approaches are now being used in trail development, and should the points score reflect a negative issue this can be balanced out by positive actions.
“We use our own set of environmental construction guidelines, where vegetation is analysed and depending on the vegetation mix per square metre we can score them higher or lower. If we disturb a square metre of high value plants for example, the municipality would have to pay 40 Swiss Francs [£30] to an organisation who could balance it with a positive action.”
One mistake less informed land managers make is to assume that giving trail builders a small corridor to work in will result in less damage.
“It’s a common mistake that forestry departments make - they think they can reduce the disturbance by giving you a really narrow corridor. So you’re forced to build a lot of turns which are costly and time consuming, and of course it’s then difficult to drain because you don’t have enough vegetation between upper and lower legs to soak up the water. Even if you build in a sustainable grade which is usually 10% with a lot of curves, it’s very tiring to ride. A larger corridor allows less curves to lose altitude and traversing allows more variety of terrain, and better drainage through grade reversal and using natural features to allow the water to drain. Water always runs the easiest way, so you have to be careful not to channel it to much. As soon as you channel water it’s speed increases, and the forces are higher causing erosion.”
Narrow corridors can force the building of steep trails following the fall line. As the water funnels down the vertical trail line it gathers speed and power resulting in increased erosion. Many local authorities spend huge amounts of money to put in drains to deal with trail erosion on straight line paths that in the past allowed farmers to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’ quickly. Slowly many are coming to realise that professional MTB trail building companies have the knowledge and skills to re-asses these trails and adapt them alongside bike trails to make them fit for purpose. A holidaying hiker is happier to follow a sustainable path that meanders along a contour line than plough up a straight track prone to erosion. The increased popularity of mountain biking has brought a professionalism to trail building that has largely been overlooked for the past 150 or so years. While road building techniques have evolved along with industrial and urban growth it’s only comparatively recently that research and academic rigour has been applied to the simple trail.
This knowledge and thought process is utilised by the crew working on the Albura Trail, especially with the use of a mini digger to alter the grade allowing drainage as operator Christian Accola explains.
“You can work quicker and for a longer time with the digger, sculpting the grade reversals - by hand it would be a lot of work. I usually do a rough line working uphill and smooth out on the way back down.”
Previously he worked on bike park projects, using similar skills but with the advantage of being able to alter things if needed. Working on a legacy trail or making a new line in the mountains within the parameters of an environmental assessment means that there are few margins for error.
One other disadvantage working in the high Alps is the effect of the weather on work schedules. Once the snows come in the autumn sites are shut down until the spring and early summer. Although as Severin lightheartedly points out it means that the trail can settle and mature under the weight of the snow, just as the wines he was previously involved with would age and improve over time.
As Dacro has said, the trail is the key driver of experience but it needs supporting by the services that make life easier for the visitor, and bring a revenue stream for the destinations. This again is where the Swiss have worked together for the common good, bringing those involved together under the banner of herbert.bike, a web portal and print information package that is several notches above the standard tourism department’s token list of hotels and trail maps. It all started around 2012 when the Graubünden regional government began a funded project focused on mountain biking, to develop year round tourism that wasn’t purely dependant on winter sports. This was also partly to future-proof tourism against global and seasonal changes in the weather and climate. It’s not surprising to learn that at the forefront of this project was Darco Cazin.
It was initially rolled out as graubündenBIKE, concentrating on infrastructure with signage on trails, development of cyclist friendly ‘Bike Hotels’ and negotiations to allow riding on the legacy trails under the ‘Trail Tolerenz’ banner encouraging responsible and safe riding on shared paths and tracks.
In 2016 with the ground work done it was time to take the various strands to market under the ‘Herbert’ moniker developed by Swiss Sports Publishing with support from the regional government. Mark Schlüssel explains: “We wanted to personalise it with a name that worked in various languages, was fun and we could write stories about - Herbert knows best… He offers virtually all the information you need: package deals, hotel booking, 80 organised bike hotels in Graubünden, ticket booking for events or uplift, download of GPX routes, and transport timetables. The trail downloads are what drive the most traffic. At the moment herbert.bike is only in German but we’ll be rolling it out in English in 2018”
As a portal it’s sophisticated with strong branding and visual identity. There’s little to compare it to in the UK, where most destinations have the information available online, but it is often in simple lists with additional links to follow, and without the one stop shop facility to book directly and get any special deals. Herbert brings together the user friendly service offering and identity previously mentioned by Darco.
“Importantly we see everything through the eyes of mountain bikers as it is for mountain bikers”. Marc elaborates. “The intention is to allow visitors to ride and not spend hours planning. Info packs for some rides include sector times and gondola or post bus timetables, so you can link together big rides with all the facts to hand. Downhill orientated trips can result in 14,000m of descent in two days. All achieved by linking in with ski infrastructure and public transport.”
Similarly the best cross country rides are listed as ‘hammer days’, again with suggested schedules. And those unsure of the terrain or wanting to lock into local knowledge can ride with a guide - or ride with a local, as it’s termed. Again these work as deals negotiated by Herbert.
“We want to focus on the local - anyone can follow the signs or a gpx, but the local can make a difference, telling stories about the riding, the area, and the history etc. We have developed a guiding offer which is 85 Swiss Francs for one day [£65] per person per day. But if you’ve booked into a Bike Hotel through Herbert it’s only CHF45 [£35]. There are also hotel and uplift deals, the cheapest being three star bed and breakfast plus two days lift passes for CHF69 [£52]. If bike hotels develop their own packages then they can sell it through the Herbert website.”
Establishing Herbert as the go to website and organisation for mountain biking information has involved a huge amount of work, joining of dots and negotiating some very good deals that make Switzerland a surprisingly good value destination. It shows how seriously the country and particularly the Graubünden region is taking mountain biking.
This is reflected in the investment being made by some of region’s hotels. The Cresta Palace in Celerina spent CHF 2.5 million updating its ski rooms and guest equipment storage facilities, including heated lockers to dry boots, shoes and helmets, alongside bike storage and a bike wash area with both a water hose and compressed air line to dry bikes off with. This is all a huge change from the late 1990’s when as Alex Pampel, who owns the equally well appointed Sport Hotel in Pontresina recalls
“In 1999 we had our first MTB packages but there were few MTB specific trails, no trail maps or infrastructure such as bike hangers on the ski lifts. A lot of visitors were groups of guys. Now we see far more women riders and families. Also eBikes have made the riding more accessible. Things have changed hugely for the better. ”
Just as happened 150 years ago when tourism began to develop, it has taken both vision and skills to bring people together and orchestrate positive action. You could say Darco Cazin has been the conductor who brought a sense of harmony and collectivity to the off road biking scene, making junctions and connections so that the Swiss trail network is heading in the right direction. It’s far easier to make progress if everyone is on the same track or singing from the same hymn sheet so to speak. To often development is stymied by organisations working independently of each other, protecting their interests without thinking of the greater good or simply not thinking big. What the Swiss have done is certainly worth celebrating, and who could blame them for blowing their own trumpet, or tuba from on high.
Baaarp ba ba baarp.