When I first started going to Zermatt, Switzerland, to ride two decades ago, the trails were raw, and so was the reception from hikers we encountered on remote stretches of singletrack high above the valley floor. Zermatt’s insane views and ease of access into the alpine were a huge draw, but the ski resort’s reputation as ritzy, yet conservative and frankly boring, was holding up. Despite that, it was worth going back every year—we found endless singletrack and, with almost 40 peaks above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), the vistas as we pedalled in the shadow of the iconic Matterhorn were mindblowing; the trails skirting past glaciers so close you could hear the ice melting.
In the years since, I’ve watched mountain biking transform from an outsider sport, cast aside in favor of traditional tourism aimed at trekkers and mountaineers, to being on the receiving end of $13 million over five years to build numerous flow trails throughout the mountain . These new trails complement the high-alpine trails reached by boarding the train at the Gornergrat station—the largest open-air railway in Europe—and being whisked 1,500 vertical meters (5,000 feet) to what feels like the top of the world. In the alpine, numerous opportunities exist to connect into the well-established Haute Route that links Zermatt to Chamonix, France, or bikepack between several of the nearby huts, like Monte Rosa, Gondegg and Flualp.
With the mighty Matterhorn as a backdrop, Janne Tjärnström finds his line.
But the options down below inside the boundaries of the ski resort have historically been very limited. And the attitude from the resort was one of indifference: Any trail was technically legal to ride, but mountain biking wasn’t promoted.
Railway to heaven.
The car-free Zermatt is one of the oldest and most classic villages in the Swiss Alps, with its heart in modern alpinism. Its trajectory toward becoming one of the most well known mountain destinations in the world started in 1865, after Edward Whymper, a young British climber and artist summited Matterhorn, one of the last peaks in the Alps to be reached (at least in the modern era of mountaineering). After his fatal fall on the north wall during a disastrous descent that killed three of the seven on the expedition, the mountain’s allure grew and Zermatt landed on the tourism map for British aristocrats to climb and hike, eventually leading to Zermatt’s massive industry shaped around visitors from Europe and beyond.