Sunday 12 March 2017

52 Cycling Voices - 7: Michelle Webster

On a recent skiing trip to Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France, while I was trying out some cross-country skiing in the Bouchet Wood I came across a couple - Michelle and Phil - who were riding fat bikes in the snow along trails. It was great to come across biker types even during that trip. We got chatting, and I arranged to catch up with Michelle a couple of days later in a bar in the centre of Chamonix. It turns out that Michelle is originally from Hawaii but has lived in Chamonix for nine years. Phil is from not quite so far away - Hertfordshire, UK. After all these years they now consider themselves to be locals of the Alps, and enjoy the outdoor lifestyle it brings.

Michelle Webster, aged 31

Lives: Chamonix, France

From: Maui, Hawaii

Freelance copywriter and copy editor

I grew up riding motorcycles from when I was five, and my grandmother got me into golfing from a young age. Even though I grew up in Hawaii I didn’t surf until I was 16 – go figure! My dad would do up vintage motorcycles, and he and my mum raced them in Colorado, and in the desert. So it was natural that I got into motorbikes.

I only got into cycling eight years ago, a year after I arrived in Chamonix. Myself and a friend had been travelling around Europe on a three-month trip, but the exchange rate was so bad when we arrived that it literally halved my savings and we ran out of money after about a month! 

My friend had been working here as an au pair and suggested we go to Chamonix where she knew people who could offer us work for a couple of weeks to keep our trip going. I had never even heard of Chamonix before, but when we got here, within 30 minutes I loved the place. People were paragliding, climbing, and going down the river in a raft and everything, and I just thought – I’m not leaving this place! So we spent the remaining two months of our trip here. I went back to the States for a couple of months, saved up more money to return here in the winter, and I have never left Chamonix since!

Not long after arriving in Chamonix I met my partner, Phil, through motorcycling and golf, and he got me into mountain biking. I had heard a bit about mountain biking but I didn’t really know what it was.  Phil was a mountain bike guide so he really encouraged me to give it a try. We went out one day, and I sort of got hooked immediately, even though I felt like I was gasping and dying, and feeling terrible! Phil said I did very well (!) and I had good positioning on the descents - probably because my skills from riding motorcycles. 

Then three months after I started mountain biking I did the Tour de Mont Blanc. It’s a five-day trip around the Mont Blanc on various trails. The total amount of ups and downs are the equivalent of riding up and down Ben Nevis every day for five days. 

Nobody rides the whole thing, as some parts are just impossible – either too steep up or down, with rocks and steps. I trained by practicing all these really uncomfortable climbs along jeep tracks, which meant climbing for an hour and a half – almost on the limit of what I could keep doing. I got through the ride, and it was amazing. The second time I did the Tour de Mont Blanc it was much better and I felt more confident as I knew what I would be up against.  

There is a good little cycling community in Chamonix. However, the trails are geared towards walkers and the local authority doesn’t really encourage mountain biking. Here, we have the Aiguille du Midi which a lot of tourists come to visit. The Eiffel Tower is the only other monument in France that gets more visitors than the Aiguille du Midi. So Chamonix doesn’t really need the money from mountain biking! They put in a couple of downhill trails, but that’s not really what I’m into. I prefer more single-track, technical stuff. 
I’ve got a friend, Angie, who’s 52 years old, and up until she got hit by a snowmobile last winter she was riding incredible stuff. She’s a really great rider, really fit, and just so lovely. Hopefully next summer she’ll be able to get back on the bike.

There is a 24-hour race here where you have a relay team and you ride for 24 hours around a flat track. I have thought about doing races but I have not done any yet. It’s something I might look into in the future, but as things are now, I would be relying more on my technical skills than my endurance.

In the summer I try and cycle at least a couple of times a week. It’s really challenging in Chamonix as there are lots of roots and rocks. It’s literally just up and then down for pretty much all of the riding and we’re doing 500-700 metre-climbs and sometimes it’s just at the limit of what you can pedal up. I learned mountain biking here so I don’t really know anywhere else, though everyone who comes here says that it’s super-challenging, so I take their word for it!

If you are coming here to visit and you are not familiar with the area there’s a great valley ride that is challenging but not crazy. It’s a Chamonix classic, the Balcon (balcony). The Balcon consists of the trails that run either side of the valley.  It sort of gives you a taste of everything that Chamonix has to offer. The trails are a bit steep, a bit rooty, a bit rocky, and it goes up to Argentiere, and then back down the other side. It’s a great ride, with challenging single-track, and nice flowy stuff.

I have just started fat-biking in the snow on trails that we normally do in the summer  I can’t believe how well the bike grips. I let down the tyres really flat and it’s amazing. I mean stuff that would be hard to walk up and down, becomes ridable because the bike actually grips. It’s unbelievable and you’re thinking - I could never do this on a normal mountain bike - but the fat bike just climbs and climbs. As long as you can keep the wheels spinning it just carries on climbing.

At first, the bike felt really odd because the tyres are so wide that when on the road the steering almost did the opposite of what I wanted. It was like it had a mind of it’s own and was almost fighting me. As the bike doesn’t have the full suspension like my bike has, it felt a little bit bulky. I was a little bit unsure of the riding, but once I got onto a nice narrow track, it was really amazing. It felt like it was summer again and I could ride all the snowy trails that I normally ride during the sunny months. 

We usually go for months without being able to ride our mountain bikes unless we drag ourselves down to Italy. So it was really eye-opening to just see the possibilities of keeping your summer fitness. With the fat bike it’s like, wow! The only thing is the trails are coated in snow, ice, and wet roots. I couldn’t believe how well the bike climbed. Even on the descents there were really steep parts that were dangerous to walk, but the bike gripped well and just sailed down them.

Riding a fat bike is definitely more tiring than riding my usual mountain bike. The difference is like the difference between riding a road bike versus a mountain bike but with a fat bike the tyres are four times as wide! 

Also the tyre pressures are low and flat and there’s no suspension so it bounces a bit more. It’s sort of clumsy, but what it opens up for you is worth the downgrade in comfort that you would get from a good mountain bike.

Most people know me as a golfer, as I’ve been golfing since I was five. So that’s probably more of an identifier, but for me I enjoy mountain biking more. You can never ever have a bad day mountain biking. If you crash that’s not great, but in golfing you can finish your day just wanting to crawl up into a ball. It can be so frustrating, even soul-destroying. Whereas with mountain biking you never have a bad day. It’s so much fun and it frees you.
When you’re riding uphill and you’re struggling, it’s kind of medidative. When you are going downhill you don’t think of anything! So it’s a good way of clearing the mind, which helps me for golf! 

The fitness aspect of mountain biking is also really good for golf. Golf doesn’t seem that physical but it can make you mentally exhausted, and being fit can help with that. Also you’re walking something like 7km on a course, doing this twisting motion. Every time you hit a ball you’ve taken two or three practice swings and you’re carrying your bag, or pushing your bag, so it can be quite physical, so being fit really helps for that and your agility.

I’ve got a Specialized Evo Comp which I bought this year and it’s got full suspension. It's not a downhill bike but a cross-country bike because we like to pedal up. It’s not got carbon components on it, but still it has really opened up what I’ve been able to do.

My goal this year is to do the Tour de Mont Blanc with Phil. He had been doing his three-countries tour for 17 years so he wasn’t able to do the Tour of Mont Blanc when I did it. He finally wrapped up the business a couple of years ago, so it will be great to do the ride with Phil, and for him to see all the people he’s known for so long in the ride.  

I never ride without my lip balm. You’re up in the mountains, it’s windy, it’s cold or it’s super-hot so I need lip balm! My lip balm is a comfort that I can’t do without, and not having it just feels wrong!

Chamonix is an amazing place. There’s a golf course a five-minute drive away and you can go mountain biking straight out of your house, and you’re on a trail in five minutes. If you want to go up the valley you can either ride there or get on a train and take the bikes up and ride down. You can also go to Sallanches, which is a half-hour drive away, where there are more trails. Then when you’re done you can either drive or get the train back to Chamonix free of charge. It’s amazing, and I feel lucky to have found Chamonix all those years ago.” 



Instagram: @thesubpargolfer  

Other Cycling Voices

Grace and Lucy Garner

Hannah Bussey

Carolyn Hewett-Maessen

Caroline Martinez

Niusha Doyom

Maria David

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