The Dutch mountain biker Jess Kroon first came to Valais to ski – but soon discovered that the snow concealed a paradise for mountain biking. She has turned her passion into a profession, and made Valais her permanent home.
Lush green mountain pastures, forests flooded with light, cascading streams of crystal-clear water and, in the background, the mountain giants of Valais: all the ingredients for an idyllic postcard. Jess Kroon, mountain bike guide, gives a fitting tip to the other riders: “A smile on your lips is enough to overcome your fear and face the challenge!”
The Dutch rider is one of the most sought-after MTB guides in Valais. Together with her husband, Erik den Oudendammer, she runs MTB Verbier, organises rides throughout Valais and manages the Bike Chalet, a boutique hotel with 14 beds in Versegères. “It’s a magnificent spot with a big garden, perfect for relaxing after a demanding ride.”
In Valais, Jess has found her little corner of paradise, as well as the focus for her life. “Seventeen years ago, we came to Verbier to ski. We were fascinated by the incredible variety of winter sports options, and when spring came, we were unable to pull ourselves away from these wonderful landscapes.” That’s how she discovered that the blanket of snow concealed fabulous terrain for mountain biking. The couple decided not to leave at all. “Since 2003, this has been our home. In winter we ski, and in summer we set off looking for adventure on our bikes.” This is an ideal lifestyle for the pair of outdoor enthusiasts. Over the past few years, the choice of signposted mountain bike trails has grown steadily throughout Valais. Thanks to an outstanding network of railways, bus routes, cable cars and chairlifts, it is easy to plan and undertake magnificent rides.
Jess’s guests take advantage of these excellent facilities and enjoy thrilling mountain bike adventures of varying degrees of difficulty. These range from one-day rides for beginners to the tough long-distance route between Verbier and Zinal the seven-day Tour du Mont-Blanc, which leads through French, Italian and Swiss territory: MTB Verbier offers a wide choice of options to set mountain bikers’ hearts racing. They come from all over Europe and also Australia, South Africa and the USA to gather in the valley around Verbier.
Under Jess’s skilled guidance, they explore Valais along scenic trails, exhilarating descents and steep climbs that would put even the Swiss Olympic multi-medallist Nino Schurter in a sweat. “Together, we follow routes that we would hesitate to tackle solo,” says Tim, an English cyclist who has come to hone his skills under expert supervision for the fourth time.
This stance perfectly matches Jess’s philosophy: “We cater to riders of all levels, from semi-professionals to amateurs with little experience on two wheels,” she says. The progress that beginners make in just a few days is all the more remarkable. “Often, simple tips and minor corrections are enough to produce a big result.” An example: “When you brake, it’s better to shift your centre of gravity backwards and use just the back brake. The braking action becomes a lot more efficient,” Jess says. Still, nobody joins these trips just to learn how to brake, and the rides offered by MTB Verbier take enthusiasts on to uneven terrain, steep slopes and giddy descents. Whatever skills are needed, the focus of the rides has to be enjoyment, Jess says: “The fun factor is crucial.” She also appreciates the cultural diversity of Valais. “We’ll happily stop to visit a cheese dairy or plan a ride to take in a traditional cow fight.”
The emphasis remains, of course, on mountain biking. Special weeks allow a focus on specific needs – for example, holidays for families that take into consideration the wishes and needs of children. “We also offer women-only weeks,” says Jess, who is particularly keen on this option. “Many women are unsure about the idea of signing up for a week’s mountain biking. However, if we offer a tailored package, they soon overcome any doubts.”
Whatever riders’ choice of break, the same rule applies: Jess and her team of experienced guides take care of the smallest details, everything from the best choice of bike to the correct tyre pressure, the ideal saddle height and suitable nutrition. “People who book their mountain bike break with us see the best of Valais – even if, now and again, the odd climb may turn out to be pretty demanding,” Jess laughs. “We offer bike holidays, not competitions. Safety always comes first.” At the same time, Jess likes pushing her boundaries: “When I’m out riding alone, I go as high as possible and as close to the glaciers as is safe.”
Text: Thomas Renggli
Photographer: Pascal Gertschen
Published: June 2021