BIKE TransAlp MTB 2018

posted in: Cycling | 2

Seven gruelling days, stunning views and a major mountain range to cross. Throw in team dynamics plus fast and technical descents and you have the BIKE TransAlp stage race. Alex and I had completed the Haute Route last year so the seven stages did not seem too intimidating; however, racing together was a big unknown as, in common with many other mountain-bike stage races, the TransAlp is raced in a team of two.

Like me, Alex has an adventurous streak – he spent April mountain-biking around the Annapurna Circuit – but there the similarities end. He’s a more powerful rider and in spite of being relatively new to mountain-biking has tons of natural talent. Thankfully he’s also a bit more laid back. Reading an article about how to ride a MTB stage race successfully, in which it said that agreeing on your goals was key, we decided to try and clarify that up front. My goal was to finish as high up the placings as we could and to remain friends. Alex’s was to be on the Masters podium; it appeared that we had some serious goal divergence! We agreed that we would ride at a pace that worked for us for the first two stages and then if we were close to the podium we could target it in earnest. As this is one of the premier stage races in Europe I thought I knew how that would pan out but one never knows….

Stage 1 commenced in Imst, a small town close to Innsbruck. A heavy downpour a couple of hours before the start made us a little worried about the conditions but in the end it was nice to be riding in cooler temperatures although there were a some more rain showers.

Because the route did not cross any famous cols it was hard to visualise where we were going. (You can see the route here: TransAlp map.) At one point we crossed into Switzerland, briefly passing a customs post in a village. We didn’t even notice the return to Austria as we must have been somewhere in the forest when that happened.

It’s probably easier to break down the stage into sections based on physical suffering and mental stress. The initial 5km downhill and flat section to the first climb… easy but dangerous in a massive bunch with a couple of clashes of (very wide) handlebars. The first climb where Alex was going that little bit too fast… Stu and Rusty (two of our other Chaingang teammates) where riding more at my pace; however my heart rate still above 170 for pretty much the whole 70 minute climb. Then the first downhill… where I misjudged a gravel corner and rode off the track. Unfortunately Rusty punctured at the bottom of that descent so it was then just Alex and I.

On the second climb Alex set a good pace for me and on the final one we were both suffering from cramps, low energy and general tiredness. It ended with a descent flying down into the finish town of Nauders, 88km and 4 hours 49 after the start. We are in 80th place, decent enough to get us into the first start pen tomorrow. Nowhere near the podium, being 22nd in the Masters category but still a job well done. We finished with time to watch the crash carnage on the Tour de France stage to Roubaix and France win the World Cup.

Alex and Stu wondering what the day and weather would bring

Team pose at the start in Imst

Clean bike ready for Stage 1

Short road descent just over the top of the second climb

I had a pleasant surprise in Nauders when I found that the Scott crew would clean and lube my bike after every stage; it is reason enough to buy a Scott, plus the bike performed really well – I love it

Stage 2 was the Queen Stage covering 101km with 3500m of ascent. Particularly concerning was the second climb with 1400m vertical ascent in total with the last 1000m being a steep gravel trail with some portions single-track. My main impression of the day were some fast and scary gravel descents on one of which I crashed, losing my front wheel on a hairpin bend, and a lot of climbing. Once we had completed the more initial approach to the steeper part of the big climb I encouraged myself with the thought that all we had to do in terms of ascent was Alpe d’Huez, which I have done many a time.

However, the slower off-road surface plus the steep (15+%) sections made it a lot harder. Towards the top I remember thinking that I was feeling the most tired on the bike than I had for a long time and I fantasised about dipping my head in the beautifully clear stream that was running alongside. The good news was the climb eventually ended and led to an amazing flowing descent down the side of the valley involving a traverse over a snow filled ravine and several tricky landslide and stream crossings.

At the second food stop, 77km into the stage, Stu and Rusty caught us, having started a couple of minutes behind in the second start pen (they were 10 places behind us due to the delays from the puncture in Stage 1). We rode the final climb and descent together and then the cruellest part of the route planning started. We were already in the finish town of Livigno, when we were taken up onto the local mountain bike trails by some viciously steep ascents. The main bit of the trail through was enjoyable and a great way to finish the stage. Alex blasted down the descent – unless Alex misjudges his nutrition he is faster than me on both the ups and downs – and waited for the final run-in to the finish which we reached after nearly 6 and a half hours of racing.

Rusty and Stu dropped behind us on this final section with Stu probably suffering from a massive effort trying to make back time yesterday. But because they crossed the start line after us, in the end we were only separated by 10 seconds. A good day for Chaingang, although I took some flack from the boys for wearing my Dynamo kit!

At the start in Nauders (the races leaders were in the front pen with then the teams up to 85th position being in our one)

I’d said to Alex that if he was going to go ahead on the first climb the least he could do was take a photo!

I’m not sure what these things were but wonder if they were a relic from the First World War

Some fun single track awaited at the top of the climb

Beautiful Alpine scenery and weather

Pretty bashed up end of the stage as I had a couple of minor falls, which I realised was because I was locking my front wheel on the loose descents

The morning of Stage 3 was the first one where my legs felt properly tired. However the stage looked fun having the highest amount of single track of all the stages. The only catch was that to get to it we had to climb to 3000m which included 200m of vertical ascent up a steep track that was classified as a push/carry. Actually if one was strong enough it may have been possible to ride it all, but on the steepest sections it seemed more efficient to walk. Unfortunately walking in completely rigid cycling shoes was tough on the calves so I was just glad when it was over.

The reward was a descent of about 10km down flowing and hugely enjoyable mountain biking trails (probably about blue standard, the main section being called, appropriately,  Rollercoaster). Stu and Rusty had caught me on the climb so we descended it together. The next climb was mainly single-track, climbing about 600m over about 14km. Alas I just didn’t have it in the legs and Alex and I had to watch Stu and Rusty ride off into the distance. We both felt pretty rough near the bottom – some more pushing was required – and whilst Alex recovered it didn’t get any better for me. Luckily the remainder of the stage passed by a bit better and after the timing stopped we flew down the road to Bormio on bottom section of the Passo di Stelvio. After the gravel trails descending fast on the road felt safe and secure.

It was a spectacular day with the highlight being the first descent. We finished 24th in Masters, a bit down on previous days, but Stu and Rusty had a great ride finishing 4 minutes ahead and putting themselves in the top 85 teams in GC and therefore being eligible to join us in the second start pen.

Rusty pushing the pace on the final grind to 3000m after the pushing (Photo thanks to Willem, partner of Dave, an ex-Dynamo in the cyan Saikal kit)

About to start the descent with one of the 3rd placed women’s team behind me (we saw them a fair bit over the seven days)

Alex and Rusty on the flow trails

Just good fun… no time to stop to zip up my gilet however

The last time I was Bormio was for the 2015 London Dynamo club sportive. Back then we descended the Col di Gavia during a warm-up ride so I was excited that we would be going back up there in Stage 4. After about 17km and 500m of off-road climbing we joined the main road. Compared to being on the tracks and trails, riding on the road felt easy and even the 10% sections did not feel too bad. Stu and Rusty had set an ideal pace to that point but then Rusty put the power down and they sped up and I let them disappear up the road. Fifteen minutes later I started to gain on them again and it was clear that Rusty was having a bad day, possibly from the altitude. Alex and I had come to an arrangement, the worked well for both of us, where he would burn up the first climb as fast as he wanted but he was waiting at a food stop 400 vertical metres below the col and we ended up cresting the summit together.

There then followed a descent which was super-steep and in many places not fit for cycling. Which was because it was a rocky walking path. We lost 700m of height in under 2km. I eventually caught up a line of people who were walking most of the descent and only began riding again near the bottom. Alex, who was waiting there, then rode with me to end, which involved some horribly steep bike pushes through a forest with the reward being a downhill flow trail to the finish in Ponte di Legno. The announcer that morning had described it as ‘spicy’ and with rocks, tree roots and some drop-offs it did not disappoint. It was actually a lot of fun to ride and both of us finished the day on a high taking 19th place in the Masters and 67th overall. Our best day so far. Rusty and Stu had a hard day but pulled off a decent recovery and only lost about 8 minutes to us.

The TransAlp is a true road trip with every stage starting and finishing in a different town. However, for this and the following day’s finishes we had the luxury of staying in the same hotel on the Passo dei Tonale (which was between the two finish towns), the only downside being that it involved some bus transfers. In fact the next day’s stage, from Ponte di Legno to Val di Sole would pass just behind our hotel.

Rusty and Stu being interviewed at the start in Bormio

One of women’s team in 2nd place (a light, and strong, rider on a super-light bike) – we saw a lot of them too

Alex on the top section of the Col di Gavia

Approaching the top of the Gavia

After descending a few hairpins of the Gavia we turned off the road onto the gravel and rock

Some engaging sections over rocks and through mud

After this the descent then became steeper and steeper until there were sections where I had to walk

Stage 5 started with a 1200m climb with around two-thirds on gravel. However tired legs meant the pace set by those ahead was steadier and it wasn’t too painful. Alex went ahead and although we could see each for most of the climb I did not actually meet him again until the second food stop 27km into the stage. This was after a fantastic traverse along the side of the valley on the Alta Via Camuna. It was exposed but not that technical. Just a great place to be.

The stage itself was only 50km long and was over quickly though not without some super-fast descents on gravel trails. Amongst the teams we were riding with I was one of the slower descenders and I was quickly dropped by, amongst others, the women’s team who was placed second. I eventually tagged onto a mixed team who were descending at a pace that I didn’t think was crazy. It was sensible to play it safe though as there was a bad crash behind us with someone needing to be helicoptered off the mountain resulting in a suspension of the race for an hour or so. Alex was happy descending very quickly and gained about 5 minutes on me on the descents over the course of the day and a couple of minutes on the first climb. Nevertheless it was a good day for us as a team, coming 17th in the Masters and 66th overall. Stu and Rusty took the first climb at a slightly slower pace but as a consequence both had an enjoyable day too.

Dawn from our hotel on the Passo dei Tonale

Alex looking fresh, me looking tired – it may have been due to all the watermelon and potatoes he ate whilst waiting at the food-stop!

… although I’m looking a bit more relaxed here

Alex in his hunting dog pose… about to try and catch some prey on the long gravel descent to follow

Ice bath for the legs and Bitburger Radler – unfortunately alcohol free – for recovery

Stage 6 was the point where we felt we had been doing this for weeks, with it being difficult to remember where we had gone in the earlier stages. The route took us past the Brenta Dolomites, which had we been able to see them through the cloud would be been spectacular (I had been there with my dad when I was a teenager). It was the second longest stage so as usual my plan was to take it easy on the early climbs and hopefully have something left in the tank for the end.

As it was I ended up riding all of the stage with Stu and Rusty. The end of the second climb featured a steep push up accompanied by that feeling of humidity and foreboding that precedes a rainstorm. A few drops fells as we crested the top and a lot more came down as we slid down a steep and technical descent. Luckily with my dropper seat post down I found I could ride most of it okay.

On the final climb (about 600m of vertical but mainly on the road) Rusty popped a caffeine gel and shot up the road. However, about half way up he slowed and Stu and I had to pull/push him over the top. He recovered pretty well from this near-death experience and we finished together. (Alex had met us before the climb but pulled ahead and waited for us just before the finish.)

It was a good if testing day. It was fun to ride with Stu and Rusty and satisfying to help Rusty through his low point. We finished 24th equal. With Alex and I 19th in GC (in the Masters), we were well positioned for the final stage tomorrow.

After we finished it started to thunder and rain very hard so I think we got lucky with the weather.

A steep ascent out of the valley was followed by this traverse and then more climbing

A long drag to the push-up at the end of the second climb

The pushing begins – steeper than it looks in this photo

Hard work!

A muddy and tired Chaingang crew at the end of Stage 6 

Up until now Alex and I had essentially ridden as two individuals connected by the same team number. In a lot of other teams the stronger rider would push the more tired one on the climbs. Although I cursed Alex more than once for riding up the trail and not giving me a push, I was also proud to not have had any assistance. I was also aware that some of the things that Alex said to me in encouragement, such as “we’re only doing 200 Watts”, were almost exactly what I have said to Lillian in the past when we’ve been riding together, so I guess I had that coming to me. Nevertheless, for Stage 7 I wanted to protect our 19th position in GC and also see what we could do if we worked together as a team. Alex wanted to leave it all on the road (trail?) so he was up for it too.

Overnight there was another massive thunderstorm but thankfully it was dry at the start. As agreed I went as hard as I could on the first climb helped by some pushes by Alex every time I started to get dropped by the group we were with. A wet descent – which I did semi-blind as my glasses fogged up – led to a longer climb where I started to perfect my two-finger pocket grabbing technique. More rain and more slip-sliding traverses and descents led to a final 900m climb. Alex gave me some tows for the first two thirds but on the final section even he seemed tired. I can tell you though that being pulled is not as easy as it sounds as you lose the right to set your own pace and there’s a temptation to pedal too hard. Not that I wasn’t grateful for all the assistance.

We crested the final climb and began a brake pad burning (literally… I could smell them) descent to the vineyards and narrow back-streets of Arco. A couple of small punchy climbs led to the finish line. Strangely we didn’t do as well I thought we would given how hard we went – we were 24th on the day – but we gained a place in GC to finish 18th. The 17th team was 40 minutes ahead so I think that was as good a result as we could have hoped for. Stu and Rusty were 23rd in Masters. We were all then drenched by another thunder storm and took shelter in a café by the finish where we had a team blowout meal. Pasta, beer, chicken schnitzel, chips and affogato! A great way to end a memorable week!

Happy to finish or too tired for it to register?

This is what happens when the photographer asks for ‘more emotion’

An extremely wet afternoon in Arco – luckily the sun came out the following day and we saw Lake Garda at its best

And in terms of our goals, Alex and I are still friends. I was very happy with the top 20 GC position and thankful to Alex for getting us there, although he could have finished higher up the standings with a stronger partner. I don’t think the race was a physically exhausting as the Haute Route, as there were fewer hours in the saddle, but in other ways it was tougher and it’s not something I am going to forget soon. It was also very well organised with accommodation in 4 star hotels (with most of them being worthy of their stars). All told,  fantastic race and experience. More info on the race is here (BIKE TransAlp) and the route here (Entire route).

2 Responses

  1. David Donaldson

    Awesome right up Mark. Seems like you should have joined us in Nepal for some altitude training!
    Alex (sandy to us) never pushed me up any of the trails…the bastard!
    Tell me…at the of the day…when your legs were Jelly and he had been waiting 2 hours for you…did he put put his arm round your shoulders and announce, “you were strong today Mark” !
    Cheers
    Downhill Dave

    • Mark

      He may have. 🙂 Sandy. One day you will have to tell me how he got that nickname.

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