Swiss Epic 2018

posted in: Cycling | 4

Beautiful mountain vistas that you can only glance at before you drop into the next steep, winding and rocky descent. That pretty much sums up the Swiss Epic, an enjoyable but testing 5 stage mountain-bike race that is the little brother to the infamous Cape Epic. I was racing again with Alex accompanied by CHAINGANG team-mates Stu and Rusty.

Prelude

After all the anticipation leading up to the TransAlp in July this year, the Swiss Epic snuck up on me. It was only when I arrived in the beautiful and tranquil car-free village of Bettmeralp and started exploring the trails on the mountain-bike that I started to feel myself getting excited about the race. When I then found myself up on a ridge overlooking the mighty Aletsch Glacier, I remembered just how amazing it is being in the high mountains.

The view of the Aletsch Glacier from Moosfluh.

I love exploring on the mountain-bike but sometimes the trails I pick are not so rideable…

The following day Alex and I decided to go for an unconventional pre-race approach and hike from the top of a cable car over the Bettmerhorn to the Eggishorn, where there was another cable car to carry us down. It took three hours at a relaxed pace and involved some easy scrambling and a few step irons and cables. We also had the chance to walk the last few kilometres of tomorrow’s stage. It didn’t seem too bad and was far less technical than some of the trails we had ridden the day before. We would find out the following day if that was just a gentle finish or representative of the whole stage.

Somewhere at the head of the glacier are the Monch and Eiger.

A view from the Eggishorn of the ridge we followed.

We were to see many more of these signs over the next five days.

Stage 1

So, the big question of yesterday was answered. The finishing trails were definitely not representative of the whole stage. However as we’ll see below, they were more than technical enough.

In spite of being labelled as ‘Newbies’ (i.e. first timers to the Swiss Epic) Alex and I managed to talk our way into the B start pen (we were originally allocated to D) so that we could start with Stu and Rusty. Unfortunately they set off rather quickly, leading the pen (containing about 45 teams) up the first climb, chasing any laggards from Group A who started 10 minutes ahead. However it was a demanding day so I was happy to hold back and Alex had agreed to let me set the pace. Nearly all the descents were technical; I was so glad I had a dropper post. Thankfully though most of the climbing was on small tarmac roads or gravel tracks. We caught up with Stu and Rus about two thirds of the way through the stage and we started the final 1200m climb together. The last 1000m was on gravel and it went on for a long long time. We distanced everyone we were riding with though I was cramping in my calves on the way up and Alex was starting to feel the effects of having a larger chain-ring on his bike than in the TransAlp (something about it being good training…). We were both suffering. One of the few things that kept me going was the thought of a final nice descent down the single-track trails we had checked out yesterday. To my dismay as soon as I stood up on my pedals to start descending I experienced not only hamstring cramps that immobilised my legs but also cramps in my shoulders and arms. Thus it was a slower than planned descent though thankfully we did not have that far to ride to the finish.

We ended up going reasonably well just qualifying for the A start pen tomorrow and getting 13th place in the Masters. Stu and Rusty are one place behind. The time gaps in Masters are already quite large with a full 6 minutes to the team in 12th position. The 63km and 2700m took us 4 hours 45 minutes. The fastest female team took 4.03 (it did contain Alessandra Keller, the U23 winner from the previous weekend’s World Championships) and the fastest male team rode the stage in a staggering 3.17! There were some very good mountain-bikers present; for example I started talking to Catherine Pendrel, not realising who she was, though I figured out pretty quickly that she was a top rider. We were discussing the Newbie categorisation and she told me that if one’s partner drops out you have to wear a number saying Outcast… though I’m not sure now if she was winding me up.

We were slightly insulted to be classified as newbies until we found it applied to all first-timers.

Team CHAINGANG before Stage 1.

Complimentary leg rub of “Perskindol Crackling Spray” being administered to Team Hong Kong.

Stage 2

As we were just about the lowest ranked team to make it into the A start pen my plan was to ride at the back as I assumed pretty much everyone else would be faster, particularly as after a short climb the stage got going with 1200 metres of technical descent. However, it turned out I was far from the worse descender and I reached the bottom about two thirds of the way down the field. As planned Alex was waiting for me and we rode together for the rest of the stage apart from the descents.

It was another perfect day weather-wise although that did mean it got a little hot on some of south facing climbs. What I’ve learned about the Swiss Epic is that they route organisers never take you up a climb without there being an interesting descent… with interesting meaning drop-offs, tight hairpin bends or loose rocks and often all three. We passed a lot of teams with punctures and as Alex and I had yet to have one in both this event and the recent TransAlp I was worried our luck was going to run out.

I held back on everything but the final climb – a similar pacing strategy to yesterday – and it worked well. We climbed well and managed to over-take a couple of teams finishing with an overall ranking of 48th and 12th in the Masters (with the same positions in GC). Today’s stage was 77km with 2700m of climb and took us 5 hours 23 minutes.

Today we transitioned from Bettmeralp to Grachen. It’s another pretty village with no cars. In fact all three of the towns we are staying in are car-free. I don’t know if this is a peculiarity of the Swiss canton in which are in but as a tourist it works for me.

Thankfully the climbs were mainly on tarmac and gravel.

Leaving Bettmeralp for the final time and chasing a womens team (Tamara and Nina) who we raced with over the next few days.

On one of the intermediate road climbs.

Stage 3

Another beautiful morning and more awesome trails in the Valais. The descents were described in the route book as ‘engaging’ which was very well put by the organisers. We have reached the point now where we are seeing the same teams around us. In fact the final climb back to Grachen had a real sense of deja vu. Not only was some of it on the same uphill single track trail but it was following the same two teams as yesterday, an Australian Masters team (Damian and Andy) and a Swiss duo (Julien and David). The results however were slightly different and more in our favour today with us getting ahead of the Aussies in a final and sadistic push/carry up to Grachen. That helped give us our best result so far, 9th in Masters and 45th in GC.

Our tactic of taking it easier on all but the final climb seemed to be paying off. That said we had our fair share of good luck with no punctures or mechanicals so far. On the first descent we passed Zav, a Dynamo who is currently living in Chamonix, and his teammate Seb, fixing their third puncture of the race. However, it wasn’t long before they blasted by on one of the climbs. Even taking account of the puncture they had a good day finishing 6th in Masters.

The highlight of the day was probably the second long descent which followed a rock path about 1-2m wide down the side of the valley. On most of it you definitely would not want to go off the edge.Towards the bottom we entered steep and dusty hairpins. As I was at the back of our group of six the dust meant I could hardly see the track and just had to rely on the movements of the shadowy form in front of me and the squealing of disc brakes to tell me when a bend was coming up. Very engaging.

The stage was 71k, with 2700m of ascent and we finished in just under 5 hours. At just over 14kph our fastest average speed so far! We in 11th in Masters GC but with the Aussies still 16 minutes ahead I’m not expecting that we are going to advance unless one of the teams ahead has some bad luck.

Being stalked by Nina (I think).

Pushing on.

At the finish.

Team Houffalize Dynamo (Zav and Seb).

Stage 4

Today’s stage was a transition from Grachen to Zermatt. For part of it we would be traversing the side of the valley above Zermatt along the Europaweg with a stunning view of the Matterhorn being promised by the race organisers. Unfortunately it was a cloudy, damp day with some rain in the night which meant no views of the mountain and a slippery first descent down to valley through a steep forest filled with moss-covered rocks. Alex dialled back his descending speed so that we were riding together and strangely it was just us for most of the descent. At the bottom we were caught by Julien and David and rode with them to the first food point.

Unfortunately I had to get something minor on my bike (a loose chain guard) fixed by the Shimano mechanic and that delay was enough for us to get caught at a level crossing. The marshal there said we would have the time spent waiting taken off our stage time which sounded good. It did mean we lost the carrot of keeping up with the Swiss guys but it may have saved us from blowing up on the 1000m climb (half on road, half on gravel) that led to the Europaweg.

That was followed by a descent down a brand new flow trail which would only be opened to the public the following weekend. This took us to Zermatt and a final climb up the valley leading to the Matterhorn. Alex had been on the front for the previous climb and now it was my turn to do a bit of work. So far we have been more balanced in contributing than at the TransAlp which is nice. Some fast and rocky single track led us back to Zermatt.

We were 14th in Masters on the day (51st overall) but strangely that relatively poor result moved us into 10th place in the Masters GC. However, with only a 2 minute lead on the team behind it was all to play for on the final stage. 68km, 2250m, 5 hours (including our level crossing stop).

I think this picture was taken on the Europaweg.

Stage 5

When we have been waiting on the start line I’ve been a little nervous about crashing but for the first time I was nervous about our position. We did not get a time bonus for our wait at the level crossing – in spite of what the marshal said it turned out delays had to be a minimum of 5 minutes to warrant an adjustment. However I hoped that meant that was our bit of bad luck out of the way, and after we crossed the railway line again and I heard the bells announcing a train was coming that seemed indeed the case.

It was a shorter stage finishing with a climb to 2600m with a fantastic view of the Matterhorn which appeared out of the cloud when we were about half way up. We rode harder at the start and consequently saw some new faces. For a lot of the stage we rode with the second and third Grand Masters teams who set an ideal pace. We also overtook Allesandra Keller’s team on the climb so I was able to see just how much faster they were as they came by me on the descent. We finished the day just behind the Aussies. However, the main thing was that we reached the finish in one piece and with our 10th place consolidated. A fantastic end to 5 great days of bike riding.

We completed the 57km stage in 3 hours 53 minutes taking a 9th in the Masters and a 40th place overall. In GC we ended 10th and 42nd respectively. We worked well as a team – given our respective strengths and weaknesses – and pretty much had the perfect race. The winning male team was Matthias Stirmemann and Andri Frischknecht and the fastest female team was Catharine Pendrel and Haley Smith. Zav and Seb finished 7th in Masters and Stu and Rusty 15th. 156 teams took part of which 58 were in the Masters category.

At last, we had a view of the Matterhorn.

Nearing the end of the final climb.

Job done!

Finish selfie with Ken (one of Team Hong Kong).

Postscript

On the final day I went for a ride with some of the Swiss riders, Sabina and Paul, as well as the man who gave his name to their team, Dani Schnider (who also won the Masters category). It was nice to be riding the bike for fun for change and to have time to take pictures.

View of Liskamm and surrounding mountains from just below the 3089m high Gornergrat Train Station.

The Zermatt Valley, both sides of which we had ridden up and down in the previous days.

So what did I learn from the last few days? Firstly these events are all about pacing. With the exception of the final stage, I rode the first half or two-thirds of the race as if I was out on fast but enjoyable ride with mates. Compared with the TransAlp I suffered less but placed higher in relative terms. I also ate less than in the TransAlp after each stage which meant that I didn’t constantly feel bloated and full… I’m not sure if I was replenishing calories but there is a limit to how much energy your body can absorb. Finally, I think I can now say I am a decent descender though there it a long way to go to become as fast as the quicker riders.

The event itself was really well organising with plenty of nice extras, for example unlimited beer at the finish and coffee (Ibex Coffee) throughout the day. Also when the organisers ran out of small size finisher jerseys they said they would get some extra ones made and mail them to us! The team made some top quality short videos every day too: Stage 1Stage 2Stage 3Stage 4 and Stage 5.

A final touch was a personally numbered laundry bag and mid-race kit wash.

The race has been in the Valais region for the last five years and I’m happy to have been able to race in the last ‘Race to the Matterhorn’. Next year the event moves east to Graubunden and I hope to be there.

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