Thursday, September 21, 2017

Swiss Epic

Arriving in Geneva airport after 30 hours of travel I received the news that only one of my two pieces of luggage had made it from Hobart. If my bike had missed the solitary daily connection from Abu Dhabi then I’d miss the mandatory bike check on the Sunday and forfeit Monday’s prologue at the Perskindol Swiss Epic. Luckily it was my clothes which had been delayed which, while not awesome, were easier to replace than a bike. Or at least they would have been had we not been in a tiny Swiss village on a Sunday when absolutely nothing was opened. With many kind offers from other racers to loan me kit, mine was eventually delivered at 2am the morning of the race start which was cutting it fairly fine.

Originally paired with my great Brisbane riding mate, Marto, we had signed up for the ‘Heaven’ package which included 5 star hotels with every manner of sauna and Jacuzzi, as well as a daily post-stage massage and fluffy white robes. I had never seen the point of those wanky hotels, but have now been educated. They are amazing. How I have survived 39 years without a daily lemon salt scrub in a steam room is a mystery. Unfortunately Marto did not get to share in the experience as he required shoulder surgery after almost ripping his arm of racing gravity enduro. Due to the Swiss Epic’s ‘no refunds’ policy, my partner, John, reluctantly (cough, cough) took Marto’s place.

We had entered the Flow event – 280km of riding with 7500m of vertical ascent and 15000 descent, made possible by neutral zones where we would be transported by bus or lift to a higher point for extra downhill fun. The traditional Epic of 350km with 12,000m of grovelling is available to those who really hate fun. It was easy to pick which event riders were doing by their bike setup. One hundred millimetre travel cross-country machines with ‘sneeze and they puncture’ narrow tyres versus 120-150mm forks with dropper posts and 2.4 inch wide knobbly rubber.

I’ve never paid much attention to things which can vastly change the capabilities of the same bike. A beefier front end and wider tyres can transform an XC bike to a more confident descender with a small weight penalty. This was the choice to be made. Lightweight for the still considerable climbing or a setup to make up time on the descents? The Flow race is the most balanced format I’ve ever completed between climbing and descending while the Epic still favours the skinny mountain goats.

Prologue – Grachen – 18km, +650m / -1150m

Warming up in the town we boarded a gondola and were deposited at 2100m. The Prologue course went straight up a climb to 2500m where someone had misplaced most of the oxygen. Gasping,  we caught a few of the riders who started before us in the time-trial and were nailing the downhill when the hydraulics in my rear brake took a short holiday. If you know anything about riding then you absolutely don’t want to be front-braking on a steep slope over wet tree roots. After a minute of furious pumping my brakes returned and we finished with a 15 second lead over a Belgian pair in the mixed category. We had passed them on the climbs but after they rocketed past us on the descents we knew we were in for six days of hot competition.

Not a bad warm up spot. Start of the prologue

That afternoon we retired to the spa room of the Gracherhof trying to work out the correct order of the stations. We settled for 40 C sauna, 60 C steam room and finished with an 87 C sauna to get the edges super crispy. In between we subjected ourselves to a cubicle which sprayed ice cold water from multiple jets doing our best Wim Hoff breathing.

Stage 1 – Grachen to Leukerbad -72kms, +1600m / -4050m

Having the advantage on the climbs we figured this was our day to make a good gap on second place. We were at breakfast at 6am for an 8am start. Our race issue bags would be transported between hotels as part of the organisation. It was difficult having so many options at the buffets and declining them (including champagne) in favour of race-performance options.

At the 15km point, while taking a sweeping right-hand corner, I was suddenly laying on the ground. Thinking my cleat had come out of my pedal I realised my whole pedal had come off the spindle. With no tech station until 62km I had no option but to leave the pedal attached to my shoe, slide it back on the spindle and try to ride holding it on with my adductor. This was semi-successful on the 10km climb but downright dangerous on the technical descents of which there were many. Quite a few times I’d be hanging over my rear wheel negotiating a steep section only to have my pedal slip off and end up with my tread massaging my chamois. Not wanting our race to be over on only the second day, I persevered until the neutral section where the mechanic fortunately had some new pedals and cleats for purchase. Buying in Swiss francs hurts but, to be honest, he could have charged much more to desperate racers. Not Chain Reaction prices but I've paid more at a local bike store.

47kms holding this on with my inner thigh. Not recommended.

Being attached to my bike for the last descent brought the insanity factor back down. The trails are very challenging though and I tripoded switchbacks and ran some sections. To only lose a minute to the Belgian team with all our issues was unbelievable.

We checked into our favourite hotel of the whole trip. Hotel Les Sources Des Alpes is a proper 5 star venue with a thermal spa and pool with the most unbelievably powerful massage jets. (NB: that may or may not be their intended purpose but the wattage on those babies will have your ITBs singing). Physiotherapy students perform massage duties at the hotels but their effectiveness is hit-and-miss. There’s only so many times you can say “you can go harder” before you surrender to a treatment better classified as relaxation. I did have a karate black-belt find a spot in my butt that had me tapping out though.

Stage 2 – Leukerbad – 52km, +1050m / -3550m

A circuit of the Leukerbad surrounds was on Wednesday’s agenda. With minimal climbing we knew we’d lose time on the general classification so we focused on staying upright and crossing fingers for no more mechanical issues. John did get a small puncture but after a minute of doing the Stan’s shuffle, it sealed and we continued. On the whole the course was marked well but a small lapse in concentration and it was easy to take the wrong track. One left arrow means turn. Two means pull on the handbrake and turn HARD. We had a few overshoots and a couple of WTFs in dead end streets but it was a common story for everyone.

The last uplift took us to 2300m. We hadn’t packed jackets as it was relatively warm in the valley. Now it was snowing at the peak and John wrestled two garbage bags from a reluctant feed-zone attendant to use as ponchos. Many people admired our stylish threads which were effective on the chilly descent but not particularly aero.

It was at the summit that we encountered the gluggy mud typical of agricultural regions of Switzerland. It contained a fair portion of cow manure which you could really taste when if flicked up into your mouth. John deeply regretted his choice of narrow profile Rocket Ron as a front tyre and made a beefier purchase after the stage. Sliding our way down the root-littered mud chutes, it was another second place for us, now 1.5 minutes behind the leaders overall.

Stage 3 – Leukerbad – 35k, +800 / -1800

Due to the forecast inclement weather, this stage was modified from the original plan. Fresh snow fell daily on the mountain tops and with torrential rain on the way a portion of the climb was taken out while we used a lower uplift to avoid the worst of the weather. We celebrated our first mechanical-free day. While it was cold at the start, we missed the opening of the heavens which caught out slower riders.

Before the event I was unsure about the format which effectively broke the day into two to three stages with untimed uplifts between. Rather than making it easier, it was balls-out racing the whole time, like doing multiple XCO races after sitting down just long enough for the legs to completely cool and stiffen up. We rode the shuttles with the same crew each day and this formed the main social opportunity. The top three mens and mixed pairs swapped stories and trash talked and hung out a little too long in the feed zones. It was easy to overdo the snacks so everyone’s pants were little tighter at the end of the week. This was a very different vibe to the ‘must kill’ competition of more pure endurance racing formats. We surprisingly made up time on this stage and now sat only 15 seconds adrift of the green leaders jersey.

Leukerbad is surrounded by stunning bare rock mountains. After significant rainfall these become adorned with numerous waterfalls streaming down. Soaking in the heated pool admiring the show was a special afternoon.

Thermal pool at Hotel Les Sources Des Alpes. I'll just leave this here...

Stage 4 – Leukerbad to Zermatt – 65km, +1300m/-3250m

Any stage with over 1000m of climbing represented an chance to put time into our more enduro skilled competition. We went out hard on the first 8km ascent only to find that the Belgians had learned to climb overnight. There must have been something special in the bircher muesli that morning as the gap at the start of the downhill was not what we hoped it would be.

We left the wet trails of Leukerbad and entered the dry, rocky terrain on the way to Zermatt. It was the coldest day by far but brilliantly clear and sunny. Thankfully this coincided with the only open chairlift of the event. As each rider had to balance their bike on the crossbar of their lift it was slow progress up the mountain with the lift stopping every few metres to let another rider get into position. It was almost pleasant swinging high up in a sunny spot but when I moved into the shade of a tree or rock I was close to hypothermia.

The previous day we had battled cows and goats on the trail. Today it was hikers, strewn across the path. Although there were course arrows, there were no signs warning people of the race and bikes screaming down the trails. Quite a few walkers were sent diving into bushes with their hiking poles.

If the Belgians had learned to climb, we had improved our descending and moved into the lead by 30 seconds. While the other race categories were almost settled by the last day, ours was still a tight battle. With everything on the line and needing our bodies to be at 110% the next day we did what any Flow rider would do – sank some Belgian beers and checked out our hotel amenities. The Zermatterhof is regarded as the top hotel in Zermatt. It even offers the chance to be collected from the train station by a white horse-drawn carriage. I’ve no idea where the bike boxes would go though.

The town is car-free save for the small electric taxis ferrying people around. Ambling the streets browsing shops we couldn’t possibly afford to buy from was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Stage winners a few times. Swiss army knives and cheese. What else?

Stage 5 – Zermatt – 36km, +1250m / -1900m

On paper this stage suited our strength. It started with a 14km climb which began at a friendly gradient before a horrific final 4km on gravel which saw me and many racers over-geared. The last kilometres ticked over at glacial pace but this was our only chance to get a gap. With 25km done at the solitary neutral transfer we had a 4 minute lead for the day. It seemed the win was sealed and we could be able to ride the remaining descent relaxed.

View from the top of the last descent into Zermatt. We were lucky enough to get a cloudless day. Great move by the organisers having this in the untimed zone.

We caught the tube-train, buried deep inside the mountain to the top. Luckily we had stopped for photos the previous day as the Matterhorn was obscured by cloud. Some final group photos with our racing companions, a ‘see you at the bottom’ and we were on our way. We weren’t far into the sharp rocky descent when I heard the heart-breaking hiss of liquid latex escaping from my rear tyre. Praying it would seal we weren’t that lucky. We set about putting a tube in, slowed by cold fingers and recalcitrant CO2 cannisters and pumps. Four minutes was enough to cover the time the Belgians would chop out of us on the descent but possibly not a puncture as well. With my tyre pumped up to 35 PSI I then had to pick smooth lines around the sharp edged drains on the trail. A second flat would see us entirely out of the running. There was a lot more up-hill than we counted on and our legs were blown after the morning’s effort. Once on the flat John killed himself while I tried to hang on (a consistent theme of the week). Unfortunately we’d lost too much time with the puncture and missed the overall win by a mere 33 seconds after 6 days of racing.

Honestly, it was an absolutely shite way to lose. But we weren’t the only ones with bad luck. The top UCI women’s team had multiple flats and a cracked rim during the event and kept putting out their best every day trying, unsuccessfully, to make the time back. Racing is unpredictable and you can never give up as luck can go either way.

I’m stoked with how we handled the challenges during the week. Something learned from adventure racing when things are never perfect. The trails and the event were incredible. It was everything a Swiss race promises to be and we’re returning to Australia with that adjusted perception of ‘steep’ one gets after riding in the alps. At the post-race dinner we were informed of the event’s sale to the Ironman company along with the Cape Epic and The Pioneer. There were some predictably apathetic responses to the news. But hopefully the formula doesn’t change too much as they’ve almost nailed it. Certainly for the Flow, the balance of tarmac, 4WD track and singletrail was spot on. The towns we visited with quintessentially Swiss while having all we needed outside the race.

One of the few times I got to ride at the front. Only for the cameras.

The mixed Flow category was never going to involve racing for sheep stations. However it was great to get prizes reflecting the local area. The engraved Swiss Army knife, Victorinox multi-tool and Scott helmet are all welcome additions to the kit. The four kilos of cheese…hmm, we’ll find a space for it.

We flew Etihad into Geneva which is an easy train and bus ride to Grachen and Zermatt. It’s worth getting there a day or two early, especially if your luggage doesn’t arrive with you. Thanks to Flight Centre Sport Events for the travel organisation and race jerseys. Also to Virgin Australia for sorting out my extra baggage allowance via Twitter. Great service.

As always my sponsors:

Fuelled by Infinit Australia
Lubricated by Ride Mechanic (bike and body lube)
Suspension by NS Dynamics
Recovery compression gear by CEP Australia
Fitness training by Bike Rite