Well, this was pretty much what my year had been geared up towards. The big one. 121K and 5200-odd metres of climbing, mostly at altitude. Simon and I arrived in Geneva on Wednesday and drove towards Verbier, jaws dropping at the sheer size and majesty of the scenery. “er…these bloody mountains look a bit on the big side eh?” we both said on a few occasions, somewhat concerned.
Anyway, eventually finding the digs after dark, we left all the gear in the car. 7:15am local time (6:15 in real money), Drill Sergeant Fox almost smashes my bedroom door down as an alarm call. Cheers! Bikes built, brekky ate and we’re off up the nearest mountain once we’d found Verbier. It was about half a mile up the hill from the chalet, but we thought we’d ride all the way down the hairpinned road to the wrong town first…doh! One massive road climb later (complete with shocked altitude-ravaged lungs) and we’re at the Medran lift station and climbing the fireroad. We had to do this to get acclimatised as best we could whilst trying to be careful not to get completely knackered 2 days before the race. Once at the top we attempted to ride the Kona Bike Park DH track and almost got killed.
How we laughed at our under-equipped downhill mincing. Proper jey.
We stopped to help out a young French lad who was walking down the hill, crying and pushing his (pretty full-on Kona Stinky) bike. He’d got a nail right through his rear tyre, binned it and hurt his leg. Anyway, we fixed him and his bike and sent him on his way with his full face lid, held together with gaffer tape, back on his bonce. That’s got to be some karma points in the bag. Back to the chalet, chill on the balcony with a view to beat anything I’ve ever seen.
Friday was my birthday, which was pretty weird when in another country without the rest of my family. Anyway, too busy for thinking about stuff like that, there’s energy drink to mix. There’s riding clothes to sort. There’s pasta to eat. We also needed to get over to Sion to register and have the bikes officially inspected. We met a few Brits there, including a bloke with a broken foot and a few Welsh lads. Then we’re back to Verbier for more food, a ride on the cable car up to La Ruinettes and more last minute prep before the main event tomorrow. The race starts at 6:30 in the morning so we had a 4:30 start. By this time I’m bricking it. I’ve not been nervous before a race for ages but this one’s been hyped in my own mind for so long, and given the commitment both in terms of training and money I’ve thrown at this, the possibility of something going wrong was really getting to me.
BANG! the gun went off and we’re racing. Up the first climb out of Verbier I remember all the locals standing at the side of the road in their pyjamas, cheering. The course continues to climb onto the exposed mountainside. I’ve got 2200 metres down into the valley on the left, massive mountain in front and on the right and helicopters flying around keeping tabs on the race. The word “awesome” is used too often I think, to the point where when you can only describe an experience as “awesome” it doesn’t quite do the job. But this really was totally awesome. Massive climbs were followed by tight singletrack sections, followed by wide gravelly downhills that lasted 30, 40 even 50 minutes. Long enough to relax into it enough and leave the brakes alone for longer than I would do normally…just look a bit further ahead…avoid the rock, drop this guy “A DROIT!”…SHIT THERE’S A LOT OF DUST….Christ this is fast…
Some of the climbs seemed to take forever. The Mandelon climb for example is 22K long, the trail snakes its way up the mountainside with a series of a few dozen hairpins, topping out at God-knows what height. Somewhere between 2500 and 3000 metres I think. The thing is with this race is that there’s no room for messing about looking at the view or having a rest stop and a natter. There’s about 8 checkpoints that you have to clear by a certain time, or you’re eliminated. These times are not generous either. I was ok for time but I knew I was going to have to maintain this pace or I might start to struggle later on.
The course goes through a number of towns and villages and all the locals come out to cheer and to hand out water. I’ve always wanted to grab a water bottle from someone at the roadside, drink a large glug then lob it onto the grass verge I did it loads of times too. Your name is printed on your number board, so frequently villagers were shouting “Allez jasssonnnne!”. Pretty cool eh? There was even a bloke playing an Alphorn in Nendaz.
I crashed on one of the downhill sections. A tandem went flying past at what seemed about 60 (they REALLY shift down hills) and kicked up an enormous cloud of dust. Then I’m grabbing a handful of rear brake to avoid flying off the side of the mountain with a faceful of dirt, blinded by it. Oh well, a bit of blood to keep my leg cool I s’pose.
Hours later, I reached the biggest climb, the Pas de Lona. Rideable at first, it becomes ever steeper and loose until you’re carrying the bike up a scree slope, rising to 3000 metres where the air is somewhat thinner. There are guys keeling over or looking like they’ve just given up, heads spinning from the altitude and exhaustion. I had to dig really deep to get to the summit, my head spinning, unable to focus. For some reason, I thought that this was pretty much it. I knew there was another rideable climb after this one, then I thought a simple downhill to the finish. 10 minutes I’ll be done. Wrong. The last downhill is fun, fast and LONG. Full-on, high speed, off the brakes downhill riding over rough trails and technical steep stuff that takes it’s toll when you’re dropping several thousand feet and it’s going on for over half and hour, especially on a short-travel bike that’s definately not going to ride itself to the bottom. But there’s a view from this descent to beat all of them. A turquoise lake, snow-capped mountains and a bloody great big glacier is all that can be seen, when you get a chance to take your eye off the trail.
At the finish I ate the remainder of my food and watched the riders still crossing the line and the ‘copters still buzzing overhead. I crossed the line in 10hrs 23mins, somewhere just above halfway overall and 8th British rider. Simon finished well too with a 12 hour time. He’s had to overcome some pretty major exhaustion and has had to really tough it out to avoid being eliminated at the final checkpoint. It’s at that point that most people would have given up and ridden back down the hill, crying.
I’m definately having another crack at this. I’ll be taking Deb and the kids so they can see the mountains that I’ve done nothing but go on about since I got back and hopefully I’ll be faster next time. It’s just the biggest, toughest most awe-inspiring race I’ve ever had the privilage to take part in and I’m completely hooked.
Next is the 3 Peaks Cyclocross. I’ve never done this one before either so I’ve no idea how that will go but I’ll be confident of finishing it at least. Funnily enough, almost all of the Brit riders we spoke to in Verbier were doing the 3 Peaks. Then, when we got back to the UK and we were stood outside the airport terminal, a random bloke came up to us and asked “good riding trip?”. “yes” we said. “Just done the Cristalp”. “Oh. Brilliant.” he replied. “I’m doing the 3 Peaks Cyclocross in a few weeks…” Spooky.
more details of the race here