I have found a new favourite place for cycling!! Livigno!! The views, the trails, the climbs, the vibe, the food!! What a paradise for a cyclist at a training camp!!
We left Livigno,Italy after a week of good riding and a lot of rest and headed to Grächen in Switzerland. It was a nightmare drive that day! I woke up at 3 o'clock as it was raining so hard and I knew we had some mountain passes to drive over and they had been warning about snow on top of the passes. I got up to check Google maps and one of the mountain passes was closed. So we had to re-route and at 05.15 we started what we thought was the "big" road but that meant both the long tunnel and a car train (which I've never done before). I did not know that this road also meant some mountain passes... Around 6 am we started to drive up a pass and I could see how the temperature was dropping and it is starting to snow. When we get to the top of the Flüela pass the snow was about 2 to 3 cm deep next to the road and it is 0 degrees, this is when I start to get worried! We do not see any other cars except some that were snowed under. Craig has never seen so much snow in his life and we are sitting in a rental car with summer tires, it simply does not feel good! We decide to try to drive down. The amount of snow only increases but you can see that the plowing car has been there and luckily on our side of the road. We see another car next to the road and a French guy with snow chains on his jeep asks us if we think it's ok for him to continue!? As I said, we had summer tires, he had snow chains! I was so scared and I am just seeing in front of my eyes how we start sliding and go over the edge, I know how slippery it can be when there is ice on the road, Craig doesn’t…. We drove down the entire pass without the speedometer showing more than 25km/h! When we get down to Davos we took a deep breath of relief and laughed a bit about it all, until we get to the Oberalp Pass and see the snow again!! Once in Realp we go to the car train and all is good, until we're in the middle of the tunnel and our rental car starts to make a warning alarm and there's a flashing red light that says "Stop the car", we do not really know what to do when this just goes on. It was nice to get out on the other side and see the sun and feel the warmer weather!! I was completely exhausted when we finally arrived in Grächen after the 7 hours long drive!
We just checked in at the hotel, did registration, changed and took the gondola up to the top to the start of the prologue route to test the course. It was a really tough 18 km with 2 longish climbs and some really steep and technical downhills. I was glad I had bought a dropper seat post a few weeks ago, otherwise I would not have been able to handle the downhills during the week ahead!
It was going to be another adventure together with Esther Süss as Team Meerendal / CBC, our 4th stage race together this year! We have spoken about this race before but, same as Transalps, there has always been something in the way (previous years my Swedish champs).
Esther had done a marathon race on the Sunday and arrived late, so she was not able to do the prologue route before.
Day 1: Prologue in Grächen. Start at 2122möh. 18km – 650 meters of climbing – 1150 meters descent
It was a long wait in the morning, which was good for Esther after her race the day before! We went up with the gondola at 12.45. It got a bit stressed up there because we forgot to check how much sealant I had in the tires (talk about rookie mistake!!) and when we checked we discovered it was almost empty, so Craig had to take the gondola down to fetch some and come up again. 20 minutes before start he was back and we could fill up! I was really nervous, Esther did not seem nervous at all. We started as the last team at 14.08. I got a good start and felt very strong even though we were up at 2100 meters altitude, the week in Livigno had really helped! I turned around and saw Esther was a bit behind and she struggled. I stayed calm since it was exactly the same on the prologue at Cape Epic and that all went well in the end. In hindsight, I should have pulled away on the uphill and she would have caught me on the downhill, now I was waiting for her on the uphills and then she was waiting for me on the downhills. I still thought it went a lot better on the downhills this day than the day before in training. I am just not used to when it is so steep and technical downhills. We did not see Ariane and Alice who had started 2 minutes before us so when we were on the last long climb I realized we would not win the prologue. We were a little disappointed that we were as far behind as 1 minute 54 seconds, but you do not usually win a stage race on the prologue ...
Day 2: Stage 1. Grächen to Leukerbad, 92 km – 3050 meters of climbing
The longest stage with the most amount of climbing came directly as the first long stage! It was tough! It had just started to drizzle when we started at 8. I'm not used to race with so much clothes on but I'm glad I had an experienced Swiss rider as a partner! We rode with knee warmers, arm warmers and a wind jammer and we really needed it, especially at the end of the stage when it rained and we were high up, then it was cold! We left Grächen and climbed up from the start, I felt good and turned around and could not see Esther. I waited for her and we could quickly catch up and pass Ariane and Alice, it seemed like we climbed better than them. We got on to some really nice single tracks and soon after we started the downhill Ariane and Alice caught us and when it got very technical they got away. In every stage race we have done together, we have always said that we take it safely on technical sections to avoid crashes and mechanical problems (puncture) which would make us loose more time than going a bit slower. So that was what we did this week as well. It did not take long before we saw Ariane and Alice standing next to the track with a puncture. I can admit that I relaxed a little and could ride without stress. We kept going on some ups and downs and started the first long climb of the day and it went very well, we had a good rhythm. Today's stage consisted of 3 long downhills and 3 long climbs and a flat section before the final uphill. We got some time reports and it seemed that we expanded the lead all the time. We were told everything from 7 minutes to 11 minutes and when we arrived at Leukerbad after about 5.5 hours we had won by about 15 minutes! It felt incredibly good to take over the leaders jersey!
Day 3: Stage 2. Leukerbad to Leukerbad, 70 km – 2500 meters of climbing
It was a cool morning in Leukerbad so it was another day with lots of layers. We started with a 5km climb and we got away from the others from the start. The first downhill was hectic with really tight corners and Ariane and Alice caught up with us, we rode together for a while and I could notice that they were a bit stressed and took some unnecessary risks. Alice crashed on a rocky section, nothing serious and she was soon back on the bike again. They got away at the bottom of the downhill but we could soon catch them again. We caught them as we got to the a very steep uphill and when Alice changed gears her chain dropped on the inside and got caught between the cassette and the spokes and they had to stop and fix this. This was at the compulsory walking section at the 12 km mark, we had to walk since it was just too steep and a cliff next to the track. We kept riding on some nice trails and shorter ups and downs. Just before the first water point I hear girls behind us and it was the third team with Cornelia and Florence which caught up with us. We started a long climb after the water point and there we could get away again. The highlight of the day was the suspension bridge in Niouc, 190 meters above the ground and 190 meters long and so narrow that we had to walk with the bike in front on the back wheel and with the handle bars slightly tilted to fit (I'm glad I'm short and have a small bike!)! The downhill towards the bridge was hectic on the side of the mountain, it was very steep next to us and I almost got a bit scared of heights! We made it over the bridge, even though it was so steep at the end and I struggled to get grip with the MTB shoes! Suddenly at the 48 km mark we heard riders coming up from behind and when we turned around we saw Ariane and Alice!! The race was on again. They sat our wheels until we got to the last feed zone at 51 km and attacked us there. Ariane stopped for bottles and Alice carried on. We quickly caught them and passed as we started the long 19 km climb back up to Leukerbad. We still had some rocky trails to do on the way up and it had started raining which made it very tough. As we passed the “5km to go” sign I could see Ariane and Alice behind and at the same time I was getting really tired. We really wanted the stage win so I gave everything on the last bit of uphill. We managed to win the stage and added 2.59min to our overall lead!
Day 4: Stage 3. Leukerbad to Leukerbad, 44 km – 1500 meters of climbing - 2500 meters descent
This day should have been an individual team time trail and the start would have been on top of the mountain (we would have taken the gondola up to the start) but due to the heavy rain predicted, which meant snow on the mountain, the stage route was adjusted and we had a mass start at 8am in Leukerbad. An uphill was added on and the first downhill of the original route got taken out, the rest of the route stayed the same. This played in our hands since we were stronger than Team Spur on the climbs and lost time on the downhills. I felt really good on the first climb and set a high pace to get as much time as possible at the top of the climb. We had a big gap at the top and even though it was very technical and slippery on the way down I thought it went well. It took a long time for Ariane and Alice to catch us, which they only did close to the bottom of the 12 km long downhill. We were just about to catch them when we made a sharp left turn to start the longest climb of the day. We passed the small village of Albinen and heard that we had about a minute gap. It was a really tough climb and since it had started raining it got very cold. I had very mixed thoughts and emotions since I on the one hand just wanted to reach the top since it was hard and I was getting tired, but on the other hand I just wanted the climb to carry on since I knew we were making up time all the time as long as we were climbing. When we finally reached the top we had about 10 km to go, 5 km along the side of the mountain on some nice but slippery single tracks and then 5 km downhill on extremely technical, muddy and slippery trails. Team Spur caught us a few kilometres from the finish together with some flow riders (riders who only do the downhills and take the gondola up, usually on enduro bikes) and I got a bit stressed when there were so many riders at once around me. Esther is such a great partner and just said “just relax and take it easy, we lose more time on a crash”, and I could ride better. We were only 24 seconds behind Team Spur at the finish and even though we missed the stage win we did not lose much time on the overall and that was the most important!
Day 5: Stage 4. Leukerbad to Zermatt, 85 km – 2800 meters of climbing
This day was probably the coldest I have ever raced in! There was ice on the cars in the morning and Craig got to scrape a car window for the first time in his life! My Garmin said -3 degrees as the coldest, +3 degrees average temperature and +9 as warmest for the whole stage! Fortunately, we started with a climb of about 5 km so that we could warm up a bit. It almost felt like the story was repeated every day, we got away on the climbs and Alice and Ariane caught up on the downhills and got away, for us to catch again on the next climb. It was no different this day, we got away on the first climb and they passed us down. It was a long downhill and when we passed Erich and Craig on a flat section in the valley we were told that we were 1.38min behind. I got a bit worried since we were on our own working into the wind on the flat, but as soon as we hit the next long climb we could see Ariane and Alice again. It was basically a 30 km climb with 2 short downhills in between and it was really cold at the top with frost on the grass next to the trail! It was mentally hard to climb this mountain knowing that we still had another climb to do up to Zermatt, so we still had to save some energy. The downhill was fun with lots of nice trails but at the bottom it got extremely steep down and lots of tight switchbacks and as normal Team Spur caught us there. We were a few seconds behind at the feed station at the bottom of the valley but we never stressed since we had an uphill waiting for us. It was really nice riding along the river up to Zermatt and it was not at all as steep as it looked on the profile which was a relief! We managed to keep the others behind us and arrive in Zermatt seeing the majestic Matterhorn as the first ladies team!! We extended our lead by 2.40 minutes to 18,5 minutes.
Day 6: Stage 5. Zermatt to Zermatt, 45 km – 1900 meters of climbing
It was yet another cold morning and when I met people walking in ski boots and skies on their shoulders on their way to the gondola while I was warming up made me a bit worried about how cold it was going to be at the top of the mountain! Thankfully Max informed me that they needed to take 3 gondolas up to the glacier at 3800 meters for skiing, we were only riding up to 2580 meters! For the first time during the week had they warned the riders about a very technical downhill at the team managers meeting (!). I thought we had already done technical downhills so how difficult would it be if they now warned about it!? Then we were also told there would be sharp blocks of rocks across the trails and causing a very high risk of punctures. I was very nervous at the start, we were one stage away from another stage race win together and our lead was 18.5 minutes which should be fine as long as nothing happened! Our strategy for the day was only to stay safe and without mechanicals!
We got a good start and got away on the long 14 km climb up to Schwarzsee. We passed a place where we had a very nice view of the Matterhorn, although it was hard to appreciate the beauty when I was losing the feeling in my toes and the lungs were screaming for air at the high altitude. It was minus 3 degrees at the top. We had a few minutes lead at the top and started the rocky descent. It was not at all as bad as I had expected, or was it because I had changed perception of technical stuff during this week?? I got to see those sharp rocks they were talking about and yes, it would be very easy to puncture on those! We took it easy and Esther showed me good lines. Ariane and Alice were pushing really hard downhill and passed us and got away. We were about 2 minutes behind at the feed station at the bottom and it was mentally tough when we climbed without seeing them. I was just praying to at least see them again on the climb, since that would mean we should be safe for the overall win. My prayers got heard and we saw them on a really steep section! It was strange since we just kept climbing even though we should start to go down according to the profile. When we were sure we were at the top we went around a corner to see another uphill!!! We could not believe it and I could see on Esther that she was also really tired! Finally we started the last descent and Esther said to me that we were now getting to a section with lots of sharp stones. We tooke it extremely easy on this section since the win was so close! The last section was a lot of fun on some big flowy berms, really cool! We came back to Zermatt and I asked Esther if she thought we would have made it and when we saw Erich before the finish and he said we had made it we could just celebrate!!!
What feeling it was to cross the finish line as the overall winners at Swiss Epic !! A race that I had wanted to do for a long time and at the same time had huge respect for since I have never ridden such steep and technical stuff before (Transalps is hilly but not as steep down) And what an amazing 2017 Esther and I have had together! To have won Tankwa Trek, Cape Epic, Transalps and now Swiss Epic together!! Talk about Dream Team!
Thank you Esther for doing all these races with me and for being such a good partner!!!
Thank you so very much to Meerendal and Cape Brewing Company who have sponsored us for these 4 races, we could not have entered these races without your support! We have had an incredibly good and fun week together with those who helped us during the race, it was Craig who massaged our sore bodies and made sure that we were good to go the next day, Erich who fixed the bikes and made sure they were also fit for the fight every day, Max who organized everything and everyone, and Wayne who took all the amazing pictures! Many thanks to everyone! You can really not win a stage race alone! It was a great team effort!