Stephen Elms writes
I had never done a mass start race in the mountains before, and certainly never in the dark. This is the story of how an EGCC member raced in the Swiss mountains and nobody saw a thing……….Please bear in mind that I’m writing this at 30,000 ft over the Atlantic with a nice glass of Merlot…….the day after the race.
In February this year I was asked by a colleague if I would be interested in entering the Swiss Gigathlon since he knew of a team that needed a cyclist to complete their line-up. „Of course“ was my immediate response, and so the adventure began.
At the time I thought that I was signing up for a glorified triathlon with five sports with a team who were entering for some fun. I guess it was close to the truth, but, I soon found out that I was probably biting off more than a fat ex-racing cyclist could chew……..and believe me, I’ve learnt how to eat on countless burger filled busines trips to the US.
The Gigathlon consists of a team of five competing in five sports: Road Cycling, MTB, Swimming, In-line skating and finaly Running. Not to understate things, that’s the easy bit to describe. The course itself was set up as follows:
o Road Cycling – 166KM with 2200m of climbing;
o MTB – 68Km with 1800m of climbing;
o Swimming – 7.5KM in a river……..all downstream;
o In-line – 40KM undulating;
o Running – (just) a marathon (42KM) with 500m of climbing.
The event was to start in Geneva and end in Bern, each competitor handing over a batton in the form of a timing chip. Of course, it was also possible to enter as a couple (love has no bounds) and as an individual (if you are really mad).
In late February I received my first communication from Team Captain Joseph Reiser (JR). He explained that we would be competing on behalf of the SSC (Sport and Ski Club) Reihen and the team name would be „Racketeschneken“, literally translated as „rocket snails“. Just to add to the cultural exchange, the team language would be German (not my strong point) and we would have our first team meeting a week later at the motorway services at Pratteln (glamorous eh!).
So the team assembled on a cold and snowy February evening at the Services amongst a throng of excited tourists on their way to skiing holidays. Introductions were quickly made:
André and Claudia Wurz (accompanied by very new baby) were to be the mountain biker and marathon runner respectively. Heidi (not that Heidi) was to be the Swimmer and her partner Chris would look after driving the team bus logistics (eating, sleeping, etc.) on the day itself. JR at 63 years of age would be doing the in-line skating.
I didn’t realise at the time but that was to be our last meeting until the day. It was quite hard to get excited about entering an event with people I had never met, in a strange language and on a course I didn’t know. Anyhow that evening we took care of ordering the team T-Shirt and handing over the start money (CHF 210 each) to JR. We then had to decide how many tents we would need…….at which point it was made perfectly clear that I wouldn’t need one since the cycling was first and it started at 2AM. Now I’ve done some early starts on the E72 and F1 in my time, but 2AM……….that means lights for the first 4 hours………..in a bunch…….with nearly 900 riders. That’s not a typo……there were nearly 900 teams entered and over 100 teams of singles and couples (who were to start at midnight).
At that point the nerves started. When I arrived home I explained the situation to Fiona and received absolutely no sympathy, only confirmation that I am really stupid. I logged onto the internet and downloaded the course details. At the time I had no idea what the roads in South West Switzerland were like. Looking at the Michelin road atlas I noticed two things that were consistent……lot’s of gradient chevrons and lot’s of bends. Some of the roads were not on the map. Fun in the dark! Knowing that I only had 15 weeks to turn myself from a fat fun runner into a racing cyclist I put together a quick training plan……..miles and miles in the hills and mountains near to my home. I planned two training camps: one in Majorca in late March and another in early mid May in Switzerland with the final weekend coming to Sussex to ride the ESCA 60KM event.
Not all went to plan though…….work trips to the US (2 weeks) and Brazil (1 week) interupted the consistency and meant that I didn’t loose too much weight. Additionally, my old back trouble flaired up due to the sudden increase in mileage so I had to start seeing an osteopath at the Swiss Olympic clinic in Basel who had been recommended by a friend (oh, and Fiona).
So with only 3000KM training in my legs and with one week to go, Fiona and I headed off to Ste-Croix in the Jura mountains above lake Geneva for a reconasense mission. Oh my! The course was hard in a car…….
The first 20KM from Geneva along the lakeside was nice and flat, however the following 20KM climbed 800m to the Col de Givrinne which looked mighty steep to me. This was followed by a relatively easy 80KM of mainly flat and descending before the climb to Ste-Croix at 115KM. A sharp desent and then some flat before the last (very steep) climb at 130KM. I chose not to look at the last 20KM as the profile looked favourable………how wrong could I be!
Friday, 7th July started much as every other day in the previous six weeks – bright, sunny and looking like another day in the mid 30’s celsius. Knowing that it was going to be a long day without sleep I took advantage of a „lie-in“ until 7:30AM. At 9AM, JR arrived with Andrè and Claudia (thankfully without baby) and we loaded bike, and kit into the SSC Reihen minibus. Claudia was nursing a badly bruised eye (baby inflicted) and a cold but seemed cheerful enough as we rolled off to deepest canton Soloturn to pick up Heidi and Chris.
We arrived at Heidi’s where JR gave out the team T-shirts. The Swiss, not being a shy nation, were quick to exchange their current clothes for the new T-Shirt (even the girls). I followed suit but was careful to hold in my „lungs“ lest they be mistaken for a beer belly!
As we left Heidi’s the clouds started gathering and by the time we reached the signing on and camp site at Le Chaux de Fonds it was chucking it down and chilly. We signed on, collected our complimentery tents and then proceeded to erect them in the designated camping site with all the other teams………in the rain. A few hundred bright Gigathlon orange dome tents with a backdrop of drab French style appartment blocks made for quite a strange sight.
By this time I was feeling quite depressed! The weather forcast for the night was dry but cold with temperatures in the mountains down to 8 celcius. I hadn’t packed any longs. At five O’clock in the afternoon I tried to get a couple of hours sleep, but at best only dozed due to the throngs of excited competitors in the campsite. I wasn’t hungry (nerves), so passed on the evening meal provided, and let Chris have that instead.
At 21:30 it was time to walk to the station to catch the train to Geneva. The train was due to leave at 22:15 but first we had to put the bikes in proper bike bags for safe transportatation. The team (except Claudia who was busy expressing milk for her baby back home) came to see me off, so with a team hug and many wishes of „good luck“ and „safe ride“ I boarded the train.
Being Switzerland, the train left on time, despite that fact that two competitors were left standing on the platform. „They are the lucky ones“ I thought as I started to tuck into the assortment of products provided to us as a last meal……a spicey cheese sandwhich, dried fruit, chocolate yoghurt, a carrot, banana flavoured „energy“ milk and packet of paprika flavoured crisps. Yummy! Not!
The train arrived in Geneva at 01:15 on Saturday morning. The bars and clubs of Geneva’s night scene were spilling out their clients onto the streets as we collected our bikes and reasembled them in the station. A group of teenagers, high on the „weed“ that they were smoking gave us some strange looks………as if they had smoked one joint too many. A few drunks tried to get in on the act but were ushered away be the efficient event marshalls.
So at 01:50 I was waiting on the start line. Lupine lights fully charged and two tins of red bull inside me. I chatted in pigeon-German about the weather and course to an old guy next to me and suddenly it was time to go!
Achtung! Fertig! Loss! (as they say here)…….we were off, 800 and something riders into the dark. In the pools of sodium light I glanced down at the computer…..50KPH….I was near the front in a sea of blinking red taillights, then a line out in the dark behind the lead police car. Wrong side of traffic islands and roundabouts the English way. „Who’s on the front of this?“ I thought, thinking that I should pull off and conserve some energy. As it happens it was MTB world champion Thomas Frischknecht ……..and I didn’t pull over. It was the best fun I’ve had on a bike for years. At the foot of the first climb the police pulled over and it started to break up a bit, the tempo was high and it was pitch black except for the half-light cast by the hundreds of bike lights. I passed a guy on a low-profile complete with disc wheel and tri-spoke and suddenly realised that we were climbing steeply and I was in the lead group. Taking the racing line through the hair-pin corners, I had no idea what gear I was in but I felt good (must have been the red bull) and was pedaling fast (definately not the banana flavoured milk).
It didn’t take long to get to the top, or at least it didn’t feel like it did! We decended into the fog and it suddenly got very cold…….no way was I going to stop and cape up. Not being the best decender in the first two steep, twisty and wet kilometers I lost about 100 places but could still see the front. Over the French border (to the bemusement of the customs officers) and flatter, if less well surfaced roads, time to work my way back up the line out as the fog thickened. The road ahead was marked out by hundreds of red tail lights so it was easy to see the bends, dips and rises ahead. Across the Swiss border (on the wrong side of the road) and I managed to get close to the front again just before the sceond feed station……bidons flying in all directions but we all stayed up right.
Then followed my moment of glory as I lined it out along a lake side and up the next 5KM of climbing to the top of a small pass. That felt good and I had no pain in my legs or back. Unfortunately my glory was followed by my demise. Not through tiredness though. My downhill skills are definately not the best and the decent into Valorbe was steep and wet…….and dark. I estimate my top speed as around 70KPH at that point……..I was being passed like I was standing still. Not that I cared……I was well up on the team schedule and wanted to stay alive to see the dawn! At least it was a little warmer now in the valley.
Actually, I made up most of those lost places on the next small climb……….then lost them again on the next downhill which was wet and gritty with a small wall to the right, indicating a long way to fall if things went wrong. Around the next bend things had gone wrong …….. bike lying in the road with no rider. Some marshals had stopped and were looking over the edge…..I was going too fast to stop so ploughed on, vainly trying to catch up with the fast disapearing lead group. Looking around I could see no lights……where were the other 700 or so riders?
So I was on my own, but not for long. Stopping briefly at the 100KM feed zone to grab an energy bar and some fluid I was caught by a couple of riders who’s company I kept through the dawn until the foot of the next and longest climb where I dropped them. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever climbed so well…..with an easy tempo I was reeling in rider after rider until the top of the Col des Etroits. On the last nasty decent is where I nearly lost it……..locking up the back wheel on the grit and nearly clipping the barriers. Incident passed, the road straightened and I caught a German guy who had passed me on the steep part of the decent. We worked together until the last feed zone at 130KM……..through and off at 40-45 KPH………just like old times I thought.
As arranged, I stopped at the feedzone to call my team and let them know to get prepared for the handover. I was ninety minutes up on my most optimistic schedule. The phone rang, and rang and eventually was answered by Andrè who was still in his sleeping bag.
Back on the bike and I was quickly catching riders ahead as I ploughed on at a steady 35KPH. I caught up a nice young lady and must admit was suprised, firstly that she was in front (must do something about my descending) and secondly that she came past me on the next climb, albeit briefly. The last climb was, to be polite, a pig. Fortunately I was prepared for this so slipped into my 27 sprocket (I know….27 sprockets are not sexy……..but they are useful) and eased my way up the climb catching a few guys, including my German friend, who you could tell were blowing. As was I about to…..
Over the top it was relatively easy going with a slight drag and a tail wind. I ploughed on at 35KPH and soon had a trail of hangers on as I caught and passed several riders. I was starting to blow and wasn’t getting any assistance (just like old times I thought). At this point I really wished I had checked out the last few KM the week before. We turned a corner and the road reared up. Suddenly I was back in my 27 sprocket and cursing the fast start. Fortunately the climb was brief, only a few minutes and then the final drop into the finish…….or so I thought.
The route chosen for the last 10KM was obviously chosen by someone without a sense of humor. It was like something out of the Tour of Flanders with a combination of narrow roads, 70 KPH descents, 10KPH climbs, cattle grids, slurry , tight bends and an electric fence on each side. I passed quite a few guys who had failed to stay on the road and were hurredly mending punctures or walking with broken wheels.
I could, however, smell the finish so went into a relative overdrive and threw caution to the wind. That provided me with some excitment in the closing stages but I reached the change zone safely, passed the timing chip onto a dazed looking Andrè and was collected by my team mates.
5hrs 22mins, 149th place at 43 minutes – not bad and certainly better than expected. Tired, but very happy!
To cut a long story, very short, André broke his bike on the MTB stage and had to get repairs which didn’t last. Unfortunately he ended up running, walking and scooting the last 20KM and finished 3hours slower than expected, loosing nearly 500 places. Heidi did a great swim and JR a super in-line. The sun came out during the day, which wasn’t good news for Claudia in the marathon, but she did it in a respectable 5 hours finishing at 21:15, giving us a time of 19:15 for the course…..642nd place.
And the best memory of a long, sweaty day: Running together as a team in the last 200m of the marathon and finishing together with a great spirit and five new friends. Competing with 5000 others in such a huge event was truely amazing and I’m already looking forward to next year……..the next Gigathlon will be 7 days long with 35 stages! Watch this space…..