Today the real racing started with a climb up to the iconic Croix de Coeur pass from Verbier, similar to the first ascent of the famous Grand Raid marathon race, but taken on some smaller and steeper roads. Mike and I enjoyed a call up to the front row, although we had to be beckoned there several times by the race official. We slotted in with me beside Annika Langvad and Mike beside Kristian Hynek. We tried not to get in the way.
It was pretty cold so we had rugged up, with knee warmers, arm warmers and vests with nothing of our leader’s jerseys to see except a bit of red poking out of our sleeves. Once we descended into the valley all this clothing proved a bit of an encumbrance, but we never considered stopping to pull it off and rode to the finish in all our warm gear, even though it was about 23 degrees by then – stopping to muck around with clothing just wasn’t on our agendas today!
Today was the Queen’s stage, which basically means it was the longest. It’s probably also the hardest, with 3100m of climbing and little recovery on relentlessly technical descents. My only other experiences racing in Europe have been on some of the big marathons and Transalp in 2013, which rewarded 20km climbs with 20km road descents where you basically just sat and recovered. The Perskindol Swiss Epic takes things to another level – there are just no freebies out there and the teams with the best all-round skills and strengths will win in the end.
My high point of my day was starting with great legs, finding myself on Sally Bigham’s wheel all the way to the top of the Croix de Coeur. The low point came at the same time when, in the silence of intense racing, with nothing but the sound of everyone breathing and the crunch of tyres over gravel, Mike’s phone rang. Then again. With every ring I could feel the pros around us getting more and more annoyed… maybe it was just me, but it seemed the pace lifted a little and if I could have ridden away from Mike’s endlessly buzzing phone I would have too! In the end Mike had to stop within sight of the top to turn his phone off. He dropped it, it rolled off the firetrail down a grass slope ejecting his licence and credit card from the case at the same time. I didn’t see him again for quite some time, somewhere halfway down the descent.
I don’t know if I paid for my big start later on, but we definitely had some low points mid-race today. We felt quite confident in our lead and made the mistake of switching off after the third big climb up to a huge Christ the Redeemer style statue on a magnificent mountain top. Another team caught us, I had made some mistakes with my nutrition, and we found ourselves in the valley of despair for about 20km. Lucky for us the Scott team who caught up didn’t chase up the final, brutal, eye-watering 10km climb to Leukerbad, and we won the day, with a couple of other mixed teams a few minutes back.
Today, if incredibly hard, was also magnificently rewarding, and we rode some of the most precious sections of trail in Switzerland. The Swiss Epic ask that riders never upload their GPS files to Strava and other sharing sites in order to keep the trails secret. The incredible singletrack along the Suonen irrigation ditches is usually completely closed: it was an immense privilege to ride it. The views, too, were breath-taking. We rode through the Rhône valley, up terraces covered in vineyards with locals too busy harvesting grapes to look up at us. We finished in a town known for its therapeutic hot springs and surrounded by a crown of towering grey granite, which presumably we’ll be climbing over tomorrow.
The front of the race
With so many fast riders, the battle for the top spot in the SWISS EPIC Men’s category is always going to be hot. With 4h 18min Team CENTURION VAUDE with Jochen Käss and Daniel Geismayr took the win on stage one, just 8 seconds in front of Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek of the Topeak Ergon Racing Team.
In third place with 4h 23min were Lukas Buchli and Mathias Flückiger of Team BiXS STÖCKLI. The favourite teams were again in a class of their own today.
In the SWISS EPIC Women’s category the favourites Annika Langvad and Ariane Kleinhans of Team Specialized RECM took the win today with 5h 20min, only 46 Seconds ahead of Adelheid Morath and Sally Bigham of the Topeak Ergon Racing Team. The battle between the women this year promises to be an exciting one too. In third place was the Rent a Plant – Habitat team of Hielke Elferink and Anne Terpstra, coming in 36 minutes later.
In the Masters category Dani Schnider and Oliver Imfeld came in way ahead of the field again with 5h 05min.
And us? We won today! Given that we probably have up a lot of time mid-race it was something of a surprise. We definitely made a couple of mistakes and have some simple strategies to improve them tomorrow, but as always we’re really happy with how we’re riding and communicating and we’ll just keep taking it as it comes.
Full results are available from Datasport.