Rain, overcast skies and a message, “my bike has been stolen”, and so the 14th Alpentour Trophy battle launches into another year.
In 2010 I worked at the Crocodile Trophy as support for the Belgian Kipeo Team. Cleaning bikes and washing knicks, it was not as glamorous as one senses supporting a mountain bike team to be. After doing this I thought I knew what to expect so in 2011 I tackled the Croc myself. I had an amazing experience, but as many doctors will tell you, the human species tends to forget post the traumatic experience the actual pain. I survived the hardest mtb race in the world, so I thought the Alpentour Trophy would be a walk in the park, but I soon discovered that the Austrian hills were no longer alive with the sound of music but rather the sound of suffering and whipping bike chains.
Seeing many familiar faces from last year’s Crocodile Trophy, about 16.000 km’s away was almost like reuniting with family. If you ever compete in a grueling race like the Croc Trophy you will understand. Great friendship often comes from war, and this was probably as close to war I’ve ever been. Top riders such as Jeroen Boelen, Urs Huber and Mike Mulkens but also the Croc’s house mechanic Micha Salden from Holland and event organizer Martin Wisata from Rocky Trail Entertainment were lining up for 4 days of riding on some of the best trails the Austrian Alps have to offer.
The morning of the race didn’t start out great. The roads were wet from a rainy night and my mate Mike Mulkens texted me to say his bike got stolen from the hotel. Luckily Urs Huber and his team helped out and lent Mike a full suspension Swiss-made Stöckli bike.
Stage 1 was 69km long with 2900 meters elevation and two big mountains to climb. I felt good, although I had no idea what to expect; I had never raced in the Alps before. Immediately after the 6km neutralized start behind the race director’s car, the big guns made clear this was a world-class event and took off like crazy. I started around 30th position and lost another 20 places on the first technical sections. I managed to take back many riders as we hit the Reiteralm, the first big climb of the race covering around 1000 meters elevation over a 10km distance. Amazing views all the way to the top but bad luck struck me on the downhill to the Hochwurzen, the second big climb of the day. I must’ve hit a rock or something, as my rear mech was suddenly hanging on the wrong side of the cassette… I had only 36km on the Garmin and was forced to make my way back to Schladming in the back of a support vehicle.
Luckily Kris & Kris from the Mtbclinics.be-team came to the rescue, gave me a new derailleur hanger for my GT Zaskar and I managed to get the bike in perfect condition again for the next day.
Stage 2 was a 16km time trial, one long sprint gaining 1100 vertical meters. Since I didn’t finish yesterday’s stage I couldn’t have a timed ride so I rode up after the last rider had started. This climb was insane, with very steep gradients on gravel roads and muddy section in the first 3 km’s. Between km 3 and 13 the road got a little less steep, going from a gravel path to a few km’s of sealed road and back to gravel. My legs were burning and my back was hurting every time I stood on the pedals after taking another hairpin corner. Just as I thought I could see the top, the track went left and turned into a steep muddy path followed by a technical section full of slippery tree roots and a crazy steep last 200 meters before finishing at the top of the Schafalm ski station. If there’s one thing you can be sure of when riding an event by organizer Gerhard Schönbacher, it’s that he always save the best for last!
It took me about 1 hour 25 minutes to reach the finish. I didn’t push it, I knew I was going to be far behind the first riders but I was impressed when I heard that it took winner Kristian Hynek only 50 minutes!
Stage 3 was the most prestigious stage – it’s called “die Konigsetappe” in Austria – with one big mountain to climb followed by 50km of short steep climbs, technical descents and climbing the frightfully steep Pichl before taking the downhill course back to the finish. All this crammed in a stage over 73 km and 2800 meters of elevation on a beautiful sunny Saturday.
Since I was out of the race due to the derailleur incident and Mike couldn’t quite get the power down on a bike he wasn’t used to, we decided to enjoy this day. We started easy, got into the rhythm on that first big climb and then had a blast on the trails to the finish. I reckon that’s the way to go if you’re just not fit enough to keep up with the hot shots in front, yet you want to have one of the best days on a mountain bike ever!
With 56km, the final stage was the shortest and the difficulty was in overcoming that last big mountain in the 2012 edition; the Hauser Kaibling. It was a killer mountain of about 13 km long, starting on a sealed road at 600m high and topping at 1800m on a gravel road between walls of snow.
As both Mike and I had a great ride sticking together the day before, we decided to do the same on the last day. My mate Tom VDB, amateur roadie from Belgium who made his debut on a mountain bike at Alpentour, joined us. It was a warm day and as we got closer to the top, we could feel the air getting thinner leaving us to gasp for every breath. This didn’t keep Mike from playing a practical joke on Tom, pushing some snow down his jersey just before hitting the downhill. Once we made it to the top, the suffering made way for pure fun as we rode down the ski slopes and hit the 5km long downhill back to the finish in Schladming.
So my number one advice to all you enthusiasts that want to hit up this race; ditch the romanticism of Julia Andrews’ do-re-mi and get real. It hurts, but it will hurt even more if you underestimate it. The satisfaction of completing the Alpentour Trophy will echo through the snow top peaks and be one of the most rewarding things to tick off that bucket list!