Racing Transalp was a race all the time, not just between the start gun and the finish line. We had a saying, the race isn’t over until you’re in the shower, and it’s fair to say that some of our most gruelling moments came when we tried to find hotels, or negotiate with Italian receptionists, or wash our bikes with a trickle of water while fending off 1200 other desperados with dirty machines. The competition never stopped.
We’d normally set the alarm sometime between 5:30 and 6am, and be in our kit and down at breakfast, with everything packed and ready to go, 15 minutes after that. The reason for all the extra organisation is that, with a different town each day and over 1200 riders, Transalp is a massive logistical undertaking, and I never stopped being grateful that the Germans were in charge.
So, for those who’ve not been lucky enough to do a marathon stage race (or one as well-organised as this one), I thought I’d explain a little bit about what goes on, day-to-day, town-to-town, finish line to start line. I can only really give you a rider’s perspective, because a lot of the real behind the scenes stuff is, well, behind the scenes – so it all happened during the 4 or 5 hours each day that Mike and I were slogging up and down mountains.
There are a two main accommodation options for Transalp, like a lot of stage races: hotel or camp. Naomi and Mike did camp last year, so I know that while you will be in a gymnasium, camped on crash mats, surrounded by 300 other riders in various stages of undress, you do have the advantage of being close to the action – the finish line, bike wash, massage, pasta party – every day.
Hotels are the luxurious option. When I say luxurious, this often meant bunking in with 5 boys and their bums in a hostel, but there were nights when Mike and I had rooms, and even a whole apartment, just to ourselves.
Every single rider at Transalp is given an enormous, 80x100x30cm bag, numbered, and every bag, that’s 1200 of them, is picked up from wherever you are, every morning. Usually early. Which is why I rode every stage with a toothbrush in my pocket. Bags usually disappeared when we were having breakfast, and my dedication to oral hygiene will not be challenged, not even by German efficiency. Anything and everything you leave out of your bag is on you, all day. I’m glad I don’t feel about my hair the way I feel about my teeth.
Bags are loaded by some of the race’s 100 staff members into the 27 trucks that transport the whole race every day – sorted, loaded onto trolleys according to destination, and reappearing, for us at least, every afternoon at our next hotel. German sleight of hand.
For everyone except the fully pro riders with support crews out on the course, there were usually two feed zones each stage, usually in crazy locations at the tops of mountain passes. Often, Mike would ride ahead with bottles and grab some cake for himself, but I pulled into a lot of them, too. There were always heaps of volunteers, so, careening in yelling either ISO! or VASSER!, someone would run up, grab my bidon, unscrew it, and fill it from either a yellow or a white watering can full of the stuff. They’d help me screw it up, offer me cut up bananas or nut cake with another hand, and I’d be off. You could do a feed in under 15 seconds, easy, with these guys’ help. Every day at Transalp, 2000 bananas and over 3000 litres of fluid are doled out to riders in these feed zones, and the volunteers never looked tired, in spite of the altitude.
One of the most distracting things I found, out on the course, were the quad bikes and trail bikes that sit behind you for minutes on the really steep climb, growling, or zoom past on a descent. Most of the places we were riding were totally inaccessible to any kind of vehicle except these off-road bikes, so they’re there for any emergency and to take photos.
I saw some reasonably bad accidents over the course of the race – some face-plants, some clavicle snaps. Given I spent any part of the race where I wasn’t climbing in a state of abject terror I’m glad I didn’t know that the extent of the medical support that riders need: Apparently, medics go through almost 1000 dressings and 1 kilometre of bandages during the 8 days of the race.
If you get in at the end of a stage in one piece there’s more food at the finish line catering. This year, sparkling mineral water and watermelon were in pretty abundant supply, but the foods varied from town-to-town. Once there were lemons, usually there was some kind of cake, sometimes bread.
These were also run by local volunteers, working hard in the sun while smelly, sweaty, filthy bike riders swarmed around them. Once Mike and I were in and had had something to eat, we’d try to find the bike wash, again, usually just a short ride, signposted (bless the Germans) from the finish line. There were usually about 8-12 high-pressure hoses, about 1-2 of which usually functioned, at low pressure. Queuing for these was typically as competitive as the stages themselves.
Accommodation and food
That done, it was off, for us, to find our hotel, have a shower, wash our kit, eat some of the food we’d hoarded, then head to the media centre, which was usually located somewhere near the bike camp. As I’ve mentioned, bike camp houses about 300 riders who sleep in gymnasiums and school halls in every town. While there’s no escape from a lot of nudity and some questionable personal hygiene, there are some advantages to being right in the middle of things: You’re close to the start-finish, mechanical support, the pasta party, which serves up mountains of pasta, bottles of mineral water, and bread of variable quality every night. Dinners were always commandeered by teams of local volunteers. Again, always cheerful, always generous. At the pasta party you can pick up print-outs of the day’s results, so Mike and I would, as the week went on and we moved up the GC, sit and analyse our position, our times, the day ahead. If you speak German, every day there’s the Transalp Daily, a full colour newsletter on the coming stage, the weather, the next town. It looked fantastic and I think that if I go again, I’ll spend a few months learning German as well as doing massive miles on my bike.
Staying in hotels added more time pressure to Mike and me – a couple of times we were stuck, lost, or a long, long way from food and presentations. Sometimes we’d be walking or riding (or even catching a taxi) back to our hotel long after the (pasta) party was over, and we’d catch a glimpse of the road crew dismantling the whole race – the barriers, the finish chute, the tents, the signs. The real success is that all this went on without anyone really noticing it.
We knew we were getting fed, we were safe, directed, clean, hydrated, informed – but that was it, and that’s the key to successful logistics – you only notice them, I suppose, when things go wrong.
And they never did.