Funny thing this marathon racing, you spend a lot of time staring at your front wheel don’t you? Or the dirt in front of it, or your fork crown or your lock-out latch or someone else’s rear tyre, rear end, rear something. It can be a little, zombie, right?
Basically you are putting out just enough mental capacity to sustain various levels of race order, perfect pace, perfect fueling, input versus output etc, etc, so one can be forgiven for not really engaging fully with the surroundings or indeed anything bar dealing with making it to the end. Very often it’s the start, the finish, and possibly one monumental event like an innocuous stream crossing that will then plague your memory as you try and playback your incredible achievement.
I had this particular sense of race brain blank as I tried to remember what exactly had unfolded last year around this time at the O-tour in Alpnach in the upper North East region of Switzerland. I mean its not like Switzerland is really the first place a person forgets easily now is it, but me, I really struggled! I remember grovelling a lot, I remember moaning a lot and I remember just not getting anything to work right in a boo-hoo, poor me, foggy dark delirium that really threatened my memories of this unique race and jaw-dropping surroundings.
So why not give it another crack? Sure, go on, I mean we need to visit Dave and Anna right?
So it’s, whoosh, over the waters, down the highway, fresh air face slap and BAM, we are knee deep in Europe and bedding down at our mate’s pad ready for some race warm up riding around the little town of Zug.
Late flights mean awesome mornings, curtains open to ‘ooooooooh’, ‘aaaaaah’ mountains, greenery, this sure as hell beats seeing my fat neighbour spitting off his balcony! Bikes assembled and we’re drifting down some back roads heading off on the Swiss equivalent of your local green space come walking and jogging track. Mercy, it’s just too good, if this was my backyard I’d literally spend every lunch break dive bombing the forest trails and return to the office a sweating (probably bleeding) pine needle riddled biking Bear Grylls, talk about reeeeelaxing!
But we must race!
Oh hell, hell, hell and hell again, its coming back to me. Like flashes from a drunken New Years party I’m remembering things, awful things! That 25% tarmac start, it looked so mundane yet never ended, those off-camber run-offs, enough for a sip out the bidon followed by a mild scream as your back wheel drifts about like a jellied eel. The World Champion, the French Champion the Dolomiti Superbike podium finisher the German champion oh double hell, its hopeless but all I can do is pedal and stay positively focused.
Still its not like my back brake isn’t working, no that would be Dave (our host), whose rear brake leaked out en-route to the race, um how good’s your nose wheelie? And its not like you have a steel pin placed where your hip used to be, no that would be Will, who can now stick fridge magnets to himself to impress the ladies, nope, no excuses, I think aside from a top 20 line up of hitters, and well, us, this is just going to be about trying to really NOT fold and NOT look like a complete wally as everyone is packing to leave.
OK so we’re gone, I’m within spitting distance of Sauser and those immaculate rainbow stripes, can’t say I’m a fan of those Spesh aero helmets but hey ho, do what you must for the sponsors and all that. This will be the last time I share tarmac with any of these chaps, I cling on, so deep in the red I need to ease out of my uphill kamikaze and fast! Easing back I’m still sitting reasonably pretty, this can’t last, the road just goes on and on and the gradient never lets up, rideable, but relentless.
I have done well in one sense though, I rode light and remembered the Swiss and particularly the O-tour don’t do rubbish water points, they do 25 people holding fresh bottles of anything you need, wow! Food, gel, water, energy, it’s handed to you, my old bottle is binned and I’m a happy masochist, now hold those wheels Spies!
For what seems like an age the road is literally road, a few splashes of jeep track but possibly a little disconcerting to newbies, is there any tech? Oh yes folks, lots, it just hits you in two sharp bites then relents. An ancient cobbled path leads you switchbacking upwards to the summit of your first big challenge, it’s tough going, if no one is in front of you balance comes easily but this is a spot that any faltering from others up ahead sends a ripple of sketchiness, anger and pedal un-clipping down the climb.
Master that hurdle and you glimpse your surroundings, the mist has been unleashes a hidden hell of dewy alpine meadow bobsleigh channels, its brief but you are very much awake again and just in time for fast pebble dash jeep track descending at pace. The good thing with a front group gridding is the first people who are passing you are clearly skilled, possibly mentally unstable, but definitely skilled! WHAT THE?! I get passed a hair’s breath from my hip and try hold the nutter’s wheel, no hope, I squash my lever harder and I stop pedalling sooner on everything, aargh frustration, he is gone in a flash and I fall into a pattern of timid, not-enough-mtb-saddle-time hesitance.
That is fine but I have to get it together, speed style and technique are truly eluding me rapidly. We keep dropping, so much support, how do these people get up here? Numbers and names on boards means people are yelling your name, what an utterly great touch by the organizer and wait for it, a profile map on your number board, FINALLY, race organizer that have married the little details to the big deals. I plough on, we are moving ever closer to the start finish for the second part loop of technical hurt.
A tiny group has formed with myself, a very strong older chap (I say ‘older’ what I mean is someone my age i.e. not 16) and one wily and somewhat over-zealous kid with mountain goat legs, we pace through the slippery fast bike paths in the valley, junior ditches it on a corner and we slow, wait, look back, carry on. I’m thinking about the coming climb, it hides a section of total evil, sharp 30/35% wall of concreted farm access path, awful, it is frying my quads.
Thankfully this pain ends but the memory of a lone man, standing in the mist yelling HOP HOP STUAAAHRT HOP whilst ringing a pair of what can only be described as Godzillas own monolithic cow bells, will happily live long in my heart, awesome, pure awesome, thank you!
The brutal hasn’t finished, I’m done though, I’m really done, from wanting technical to ‘make it stop’ I’m dropping through spectacular gulleys of shoulder battering tricep juddering rooted fork squashers. Oof, over the ledges, down the lips, no brakes, no brakes, no brakes, relax, roll, shudder, snap, bang.
On sounds alone I knew I had reached the O-tour’s Zenith of tech, the stones, sticks and bike bruising was spectacular, everything held, including me, barely. The run off takes you onto the now familiar sandy bike paths just outside the town and you churn the last ounces out the legs in a bid for home before rumbling across the line and stopping at the smiling faces of more O-tour volunteers… handing out? Bike locks? What? Oh right, beer tent and pasta….wow, perfect!
No sooner have I crumpled to a halt behind the feed stand then I see Will, amazing. This guy has now raced two marathons in a week and been off the bike for around six months, I hope I never have to go through such a long recovery but the man’s an inspiration. Thoughts and concerns turn to Dave, please tell me he didn’t stack it, 40mins later or skinny legend pulls in looking lightly shell shocked but by all accounts suitably unscathed, now that’s skill!
A great race, a tough, picturesque, well organised triumph. This small race is set to grow and you’d be wise to give it a crack, for Brits this is a must and with the September weeks packed in terms of races guys might consider week long training / racing camps. For all our efforts in the UCI we were on paper well off the pace but that was one properly hot pro packed line up, I’m happy with the overall finish time more than the placing, much work needs to be done to nab some points but some races make that all seem totally irrelevant, just race hard and enjoy, job done!