A week ago I arrived in Switzerland, meeting race partner Stu for the first time in the baggage reclaim. Having not ridden with Stu before I was a little apprehensive to say the least. While I wasn’t at the Swiss Epic for a “result”, I still wanted to push myself and do well and a good race partner is crucial. I know lots of people (myself included) who have raced pairs and ended up falling out and I am sure its common. It’s great then that Stu and I got on really well and raced well together, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses and feeling like we were competing towards the sharp end all week.
At the start of the final day, lining up in the front start pen for the last time I tried to soak it all up. I may never get to be in the same race as Olympic and World champions again, let alone chat to them. Our plan was simple. Flat out, start to finish. We were lying in 21st position, so trying to get into the top 20 was the aim and we would need to take 10 minutes out of the team in front to do that.
The first 2km was the same as yesterday and the pace was super fast at the front as the Stockli-BiXS pair of Mathias Flückinger and Lukas Buchli were ripping it up as they needed just 1 minute to take the overall GC and Team Centurion, the leaders after stage 4 were on the defensive. There was no way that either of us was sticking with the front group pace up the hill today! My legs were feeling pretty terrible, but up the steep, loose climb that cost me places yesterday I pushed hard and stayed on the bike, going into the singletrack right behind Stu – perfect!
The first descent was taken at a snails pace, some of the teams in front who can start fast were a little tentative on the downhills to say the least. With no overtaking positions it was just a case of stay in line and be patient. We hit the valley floor and started to head towards Zermatt, the big mountains were looming at the end of the valley, but no sight of the Matterhorn yet. We started to up the tempo, passing a few teams and bridging to teams that we knew were quick and hadn’t seen for a few days with our high 20’s finishing positions.
The track was a mixture between technical singletrack climbing and faster, wide gravel roads. At 29km we arrived in Zermatt, although Stu hadn’t realised and that was probably a good thing. We still had another 30km to go yet, which included a huge climb. As the road pitched up, I pushed the tempo a notch – knowing that the team we needed to beat were behind us and we needed to increase the gap.
The majority of the climb we were riding with the leading mixed and leading female pairs and they were setting a brilliant tempo, just spinning the legs and making it look effortless. As we neared the top the Matterhorn came into view and it was one of those “WOW” moments. A huge spire of a rock, shooting through the clouds way above us. Over the top of the highest point of the day and into a technical downhill that troubled some people. Almost wide enough to be a road, but really steep with lots of rocks, roots and water bars that were built with super sharp rocks and needed to be jumped, or have both wheels lifted over to try and avoid puncturing. It was a good test of line choice and forward thinking.
Stu made it down in good time and we passed through the final feed and onto the last long climb of the race. I pushed hard, trying to encourage Stu to give it everything, leaving nothing left in the tank. I lied through my teeth, telling him the top was “just around the corner – then we cross a bridge and it was downhill to the finish”.
Of course I had no idea what was to come, I just happened to glimpse a pair of riders on the other side of the valley heading downhill. Maybe it was good intuition, but I was right about the top being around the corner and it was a relief to start heading downhill and back towards Zermatt and the final 10km to the finish.
The final descent was incredible. I led the way, trying to stay smooth and take hardtail lines with Stu following close behind, his skills improving massively during the week. Part of me wanted to just finish the race, but the other part wanted the downhill to go on and on! Smooth sweeping singletrack, super tight switchbacks, rocks, roots and crazy exposure in places. Approaching the outskirts of Zermatt the finish line was in sight, just a few minutes to go and the last chance to savour the experience. Into the streets and the crowds were out to cheer riders in, right into the heart of the town.
We crossed the line together with grins from ear to ear; the final downhill was the perfect way to end and after waiting around the finish for a little, we realised that we’d done enough to take 20th place. OK, so we were not fighting for the win – but the beauty of stage races is that no matter where you are in the pack, you can have your own mini battles, which can be every bit as exciting.
We crossed the line just ahead of the mixed winners, Milena Landwig & Barti Bucher and almost immediately after us, the lead women Annika & Arriane finished, both of them taking the win fairly comfortably. The same can’t be said for the men’s race! Team Centurion held a tiny 1 minute advantage over the charging pair from Stockli-BiXS, Mathias and Lukas. The two pairs were fighting it out all day, but it wasn’t until the final descent when the Stockli-BiXS pair managed to get a lead, using their superior technical skills to take the stage win and the overall win with a margin of 50 seconds! Over 20 hours of racing and there was less than one minute in it!
Everything about the Swiss Epic was special. The riding, the scenery, the host villages and the fellow riders made the race one of the very best, if not the best MTB stage race in the World. Swiss Epic is a race for people who like what Frishi described as real mountain biking – that is, big climbs but fun, technical descents. He also claimed that there are hundreds of ways to improve, but we could honestly only pick small holes in what was a near perfectly organised event.
The 2015 event date has been set. The format and the area will remain the same. September 14th to 19th. The date is in my diary, I need to do this race again. I’m hooked!