The Perskindol Swiss Epic has become a must-do mountain bike stage race in just a single year. The inaugural edition attracted riders from around the World and was instantly acclaimed as a must-do event. A combination of perfect organisation and challenging, technical terrain with huge alpine climbs and two race formats mean there is something for all types of riders.
But with such a new event, many riders are unsure of what to expect, or what bike to take.
Hardtail or Full suspension?
The standard first question, but a relatively easy one to answer. The MarathonMTB.com team chose different machines in 2014. I was riding a full suspension Pivot Mach 429 Carbon and Stu used his trusty Chinese 29er carbon hardtail. As soon as the prologue began it was clear that one type of bike was going to rule and that was the full suspension. Unlike other alpine stage races, the Perskindol Swiss Epic offers extremely technical descents on every stage, which favours the fully suspended bikes even with several long gravel road climbs throughout the duration.
A hardtail can still get you through, as Stu proved, but if you are looking for the fastest machine for the job then a full suspension bike will be the best match.
How much travel? This could depend on where your personal riding strengths might be, but I would recommend 100-120mm as the best compromise, but 140mm would be capable if you are happy to be a little more patient on the climbs.
What size wheels?
Most stage races and marathons favour a 29er without a second thought. That is still mostly true about the Swiss Epic, especially if you are looking to be inside the top 10%, but it isn’t as simple a choice as other races such as the Mongolia Bike Challenge or Transalp. A 27.5″ wheeled bike would be very capable and potentially a better choice for the downhills, which are littered with tight, technical switchbacks.
For the stronger climbers, a 1x drivetrain is possible. The vast majority of the top riders, especially the SRAM sponsored riders will use a 1x drivetrain. A smaller chainring would be sensible, with most choosing 30 or 32t although I survived using a 34t last year, but in hindsight would have opted for a smaller chainring. The climbs in 2014 tended to be longer rather than steep, but there were a few times when I was forced to walk – but so were all others around me.
The terrain does vary, so a double chainring is a solid choice, with some very fast flat sections mixed in with the long climbs.
Camelbak or Bottles?
The race feed stations were frequent and well stocked. Unless my memory deceives me, I used a bike that I was only able to fit a single 650ml bottle and this got me through. A camelbak could be helpful for those looking to carry spares, or those who simply prefer carrying water on the back.
The downhills are technical and often rough, so I would strongly recommend that you take tyres with strong sidewalls. Schwalbe Snakeskin, Maxxis EXO, Continental Protection, etc as a minimum. In 2014 the weather was dry and warm, so I am only able to comment on similar weather, but lightly treaded tyres such as Racing Ralphs proved to be perfect.
In hindsight I would have used a dropper seatpost as the downhills were very steep in places. One memorable downhill in particular I remember thinking how much faster I would have been with a dropper fitted. While most riders will snub it due to the extra weight, I would suggest that unless you are incredible downhill, fit a dropper seatpost as it will save you masses of time on the downhills.
The downhills were long and really tested the brakes. I had multiple issues using a third party “lightweight” rotors and I can not recommend you try the same. Stick to the provided OE rotors and if you are using Shimano, consider all the ice-tech parts, such as finned pads and aluminium core rotors.
The race mechanical support from Shimano was fantastic – if you were running Shimano parts. It would be wise to take with you a spare chain and rear mech as spare parts are extremely expensive should you have to purchase anything from the Swiss Resort shops in Verbier.
The riding at the Swiss Epic was very demanding, so make sure you check over your bike after each stage, checking all the bolts, tyres, brake pads to ensure everything is tight and has enough left for the days ahead.
What about the Flow category?
This year, Stu and I are entering the Flow category. The Flow is aimed more towards Enduro riders, with less climbing and more downhills. With no experience of the Flow we are not able to comment with experience, but were able to speak to many people who were racing the Flow category last year and the feedback was that the riding overall was more technical, with very long downhills and far less climbing, especially timed climbs. One pair, who went on to finish well had taken 120mm full suspension 29ers but in hindsight they would have taken bigger bikes as the climbing was less than they expected. As such, 140-160mm bikes would seem to be the ideal, with faster rolling but still strong tyres and a dropper seatpost being almost a prerequisite.
Compared to last year, where I used a Pivot Mach 429 Carbon, this year I will be using a 27.5” Pivot Mach 4 Carbon, with a 140mm fork, a dropper seatpost and bigger, more aggressive tyres.
Caveat – What is your race partner riding?
All the above is important, but perhaps the most important factor is what bike is your race partner riding and what are their hopes?
If you enter something like Swiss Epic with different goals, then expect a less fun experience. In 2014 myself and Stu had slightly different riding styles and strengths. We were well aware of this however and made sure that we rode as a team and not as individuals. Stu was a much faster starter, where as I would be stronger towards the end of the day. On the downhills, I’d tend to be faster but by the end of the week Stu’s riding had improved dramatically. Be aware of each others abilities and work together, rather than against each other.
Want to know more about the Perskindol Swiss Epic? Catch up on the experience that Matt and Stu had in 2014.