Stage races come and stage races go. Each promises something different: the Croc Trophy takes you to the wildest Australian outback. Transalp over the most magnificent passes. The Cape Epic offers the ultimate physical challenge. The Perskindol Swiss Epic has a lot going for it, but its point of difference, I’ve quickly realised, is quality.
Everything, everywhere, is the best of the best. The bike wash bay would be the envy of a professional carwash conglomerate (complete with snowy white rags and Motorex products). Technical support with the best mechanics is on offer from Shimano, Fox, and Scott. Superb Sponsor nutrition products are at every feed zone and before and after the race (rumoured soon to come to Australia). Then there’s state-of-the-art timing technology, fantastic hotels, amazing food (no pasta parties here – I miss them a bit), the world’s top pro riders, and of course, of course – the best trails.
And the prologue is surely the best way to showcase the kind of terrain riders can look forward to. Today’s 14km time trial course featured long, open gravel climbs punctuated by technical, rooty, rocky descents far steeper than anything you could legally build in Australia, and far wetter than we’re used to riding, too. The toughest section was a ‘red’ rated trail from Verbier Bikepark’s DH offering, with wooden ramps, drops, enormous tree roots, some water and mud mixed up on a mountainside. It was all tremendous fun, if a little tough for us drylanders after some rain overnight.
The weather has been a big topic here. It’s late summer and we’re currently at 1550m, but will be heading up much, much higher during the course of the week. I, like a lot of competitors, spent the days leading up to the race checking hourly weather reports before giving up entirely. Clouds and sun, rain and mist sweep in constantly from the south, so that the weather changes minute by minute. The best advice was given at race briefing last night: If you want to know what the weather is doing, just look up.
Also at race briefing, continuing the ‘best of the best’ theme, we were treated to a great chat between Thomas Frischknecht and Cadel Evans, who did the prologue today, his first race for nine months. Currently a BMC ambassador, he travels the world talking to businesses, racers, and fans about the joys of cycling, and his presence, as well as a strong contingent of pros, was a really nice touch, especially for us Aussies.
So, today, everyone did a lot of looking up. Cold, wet conditions were forecast but, apart from a few showers and some chilly temperatures, rain held off the entire day. The pros were off last, and probably developed sore necks by the time they rode down the start ramp.
The women’s race was won by the defending women’s champions, the incredible duo of Annika Langvad and Ariane Kleinhans of team RECM Specialized, in a blistering time of 57:44, in front of Topeak Ergon Racing Team’s Sally Bigham and Morath Adelheid. Team RECM Specialized have come with the clear intention of reclaiming the winner’s trophy, and the women’s field promises some fierce racing.
The men’s results, however, promise an even closer match, with just 2.8 seconds separating first and second places. Topeak Ergon Racing Team of Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek won the day in 46:39, in front of last year’s winners, Mathias Fluckiger and Lukas Buchli of BiXS StocKli.
And us? We won the mixed competition today! If you’re a regular reader you’ll know I’ve put three months of consistent training in, and although Mike has had massive work commitments, he’s pretty fit, too. We went out very early because media teams were first off the start line (presumably so we’re around later in the day to report on what’s happening), and as such we were just the second ‘Epic’ team to set out.
We pushed hard all the way, and I knew I was climbing well. Our goal was to stay conservative on the descents because the risk of crashing out early today was extremely high, and while our plan may not have been the fastest way around the course, we got to the finish safely. I didn’t ride as smoothly as I did in practice, and had to unclip and ‘tripod’ a few sections made a bit gnarlier for the wet, and overshot a corner or two, but never mind.
We slugged down gels, talked a bit, but not much, and rather than a push or a tow, Mike occasionally put his hand on my back to make sure I was okay, and kept up a non-stop verbal tirade of encouragement – although by far the most encouraging thing was hearing him huff and puff! Pushing and towing in pairs racing is generally allowed, and used very frequently in mixed racing. While I’m not against it – not at all, it was great to get a time at the end of the day that I know I could have attained completely on my own. One low point came when Mike pulled out a Go Pro and started taking photos. He takes his media commitments very seriously but it didn’t go down well– I didn’t have enough spare energy to wipe the drool off my bottom lip so it seemed a little unfair!
And me? This might be the highest we go all week – and yes, it’s just a prologue and the real race is still in front of us. As soon as we saw our result we celebrated a bit, then reflected, quite realistically, that the Euros always seem to have a plan and maybe we went too hard! Still. I don’t care. Today confirms that I’ve put an end of two years of struggling to find form, of working with a body that simply wasn’t responding to training. It marks a day when I can look back on some great preparation and know that not only did I train myself fit, I coached myself to fitness, I worked on my bike handling and put it all together at the right time, and it’s just possible that at 34 I’m as fast as I ever have been.
Today is enough, but, just like everyone else here, the second we crossed the line we started getting ready for tomorrow. It’s the Queen Stage: 95km, 3100m of climbing, all the way to Leukerbad.