The mountain bike year has well and truly begun. Unlike riders in the north, in Australia we receive little respite over the holiday period. We don’t go skiing, we don’t escape to summer climes. We live in the perfect training haven, more or less. So while our whole National XCO Series has been wrapped up, our National XCO Championship has been run and won, and our XCM Championships are now barely a fortnight away – why is my competitive mountain bike brain still trapped in the Valais, at the Swiss Epic in September 2015?
My first mountain bike stage race experience was addictive. I raced the 2008 Transalp with Scott Cornish (who just finished a strong 9th overall in Masters at the Cape Epic). I loved it. I loved the routine of the race start, finding a rhythm with you and your team mate, and going as fast as you could while managing nutrition, your bikes – and each other! The trials of racing for over a week were apparent, on bikes, bodies and friendships. But the elation of finishing a stage, and then the race itself, was immense. Since then, I think I’ve done close to 18 ‘marathon’ length stage races. Which helped in understanding which ones best value and which aren’t.
In 2015, racing the Perskindol Swiss Epic with my then fiance and now wife, Imogen Smith, was a somewhat last minute decision. While I had accepted that I might not do a big international stage race that year – when there was a glimpse of hope and opportunity, I jumped at it.
Marathon stage racing, at its best, isn’t just about racing your bike. It’s not about pedalling long distances, eating gels, or riding fire trail. To me, marathon stage racing is about travel, about connecting with your team mate and helping them get the best out of themselves – as they will do the same for you. It’s about thinking on the fly, using your experience and knowledge to tackle challenges as they come. Be it a mechanical problem, negotiating a table in a crowded restaurant when you’re tired after a stage, looking after a team mate, finding your bike in the bike park – it can be anything! And of course, for me it’s also about riding somewhere special, somewhere I can’t normally ride.
Most of all, for me it’s about the people. Some of my best friends I have met at marathon stage races – and I even managed to find my wife, Imogen Smith, at one too.
But our race at the 2015 Swiss Epic wasn’t perfect. Imogen arrived in perfect condition, I arrived a little later after work commitments took me to Germany. I knew my work would be cut out for me given Imogen was so strong. But after a close in in the Prologue, followed up by two more stage wins – we were really happy to be in the lead. It hadn’t been a clean run, I’d had a few small mechanical issues, and we had both battled some other problems on the bike. But on our second night in Leukerbad – it looked like our race was doomed.
Racing successfully with Imogen was a dream. Being allowed to ride the ancient trails of the Valais was a gift, especially as so many trails are opened by land owners just for the event. Each town greeted us with open arms, with starts and finish lines in the centre of villages, sometimes almost at the door to your hotel if you were lucky. And while that experience will never be forgotten, neither will sitting on the side of the trail below Graechen, watching our race disappear.
Looking to the Swiss Epic in 2016
In the past 6 months a lot has happened. We came home. We bought a house. We raced bikes more. We got married. We got sick. I raced The Pioneer. We got new team bikes… and I stared at the “Swiss Epic approved” sticker on both of our top tubes as I took our build kits off our Bianchis to build onto the Norco Revolvers. The Revolvers are a little slacker and longer than the Methanols. They’re just as light. They’re efficient. They can take stealth dropper posts.
In the back of my mind, I’d wanted to buy new frames that would handle steep climbs and steep singletrack descents better than our previous bikes. Something we could build light but strong. Something we could take back to the Swiss Epic. That’s exactly what we have ended up with.
The Perskindol Swiss Epic offers six days of pure mountain biking on the best singletrack, immersed in a spectacular Alpine environment. The race travels through more than 50 Valais municipalities – this year from Zermatt to Verbier via Leukerbad – the reverse direction to the previous editions. The new route traverses varied Alpine landscapes, passing quaint mountain villages and traditional vineyard terraces, through golden woodland, and along historic Suonen irrigation channels.
The next edition of this UCI HC race will be 12-17 September 2016 -and I’m having a long, hard think about being on the start line in Zermatt. The transport is easy to the start and from the finish, with connections to either Geneva or Zurich airports.
The desire is there, and the time to train and prepare is there too. It’s difficult to taste success and then lose a victory when you’ve already lived it in your dreams. But it’s also difficult to go through all the preparation and sacrifice a second year in a row. More so for Imogen than me – it’s no secret that I was underdone in 2015, but the race beat me into shape.
As anyone who has asked me know – in terms of mountain bike experience, quality of trails, accommodation and event services – the race is second to none. It’s about as close to a holiday as you can get while doing a technically and physically demanding stage race. Getting to the Swiss Epic again will involve a lot of sacrifice, but that’s something I’m willing to do for the experience!
Swiss Epic vs Flow?
I’m actually a bit torn on this, having seen friends race the Flow version (where they have lift and shuttle assistance, dropping the climbing to 8000m, but descending over 15000m in the 6 days). The Flow takes much of the same trails, but often starts descents at a higher point, on more technical routes. As an all-mountain stage race, climbs are still in some of the timed stages so it’s a reward for the fitter bike handlers – and is a very tempting proposition.
With premium, comfort and budget hotel packages, plus camper packages and corporate teams – there is an entry option for anyone who loves to ride and race their bikes on the best trails, with the best services. Make no mistake – the Swiss Epic is a full-service bike race. From meals, to massage, to your luggage service – nothing is missed. Not even the essential step of getting your luggage to the start for the first stage! This is often the missing link in many stage races, but as the accommodation covers the night before and the night after the race – there are no panicked calls to taxis, or riding with your entire kit to the luggage trucks. It’s a door to door service the whole event.
The race organisers have been very generous, and offered a code for our readers if they would like to receive a discount for a Perskindol Swiss Epic entry. Just enter “marathonMTB” for the discount code and you’ll save 50CHF – which you can put on the bar at the finish in Verbier!