Imogen Smith explores the Swiss Epic and finds the mountain bike stage race and package holiday together at last.
Stage racing is the perfect way to combine a massive mountain bike hit with an overseas experience but, until recently, roughing it and complex logistics have held many of us back from what might otherwise be the perfect holiday.
I’m not just talking about those events where unwashed, bearded serfs plough unbathed through ungodly weather and untamed landscapes in races like the Mongolia Bike Challenge or Australia’s Crocodile Trophy. Even massive international stage races like the Cape Epic and even Transalp still require you to camp in rows of tents and eat draconian communal meals known euphemistically as ‘pasta parties’.
I love a challenge, and most of my race-holidays have required immense effort: weeks of calling or emailing hotels in tiny villages and begging to sleep in a room the size of a broom closet, purchasing camping equipment and mosquito nets, hoarding cans of tuna, stuffing everything in garbage bags for waterproofing. Now, I just want to pay my money, ride my bike, and switch off. I’ve been casting envious looks at those ads in the travel pages for all-inclusive tours. The kinds of holidays my parents take. You pay your money, board the plane, train, or ship, and let yourself go. Your greatest responsibility is to make a coherent sentence a few times a day; your biggest decision is which deck chair to lounge on; your only challenge is the dessert buffet. You get to switch off and relax.
At last, for people like me, there’s the Swiss Epic: a full-service stage race experience. A race that combines Swiss precision with on-the-bike adventure, and with luxury when you’re off it. It’s as close to the package holiday deal that any mountain biker is likely to get, or want to.
The Swiss Epic will enter its third year in 2016, and after just two iterations, its organisers seem to have nailed their niche market – wrapping up great food, accommodation, travel, and sights into a smooth-running, if tough, race experience. Day-to-day, this means racers are hosted in great hotels, are provided with free massage, bike wash, luggage transport, and wrenching service, are treated to good food, and get to experience a side of Switzerland they’d never, ever see otherwise.
That’s because the Swiss Epic prides itself, above all, on the quality of its trails. But this doesn’t mean that riders are left connecting mountain bike parks in ski resorts with road racing over asphalt or gravel. For 12–15 months before each year’s event, scouts are tasked with the enviable job of discovering more and more of the never-before ridden trails that maze their way through primordial mountains and secret valleys in the race’s Valais region.
Make your call – Swiss Epic or Flow
To enjoy all of this, the Swiss Epic offers two categories for the race between Zermatt and Verbier: Classic and Flow, and while most participants are there to ride at holiday pace, both are serious business at the front end.
Classic is for the pros, the fitness freaks, and the masochists. It’s the side of the race that’s been granted Hors Categorie status from the UCI: the highest ranking they have – and attracts pros from the world’s top teams (Including BMC, Topeak Ergon, Wheeler, Centurion Vaude, and BiXS Stöckli), and international guest stars like Cadel Evans (rumoured to be taking to the start line in 2016) and Thomas Frischknecht, who’s also one of the brains behind the whole operation. Unlike World Cup or Olympic races, where fans are kept behind barricades and bunting, at the Swiss Epic they will eat at tables next to the pros, stand next to them at presentations, watch them ride away from the gun, then party with them at the end.
Classic riders cover the full course under pedal power – in 2016, that will mean climbing 12,600m over 360km in six days. Raced in pairs, like most international stage races, this is proper marathon stage racing, with most stages taking five hours or more to complete.
Meanwhile, the Flow category draws top racers from the Enduro World Series, a host of trail fanatics, and a handful of riders intimidated by 12,600m of climbing. Flow racers, equipped with trail bikes, hydration packs, and much better-looking clothing also compete in pairs, covering 280km with 8,000 metres of climbing. While the ups still play a massive role in the Flow category’s results, it’s downhill where these racers touch the blade-edge of their limits. Their 15,600m of descent is attained with lift and shuttle assistance, with the logistics of several start and finish lines each day executed with the precision you’d expect from the nation that everyone else trusted to build the Large Hadron Collider – and turn it on.
The trails at the Swiss Epic are like nothing most Australian mountain bikers ride day to day, but could perhaps compare with the mountain riding around Mt Buller or Thredbo, but with a lot more high-altitude singletrack. One climb at the 2015 event, for example, took us from 500m above sea level over a 2,300m mountain peak – an ascent that took hours – only to drop us down sheer singletrack on other side, descending just as many vertical metres in one precipitous hit a few kilometres long.
It’s hard to typify the kind of terrain you’ll encounter, because the event route is designed to take you on a journey through the multifaceted region of Valais – it’s a tour, if you will, through a varied landscape of ancient customs, patchwork agriculture, and sensitive microclimates. Expect to travel from grey volcanic rock punctuated with roots and mud traps and climb over dry, stony mountains terraced with vineyards and apricot trees. You’ll traverse sheer faces of rock and meandering trails next to suonen, ancient irrigation channels woven into the creases of mountainsides. Expect mysterious misted forests of moss, lichen, roots, and slippery granite, and expect to swoop down between exposed, craggy mountaintops into open, treeless valleys, then onto fast-flowing woodland trails.
No matter what, you will ride places you’ve never imagined: the wrong side of an avalanche fence, on the crumbling edge of a vineyard terrace, down a competition-rated Downhill track, a forgotten, vertiginous pilgrim’s route, then over a mountain of churning scree at the foot of the Matterhorn.
The Swiss Epic team manage to get permission to parade their race through these heritage-listed places and private lands once a year. Part of the bargain is that the routes remain secret. Maps aren’t released until the night before each stage, which has the democratising effect of removing the opportunity for pro teams to take special feeds, or access to a team car. All riders are asked to refrain from posting their GPS routes on Strava so that people don’t try to ride the trails out of competition – Like a desert island you might visit on a package-deal cruise, the Swiss Epic represents the only opportunity most of us will ever have to visit somewhere special.
Over the next few years, the race will explore the entire labyrinth of the Valais’ singletrack, barely retracing its steps. Each year, about 75% of trails are new to the race, and in 2016 it will run in the opposite direction, departing from Zermatt and heading to Verbier. Just for something different.
The experience beyond the race
While the route is strewn with heritage and rich in the region’s culture, the real punctuation marks come when you’re off the bike. Stage towns Zermatt, Leukerbad, and Verbier have their own culture and points of interest, and while you might have heard of the flashy ski resort at Verbier, or the spectacular Matterhorn at Zermatt, Leukerbad is actually a well-known spa town, whose healing waters have been visited by the sick and faithful since Roman times.
You’ll pass through quiet diary towns where the roots of Swiss culture run deep, and ancient villages that hover above deep, quiet valleys. The Valais itself is timeless: full of ancient buildings, customs, farmland, and of course, trails.
The Swiss Epic offers packages to suit different budgets, from the four-star, massage-in-your-room Heaven Package, to a new two-star Budget Package. All racers get dinner in modern restaurants, massage, mechanical and feed stations. There are two laundry days, where your kit will be delivered back to you smelling better than ever. An enthusiastic kid will take your bike and give it a thorough clean at the bike wash. Extras like entry to the thermal baths at Leukerbad are often included. There are robes – fluffy bath robes – because many hotels have saunas and, best of all for the tired stage racer, each day your massive race bag is delivered to your room before you arrive. At the Swiss Epic, there’s actually time to relax.
Access to Switzerland’s best trails and premium treatment are only possible because the organisers cap race numbers 300 teams and the race has already had to introduce a lottery to try to meet demand. The Swiss Epic runs in mid-September each year. Keep an eye on entries and start planning your all-inclusive, MTB package holiday.
The finer points for the Swiss Epic
How to get there: Major airlines fly from Australian capital cities to Zurich and Geneva. From other countries, you’re likely to still fly to one of those cities, and both are well connected via train. The Swiss public transport system will get you to Zermatt. Your bike bag will be transported to the race finish for you. You really can do without a hire car, look into options with Switzerland’s excellent rail system.
What to ride: For the Classic, a dual-suspension XC bike with a dropper post, reinforced tyres, and the most powerful brakes you can fit. For the Flow category, a proper trail bike with 160mm of travel.
Highlights: Ride unforgettable trails, get close to the pros, experience spectacular scenery, and enjoy the full-service package.