The world of the Snow Bike Festival is really mixed. With about 150 riders from almost 20 different countries, it’s a really diverse mix of people. But you need to consider that there is also a highly diverse mix of ability too. From the UCI elite riders who are here not just for fun, but looking to get some racing in winter, some UCI points and good prize money, plus exposure for their sponsors. Then there are people who are here for the adventure and experience, there are dedicated amateur racers who are mixing competition with travel, and of course those who have decided to come because it’s so different to what they’d normally do.
This diversity leads to an immense disparity when we’re all in the one race. It’s completely amazing to see (or not see) how the top riders negotiate the snow, ice, slush and fresh powder that we race on. Especially given the range of conditions we had today.
With overnight lows that weren’t really low enough for snow to stay as snow, I woke to wetter conditions than I’d hoped for. You might think warmer is better but I’d take -3 over 3 degrees any day, as colder means drier.
Our course was slated to have 29.9km lying wait, with 786m of climbing. But as it was so wet down low (consider about 15-20cm of fresh snow rapidly melting into an icy slush) the route was amended so we wouldn’t pass towards the airport in Saanen. This also meant we wouldn’t get the chance to say ‘bonjour’ and cross into Vaud, a French speaking canton.
Our start on the promenade of Gstaad then lead us along the river, with almost all riders running with their bikes, often falling over, and working hard to keep moving. We had a re-start in Saanen, and soon after commenced a climb up the Eggli. This was on sealed road (with a few centimetres of icy slush) and a fat bike was hardwork.
The field is really mixed with normal mountain bikes with more tread, fat bikes, plus bikes and bikes that seem somewhere in-between. The soft conditions today should have favoured a fat bike, but a lot of the course was very fast on a regular bike too.
The climb to Eggli was special, as we’d climbed through the valley we gained enough height for the temperatures to drop, and the snow was hanging on the trees.
We were in a valley of powder and the fresh snow has a way of dampening sound, making a relative silence, save for the crunching of snow under your tyres.
We climbed higher, and soon we could even see patches of blue sky, and there was more light. Earlier this week I heard mention of Blue Monday, which is apparently the day that the most people are depressed. Reportedly pseudoscience based on an algorithm of debt, motivation levels, time since Christmas… it also tends to fall in about mid-January. And I get it, it’s grey, you’ve got a whole year ahead and you probably just burned a lot of holiday days.
But when I saw that patch of blue sky, along with the fresh snow hanging on the pines, with the joy of being outside riding a mountain bike, the feeling of being a bit down about the weather, and other things, just lifted. Today we rode through a truly remarkable part of the world, with steep mountains surrounding us and villages dotted around the valleys below us. It was quite still, and the snow was so fresh it was pure white up high.
The traverse along the top saw the start of more challenges – as the fresh snow wasn’t groomed, and there were many ruts and foot holes from riders in front, and we sank in, or veered to the side, or just went over the bars. The conditions quickly became really difficult.
The initial part of the descent was stunning, floating over powder and back into the cloud, but as we lost height we gained temperature, and the snow became very slushy. The next kilometres became a mix of swearing, doing a tripod, crashing, walking, falling over and laughing. Not all in equal amounts. I spent so long clipped in (usually) with my right leg and dabbing with my left that I think the 800g extra muscle in my right leg (DEXA certified) will have increased my leg had such a workout!
We came into yesterday’s 2nd descent and it was a mess, riders were picking their way down, and back along the river. Riding, running, walking – just moving forward.
I’ve never had my heartrate so high on the flat for such a low speed. It’s also rare to come off a descent with a heart rate over 160bpm (for me anyway) but you really had to work hard today.
Alexis Paris won the men’s race in a ridiculous 1:09, putting him 2nd overall behind Joris Ryf who had a better prologue yesterday. Katrin Leumann won the women’s race and took the jersey from Esther Suess, who wasn’ happy with her choice of racing a fat bike today. You can see the full results online.
I found the day really challenging. My calves and feet ache from running on uneven ground in bike shoes, and I’d say I’ll have trouble drinking the amount of fluid I sweated out. But I came here for fun and something totally different, and that’s exactly what I got, in a beautiful setting. I can’t wait for tomorrow to see if my riding can improve.
My bike was faultless, even though I crashed more times than I have in 3 years today alone. The 1×11 Shimano XTR M9000 is faultless, which is a big reason of why I put it on. But the riding was hard anyway – I’ve heard that with lower temperatures many of the trails will be groomed tomorrow. That should add some more fun into the descents!