There are few days where everything that needs to fall into place, falls into place. It can happen on race days, it can happen on social rides, but even with the best preparation it doesn’t always happen. Having the the right mix of motivation, conditions, equipment and experiences does not always happen. I’m lucky that I can think of plenty of times when things fall into place and you just have a great time out on the bike. And today on Stage 2 of the Snow Bike Festival in Gstaad, Switzerland, was one of those days.
With lower temperatures overnight, the trails were able to be groomed a little. To those who haven’t ridden on snow, it’s worth understanding how much riding fresh snow on hills actually sucks. A layer of powder on compacted snow is fun, but if that ‘layer’ is much more than say 10cm, it gets a lot more difficult. There’s a reason why many US resorts have fat bikes on hand for bad snow days. Because when there is good, deep snow a snowboard or skis are the better choice!
The start was put back to a very gentile 10am, and after the normal mix of people warming up on rollers, some people just lining up half an hour early, jackets being thrown to supporters, and general conversation being made – we were off, and climbing up towards the Palace hotel in Gstaad, which sits regally if not somewhat cheesily with it’s turrets, above Gstaad.
The ever-so-slightly colder temperatures made the start much more comfortable. There was almost zero water spray, and the air was crisp. I dressed differently today but still with the work you do on a longer climb I was overheating. Maybe I’ll figure it out for the last stage!
We came to the end of the road and onto an XC ski trail descent and traverse to the next climb. This was everything that riding in the snow should be. Fun, some sliding, laughter, and pretty high speeds. The snow was pristine as it was all fresh powder from overnight. We entered the woods, still on a double-track of sorts, and it really felt like we were racing through some sort of Swiss travel brochure.
Onto the road we climbed into smaller villages, with the sun appearing through the clouds and the mountains around Gstaad revealing their snowy, forested flanks.
We came to the end of the road, and were guided into the descent we could see below. While a snow groomer had passed over it, it still wasn’t smooth sailing! To a point it’s good to be guided by the wheel tracks of others, but you never know how that worked for them. So sometimes you’ll end up in a rut, where others have then caught an edge, dug their front wheel in and landed in a heap. So there’s a very big chance that you’ll get caught in their rut, then land in the hole their body created. It’s really quite amusing as long as you’re racing for fun.
We crossed a bridge and crested a small hill, before the whole valley opened up infront of us, with a whole line of mountains on the very close horizon. We popped off the road and down another prepared slope, where I could even spin out the 11t sprocket, the speeds were so fast! Compared to the amount of time I spent in my lowest gears yesterday, and then struggling on the descents, the change that a few degrees made to the fun and joy in riding was beyond compare.
Just like climbing towards the sun and blue sky yesterday, this descent was an immediate reminder of how special it is to be in the great outdoors, and not bundling yourself up inside. While the course isn’t littered with spectators like it might be in summer, it does still have about the same as an Australian event. The Swiss love getting into their mountains, and winter is no exception. In general it is far quieter here than I expected, but most of the people you see are alongside the course cheering, or cheering as you pass them out and about.
We rode towards Lauenen, up the Lauenen Wall, and to the first feed zone. Soon after I saw Nicola Rohrbach coming back on the other side of the small valley, so however long the loop ahead was – he’d already done it in the same time I took to get there. That’s always quite humbling!
The course climbed up to the Lauenensee, cutting in close to the steep slopes of the mountains, and tracing below the snow-covered trees.
The trail narrowed, into a trail about 4-5 feet wide cut into the snow, passing picnic benches and skirting along the edge of trees. I think the lake was on our left at this point – I really didn’t see it. What I did see was the mountains towering above. I heard the sound of my tyres crunching over snow, and of my own heavy breathing. And that’s about it. The sense of isolation when in a highly populated country, in a bike race with people 20-30 seconds in front and behind you, is surreal. There is a true feeling of escaping into the wild, but in a highly managed way. And I quite like that. It’s a connection with the great outdoors without severing your reliance on an urban world.
The descent back to Lauenen was mostly on roads, but that means they have compacted snow and ice, not completely slippery, but quite entertaining. After the feedzone we climbed up to a singletrack descent, cut into the snow over the walking path beneath it.
The final run in took us to a short ski slope, where my descending prowess was once again on display. We descended about 300m on a ski slope, in which time I managed to crash twice!
But finishing was so different to yesterday. And it is clear it was similar for many people. The event village was full of good cheer. Of smiles, of laughter, backs being slapped, beers being ordered, and the cannelloni lunch being devoured.
Today was everything I came to Switzerland for. There was natural beauty, the built beauty of the surroundings, apparent both as we climbed out of Gstaad past chalets, and when we climbed up to Lauenensee, there was the physical exertion required to experience it, the camaraderie on the bike, the fun of descending snow at speed… it really showed the joy that mountain biking brings to my life. I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring, but it’s almost a white out outside now as more snow is falling. But to be honest, today was a real gift after yesterday and if tomorrow is half as fun that will be great.
In the UCI class at the Snow Bike Festival
Joris Ryf has built his lead in the men’s UCI elite field today, putting a little more of a gap between himself and last year’s winner Nicola Rohrbach. The gap is now 3:08. There are actually 48 UCI elite men in the race, which while it’s small compared to an XCO World Cup or UCI Marathon Series round, it shows that having the UCI S1 status does draw a number of riders to the race. The women’s field is smaller with 7, and it is still lead by Katrin Leumann after she won the stage again today. With a gap of 11:11 her lead seems very secure with one day to go.
You can find the full day’s results online.