The 2019 UCI Cross-Country Marathon World Championships are this Sunday 22nd September, in Graechen, Switzerland. Sitting on a plateau above the valley, Graechen’s surrounding forests are riddled with trails, as is the valley below. With a road only being put in for this village in 1951, there are countless trails in the area which had been the way people and goods got up to the village and others for generations before it. And that is really good for mountain bikers! In the region between here and Visp there are 310km of approved mountain bike routes, and 80km of that is singletrack.
There are two courses in Graechen, one for women and one for men, with the men’s course having an additional loop to Visperterminen. The men will race 95km and climb 3800m, while the women will race 70km and climb 3000m.
Women take off at 9am, and the men at 10am. This means the chance of cross over, especially with the men taking an extra 25km, is just about impossible, save for the very back markers of the women’s race.
XCM Worlds course highlights
There are lots. While the course last year at Tre Cime was truly epic, this course has mind-blowing views and trails. This course starts close to the highest point, as Graechen is it about 1650m. The course climbs through town on a small road, past a lake, and up to a small farm, where it crosses a paddock and joins a trail along the suonen, a small aquaduct. It’s ever so slightly uphill, but you can guarantee this singletrack will be fast.
It leads to the top of a forest road (as more singletrack disappears into the forest) and riders descend on this before a hard right to a trail that cuts back along the slope. It’s relatively smooth, wide, has a few rock features and rock water controls, and it brings riders to a small road in town, where they pass back past the church, and head towards the first big descent.
After some farm trails riders drop into the forest for a fast singletrack descent, plateau across a farm, drop steeply, go past a concrete factory, then do a super sharp right hander and from there it’s just awesome.
This descent ends at the first feed zone in Kalpetran, where a short climb starts on an old road that has been closed and replaced by a tunnel. This flattens and heads into a farm, up a steep dirt pinch and onto farm trails above Staldenreid and a drop down to cross an old stone bridge that sits high above the river in the gorge.
With a quick climb to the main road riders plummet down to the turn off for the next climb. Women are only there for the first quarter, heading back off road and across a vineyard before a much more exposed trail and riding down to the valley road.
The men’s section at XCM Worlds
But the men climb on! It’s a long climb, about 800m. It climbs high above the valley to where the trees change and it’s a long way down looking back to the start of the climb below.
In time the riders move onto a forest road and a shallow descent. This ends and a singletrack starts, with a bridge to cross a river and some short, steep climbs. Steep enough that many will be walking for a little while.
It’s not much of super steep trail, and then it plateaus and swoops along through the forest, descending to small roads and a village.
Riders make their way along on a contour, with a short, steep climb through some buildings. It’s really quite steep. The descent goes back into the forest on wide trails, then goes down a paddock above Visperterminen, before doing a loop of the town for the feed zone.
The route continues through a farm, down some dry forest road and takes a sharp left into a long descent. It’s fast, dry, and has some really tight switchbacks!
“The Visperterminen loop is one of the best on the course,” said Australian rider Sebastian Jayne. “Lot’s of steep single trail climbs are going to be tough to clear after the 40min Riedji road climb. But the highlight is the trail descent down to Visp where the best technical riders are going to make or close gaps on the narrow high speed trails and tight switchback corners. Many of the corners are blown out after the hot weather so hitting them cleanly will be a challenge at race pace.”
After a long time it ends up in Visp, before crossing through town, across the river, and the route heads to Ara Achersand where the next feedzone is, and the men rejoin the main route the women are on.
Now it’s time to climb. The climb ascends to Zeneggen, and while it’s not the top there is some flat road before a singletrack climb.
The climb has a couple of short technical pinches, then it flattens out into the forest, before descending through a farm to Bergen.
Descending a small road, riders then climb again on a road barely hanging on the side of the cliff, to Torbel. They climb up through town, through the feed zone, and then weave through the old town.
The descent starts after the stairs next to the church, along the edge of a field and down onto a trial cut into the cliff. It’s not a technical trail but the consequences for failure are high. There’s still some more climbing on singletrack, before a dirt road descent and climb.
One more small road descent before yet another hard left onto the final hard descent.
This one is a little more exposed, and dry and increasingly blown out. It drops all the way to Kalpetran.
Here, riders go up the Zermatt-Visp bike trail. An easy ride down a long valley, this section is pretty steep going up, with plenty of steep switchbacks and rolling climbs until St Niklaus and the final feedzone.
Now there is a long climb, on the road and then onto a paddock, and then finally ‘The Wall’ which is about 35% for around 700m in the forest. It’s a wide trail and traction isn’t a problem, it will just be a case of what your legs can do.
Riders are on the way back to Graechen, but not there yet, and descend a little before climbing up on some basic trails. Then in Graechen – you go back uphill, rejoining the suonen singletrack in the other direction, then finally descending off it, crossing through some farms, down a final steep chute and onto the home stretch and a finish in the main square!
So, who can win XCM Worlds?
That’s not an easy question to answer. In the women’s race with the absence of Annika Langvad, and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesja and Sally Bigham both retiring at the end of last year, and Christina Kollman-Forstner being busted for doping, the front of the race seems wide open. Of course with Pauline Ferrand-Prevot on the start line it starts to seem like a sure thing that she will win.
But with Adelheid Morath and Bettina Janas both fresh off a Swiss Epic win, Elisabeth Brandau likely seeking a top performance after injury leading into XCO World Champs, and of course previous winner Sabine Spitz in the mix (what’s retirement anyway?) who’s to say? It suits someone who can climb, and managed a 4hr+ race. And PFP can do that.
Katazina Sosna, Ariane Luethi, Jennie Stenerhag… there are plenty of people who can land on the podium, or top step. It would be great to see Samara Sheppard in the top 5, and of course to see Imogen Smith achieve another top 20. But each time you look at the start list there are names that pop out – Alessandra Keller, Corina Gantenbein, Robyn de Groot and more in the field of 81 riders.
The men’s race is huge, with 184 riders. While Avancini won’t be here to defend his title, the question is – will an XCO or XCM racer win? Matthias Flueckiger won an XCO World Cup this year, and could win. Alban Lakata has clearly been focusing on another XCM World Championship. Daniel Geismayr or Leo Paez have had medals but not gold ones. And what about Ondrej Cink? Mix XCO pedigree and some World Tour road racing and Cink could take the title for the Czech Republic.
It would be great to see young Norwegian Ole Hem capitalis on his strong ride of 2018, or one of the 40+ Germans ride a strong race. But the feeling is the winner might come from the names above. Let’s see.