The weather forecasters were right, the snow falls Friday night and as we stand on the start line of the latest UCI World Marathon Series race it’s a high probability that heavy snow will restart soon after the gun fires. We launch over the timing belt before slowing as our tyres crunch through the snowy ground, then after a short steep climb we take a sharp left and begin descending like bambi on ice slipping and sliding our way along the trail.
The organisers of Velo Vert Festival must be wondering what else can be thrown their way, they’ve done a fantastic job of rescheduling from June to September because of covid 19 but now the weather gods are angry, very very angry. Like a switch summer ended days before and winter arrived in full force. A knockout punch you’d think but the event goes on to everyone’s joy.
A week the Tour de France stage 16 before the world’s best road cyclists to the area, now the town is taken over by a mountain bike festival. We’d arrived on Thursday and got a taster of the course riding much of it in the two days preceding the Saturday race. What we found was something that left us whooping for joy. This everyone is mountain biking! Starting at 1300 meters and with surrounding mountain peaks of over 2000 metres you’d expect the 70-kilometre race route with 3000 metres of climbing to include some huge climbs. What we found was a sawblade like profile with the largest climb being just 300 metres, climbs you could make a real effort to punch up before recovering on the descents. With very few gravel or tarmac sections we rode trails uphill, then rode trails downhill, then repeated. The trails were a beautiful mix of big rocky carbon wheel crunching trails and rooty flowy trails that left you grinning from ear to ear. These are trails I could ride all day, every day. They were fun to ride but it would be tough to race them at speed and would be physically taxing on the upper body. Beneath the rocks and roots was a grippy loamy soil which gave traction and confidence.
Late Friday evening the event organiser takes the correct but difficult decision to shorten the marathon race from the original 70km to 45km. On a course this tough the full distance wouldn’t have been achievable for most and definitely wouldn’t have been safe. The new distance with a predicted winning time of 2 hours 30 would mean the slowest riders could be on course 6 hours, more than enough in forecasted freezing temperatures and heavy snow.
Off the start the sight of the ski slope climb sends heart rate way up above threshold before we actually begin the effort. I’m in second place with a trio of Team Bulls riders, we gap the rest of the racers as we climb away from the ski lift station in Villard-de-Lans. On the first descent Florent Pelizzari joins us absolutely flying down the trails at twice our speed. Urs Huber punctures early on, that’s one less person to beat I think but I’m well aware on these trails and in these conditions mechanical issues will be plentiful. By 20 kilometres Simon Schneller and Martin Frey have a gap, I could have stayed with them for a few more climbs but realised the pace wasn’t sustainable for me today. By this point the snow was falling heavily, visibility was just a few meters but remarkably the trails were holding up well. There were plenty of comedy moments, particularly whenever we ripped out of the forest where the snow was pretty shallow and descended through meadows where the snow was several inches thick. Stay in the rut, foot out, flat out, sliding everywhere! After surviving each of these moments we’d almost be laughing from the pure comedy of it all.
Florent and I are now yoyoing with me pulling a gap on the climbs before being caught and overtaken on the descents. This went on for another 10 kilometres. At this point I could see through the falling snow that he was tiring and his pace on the climbs seemed to be slowing. My opportunity to take third place on the podium was coming but my timing needed to be right. In the forest the snow was doing a great job of hiding the big nasty race ending rocks, go over your limit making an effort and you risk being out of control on a descent and making a mistake.
I was definitely on my limit on the descents by this point, my upper body was tired. Florent was still catching me on the downhills but no longer putting time into me. On the penultimate descent, a beautiful bermed trail which flowed through the forest, I tried to keep Florent behind by blocking any opportunity there was to overtake but as I crossed another snowy meadow he took a tighter line and got past. I kept within a few seconds of him, not letting him open a gap, it was worth taking some risks to get this third place. Suddenly though as we drop onto the tarmac my chain is off the chainring, I fish around with my foot to reseat it but with no luck I have to stop and put the chain back on losing crucial seconds. The adrenaline is pumping, this can’t be happening, why why why! I do my best cyclocross remount and charge down the road and into the final climb. This test was a steep one-kilometre tarmac and gravel climb taking us above the ski resort before one last drop into the arena and finish line. The climb was torture, legs were dead, body was all of energy, feet and hands were numb from the freezing cold but I could see third place ahead. Go go go! Closing closing closing. Nearly there. Come on. Lets have this. I pass Florent and he mutters words of defeat but as the gap opens I’m nervous it’s not enough, a little mistake and its gone. I put every last bit of energy into reaching the top of the hill, I think of it as just like doing the last long VO2 max effort during a training set. Don’t let the power drop.
There’s the finish just below us. I can hear the commentator. I descend down past the large trade area, with several sponsors in attendance its extra motivation to secure the result. Up a small ramp towards the ski hotels and over the line exhausted, freezing cold but hugely happy. Hard work pays off! It’s been a long year of training, this feels like validation for all those huge weeks of training.
Simon Schneller took the win 44 seconds ahead of Martin Frey. Margot Moschetti won the ladies race.
Velo Vert Festival delivered an amazing event with competitions ranging from street racing, kids races, gravity enduro, gravel and marathon. The snow made the experience even more memorable. I’m already excited to return to Villard-de-Lans next summer to enjoy the Velo Vert Festival and the amazing trail network once again.