The Swiss Epic 2018

September 2017 –

Searching for a mountain biking goal – something to stretch the imagination, go past the comfort zone, ignite motivation, require team work and focus the mind and body.

The Solution – Stage Racing

And then – The Swiss Epic 2018, a 5 day stage race, 350km with over 12000m of climbing, fitted these needs with aplomb.  Its organised by the same people who run the Cape Epic, but no tent hugging, queuing for showers, portaloos.  For us – hotels every night, restaurant evening meals and breakfasts, massage and bike service all included in the entry fee.

One year before the September 2018 event we (Scott Morgan and I) took the plunge and were the second team to enter the 2018 Perskindol Swiss Epic…. Let the training begin.

Commitment

Before I even entered (this was a large cash outlay) I needed commitment and understanding and “buy in” from the whole of my family.  Awesomely this was forthcoming, a massive thank you to Lisa and the kids.

Adam my coach (pedal to progression) was appraised of the plan. Enthusiastically he put together a 12 month plan to enable me to hit a goal that was way outside my comfort zone.  Bespoke turbo sessions, long bespoke turbo sessions, outdoor rides with focus, back to back and even some just for fun were all in the plan..

The plan came together, and eventually even 7 repeats of one of the steepest road climbs the Island has to offer were shrugged off with me asking for more….

Logistics

From the Isle of Man, getting to Bettmeralp in Switzerland would involve nearly all types of vehicle bar a bicycle.  We left the Island on a ferry, taxi to the airport, flight to Geneva, train and tram all the way to Bettmeralp.  Everything ran on time and we arrived with ears popping to the Swiss Epic front desk at the tram stop.  Directed to our hotel we walked slowly – oxygen is somewhat premium priced at 2k above sea level (which is of course where we had trained!!).

As was to be repeated time and time again throughout our visit, the logistics were sorted for us, hospitality by the locals and the hoteliers was absolutely outstanding, the views to die for, and the food was just awesome.

We arrived a day early to attempt acclimatisation.  Did it work, who knows…  Would we do it again – we’d go earlier !

The Swiss Epic 2018

Nigel Morris & Scott Morgan

And we’re off…

Start line nerves, anticipation, nervous chatter, fresh coffee from the hipster brewery company on site (Ibex coffee – great blends) and we were in our start pen awaiting the start.  Forecast was for 30 degrees in the valley bottoms and to be even hotter on the South facing Alps we would be climbing.

Hey, slow down, don’t you know this is a 5 day stage race.  Off we went at XC pace along with all the others.  Luckily the lack of oxygen soon took its toll and everyone settled down and we could begin to understand what the organisers had planned for us.  A long “flat” loop around the lake with some wicked kicking climbs and dusty descents lulled us into some sort of semblance of normality.

What the…

F – a 10km descent on Swiss hiking trail singletrack  with 1000m descent.  Comments between me and Scott are best left out of this blog, but to put it bluntly, nothing can prepare you for the technicality, the steepness (some of the ‘shoots were over 30%) the rocks, roots, hairpins and the length of the descent’s.  Just the continuous nature was absolutely amazing, that first descent was just one massive adrenaline shock to the system that just kept on giving, giving and then giving some more.

I tumbled at a tight hairpin and fell down the scrub into the trail that Scott was on below me – twice I went head over heels until I was stopped by his front wheel and some laughter.  “You were like a rag doll, good job the wheel stopped your fall!”.  A quick check, all OK, nothing hurting and off we went. Lesson learnt.  Treat with respect, utmost respect.  Soon we came to a mantra that we held for all 5 days – “Keep calm, keep calm”.

As we found out later, a competitor was air lifted off the mountain within 15km of the start.  Ultimately fine, but a reminder of the nature of the event.  Our new found mantra  would be needed through out the event.

By the time the end of the descent was in sight, the only reason I knew my hands were on the handlebars and brakes was because I slowed down when my brain requested it.  My hands were numb.

Decent Descents

After the initial shock on the nature of the descents, we soon began to get the hang of them, and even attempted to keep up with some of the Swiss “locals” who would take the most bizarre lines.  When we could attach ourselves to their coat tails and follow it was awesomely fast, but ultimately safer than the line you had “seen”, inevitably we would get dropped.  The downhills would not offer any chance for rest, recovery or a chance to mentally take stock, but instead would demand intense focus, resilience and endurance. Most of the times that was rewarded with survival.  As the week went on the endorphins became more and more pronounced and by the end of the week we were taking lines and risks that were not in our armoury on day one (memorably overtaking on the outside of a cliff line with a 200 foot drop inches from the wheel).

“Love in” paragraph

At the bottom, with the brakes screaming and “that” brake pad smell we set off along the valley floor.  Arrival at the feed zones was a frantic affair but the relatively tranquil ride (in a little “posse” cracking out a descent 30kmph pace!!) meant we had chance to natter to fellow riders – from Brazil, Switzerland, Belguim, Germany, France, USA, South Africa, and the UK.  I realised we had been immediately accepted and had become part of a massive global family.  We’d pass them, they past us, each time a cheery hello and it felt it was a friend you hadn’t seen for ages – they understood why you were there, what you were suffering and had similar hopes for the day.  Unexpected massive win from the event.  The camaraderie was something that I hadn’t expected.  We were, after all, racing each other…

Climbing (short version – its tough)

The Swiss Epic still had lessons for us though.  The climbing.  Easy, tarmac, fire roads were what enters your mind, even though the route profile is indicating that that easy tarmac and fire road rises 1000m in 10kilometres, clearly an average gradient of 10% and it tops out back out ABOVE where you started at 2200m above sea level.

This was the hardest climb of the week (or did we just get used to it?!). We climbed through alpine forest, gawping at the views and the sheer challenge ahead of us (there were not even any false summits, just relentless, absolutely relentless uphill). Ultimately we cleared the forest and were now subject to the full glare of the sun.  I had to tell Scott that I could ride no more, and that we needed to get off and walk.  We weren’t the first to do this, nor were we the last.  After a number of on / off sessions I finally stayed back on the bike and we rode into the finish.  Exhausted but elated.

Evening to remember and to repeat until the end

In the finish village, food and recovery drink and beers were available.  After fulfilling our appetite Scott cooled off by sitting in the mountain stream whilst I took the more normal route of having a long shower.  A massage later and a quick fettle of the bikes and we awaited the race organisers appraisal for Stage 2 and of course for our evening meal.

We sat down with 2 guys who were complete strangers and talked of the day we had just had and the days that were still to come.  Talk naturally came around to the Manx 100 and we hopefully will see them on the 2019 start line JJ  The Manx 100 kit was getting us noticed, and we were hard selling it to everyone we could through out the event !!  This would repeat over every night, with new found friends and the topic would always be the racing and of course the ‘100

Rinse and repeat

Over the whole event, every stage had in excess of 2000m of ascent, with the first three days over 2600m.  Over the remaining stages, we had a plan and stuck to it.  The nightmare of day one receded.  Every day we reminded ourselves that we needed to ride tomorrow.  “Keep calm” was mentioned a few times every descent.

We moved race village on day 2 and on day 4 and each new location was a revelation in support for the event and for us as riders.  Each car free village / town (you can’t really call Zermatt a village!) had excellent accommodation and food.  Massages from title sponsor Perskindool did much to balance the physical and mental demands of each days riding.

There is so much to say about each day, impossible to do justice to unless you experience it.  Climbing for 2 hours whilst looking at awesome views of the Swiss Alps became passé, descending on stupidly steep, rocky, rooty and dusty tracks became the norm and speaking to the guys you were racing against was par for the course.

Each day we settled into a now routine set of positions on the descents – ensuring we rode close together, the front rider shouting out the nature of the corners, and a nearly constant call from behind to ensure we didn’t lose each other (strict 2 minute rule between team members, and of course, why you’d want to walk back up the descent looking for your partner is the real reason!).  A similar approach was taken on the climbs with the garmin and quarq power meter dictating pace with the team sticking together. All the time we would be both looking out for the tell tale signs we were on the correct route by way of tape attached to trees, branches, street furniture or whatever was available.

The end

The last day does deserve special mention – Zermatt to Zermatt, racing to the foot of the Matterhorn on the way around at 2650m, above sea level.  By this point, fatigue had swept in but hadn’t as yet taken hold.  The plan had always been to save ourselves for a final push up the rankings (from obscurity to obscure!!) and up this final mountain.

After the initial, now expected XC pace start, and then down to the valley bottom.  From the 20thkm onward we began our climb to 2650m above sea level from 1350m. 20km and 2 hours later we were approaching the final feed zone (handily right (RIGHT) at the top of the climb).  Finally, after a photo of us was taken by the team up there (remember we are still racing !!) we set off on the final descent – 18km back to Zermatt.  18km Descent…  After travelling down a fire road at circa 75kmph for 30 seconds or so it was hard, hard, harder on the brakes and back into the zig zag of the hiking trails. Rough and rocky.  We met a few walkers up there in full winter clothing whilst we were riding and sweating in full summer gear!  Finally the descent plunged us into a woodland, hard pack tracks, swooping curves and, woaaahhh, what is that ?  I can see an emergency helicopter coming up the valley toward us. It hovers, lowers a stretcher and crew, picks someone up and flies off.  “Keep calm”, “keep calm”..  Carrying on down this section we came around a corner to be greeted by a parked motorcycle. Negotiating that we carried on around a sharp 90 right, I looked into the ravine “ahead” and could see 2 mountain bikes and only 1 biker, along with a first aid team.  5km later we had completed the event.   One lapse of concentration and boom!  The riders were fine we found out later.

The bikes

I rode my 2018 Orbea Oiz Ltd with Eagle using a 30T front ring with dropper post. I didn’t use the dropper post after day 1.  Scott rode my hardtail Niner Air 9 RDO with xx1 and a 30t front ring. After his 2017 Orbea Oiz had a frame meltdown.  We both ran Maxxi’s Ikons (Scott ran Stans Race Sealant and I ran Finish Line) and had no issues.  In fact we had no issues with the bikes at all through out the 5 days – kudos to Graeme Cooil from BlueTurtle here on the Isle of Man for fettling the bikes to his normal high standard.

Recommendations

  • Do it
  • Get there two days before
  • We used a cardboard bike box and had no issues (but only flew once each way)
  • Plan a year in advance – you get the best price, the best hotels (closest to the race village)
  • Get a training plan, stick to the training plan
  • Buy flights, trains and ferries as soon as they become available to get the best prices
  • You can’t replicate training at altitude, unless you are at altitude. Remember oxygen is rare when you are high in the alps
  • Climbing is king
    • A take from a different blog – climbing per KM (bikehub.co.za)
      • Swiss Epic 18 9m per km
      • Cape Epic 19 7m per km
      • Cape Epic 18 3m per km
      • Wine2Whales 9m per km
    • BUT don’t neglect your descending skills
    • Rest as much as you can
    • Always get that massage
    • Eat everything they provide!
    • Take spare everything (we neglected to take spare spokes, someone else didn’t bring any spare nipples). Take more than one pair of brake pads.  We ran through front and rear’s after day 2 and kept a close eye on them after.  Post event, I have discovered that I managed to burn the rear disc (I didn’t even know that was a thing!!)
    • Write down your experiences. So much has already been forgotton.  I saw one chap who wrote over one page of A4 every day.  Now I know L
    • You’ll never go back to tent packages again!

Results:

24th in Category  –  88th Overal

Team Isle of Man / Manx 100
122-1 Nigel MORRIS
Masters
122-2 Scott MORGAN
29:05.53,1 +8:53.01,6
Isle of Man Isle of Man