It’s a long read, but here is my Swiss Bike Adventure Race report
Swiss Bike Adventure Ultra Cycling Race now complete. 109 hours, 1300km, 27,000m climbing.
The format of the race was either a Grand Depart, on 26 June or as an Individual Time Trial on a nominated time between 8 July and 30 September. Robbie and I had a gap in our race schedules and nominated 28 July at 8am as our start time. Unfortunately, we had selected a week to race when the weather was forecast to be totally miserable
I arrived in Andermatt at 7am; rain was falling out of a steel grey sky and temperature was a chilly 4 degrees. Robbie Joined me at 7:15, at the cafe, and we contemplated the day ahead. At 7:55 we got on our bikes, and started the race at 8am. The first section was a 400m descent from Andermatt, by time we were at the bottom, both riders were freezing cold. My waterproof seemed to be doing the job, however, Robbie’s was no longer waterproof, so he was soaked. Fortunately we were then straight into the first climb, a 1200m ascent of the Susten Pass. The Driving rain gradually eased off, and by the time we reached the summit, it was a chilly 2 degrees but dry.
I have never raced with a partner and I had actually never met Robbie face to face prior to the race. I knew that he is an elite level Endurance Athlete, with multiple Ultra Running and Ultra Cycling race wins and a world championship bronze medal; there was never any doubt who the strongest rider would be. The bigger question was whether we would be able to ride together in harmony
It turns out that Robbie and I are totally different in most ways, however, we are very similar in some of the most important aspects. Robbie is one of the most incredible story tellers I have ever come across. He has fascinating accounts of previous races, of riding with bears and boars and running in horrendous conditions, as an elite athlete, he knows so many of the athletic stars. He can talk and talk, yet never boars. Where we are similar is in our ability to suffer without complaint, we never shared a single angry word. Throughout the event, the weather provided a huge challenge, yet we both made the most of it…… At one point I made a comment that I enjoyed “challenging myself against the mountains”, Robbie responded that he enjoys “challenging himself with the mountains”
Descending Susten was cold, so cold that Robbie’s shivering was inducing the bike to wobble, not nice at 60kph. At the foot of Susten Pass, we were straight into the second climb, a small ascent on the main road before turning off up Gross Scheidegg. This is possibly my favourite climb, the majority of the route is closed to cars, although you need to be wary of the crazy buses ferrying tourists. The view of the Wetterhorn and the Eiger are stunning. We descended to Interlaken for a well earned Sandwich. By this time, the wether had changed from Cold Driving rain to fresh sunny conditions, perfect for riding
Coming down from the Gestelen Pass I had a slightly comedy moment: Descending a small winding road, a farmer boy in his Subaru (mandatory transport for farmer boys in Switzerland) came up the road a little too fast. I braked hard and swerved right, but clipped his wing mirror, which knocked me into an electric fence, rear derailleur caught the fence and I went over the bars into a soft field. Had a comedy 10 mins trying to untangle bike from fence, getting shocked every 2s.
At 9pm we stopped for a sandwich in Saanen before pushing on. At 11pm we rode into Broc and noticed a hotel that was just locking up for the night, they welcomed us in and gave us the last free room. Day 1 complete, 5 big passes: Susten Pass, Gross Scheidegg, Gestelen Pass, Col De Pillion and Mittleberg. 278km, 6939m gain, 13h29m riding
Alarm went off at 5am, and we were back on the bike at 5:30 for Day 2 in the Jura. I am not sure if the encounter with the electric fence had damaged my Garmin, however, it started to behave in a most unusual manner, initially the navigation became really slow to respond, I would be 50m past a turning before it told me to turn, later on the navigation prompts just gave up entirely, however, I could still see the map and the laggy route, which was frustrating, and resulted in a minor crash with Robbie when I did a U-Turn having missed another turning by 50m, also the elevation calculation became a random number generator.
The first 80km was over rolling farmland. The race director had chosen some great farm roads, somewhere between gravel and tarmac. On one of these roads we had our most serious incident: riding along a flat concrete / gravel road I went round a bend, and completely lost the bike at around 40kph, and slid along the ground for 20m. I looked back to see Robbie doing exactly the same. He saw me go down, but there was absolutely nothing he could do to avoid the same thing happening. Both Robbie and I suffered from moderate road rash on our thighs and arms, Robbie also took a pretty big knock to his elbow. We both looked a right state, bloody with ripped clothes, coated in mud: a bit later in the day, a kind driver offered to put our bikes the rack of his car and drive us to the hospital, but we explained that we were in the middle of a 1300km race and still able to continue
We stopped at a Coop in Yverdon Les Bains to clean up our wounds, eat a pastry and stocked up on 10 packs of Menthos each before tackling Col de l’Aiguillon. Its only a Cat 2, 600m climb, but with an average gradient of 11% it’s an utter bitch of a climb (possibly made worse by crashing an hour earlier).
The Jura looks easy on paper, the climbs are only 200-250m gain, however, they are typically 15-20% gradient. On day 1 I could hang onto Robbie on the climbs, by day 2, his quality as a world class endurance athlete was shining through, and I struggled to keep near him on the climbs. However, I had fun on a 20km long flat section, where I used my TT skills to drive the pace, and make Robbie hang on for a change.
One of the challenges in the Jura was the lack of shops, ironically there are more shops selling Renaults than Mars Bars. Before this event, I thought I was pretty good at nutrition and taking enough Carbs on board, it turns out that I am also an amateur in this respect as well. Robbie spent most of the 5 days constantly remining me to eat, he eats all the time, he was getting through 10L of coke/Fanta/Sprite per day, almost every shop we pass is an opportunity to take on more carbs. This is a massive learning point for me, the challenge is to eat even when taking on food is the last thing that you want to do.
The highest point of the day was the climb up Col De Chasseral, with stunning views of Lac de Nuchatel. From Chasseral we had an extremely tough 15% gravel descend, which left both of us feeling battered. We were both suffering from our crash earlier in the day, and dark was descending, as we rode through the village of Roschenz we saw a hotel and decided to pull in for the night and get dinner and a sleep. As bonus, the hotel agreed to set out an early breakfast for us so that we could eat at 5:30am. Day 2, 1 crash, 275km, 13h20 riding, 5840m gain
After a great breakfast, we set off at 5:30am, straight into a climb up the Challpass, then a descent into Basel. Riding through Basel around 7am was lovely following cycle paths through the city. We had mistakenly thought that the ride along the rhine would be fast and flat…. It was certainly flat, however, most of the route was on fairly loose Gravel, so maintaining 25kph was about as fast as we could safely ride. The 3rd day was also the hottest, and temperatures gradually rose to 35 degrees by mid afternoon, it was also very humid
With so much rain, the waterfall in Schafhaussen was spectacular, and we paused briefly for a photo before riding on to the second, hilly part of the ride. The next 70km from Konstanz to Appenzell were mainly uphill in the full heat of the day, fountains and shops were few and far between, our water bottles were empty, and the terrain was challenging rather than spectacular. Just as we crested the summit of the Rodellbach climb, the hot humid conditions became a torrential downpour. For the next 40km we rode along the top of a dyke next to the Rhein directly into a 40kph head wind. Robby sat on the front while I drafted as we struggled to keep 30kph on a section that would normally be 10kpg faster. The Dyke was featureless and endless and we knew that there was nothing until Bad Ragaz. Eventully we rolled into Bad Ragaz, soaked to the skin. It took a couple of stops to find a hotel the would accept us, however, they could’t have been more helpful, providing dinner, putting our wet clothes in the dryer, arranging an early breakfast. For me, this was the hardest day, my power numbers were well down and we “only” covered 308km and 3214m climbing in 13 hours of riding
As they say, every cloud has a silver lining, and Day 4 started with my new “favourite” climb in Switzerland. The only way to describe the Kunkels pass is stunning. It’s an old climb, hardly used by traffic, it’s steep and narrow, the early section goes through forest before opening out onto an Alpine meadow, old villages, meadows covered in wild flowers, dear and foxes all in plain view, I almost expected to bump into Heide and her Grandfather. Then at the top, the road becomes gravel, and descends through spectacular tunnels, hewn by hand through the solid rocks. If we had climbed the previous evening, we would have completely overlooked this beautiful area. Eventually the Gravel track became tarmac as we descended to Chur.
From Chur, we headed to Lenzerheid, the mountain biking mecca in Europe. In the mountain biking spirit, our race organiser Andy, had decided to send us up the steepest gnarliest climb he could find rather than taking the main road up…. And full credit to him, this is a bike adventure after all. Both Robbie and I were at the absolute limit of our bike handling and climbing ability, I took a couple of minor falls as a result of losing grip on the rear wheel, but both of us completed the climb without pushing, this was at the limit, but not beyond.
As we came into Lenzerheid, both of us stopped at a bike shop for some additional clothing. The weather forecast was atrocious and getting worse, and we were entering the Grand Alps. Robbie bought a new rain jacket to replace the tea bag he had been wearing. I wanted to stay warm, so bought a warm mountain biking top (road biking is not a focus in Lenzerheid)
The descent from Lenzerheid towards the Albula Pass was epic, although I did have a squeeky bum moment as I came round a corner at 75kph to discover that the road was being resurfaced and there was a 200m section of gravel
Albula is a big 1200m climb, and the only nice thing to say about it is that it is nicer than The Fluela Pass. Just to make matters worse, my right Achilles tendon was starting to ache, it was dull and persistent when climbing, and my fear was that it would become tendonitis. Robbie mentioned that a cycling buddy had similar issue and moved cleats back which instantly cured the problem…… however, my cleats were already fully back. However, it did get me thinking. I had my shoes pretty lose as my foot was painful, as a result, my foot was sliding forward in my shoe. Tightening my shoe a little and dropping my ankle certainly relieved the pain.
Robbie was still flying up the climbs, while I was plodding…… it was a good strategy as at the summit of Albula, Robbie was waiting with a hot Bratwurst for me.
It’s a nice descent down Albula, and we headed into Zernez, passing through many little villages, unfortunately one of the characteristics of these towns is the cobbled streets, this did not please my bum or shoulders.
On the previous descent from Lenzerheid, Robbie had noticed the lovely sound of metal on metal from his front brakes, coming down Albula it was obvious that his brakes wouldn’t last the ride, and with the 4 biggest descents yet to come this could be perilous situation. The bike shop in Zernez only dealt with mountain bikes, but they assured us that the bike shops in Davos would be able to help…. It was 3:30pm on a Saturday, everything in Switzerland would close at 5pm and not reopen until Monday, it was vital that Robbie made it to Davos by 5pm, after all, it was only 30km away, the problem was a 1000m climb over the Fluela Pass and a massive storm heading directly for us. Robbie set off at full race pace, and was soon out of view, while I carried on plodding up the climb at 180w gently nursing my ankle. By the time I reached the summit it was raining, I stopped to put on my waterproofs and setoff down the 10km descent to Davos in driving rain. I found Robbie in Migrolino at Davos Station at 5:30pm. He had arrived at the bike shop at 5:15 and begged and blagged his way into the shop, and identified the correct brake pads. We sat in Migrolino, for around an out, while the storm raged outside, at least we got the chance to eat a ton of pasties and crisps and several litres of Hot Chocolate, it must have looked like 2 adults eating at a kids birthday party.
Eventually I convinced Robbie that the rain was easing, although he did ask me what drugs I had just taken. We set off into the downpour, and 5 minutes later it actually stopped raining. It then settled into a sequence of rain, drizzle, dry, drizzle, rain. Our plan was to get to the town of Thusis at the base of the San Bernardino climb. Despite of / because of the weather I really loved this section, a lovely fast road, almost empty. My Front light switch was no longer functioning correctly, at least the light was on, but kept changing modes at random. As we approached Thusis we saw a hotel. They welcomed us with open arms, provided the best Thai food I have eaten in Europe, washed and dried our wet clothes and organised breakfast for us at 6am. Day 4 206 km travelled, 11h27m riding (short due to storms), 5114m elevation gain. My power was also back to the same level as Day 2
Day 5: It may seem strange that we started the day with a real sense of euphoria, after all, it was pouring with rain, we still had 240km to ride and the 2 highest paved mountain passes in Switzerland lay between us and the finish. We started the day with a pile of Croissants and scrambled egg before jumping on the bike. The first challenge was the San Bernardino Pass 50km, 2000m climb. Somehow Robbie and I had a good laugh while the rain failed to dampen our spirits as we gradually climbed the mountain. We rode through some incredible scenery, huge waterfalls, a series of switchbacks, climbing above the tree line to the baren rockscape at the top. All the time the rain continued to fall. Finally after 3 hours we reached the summit and enjoyed a hot chocolate and cake in a café owned by the most miserable proprietor we had come across on the whole trip, but somehow it just added to the experience.
Riding with an experienced ultra athlete now proved to be invaluable; On the previous day, Robbie had invested in 2 pairs of washing up gloves and at the café he took 4 bags provided for the disposal of sanitary towels. Sanitary towel bags covering our feet, and Marigolds on our hands, wearing every single item of clothing that we had travelled with, we set off to descend San Bernardino. It was just 2 degrees and rain was turning to sleet. Luckily the Southern side of San Bernardino was considerably warmer, and the long descent was fairly pleasant, to add icing to the cake, the rain began to ease off to a drizzle. As we came into the town of Roveredo, 2 people beside the road were taking pictures of us, who could that be? In the village, we stopped for a well earned coffee and cake, while sitting there, 2 people came up to us and introduced themselves as Andy and Irena, organisers of the Swiss Bike Adventure. We had a nice chat and photos before moving on.
The weather was now perfect, overcast but 20 degrees. The next 40km were flat, and at 248m above sea level, the lowest point in Switzerland, however, at Biasca, the next climb would start, and what a climb! 54km culminating in the Nufenen Pass, the highest paved pass in Switzerland 2478m above sea level…… we would be climbing from the lowest to highest point in the country. Its not a steep climb, however, it is relentlessly long. Andy had chosen some great roads and a bit of gravel, that kept us off the main roads where possible. It was really motivating to see Irena and Andy standing beside the road, taking pictures, I am so grateful that they gave up their Sunday to watch us complete the ride.
The main road was incredibly busy: as usual in the summer, there were long queues on the highway through the Gothard tunnel, as a result many cars were trying to go via the old Gothard Pass, unfortunately many drivers seem unwilling to share the small mountain passes with cyclists. I was discussing with Robbie whether his wife Nats was stuck in the traffic through the tunnel, and almost simultaneously a white Fiat Panda, with Italian plates passed: “That’s Nats” shouted Robbie. She stopped a little way up the road, and we said a quick hello, while Robbie’s 2 dogs went mad in the car, I think that they were pleased to see someone
We stopped at a railway station at Piotta to stock up on food. For a moment we were worried that a storm approaching, before realising that it was a speed camera flashing cars almost constantly, that’s schadenfreude. At Airolo we left the main road and commenced the climb up to the Nufenen Pass, luckily this road was much quieter. About a km into the climb I saw a friendly face beside the road. Carl and Lucia had come to support us, and Lucia would ride alongside to the top of Nufenen. Unfortunately we were unable to accept Bouillion and food as the race is unsupported.
It was nice to have a chat with Lucia, and the next 3 hours passed really fast. I was really pleased with my climb up Nufenen, my power was significantly improved over the previous days. It was great to see Andy and Irena waiting at the top of Nufenen. The bad weather promised for the top failed to emerge, however, the wind was picking up. As we descended Nufenen the wind continued to increase and the bike was really being blown around. The final part of the descent into Obergestein we could only manage around 25kph on a 9% descent due to the head wind
We now had a final thousand meter climb to the top of Furka, Carl and Lucia had left, so once again it was just Robbie and me, which felt right for the final push. The wind eased a bit, but was still mainly in our face up to Gletsch. The final 700m ascent from Gletsch is a climb I know well, which made it feel easy. Maybe because I knew that the end was approaching, however, my legs felt great, I wasn’t going to finish this ride with a whimper, I was going to finish strong.
At the top of Furka, the weather had one final challenge for us, almost as soon as we hit the summit a thick cloud rolled up the mountain, visibility dropped to around 20m and the temperature plummeted to close to freezing. It’s hard to describe, but I have an ability to mentally deal with the cold and turn it into a positive. I’ve done this before, and been shocked when people tell me how hard it was for them to cope with the cold, or even being forced to retire from the cold. The best way I can describe it is that I compartmentalise the feeling of cold and build a wall around it, I am aware that it is there, I am aware that I am cold, but it doesn’t impact my ability to ride
As we crossed the finish line, I didn’t have a sensation of Euphoria, strangely I felt Eurphoria up the whole of the final Furka Climb, in Andermatt it was more a feeling of tranquillity.
Apparently, very few pairs finish these ultra distance events together and lifelong friendships break down. I had never met Robbie in real life, having only ever raced with him on Zwift, however, for some reason I think that we made a great team. There were no ego’s, it was clear before that Robbie was by far the stronger rider, yet I would like to think that I was still strong enough not to hold Robbie back too much. We had terrible weather, somehow this actually made it even more exciting and challenging, I think that Robbie also felt the same, and this attitude we share created a bond, we raced as a team, not as individuals.
By some margin, this was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I still don’t feel that I have hit my limit, I’m already browsing even more extreme events