The penultimate stage of the 2011 TransAlp mountain bike race took place today and even though it was longest stage in terms of distance (120km). It was the most enjoyable stage for us. Maybe it had to do with the fact there was only one major climb and it was mostly rolling terrain to the finish - or the fact that the finish line is in sight tomorrow.
The course in a given day at the TransAlp typically includes a wide variety of terrain and surfaces. By far, the majority is gravel roads.
These are usually very old routes built for transportation over the high passes and valleys. They are pretty smooth and a consistent grade.
Nowadays they are used for recreation and access for mountain huts, hiking, skiing, and even stuff like logging or other commercial uses. We spend a lot of time on these, both uphill and downhill. On some of the huge climbs, we'll ride a road like this for an hour or even two. I have to say they suck for descending because they are often loose and have a thousand hairpins.
We also ride a lot of pavement. Usually narrow, winding, and really well-built alpine roads. These are sweet roads, especially going down where you have to really fly to maintain your position. No, it is not mountain biking, but it is part of the race.
Portions of today’s stage felt like we were descending a huge mountain in the Giro d’Italia. We bombed down some paved roads, which at times were a 20 percent grade. The difference between the Giro d’Italia and the TransAlp is that the roads we are racing on are open to the public. Open to huge trucks, crazy Italians in sports cars who think they are Mario Andretti and kids on scooters who think they are Valentino Rossi. Maybe we are just getting a bit old, but it is downright frightening descending a narrow, twisty road you’ve never been on before at 50 or 60kph and having no clue if a car is coming around the next blind switchback! In our mini-peloton today, there were some good descenders who took some big risks. We hung on for dear life.
The TransAlp is definitely not a "mountain bike" race like you would typically have in the US. It is more of a epic off-road endurance challenge with lots of road racing types of terrain and tactics. There is plenty of rough terrain and various segments of singletrack, hiking trail, cow trail, technical doubletrack, and even moments with no trail at all.
But there is zero purpose-built mountain bike trail, and the amount of other "trail" is probably only five percent of the distance. We sure wish there was more trail, but that is simply the style of the TransAlp.
Other stuff we encounter on a typical day: ripping through towns and villages, dodging down narrow alleys, and hammering on paved bike paths.
This stuff is just plain crazy at race speed and when also open to traffic. No matter how many stages we do, it is something we don't get used to. It is just amazing they can accept and/or manage the risk of 1,000 racers on this stuff.
It seems at this stage in the event, more of the racers are loosening up a bit. Maybe they are tired or just now realize with only two stages to go they are more or less locked into a certain place in the general classification. Today our group caught up to a racer on a climb and he turned on some hip-hop on his phone and started riding one-handed wheelies. Later on, guys in our group were sharing bottles and offering food to riders in need. It was the first time we had seen this stuff since the race started. We've been more relaxed than the riders around us it seems, having pretty much come to grips with the big time gaps and understanding that seconds don't count.
We have ventured south of the Dolomites and are now in Trento, Italy.
Tomorrow is the final stage of the 2011 TransAlp and after 74km and a few big climbs, we are going to be very happy to see Lake Garda!
Pete and Brandon