Dropping into the center of plush Swiss villages temporarily transformed into accommodating race venues after hours spent negotiating world class high alpine tracks in the surrounding area is the stuff MTB dreams are made of.
Mary and I have had the chance to race bikes in some amazing places over the past years, but the Wallis region of Switzerland just seemed to be waiting for the knobby tires to make a red carpet roll through. The Perskindol Swiss Epic was a chance at a deluxe introduction to this remote region of Switzerland with the touch of Autumn casting the impressive landscape in its deepest hue and the riding at it's absolute best and last days for the season. This was a chance to get an intimate impression of this rugged region and more than a sample of the impressive mountains that shape landscape as well as the way of life on all that surrounds them.
It was truly a robust week of mountain bike experiences - six days, 400km and 15,000 meters of climbing through Verbier, Leukerbad, Grachen and Zermatt. Each stage was nothing short of a big challenge with four to six hours of riding and 3000 meters of climbing, over lengths varying from 60 - 95km.
The terrain here is as big as we have ridden anywhere and the extended climbs allowed plenty of time to anticipate dropping into the exceptional trails that expanded our perception of long, fun singletrack descending. The course brought us riders on a journey through everything from small villages to dense forests to desolate scree fields on a course that consistently showcased the alpine perfection that makes this region so special. The remote paths and seldom used roads allowed us a local's insight while the trails themselves brought amazing, consistent excitement in their steepness and variety.
Much of the high mountain terrain we encountered had an element of danger and critical nature that was not to be taken lightly. It was our primary concern to stay focused and remain in self preservation mode throughout the entire week as each day brought loads of narrow paths riddled with slick roots and pulverized rock sections set close to overhanging clifs with shocking exposure. There were many moments we felt on the edge of what could be considered safe to ride, but in the adventure seeking nature of the sport, these sections typically proved to be the most satisfying pieces - the ones that defined the event, and the ones that we would seek out to ride again in a heartbeat.
The organization and structure of the entire event seemed outstanding with motivated capable hands on deck for every aspect and need making the week astonishingly smooth from our campground perspective. Clearly the Swiss Epic was well thought out and organized with an incredible amount of passion and put together by people who understand mountain biking and what an epic MTB experience in the Swiss Alps should be all about!
Mary and I stuck to our tried and true RV styles (the only option other than hotel packages) as our base camp for the week. It was great to have our little mobile home base to return to after each of the grueling stages with the comforts of food, bike stand, tools, foam rollers, yoga mats, etc., so we could efficiently prepare to go again the next day.
As Mary and I come to our senses regarding the importance of race day support in stage racing, we entered into this event with out such luxury. I was on my own with our mechanic work and need to take a moment to offer our deepest gratitude to our special group of sponsors - especially Kenda Tires, Stan's NoTubes, Intense Cycles, Sram, ESI Grips, Fizik, Smith Optics, Clif Bar, Cane Creek, Defeet, Mavic helmets and shoes, Quest Sport team clothing, Crank Brothers Squirt Lube, Guayaki Yerba Mate and Jim's Organic Coffee and the rest of our supporters whose amazing products gave us a consistent advantage while standing by us throughout this grueling endurance event. It is a tribute to all our fine product sponsors equipment that we could manage and excel at an event like this while riding self supported! The bottom line is that good solid equipment keeps race mechanic duties to a minimum and this is so important when going through an event like this riding and wrenching.
The support that was provided to the athletes by the Swiss Epic staff was incredible as well! Full onsite bike shop service possibilities with pro mechanics on hand, massage and physiotherapy, full service bike wash, race nutrition throughout the entire event, fully equipped medical staff compete with Swiss Air evacuation Emergency services if need be. It is important for each rider to have every last detail together before going into an event like this but also incredibly helpful to have alternative options available onsite.
We enjoyed uncharacteristically good weather throughout the week, and it was especially appreciated since it consistently threatened to be otherwise. At night we heard doomsday thunder echoing through the mountains and could only imagine how it would complicate our rides. We saw enough dark clouds to keep the rain jackets close and cherish every minute in the sun like it was the last, but somehow, luckily it just kept on shining. Mary and I went out for a short spin the day after the event and saw firsthand how difficult rain could make things in this area, at this time of year - we really felt lucky to not have to go through one of these big days in such conditions!
The word "Flow" kept coming up over the week and there were plenty of swooping smooth banked full speed rolling pump screamer downhills, but the Wallis region of Switzerland is far from a big bike park. We encountered heaps of old school natural singletrack and trails that have been developed and used for centuries before the bikes even came into the picture. While racing we followed the well placed course markings on a wild ride across what felt like the BEST these incredible mountains had in store for us!
The Swiss Epic was an excuse to push ourselves to the absolute limit of our riding passion while sharing the experience with like minded individuals. Each day was a challenge and an internal battle hard enough to put all the other crazy stuff that goes on in the daily life on hold and commit fully to the present situation. Finding a way to get through the difficulty and feel that bit of accomplishment that comes with getting through an extraordinary challenge was rewarding and perhaps even gave us some new motivation to more successfully handle our daily grind.
In our own experience, as well as the overall impression from those we spoke with, was that this was equal parts one of the toughest weeks that many have gone through in off road racing as well as one of the most special. For us it was an in depth education into a foreign land alongside the familiarity of riding and the tribe of bike to help guide us to get the most out of the experience. It left us wanting nothing but to do it all again and share it with those special people who we know would be better off for having taken part.
Mary and I came into the experience with some significant disadvantages with her recent injury - a broken ankle just six weeks prior. Even though she was technically within the doctor's predicted healing phase, she was still not 100%. The training she lost due to the injury and the clear discomfort that comes from the stiffness and weak feeling of a recovering broken bone left us with much to be desired. However with a good taping, her strong mental resolve and our teamwork, we got through it. It was harsh to see her suffering (hobbling) up the massive hiking sections so we found our best option to get her up some of these was for me to push on foot while she rode. I was deeply impressed with her resolve to continue to do her best and tough it out.
On the purely competitive side, we were dealt some frustrating circumstances at the race as well. We were less than one second off of winning the prologue. Turns out this was a decisive disadvantage being that the leaders in each category earned a front row call up for each stage - while all other competitors were left to battle for a staging position in a second box behind 50 some elite riders. This was about as ideal as starting a World Cup from the back row, battling traffic instead of moving forward freely - we felt strongly that we were kept from our best overall result by the call up procedure. Hopefully one of those little tweaks that we hope to help improve or change with our feedback as the Swiss Epic goes into its next edition. It would have been easy to go to see the negative and look at it form a purely competitive side but instead we fought from where we were staged, buckled down and really tried to take the experience for what it was.
We found some competitive satisfaction on stage 3, when we gave a huge effort at the start and finally managed to bridge up to our competition for the first and only time all week. We were motivated and it was a great battle, back and forth all day. In the end, we got away on the final hike a bike section with some muscly team work to WIN the stage!
In all honesty, Mary and I were sorely tempted to cave into the reality of a less than perfect situation presented by Mary's injury in the lead up to our entire European adventure and seriously considered opting out of everything - especially the daunting Swiss Epic. In the end, we just couldn't pull the plug on an opportunity that we knew was going to be so outstanding and in looking back we are really happy to have made the effort! We pulled things together to the best of our ability and went for the experience with the best energy and motivation we could. By the end of the week, the Swiss Epic had turned us ON to Switzerland like nothing else ever could have and just riding and finishing the event together made it one of the most gratifying challenges of our season.
We learned a lot about the special tax and feeling of accomplishment that the mixed racing puts on any team, let alone a husband and wife effort. Mostly we re-learned once again that we should not be hesitant to reach towards what may seem impossible when it is important to us. To go for it even if we have some doubt as to whether we could perform at our best or take the opportunities that arise because we can!
Best of luck in all your challenges and adventures!
Mike and Mary
Team Kenda - Stan's NoTubes