On a casual Friday afternoon ride, I received one such call from a school friend and regular riding partner. With less than ten weeks until the 2018 Perskindol Swiss Epic we were all in, me with a serious absence of fitness and the lack of mountain bike to call my own.
The Swiss Epic you say?
If you’re not familiar with the event, the Swiss Epic is a five-day mountain bike race that takes place in the Valais region of Switzerland. The fifth edition of the event took place from 11-15 September 2018 over 351 kilometres with 12 550 meters of climbing. Although when founded in 2014, beyond the name there was no relation to the Cape Epic, in September 2017 that changed when it was announced that Ironman had acquired the Swiss Epic. The event now forms part of the Epic Series alongside The Pioneer (New Zealand) and, of course, “our” very own Absa Cape Epic.
With ten weeks to go, most of which consumed by work trips, illness and Netflix binges, there wasn’t a whole lot of structured or focused training to speak of. But it’s only five days I said and manageable distances. And the climbing? Well, we’ll just figure that out. Apparently it’s mostly on smooth roads, I assured myself, and besides, I enjoy climbing...
Fast forward to 11 September 2018 and we’re on an Alp, surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks, ready (or not) for Stage 1 of the Perskindol Swiss Epic.
If Stage 1, and my entire Swiss Epic experience, could be described in just one word that would simply be ‘humbling’. The early kicker climbs at a casual 2000m above sea level left me wondering if a lung or two had been left in Dubai along with some fellow riders’ baggage. Not even 5km in on day one and I’m stumbling up a steep techy climb scrounging for something to call air.
Thankfully the next 12km would drop us over 1000m into the valley below at an average gradient of -8.5%. On paper, this all looked like a gentle introduction for the body and mind, a chance to shake off the travel-induced haze. On paper…
It’s tough to put into words just how steep, rocky and lacking of any discernible lines many of the Swiss trails are. For starters, there’s simply no getting away from the numbers with sections of -20% to -40% gradients. Throw in some rocks, tight off-camber switchbacks or the occasional bar biting tree and you’ve got a mean set of ingredients to thoroughly test skills and fitness. There’s just nothing in our fine selection of local trails that could have prepared us for this.
After the initial system shock, we soon began to get the hang of the environment and soak up some skills from our Swiss counterparts. And it quickly dawned on us that downhills here would seldom offer rest or recovery, but instead demand intense focus and endurance. With that challenge though came great reward. On occasion that reward was simple survival, but for the most part the flood of trail-induced feel-good brain chemicals was long-lasting. The stoke was high.
With all five stages featuring no less than 2000m in vertical ascent, and three over 2600m we were mentally prepared for a significant chunk of time to be spent climbing. It is the Swiss Alps after all! As anticipated, many of the climbs through the week were indeed on tar or smooth gravel surfaces. Without a doubt technically easier than what we typically encounter in most local stage races, but, no matter how easy the going is, ascending 1000m over 10km is not typically easy. Especially with 1500m already in the legs.
Over the five days of the Swiss Epic our race progress was measured not by distance, but the meters of vertical ascent we’d clocked off.
My initial on-paper measure of this race was grossly inaccurate. With no real rest or meaningful free kilometres on offer, the stages of the Swiss Epic were among the toughest I’ve encountered across the stage racing spectrum. Perhaps I was avoiding the obvious in not doing the maths up front, but a quantitative measure which does begin to tell the story is the ratio of vertical ascent to distance.
Meters climbed per kilometer
Swiss Epic 2018: 37.9 m/km
Cape Epic 2019: 26.7 m/km
Cape Epic 2018: 20.3 m/km
Wines2Whales: 20.9 m/km
While the relentless climbs and hair-raising descents of Swiss Epic are inescapably taxing, there is something magical about the Swiss riding experience. From the postcard vistas of towering snow-capped peaks to quaint mountainside cabins, the distant rhythmic rattle of cowbells, the chants of “Hopp Hopp” from encouraging locals - it’s a special place to ride a mountain bike.
And off the bike, the sleepy, car-free villages offered a welcome slow down in pace from noisy South African city life. Instead of the de-facto stage race tent living you come to expect, all Swiss Epic participants were comfortably accommodated in surrounding hotels and holiday apartments. Spending two nights in each village also meant less frequent re-packing of bags for transport to the next location. The simple luxuries of no shower queues or portaloos might sound extravagant to the hardened stage race tent dweller, but the all-round comfort off the bike did well to offset the physical demands of each day.
A stage race experience like no other. Across landscapes seemingly predestined to produce medal winners. Switzerland, I hope to return soon.
With the event taking place in the south of Switzerland the natural route was to fly into Zurich and from there commute via car or train to the race village in Bettermalp. We opted for the train and after missing our planned train thanks to a flight delay we did land up reaching the race village a few hours later than we’d hoped and missed registration in the process.
The train leaving Zurich was a tight squeeze with bike bags and luggage amongst a huddle of weary travellers, but once out of Zurich space opened up to find seats and stow bikes. After settling in the train made for easy travelling with no navigation or right-sided driving to frazzle nerves.
Our itinerary left little room for error and even less time to settle in having arrived at the race village shortly after registration ended. In hindsight arriving in the morning, if not a full two days prior to the start would have been the way to go.
- Fly direct
The less time on an aeroplane the better. Look out for well-priced for direct flights to Europe.
- Arrive early
Aim to arrive at the race village with time to breath and assemble your bike. Either early morning pre-race day or with a day or two to spare.
- Fit a dropper post
Unless you're blessed with World Cup worthy technical skills a dropper post is almost essential.
- Pack extra brake pads
Take an extra set or two. Even in dry conditions the braking demands eat up pads in no time and spares in the village may be limited.
- Plenty tyre plugs
Pack your usual supply and then some extra. The rocky trails aren't shy to take a bite or three.
- Work on your technical skills
Expect steep, rocky trails with tight, slow speed turns, rock gardens, drops and switchbacks for days. Practice.
- Don’t skimp on tyres
Opt for the stronger sidewalls and puncture protection and consider something in the 2.3-2.35 inch range up front to take on the gnar.
Note: The 2019 Swiss Epic now takes place a bit earlier from 20-24 August 2019 and in a new region, Graubünden with host towns of Davos, St. Moritz and Lenzerheide. While of course the route will be totally new, I'd expect that alpine terrain will be as unforgiving and the above will still apply.
Keen on 2019? See all the details on the Swiss Epic website here.