You can have a great course, super competitors, a stunning location, fantastic logistics – but if the weather doesn’t play along there is little that a race organiser can do.
The National Park Bike Marathon was destined to be tough today. The forecast was for rain, and high temperatures barely out of the single digits for the higher towns that we would pass through. Thankfully, it wasn’t actually too cold in Scuol for the start. As this recent trip back to France and Switzerland is entirely in August, I had packed light. But I pulled on all the warmer kit I had this morning, before clipping in for a weather check warm up. Bibs, jersey, Linebreak undershirt, arm warmers, leg warmers, booties, windproof gloves and a gore tex jacket. After a spin, I decided it was too much. Ditching the leg warmers for a light embrocation, and going back to regular gloves, it was a last minute thought to put my gore tex in my gilet/vest pocket, as well as a lightweight head warmer. Rolling to the start, it was a pleasure having the Swiss Cycling Commisaire invite me to the front ‘sealed section’ of the front start box.
I am certain that will be the only time I am on the front line with the likes of Mr Huber, Kugler, Moos, Looser et al. Nice BMC Carbon 29er by the way Mr Moos. And surgical gloves under your riding gloves? Upstairs for thinking Urs.
We rolled out of town under escort, and the gun went as we crossed the bridge at the bottom of the climb to the Pass de Costainas. While the race didn’t explode with Alexandre Moos, Lukas Buchli and Thomas Stohl boosting away like in 2010 – it wasn’t easy. Soon enough physiological splits occured. Within 3km I was in no mans land. Unable to bridge up the 30m to the group in front, and too stubborn to let the group behind catch me. They did anyway.
As we came into S-Charl, the head wind had started to take its toll. Neal Crampton (Crosstrax) had done some admirable work on the flat, with little to no help from others in his group. Our groups compressed somewhat through S-Charl, and split again with further head winds and pinch climbs.
A almost saw breakfast after gagging on a gel, and was unable to breathe for a little while. This isn’t fun when you’re on the rivet in a small group of four into a block headwind. The rain had started, but I figured the jacket could stay where it was as the pass wasn’t overly exposed, and the descent to Fuldera was forested once we bombed the first part.
Heading up to the Doss Radond, the wind and rain hadn’t really abated. Racing above Tschierv, I could see down to Santa Maria, with amazing crepuscular rays at the bottom of the valley. The sun was trying, there was hope for better weather yet. The forecast predicted improvements after midday. At this point it wasn’t yet 9am.
The rain and wind increased with the gradient up the Doss Radond to the Val Mora. I crested with a gel between my teeth, watching a lot of the feed station get blown away. We gota group of four together again, but it dwindled to three. The rain wasn’t messing around, and there was a lot of standing water on the trail. And it was cold, 6.8deg said the Garmin. Hitting the singletrack along the river was a challenge. My arms were numb to the elbow, so shifting and braking was mostly guess work. The pinches over avalanche gullies often had to be monstored in an inappropriate gear, as quick shifting was long gone. But the wet didn’t slow us down too much. There was some serious pace going on.
Three of us were together as we headed to Lago San Giacomo. Neal, some other guy, and myself. All cold, all suffering, no one giving up though. I’d tried getting a bit more food in, but lacked the motor skills and jaw movement to manage it, making a mess and dropping the gel instead. Some serious warming up was in order, as we were only about 65km in. Thankfully the next climb allowed that, but I pulled over as Neal and our other competitor pulled away. I was too cold – I had to get my jacket on.
Anyone who has tried to dress themselves when their body has made a determined effort to shut down and take all blood to it’s core will understand the challenge I was presented with. Get my arms through tight fitting sleeves? Do up a zip? I lost a few places. A few more switch-backed corners on and I was still suffering. Headwarmer time.
This required more motor skills, as I had to dig in behind my spares in my jersey pocket, and remove my helmet and glasses. Time seemed to stand still. Six more people passed me.
My thinking was, this way I could warm up still over the top of the climb, maintain that on the descent, and hopefully gain some places back on the run into, around, and out of Livigno. Then the Chaschauna, and all bets were off. That thing is steep – I really didn’t know how that would go. The 50km/800m vert after it – I was comfortable I could use to my advantage, if I looked after myself now.
Gratefully I pulled three people in before the top of the climb, and I think two more on the flat in Livigno. But it was cold. There was a ray of sun on the slopes up to the Chaschauna (just under 2700m), but a wall of dark grey was heading down from beyond the Furcola di Livigno.
Bare legs in cold weather are sub-optimal. I wasn’t running any full on embrocation, just Poundland Muscle-Rub. It had worked well enough for a little while, but these conditions required something more Belgian strength, plus legwarmers. As we turned off onto the steep part of the climb, I realised I may not improve on last years result. My legs were sore, with the pain that comes form putting them through hardship without looking after them. 26/36 was probably ok as a gear for a lot of the climb, my legs just couldn’t make use of it. It was raining, I had to walk some sections. This sucked a bit.
Then the thunder came, and the wind blew even harder. And the rain increased.
The race route is pretty committing. Turning back to Livigno was a big unknown. I had no credit card, euro’s or francs with me. Plus I would need somewhere warm to go. Realisitically, getting over the top and descending to S-chanf was the best option. It took an age, as even when you can ride this part of the course, you’re struggling to do much more than 5 or 6 km/h. Walking is a bit over 3km/h.
With the refuge just below the pass in-sight I was relieved. I had a cup of bouillon (now I get it…) and one of the race volunteers said it would still be wet, but not as cold on the other side. It was barely 2deg Celsius, so warmer was nice. Aiming to create body heat I moved as quickly as I could on this hike-a-bike section. People were all over the place. At this point, you have three of the race distances together. Smaller riders were getting blown around, and were struggling to keep hold of their bikes in the strong wind.
Running over the top, I remounted, and checked my brakes worked. Well enough, although I couldn’t tell by feel. My hands were numb, and beyond pain. It was a struggle to steer as by now I couldn’t control the shivering over my whole body. Gratefully some trail work had been done, and it would have been an amazing descent in different conditions.
As it was I was focused on survival. Rain had turned to sleet, which was now snow. We had about 100m visibility.
Clearly it had been doing this for a while, as the ground was already developing a good blanket of white. Once off the steep section I knew we were in paddocks for a few kilometres, then a farm. So hopefully, 5km maximum, then there was hope. Everyone was in a bad way. I knew the slightest mechanical would prove disastrous. There were marshals/medics out there – but everyone was suffering. As it flattened I took as many euro-lines through the paddocks as possible, which was risky, as there were about 5cm of snow on everything now.
I unleashed. Not physically, I was done. But verbally. I needed the adrenaline that only swearing at anything and everything around you can give. There was no holding back, and no modesty. The weather, mountains, racing, my bike, myself – everything got a serve.
Coming to the pig farm/feed zone and there was a sea of snow covered bikes. A heavily jacketed lady grabbed my bike, pointed me towards the cheese-making room door and gave me a cup of bouillon. I couldn’t hold it, and spilt the majority.
Being inside was a welcome relief, but painful. There were many of us who were unable to regulate our temperature. Our combined shivering had us all bumping into each other. Blankets were wrapped around the worst people. Others groaned with the pain of blood and circulation returning. I got my gloves off and looked at my pure white hands and swollen fingers. They could barely bend. More bouillon. A blanket. After a while I regained some personality.
More people came in, but not for long. They must have been stopped at the refuge on the otherside if the Chaschauna. Plans were being put in place, and after over an hour of trying to warm up, get dry, and making friends, we were slowly shuttled down to S-chanf in locals 4WD’s. The sky was clearing, and the fresh snow continued a long way down the valley. The Swiss mountains looked fabulous.
It turned out the race was cancelled midway, and people were being shuttled back to Scuol from a variety of locations. We caught the train from S-chanf once our bikes made it down in small trucks. Cruelly enough, most of this transport was done under blue skies. But it was cold. And once chilled to the core, it is very uncomfortable being in such conditions. Back in Scuol, showering has never felt so good.
Talking to Datasport, only two people completed the full 138km race. 14 completed the 104km from Fuldera. As there are transponders along the route at various towns, most of us still get a result. Therefore my race officially finished at Livigno. 21st in class, 29th overall. So a shade off last year – but I didn’t have the advantge of the 50km flat run in did I?
Full results can be viewed on the Datasport website