By Andrew Bond
Andrew Bond is a travel writer and Managing Director of Virtual Travel Guides, which publishes new media guides and produces content for some of online travel’s biggest brands. When he’s not travelling, he’s busy training in the mountains around Chiang Mai for the next bike race.
It takes a certain type of cyclist to sign on to a SpiceRoads tour. After all, if you want the amazing views and unique experiences you must be prepared to sit in the saddle for six hours a day for a week or more. In other words, it’s a privilege reserved for the fit and determined.
Taking this logic a step further, SpiceRoads founder Hamish Keith decided to lead by example and tackle the Trans Alps; the well known 600km race over 22,000 metres of mountains. There are few mountain bike races tougher except perhaps the Cape Epic in South Africa, and since I had previously ridden that event, along with Hamish and SpiceRoads tour leader Jon Malnick, I got roped in as his team mate.
Getting over the highlands of Northern Thailand, Vietnam or Luzon to seek out hill tribe villages or steep rice terraces is a challenge, but the Alps present a far greater effort without the slick logistical support of the SpiceRoads team. Twice we rode through fresh snow, it hailed on a third day and just to test our resolve each of us lost a bike bag before or after the race. After about 200 hours of training, and 45 hours of hard riding we reached Riva del Garda. The views certainly were amazing, and the experience uniquely challenging. Now in its 14th year the Craft Trans Alps attracts a field of 600 two-man teams, drawn from a lottery, and is considered one of the ultimate mountain bike challenges. This year, for the first time, a team from Thailand entered, sponsored by SpiceRoads and Exotissimo. Here are blog excerpts.
Stage 1: Mittenwald to Weerberg (95kms, 2,336m). Lining up in the centre of this postcard like Karwendal town, the sun has finally emerged with brilliant skies accentuating the sharp Alpine scenery around us. Overnight most of the riders and sponsors rolled into town, and finally we’re off after months of anticipation. Adding to the nervousness was a missing bike, which I recovered from EasyJet after a seven hour round trip to Munich. With two long steady ascents, the stage turns out to be one of the easier days and one of our best finishes (80th), though a nasty climb at the end of the flat second half proves a killer.
Stage 2: Weerberg to Mayrhofen (68km, 2,911m). Day two’s profile is typical of many in the race booklet, it looks like a thirty year cycle of a stock market index, steady sharp climbs then a rapid fall, followed by another and another. Each climb takes about an hour and half, while the descents are sometimes over in 15 minutes! It just a war of attrition between you and the altimeter on your Garmin. On this particular day the climbs become progressively steeper and rougher, until we find ourselves among the cable car stations at the head of the ski slopes, before descending into Mayhofren. It’s a typical Tyrol resort town, equally busy in the height of summer or winter.
Stage 3: Mayrhofen to Brixen (94km, 2,154m). What a shock, snow! We set out in the rain and climb steadily on tarmac that becomes a rough hiking trail, and finally a portage as we cross over the snow dusted Pfitscher Joch pass into Italy. From there it’s all easy downhill in theory, but without full finger gloves braking is tricky (I would suffer mild frostbite for several days as a result). We are now directed by stylishly dressed Carabinieri, and meander through villages that still look very Germanic, eventually arriving in the picturesque town square of Brixen. The various stage towns are one of the highlights and this is a classic, with its Baroque Cathedral in Duomo Square, and thousand-year-old cobbled lanes. The food is also getting progressively tastier.
Stage 4: Brixen to St Vigil (72kms, 3,504m). During breakfast Hamish and I study with trepidation the riders’ booklet detailing the course. It tells us that today’s stage has 3,500m of climbing, with a difficulty rating of 4.2 – which is only the second toughest of the days apparently. With this leg being only 75kms, it means the gradient averages 10%. As it turns out they had over-calculated, thankfully (this small details make a huge difference late in the stage), but we spent most the day above 1,700m and are rewarded with our first true glimpse of the stunning dolomite peaks that make this region famous. Although we’re promised that there’s only about 1 per cent portage on the entire course, crowded bottlenecks and tired legs means it’s more like 20 per cent of the time. All the same, we’re seeing the Alps from a perspective very others do.
Stage 5: St Vigil to Alleghe (73kms, 2,618m). Awake to drizzle and single figure temperatures. It was hot and sunny just yesterday. The sole South East Asian team looks decidedly under-dressed at the start as the Europeans don their Gortex all-weather jackets, thermal tights, waterproof booties, face masks and full finger gloves – mit fleece lining ja! An hour later we are slushing through snow that fell overnight on the pass, and it’s ridiculously cold. Now we have to descend! There’s a small consolation, the organizers announced that by 11am they will decide whether to abandoned the stage at the second water stop if it doesn’t warm up, the temperature at the top of the second mountain is just 4 degrees. At the first water stop the news is a relief, but we still have to pedal 20kms to the ‘finish’. And it’s not entirely over there, we may have avoided the highest point of the entire race, but we still have to get ourselves to Alleghe, which means riding on the road over the 2,000m Falzerego pass. The descend down into the valley would be fantastic on most days but with numb fingers its excruciating. Alleghe is a pretty village on a lakeside at 1,400m, and we’re billeted in a nearby ski village further up the heavily forested slopes. This happens often, so we don’t bother with the 30-minute journey to attend the pasta party and daily prize giving.
Day 6: Alleghe to San Martino (73kms, 3,150m). In theory the two riders of a team should stay together continually, but the timing checks are only at the water points, so Hamish gets ahead on the uphill, and I try to catch him on the fast and treacherous gravel descents. We find it easier spotting each other from the bright yellow panels on our bib shorts (honestly who’s idea was it to make them yellow!), Hamish’s Trek Fuel has a squeak that is the butt end of jokes in the climbing pack. I’m on a Specialized Epic, and these two bikes gave us no mechanic problems or flats the whole ride. One guy keeps coming past us on the hills riding an old Ritchie with static fork and V brakes on. He’s German and bluntly quips, ‘it’s uphill most the time, I’ve done it three times already on this bike’. All the big bike brands are set up in the bike village, offering free mechanic service, and if you’re riding a Scott or Rocky Mountain they clean and tweak your bike for you while the rest of us slum it at the bike wash. So far I’ve needed a tyre change, cable change and disk brake adjustment. Wearing out a set of pads in a week is a first! Varied terrain makes this an interesting day, finally, with some interesting XC and single track, so we improve on GC positions lost during the snow days. Rain clouds roll in at the last water stop, as we crest a final saddle hail begins pinging off my helmet. Epic scenery all around, to match the dramatic weather.
Day 7: San Martino to Trento (122kms, 2,600m). San Martino de Castrezzo is a classic Dolomiti ski resort, with it’s steep streets, Alpine lodges, ski shops and a grand amphitheater of peaks and forested mountains around it. It’s our last stage town at altitude and we get off to the fast start with a nervy bunched descent. The terrain has become more technical and rewarding, and today we drop out of the Alps so that the lengthy distance is negated by 3,800 metres of descent. It’s a pity so much is on the road, but it’s the only feasible way to ‘join the dots’. This is one of our better days – finishing in the top 100 Masters. On average we spend six hours in the saddle, with two five-minute water stops and occasional pause at the summits. The whole effort is fueled by regular PowerBar gels, plenty of farting, High 5 iso drink and, crucially, Endurox recovery formula. Riding such races requires strategic discipline to avoid going out too hard in the beginning, and our experience from the Cape Epic means we’re finishing stronger and stronger towards the end. We’ve averted any blow-out days, though some days we feel like tourists rather than racers.
Day 8: Trento to Riva del Garda (75kms, 2,160m). Usually you awake with a sense of trepidation facing a six hour punishment ahead of you, but we relish the final day with ‘plenty of gas left in our tanks’. Aside from a wet start and some pushing, this stage is one of our favourites for its single track and an easy last climb. Before we know it we’re part of a fast bunch, Hamish pulling madly at the front, as we speed down the lowland valley that leads to Lake Garda. There’s a festive atmosphere at the finish and a sense of relief and achievement as we complete one of our best stages. Overall our time is 45 hours, 42 minutes and we finish 98th in the masters, 298 overall (of 600 starters). This popular tourist town, with its pretty lakeside waterfront is an ideal last stop, as we celebrate on chianti, gelato and the type of pizzas that you only ever taste in Italy.
Since we miss the pasta party and prize-giving more often than not, we had lost touch with who was leading the race or winning each day. By the time we get in, around the middle of the field each day, the front runners are all in their hotels or camper vans already. It turns out to be a three way fight between reigning champions The Bulls, Karl Platt and Thomas Dietsch, who were eventually beaten by Team Stockli; comprising a Swiss pair of rookies, Urs Huber and Konny Looser (27 hours, 02 minutes), while Italians Massimo De Bertolis and Johann Pallhuber of Silmax Autopolar Cannondale, joined them on the podium. For the rest of us it’s a big deal whether you come 275th or 303 in any given day. the Masters category is unusually large and competitive since it includes any team over the age of 80 combined (184 in all), while those teams over 100 are Senior Masters. There are 22 Ladies teams and 45 mixed teams, about 20 per cent of the riders retired over the course of the race.
Next Challenge? The Trans Alps is one of those truly great biking events open to amateurs and a worthy badge of achievement. With sufficient training, most riders could finish within the 10 hour daily cut off. Overall, it seemed tougher to me than the Cape Epic, but Hamish felt the opposite, certainly it was more competitive. Regrettably the organisation, while logistically challenging, fell short of Germanic expectations, especially compared to the Cape Epic. Queuing on your tired legs for 45 minutes for food, and a chaotically planned finish that disorientated exhausted riders were some examples of poor planning, while losing Hamish’s pro bike bag and abandoning us in the rain miles outside Mittenwald was a frustrating anticlimax. Where’s the Spiceroads support team when you need them! Yet all-in-all it was 1,000 Euros and 30,000 calories well spent. Would I do something like this again? Nope, but that’s what I said after the Epic. What’s next Hamish?