The Trans Alp Bike Race claims to be the toughest amateur Mountain Bike stage race in Europe. Six hundred teams made up of two riders, set out from Imst in Austria on a seven day epic that ended this year in Arco, Italy. Of the six hundred teams 16 were women’s teams.
The race is an ultimate test of mountain bike endurance and skill. My team mate Michelle and I spent seven days doing battle up mountain passes, riding along valley floors, passing through tunnels and dropping down breath-taking descents as we crossed from Austria to Italy. We passed through 3 countries, climbed over 17,000mts, the equivalence of climbing the height of Everest twice over and rode 521km. As a team we burnt around 70,000 calories, went through 4 sets of brake pads, ate a lot of water melon at the rest stops, consumed 36 energy gels from High 5 and SIS, 12 bananas, drank around 4.5 L a day and spent 44 hours in the saddle.
The Trans Alp was far tougher than I imagined, no training in the relatively flat UK can prepare you for exhausting 2,000m climbs that took us over and through the spectacular scenery.
After 17 hours of driving we arrived at our B&B and spent Friday relaxing and exploring the trails nearby on our bikes and trying the local pizza. We were being supported by my Dad. Having competed at a high level himself (Kayak Slalom for GB) he was excited to be supporting Michelle and I and also came with vital knowledge on what we would need whether that be encouragement, food, water or just a thumbs up as we raced passed.
On Saturday morning, I woke with some pre-race nerves and a degree of uncertainty had started to creep into my mind. Could I actually do this?
Imst had become transformed in just a few hours from a quiet alpine town to a hive of excitement and activity. Mountain bikers, some already with number boards on the front of their bikes and carrying the massive blue bags with Trans Alp bike race written on them, which would take their clothes, bike spare parts, food etc from hotel to hotel, were heading off to find their hotels for the night. The streets were filled with music, banners and the general excitement. I felt a wave of eagerness myself. This was it, after all the training and planning, we had made it to the Trans Alp start.
Signing on was a simple process, and the level of race organisation was excellent. After attaching the race number board and transponder to the front of our bikes we were given pasta party vouchers (each evening the race organised a pasta party to help riders refuel), freebies and of course a big blue kit bag to put everything in to be transported from hotel to hotel. It reminded me of Ride London but on a massive scale!
It took me an age to drift off to sleep my head was full of checklists and questions. Were my tyres too hard? Had I got my nutrition right? Would my bottle jump out of the bottle cage?
Stage 1 Imst to Nauders
The start was a mass of excited riders all looking for their grid positions. We were assigned into one of five bays, so that the starts could be controlled and avoid un-necessary collisions. Because Michelle and I had not raced a stage race before we were gridded in D which was at the back. The atmosphere was exciting with music blaring loudly with intermittent instructions being given out over the tannoy system in several different languages. The professionals supported by their teams were on rollers warming up whilst one or two had chosen to wear fancy dress over their biking kit! The race was mainly made up with riders like myself – just looking to finish in the best achievable time, but for a few the prize of winning gave the race a very different edge.
This first stage was 88km and included 3,000 metres of climbing along the famous Via Claudia. Having never climbed 3,000 metres in one day before I was in for an interesting day’s work ahead.
The climbing was rewarded with the most amazing scenery through the mountain passes. At points after climbing we would sweep back down into the valley and through picturesque little towns full of people cheering which really lifted my spirits and kept me going.
During each stage there was a ‘vertical challenge’, timed section of climb. Todays was mega tough as we climbed on a loose fire road. Due to the steep gradient, every now and again my pedal stroke would send my back wheel spinning out. I was not impressed when, after the vertical challenge section ended, I found we still continued to climb! I had thought after the vertical climb there should be a downhill reward!
Stage 2 Nauders to Scuol
This short, but decidedly diversified stage took us through three countries: Austria, Italy, and Switzerland.
The day started with the great news that due to our time on day 1 we had been moved up the start position to from rank D to B! Feeling very impressed with ourselves Michelle and I set off potentially too fast for the 10km uphill which greeted us.
One of my favourite parts of every day in the Alps was the Maxxis Enduro Challenge. This was a timed section of the day, usually a downhill technical section. Today’s reminded me of Wales, on a steeper scale with wooded tracks through the forest.
The heat was starting to get to me, with temperatures in the thirties I found the uphill sections energy sapping and I had to constantly drink to rehydrate. Having Dad and Tom here for support was proving valuable as they found places on route to give us extra water which I needed. Having someone at the finish line each day to help wash your bike and then find your hotel was also a big bonus of having a support team. Some of the hotels have been out of town and having someone to drive you to the accommodation so you can get showered and stretch off and refuel quickly helped both Michelle and I recover each evening.
The routine at the finish soon developed into: washing the bike, washing ourselves, stretching, eating, having a massage and then trying to get your brain which is buzzing with the wonders and efforts of the day to turn off and let you sleep.
Stage 3 Scuol to Livigno
The morning started at 6.30 am as we clambered out of bed to pack and take our kit bags down to reception so that it could be taken to the next hotel destination. Then, breakfast, the most important meal of the day. Even more so when you’re riding through lunch time! I supplemented my European breakfast of fruit and yoghurt with porridge and also had a few slices of bread with either honey, Nutella or egg depending on what is on offer. Eating so much in the morning is hard but I knew I needed to keep refuelling with carbs if I hoped to make it to day seven!
This stage had some of the most breath-taking scenery I had seen. Climbing high over Pass da Costainas the route continued to make its way through the valley on an amazing bit of singletrack which at one point included traversing a steep sided track around the reservoir and crossing a waterfall.
Stage 4 Livigno to Bormio
The road twisted up through the valley climbing for 1,000m with an average incline of 9% until we ran out of tarmac. At this point we were sent off road on a 400m steep climb to the summit of Bocchetta di Forcola.
Standing above the snow line was unbelievable. Mountains stretched out as far as the eye could see and down below a trail of ant sized cyclists made their way up to the summit. A breath-taking moment I will never forget.
Stage 5 Bormio to Mezzana
The Queens stage and the toughest day of my Trans Alp experience. I had my first mechanical after my chain jammed 800m off the start. My body then had its first mechanical when my lower back problems reared their ugly head sending pains from my back all down my leg into my foot.
By the top of Passo Gavia at 2,600m I was really struggling, I got off and stretched out my back while Michelle kindly waited. This seemed to ease the pain in my leg and foot.
The Maxxis Enduro Challenge section, gave some light relief and a lot of fun which helped me forget the pain as my mind was focused on making my way through the steep rock gardens down to the valley floor. It was over too quickly and we were climbing once more.
By the feed station at 45km I was again in a lot of pain and felt overwhelmed by the fact there was still over 40km to go until the finish of the day. It is in these moments we all find out the strength of our character. It was a lonely climb to the top of the pass and I battled a lot of negative feelings in those 5km! As my Dad often says: ‘anyone can do it when it’s easy it’s how we cope when the going gets hard that defines who we are’.
I was relieved to see Michelle at the top, she then helped me with my bike up a few steep climbs as she could tell I was in trouble. Having a good team mate on a stage race was more important than I realised. Having someone there through the tough times even if just to offer a few words of encouragement makes all the difference.
Stage 6 Mezzana to Trento
Day six started with some nerves. I was worried about how my back would be when I started hard uphill sections, after the previous day and felt rather emotional about being so close to the finish line.
Luckily sleep, Pilates and painkillers seemed to work okay and after the congestion created by the downhill start the long climb was okay and I felt alright if I stayed at a steady pace. Michelle is a better climber than me and at this point had disappeared into the distance. It was nice to see her walking back down to help me with my bike on a steeper section when I was struggling to push up. In a team event it is these little moments of support that keep you going and also bind you together.
The highlight of the day was steep woodland single-track. It was challenging but exciting to be off road in such a magical place on single-track which would be pretty impossible to find by yourself. I had to keep an eye on my riding line to avoid boulders hidden in the leaves. It had been drizzling at times and with hard tyres, because of all the climbing I had decided to run harder tyres, choosing the right line and missing wet roots was critical.
One of the highpoints was riding through a very long dark tunnel where the temperature was so cold it took my breath away. It was really eerie riding from bright sunlight into such a dark place. It seemed to go on forever. A small group of us stayed close together and you could tell no one wanted to be alone in this tunnel!
The path then continued to wind through apple groves and vineyards until the final descent which was more like a scramble than a bike track! We had to carefully make our way down the rock face carrying our bikes some of the way, as it was super steep!
To my surprise, my body was handling the long days. Pace is key and I had found a race pace I could maintain for the 6-9 hours of continuous riding the days were made up of. The climbing was a lot tougher than I expected but having never biked more than 4 days in a row before I was really pleased to make it to day 6 feeling ready for day 7!
Stage 7 Trento to Arco
The Trans Alp has been an amazing journey, I have been working hard towards this final day for 10 months and the idea that journey was ending was a little overwhelming. So it was with both happiness and sadness that I lined up in Trento ready for my last 54km of this beautiful race.
After a dry start leaving Trento, we started the gradual climb up from 200m to 1700m. The climb started on road turning to forest tracks and gravel paths as we gradually wound our way to the top of the pass. I was feeling great, no aches or pains and was actually enjoying the demanding climb. (Clearly I’m getting used to the Alps !) Some sections were pretty steep and with all the rain over night rather slippery too.
Once the terrain was more rideable I enjoyed the forest trails which were very like those at home. Although drenched by now my spirits were far from dampened. This after all was just like riding in Wales! The Specialized Era was fantastic, apart from a few gearing issues caused by the 42t sprocket I put on for the huge climbs. The low stand-over height and rear shock have given me confidence to push myself on the single-track sections and the rear shock helped take the pounding out of climbing and descending which helped my back no end.
I have relished pushing myself out of my comfort zone and have found this whole week one long learning curve on bike handling, climbing, team work, nutrition and positive mental attitude! Enjoyed it all.
The rain soon set in hard and I was so glad to have my Gore Tex jacket. The feed station at 19km was full of chilly cyclists sipping hot soup, still with smiles on their faces.
I didn’t stop for long just grabbing some pineapple and a drinks refill before continuing climbing to the summit at 24km.
I reached the top feeling relieved that my last big hill climb was behind me, but sad that I was nearly half way through the final stage. During this race there have been many highs and lows and I have learnt so much about myself, met some wonderful people and have fully immersed myself in the adventure.
The downhill section was bone chilling, the first part was grassy paths through steep sided gulley’s, which in the dry would have been great fun, but the rain had made them like ice rinks and together with a group of riders I caught up with, I cautiously made my way down these steep parts. Once we hit the fire road, I enjoyed the sweeping corners singing songs with the word rain in them, as I made my way down to try and keep my spirits high as the rain tumbled from the sky.
The feed station at 32km came with a very welcome hot tea and waffles. Just up the road was my Dad, like an ‘angel‘, he stood with dry gloves and arm warmers. I have never been so happy to pull on a cosy warm layer and this really helped get me up what was now my final short climb section in the Alps!
At the top of the climb Michelle was waiting huddled with Tom. We finished the final downhill section together. Now we were not as high, it was warm and damp, a little bit like a summer in Wales, so I felt really at home whizzing down the trails looking for the lines which avoided any slippery roots.
Racing into the back roads of the town, full of puddles and pot holes and through the final finishing archway was incredible, I felt like I was dreaming. After thinking of this moment for the last 10 months, visualizing what it would feel like to have accomplished my dream – it is difficult to describe how I felt. Relieved to have finished climbing mountains for a while, exhilarated to have pushed my body out of the comfort zone and so proud to say I completed the toughest Stage race in Europe! WE DID IT!
Thank you to my Dad, all my family and friends who supported me. Thanks to Specialized for designing such a great bike – the Era and supporting my adventure. Thanks to Bike Fixers, Grip Grab, Food for Thought and Dogtag for supporting us on this journey of a life-time.