Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Trans Alps 2012

Trans Alps - 2013

ok ok to my one avid reader ... so I have been slack in not writing up something about the most amazing race in the calendar year. 

So for 8 days in mid july, myself and Jason McAvoy raced for over 600km and ascended over 21,000 vertical meters. The route took us from Oberammergau, Germany through Austria, Switzerland and eventually into Italy, with the finish in the beautiful lake side town of Riva del Garda.

Unfortunately, Jase got a dose of man-flu at the start of the race, and coupled with the altitude and distances he struggled. Of course, that meant that our pairing was a bit stressed - as Jase was in the box and I was idling and wanting to rip the legs off anyone and everyone.

Jase has assured me he will speak to me again ... one day :P

So rather then do my usual write up of events, I'll write up things a little differently ...

Firstly, this is an amazing race. I would recommend it to anyone (who loves being in the pain box on the bike). With over 1100 riders from all over the world, just making it out of the start chute every morning is an experience. Have you ever wondered how "on your left" is said in German, Italian, French, Swiss, Russian, Portuguese, South African, Korean, Japanese ... you get the point. Chances are by the end of Trans Alps, you will have heard all these versions!

Each day of the race loosely fitted into the same template. We would "roll" out of some quiet mountain village in a "neutralized" manner for about 5km. Over the PA system, the race would start with announcements in German, Italian and English ... and then they would play AC/DC Highway to Hell. I use the words "roll" and "neutralized" cautiously, as most saturday morning Bakery Bunch gallops are more tame then these starts. Really what the race organizers should have said was that it was a free for all, and just don't over take the pace car (which is doing 50km / h).

Side walks, drainage systems and anything you could ride over was fair game. Cars parked next to the road would lose their mirrors as the pack went through!

Assuming you survive the craziness of 1100 riders bumping bars on tight cobble stone streets, you then hit a climb which will be somewhere between 1000 - 1600 vertical meters. The climb will take up 2 hours to ascend.  Usually these climbs were on ski resort access roads, or up switch back mountain passes. They were rarely too steep, and a 2x10 granny was fine for grinding up the hills.

The top of these climbs were usually well over 2000m, with 2800m being the highest point in the race. Altitude aside, it is fricken cold up there and even colder as you make a 30km descent!

The European's have not grasped the concept of flowing single track. To get you back to groveling up a hill as soon as possible, the descents are either hair raising fireroads - with blind switch back corners over clifs, over loose rock surfaces or the descents are vertical rocky, rooty fall lines - in which your ears pop from the sheer altitude loss over a few km!

Either way, you very quickly descend.  At the start line I had wondered why some many people had 200mm rotors on their XC bikes. I soon found out why ... the descents are so intense, and go for so long that your arms and hands are soggy messes of flesh by the bottom. My brake rotors were scorched black from the intense heat. It was a common sight to see riders pulling to a complete stop on these descents, as their brakes literally boiled and they had to wait for them to cool before continuing!

So, back to a standard TA day ... so you have made a sketchy descent, and you are now at the bottom of some valley. Chances are that down here it is 20 or 30+ degrees C, where as at the top of the peak you just climbed over it was in the single digits, and possibly raining!  A Goretex jacket was a standard item for every rider, and we used them pretty much every day. Arm and knee warmers and under shirts were also needed for most days, at least for some point in the day. Many of the Euro riders took this to the extreme, with Goretex helmet covers, gloves, socks, and even pants. Apparently, the cool kids wear Goretex pants to keep their knicks dry ... I am not convinced. #harden_up

Once into these valley's there was often a nice 10-20km of flat which could be time-trialed, or on the more cruel days this would be a heap of undulations. Either way, it would take you to the next big climb of the day - usually another monster 1000-1500 vertical meter mountain. Remember that the average is over 3000 vert m / day!

Most of the towns we passed through had their streets closed down for the race, so there was always heaps of spectators and people cheering. Hop, hop hop, cow bells dinging ... and even dudes running next to us giving out bottles of water!

Usually when climbing on the road bike, you don't get the chance to feel the sensation of just how quickly you are gaining altitude ... but when you literally go up switch back after switch back, and you look back over your shoulder you can actually get a feeling of vertigo. You realize just how high up 1000 vertical meters is, as the little valley town below becomes smaller and smaller.

Ascending those distances, you also see the terrain change. You start in lush valleys, with thick trees and shrubs. Soon you are into the higher farm lands, with the cows grazing and lush soil. Then you are above the tree line, with shale rocks and the remnants of old glaciers tumbling around you. Finally, you reach the snow line and it is just fricken cold!

The day would then finish in another quiet mountain village. Rolling in on the cobblestone streets, lots of spectators on the side of the road cheering - it was always a welcoming feeling.

Usually these towns would be surrounded by massive 3000m+ monster mountains, and you quickly realized that there would be no easy way out of this town.

The post race food quickly made up for any crappiness in the day. The food was always put on by the local town, and so there was copious amounts of cheeses, cold meats, panini, chocolate, coke, fruits, etc etc. You could stuff yourself silly before even heading back to the hotel!

The routine became, finish race, pig out on post race food, find hotel & shower, find pizza (round 1), lie on back to rest stomach from eating, find pizza (round 2), find dessert ... pass out in bed.

We (wisely) choose to go the hotel route for our race accommodation. The event organizers cater for this really well, and will transport your bags between your nominated hotels each day. The only down side of this was that you had to leave your bag in the hotel foyer by 7am, but with the race not starting until 9am, it meant you had to choose what clothes you kept with you wisely. It also meant sitting down for breakfast in full kit and trying not to leak chamois cream everywhere ....

The hotels in these small towns were great - usually around 120 euros, with buffet breakfast, internet and staff who would go out of their way to help out. Anyone who freely volunteers to wash my dirty kit after a day of riding in the mud gets bonus points in my book!  I got my money's worth in breakfast food eating alone!

In contrast, those who took on the TA camping option had the pleasure of sleeping on the floor of town halls, gyms or car parks - on thin mats, spaced close together.  These guys and girls often got to share one toilet and shower per 200 of their closest carb-loaded euro mates, and the whole place was a massive drying (stink) room of kits freshly "stomped" on in the shower.

So, some tips for you if you get a chance to do this race;

* Train for more hills then you can imagine. Then train some more. I thought that doing 15 x Mt Ainslie repeats was an overkill. Next year it will be 15 x Mt Ainslies at least 3 days / week!
* Take a good collection of spare parts - The small towns have limited bike shops, and although there are race mechanics and race support services you are sharing them with 1100 other riders. In particular take;
** Chains - given a few days of bad weather, take at least 2 x spare chains
** Spokes - there were a lot of broken spokes. Ever tried to get an ENVE spoke in AU, let alone from some small shop in an Austrian ski town with an old dude who does not speak any english. Take spare spokes!
** Brake pads - at least 4 spare sets. Given the epic descents, you could fry a set in a day if the weather was bad
** Bottle cages - Both my carbon cages were destroyed from the rough descents.
** Gear cables - Full length cable outers are a must, and if you do them right you should get away without needing to run any new cables. But always safe to have a few spare cables just in case
** Derailleur & hanger - Luckily we did not mash a derailleur, but it would be pretty easy to smash one. That said, I did burn through a lower jockey wheel during the week, so having spare of those is pretty useful
** Tires - not essential. Maxxis were providing support and had a big range of tires, tubes and stans related products.
** Valve extenders - Have you ever tried to get a long valve tube (for you deep dish carbon wheels), from that Austrian dude who does not speak English? McAvoy tried and failed. If you need long valves, carry valve extenders so you can at least use short valve tubes.
* Get to the stage start early - self seeding in your start group commences a good hour before the race start
* Pace yourself - there was quite a number of guys who smashed the first few days, and then were dribbling messes by midweek
* Recovery each day is essential - make sure your post stage priority is to eat, drink and sleep
* Keep your bike well maintained - there is no sag wagon, and you are in the middle of no-where. A mechanical issue could be a huge drama. Check over your bike each day and keep it running well
* Learn a little German ... more then just knowing beer names is helpful
* CO2 cartridges on planes is still a mystery to me. Their web sites say they are ok (if packed well, and 2 per person etc), but the grumpy baggage inspector in Dubai was not happy with them - which at 1am in the morning after a 7 hour flight, and they are delaying your flight to rummage through a bag is not cool

Finally, some handy tips on being in Europe;

* Money in most of Europe is the Euro
* Money which they laugh at when you tender it in Switzerland is the Euro
* Places where pizza, pasta and sausage is all dirt cheap and really tasty - Europe
* Places where pizza, pasta and everything is fricken expensive - Switzerland
* All the top riders at the race rode 29er hard tails
* Place where we were told that "29ers are too heavy and have floopy wheels. They are only used by flat landers" - Switzerland (I guess they have no seen the 2013 bike catalogs ...)
* Places where the toll roads are quite expensive - Europe
* Place where the toll roads are crazy expensive - Switzerland
* Place where the Garmin was adamant that we were to drive over a historic pedestrian wooden bridge- Switzerland
* Place where the road signs include speed limits for tanks - Germany (30 kph in case you were wondering)
* A Tupac line is called an Euro line (and they love to take them)
* Putting chamois cream directly onto your team mates butt is the Euro thing to do
* Wearing white knicks on a rainy day is Euro
* Fluro is still quite fashionable in Euro-land
* Standing around with your jersey off, bib / brace off your shoulders and knicks pants pulled up to show off all your massive legs - being Euro
* Having a choice of 6 cheeses and 10 cold meats for breakfast - Euro breakfast

So will I be going back - hell yeah!  I am accepting offers from potential riders to pair up with ... man up JD, that means you!


  1. I still can't believe you were able to go through such far ranges of biking and through really difficult courses at that. The photos are lovely and I'm excited to read more about your updates.

  2. Actually I think there are at least two of us...

    You're cover photo, blue lake and mountains, looks a lot where I'm living right now.

    Except the mountain passes here are above 4400m, and this time of year no snow.

    But get caught up there late in the day, or in the rain, bloody freezing.

  3. Honey, when we go back, im hiring a porsche or audi rather than a SEAT (bike) family wagon! Just FYI xxx