How does riding descending singetrack all day sound to you? The stuff of dreams, right? Well, two mountain bikers, who are good mates, recently broke the mountain bike world descending record by riding more than 20 000 metres of vertical descent in 16 hours. But how? Where? Why?
By Franz Thomas | Photos: Martin Bissig
On 20 July 2021, Silvan Marfurt and Ralph Van Den Berg conquered 20 845 metres of vertical descent on the Davos Klosters singletrack network – a new mountain biking record. The rules: No trail can be ridden twice, and no e-bikes. This is what the two amateur mountain bikers stuck to when they set the new record.
The Swiss mountain biking destination is known for its almost infinite number of singletrack trails and its Bahnentour, or ‘cable car tour,’ which is what inspired this world record.
The two headed out at 04h00 marking the start of a non-stop ride where every descent was on a different trail. They were on a very tight schedule. After 16 hours of trail and cable car riding, their GPS device showed that they’d reached the desired descent of 20 845 vertical metres. They’d made it! They beat the official singletrack world record by 229 vertical metres.
The singletrack world record is a long-standing tradition, and is held mostly by the Swiss. In 2010, Thomas Giger and René Wildhaber, set the first benchmark with a descent of 12 555 vertical metres. Giger beat his own record three years later partnered with mountain bike racing legend, Thomas Frischknecht, descending 13 572 vertical metres. Twins Caroline and Anita Gehrig then beat the record in Vinschgau in 2014, descending 15 117 vertical metres. One year later, Ken Imhasly and Alain Gwerder were the first to cross 20 000-metre threshold in Wallis, until they ceded the title to Marfurt and Van Den Berg in Davos Klosters.
What actually drove you to attempt this extremely challenging feat?
Ralph: “My absolute favourite route is the Davos Bahnentour, with its descent of 10 000 vertical metres. It’s something I do a few times every year. Then I saw that the 2015 trail world record had gone up to over 20 000 vertical metres. I thought that was pretty exciting, and saw it as a challenge. But at the time, I wasn’t fit enough. The first time I’d planned to do it was in 2018, but I kept putting it aside. But in early 2020 the idea of doing it really took hold of me, and I contacted the Records Institute of Germany to get the rules and then I committed to tackling the world record.”
Can you explain the rules of the world record? It would be too easy to just ride down a hill on a gravel road twenty times.
Ralph: “It’s not that easy and the rules were set by the previous record holders. First, “one day” means 16 hours and not one minute more. We could have done more within 24 hours, but the rules only allowed us to ride for 16 hours. We were not allowed to ride the same trail twice. Of course, for some trails the beginning and the end were the same, therefore the rules allowed us an overlap of trails of up to 25%. We could only use public transport and a car for shuttling, the use of a helicopter for example wouldn’t have been possible. As for the trails, 75% of them needed to be singletrack or technical mountain bike trails. Lastly, the use of e-bikes was not allowed and the start and the end of the world record had to be at the same spot.
Sounds exciting! You definitely have to put a lot of planning into a challenge like that. What did you do to prepare?
Ralph: “You’re right. This year, preparations weren’t that easy, because there was still a lot of snow in the mountains, right up until the summer. What that meant was that we could only do one part of the stretch beforehand – we had to plan a large portion of the route using just the map. So there were some sections where we couldn’t even do a test run. That meant we had to be pretty precise in planning the route on the map. It was painstaking work. We took a lot of time preparing and planned the day right down to the smallest detail.”
And what about your bikes? Anything special about them?
Ralph: I was riding a Specialized Enduro S-Works and Silvan a Trek Slash. To avoid punctures, we both were riding with tyre inserts (CushCore) and 1.6bars of tyre pressure. Luckily, we didn’t experience any mechanical issues, and we even made it through the day with only one set of brake pads!
That really does sound like a lot of work, but it was, after all, a huge challenge. Quite often, world records are tackled just by one person. What made you decide to attempt the world record together?
Ralph: “We’ve known each other for a long time and we ride together a lot. Plus, we live nearby, so it always worked out well. I asked Silvan if he wanted to go in on this project with me and make it happen. He agreed, and (laughs) then we pulled through together! And on the big day, it all went really well. Silvan is a more skilled and faster rider and he also took on part of the navigation. Doing this as a team worked super.”
It’s really impressive, that it all went so perfectly. Where there any difficulties or problems on that day?
Silvan: “Yeah, it wasn’t that easy. The Davos Kloster region had been hit with a whole lot of rain the day before, so the ground was really wet. That made the trails, especially at the start, in the first third of the day, extremely tough to ride. The wet trails made the day very demanding and that definitely made it quite a challenge. Physically, it actually went quite well. We were still having fun, even after we’d descended 15 000 vertical metres – surprisingly (laughs). Another challenge was that the whole day was extremely stressful. We couldn’t take a single break, because we had to catch every single cable car.”
So your world record day was timed to the nth degree. What exactly did your schedule look like?
Ralph: “We left Zurich at 01:30. We started our record-breaking attempt at 04:00 near Klosters and used the car as our shuttle for the first 2.5 hours. The first cable car ran for us at 06:55 – a bonus run on the employee car. And then at 07:30 another bonus cable car ran for us. We took the cable cars until 16:15. The cable car crew did a whole lot of additional trips for us, which was ideal and really helped. After that, we had a very long descent: Almost 2 000 metres from Weissfluhjoch down to Küblis. And then the car was our shuttle from 17:30 to 20:00, which is how we managed to ride the final descent of 3 000 vertical metres.”
That sounds like a really tight schedule! What did you do about eating? Did you plan time for breaks?
Silvan: “No, we had absolutely no time for breaks, we’d have to eat while we were on the cable car or in the motor car. But in the motor car, we also had to charge our cell phones and GPS devices, make bike adjustments, and so on. It was all extremely exhausting and we practically went non-stop. There was no time to sit down or rest the whole day long. It was pretty stressful.”
I think we can only vaguely imagine how much work and how physically taxing a day like that is. But despite it all, would you do the route again?
Ralph: That’s a good question (laughs). I think it’d be really hard to have the day run so perfectly a second time. Everything just worked so smoothly that day, even with the cable cars – we lost barely any time. The cable cars in Klosters and Davos were such a big help. We never had to wait for more than two or three minutes, and then the car would be there to take us again. The only tough part was the wet weather, but we didn’t lose too much time because of that. I’m not sure we’d be able to make that happen so perfectly again. So I’m happy that we did it, and don’t have to do it again. And we had no breakdowns the whole day, everything went without a hitch. Ultimately, I’m not sure if I’d tackle that again.”
Ralf van den Berg (left) & Silvan Marfurt after setting a new mountain biking descending world record.
Have you already found a new challenge?
Ralph: “I think we’re good for this year. But yeah, another exciting one would be the Claudio Calouri challenge. He did a “Keneveresting” tour (Everesting on the Kenevo e-mountain bike) on an e-bike, up and down the whole day. I think the elevation gain is 13 500 metres. In any case, that would be something I’d contemplate, it’d be super exciting. Other than that, I’m happy to just shred some trails with my colleagues and do some awesome rides with them – I just want to enjoy an amazing autumn.