The 2015 BIKE Transalp was significant as it marked the first race Ben Melt Swanepoel and I raced together as a mixed team. Since then our racing partnership has blossomed and currently we are racing as Team Garmin at five select events in 2016. The BIKE Transalp was one of these events and we were privileged to return this year, hopeful of improving on our 9th place result from last year in the Mixed Category.
By Yolandi du Toit
The BIKE Transalp is a 7 day mountain bike stage race traversing parts of the magnificent European Alps. On the 17thof July participants departed from Imst (Austria), arriving one week later in Arco (Italy) close to the shores of Lake Garda. In between, the event stopped over in Nauders, Scuol (both Switzerland), Livigno, Bormio, Mezanne and Trento (Italy) which were all unique and charming in their own way. In total the journey covered 519km and included a massive 17 736m of climbing. From this statistic one might assume that climbing would be the fiercest challenge of the event and to a certain extent that is the case, but as the saying goes ‘what goes up, must come down’!
Ben Melt and I learned a lot from our first mixed team outing at the BIKE Transalp and arrived in Europe much better prepared physically, mentally and logistically than we were last year. Having said that, the lead up to the event was anything but smooth sailing…
In an uncanny repeat from 2015 I dislocated my shoulder on exactly the same day as I did last year, but with the help of Drs Paul Birdsey and Neil Cable I was back on the bike and training within a week. (Guess I’ll be avoiding my bike on the last Saturday in May henceforth!). Although mainly on our road bikes, we even managed a 12 day training camp in Graskop to simulate the climbing we would face throughout the Transalp before packing our bags and heading north to Europe-land!
After a (too) short stay with friends in Austria we were very excited to toe the start line in Imst, raring to go as we lined up as part of the 800-rider strong field.
The mixed category proved to be extremely competitive again this year and we had our work cut out on the racing side of things. Our plan was to start conservatively and race strongly towards the end of each stage when other teams started to fade. Obviously this is easier said than done as in any team setup you have two individuals with differing qualities and success largely depends on the dynamic between the two.
Stages 1 to 4 went according to plan as we consistently scaled the general classification ladder, improving stage by stage to what looked like a possible top 5 placing. A big advantage for us was that this year’s route suited us with no hike-a-bike sections in the first half of the event and a lot less hiking in general compared to last year’s edition.
Stage 5 from Bormio to Mezzane will be remembered for all the wrong reasons as it marked the change in our racing rhythm from progressive to defensive. The day started with a tarred climb up the infamous Gavia pass where the breath-taking scenery and cycling history of the climb outweighed the gradient. Descending the opposite side of the pass was less of a treat as the tarred road gave way to a fun singletrack which quickly turned into a full blown Enduro trail. Despite our incredible vantage point from the top of the mountain, I honestly can’t remember any of the scenery but I clearly remember carefully choosing where to put my feet on the steep and slippery trail as I was forced to walk.
Half of the trail it was rideable but after taking a small tumble on the early part of the descent it was almost impossible to remount on the steep gradient. By walking instead of riding we lost a lot of time to our competitors but on the latter half of the stage we got some good momentum going and recouped part of the lost ground. Still, we felt slightly disappointed as we couldn’t help but wonder what could have been if the Enduro trail was simply left to Enduro riders.
Our disappointment was somewhat negated when we stumbled upon an American Burger Bistro on our way to the Pasta Party (evening meal provided by the race organizers) in Mezanne. True to our South African roots we opted for meat instead of pasta and it was worth every Euro as we inhaled our burger and chips. Not quite your standard after race recovery fare, but we needed to boost our morale and after a couple of night’s pasta meals (which was delicious by the way) a burger and chips went down a treat.
The penultimate stage took us from Mezanne to Trento via the customary multiple mountain passes in between. The previous night’s meat option was obviously good food for our bodies and souls, as we found ourselves racing amongst faces mostly found at the sharp end of the race. This in itself kept us motivated until we both slipped on a steep, slick-rock downhill portage section barely 1/3 into the stage. While Melt escaped with ‘only’ a rosy butt cheek and ‘cracked’ ego, I (re)injured my shoulder while trying to maintain balance.
At first we thought our race was done but as the tears dried up and the shock abated we realised I would be able to finish the stage but with caution as my shoulder was very unstable. We crossed the finish line with mixed emotions – we were happy to still be in the race but also sad for not being able to race to our full potential.
As the saying goes: ‘When it rains, it pours’ and on the final day we were greeted with heavy rainfall and freezing temperatures early in the stage. This made negotiating the course quite challenging, especially the steep hike-a-bike sections which littered the 2nd part of the stage.
In mountain biking hesitation leads to devastation and with our falls from the previous day still fresh in memory we were perhaps a bit too cautious on the final stage. I walked a few sections I could have ridden and Melt crashed twice on the most innocuous parts of the course. His second crash was quite serious causing us to crawl home just to ensure we made it across the finish line Arco.
It was a grave reminder that the race isn’t over until you cross the finish line and you need to piece together 7 days of strong riding, smart tactics and a bit of luck to get a good result at a stage race of this magnitude. Eventually we did make it across the finish line of the 2016 Transalp albeit in pieces, with the final result being 15th place in the Mixed Category for us.
We can’t help but feel a bit disappointed with the outcome as we and those supporting us put in a lot of hard work, detailed planning and dedicated preparation, which is not reflected by the end result. Yet looking back we know we gave it our best shot and you can’t do much more than that.
While our race might not have panned out exactly as we had planned, the experience around the event was exceptional. From last year we learned to book accommodation well in advance and with the help of Google Earth, venue maps found on the Transalp website and a healthy dose of patience, we always managed to stay within 2km from the start/finish of each stage. This was crucial as we only had our bikes as transport and commuting to our accommodation after completing a tough stage can be quite an arduous task. Of course knowing where to go is a fundamental step in the process and by creating a route online with Garmin Connect we could navigate directly from the finish line to our booked hotel via our Garmin Edge units.
At first this might sound like extra admin, but believe us you’ll be thankful when you cross the finish line in an unfamiliar place having no idea in which direction to go, never mind how to get there.
Finding your hotel is one thing but arriving in front of closed doors is quite another! In Livigno we found ourselves in exactly this situation and it being Italy, there was nothing we could do but wait.
We were tired, hungry and sweaty and all we could think of was a warm shower and a soft bed. Arriving at our hotel only to find a sign on the door saying closed between 12 noon and 3pm, it slowly sunk in – we’re in Italy and it’s Siesta time. You’ve got to love the Italian lifestyle. All we could do was sit outside in a small patch of shade while waiting for that door which kept us from the hot shower and soft bed to open up. Luckily this only happened once and upon reflection it definitely added to our experience.
The Transalp organization really upped their game this year with regards to the route, the evening pasta meals and the host cities. Not only were the trails much more enjoyable but also a lot more ridable (despite our showing to the contraryJ). Although mostly pasta based, the evening meals were more varied than last year and often included some local cuisine, twice served on mountain tops only accessible via Gondola which made the setting incredible and the food distinctive.
The Transalp is a unique event and completely dissimilar to what we are used to here in South Africa. The route includes a truckload of scenic climbing and with geographically limited options the event has to include tarred roads and hiking/walking trails on occasion. If you see it as part of the experience you will surely not be disappointed.
The Transalp’s slogan is “You can’t copy the Alps” and we can vouch for that…again…
The next edition of Transalp will take place from the 16 to 22 July 2017 and to find out more about the event you can visit their website at www.bike-transalp.de