Cycling Weekly fitness writer Simon Schofield is riding the Schwalbe Transalp, a tough seven-day sportive that runs from southern Germany to Lake Garda in Italy. He’s blogging daily
So, forgive the plain speaking, but there have been moments on the Transalp when it has paid to be in possession of a complete set of testicles. A pair. They, and a good deal else, came in handy as we started the last big climb of the event.
The atmosphere in the pens this morning was unlike anything else during the past week. We sort of knew we’d done it. A bit like the Paris stage of the Tour, the hard work was behind us, the Champs Élysées (well, our version) was ahead of us.
There was no champagne, but the relief and the satisfaction was palpable. But, one stage remained. Shorter, but not insignificant. Fifty-six miles and a shade over 2000m of climbing. And man, it was hot. Up at 26C in the pens at 9am, and the climbs were going to be well over 35C again. A little focus and concentration was still needed.
The first 30 miles was a circuit round Trento, tackling a different climb out of the busy Italian town and then returning to the 300m lift that had formed the end part of yesterday’s stormy finish back towards Trento.
We then hit the flat-bottomed Trento valley and a series of fast groups formed to take advantage of the precious bit of flat on the valley floor before the climb towards Arco and the shores of Lake Garda.
The curious phenomenon of the longer-it-goes-on-the-stronger I feel continued, and I latched on to a group for a real fast approach to the climb.
And hell, what a last climb. I’m sure the organisers had little choice as there’s not that many ways out of the Trento valley in the direction we needed to go. But one suspected a sadistic streak a mile wide in the course designers as long, straight ramp after long, straight ramp at 11, 12 and 13 per cent tested the presence, or otherwise, of the required pair. I should beg forgiveness for the inherent sexism of this analogy – not least because there are a great many extremely strong female riders in the field. But you get my drift.
It was hot as hell. But a bit like the last interval in a series, you knew that you could empty the tank. There’s no tomorrow to worry about. Every metre of ascent was getting us closer to the finish, but the really weird thing was that the closer you got, the less you wanted it to end. There have been several very very trying moments and it has, without doubt, been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it has also been immensely satisfying and enjoyable.
It’s a double summit finish (who else absolutely hates losing height on a climb before it ends?) but today who cares? Not me.
The very very last climb is a 200-metre lift. I resolve not to get passed once. I furthermore resolve to pass every rider I can get within sight of. And for them not to pass me back on a counter move. It’s ten minutes of absolutely nailing it. Jurgen – gone. Klaus – dropped. Herman – history. I even get recognised by the name on my race number by a North American voice “Hey – you the guy that’s writing that blaawg?” Just enough breath to acknowledge my fan and then it really is done. A sprint over the line at the summit to make good on the resolution, and bar a bit of downhill, it’s complete.
I have loved it. It has been a most excellent adventure. I am ridiculously chuffed with myself.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog. If you fancy this event, I have just a few words of guidance. Do it. Train hard. Make sure you gotta pair.
Results: My team finished 59th out of 91 in our age category. There were a dozen or so abandons in the category. I recorded a time of a bit over 42 hours for the 7 stages. I had targeted between 40 and 45 hours. I think, on the overall, I will be towards the top of the bottom third. Job done.
The enjoyment of cycling takes many forms. Grinding up a sweat-soaked 12 per cent climb in the full sun produces a perverse kind of pleasure response. But there are cycling experiences that are easier to like. One of them is blasting down a flat valley road in a 100-strong peloton, with vineyards to the left, a cobalt-blue lake to the right and mountains ahead.
That was the deal as stage 6 of the Transalp barrelled it’s way out of Kaltern in the Tyrol today. The sun shone, the strong riders took the wind. The pace was high, the collaboration in common cause to tick off the miles was unquestioned and as cycling experiences go, for this correspondent at least, it doesn’t get much better.
It was just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on. The really hard stages behind us, the legs and lungs, curiously, getting stronger, the hour in which we covered the best part of 25 miles was pretty much worth the entry fee. It was, as my kids would say, totally awesome.
Can you ride yourself into an event like this? You can’t if you you haven’t done the training, but if you have got the miles in, it seems that the longer it goes on the stronger you get. The little accelerations needed to keep the pace high or get over a little roller troubled no-one and even as the fast flat section ended, the first hill was met with something approaching enthusiasm, rather than dread.
A series of steep ramps took us out of the valley and a glance down at the Garmin showed that in just over an hour we’d covered more than a third of the day’s distance, of just shy of 75 miles. Brits are few and far between on the Transalp, so it was good to hook up with a rider in a Wigmore CC jersey to get to the first feed.
I’ve not mentioned the feed stops much, so here’s the rundown. There are usually two and they are very much grab and go affairs. They’re not the unseemly scrum of L’Etape du Tour where riders almost literally fight each other to get at the goodies. That’s partly down to numbers, as 1100 riders are easier to keep fuelled than the enormous fields of other events. But it’s also partly down to that relentless Germanic efficiency.
I don’t like to do the national stereotype thing, but mein Gott, the Germans are well organised. The feeds are really well staffed, with hordes of helpers rapidly dispensing water, gels, energy drinks, water melon, orange, cake and peanuts. And not everybody stops. I skipped the first feeds on the first few stages, but as the race wears on and it gets increasingly difficult to get the calories in, I figured that the five minutes it takes was worth the time penalty. And salty peanuts are so good after a diet of gels and bars.
A hot stage today, with temperatures of plus 30C for much of the day. That proved brutal on the last third of the feature climb towards Trento. It reared up at 12 and 13 per cent and long sections were straight, unrelieved by bends and hairpins. There’s no real reason but they are way harder work than twisty climbs of the same gradient. One rider decided straight wasn’t working so just weaved his way right up the wall sections using the full width of the road. Novel, but it seemed to work.
Desperately cruelly, one of our number (I am riding this event with five club mates) crashed out on a descent. He’d been incredibly strong all week and was heading for a really good placing. It’s tough, this Transalp thing.
I haven’t flatted all week, and with around 15 miles to go, my rear tyre punctured. Happily it deflated relatively slowly and on a flat section. I changed the tube and ploughed on. Yes, I did check the inside of the tyre! With one mile to the finish line, it deflated again. Ridiculously, I had only one tube, but two CO2 canisters. What foresight! I pumped the gas in to the holed tube and it just got me over the finish line.
To add to the drama, the last five miles to the finish town of Trento were done in a full on mountain thunderstorm with howling winds and torrential rain.
One stage left to do. It’s a short one. There’s time for drama and incident yet. I won’t be dropping my guard, but I am having a beer, or two, tonight.
It’s 5.45 am. You wake up early on the Transalp – I will explain why in a minute. Time for a systems check. Head: aching (note to self – drink more water). Shoulders: aching (note to self – try to relax whilst wrenching yourself up 12% gradients). Gut: not hungry. This is unknown for me. The heat and effort does very odd things to your appetite. Bottom: Hmmmm, I swore I felt saddle sores start to develop yesterday. But the Stage Four blog was such a litany of misery, I thought I would spare you that detail. (Note to self: do not stint on the chamois cream today) And the big one – hello legs, are you there? Well, they hurt, obviously. But will they work? We shall have to wait and see.
I had ten hours kip last night and more would have been nice, but you have to be up sharpish because the almost comically efficient luggage service collects your luggage at 7am. And that’s a German 7am, which isn’t ten past, it’s on the dot. Which means you have effectively to be packed and ready to go for the day at 7am, even though kick off isn’t actually until 9. But the punctuality clearly works because your luggage is always where it should be when it should be.
Somehow I remain in Pen C (they go from A to D, fast to slow) which suggests that I was in company having a difficult day yesterday. We roll out down hill from Aprica in the usual neutralised fashion and the legs turn when requested, but the engine room is not being asked for steam at present. As the flags go down, the gradient remains flat or very gradually up. The organisers have kindly arranged for a warm tailwind to accompany us up the valley to Edolo and the first pass so, with a bit of judicious wheel sucking, the legs are still not really being called upon.
Oddly enough, I feel OK. It’s as if it could not possibly be any worse than yesterday and when finally the bridge asks the engine room for some revs, miraculously, power flows from below the waist and begins to propel body and bike uphill at a respectable rate. It hurts, but they work.
I’ve been so busy banging on about my own tribulations, I feel I have neglected some of the spectacular landscape through which we have suffered. Despite the agony of the Gavia, it is truly an awe-inspiring stage, especially at the very top. And the descent towards Edolo is just mind-bogglingly beautiful. It needs real care though because it’s super fast, very narrow and if you go over the edge, basically you’re going home in an ambulance, if at all.
Today’s 88-mile run sees us quit the Alpine terrain and after the first pass, which has a benign gradient and a helpful tailwind but is still a big pull up at 1200m vertical, the landscape changes. It starts to feel positively Mediterranean, it gets much much hotter and you get that hairdryer effect on descents as warm wind comes at you at 40mph. The descents are sinuous, light on traffic and we start to hit the vineyards of the South Tyrol.
A truly immense descent – well over 40k – gets us, for a short while, onto the bike path network of the Trentino area. There are hundreds of kms of these paths, and we aren’t talking a bit of white line on a dual carriageway, we are talking purpose built, completely separate, bike roads. They are brilliant, especially as this section takes us through orchards and vineyards. Blissful.
One last climb for the day. Am I being passed, or am I passing riders? Happily, it’s the latter. The legs are back on form. It’s not podium-troubling form, but it’s back to where I should be and not the hideous travails of yesterday. The body is a weird organism. I sacked off the sickly gunk recovery drink yesterday and had a litre of ice cold, full fat milk and a Magnum. I wonder if that’s got anything to do with it?
Anyway, yesterday I felt like a man on a bike. Today I felt like a cyclist.
I will wrestle with the results service soon and give you an update of where I sit. I think I am towards the top of the bottom third.
You know that disease that compels you to ride a bicycle up steep passes in the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Dolomites? I think I’ve found a cure.
Stage Four has always been red ringed for me, from the moment I committed to this Transalp lark eight months ago. It’s not in itself a super tough day, with 3200 metres of climbing and 88 miles long. I’ve done days like that often enough and whilst not a cakewalk, neither is it, in isolation, a killer. And there’s the thing. Stage Four was, oddly enough, preceded by Stages, 1, 2 and 3. So it’s not in isolation, it’s on the back of three hard days and accumulated fatigue has always been my single biggest worry about completing the course. Some people can just bounce back, but I have always struggled putting lots of big days together.
So after the bonk-mare of Stage 3, standing in the newly-relegated Pen (that’s now Pen C . . . . Oh the shame) I wasn’t exactly radiating Positive Mental Attitude. I did try, but it was very far from convincing. The usual 10 minute neutralised roll out was followed by two sharpish climbs, not too steep but enough to open the lungs. They made 700m in total and at the top, I actually felt OK. A massive descent into Bormio introduced us properly to Italian road maintenance programmes. Not up to Swiss or German standards. Let’s leave it there.
Then the Gavia. It’s 1400m vertical ascent from Bormio. I was kind of OK up the first half but the last half was just misery. I won’t dwell on it as I’m sure we have all been there. Nothing in the legs, can’t get comfortable on the bike, tortuously slow upward progress – it was awful.
And I couldn’t rid the internal voice that said: “you’ve still got the Mortirolo to come.” A good 30 mile blast got us to the foot of it, near Edolo. Many will know that this is not the very steepest side of this feared climb, but it’s steep enough. If the Gavia was bad, this was just fresh hell writ large. It was gruesome. I stopped, actually stopped, three times.
There’s a slightly strange man you see on the last climbs. He’s in a top of the range white Audi, pumping out tunes and he hands everyone who wants one either Coke, Red Bull or water. He runs along beside you while you drink and takes the bottles back. He doesn’t seem attached to any team and he’s definitely not part of the organisation. Maybe he just likes seeing suffering cyclists and helping out in some small way. I swear to God he actually saved my life today with flat, warm Coke.
Somehow I got to the top. Still 28 miles to run, including a few just-long-enough-to-be-annoying climbs and a very poor surface in dappled light that needed a lot of concentration.
Challenging? You’re not kidding. I got to Aprica and nearly all the little day bags the organisers hand out to you at the finish after you’ve packed them and handed them in before the off, had already been given back. It’s like getting to a sportive car park and finding it empty.
Oh, and another thing. It was 35C much of the day and neither of the biggest climbs had a scrap of shade bar the last bit of the Mortirolo. Cooked. Although another word which rhymes with that more accurately describes my battered body and hollowed out soul.
I went into this with low expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked hard at the training. But whilst I’m confident I can hold my own against many riders on the flat, I’m no climber. At 80kg on a good day and 85kg on a bad day (most of the time) I can get up hills, just not as fast as I’d like. So this parcours is never one on which I will shine. Nineteen thousand metres of climbing is nineteen thousand opportunities for me to get dropped.
But after a not-that-shabby Stage One (only 2400 metres of climbing) I’ve sort of got the bit between my teeth and I’ve revised expectations from “not coming last” to “finishing top half in my age group.” So, yesterday’s stage which saw me and my team mate slip 9 places to 38th out of 100 and some is now counting as a disappointment. Which is crazy, because it was a fantastic stage and a top day on the bike. But I have actually started thinking about how to “limit my losses,” on the climbs. Ha! Delusions of grandeur or what!
So far my endurance has been my strength. I’m passing people on the last climb who dropped me on the first one or two. So these next two stages are crucial because they’re monsters. The bike’s fixed at huge expense and it’s had a stern word. That bike only needs a sniff of a euro and it explodes like one of those diagrams in the Haynes manuals. I’ve lost count of major mechanicals abroad I’ve suffered and it is a well maintained bike. Anyway, that was yesterday. Let’s move on, as they say. Although I’m bitter about those 9 places.
The roll out for Stage 3 from Davos is neutralised for the first 20km or so, a good call because the Swiss fix their roads in summer and the descent is littered with men and machinery. The flags go green and bang, a climb. Short, sharp and steep. Then another. And another. Three real testing climbs, each gaining maybe only 300 or 400 metres but an awful lot of 11 and 12 per cent. In between, really fast descents as the pack jockey and attack.
On the next climb, I’m dead. I look down and two hours have gone. How much have I eaten? Nada. Not clever. In fact, a rookie’s error. How could I be so dumb? And it’s compounded because last night I had the energy either for an expensive Swiss dinner in a formal setting, or a massage with Mattie Firmhands. Guess which one I chose. I loaded up on a bucketful of my own emergency muesli in my room, but I’m beginning to think it wasn’t quite sufficient.
The feature climb of the stage – well over 40k in length – is, frankly, hellish. I look at the Garmin and I am struggling to push 200 watts and in some distress. I’ve been pumping food in, but my body is being asked to do a lot and it’s de-prioritised digestion. I am passed by dozens and dozens of riders. It’s survival mode til the top, at 2600 metres. I regroup on the descent but the sugar I’ve been ramming in refuses to do its job. I can’t even hang on to a group on the flat after the descent. I start to say hello again to the original ambition of not coming last.
Despite all this, there are worse places you could be. The scenery is just magnificent. The marshalling is ultra-efficient and the weather is perfect, although 30C on the climbs is not adding to my personal gaiety of nations.
In the last hour, finally the sugar gets where it needs to be and I rally for the final two climbs, even passing a few, to finish in 6hrs 30m, at least half an hour off the pace. The dumbass error on food has, surely, killed my place in the standings. Tomorrow it’s the Gavia and the Mortirolo. Currently, I couldn’t climb a railway bridge. I’m off to find some dinner.
After the exuberance of Stage One it’s down to business in Stage Two, which starts with a sharp climb, continues with a long grind, punctuated by two sharp rises, and concludes with a big climb. It’s one of those kind of days.
From Austria to Switzerland today and I start 29th in my age category out of more than a hundred. If I can hang to that after today, I’ll be chuffed. So, the tactics have to be simple – don’t get passed. If you do, dig in and chase on. For fortitude, I had Nutella for breakfast. Not just Nutella, you understand, but a breakfast which includes that banned substance. In quite large quantities.
The weather is again near perfect as we line up in the pens in time order, and the start in Imst is just brilliant. Every child in the village, all clutching flags, along with a great many of their parents, line the narrow streets to see us out noisily. It’s just one of those moments – call me mawkish, but it’s very uplifting and properly inspirational. Within 20 seconds of each other, two tyres explode with a sound like a rifle shot, amplified in the village confines. Poor sods, I think, that’s not a great start.
Three minutes later, and I’m in trouble myself. The gears slip on one sprocket on the block. I jump off and inspect – and instantly lose 40 places. I could wait for neutral service but it’s unlikely they will have a spare cassette so I decide to continue. On the first climb I experiment up and down the block. It seems to be the 23T. A useful gear, but one I’m going to have to live without. All the others are fine, but it’s a pain having to shift so carefully past the damaged sprocket.
The middle part of the day is a long, gently rising valley road and hooking up with the right group is crucial for making progress. I get in one that’s slightly beyond comfortable, meaning a few hard efforts to stay with them. But it’s worth it as we barrel up the valley at a good lick. Nobody has passed me for a while, and we pass plenty, so I’m happy that the overall plan for the day is working.
The last climb is in stunning scenery, as has been much of the day, and it dulls some of the pain. I’m hardly passed at all and complete the climb in the time I expected (at around 750 VAM for the nerds), which is fine with 70 hard miles behind us. A thrilling descent and Stage Two is done. I reckon I’ve not dropped in the rankings, but we will see.
It’s been a terrific day – probably among the top ten I’ve ever had on a bike — but the hour afterwards is a total pain as I scour Davos for a replacement cassette. I find one. It’s at Swiss prices. Grrrrrrr.
Let’s make one thing abundantly clear about the Tour Transalp. It is a race. Unlike the namby-pamby British breed of sportive, this is unashamedly and in your face, a race. So there’s no getting your mate who’s good at Excel to suck the alphabetically-presented results into his PC and spit them out in the form that everybody wants – the one that shows you where you came. This is a proper race over seven stages and 19,000 metres of climbing and the organisers are quite clear about it. After Stage One, the start will be filtered with the fastest off first.
So as we sit in the pens ready for the gun, there’s a certain amount of checking out going on. It’s a wet dream for the manufacturers of carbon-framed bicycles and fancy gadgets – but that applies to many sportives these days. The thing you do notice that’s different is that nobody seems to be winging it. Even on L’Etape du Tour or the Maratona, you can spot those who think they could skip the training and still ride a hard day with lots of climbing with a kind of effortless élan and a decent time.
Here though, everyone looks right on it. There’s a pretty good sprinkling of grey hair, but they, of course, are the ones to fear the most. Lots of time to train. Loads of money to spend on gear and many many miles in the legs. There’s a few teams, nobody you’ve heard of, but clearly well organised, well trained, team car supported bunches who are going to smash it from the off. And there’s lots of riders who have obviously been training hard, which is as well, because this is a tough event.
So the pens, and this is going to become a theme – the superbly well-organised, well marshalled, run-like-clockwork pens – are permeated with that curious blend of fear and nerves, optimism and confidence that you find at the start of big foreign sportives. The atmosphere is lifted enormously by a glorious day and a dry forecast, not too hot and no wind. Perfect.
The man on the mic actually delivers useful information, like what the temperature is likely to be at the top of the highest pass and, despite the big challenge that lies ahead, all feels about as right with the world as it could be. It would be very different if it was raining.
Bang on time, we’re off. The first 7k is neutralised, and the route is lined with local well wishers and halted traffic. Motorbikes buzz. A neutral service car is visible mid-pack. The sun’s shining. It would be easy to get over-confident and forget that this is just Stage One.
The first climb is a twisty one, lined with Alpine meadows and a nice steady gradient, rarely breaching the 6 per cent barrier. We settle in and in complete silence, bar breathing, we ascend.
The rest of the day is largely uneventful. It’s extremely enjoyable but there are no crashes, no bunching, and riders are spread evenly in groups so you can surf back and forth and find one that suits your pace. Traffic is halted to allow us to pass. Many drivers give a nod and a wave and they seem refreshingly free of the rage that would no doubt accompany halted traffic at home.
I skip the first feed and stop for about 12 seconds at the last one. That’s the time it takes to fill a bottle. They have people with watering cans (no sprinkler) to provide a rapid fill – how good is that? And they have people with pre-peeled bananas who are able to hand them to riders without stopping. The last climb is tough for the second half with around 5k at between 10 and 13 per cent but the bad knee is held at bay by not trying to kill it and holding the pace at a steady effort.
I finish in a better-than-expected 4h 36m for 72 miles and 2,400 m of climbing. That’s an average speed of a shade under 16mph. More importantly, given the rest of the week, I’m tired but not shattered.
Before the race
What could possibly go wrong?
Eight months’ serious training for a multi-stage Alpine sportive was in the bag. The prospect of the 550 miles and 19,000 metres of climbing that is the Schwalbe Transalp no longer had the power to immediately turn the bowels to water. Not a natural climber (I weigh 85kg) I still reckoned that the seven consecutive mountain stages from Germany to Italy, via Switzerland, would be achievable. I’ll just do one short, sharp ride to see where I am, I thought. A 7-8 per cent local hill beckoned at the end of the ride. A cyclist ahead, about 200m in front. I’ll just have him, I thought.
Two thirds of the way up, I had him. But at the top, the niggling knee pain I had been studiously ignoring for the past three weeks exploded into a fully fledged, very sore, very stiff, event-threatening really bad knee.
Limping home, I considered the options. Confirming that the hill in question had been a PB (and I’ve been up it a lot) provided scant consolation. Ice, rest, elevation, compression and mild to moderate panic followed. Next day, I was on the phone to the physio. They do the Brownlees, they’ll sort it, I thought. One hour later, £60 poorer, I was taped up, the IT bands had been pummelled to within an inch of my sanity and well beyond my pain threshold, and I had time for one more session before setting off. That wasn’t clever, I thought. The hill thing, I mean. Rest, the purchase of industrial quantities of ibuprofen and a thorough bout of self-flagellation followed. Why did you do that?, I thought. The hill thing, I mean. Too late.
Right now I’m in the hotel in the start town of Sonthofen in southern Germany. Scattered around the town are 1,199 other riders. Every man jack of them is fitter, lighter and younger than me, of that I am convinced. None of them did one last ride pegging it up their local hill in quest of the world’s most pointless PB. All of them will beat me over the finish line tomorrow. My knee has progressed from painful to just a bit ache-y. Just 70 odd miles over 2000 metres of vertical ascent await us tomorrow. It’s an easy day. Or it’s supposed to be.
Follow Simon’s progress with a daily blog here at Cycling Weekly.