Sam and Dani Humphrey took on the incredible Swiss Epic off road event back in September - here's an epic report from the pair!
If you have ever taken part in a stage race, you will have no doubt experienced the incremental decline in your physical state that inevitably happens over the course of the event, the rub is that as you get physically more exhausted, you get mentally less capable, and so the journey goes……
Why would anyone want to do this to themselves? Well it’s all in the name of sporting endeavour and a sense of adventure.
The 2018 Perskindol Swiss epic took place this September amidst beautiful blue skies and soaring temperatures, with stages ranging from 57KM to 77KM with an average of 2600m of climbing a day, it was to be an extremely tough edition.
Epic scenery on the morning of day 1
As with all big events, your performance is generally governed by the work you put in leading up to it, and this was to be no exception. As part of the Bournemouth Cycleworks - UK Biking team, Dani and I have been racing short XC races all over the UK and doing pretty good! With wins and numerous podium places, but about two months out Dani had fully made the switch to endurance training while I needed to get the National finals done and the main event of the year, the Big Dog, before I could start to fully prep for 5 days of tough high altitude racing.
So lets break it down very briefly …. what do you need to do to get ready?
Well in December 2017, we entered the race, then had a glass of wine. A couple of months later, we started getting travel plans up together. We would drive down so needed the tunnel sorted, campsites, dog care, time off work…oh and some money! Research into the right equipment was ongoing as well as looking at the physiological demands of the event. Testing on our dreaded Wattbike ensued to establish our physical state, then the training starts! We had a goal of what power to weight ratios we wanted and a few benchmark sessions to test our endurance capabilities along the way, then before we knew it, we had a month to go!
Cue the usual pre race paranoia around staying healthy and the last minute bike issues, gratefully resolved by the boys at Bournemouth Cycleworks and hey presto, we were on our way to the race. There is so much more that went on in the build up, but for the sake of your sanity, I will leave it there!
Some of the kit used by Sam
Arriving at the park and ride is when the nerves start. You meet all the other racers ... ”they look fit”, “their bikes look good”, and all that stuff. We loaded up and headed for the cable car up to the start village. Bettmeralp is a no car area so access is only by the telecabin. Up and up we went to 1900m altitude and stepped out into the world of the Swiss Epic! Bikes, music, baggage adrenalin…..all stopped momentarily as someone’s back tire exploded sealant everywhere……they had pumped it up too much at sea level! Crikey, what’s happening to my lungs then I thought!
The pre race briefing gave us all the info we needed for the start of stage one, and off we went to dinner and bed. All kit was prepped for the cold mountain morning that would lead to the 28 degree day in the valley, much consternation there! Then a nervous nights sleep and we were at the start line.
Upbeat music followed by a horrible soundtrack of a nervous heartbeat through the sound system kicked off the stage. Neutralised behind the E bikes we rode through town to the first climb and off we went. Dani and I had a pre determined heart rate in mind and we were pretty good at sticking to it, we climbed for the first 10 minutes and began the drop into the valley for about 30 mins! The descent was rough, steep and very long. Discs were pinging from the heat and hands and feet hurting from standing up for so long, but we made the valley in one piece and settled in. We raced a German pair pretty close all day, but on the last frankly horrific climb of 10 KM and 1100m altitude in baking heat we rode out a 7 minute advantage and finished tired but elated……you know the sort of tired you feel after a huge race or big day out on the bikes, before remembering we would be doing this again in the morning!
The recovery routine was much enhanced for us as we had Dani’s parents there to find us food and sort our recovery shakes, then onto showers and bike prep before the race briefing for day two. Dinner, kit prep then bed. And so it went for the week!
A big day out but ridden solidly, we beat the Germans again and held our position, ate well and stayed hydrated. I had a bit of a crash on some steep rocks that caught me out which caused a few scrapes and a really sore ass cheek! But worse I scratched my beautiful bike! We finished well a bit sore but ready to go on but not before food, drink, bike wash, briefing, bike prep, kit prep, dinner, sleep!
A tough day, the route used a lot of the trails that will be in the 2019 world marathon MTB champs and it showed with a cut off time of 9 hours! This one tested everybody. We had another pretty good day, but we were definitely starting to feel that accumulated fatigue now, bodies were tired and decisions getting a bit tougher. But we were holding our 8th spot overall and still enjoying the race.
Overnight rain had made the first two descents a bit slippery, but pretty good in general. I popped some new brake pads in because of the forecast and off we went. This was our only day where we had a difference of opinion on how to ride the stage which caused a few minutes of disagreement. But we got through that pretty quick and settled in. Dani was really starting to feel the fatigue now, and I felt that maybe we had pushed a bit too hard on day 1 and had a sense that we were now entering a damage limitation exercise! We upped our calorie intake and lowered our pace a bit. We spent the next long climb reeling in the Norwegian team as we were constantly dropping them on the climbs and they were catching us on the descents It made for a close race, but it was mentally quite demanding on us both as the climbs now became really important which heightened our state of “knackeredness” it was on this stage that we got to experience probably the best flow trail we have ever ridden. Imagine 15 minutes of no pedalling with silky smooth perfect radius and angled berms, amazing table tops and little kickers. I have never ridden anything this long and perfect in 25 years of racing MTB’s and we were given the first runs as the trail was due to open the following day as part of the Trail love festival….what a highlight!
We finished pretty exhausted and unfortunately could not hang on to 8th but we only dropped to 9th and were in one piece!
On paper this one looked to be a bit easier but we climbed to 2600m altitude and the air up there was pretty thin! It was all we could do to keep pedalling round our 30 (or 32)t x 50t lowest gear! The views were just incredible and pictures simply cant capture the magnitude of what we could see. It was really nice to actually look about a bit instead of just hammering out the tempo. With the 10km to go sign I started to get mixed feelings, the race was nearly over which filled me with huge relief…….but the race was nearly over……which meant the amazing experience was soon going to finish! And although this was a really tough and demanding week, it was amazing.
Sam and Dani with the other British finishers
Racing through the streets of Zermatt and into the finish arena where the Trail Love festival and European Enduro round was also happening was great fun. The atmosphere was fantastic, we got our finishers medals from the Ghost bikes world cup women’s team, grabbed a cup of Ibex Swiss epic coffee and our pulled pork burger! And sat back in the sun to reflect on our week.
So we ended up in 9th place, it was a fierce pace and I think we held up the British end pretty well. We have definitely learned some more things about pacing and recovery as well as what equipment works well in mountainous races as opposed to short track XC! I discovered that the Trek Topfuel is in fact the most awesome bike I’ve ever had! I just wish I could fit two bottles on it! And I have a burning desire to go back to this race with a fellow masters competitor to try and win it.
Sam's awesome Trek Top Fuel
The final dinner was an emotional affair for some with the reality of what they had done sinking in, food was great and the atmosphere was amazing. The presentations were pretty loud and the lucky few that had earned their Cape epic slots were called up.
Would I do this race again?....definitely. Can I recommend it? ....wholeheartedly… but be prepared!