Ever since I started to seriously ride mountain bikes, there was one race that I always dreamed about doing. This long, technical and adventurous alpine race was like nothing else. The race, called The Grand Raid, is from Verbier To Grimentz crossing 4 mountain ridges in its path. This year I got to race it.
Thursday morning I arrived in Switzerland, where I met Tim, my partner for this adventure. Tim has raced the Grand Raid once before and came out of it somewhat scared1 After a short break and a light breakfast Tim I decided to cycle the last part of the race, the climb up to the Pas-de-Lona2 and then the technical decent to Grimentz. For those of you unfamiliar with the pas, it’s a 2800m high pass in the form of a small crater. So once your at the top you have about 100hm to go down and another 100hm up before its actually passed.
We were taking it easy on the way up, keeping it in zone 2 as much as possible. Two days before a big race you don’t want to blow your legs. We started the climb somewhere we believed was next to the course. As it turned out, it wasn’t. The climb was quite similar to the course and climes parallel to it for the first few kms. Then we hit this awesome trail. It was technical, flowy and fun to ride. We rode it all the way to the actual race course, where we continued up to L’A Vieille. This was the last time limit checkpoint. It took us 1:45to reach it. We rest for a few minutes, having a bit and then continued to the pas. As Tim had warned me. The last leg of the route to the pas was al walking. Luckily the weather was amazing and we were having fun (as much as you can have pushing your bike uphill). The view from the pas is gorgeous. Switzerland is such a beautiful country. We got on the bikes and took the trail down to the middle of the pas. What a great ride. The trail was difficult and it doesn’t have a good flow but the views more then made up for it. Then it was climbing again to the other edge of the pas. Now all that waited was the descent to Grimentz.
The first part of the descent is a fast, wide, gravel road. Its basically going full out then breaking hard for the switchback, rinse and repeat. This part finishes under the imposing war of a dam. There you cross the road and get on a singletrack. This part is flowy and fun, medium technical level. Accept for that one place with a sign that says danger. I came by it first. Looking ahead I didn’t see anything extreme so I just kept going. The trail took a blind left and then it was “Holy Shit”. I wanted to stop and dismount but there was no way to stop without crashing on rocks. However going on was also sure to end in a crash. I could see the next corner and more important the big, big rocks right after it. I decided crashing controllably was better then uncontrolled so I hit the breaks hard. Somehow I managed to stop and dismount without crashing. Tim, seeing what I was into was smart enough to stop right after the blind left. We walked the last 20m of that dangerous part and mounted again. Lesson learned. The rest of the trail was again fun and flowy and medium technical. Perfect. From Grimentz we bikes back to the valley. All in all a great ride.
The evening before we made sure everything was ready. Everything we needed except for our cycling cloths we pit in the car. Bikes were made race ready and were also in the car. Everything was checked and double checked. The weather forecast was not good. The race would start dry but from about midday stormy weather was expected. The debate on what to wear was long and ended with no clear answer. We will have to gamble. At 9 we were in bed.
We got up at 4:15. I was actually awake since 3. I was so excited I just couldn’t sleep. I know its important to sleep and I kept telling myself to relax and sleep, to no avail. We ate breakfast and had some coffee and got in the car. The hour and a half ride was weird. Here I was sitting in the car in the silent darkness, about to begin what is possibly the hardest physical thing I ever did. It was impossible to really relax, no matter how hard I tried. I was glad when we got to Verbier and got out of the car. It was quite chilly which helped temper the excitement. We dressed up and went to the start line. Tim, having a racing license started at the front while I was way at the back. Not that it really mattered since I was not gong to keep up with Tim anyway. “See you in Grimentz” we told each other as we went to out different starting zones. I got in place just in time for the 2 minute call. Final check, a bit of stretching, right foot clicked and and then we were off. Its funny how the gunshot for the start is followed by hundreds of electrical beeps as everybody turns their gps on.
The first climb was quite easy. I was keeping it at zone 2 going slowly up. Still I was already passing people. I reached the top to see the sun rise above the mountains. Gorgeous. At the top you traverse the ridge towards the saddle. There was a tunnel we went through. The locals hung a big spanner saying Welcome To Hell and have a sound system setup playing AC/DC at full volume. It was totally awesome. The descent was fast and also fun. From here its starting to get a bit blurry for me. Going up and down. The climbs were mostly fire roads and asphalt, the descents were getting ever so slightly more and more technical. As the hours progressed, the weather seemed to be holding. Maybe it wouldn’t rain after all? After the climb form Hérémence, the track became a long alpine traverse. Tim warned me about this. Even though it looks flat on the map it is quite difficult to negotiate with the bike. Some parts are just simply not ridable. Im not sure why but for some reason I had a feeling I was to late for the time limit in Evolène. As I was traversing this difficult path I started to feel depressed. I had failed I thought. Further more the weather has started making that turn for the worse. Still, I was going to give it all.
Once out of the trail, I was racing down as fast as I could. It had started to rain badly so I had to be more careful. Almost arriving in Evolène I saw a post being closed. I was now sure, I had missed the time limit. I relaxed my tempo expecting to be pulled of the bike. Still, I got to the post at Evolène and I could continue. There was no Swiss telling me to stop. I was soaked wet, and so considered for a second to stop. “Ill stop when some Swiss pulls me from my bike. Not before”, I said to myself. And so It was time to start the climb to the pas. I climbed up to Eison. All the trails have turned muddy. I was cold and tired. I was sure I will be stopped there. Again I was allowed to continue.
Before the race I had spoken with Tim about the the last climb. I was concerned I would not make the time limit at L’A Vieille. We figured out, based on thursday scouting that I would need 2 hours to reach it. I had 1:45. Again, I considered dropping out. I thought about what I would have told my son to do in this situation. I would have told him to never quit. I was nog going to give my son advise I was not going to follow. Off I went. I was pushing hard. Not only was the time limit at risk, it was also possible that the pas will be closed to to bad weather. It was getting colder and colder as I went up the mountain. The tempo was good. I was hurting, my mind was constantly trying to go negative on me, but I would not give in. After an hour I was almost there. I had about 100hm and 500m of cycling to the last check point, I was going to make it! Then the bikers from above started coming down.
On the climb I would see some bikers coming from above about every 5 minutes and my heart would skip a bit. “Oh no, please don’t say they closed the pass”, I would think. And every time it seemed my wish came true. Unfortunately, being almost in reach of the checkpoint it actually happened. The pas was closed and racers were not allowed to continue. I was broken. I stopped, not knowing what to do. I knew there was no point in going on, but my mind refused to accept it. Later I would hear from Tim that it was actually snowing at the pas, and that people where brought down with a heli because they just couldn’t move their fingers to brake. It was quite bad up there. I can understand why the decision was taken. I was just not happy with it at the time.
Slowly it had sunk on me. I will not make it to Grimentz. I had a vest with me I was saving for the descent. I might as well put it on now as this as going to be my last decent. Only when I started to descent did it hit me just how cold I was. My fingers would barely move. I was shivering badly. Going down was good because the air was warmer, but I couldn’t do it fast as moving fast was even colder and It was hard to brake or control the bike with all the trilling. Meanwhile the rain was going strong, pounding continually. I stopped to call for a pickup, but since Tim has not yet arrived they couldn’t yet come. So I kept going down. While the people at the pas were being air lifted down, we on the other side of the pas were left to manage alone. I kept going as far as I could. I finally found shelter in an old, closed gas station at a small village. I got a call saying the pickup will be in an hour. This was not going to be fun at all.
I sat down, took of my shoes, gloves and helm. All soaked wet. I tried to get warm as much as I could. A nice lady stopped and asked if I needed a lift. I said I being picked up in 45 min. So she gave me a box of chocolate. A few minutes later a young man in a camper stopped and gave me a blanket. Its amazing what a difference a thin blanket can make when your cold and wet. A couple walking their dogs came by a few minutes after that. They also asked if I needed help. I told them I’m being picked up in about 30 minutes. Way to long they decided. I was apparently not looking healthy (Figure that?). They invited me to their house, gave me warm coffee and cheese. Also they and offered me dry cloths if I wanted to shower. I have rarely seen so much kindness all at once. I took the coffee and cheese. After a warm cup and some more fat food I was feeling better. I walked back to the gas station just in time for my ride to arrive. With love and care I was set in the care, covered with blankets and was given food. I an so, so grateful for the treatment. the heater in the car was blasting warm air at me as we drove back to Crans Montana.
In the car I was told, I should feel like I did make it. I would have made the time limit if I was allowed to continue. I was simply not allowed to finish. However, even now, it still feels like I failed. I know I was not allowed to continue, I know that I would have made the time limit. At the end of the day though, I didn’t meet Tim in Grimentz.
This race is incredible. The atmosphere, the physical challenge, the scenery. The first part of it is technically not very challenging and is made more to tire you out for the second half, which is also physically difficult, even more so than the first part, but also technically more difficult. Even though I didn’t make it to Grimentz, it was a great experience and I am looking forward to racing the Grand Raid again. With some luck, maybe even next year. Tim had a good race and set a good time. I hope next year to be more capable and maybe give him a challenge.
Also I would like to say thanks to the Janse family for taking me in so warmly, for making sure I had nothing to worry about and so enabling me to be completely focused on the race. You are awesome!