This was it, the big one. What I have been looking for all season. Even though it is not the last season of the race, and is not included in any cup or championship I am participating in, it was what I had set as my main target. This is the real deal. Mountain biking in actual mountains. And there are few places in the world with as famous, or beautiful, mountains as Berner Oberland.
The original plan was to go 4 men strong. Then Erwin broke his arm, Tim his kneecap and Sophia realized she just does not have the time. So here I was on friday 13 of august sitting alone in my car on the way to Switzerland. And I was glowing with joy. Because I was going to Switzerland, to ride my new mountain bike, that I got two days before. In view of the Eiger. This was happiness.
And yet I was also worried. There was a time limit set for the 88 km race. The course was basically a big loop and a small loop. To be able to continue to the small loop, you had to pass back through Grindelwald within 6 hours and 15 min from start. This mention I had to be way faster then I ever was in a marathon. The distance, 54km was not that long. However there were around 2700hm in that distance. That alone is more then I have ever done in a race. An then there were the extra 1200hm waiting on the other side of the time limit, which I needed to do if I managed to make the time limit. You can see why I was worried.
The day before
Saturday I wanted to get to know some of the course and also to get to know my new bike. Like I said I just got it two days before so I was still not completely comfortable with it. Looking at the course I decided to take the bus up to Grosse Scheidegg, thereby skipping the first 1000hm climb, and head out from there. On the way up I saw some bikers practicing the climb. Respect for whoever climbs that much the dat before a race.
From Grosse Scheidegg the course goes to First, then down and back up. Somewhere after First I lost the actual race course. And frankly it was a good thing because I ended up on this awesome singletrack that was keeping me happy for a long while. Eventually it ended and since I could see no more signs for the race, realized I have gone of course. Luckily I spotted someone marking the course further down and he sent back on the right track. After a short hike up the mountain, which I will end up cycling down the day afterwards, I was back on track.
I rode for a while more until I started feeling my legs. It was time to call it a day and head back to camp. My legs will have all the exercise they will need tomorrow. Descending to Grindelwald was great fun. I rarely get a chance to descend over 1000hm in one go. Quite enjoyable. After a shower and a visit to the pasta party (yey energy) It was time for the bed. Lying in my sleeping bag I was going over the track for one last time. Opening with Grosse Scheidegg 1000hm climb at 9%. A climb to Feld, A climb to Bort that is 25%. After Bort its a descend all the way to Grindelwald for the time limit and then the last long climb to Kleine Scheidegg, 1000hm at 9%. I figured I need to be at the top of Grosse Schiedegg within 2 hours to make the time limit. Setting the alarm to 5:15 in the morning, I went to sleep.
Getting out of my tent, the moon was shining above Kleine Scheidegg, giving the world a silvery glow. I could not have imagined a more beautiful start for the day. I gathered my stuff, got my bag ready and headed to the finish zone, where breakfast was served. It is not often that I eat spaghetti for breakfast, for today I made an exception. In the meantime I was starting to feel the excitement combined with fear I feel often before a race. This time there somewhat more fear because of the time limit. Not helpful I know but I couldn't help myself. It didn't help that I go the number 23, which means I was starting at the front, with all the really fast people.
The start zone was downhill, which was good because I got to relax a bit on the bike and get everything going nice and easy. I got into the first box 5 min before start. I locked both suspensions as I knew it was going to be 11 km of climbing on asphalt and I intended to be as efficient as I could be.
As can be expected the start was a sprint. It does not matter how often I tell myself I am not going to sprint at the start, somehow I get carried away and do sprint the first 500m or so before I get myself under control. I got passed by most of the field right of the start, but I tried not to care. I was here to finish, not to win. The climbing started through Grindelwald and I was settling on a nice pace. We were out of Grindelwald, and I was going with a group I suspected would climb at my speed. Then this guy told me my rear wheel looked kinda empty.
And he was right. I stopped to pomp it. Next to me stopped an man whom I think was mid 60s and looking very fit. He asked if I needed help and I told him that no, I was fine, Then I disconnected my pomp and the ventil went with it and all the air was out of my binnenband in 2 seconds. "Bloody France ventils" I cursed. Luckily the older guy had a pomp that clams instead of screws on, so I was able to pomp it back up. Before I was ready to go I had already lost about 10 min to this. by this time everybody was past me and I was dead last.
The old man was not in the race, but likes doing the climb with the racers, and so we started climbing together. He was clearly a better climber then me. I refused to let a man almost double my age get away from me so I was pushing myself harder then I planned to, and he was clearly holding back so, so that we could climb together, passing a few racers on the way up. I was at the Grosse Scheidegg 1:20 after start. Way better then I dared hope. I was starting to be confident in me making the time limit. Saying goodbye to the old chap, I spent another 10 min pumping up my rear tire to acceptable level. Then it was of to First. This part I already knew as I did it the day before, so I had more time to look around. Berner Oberland is just beautiful. I did notice that even though I was pushing myself harder, I was not faster then yesterday when I was taking it easy. The climb to Grosse Scheidegg was already taking its toll on me.
Working through it
The start of the descent from First was super technical, and like most people, I walked most of it. I think that with some more riding time on my Liteville I will be able to cycle down such technical terrain. The next few km where fire roads, gravel and some singletrack, all of it beautiful. Then I came to the climb up to Feld. The path up seemed to go on and on. I was already starting to feel the race in my legs and for the first time this race, I stopped and walked some of the part. I came across two kids offering sponges with water to cool of. Here I was on a mountain side, no building in site and these two 6 year old kids are here to help. I was moved.
Unfortunately I was not moving fast enough. About half the climb up to Feld I did walking. At the top I met another 88km contester and we cycled on together. Going down from Feld was fun and technical. What a wonderful descent it was. A shame that this trail is closed the rest of the year as I am sure it will draw quite a crowd. Even going down I was not going as fast as I hoped, mostly due to just how technical everything was. The course was going mostly downwards with here and there some short climbs of 20-60hm (guessing here). Then we hit the 25% climb to Bort. Guess what, everybody was walking it. by now I was surrounded by people doing the 55km, that has started an hour later, but had time to catch up as their course did not include the climb up to Feld. It was a long, steep walk up to Bort. I made the top there and looked at my watch. 5:15. I had a full hour for what I remembered was pretty much all the way down. Pff, easy. Only it wasn't.
The route was going down, with a lot of small climbs on the way. It felt like for each 20m descent there was a 10m climb. This part also had the most singletrack in it. Which is great, unless you really want to make time. Every time I stared on the descent I was getting all optimistic, and with every climb I was doubting I would make the time limit. I glanced at my watch again. 6 hours flat. I had a quarter of an hour to go and no idea how much further I had to go, and in front of me was 10m, 20% climb. At this point, I gave up.
My pace went down, and I was preparing for failure. Then I heard Paula's voice in my head telling me how I give up just before it actually matter. "Not this, time", I told myself, "You are going to stop trying when the timer hits 6:15 and not a second earlier.". So I gave it all I got. I attacked everything. Uphill, downhill, corners. I was giving it everything I had. Seven minutes later coming out of the woods, I passed two regulators. One of them looked at his watch and called, "8 minutes!". " I know!", I answered going as fast as I could. Then I was on asphalt.
Putting in the highest gear I had, I was going full speed. A guy from the 55km, saw, me coming, and saw that I was from the 88km race so he got in front of me to break my wind. I was very thankful. Then I saw it, the sign for the 88km to go left. I look left, and the road was closed. "NO!", I looked at my watch, 6:10 I still had 5 min. Only then did it register in my mind that at the bottom of the sign it said 150m. I was sprinting again full of hope, and yes, 150 meters latter, with 5 minutes left I took the corner and started on the climb to Kleine Scheidegg.
It was another 11km long, 1000hm climb. This one half asphalt, half gravel. I half walked the way up I think. I was tired, my legs hurt and I was feeling nauseous. Nevertheless, I kept going. on the way up, I even passed someone. Its good that you can see Kleine Scheidegg from about 2/3 of the way as it helps with motivation. As I was approaching I saw the people in the post were folding their tent, and again fear struck me. Was I too slow? did I climb all this way just to be disqualified. Luckily, they were early, I still had 15min on the time limit.
Passing the highest point I knew it was almost all down from here, with 2-3 short climbs. The way down was fast. At the climbs I took no chances and attacked as hard as I could. The course kept going down, and down. Grindelwald was in sight! Almost there. Almost. Then I was in Grindelwald. Coming in at the bottom of the village, there was just one climb left, that to the finish. Up I went. Passing the finish line after 9 hours and 12 seconds. To me, it felt like I won the race. After just one year of cycling, I finished this very challenging race. Even now, a week later, I still feel like I won.