Adidas Bike Transalp Challenge 2004

by Duncan Alexander, August 2004

This is the story of team Deadly Serious, consisting of Rob English and Duncan Alexander (or Alexander Duncan, as the organisers insisted), in the Adidas Bike Transalp Challenge 2004 – as seen from Duncan’s perspective. The Transalp Challenge is a mountainbike stage race held in July every year. In eight days it crosses the Alps from Mittenwald in Germany to Riva del Garda in Italy, this year taking in Austria and Switzerland along the way (the latter for the first time). Billed as one of the toughest mountainbike races in the world, it is a true team even. You compete in pairs, with the aim that you ride with your partner; stage times and placings for each team are based on the second rider across the line.

Many years ago Rob and I started discussing doing the Transalp ‘someday’ – that someday being when we both had the time, the money (as if!), the fitness. Well, last year, we decided that someday had come, and that we would enter the 2004 edition. When entries were opened at the start of the year, Rob happened to be staying with Ilona and me in Australia. Knowing that the event fills up quickly, we sent off the form and cheque (the only way of paying) by courier mail and hoped for the best. However, by March we received the confirmation that we were in, and started preparing. For me, this coincided with a very transient period in my life, first moving back from Australia at the end of February, then going on a 10-day training camp in Mallorca a couple of weeks later, back home for another week before spending April in Brno, Czech Republic doing an intensive language course. After kick-starting my training in Majorca, I used this period to lay the foundation for the Transalp, only riding the mountainbike, either on-road with slicks, or (increasingly) off-road on the excellent Brno trails. A three-week build to a high level of fatigue helped me build some very specific fitness, and also regain some handling skills. Once home in May, training became more difficult. First of all Ilona’s parents were visiting, and then the wedding was impending. I managed one very good week in Cambridge, but once I had gone to the Czech Republic training took a nose-dive. The wedding, though fantatastic, was exhausting, and then the stresses of finding a new house and helping cope with Ilona’s work-related difficulties followed by being ill effectively took a month out of my training. Knowing how fit Rob was, this was a concern, but by keeping a low-profile at work and with Ilona’s help, I was able to successfully build up to a crash week, 6 consecutive hard days of training that culminated in the Builth Wells Merida 100 km enduro. This went really well, and gave me some hope. Once that was done I had a couple of weeks to recover, although bike and equipment preparations were now quite fraught. Nevertheless, everything (apart from new suspension forks) came together just in time, and off we flew to Munich on Thursday 15 July, going onto Mittenwald by train.

The Transalp was about to start, the culmination of a dream for both of us. Would it live up to our expectations? Would it really be as tough as claimed? How would we do? The short answer is that it exceeded our expectations. It was simply the most awesome, mental, amazing, mind-boggling and best organised race we had ever done – a real mountainbike race, over real mountains and real terrain, for hours on end every day, up and down for 660 km, 22000 metres vertical height gain, 4 countries and 8 days. It absolutely challenged physical fitness, mental toughness, bicycle components, handling skills and team spirit.

We did pretty well; our overall time was 35 h 55 m 59.1 s, placing us 29th male and 40th overall team (we were beaten by 7 masters and 4 mixed teams {The women on these teams were unbelievably strong, and some of them (such as third-placed DT rider Martina Deubler) ace descenders as well. We only ever saw the fastest team once, on the seventh stage, otherwise they were always ahead of us. Sometimes the man helps drag the woman up the climbs using a rope or dog leash attached from bike-to-bike, or perhaps pushes, but often the women (such as World XC champ Sabine Spitz) were matching our pace uphill unaided.}), top Brits by 3½ hours and second-placed entirely English-speaking team after the Californian Rocinantes. However, we were on a steep learning curve. Physically we were good. I did have to put up with hours of pain from my lower back, however neither of us blew-up once, we did a very good job of staying upright and uninjured, and my weak handling skills improved throughout the week. Mechanically, our bikes were sound {Ok, so the bushings on my ancient Manitou SX Ti forks were loose at the start and completely shot by the end, giving the forks a wonderful brake judder and a fatantastic clonking when riding out of the saddle, plus the fork action was supremely sticky, and my headset needed to be replaced, but they did not fail. Some info about equipment selection. I used my 7-year old Specialized M2 S-works hardtail, with old-style (but newly purchased) XTR STI, XTR rear mech, old XT front mech, new hollowtech XT cranks, Dura-Ace chain, XT 11-34 cassette, XTR V-brakes with ceramic rims and pads, and Nokon cables for brakes and gears because they give a weather-proof sealed system. All of this worked super well, the gears shifted sweetly (except for a little chainsuck in the middle ring – apparently typical of the XT rings), brakes strong and reliable, all week. Like Rob, I used a USE titanium seatpost; this, combined with a Fizik Gobi saddle, was very comfortable and I never had a saddle-sore or battered bum. Wheels were a new American Classic suspension hub on the front, built up with a Mavic XC717 ceramic rim, and an old XTR hub on the rear, built up with a ceramic Bontrager Valiant rim. DT revolution spokes. Rob built all our wheels and they held up very well. Like Rob, I began with a Continental Explorer on the front and Twister on the back, both Supersonics, and I also ran Eclipse tubeless on the front. This tyre choice proved to be our Achilles heel.}, – except for our tyres, which literally let us down all week. Continental Supersonics might be fine in the woods of England, but they do not cope well with being hammered down rocky descents. The thin sidewalls, that give a wonderfully supple ride, fold at the merest hint of a rock, giving pinch flats, and moreover the tyre knobs tear off under heavy use. These combined with Stans or Eclipse tubeless systems or tubes run with dodgy rim tape landed us in increasingly dire straights, taking us to the end of our tethers. By the end of the race, we were canvassing all our competitors looking for the answer to our troubles, and next time (there will be a next time) we shall be ready.

What follows is my diary of our adventure {Despite the presence of hundreds of other teams, for reasons of practicality the account will only mention a few of them. Since they are given no background in the stage accounts, I give that here. First off, there is Bart and Andy, both postgrad Cambridge students Rob and I have known for some years; understandably, we hung out with them quite a bit. There are the Rocinantes, a Californian team who we were always trying to beat since they were the only other fully English-speaking that were as fast as us. Todd was sometimes communicative, Mark less so. And there are our German friends in yellow and white. Don’t know their names, or even their team number, but of the teams we saw a lot of they were the only ones who were overtly friendly, even if we could only communicate a little.}, raw and uncut. It was a very intense week. Having to ride close together for 8 days, off-road in the mountains necessitates an unusual team dynamic that tested my relationship with Rob. That we are ready for more is, I believe, a testament to the strength of our friendship.

The author flying high in the Alps If anyone reading this has considered entering, all I can say is do it if you can. Unfortunately it does come out costing a lot, (though some money can be saved by taking the camp option {The camp option – 15 euros per night for bed and breakfast, just bring a sleeping bag and mat. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, it is if you like sharing your bedroom with hundreds of people, seeing what I considered to be a life-time’s worth of naked German men, queuing for showers, loos, and breakfast, dusk and dawn. When trying to compete, camping is a tough option. At the sharp end of the field, most teams were staying in hotels or campervans instead, also having the benefit of support crews out on the road. Respect to Marvin Campos and Yhonatan Carballo, the Costa Rican La Ruta team, for being the fastest campers, coming 8th male team.}), and the presence of hundreds of riders of wide-ranging abilities can lead to hold-ups out on the course. Overall, though, it’s a mad and beautiful race. Where else can frigging amateurs like us line-up at the start beside Tinker Juarez, race against Frischknecht and Tom Ritchey, be cheered on by Italian grannies and high-fived by excitable school kids? At every stage finish there’s a carnival atmosphere, because the party has arrived. You are the party.

Stage 1: Mittenwald – Imst

79.74 km
2398 m ascent
2512 m descent
Holy crap we can do this!

It is Saturday 17 July, we are in Mittenwald, Germany, and it is time to start the 2004 Adidas Bike Transalp Challenge. I may try telling myself I am no more nervous than before any other race, but two days of loose bowels suggests another story. We had arrived in Mittenwald on Thursday, checking into an apartment for the next two nights. This was a great idea, having somewhere comfortable to relax and prepare. The preceding weeks had been so fraught with preparations, it was good to be done with all that and get out there. Even so, we had still been busy since we arrived, picking up race passes, info and kit bags and dropping off bike boxes at the stunningly efficient registration (rather too much heavy dragging and walking required, but no real other choice), fettling our bikes and putting in a couple of easy spins. The race handbook was mind-blowingly detailed, giving stats and descriptions of all the stages (including objectively measured difficulties for different course characteristics – this could only happen in Germany), and detailing every junction on every stage, complete with distance, height, gradient, and surface type. Never seen anything like it. Unfortunately Friday night’s pasta party did not match this quality at all, we were only provided with one measly portion each and had to go back to base to eat more.

But enough of that. We’re in the race arena now, buried in the middle of a huge pack of cyclists – over 1100 of them – waiting for the midday start. The weather is beautiful and hot, the sun beating down. Unwilling to leave the shade of the Adidas tent, Rob and I had not lined up until 11.30 am, leaving us stuck hundreds of rows back from the start line. The last few days I have been preoccupied with fears, hoping my bike and my body will hold up. However, now it’s too late to worry.

The gun fires, and the race starts – the moment we’ve all been waiting 6 months for. In the distance, the front rows set off, but we have to wait… and wait… whilst each row in turn starts pedalling. Then its our turn, and we’re off. It seems that the whole town has turned out to watch, as we race along, enveloped in a crazy crush of cyclists all over the road and the pavements, navigating in and out of flower beds, everyone buzzing and trying to move up the field. Our parade through the town centre ends when we head up the first climb of the event, a short one up some tarmac switchbacks. Rob is cutting through the crowd, working his way up the field, with me doing my best to stay on his wheel as gaps spontaneously open or close. Soon we are across the border and into Austria; the road levels and the field starts stringing out. A few kilometres further on and we turn on to flat or rolling gravel road. It’s completely mental. Everyone is hammering, caught up in the atmosphere, double pace lines flying along in some kind of chaotic road race, except we’re all riding offroad on mountainbikes, elbows out to hold position in the huge, streaming bunches.

After some 18 or 20 km, we reach the first real climb, relatively not that hard and mostly on gravel. Of course everyone is feeling fresh and determined, but I insist on holding back and letting people go. Rob finds this difficult, but I prevail, taking what proves to be a very shrewd decision. However, it is about now that our troubles also begin, harbingers for the week ahead. My lower back is hurting on the left (and would do on almost every remaining climb), Rob’s front tyre starts deflating, with the Stans latex solution apparently failing to seal a slit in the tyre, and once on the downhill and then rolling trail I pinch flat on the back, not once but twice. The second time I inspect the rim tape, and find the combination of shitty Velox tape and the off-centre Bontrager rim has shoved the tape into the centre of the rim, exposing spoke holes and necessitating a time-wasting remounting of the tape. Bugger.

Eventually, after 54 km, we reach the major climb for the day. The first part is on gravel, and very steep. Rob, on his 2x9 set-up, grinds on ahead in his 29x32 bottom gear. Meanwhile, I click down to 22x30. Still, apart from a couple of hiccoughs largely caused by other riders, I ride the entire thing, back hurting bad as I use all my body to force my way up the relentless gradient, whilst around us more and more people walk.

After no end of torture the gradient eases, and we enter a fantastic wooded trail, reasonably technical and with beautiful views. Rob is still suffering from a softening front tyre, so starts a cycle of pedalling ahead and then stopping to pump. Nevertheless, all around us people are cracking big time, going slower and slower, whilst we feel strong. By the time the climb has finished and we are onto a long rocky/gravel road downhill, we are on our own. We are also back to just enjoying riding our bikes – not racing – back to Rob and Duncan in the mountains. Rob’s front tyre is softening badly by the end, so he cannot be too confident, but it is still a great, fast descent.

Once off the gravel road we plummet into a village, with police holding up traffic and directing, and spectators cheering like mad – that really makes my day. A couple of kilometres across fields (on road) and into Imst, again well directed and us the centre of attention. And then the finish line – we took just over 4 hours (4 hr 5 m 36 s to be precise), having lost at least 10 minutes with punctures, and are 32nd overall!! Amazing! We are so excited, never expected this kind of result.

We set off for the camp, turning up to deserted indoor tennis courts, and initiate a routine of finding bags in the orderly rows of yellow and black, having recovery drink, showering and washing kit and then sorting out bikes (which included improving my rear-wheel rim tape set-up with added insulation tape). I have a massage to try and sort out my back, and then we head for the pasta party. The meal is ok, more or less sufficient, and then it is time to settle down for the night, in amongst a sea of bodies. Tomorrow is shorter, 73 km, but starts with a long and steep climb. As with every other remaining stage it starts at 8 am, which, although horribly early, should give us more time to relax afterwards.

Stage 2: Imst – Ischgl

73.41 Km
3099 m ascent
2556 m descent
WTF is up with our tires?

It all started so good. Another beautiful day greeted us (not really making up for our early start and my poor sleep, but some help), we actually had sufficient breakfast (even if we did have to queue – a lesson learned, would be early from now on), and got to the start arena early. Found we had finished 22nd male team yesterday! This meant we were gridded at the front (first 30 male, 25 master, 15 mixed and 5 female teams in grid A), lining up a few rows back from Tinker Juarez – sooo cool. Really did feel amateurs on the start line – everyone around us had shiny, prepped bikes, team kit and lean, racer looks.

The stage started with a 6 km neutralised zone to a level crossing, where we had to wait for a train. The neutralised section was mental, everyone trying to move up the bunch. Anyway, once we were allowed across the train tracks, we headed into the main climb of the day, going straight up for 1300 vertical metres to a height of about 1900 m, soon sorting the field out. First tarmac, then gravel. We set a good, steady pace, not too hard. Early on caught Ritchey and Frischy; I (as Rob had when he passed them) wondered what to say, but couldn’t think of anything sensible. Still cool to see, though. (No hero worship going on here, honest!) Our pace worked well, Rob was a bit stronger but not too much, we did not fade and made up a lot of ground.

Next we were onto the downhill – mad fast gravel roads. My right contact lens was not seated properly, leading to my vision coming and going – not very nice at 35/40 mph! However, the big pain was Rob’s front tyre again going soft, despite having sealed after yesterday’s stage, being fine all night and all the way up pass. He had to stop and pump twice, with people we had passed coming flying back around us. We got onto the valley road, and the tyre still went soft, so we gave up and put in an inner tube, and then headed off to start catching people again. This we did, but the new tube went pop, so yet another change. Rob was not happy, to say the least.

Moving on, we went up and down on road and gravel, all ok, then reached a technical and rocky downhill. I tried riding a section I should have walked (because of my insufficient skill), and went over the bars. Luckily I was remarkably uninjured.

On we went, once again clawing back places, until we arrived at some very technical singletrack through woods. I walked, Rob rode and came off – like me, luckily uninjured, just left hanging in a tree! We regrouped, then Rob realised his bike computer had come off, so he had to run back and fetch it. Although it was good that he found it easily, we lost yet more time. Even worse, I was now so tense from our troubles my skills deserted me entirely and I was riding like a clumsy fool (including one incredibly dodgy moment when I decided to ride on my front wheel down a steep slope), with everyone who had passed us moving way ahead.

Once this section was finished the terrain was more straightforward. Again we set about clawing back places, which we had some success at, until, with about 17 km to go, my back tyre went flat. Another pinch puncture, and a quick look revealed it was once again caused by drifting rim tape, despite the improved set-up from last night. (Fucking off-centre rims, the tape does not stay where you need it!) So, we had to remount the rim tape, whilst watching team after team come back past. Finally it was fixed, and we disconsolately got going again, me paranoid about having another flat since we had used the last tube. The last section had some fun tracks, and we did catch a few teams, but overall we had lost over 20 minutes with the punctures, taking 4 hr 51 m 25 s for the stage. We still came in 40th male team despite this, but were now down to 33rd in the overall standings.

The afternoon involved sorting out rim tape and relaxing. No massage today, because my back had not been too bad. More worrying were some twinges from my left knee, until I realised that they were simply from landing on it in my crash. Rob especially was very down after the stage, but started coming around, partly from realising how lucky we had been to escape serious injuries in our crashes. Also things were helped by the town having put on a great meal.

Tomorrow would kick off with one big climb up to 2700 m, the highest in the race. It would be hard, but hopefully go well. After that – well, we would see…

Stage 3: Ischgl – Scuol

73.78 km
2619 m ascent
2770 m descent
On the charge!

This was a good day. We had a chance to put behind the woes of stage two and we grasped it firmly. The stage launched straight into a 1300 vertical metre ascent up to about 2700 m, the highest point of the race. Then there would be a long downhill, followed by rolling and flattish sections to the finish. Once over the top you should be cruising. We took breakfast early to avoid queuing, soon after our 5:20 am wake-up call, though neither of us could stomach much. Things were not looking good when we left the breakfast hall to find rain but it was only a brief shower. By the time the stage started it was dry, and from then on the weather kept improving all day.

Since we were down to 33rd place, we were gridded in group B, way back. The start took us straight into the main climb, but we were impeded, spending minutes picking our way through the hordes. Apart from this the climb went well, both of us sticking to a good, steady rhythym. My main problem was my back, which was hurting bad. Nearing the top of the pass the surroundings became more dramatic, the track passing patches of snow and etching steeply up bare, exposed scree slopes to the summit. It was a real grind, reminding me of the Galibier, plus I was starting to feel the altitude, going through some light-headed moments. However I pushed on well and, unlike on the Galibier in summer of ’99, Rob didn’t drop me by 10 minutes. When I caught Tom Ritchey I considered having some sharp words with him about off-centre rims and rim tape (since he invented the off-centre idea), but considering how we were both suffering -decided a simple “Hey Tom” would suffice. He replied, grunting something about having problems steering (on the steep gradient).

Once I had caught Rob up at the top, we put on jackets ready for a long descent. (He wasn’t convinced about this idea until we overheard Frischy telling Ritchey to do likewise, in a charmingly fatherly way). First thing we headed down a steep and loose slope straight into a patch of snow. Everyone who tried riding the snow (including Rob) fell off, so I got off and ran. Across this, and we were onto the downhill proper – scary fast gravel road with lots of loose, chunky rocks. In the interests of self-preservation we kept our speeds sane, having to let some teams go. Once at the bottom there was a rolling section and then a medium length gravel and singletrack climb. Unlike earlier we were now riding in a section of field at our level, since everyone was riding about the same speed. In fact the surrounding faces would be very familiar by the week’s end. Then there was another fairly rapid downhill on gravel and tarmac, followed by a really sweet piece of singletrack that everyone raved about in the evening. After my problems yesterday, whenever it became rough and bumpy, I was just saying to myself “let go of the brakes, let the bike go” Jedi style – and it worked, got through with no problems. Asphalt followed, leading us to the Swiss border where passport control waved us through in a specially coned-off lane – nice.

We were now on a long tarmac section, so started riding 2-up style. We caught a German team in yellow and white kit (who would prove to be the friendliest in the coming days), and were caught by the American Rocinantes. However, the lazy scumbag Rocinantes would not work. Luckily we shook them off, during one incredibly dodgy section of road works. The entire right-hand lane was being resurfaced and was now covered in wet, sticky asphalt. We had been waved through a red traffic light into the left-hand lane, and were now riding full-tilt, aiming for the slim gap between the oncoming traffic on the left and road cones and sticky asphalt on the right. Quite a kick, I can tell you.

After that we got going with the yellow guys really well (me enjoying the chance of putting my head down and blasting), but not well enough to avoid almost being caught by a large train of teams at a tricky undercrossing of a main road, one of the guys in yellow and white repeatedly shouting “fuck” in anguish. Now off the tarmac and onto rolling gravel road, our small group was soon amalgamated into the train, which then started losing momentum, increasingly leaving me working on the front – a poor state of affairs. Next thing I somehow managed to get a gap on a corner. Rob saw and jumped across. I latched onto his wheel and we are off, hammering away from the bunch behind. A few kilometres further on, and we caught a group of 3 or 4 teams. They tagged on, but rather than working the arseholes just sat behind us. We both got pissed off, and stopped working too. However, next thing I’m taken by the moment, drop back a few places, click up a few gears, and launched a most uncharacteristic attack. I got the gap, but now Rob didn’t have surprise on his side and was blocked by one of the men in the group. Nevertheless, his determination prevailed and he jumped across. We put the hammer down and got away, me loving every moment. Last effort was a short drag uphill, taking us straight into a downhill cruise to the finish line, where we came in 22nd male team with 3 hr 50 m 22 s, lifting us 4 places to 29th male team in the overall standings. The successful ride meant that we would be gridded tomorrow, but at the time we just basked in the glow of our road-race style hammerfest.

For once, après ride was relaxed. I had a new (and much needed) headset fitted to my bike; then we chilled a bit. Scuol, the stage finish town, really made an effort, taking us up a 2000 metre high mountain in gondola cablecars for the pasta party. Besides the spectacular views, they gave us free rein of a decent restaurant buffet. After the deprivation of the previous days, everyone loaded up on heaps of food – and then failed to finish it. Oops. Once back in town, I made a quick phone call to Ilona and then it was time for bed, with the hope that stage 4 would be just as good.

Stage 4: Scuol – Naturns

118.55 Km
3366 m ascent
4030 m descent
Um Rob, this Transalp thing, it’s quite hard, isn’t it?

Today brought a new understanding of the Transalp. It’s not about playing silly-buggers, hammering the last few miles of a stage to gain a measly one or two minutes on your competitors. No, it’s about grinding on for hour after hour, day after day, trying to hold some semblance of pace. Picture the scene – we’re on the last climb of today’s stage. The first climb was hellish, taking almost 2 hours. Next we endured a long transition, taking in singletrack, one smaller climb, and 30 km of gravel and tarmac along the valley floor. Now we are crawling up another 1000 vertical metre ascent. I am going flat out, yet my heart rate is only 145 bpm, over 20 beats below threshold. For once Rob is faring worse than me, sitting behind, stuck to my wheel. However, everyone else must be knackered too, since we are gradually passing team after team. At first we’ll see them up ahead, perhaps going around the next hairpin, and slowly, so slowly, we catch them, sometimes taking 10 or 15 minutes to do so. We ease around them. They might try staying with us for a while, but then a gap opens, first 5 metres, then 10, 15 and slowly, so slowly, they disappear behind. It’s like racing in slow motion.

Going back to the beginning, though, and it’s 5:20 am, and the start of another day. I’ve had another crappy night’s sleep and above all would like to stay in bed, but we have to get up and go to breakfast. It’s going to be a long stage, the second longest of the race, so I have to stuff my gullet when the thought of eating simply repulses me. At least we’re once again gridded in block A, so do not need to line up early and then fight for position. However, it does mean watching team after team accelerate away from us after the start, something neither of us is used to. Whilst we wait for the gun another rider points out that Rob’s rear tyre is down to the casing at one point where a knob has been pulled clean off. With 118 km to go this is clearly something of concern, but nothing can be done now. The gun fires and, as usual, we are taken straight into a long climb, 23 km up to 2200 metres from our current 1200 metre altitude. On paper it had looked ok to me; the reality is something of a shock. Apart from a short and steep initial section, we take a gravel track that follows a stream up a long valley floor. Although we’re gradually gaining height, the track rolls up and down, completely destroying any rhythm. This hurts both of us. We are latched on to a train of riders led by one strong man. There is another train up ahead, and sometimes it looks like we will catch them, but it’s just not going to happen and they gradually draw away into the distance. This is something of a shame for (as we subsequently hear from Todd of the Rocinantes), Frischy is in the group, and later on he will lead the 30 km of tarmac and gravel transition at about 50 kph into the headwind, giving everyone a free ride. But back to the present. Both of us are suffering bad, holding on by sheer will-power. One by one the other teams in the train drop off – they must be hurting too – until eventually we’re the only pair left. Since we have been doing no work, we are waved through, but a few miserable attempts to show that we are not wheel-sucking scum (two by Rob and one by me) convince the strong rider that we are of no use, and he carries on pushing at the front.

This goes on and on until eventually we reach the singletrack that tops the climb. As soon as we start this the pair we’ve been holding on to pull away, since we don’t have the strength to follow. Except for a little mud, the track should be quite fun, but I’m in a world of misery, not even able to appreciate the spectacular views of wild mountains either side. The track takes us to the typical fast and loose gravel descent. Near the bottom Rob has a flat. Considering the state of his rear tyre, alarm bells are ringing in my head, but luckily it’s the front that has gone down, and we are soon away after a quick change. What follows is something of a blur. Roads, gravel roads, and a tough little climb where I am feeling stronger, and we pull away from some other teams, Rob stuck to my wheel. Shortly after there is a great section of sandy singletrack that winds up and down through woods along a steep valley side. I follow Rob through this; he’s clearly tired, lacking his usual power and technique. After this, there is a long, flattish transition to the last climb. We’re in a train led by a strong rouleur type who is powering along into a headwind, whilst the rest of us hide, conserving energy. Yes, once again we are wheel-sucking scum, but when we had attempted to start some chaingang rotation the group was too disorganised to cooperate. This section is still difficult in its own way, with lots of tricky, sharp turnings that are dangerous in such a group. Overall, though, nothing much happens until we reach the final climb.

For once, I have the edge on Rob, and he is glued to my back wheel. In many ways, this is something of a relief for me. When riding in company, Rob’s usual climbing rhythm is to open up a gap of 5 or 10 metres early on and then maintain that for the rest of the ascent. This is ok, but it does mean I’ve seen an awful lot of Rob’s backside in the last few days, and being in front is a welcome change. Less than halfway up, we catch Frischy and Ritchey – Tom is suffering, and says as much. We will pull out over 10 minutes on them by the end of the stage.

I only start to falter near the summit, when the track starts rolling up and down. I cannot see the top of the climb, we’re simply skirting around the edge of the mountain, and (having misunderstood a spectator) I mistakenly think we should have reached the summit, which is very demoralising. Rob takes over pulling on the front. The track twists around, spitting us out at the foot of a very steep, grassy slope. Fuck. Choose your weapon – ride or push. Rob rides, I push, but it makes little difference in speed.

Once over this we reach the last descent – long gravel switchbacks. After all the hard work, I cannot face being caught by other teams, so let rip, actually leading Rob down most of it. This works, and at most one team passes us. With just another 11 km to go, the course takes us onto tarmac, firstly downhill, then flat, into the headwind. We get in a little group with two or three other teams, and for once we work well together. The course does have a little sting in the tail, a sharp left turn up a tough little path that I actually miss, but once past this we’re into the town, and the finish. We’re 21st male team with 5 hr 36 m 57 s for 118 km – a long, hard day, but it has taken us up 5 places to 24th in the overall standings.

That evening the camp is full of walking wounded. It has been getting worse everyday, but today is exceptionally bad. It seems the transition along the valley floor was carnage, with too many corners and riders inexperienced in groups, and there are many gravel rash victims. The pros do not escape unscathed, either. We hear that Bart Brentjens partner crashed out of the race on the last descent. Shit this race scares me. At least we are halfway through.

Stage 5: Naturns – Meran

53.83 km
2103 m ascent
2333 m descent
Where’s the frigging internet access?

Boy it’s hot and humid here. Don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight. Today’s stage went well, but now we have raced for five days straight and are entering an unknown situation. I’m starting to get tired of being nervous, worrying about crashing and holding up physically, plus I’m fed up with the whole cycle of ride-wash-eat-sleep and having to force-feed all the time, which I’m starting to feel is all I’ve ever known. In some ways I just want to get the next few days over and done with.

Today was the short day, just 54 Km, with one large climb and descent followed by about 19 km of mixed asphalt and technical trails to the finish. Had the usual shitty 5:30 am start, though for the first time Rob had to wake me. I’d got to sleep ok, but when I woke to go to the loo sometime in the night, I couldn’t get back to sleep for ages, my mind just churning, unable to rest – something that seems to happen every night. Eventually I did get back to sleep, but then was out cold, earplugs in.

Breakfast wasn’t quite so bad as yesterday, owing to the brevity of the stage – only mild stuffing needed. The stage itself worked out good. Once again we were gridded, which is such a help. Tinker lined up right next to us, and actually turned and gave me a nod. Was I pleased or what? The start launched straight into a tarmac/gravel and eventually singletrack ascent of 17 km that climbed about 1500 vertical metres. We settled into our rhythm immediately, watching a number of teams zoom around us early on, letting them go to pull them back later. For the first time our paces we were completely even, and we were swapping the front every few minutes. We peaked in 1 hr 25 min – very good, went over the technical singletrack top ok, and then onto a rocky downhill. Rob was flying, but I did ok riding within myself, only walking a couple of sections. After that we were onto fast gravel hairpins, and then some swoopy singletrack in a line of riders. Down into a valley, then a road climb followed by more singletrack descent, some steep with tiny hairpin turns that I simply ran.

Rob got ahead and, just as it opened out onto gravel road and I started chasing him down, I shot past him stranded with a puncture. I hadn’t even noticed him! (In my defence, he was being helped by a girl in red kit – I had glanced at her and assumed it was another team that had stopped.) He shouted at me, so I turned, headed back, and we did another speedy tube change. So close to the finish, Rob was now on a charge, leading us through twisty tarmac roads on the valley side, passing Meran beneath us. Spectators were out in force. Having high fived a row of three kids earlier in the stage, now one uphill left-hand bend took us through a clapping crowd lining both sides of a village street.

The course took us down to a river crossing, where we were told it was just 4 km to go. Rob blasted off, then I took over, charging head-down on a wonderfully smooth gravel path. Next thing, I see these big, water-eroded bumps just in front of me, where a small stream crossed the path. It was too late for me to do anything, and I was too panicked to call it to Rob, so we both slammed into them doing at least 40 kph. Luckily, we both just hung on, remaining upright, and pushed on. More gravel, then into the town – directed around tight corner after corner, putting all trust in the marshals. Finally the finish line, in 2 hr 59 m 09 s – under the 3 hour benchmark we had been aiming for. 27th male team, remaining 24th overall, but pulling over 4 minutes back on the Rocinantes (who we’re aiming to catch).

Finishing so early was great, and should have given me some time to relax and recharge. However, I failed to do this, which, I believe, was the cause of problems to come. First of all, the camp was too hot and humid for us to be able to doze well. Then I needed to buy a new rear tyre since my Conti Twister was starting to look shot. I also talked to the Magura man about buying new forks (the bushings on my old Manitous were now deteriorating badly), but ultimately he was too busy servicing brakes. Worst of all, though, was expending lots of time and energy in a fruitless quest for a public internet computer. Eventually I found out that the town only had one (which was of course in use). Unbelievable! The only upside to my troubles was finding the town bike shop, where I was able to buy a decent plastic rim strip for my rear wheel. This was essential, since the cloth tape sold to us by neutral service was starting to move, exposing spoke holes. Thinking the same thing could be happening on Rob’s front wheel, I bought him a rim strip too. However, he felt there should be no need for changing his tape. I know now I should have argued, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and neither of us could have predicted tomorrow’s events. As it was, I thought he’s the shop mechanic, so did not contest a decision that both of us would come to regret.

I guess the biggest upshot of Meran, the stage finish town, was that they put on the best pasta party of the week, serving perfect al dente penne in tomato sauce and real Italian lasagne. Nevertheless, this came in the evening, and during the afternoon I failed to capitalise on the free time to do some serious refuelling. Sure we chilled at a café for a while, but I need to eat. I may not like it, but I have to do it.

Stage 6: Meran – Kaltern

72.81 km
2732 m ascent
2633 m descent
Cracks in the teamwork....

Its 2:20 am. I’m wide awake, and hungry as hell – completely starvin’ Marvin. I ate a banana about 40 minutes ago, but it did nothing to stave off my appetite. Implicitly I understand I didn’t eat enough yesterday, but knowing that doesn’t help me right now. I need food, all of which is in Rob’s rucksack. I have just searched through this, trying to sort through the plastic bags without disturbing Rob. My real aim was the biscuits, but they eluded me and I only found one rather stale and chewy roll. I’m munching this right now, whilst surveying the camp in the half-dark, the room full of sleeping, rustling, snoring, breathing bodies and their large, yellow or black Adidas kit bags. Madness. What kind of hell is this?

I do get back to sleep, but awake early, of my own accord. We have a long walk to breakfast, which is held outside in some small football stadium or something. The walk is punctuated by me coughing a dry, smoker’s cough – something that I now get every morning. Still, as long as it doesn’t slow me down, what the hell it doesn’t matter. At breakfast I’m actually hungry, which I know to be bad news. I stuff in what I can, my stomach feeling the size of a walnut kernel as I try to force down muesli, cheese and bread rolls. Halfway through the breakfast one of the cooks (all middle-aged men wearing singlets), turns up Fox Radio, blaring out cheesy tunes that hammer my tired and sleep-starved brain. I almost suggest moving to a quieter table, but it would be too much effort. Instead I suffer.

1 ½ hours later we’re on the start line. We’re about to face a 26 km, 1600 vertical metre climb up to Auener Jöchl, first on asphalt and gravel, then technical singletrack, and I’m feeling like death warmed over, drained and with no energy, none of the nervous vibes that I’ve had at this time on previous days. Fuck, I’m in trouble.

The starter’s gun fires. Rob sprints off, but straight away I’m suffering. My heart rate may be plumb normal compared to the last few days, but I’m slipping back through the field. I’m doing my best, but no way do I have the form to keep up with Rob. Even my bike feels slow, especially the new Schwalbe rear tire, which, after the Twister, is heavy and draggy, its knobs squirming on every pedal stroke, wasting my precious energy.

All I can do is struggle on, but Rob keeps riding ahead whilst constantly glancing over his shoulder to check on me. He may not be saying I’m too slow, but that look is enough, and I find it increasingly annoying. Sometimes he slows down a little and, by putting in an extra hard effort, I make it onto his rear wheel. However, every time this happens, he immediately accelerates and drops me. There’s nothing I can do. I’m out of gas, my legs are empty, I’m already at my limit, if I could go any faster I would be but as it is I’m climbing at survival pace. Being paced up just ain’t going to happen.

I’m getting really fucked off with Rob’s behaviour when he drops back to tell me that his legs are pinging and that he could have gone with the front group. The subtext is obvious and this seriously upsets me. The fact that I’m spewing my guts out trying to stay with him clearly doesn’t matter. If I’m really going so slowly, why can’t he give me a frigging push?

I carry on my slow upward grovel and we reach the singletrack, a narrow, rocky and technical path across the exposed, grassy top of the mountain. I’m riding like a clutz-mobile, having to push my bike much of the time or falling off when I do try riding. Rob, on the other hand, is dancing up the tricky path, clearing a particularly difficult section to the applause of a crowd. I trudge my way up, pushing my bike, and instead get a consolatory push from a spectator. God this is depressing.

We follow our competitors to the top of a mountain. I insist on stopping to eat a Schneekoppe fruit bar, anything to give my legs a short rest and make sure that I take on some fuel before the downhill. All of a sudden there’s confusion. There is no track across the mountaintop. No one knows what’s happened except that this isn’t the right way, that we’ve taken a detour. We now need to double back down and pick up the correct route on a lower path that, somehow, must have been missed. What a fucking waste of effort. Even worse, the people lower down the field see the mistake and start taking shorter routes, some taking paths, others simply short-cutting across the grass. Whatever the case they’re flooding us from all directions. Rob doesn’t seem that bothered, but I am so not happy and pissed off.

We’re now on the descent. At first it’s kind of technical, with lots of sharp stone water bars set into the trail. Some people are shoving past, giving the usual rude attitude, but I’m doing ok, not too shabby. We catch Todd from the Rocinantes – they also took the wrong route at the mountain top and it seems he’s as upset as me. Maybe he’s been suffering as much I have. The downhill opens up to fast gravel road. Even after all the shit that’s happened, we’re still riding with some of our regular competitors, our German friends in yellow and white. One of them passes me on a long straight. Soon after there’s a tricky left-hand corner onto a different track. Whilst I’m riding around it at full gas, struggling not to lose my drifting front wheel, I see him climbing out of the neighbouring meadow – not just me finding things tricky!

However, the defining part of the stage is yet to come, as we head into the steepest asphalt descent you’ve ever seen. The weather is like a hot, humid furnace, and everyone is braking continuously. There’s a stench of burning rubber and oil in the air, and then Rob has the temerity to flat on the front wheel. At first his rim is too hot to touch because of all the braking, but once sufficiently cooled he rips out the tube only to find that his fabric rim-tape and Stans underlay have melted, balling up into the centre of the rim and leaving all the spoke holes exposed. We both try, but there’s no way we can relay the rim tape to cover the holes. Not only does this put us completely in the shit, but now I’m really hacked off. I don’t say much, but all I can wonder is why the fuck he didn’t he put in that fucking nice fucking plastic rim strip I fucking bought for him yester-fucking-day? Now his poor judgement in the face of my help was losing us far more time than my weak legs ever would.

In his favour, at least Rob sees a way out of the situation. He thinks of using the punctured tube as a liner for the rim. We need to cut the tube open but have no knife, so Rob stabs it with the screwdriver on his multitool. Then, with the burning sun beating down on our backs, and squatting on the hot, hot tarmac, first Rob and then I tear open the tube with our hands. I notice the tear is moving off-centre, but Rob reckons it won’t matter as long as one end meets up with the other. However, my intuition is right, and once we try lining the rim with the slashed and hacked tube, we find we have made an Amoebeus strip, making our lives even more difficult. Somehow, though, determination and desperation prevail, and on the second attempt we manage to stuff the new tube and our make-shift strip into the tyre. Once the tyre is pumped up we are finally on the go, with about 25 km left, living on a prayer that our fix will hold out. (Amazingly it does.) The work has taken around 15 minutes in the baking heat, watching rider after rider go past, brakes squealing, or sometimes even running, cleats going clickety-clack on the tarmac.

Rob’s now riding like an animal, desperate to make up places, with me sitting on behind. Mentally I’m destroyed, bitterly stewing over the day’s events. Beyond caring, every time it becomes too hard to follow his wheel I simply fall off the pace and let a gap open up. We reach some singletrack through woods. It’s overly technical, and having lost so many places, we’re caught behind riders who are slower and with even worse skills than me. Everyone is walking and pushing or carrying their bikes up the most difficult sections and it occurs to me that, once walking, everyone pretty much goes at the same speed – fitness no longer makes a difference. Up one particularly unrideable section, I at least manage to raise a laugh when I enthusiastically shout out “This is fantastic!” Overall, we do succeed in negotiating our way up a few places, and reach the last few kilometres of the stage that take us to the finish on gravel, footpath and tarmac. Once again Rob accelerates off. He’s desperate to maintain our top 30 position in the overall rankings so that we will be gridded in group A for tomorrow’s stage, since it will start with a long, flat road section. By now, though, I’m completely fed up with him and looking at his backside, which I’ve seen way too much of over the last five days, so only make a few miserable stabs at hanging onto his back wheel. My uncooperative attitude must be driving him crazy, but WTF? The whole stage was screwed up long ago and I cannot see the point of forcing my dead legs around much harder just so that we can gain a few measly seconds. Best to save my legs and try and recover before tomorrow, the longest stage of the race.

We get to the finish line. No elation today. We’re not even talking, both pissed off with each other. Clearly this situation is unhealthy, so I break the ice by suggesting going to the camp, and wondering whether we should take a hotel room tonight, as Rob had suggested earlier. More importantly, I also explain just how soul-destroying his negative behaviour had been that morning, and that if he wants to encourage me he needs to use positive statements. After this, things start to improve. Our 4 h 18 m 47 s time only nets us 55th place in the men (our lowest position all race), but miraculously keeps our top-30 slot (down to 28th overall), so Rob’s efforts had not been in vain. We do decide on taking a hotel room, so can actually get some decent rest, relaxing and sleeping in comfort and not having to queue for scummy loos and showers. When we walk up to the camp to fetch some night stuff from our kit bags I spy a water fountain, and suggest giving our legs a cold soak on the way back for recovery purposes. (Readers who know about my experience with an ice bath during my 600 km long weekend will understand this better!) Damn it feels good, resting in the cool, mountain water after being out in the hot sun all day, even if we do garner a number of surprised looks from passers by. Even better, someone has left a pre-tour issue of Outside magazine there, so we have something new to read – result! I also know I have to do some serious eating to cover my caloric deficit, so I make a real effort, first snacking, then pasta and salad at a café (the salad kindly donated by a neighbouring table), more snacking, and of course pasta party in the evening.

By the time we have watched Lance win the last mountain stage of the tour on our hotel TV (his whole body language screaming “Who’s the Daddy?” as he sprints past Kloden), the team is rebuilt. We sort out our tyres – Rob needs to put in the plastic rim strip, I make the gamble of reverting to the fast Twister on the rear wheel for the next stage, since it will largely be on tarmac – and go to the pasta party. This is right next to the neutral service. The stage, and in particular that road descent, has caused bike carnage – the service is completely swamped by dead or damaged bikes. Poor service guys, they’re going to have a long night. Meanwhile, before I hit the sack, I make a tired, depressed and very incoherent phone call to Ilona. Today was a bad one for me, but surely tomorrow can’t be any worse, can it?

Stage 7: Kaltern – Folgaria

121 km (approx.)
3700 m ascent (approx.)
3200 m descent (approx.)
What did we do to deserve this?

Stay in the hotel was bloody marvellous, no queuing for showers or loos, actually slept most of the night, and breakfast was very relaxed. All good. Plus our bikes were still in the hotel lock-up in the morning after a night when 25 bikes were stolen from hotels.

On the start line I had my race vibes back. The stage kicked off with a long 10 km neutralised section on road and bike paths. After yesterday, I was determined to be more aggressive, and moved up a few places during the roll-out, actually getting ahead of Rob. Overall, though, the neutralised section was very relaxed in grid A; pretty much everyone knew their place and was happy to stay there, whereas reportedly further down the field there was a real squeeze-box effect going on.

The neutralised section finished at the foot of the first main climb of the day. Though largely tarmac, it began with some steepish singletrack and gravel path. I pushed on through this and come out positioned well, shortly behind Rob. Then onto a long stretch of 4% gradient gravel road, on an old railroad track. I was feeling good, and ended up pulling along a small group, until this section finished and we started a shallow descent. Unfortunately I pinch-flatted on the back tyre, but no matter, we had a speedy change and set off in pursuit of the teams ahead, flying down the gravel tracks until we reached a turning onto asphalt. This marked the start of a tough road climb up to 2072 metres – the Manghenpass. Once onto this we settled into an awesome rhythm. The climb may have been long, and the temperatures may have been climbing higher and higher, but we were absolutely rocking, motoring past team after team. Patchin, a friendly Californian, was out on the course, acting as support for a mixed team. Every time he saw us he was shouting that we were flying. And we were. All of the troubles of yesterday were long gone, we were a team again, carving up the field under the beating sun. It was the stage billed as the longest and the toughest, 121 km with over 3700 metres of climbing, and we were hauling. Hell, my legs felt so good I actually had a change of pace in them, unlike my diesel engine of the last few days, and Rob was clearly having no trouble, either. From what we could tell, by the top of the pass the entire race had been blown apart and we had moved right up the field. We were on fire. It was our day, our payback time for all our troubles and missed chances.

Asphalt continued, first with a long (25 km) descent that took us down to the valley floor. Picking up a small group, we kept fast down this, though staying sane, no stupid risks, also taking the opportunity to refuel. At the bottom we were directed onto roads and pan-flat bike paths that would take us some 18 km to the foot of the next climb. Luckily, the group we were in from the descent was working well together – all but one of us taking turns on the front, not going too hard, just maintaining pace and position. The day was now sweltering, blisteringly hot and humid with no air to breath. By the time we reached the climb, which would take us up 900 vertical metres, mainly on tarmac, we were hot. A man was standing at the roadside with a hose, spraying all the riders as they went past. It felt so good, I could have stayed under there all day! As it was, it simply brought some brief but welcome relief before the suffering began. Next moment we were climbing switchback after switchback in the broiling sun. Soon we were seeking any scrap of shade on the exposed tarmac, riding down the gutter on the wrong side of the road if we had to. Nevertheless, we were still going well, our pace perfectly matched and under control, keeping something in reserve for the finish. We were only caught by one, solitary rider, one of our German friends in yellow and white, who had clearly left his weaker team mate far behind. The end of the asphalt was marked with the second feed station, which we reached in 4 hr 45 min. There was only about 19 km of rolling gravel and singletrack left to go. Both of us were feeling good, ready to rock, so we were easily looking at a sub-6 hr finish. A couple of kilometres further on, though, and I had a second pinch flat on the back. Aware of how close we were to the finish and how little we wanted to lose time, I was nervous, fumbling the change, so Rob took over and we were still off again quickly, the tire pumped up extra hard to try and prevent more snakebites.

And then… a stony downhill. Not that steep, not that rocky. Innocuous really… The most freakish thing happens. Both our remaining tubeless tyres puncture at the same time. Un-fucking-believable! Mine has gone totally flat (I now think because of a tear in the sidewall I didn’t discover at the time), so there’s basically no chance of the latex solution mending it. Therefore we shove in the one remaining spare tube. This still leaves Rob’s flat tyre, on which a knob has been ripped away from the carcass. When he pumps it up the Stans sealant struggles to mend the large hole, so it’s not holding air properly. Nevertheless, he decides that he will carry on, stopping every few minutes to pump the tire back up again. Looking back, maybe that was the wrong decision, but at the time we just didn’t know what was best. Perhaps we should have patched one of the punctured tubes and put that in, but there was no proper rim tape on the rim, plus patching is a lengthy procedure, and… Well, whatever? We didn’t and I guess it’s too late to question it now.

So we set off… Ride and pump, ride and pump… Not very funny after a few minutes. As if our misery isn’t bad enough, on turning a corner we find the wide track we’ve been following has collapsed away down the hillside. As Rob points out, we haven’t seen a direction arrow for quite some time. The horrible reality dawns – we have gone in the wrong direction, downhill. Like I said before, un-fucking-believable. We set off back up the track, me riding ahead. By now, Rob is past shouting out obscenities and has been reduced to letting out animal screams that reverberate around the forest. Over one kilometre later I find the small turning that, in our distraught and distracted state, we had missed. We’re back on the correct route, but by now Rob is in such a miserable state it’s untrue. His tyre is holding less and less air – so little that he’s having to walk on the steeper uphills. Since I’m always readier to walk or run than he is, we try swapping – him riding my bike and me pushing his – but it’s no good, my saddle is too high for him. I just want the stage to finish so that we can end this horror, but it’s going on and on, never-ending. Eventually we have lost so much time we’re being passed by teams we’ve never even seen before, we normally finish so far ahead of them.

Finally I can see a village ahead. I’m desperately hoping it’s the stage finish, but I’m wrong. Instead of heading towards it we’re taking a grassy climb up the valley side, Rob trudging along disconsolately, pushing his bike. Later on I find out Rob that was a hair’s breadth from quitting, something completely out of his mindset, but at the time I’m just so sorry for him and for ourselves, wondering what the hell we did to deserve this.

Eventually we reach a tarmac road that takes us over the hill, into the valley the other side, and on down to the finish at Folgaria. Now Rob’s rear tyre is completely flat, and he’s riding at 30 mph on rubber and rim, back wheel sketching all over the place in a very dangerous way. He gets me to push him up one false flat, and then we head further down, into the town. We’re directed onto the finishing straight, an uphill cobbled street. Rob’s running! Now it’s uphill he can’t ride his bike at all and he’s damn well running! I drop back and grab his bike, so he at least doesn’t need to push it. There we are, me riding along with two bikes, Rob running, and the crowd going wild. Just before the finish line I hand him his steed so that he can cross the line with it, and then it’s all over. We may have made it, but we’re consumed by disappointment. All we can do is give each other a hug.

After that we just don’t give a flying fuck about anything. Sure, we go through the usual motions – grabbing something to eat from the food stand, finding the camp, making recovery drinks and having showers – but we don’t care anymore. It was too crushing, being totally robbed of our best stage finish ever (certainly top-15, maybe top-10 men), having our optimism shattered and our hopes annihilated in the space of a few minutes. To give you an idea of just how well we had been going, after losing at least 45 minutes in this absolute mess, we only slipped one place (down to 29th) in the overall male standings. Yes, just one! Laughable! Even in the stage rankings we were still 48th men (our time was 6 hr 35 m 55 s).

The rest of the day wasn’t completely without joy. The pasta party was amusingly bad for its crappy food and strict portion control. (I take two bread rolls, and one is removed from me whilst I’m scolded “Nein, ein Brott, ein Brott!”) To make up for the calorific deficit, later on we went for pizza with Bart and Andy (that is, once we’d managed to order from the stressed Italian waitress). I phoned Ilona for commiseration, but in the brief time we had to talk it was impossible to explain the sheer horror of the day. The highlight of the evening, though, was taking another cold soak in a water fountain. Rob’s legs had been so good today he was now convinced about the merits of this recovery method, but the only fountain we found was right in the main street. We debated, and I said I would go if he would, so we put on our swimmers, walked up to it and climbed in – with a continuous flow of pedestrians passing by and me facing a row of Italian grandparents sitting on benches. Boy, did we cause a sensation with them!

Here we are, then. Just one more stage, almost at the finish. We’ve made a pact to forget about racing and just ride this for enjoyment. To be honest, knowing that it will start with a long and technical descent, I’m more concerned with staying in one piece…

Stage 8: Folgaria – Riva del Garda

66.5 km
2141 m ascent
3234 m descent
And its all over!

After the nightmares of yesterday, we had both agreed to be relaxed about things today, just go out and enjoy the last stage. At breakfast I only made mild efforts to force-feed myself on my Schneekoppe muesli mix, giving up shortly after halfway through the bowl. I didn’t feel too excited on the start line, just rather tired and looking forward to the finish, but the gun went and I set off as best I could. The stage once again revealed the sense of humour of Uli Stanciu, the course designer. Now people were nice and tired, it would first treat them to the most difficult descent of the week, followed up with a long, very steep tarmac climb, before finally allowing them to roll down into Riva. Only around 67 km but still very hard.

Rob was on yet another good day, but this time I didn’t feel pressured by my relative slowness and could just ride at my own pace. After a neutralised road section going out of town, the course proper kicked off with a short (for the Transalp at least) gravel climb, a little technical descent, then some more gravel climb followed by a very serious 1400 vertical metre plummet down loose, rocky singletrack (with a little tarmac thrown in). On the initial climb my legs were a bit short of gas, but no matter. My hands and arms were also tired – not very comforting considering the impending descent. Still, I held position reasonably well and we kicked into the downhill, me following Rob’s wheel. He did a good job of leading me through the tricky sections, though after a while we did get split up – I think when I got caught up behind the Fusion-sponsored teammate and husband of XC champ Sabine Spitz, who was an even worse descender than me! I did walk some sections, but was not too bothered about this, and overall did not lose that many places – probably because of queues of pushing cyclists forming further behind. I also had one small tumble, as did Rob, but nothing serious. Further down the hill, Rob waited for me and we set off again together. Strangely, at this point, with my arms and hands hurting badly, bouncing around all over the place as my shagged suspension forks apparently did nothing to stave off hits, I suddenly started thinking “this is great”, and actually kind of enjoyed the rest of the descent. We reached the bottom, finding some welcome physical relief on the tarmac. One of the English lads had caught us on the descent, and he hooked onto my wheel. However, Rob was cranking up the next climb and, whilst I stuck on like glue, he did not last long. Then we were over the top, a little down and then some flat, and onto the last big climb of the race.

Even though my pace was moderate compared to Rob’s, we soon caught a big Frischy-Ritchey centred group, and then many other teams. It was rather fun, because most were our usual competitors from the last week, so it was like a final good bye. Once we had got through them the climb became serious. The road reared upwards at a devilishy steep gradient, and just would not relinquish. I had to drop into my bailout gear of 22x34, whilst Rob drove on ahead in his 29x32. The weather was also becoming more dramatic: after building all week, a storm was finally breaking. Low, grey clouds rumbled with thunder and the occasional crack of lightning as we climbed. By the end of the tarmac, near the rolling, gravel road top, I was suffering badly, just pushing myself to keep turning the pedals. However, everyone else (apart from Rob) must have been hurting too, since we were not being caught.

The rolling top section was hard on me, to put it mildly, but we finally reached the start of the downhill, and the last section of singletrack in the race. I entered this in front of Rob, and a bizarre thing happened. I was knackered, with dog-tired legs and arms, but all of a sudden I felt great and was flying, nailing lines like I’ve never done before, going so well I was actually dropping Rob and catching others by handling skill alone – something that counts as an absolute first. I don’t know why, maybe in my fatigued state something, somewhere in my neurons and synapses clicked, my conscious brain finally giving in and letting my subconscious take over. The singletrack opened out onto gravel track hairpins. Unfortunately we were now caught on the back of a train going not quite fast enough around the corners, but just too fast to pass. It was starting to rain, too, making things cold. Adding that to our fatiguing fore-arms, we both just wanted to reach the tarmac.

At last this came. So close to the finish, I started feeling surprisingly emotional, tears welling into my eyes. However, it was time for the final charge to Riva, my last chance to hammer on the flat. Both of us were nervous about the wet corners (fears confirmed by seeing both the Felt pair slide out at high speed), but as soon as the road straightened out we started pulling the group at 42/43 kph. I managed to get off the front, but Rob was boxed in and could not join me. Therefore, I dropped back to rejoin the group, though I still carried on pulling just for the hell of it. Into the town, and things became tricky, trying to maintain position on the wet corners. I slipped two or three places, but then the finish line was upon us and Rob charged past, shouting ‘sprint’. This I did, and we hammered across the line, a loud and frenzied crowd on either side, me whooping and with a grin on my face. Would have been nice to cross the line in celebration together, but the final push was worth it since we came 19th men in 3 hr 37 m 46 s, finally netting that top-20 stage finish we had been seeking. Our complete time for the race was 35 hr 55 m 59 s; we remained 29th in the overall standings {In case you are wondering, we can say that we have beaten a world champion/Olympic medallist – the masters category team of Thomas Frischknecht and Tom Ritchey was a whole 3 minutes 36.3 seconds behind us.}. Of course, having lost getting on for 2 hours with our 12 punctures, Rob and I could only think “what if?” Without this time loss, top-20 would have been a given, even top-15 my have been feasible. Nevertheless, top-30 male team and 40th team overall was still good going and something to be pleased about. In fact, both finishing in one piece was something to be pleased about!

The rain put something of a dampener on the finish-line atmosphere, since most competitors just wanted to find the showers and warm-up. Still, I at least took the opportunity of thanking Uli Stanciu for an amazing week before we headed for the camp. Once showered, we went back to the finish area, enjoying chips and wonderfully greasy pizzas from a café and buying Adidas Transalp cycling jerseys. Because of the weather, the final pasta party and awards ceremony was moved from outside into the same tent where the camp was, all slightly chaotic. At the meal, we were served big portions of fried chicken and chips in addition to pasta. Whilst this I devoured, my pasta remained almost untouched. Then the awards started – a very German affair, listing statistic after stastic about the race. Rob was rather tired and (with a rapidly developing sore throat) a bit uncommunicative, so I went wondering, first finding some of the British lads (who gave me a beer – cheers guys!) and then Bart and Andy, who I led Rob over too for more sociability. Once the podium winners had been awarded, it was time for every surviving team to receive their finishers T-shirts – all called up on stage, in turn. What’s more, all the T-shirts for teams that had not finished would be burnt! Uli was very serious about this – no-one else is allowed to wear your T-shirt, not wives or girlfriends, nobody. After being given ours, along with finishing certificates and a folder of complete results from the race, Rob and I headed out for ice-cream, me having the occasional stumble after three plastic cups of wine and two beers. When we returned, they were about to show the video of the race – only a few hours after the race finished and already they were ready to roll! I then nipped out to call Ilona, and went back to find some cheesy tunes playing. After some dancing from Bart and me clearly inspired by alcohol, Rob, Bart, Andy and I all headed out to escape the loud music and find (and eat) cake. By the time we returned, the party was finally winding down (kind of useful, since it was in the same tent as our sleeping quarters), though I was well impressed to see the male winners, Platt and Heymanns still there, going strong. Nevertheless, with some earplugs in I was soon good to go, ready to finally get a decent night’s sleep. Little did I know that the German jokers next to us would start shouting loudly at quarter to seven in the morning. Funny guys!!


So that was the Adidas Bike Transalp Challenge 2004. An extremely intense eight days that packed in enough nerves, adrenaline, suffering, highs, lows and near-misses (there were a lot of near-misses) to last a season. In fact, it probably was my season, since, ever since it finished, I’ve been suffering from severe motivational issues when it comes to returning to domestic racing, which just doesn’t cut it anymore. Thing is, as far as I’m concerned now, the Transalp is the race.

As with any serious work, I have some acknowledgements to make. Of course, thanks to Rob, a top team mate. Really. Cheers to Bart and Andy – was great having them around in the evenings to provide some levity to our seriousness. Well done for finishing 83rd male team! And big thanks to Ilona for letting me go, and then (more or less) putting up with 10 days of a very, very tired Duncan when I returned. It took a good two or three weeks to start feeling normal, and finally shake off the cough I picked up. This year I’ve had two fantastic experiences – first the wedding, then the Transalp. No matter how much I enjoyed it, I know for a fact that Ilona won’t let me have another wedding, so hopefully I’ll at least be allowed to do another Transalp. After all, Deadly Serious have some unfinished business......

For more info on the race (or to get your entry in for next year!), see: TransAlp website.