Sep 15, 2010

The 21st Cristalp Grand Raid mountain bike madness

I decided to try a few different things this summer. I stayed away from the long trail runs to give my tired knees a break (after repeatedly listening to my brother’s overuse warnings) and focused on cycling and triathlon.

Not having had a mountain bike in three years, I was unsure weather I wanted to invest again - until a pregnant pal offered me her BMC for the summer. Problem solved. I decided to get back on and see if I could still hang. I figured out fast I REALLY missed mountain biking. I also sorted out fairly quickly mountain biking over here in the Alps was a little bit different, bigger down hills, lots of roots and some steep terrain.  I am sporting some new scars these days.

After a few rides I ambitiously decided to sign up for the Cristalp Grand Raid - one of the Swiss Race Classics held in the Valais canton. The race could be likened to the Leadville 100 in the states but far lower in  actual elevation with more climbing and some serious descents. Four choices are available to the Grand Raid enthusiast as illustrated below.

The mac-daddy is 137km with over 5000 meters of elevation gain and descent traveling from Verbier to Grimentz. A bit smaller but no less daunting is the stretch from Nendaz to the finish with 100 kilometers and just shy of 4000 meters of elevation gain. Next, the shortest option, 40 kilometers and 1840 meters of elevation gain and last, the race I chose - leaving from Heremence to Grimentz, 70 kilometers and roughly 3000 meters of elevation gain/descent. Thanks to a good friend, I was able to pre-ride most of the course, with the exception of the final climb, hike-a-bike, and last descent.

Bib, check, Cristalp participant sticker, check, SOS sticker, check check…

My heat started at 6am. Up at five I finished my carbo cake and arrived at the start in style again thanks to my Swiss pals. I was shooting for around six hours which I was assured would be good for my first attempt especially since the last part was still unknown to me. My bike was aluminum, a little heavier than all the carbon frames that surrounded me but I liked my chances on my sturdy steed. I was ready to roll and was happy to see first light illuminate the clear sky.

The gun sounded and up and up we went, jockying for position. There is nothing like a triathlon swim start or a mountain bike start to get the blood flowing. We climbed for an hour and change before hitting the first technical traverse. Frustrated by the people who stopped and walked, I tried to run ahead but realized it was a lost cause (ankle deep in mud some places) and just stopped to walk behind the masses. I am told this is why some people take the longer start from Nendaz or Verbier - no traffic jams, either that or I need to book it up that first climb next time round.

Bike check-in, alles klar....
Bike check-in, alles klar….

After the traverse I was determined to make up time and descended quickly - too quickly - and while looking ahead at a female racer I was prepared to pass, I washed out on some loose rock around a sharp corner. Before I could get up two people fell over me, bikes, arms, legs, it was a mess. We all got up quickly to get out of the way before our hogpile grew. I was grabbed by the race official who walked up to escort me to the aid station 100 meters down. “People fall on the corner every year, so we always have a first aid station here,”  he told me while he threw some iodine on my wounds. He was not kidding, as I sat there 4 more people fell. I was a bit shaky and bleeding so they bandaged me up, fed me some water and sugar and gave me the clear to go.

The adrenaline was wearing off and I started to feel quite tired - and not sure if I could finish the race. I had spent close to twenty minutes with my pals at the aid station and it was hard to get motivated and back in race mentality. I finished the descent into Evolene enjoying the ride through the main street waving at the little kids, grabbed some food and then started up the second climb.

Smiles for the last descent

I slowly got into a rhythm but it was a mental battle, my body hurt, my leg was bleeding and I was constantly asking myself if I wanted to finish - not helpful. After an hour and a half of up my friend Valerie (who has done this race 8 times, 3 times all the way from Verbier) joined me for the last thirty minutes until the hike a bike section. She gave me some gels, more water, and quietly convinced me to finish the race while we rode. I silenced all the questions and just focused on pedaling. I made up some ground.

Once we reached the next aid station it was time to carry the bike up and over the Pas de Lona - the steep, non ride-able section of the course. Spectators cheered, handed me cokes and helped push/carry the bike up the steep, rocky slope - I love how strangers give a helping hand, it means so much when you are dog tired. No short portage, I finished the section in just about 43 minutes.

Love me a hike-a-bike

Once at the top the views were outstanding and I reminded myself that there was one last final steep and heart-breaking climb after a short downhill before I finally ticked off the 3000 meters of climbing. The last descent seemed to take forever and I really don’t think I have ever ridden something that sustained, 45 minutes of technical terrain with a few patches of fire road. My arms felt like jelly, my hands cramping from the brakes and I just focused on staying alert. Mountain biking is hard, there is really no recovery time. On the ups, you suffer - and on the downs you concentrate and suffer. I was ready to be done and thankfully a few minutes later I crossed the line. Again through the finish I was ushered into the medical tent to have a clean bandage applied. What is the old adage? If there is no blood, it was not a mountain bike ride!

At the bikewash…

After the race we lined up in an assembly line of sorts to clean the bikes - it was awesome. A small little bike village had been set up with chain cleaner, soap, and bike stands with hoses. The Swiss like their bikes clean! I gave mine a good clean before biking the thirty minutes back down to the valley floor to catch my ride back to my car.

Will I do it again? I think so, and this time with much more time on course and the training to go out fast to be able to ride the single track. To date I think it was the hardest race I have done - of course until the next one that is…