Ask me my highlight from 2018 and I'll tell you Alps Bike Festival, driving back into La Clusaz this year I was already smiling. This typical French mountain village nestled below the snowy peaks of the Annecy Mountains is becoming a summer playground for mountain bikers and families. The summer season might be another month away but the chair lifts are open and its beginning to get busy. Alps Bike Festival is the first big summer event of the year. Over 3 days there’s the UCI mountain bike marathon, the gravity enduro, the cross country, kids events and much more.
The Annecy mountains has 270km of cross country ski tracks, another 270km of downhill runs, 1476km of hiking trails, 10 Michelin star restaurants and 18 mountain passes accessible by bike, these attractions and many others help attract tourists to spend 5.8 million overnight stays per year. The highest point in the region is Pointe Percee at 2750 metres, at the base of the mountains is the beautiful Lake Annecy. From Annecy a 100km bike route can take you through the mountains to Thrones, La Clusaz, Col de La Croix Fry, Manigod, and Col d’Epine before returning to Annecy, it’s a route that is famous from many Tour de France visits. Le Grand Bornard has welcomed 7 different stages.
La Clusaz at 1100 metres is just a 25km drive from Lake Annecy. It has 19 MTB tracks, 4 ski lifts and 125km of tracks. There is a large range of accommodation options available to suit different needs and budgets, this includes holiday chalets, 5* hotels, family-oriented holiday villages and campsites. When not on the slopes there’s shops, restaurants, bakeries (cyclist favourite), swimming pools, spas and more to keep tourists busy.
After my last races in Belgium early to mid-May I put together a big 3 weeks of training and then tapered for this Friday’s marathon. This year I'm racing less, training more and it seems to be working, my fitness is higher than ever and I'm happy with the race results. In previous years I’ve had double the amount of race days I'll have this year, all the travelling, packing, race stress is tiring and eventually it’s a struggle to maintain the same motivation. This year I'm fresher and super motivated. Could I pull off another good result at this UCI Marathon?
It’s was great to see quite a few Brits on the start line, a few friendly faces through the sea of focused rivals. At 8.30 pros and amateurs, men and women lined up for the marathon which would follow a new route over 90km with 3450m ascent. Rain began 30 second before the start, can we have a dry dusty race sometime soon please!!? Fortunately, it was short lived and temperatures were mid 20s by the time we finished. From the gun I took to the front shooting out of the gates from my front row grid spot, no crazy fast pacing, just enough to be able to ride my own pace with the others tailing along behind me. Out of town and the pace making was then being shared as we began to establish a lead group, a steep gravel ascent was pretty selective. A group of 10 formed including Konny Looser, and myself.
I felt super confident on the climbs and was probably the quickest but on the technical often rough descents I was losing time. Arnaud Rapillard and I were the only ones on hardtail bikes and some of these trails were super technical steep rocky or rooty or muddy downhills. After 28kms we began the descent from Montagne de Vaunessin dropping over 600m in around 20 minutes, both Arnauld and I were both left behind by the others on their full suspension bikes. After this and most other descents I was left chasing but fortunately strong enough to make up the gap even when it stretched out to 30, 45, 60 seconds. My Simplon Razorblade with the super lightweight Rotor/ Mountain Trax wheels is a proper mountain goat.
From Grand Bornand the route took participants around Mont Lachat with the ascent of Chinaillon and Maroly. Over this long climbing peaking at 1746m Konny and I started to widen the gap over the rest of the group which had already whittled down to 5. We’d raced each other for the win during a race back in May so knew how to work well together to build a lead. The steep technical climb was absolutely brutal, I'm pretty sure most would have walked, neither Konny or myself wanted to make a mistake in case the other took advantage to break away. The first 1km of the climb averaged 15% gradient and the following kilometres averaged 21% gradient! Inching our way up the climb we eventually reached the summit, a quick glance at the beautiful views before diving down the following long tricky rough descent. I was losing time again but Konny was still in sight, the gap was on elastic, closing again every time the trail smoothed out or there was a climb.
Konny sped through the penultimate feed station with a bottle hand up from his support crew, I had to stop to fill up with water but even after that I managed to catch back up. Feed stations were plentiful over the route with 7 stops in total offering water, coke, energy drink, cake, cheese, chocolate, sweets and more!
I knew where I wanted to attack, there were 2 steep climbs within the 15km descent down to the finish, if I was going to win my first UCI Marathon I needed to make a move here. Ready, set, feeling strong, oh my left leg is about to cramp... hold fire. Running out of opportunities, only 1 climb left. Konny got a gap on the last bit of singletrack so I used that last climb to catch him rather than create a gap to win. Into the last 3km gravel road descent I held his wheel for a while but couldn't take the same risks as was possible on a full suspension. If the race had finished uphill the result might have been different but Konny took the win with me 19 seconds behind, a close fought battle. Frenchman Emilien Barben climbed onto the 3rd step of the podium.
The first woman Bettina Janas set the pace and widened the gap from the start. The German won on this challenging course in 5 hours 47 minutes and 40 seconds "until the 64km point I was fine, it was not that easy then with a long descent on the end".
I was super happy to take another UCI World Marathon series podium. Last year I blew up in the heat at this race so it was good to put that behind me. Once again La Clusaz and Alps Bike Festival delivered a sensational weekend of cycling. There is so much more than the Marathon on Friday, there are 2 more days of activities and races that make up this cycling festival. Make sure you add this event to your calendar for next year, and bring the family here for their summer holiday, you won't be disappointed.