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Racing through the Valais mountains - Raid Evolenard

A small town called Evolène situated within the Valais area of Switzerland and Pennine Alps hosts a marathon event called Raid Evolenard. This past weekend was my opportunity to discover why this event comes with such enthusiastic recommendations, attracts such a star studied line-up, has hosted numerous Swiss National Championships and has been awarded European Championships in 2021. Now I’ve experienced Raid Evolenard for myself I can tell you why you need to be in Evolene next June for this amazing mountain bike race.

The Swiss alpine meadows and snowy peaked mountain scenery offer photo opportunities everywhere you turn. Evolene sits at 1400 metres, La Dent Blanche towers above at 4357 metres. The Raid Evolenard race track takes participants to 2500 metres and over 62 kilometres we'd climb more than 2600 metres. Evolene is the main settlement of the area, chosen for its flood and avalanche protection. Nearly 8% of the local residents are foreign Nationals with Portugese, German and Italian the most common languages after French. Over 50% of Evolene’s apartments are seasonally occupied, this and the large quantity of hotels host visiting tourists. One of the best places to stay in the region is the mountain huts of Anakolodge, six agricultural buildings which were destined to be demolished but instead restored to retain the local architectural traditions typical to the Valais region. The area is popular for winter and summer sports, writers and artists also enjoy the area because of its tranquil setting. We stayed in Hotel de la Sage 300 meters above Evolène with beautiful views down into the valley.

On arriving in Switzerland I joined 2 other Brits for an hour's recovery ride. Whilst it’s not so easy to do a recovery spin in the mountains we were treated to one of the most beautiful rides we’ve ever been on. We rode up to the base of the 4-mile-long Ferpècle Glacier, one of the most spectacular location in the area.

Sunday morning a sleepy street in Evolène was brought to life with a blaze of brightly coloured lycra and the sound of the excited commentator announcing top name riders. The tension was building and a 9am the start gun fired the race into motion.

Early on a group of 5 was established including the eventual podium finishers, plus Adrien Chenaux and Hansueli Stauffer. We set a quick pace up the first 8 kilometre climb with 639 vertical metres to Chalet Vieux and the following 5 kilometre climb with 462 vertical metres. Stauffer was forced to abandon from a mechanical leaving 4 riders up front. The climbs are really long but you can get into a rhythm and take in the beautiful views.

On the third climb of the day starting at 35 kilometre Huber led through the tricky river side trails, here the pressure began to build and Chenaux was dispatched from the group. No one could make a mistake on the technical steep trails at risk of being left behind. After the timed hill climb section Huber was able to open a gap, on this 10% gradient climb we were all on our limits but on the following tarmac road I was strong enough to pull back his lead, Frans was working hard but was glued on my wheel.

I was very fortunate to be offered feed zone support from the Claes family, I was expecting to race with no support like I do at many other races. Thanks to Frans and his parents for their generosity, it makes a big difference having support. The Raid Evolenard feed zones were well stocked with cereal bars and powershots from PowerBar, fresh fruit, dry fruit and even dried meat! Water, cola and PowerBar drinks were available and staff were handing up water bottles, great for those racing for position or a personal best time.

During the next 30-minute climb from La Forclaz to Breona the pace remained fairly steady, Huber, Claes and myself nervous about the high altitude, the final climb and being the first to try making a risky race winning move. On the Cotter to Beplan climb rising at an average of 11.5% gradient and with sections at over 25% the race blew apart, Huber putting in several hard efforts on route to the summit at 2500 metres. I raced with my heart and not my head and probably held on a little too long, if I’d let go a little earlier I might have been able to go my own pace and not lose a minute by the top of the climb. Frans was able to stay within touching distance of Huber and was able to rejoin him on the descent to Evolene. Claes was then able to open a 5 second gap before the bottom of the 20 minute descent but sadly for him Huber was able to overall his lead in the closing kilometres.

Just 24 hours after finishing second in the demanding Sella Ronda Hero in Wolkenstein, South Tyrol, Italy, Swiss MTB champion Urs Huber was able to take the victory here at Raid Evolenard. In a tight battle he finished ahead of former Belgian champion Frans Claes with myself in third. In the women's competition Estonian Greete Steinburg triumphed ahead of Ilona Chavaillaz and former Swiss champion Esther Süss.

"After yesterday's race in Italy, I knew that I was not allowed to do too much in terms of speed. As I only slept three hours between the two races, I had to make an effort to keep my focus on the last run," said Huber. Claes could not hide his disappointment about the second place. He said in the finish area: "I was close to Urs. He missed few things and I could have won.”

The women’s winner Greete Steinburg set the pace at the front of the race from the start and was very satisfied with her strategy, "I knew I had to set the pace if I wanted to beat Esther. It worked perfectly.” Ilona Chavaillaz finished second and was surprised to beat Süss. "I did not expect that". As expected Süss was not very happy with the third place, "I just did not have legs today" said the seven-time Swiss MTB marathon champion.

For me a third place at Raid Evolenard against competition that strong was an amazing achievement, especially so soon after Friday's race. After the success earlier in the year I managed some really good training at home but with time you begin to doubt whether you can repeat that success. This weekend I was able to prove my abilities again. I didn’t expect to be challenging riders like Huber and Claes this year but I’m really happy to be in such a position and even more motivated to train hard for my next races.

Raid Evolenard will be back next year and in 2021 will host the European Marathon Championships, don't miss your opportunity to visit this beautiful location and race these fantastic trails. I'm already excited to visit the area again and spend some more days exploring the Valais region, see you there!

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