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Racing Restart at O-Tour Bike Marathon

It’s been eleven months since I spent two weeks travelling around France and Spain to three different bike races, now finally it was time to release my competitive spirit once again!

In March this year we spent three weeks training in Gran Canaria ahead of the start of the season in April, with those races being a big goal I was heading towards the first peak of the year. Then we know what happened next, covid 19, coronavirus put a stop to the world of competitive sport. Through the following seven months I trained for key events which one by one were cancelled. Now in September I can ​finally start the season with just three or four planned races. The first of those would be O-Tour Bike Marathon, a round of the UCI World Marathon Series.

Finally back in the mountains

Travelling during a global pandemic

We choose to travel to Switzerland despite the government’s guidance not to. There are very few countries left on the flight corridor list so if we wanted to race there was not choice but to roll with the restrictions. Apart from social distancing, some government paperwork and new face coverings that in previous years would have made you look like you were going to mug someone there wasn’t much different to our travel experience. The flight on the way out from London to Zurich was pretty empty and at Zurich we zipped through the airport to the car hire without a queue in sight.

In Switzerland masks are compulsory in most locations but in the town of Alpnach there wasn’t many people wearing them. If you maintained social distancing that was enough even in local restaurants and shops. It was almost unnerving how relaxed everything was compared to the UK but actually it seemed pretty safe as everyone was so sensible. At the race itself we were required to wear masks at sign on, until one minute before the start and then at the finish line.

Travelling with friends, the adventures that make stories that can be told for years, visiting new places, I've missed all of this over the past 7 months. This weekend I was travelling with lifelong friend Scott and meeting coaching client Mark out in Switzerland. At the race it was great to see so many friends I’d not seen all year, I was asked what racing I’d done. Well I say, this is the first of the year! My friends, rivals on the race track, have been racing regularly since July, was it realistic I could be anywhere near their level at my first race of the year? They were amazed there’d been no bike races at home and even more amazed that I’d have to quarantine for two weeks on returning to the UK!

Lead group up Lütoldsmatt with me hiding a few rows back.

Bang goes the start gun.

Yes yes yes, we're going bike racing! That adrenaline buzz, oh I've missed you! Out of town and straight into an hour long climb. Yep, no steady start here! The route was two huge climbs and two huge descents. The first climb rising 1150 metres and the second 1000 meters! In total we’d cover 3000 meters climbing over 80 kilometres.

If the route profile and views of the snowy peaks hadn’t made it obvious of the scale of the mountains we were racing up then you knew fairly quickly as we began our journey to the summit of Lütoldsmatt. This was a bit different to the biggest 20 minute climb we have at home which rises just 190 metres! The climb was split into different sections with tarmac for three quarters, then gravel, then a narrow badly cobbled path which definitely wasn’t built for bikes. I move up from my start position into the top ten, I feel comfortable, I move forward again into the top five, still ok whilst top pro's are being dropped out the back. Names in the group include Frans Claes, Urs Huber, Sascha Weber, Martin Frey, Markus Kaufmann and Martin Fanger. I glimpse a look at the Wahoo Element, we are two thirds of the way into the climb and normalized power being measured by the Rotor Inspider is over 400 watts, this rocket ship is moving fast! This certainly isn’t effortless but I feel good. The fresh out of the packet white Kalas Sportswear national champs jersey is giving me a few extra watts. I think about going to the front and driving the pace but before that happens I remind myself it’s a long race!

National Champs stripes adding some extra motivation

Mid race challenges

Reaching the gravel section I start to lose contact, these low cadence high force efforts on slippery ground have always been a challenge. Come on, dig in, keep the focus, you've trained 20 to 30 hours a week since November for this! Onto the cobbles towards the top of the climb and I'm going much better, closing the gap again.

Towards the top though my stomach begins to complain, that extra bowl of oats last night, the extra carbohydrates during carb loading compared to my usual low carb diet, the higher concentration of energy products, the intensity of the effort, somethings causing big trouble. I can barely turn the pedals, the pain is so huge, it feels like someone's stabbed me in the side. This isn't in the plan and definitely isn't what you want when trying to concentrate on riding what is probably the most technical trails of the race. We begin the descent, I soft pedal hoping to let my angry body recover but I’m letting my rivals ride by. I drop from the top 10 to the top 20 and then to the mid 20s before beginning to feel the pain subside. I join a group at the base of the mountain and we begin to loop through the host town of Alpnach before beginning the second big mountain climb.

Thumbs up if you're having fun

Fighting back

I'm feeling better after a prolonged period at a lower intensity and decide to light the burners from the bottom of the Ächerli Pass! I stare up to the peak of our race route at 1450 metres, I vow not to let my power drop below 350 watts till I've reached the top an hour later! I hope to make some places, surely others are now suffering after already covering 1800 metres of climbing. I can see my rivals ahead but even at these watts it takes an age to make any progress, everyone here is on such a high level. Any of the cyclists ahead of me could podium or win a round of the UCI Series. Eventually I catch and pass my first rival, I don't ease up or let him hold my wheel. I maintain my focus and my intensity. My intention remains to move further up the order but time is ticking and I've not been taking on enough electrolytes as I'm worried about my horrific stomach pain coming back again. Suddenly my legs are now beginning to cramp. Heck with it I tell myself! I might only have 3 or 4 races this year, no holding back, just get on with it!

On my own on the top of this majestic mountain I take a moment to enjoy the views down into the valley and over to Mount Pilatus. There’s not long to relax though as I begin the last descent. Today there’s no huge Swiss cows to avoid, even they aren’t allowed to play on the race track today! The route feels like a dual slalom as we drop off the mountain through lush green meadows and then plummet into the dark wooden trails. Put a wheel in the wrong place through these sharp ragged rocks and your lightweight hardtail race bike isn't saving you.

The places bike racing takes you

Race winning moves

Up front of the race the excitement continued, after the front group of 10 including the days favourites had formed on the first climb it looked like the second climb would decide the race. Towards the top of Ächerli Pass Swiss champion Urs Huber, Marc Stutzmann and David Gysling has built a lead. Gysling lost contact on the descent to the airfield in Alpnach. Martin Fanger closed the gap to make it three heading towards the finish line together. In a sprint finish Fanger was the one to power his way over the line first ahead of Huber in second and Stutzmann in third.

In the women's race, Swiss champion Ariane Lüthi started the race in a steady pace before increasing her effort on the climb to Richmettlen. Her companions Esther Süss and Andrea Ming concentrated on their own rhythm from then on with Lüthi extending her lead to over 5 minutes by the finish.

A new rocket ship for big mountain climbs with an assortment of bling from Rotor, Mount Zoom, Schwalbe and SR Suntour.

Flying finish

I finish the singletrack descent off the mountain safely before flying around the runways of Alpnach airfield making aeroplane noises in my head! Back towards the race venue and under the finish arch happy in 17th. With such a condensed race season teams are going to be trying to get value out of their well paid athletes, for that reason every race is going to have a hugely competitive start list. My result is a recognisable one, it’s another top 20 performance which is the qualification criteria for GB's World Champs team, but it’s a little way off the high level of last year where we were chasing podiums. Those mid race issues took me out of the lead group but I know now that the legs, lungs, heart and head are in the right place. I take encouragement from my performance and pace, with a few changes to my preparation I'm confident I'll be able to deliver a big performance at the next race in two weeks time.

Switzerland and O-Tour, thank you, it’s been a magical few days in the mountains, I promise not to be a stranger for long!

Save the date for o-tour next year, 12. September 2021.


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