Thursday, 23 August 2012

Transalp days 3 & 4 Ischgl-Nauders-Scuol

Having decided that the weather would definitely be kinder the following day, i did the most stupid thing possible just before going to sleep - i checked the crystal ball that is my phone's weather app. It told a rather different story, predicting 8degrees and some rain for the following day. Bumsocks. It was going to be cold.

We were back in block B, ditched our bikes near the front (after spending about five minutes trying to get them to "mate" in such a way that they didn't become a catalyst for bike dominoes through the whole pen), and went for coffee in a nice posh hotel in the centre of town. Mike and Nay had me worried, they were both wearing full arms, full legs, waterproofs, booties, and looked ready for a winter ride in the arctic. By contrast, i'd gone for knee and arm warmers, and Nick just arms and visibly pink knees on display. Were we going to freeze solid on the far side of the Idjoch?

There was a noticeable new layer of snow on the mountains surrounding Imst, which was definitely lower down than the 2800m we were going to climb up to. All i remember of breakfast was Nick coming out with the incredibly prescient statement "After a while, it just becomes posting it in your face, doesn't it?".

9am came all too quick, and before we knew it, the Block A party was off a minute ahead of us schmoes. The poor guy who had the job of removing the tape from the front of our pen almost didn't make it out of the way in time, and i had visions of him appearing for work the following day with tyre tread marks in his face until a graceful leap saw him clear the hard-charging euros at the front. Why you'd be keen for a hard start on a day that went straight into a 1500m climb, i have no idea, but don't underestimate the enthusiasm of these guys!

 We both gurned our way up the Idjoch, whereas previous climbs had been harder surfaced, and slightly more gentle gradient which enabled me to give Nick the occasional push, i'm sure more for encouragement than for actual aid, the Idjoch was so steep and loose that it was every man for himself. As we climbed higher, it was clear that the fresh mountain air coming into my lungs was getting colder and colder, and as we rounded the shoulder of the mountain before the final steep kick to the summit it began to snow. Lightly enough that none of us were quite sure to start with, but it was snow alright. We pushed on to the top of the pass, keen to keep the warmth in us that we had generated on the climb up, and apparently rode past 2m high snowdrifts i have absolutely no recollection of.

The descent was long, loose, and slightly terrifying. Nick was in his element descending like a man posessed, and several hairpins ahead of me after only a couple of corners! I was much more timid, and as a result lost a significant amount of time on my partner and more, ahem, confident (or foolhardy) riders.

 The rest of the stage passed in a bit of a blur, and i don't have any recollection whatsoever of the final climb up to the pretty little Tyrolean town of Nauders, but we must have ridden it somehow! We threw caution to the wind a bit more with pacing, and it paid off - we came in 76th on the stage. There was a great deal of disturbing artwork on the walls of the town hall, where we were staying, which frankly did nothing for the "emotional experience" of the camp (see transalp road book for details). On the plus side, we would be showering and breakfasting at a local 4* hotel. I drew the long straw on the shower front, and was treated to an unbelievable 7-jet affair that left me wondering if i'd ever been that clean before!  Dinner was up a ski lift at 2300m in blissful sunshine, although it was pretty chilly when we decided to come back down again. My dodgy right knee was starting to give me problems again, but thankfully a very helpful man behind the bar understood my pidgin German, and gave me a bag of ice for me knee, which then leaked all over me during dinner...

Day 4 was the shortest stage of the race, practically a sprint at just over 50km, and took us from one of the most idyllic places i have stayed in Austria to the only place i have ever stayed in Switzerland, Scuol.  Sadly, there would be no night in a nuclear bunker this time though, with our accommodation decidedly above ground, and mercifully lacking the glacially cold showers of 2006.

The usual morning routine done and done, with the most amazing array of muesli ever thrown into the mix to provide confusion and delight (and possibly dismay from the people who owned the hotel - the Transalp decimated their breakfast buffet!), we were on the line ready. Day 4 was the one i remembered from previous years as being very picturesque, and also the day when the fatigue stops getting any worse. This year was no different.

There was a bit of a chill in the air as we set off up the first climb of the day, but nothing that arm warmers alone couldn't keep off, and by the time we reached the top of the first climb they were off. The weather had improved hugely over the first three days, and with predicted temperatures in the mid-20s, we were altogether happier with the outlook. We had obviously acclimatised to the climbs too, as neither of the main ascents in the day's stage stuck out in my mind as particularly brutal, in spite of there being 1900m of climbing hidden in the profile.

The descent past the Schwarzsee was great, although sadly one section was justifiably marked as black, as Nick and I both attempted and then failed to ride it. What followed was an ever-steepening, loose forest track descent that bottomed out in the valley at 1000m, on the road that took us across the Swiss border. Under the watchful eye of the Swiss border officials, we grouped up with a couple of other riders and began the flat dash into Scuol. Unfortunately, this was the moment my brand new front XTR shift cable chose to split, leaving me stuck in the 28 on the flat. Cue a leg-smarting 5km of spinning 28*11 as fast as i could to keep the pace up, and before we knew it were we into Scuol, with a ride time of just over 3hrs.

Sadly, i only later discovered that a physics friend of mine was living in Scuol and looking out for me - at the time i was too afraid of swiss telecoms charges to switch my phone on! Post stage red wine was had on the balcony of the fabulous youth hostel in town, followed by an Alpenhorn-accompanied dinner up the mountain. What a way to end a day!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Transalp Day 2 - Imst to Ischgl

Somewhat daunted by our initial skirmish the Marienbergjoch on the first day, we nervously looked over the stage profile for the following day. It was very similar, in fact identical, to the second day of the Transalp 2006 covering the 78km from Imst to the "proper" mountain town of Ischgl. Nick looked carefully over every kilometer over dinner in the tent outside the sports centre in Imst, and we concluded that (a) day 2 was probably harder than day 1 and (b) we should probably treat it with some respect and try to ride a bit more steadily than we had the day before. This reminded me of having exactly the same conversation with my partner of six year previously, Hamish, in much the same spot in Imst. Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose!

The small shaft of light for us was that the weather app on my phone was predicting somewhat better weather for the following day rather than the on-again off-again rain and soaking trails of day 1. We settled down in our makeshift beds (miles from the pasta party, i'm sad to say) to ready ourselves for the following day.

Sunday morning dawned damp. We went for breakfast hoping it was just a shower and that it would brighten up. It didn't brighten up. We discovered the previous day's ride had been good enough to get us into start block B, where the reasonably serious people go (there were two ahead, A1 for the ultra-fast, and A2 for the still pretty damn quick), and so set off to stick our bikes at the front of the block before heading off for what would be the first of many coffees with Mike and Naomi before they got gridded with the big boys and girls. We were joined by Catherine Williamson (bizhub) one half of the second-placed women's team, and who was to become another regular eating companion, all of us nervously looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the hope that the rain had stopped. It hadn't.

We went to our bikes and stood in the now more gentle rain, waiting for the strains of AC/DC to 
filter back to our more realistic start block so we could at least get going and warm up a bit. The start of the stage was a little more typical for the Transalp than the previous days 40km/h asphalt-fest - a short section of tarmac before we hit the first big climb of the day, the Venetalm.

After the previous days shock, the Venetalm reassured me that we could get through things, it was much as i remember transalp climbs being a gravelly fire road up at a grade of around 10%, and then a similar descent down the other side. Having crested our first 1000m climb, it was important not to get carried away, however, there were still two more significant climbs to go, and then a nasty sting in the tail in the form of a gradual climb up the valley to Ischgl which was peppered with little 20-50m climbs and descents. We first had master the road climd to the Pillerhohe, and then survive some of the most tricky technical riding of the week down to Landeck. It was mostly rideable, although an unfortunate racing incident involving another rider changing their mind as to whether they would let me ride past as they walked part of the descent left me on the deck. As some point down this descent, the weather decided it would be kind, and the sun came out to give us a magnificent rainbow over the mountains.

Despite my worries, we rode the final 20km still feeling strong, and despite backing off compared to our previous day's pace, still finished 101st in the Men's category in a little under 5.5hrs. Ischgl's camp had fond memories for me, every time i opened my transalp bag from the previous trip, little green rubbery bits of the indoor tennis court in Ischgl that would be our hostel for the night would fall out. The town sits in a magnificent valley with the skyline utterly dominated by the imposing mountains around, including the two peaks on either side of the brutal Idjoch pass that was on the menu for the following day.  A quick wash of the bikes showed i had a more pressing concern, though - my spill had put a scrape along my non-drive side chainstay that had gone through the top layer of carbon! Argh.

Panicking more than a little, i went to talk to Dave Padfield, who now works as a road manager for the Topeak Ergon team, and was mechanic-ing for the top men's and women's teams in the race. He took a calm, collected look at the scrape, and told me not to worry - Trek make their carbon strong, and it'd probably be ok for the race. I should keep riding it, as the alternatives would be to pull out or try to buy a second bike - neither of which were really viable! Reassured, i headed back to camp to the daily chores, leaving my poor mal-treated bike in a multi-storey car park overnight.

Pasta party done, washing up, it was time to put everything ready for the morning and go to sleep. Nick and I made the obligatory check of the following day's profile. Man, the Idjoch was going to be tough. Almost 1500m climbing straight from the gun, and steep. Let's hope the weather improves, and there's no fresh snow on the tops of the mountains tomorrow morning.