Swiss Epic 2020 - a tale from the back of the field

Hi guys,

I miss reading some race reports on this forum from the other users. Ofcourse 2020 has not given much opportunity for that. To give ‘the good example’ I have written up my experiences of the mountainbike stage race in Switserland with some learnings. It is too long but at least some of you might enjoy it. For the others, I made some titles so you can scroll …

Preparation

11 months of looking forward, is what I got when signing up for the Swiss Epic back in September ’19. A trainer was bought and a TR subscription was started. FTP at 250 watt and weight of around 97 kg or 2.6 watt per kg.

A plan to reach 4 watt/kg was hatched. 388 watt @ 97kg was probably not realistic but 340 watt @ 85kg was deemed ‘not-completely-unrealistic’. I am 34y and 1m93.

11 months and 300 (mainly TR) training hours later and my FTP had grown to 316 watt and 91 kg, I was as ready as I could be with a proud 3.5w/kg (rounded slightly up).

Swiss Epic – 5 days, 319km, 12,000hm (what I recorded)

Many discussions with my teammate before the start on at which pace we would go up-hill. With our relative good absolute wattage and good technical skills, we knew that only on the uphills we could ‘screw’ it up and blow ourselves up so a limit of 260 watt (82% of FTP) was set. The big unknown was also the altitude. Both of us live at an altitude of approx. 15m elevation and have done almost all our training on flat roads.

Day 1 – 59km and 2400 hm

I missed the good nervousness prior to a start of a race. It had been 13 years since we were both at the start of a race. We were in a relative early start box (we had to estimate our expected average speed, hehe). We knew we would be a bit optimistic when we chose the 15km/h group but hoped this would put us between the better descenders still. After a nasty steep start climb where we decided to hold back and were left behind by all but 2 teams, the first nice flowy singletracks started. What followed was a 1400hm climb. Wattages on the asphalt started at 260 but when the grade pitched over the 15% people were flying by left right and center. What followed was the first of many hours of suffering. By the top of the climb (altitude around 2450m) my average wattages were only barely above 200 watt although I could still keep biking the really steep parts where some of our competitors were walking. But hey, we were finally on the top and now the singletracks could start. Those rolling hills we saw on the etape profile, were actually hiking trails where mountainbikes had to be pushed in really muddy and wet conditions. On the small technical descents, so many were walking and we were forced to do the same. After more than an hour of messing around (including falling on a muddy section) we could finally start the big downhill. Starting with some nice flowy trail with some berms (Nagens trail), the track soon became very endure-like (Green Valley) and was a very challenging. It ended on a funny big berms track (Bottom of Runca trail). On the descent we started pass people instead of the other way around, and once we got to the bottom we had forgotten all the misery of the first 3 hours. Some shorter more bearable uphills followed but even if the altitude was not so high anymore, the power was not really there for me. The legs felt beaten-up and cramps were on the way. A lot of salts were consumed at the last water point to save what could be saved. We told ourselves there were still 4 days left and rather slowly did we roll to the finish. Spot 67 in our category :-/

Day 2 – 73km and 2700 hm

Strangely enough, even more nervousness in the tummy today. Promise of very technical wet roots decent kept us hopeful but also somewhat anxious. We started with people around our time on day 1, so that was more fun. The same start climb, this time together with some Belgian friends. The next decent we’re flying and are seriously moving up to a spot somewhere in the 50s (spoiler: the best position we will have gotten in the race). Many people are now walking down the hill and with good reason. The wet roots are scary, but touching the brakes less is safer I tell myself and since my friend is going even faster I decided to close my eyes and blindly follow him. Without accidents we get down and now a flat sections follows. Altitudes are below 1000 meters and I start my engine. We are flying at tempo pace and have a lot of relatively fast riders in our wheel. My fortune turned on the long climb of 1200 hm. It is now difficult to press out more than 230 watt even if I keep my hydration, salt intake and carbs as high as possible. The whole field seems to be passing us and my teammate is clearly faster which feels pretty unpleasant. At the end I struggle to maintain 200w. Once over the top, an easy decent follows but I am so tired and fall in a really dumb way. Luckily nothing more than some lost skin. Completely exhausted & confused about the lack of performance we roll over the finish line in Arosa.

Day 3 – 50km – 1800hm “The easy day”

Only 50km was what convinced me to give it another try. Even if the openings climb was another 900 hm ending at 2600hm. 195 watt is what I could muster. My hr also stayed low and my breathing was very controlled but I just didn’t feel that I could do more. We passed the top, while we had dropped further in the virtual GC. At the the first water point we had truly optimized water point tactics and got in (and out :blush: ) a lot of energy, water and supplements. However we still lost considerably more time at the water points than most of our competitors. The next part was another hiking trail where we were stuck behind less-technical-gifted mountainbikers and had to push both up and down most of the time. On the KOM we got on perhaps the most pretty single track I have done in my life. Not designed for mountainbiking, it was flowy at times but quite technical with big stones most of the time. A lot of riders got stuck behind some slower guys making a real traffic jam, which meant we had to find a way to pass 14 cyclists at the same time. A set of hairpins gave us that opportunity by shortcutting greatly the singletrack but required us to take some big risks. But the reward was so great. For the next 10km downhill, we had no one in front of us and could shred. A second very long water point stop, we had everything for ourselves and only when we left 6 minutes later, did the next team arrive. Now only a lighter climb followed with a nice technical downhill. My mood returned and even if the uphill power was limited to around 220 watt, we managed to keep our nearest competitors behind us and even did a little sprint at the finish. That felt a lot better. We went from place 67 to 63 in the GC

Day 4 – 74km – 2600hm

Started with a short climb for a change. The prospect of a long downhill helped to push a bit more watts. Again we stayed around our Belgian friends and even though I had a hard time at the end of the climb, we improved our position a lot on the long downhill. On the slower steeper technical tracks, my companion took the lead and on the berms and fast gravel roads, I paved the way for my friend. On the longest climb of the day, despite the lower altitude, it was hard to keep the power above 200w and again I held my friend back. But still I was too proud to be pushed even as a lot of our competitors were not shy to use that tactic. On the long descent, which was a little more muddy than we have seen on day 2 and 3, we had good fun and just before the waterstop we enjoyed some jumps on tabletops and a gap. Now a climb was coming that everyone had warned us for. Very steep sections followed by plateaus. As we got to the first steep bits, we saw a lot of people walk up. A good motivator to try to bike. 400-500 watt for 30 seconds here and there was absolutely no issue for either of us and we enjoyed it a lot that for a change we were passing people uphill instead of the other way around. After the final waterstop only a nice 7% asphalt climb of a few kms and a final flowy downhill to the finish. I felt motivated to give it some extra and with me sitting in the wheel of my companion (and our competitors breathing down our neck) we pressed out a decent pace (240w for me). A really rough ‘flowy’ trail followed, where my teammate lost his sparetube, CO2 cartridge and tool, so an extra 1 minute stop to find everything before we hit the final technical section. Another easy sprint victory (I know it is pathetic to sprint so far down the field) and an even better feeling than yesterday.

Day 5 – 63km and 2400hm

The final day promised to give some rain to the slower teams in the Swiss Epic with thunderstorms and showers in the early afternoon. We started the day with another nasty 800+hm climb. As usual I did not enjoy it much and with 212 watt on average, the last few 100 meters where considerably slower than the beginning of the climb. Already exhausted I pass the KOM of the day with my partner waiting faithfully at the top. What follows is the famous panorama trail. We are however riding in the clouds and can only focus on the trail, not on any views. The singletrail is however very nice, and after a faster section where we see a medic giving first aid to a recently crashed rider, we decide to get a little of the gas. However once we hit a slower singletrail, we have quickly forgotten our promises and are again terrorizing our fellow bikers on the trail down. It dawns on me that all riders have become much more willing to step aside for us now while that was very different on day 1 and 2. The next climb I have motivated myself to do 220w on average. Partly because I realized too late that we were already on the next big climb. The prospect of a technical section that was announced to be dangerous in wet conditions combined with the sound of thunder in the next valley was also a good motivator. But yes, it was a jewel of a descent. Some of the most fun descents were in Davos for sure. The last climb promises to be a long one. The thunderstorm is now very close and it starts to rain. The temperature drop together with some competitors that are coming back on us, is motivating me again to “stamp” out 240 watt. It is not so clear how long this climb is and the prospect of being on the top of the mountain at the height of a thunderstorm is not pleasant at all. But all my fears were unfounded and the top came surprisingly ‘fast’. The decent as well appears to be a machine build track which is very welcome given that the tracks have become very wet and muddy. Against ridiculous speeds we thunder down the last hills and wet but extremely proud we roll over the finish line.

To conclude

We ended 60th in the GC for our category. Upfront we might have been very disappointed with that. But to today I don’t know why I could not push out more watts. My Swiss Epic partner was the best person I could have done this with. He forced me to eat all the time and was patient enough to stay with the ‘heavy’ guy even as he could have done the whole thing at least 2 hours faster than me. But I ofcourse also had to be patient with him. Every waterpoint took 3 minutes longer with him and with a total of 15 waterpoints, it adds up :blush:

Bonus: As we finish hand in hand with a big smile and a lot of pride, we both telepathically agree that we will not want to do such an endeavor again. So on arriving, I rush - as usual – to the recovery drinks area. A woman from the organization runs to me and congratulates me to have qualified for the cape Epic 2022 (as part of a lottery, not because of our GC rank). Not sure how happy I am to date with this qualification….

What did I learn

  • Only do a multi-day event like this with a good friend
  • If you ride the uphills slow enough you will only get better from day to day. But won’t score so well in the GC ofcourse
  • You can ride a multiday Epic event with a hardtail, with trail geometry and 2.6 inch tires
    but this will not improve your climbing and you will get a lot of comments and questions about your set-up all the time
  • Weight cannot be overestimated on a 12000hm+ event. 91kg for 1m93 is still too much. 316 watt is respectable in Denmark but it only helped me to survive, nothing more.
  • Enjoy the water point stops and eat as much as you can
  • It is hard to get too much salt into your system when you bike. I am a sweater and a cramper and had only one upcoming cramp on day 1 but rode without any issues the rest of the time. Thanks to PH and this podcast to make me realize what I needed to do to avoid cramping.
  • Have someone to push you to eat more at breakfast and at dinner. On the evening of day 3 we escaped the normal ‘routine’ with pasta or rice and went to eat in a different restaurant and ate some delicious steak tartare (raw meat). What a great break for the mind and the right thing to do.
  • I should have gone for a training week in the same area to understand the climbing requirements better and the altitude conditions. I probably don’t handle high altitude as well as others.

How did my TR training plan work out?

  • The TR Plan Builder had me do my multi-day A race on week 7 of my specialty phase with a week of recovery after my A-race. This was odd.
  • Now I am one week after my specialty phase ended and I have the best legs and probably highest FTP ever. I could have used this 2 weeks ago in the race …
  • While TR prepared me for long climbs and not for anaerobic efforts (sustained effort build and XC marathon plan), my strength lay still in the latter and I could not replicate my steady state efforts like I could in training

What remains a mystery

  • 4 days after Swiss Epic, I rode a 1 hour climb at 286 watts without problems, why could I not ride faster during my event?
    • Is it really my subconscious holding me back?
    • Did I train too much in the weeks before the Swiss Epic and was I not properly rested?
    • Did I needed some days to adjust to the high altitude?
17 Likes

This a a great write-up, thanks for putting that here. It does put me off that race though, haha!

With regards to your questions - I think maybe you hadn’t done many really long rides? You said you did a lot of TR workouts. I think the long rides, especially off road, tire you in ways indoor training can’t replicate (or prepare you for). And then it’s a stage race - it’s very hard to recover properly when riding over multiple days, that’s one reason why good GC riders are so rare, even at pro level.

2 Likes

Oh no splash, it is such a great experience that I can recommend to every mountainbiker! Please reconsider :smile:

I probably have not done enough of the rides you describe but I did a ‘simulation’ where my buddy and I went for 4-5 hours mountainbike rides for 3 days straight. This was still on very different terrain though…

I found that I did recover ok, my best days were day 4 and 5 but that was probably a consequence of riding so ‘slow’ uphill at around 50%-60% of my FTP.

It is still as if my brain was scared of what was to come and override my ‘desire to go fast uphill’. Also the final climbs of day 4 and 5, I could perform much better as I knew that I was almost there.

If corona allows I will do another race (one day marathon) next month on flat terrain. Curious to see what my wattages will be then.

1 Like

Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I was down to do the Alps Epic this year but postponed it until next year. I’m absorbing all the information I can about it.
Btw there’s an episode of Successful Athletes podcast that covers this. It was a great listen.

I haven’t used Plan Builder, but if you have an ‘A’ event, then surely it should bring you into peak form for that event.

How hard did you ride during those days?

Hi Grawp, I believe you were referring to the episode with Alex Mallet and Brandon Watson. It is a great listen and they did talk about their avg power being mid to high zone 2 over the whole ride but mine turned out to be low zone 2 to high zone 1 only.

Enjoy the Alps Epic next year!

On those days we went a bit harder actually than on the Swiss Epic days itself, but it is difficult to compare as the hills in Denmark are very ‘anaerobe’ lasting between 3 and 6 minutes.

On the simulation days with had avg watts over 4-5 hours of Mid Zone 2 and NP of low zone 3
At the swiss epic our avg watts were low zone 2 and NP of mid-high zone 2.

As with everything, it will have been a combination of not being used to long climbs and the altitude that we are not use to (especially since I am a bigger rider with ‘too’ much muscle :smiley: )

Good report except for the equipment side of the race. What was your bike and tire set-up for this race?

AP is basically pointless on the kind of terrain the Swiss Epic stages are held on.

1 Like

Hi Stonerider,

it was a bit unconventional. I rode it on my Orange Clockwork 27.5. 130mm fork, hardtail with 2.6 inch Continental cross king protection. This frame has more trail geometry than XC and is pretty slack. So it was a pleasure going down all the technical stuff, but the geometry worked a little against me on the uphills. The 2.6inch was really fine, but added perhaps a few watts extra. The profile on the front tire was perfect, maybe I could have done with something faster on the back but that is hard to find in this wheelsize.

If/when I do the Cape Epic, I would need to do this on a different bike, I recon.