Craft Bike TransAlp, 13-20 July

Craft Bike TransAlp, 13-20 July

The Craft Bike TransAlp is an 8 day mountain bike stage race traversing the majestic European Alps. The 16th edition started in Mittenwald, Germany from where it moved into Austria for a couple of days and then into Italy finishing at Riva del Garda. Over the period of 8 days riders covered a total distance of 676km which included 20,243m of ascending.

It’s been 5 years since I last visited Europe and this year I was very fortunate when a good friend of mine, Aurelie Halbwachs, invited me to join her for The Craft Bike TransAlp. We have completed the Joberg2C (9 day event) together and also two Omnicane Southern Tropical Challenges (4 day event in Mauritius).  However, it was the first TransAlp that Aurelie and I would attempt, and whatever happened it would be a memorable experience for both of us.
Stage 1 – Mittenwald to Mayrhofen, 111km and 2106m ascent

On day one we left Germany behind and headed to the finishing venue at Mayrhofen in Austria.

At the beginning of the stage we were to tackle two long climbs of around 15km each,  followed by a 45km bike path section which took us all the way home. Despite climbing for more than an hour at a time I felt comfortable on the ascents and enjoyed the dramatic scenery of the Alps.

The flat bike path section proved to be the biggest challenge on the day. Small groups started to form as some riders got picked up while others got left behind. A strong tail wind really upped the speed as Aurelie and I found ourselves hanging onto a group for dear life. It wasn’t long before a small group of riders joined our group which contained our competitors Andrea Kuster and Daniele Troesch (Team Mountain Heroes). Luckily for us within the last 2km our group’s speed proved to be too much for them and they got tailed off earning us a hard fought 4th place on the day.
Stage 2 – Mayrhofen to Brixen, 100km and 24097m ascent

On day two we crossed borders for the second time in as many days as we made our way into Italy to finish at the alpine town of Brixen.

The day started with a long 30km climb at the beginning and finished with a ‘ fairly short’ 5km climb near the end. It was ideal for me to start climbing so soon into the stage as you settle into your own rhythm on the ascent without being forced to follow wheels on the more gentle gradients. The pair of climbs was split up by a flat cycle path section which again proved the bigger challenge on the day for me. I think if I could have ridden at my own pace it would have been better, but with so many riders in the event groups inevitably formed on the tarmac sections.

By the time we hit the final climb it felt more like hitting a wall face on. One moment I was flying at 35 km/h and the next fighting not to fall over on the steep gradient of the climb. Luckily once we crested the climb we had 5km downhill singe track section which spat us out right at the finish line. We were both very happy to finish the stage and did so in 5th place. We lost a bit of time to Team Mountain Heroes on the day which saw us moving back to 5th place on the overall standings.

Finishing was always a highlight, not only did it mean the pain was over but also you have time to take in the beautiful scenery of the Alps which formed the backdrop of each small town we visited.
Stage 3 – Brixen to St. Vigil 56km and 2833m of ascent

Short stage on paper but the exact opposite in reality. The stage opened yet again with a long climb of 20km which included 1800m of ascent. It took us two long hours to reach the summit and each time the pain wanted to get the better of me I told myself  “lift your head, look were you are” and what my eyes saw always made the suffering worth it. Seeing the wild horses grazing upon the higher slopes was not only a great reward but also my highlight on this stage.

From there on we had mixture of gravel road, single track and a small piece on the tarmac. The stage suited us more as there weren’t a lot of places to hang on in groups and we crossed the finish line at St Vigil in 4th place. We managed to regain some time on Team Mountain Heroes, but were still lying in 5th overall.

Stage 4 – St Vigil to Alleghe, 76km and 2839m ascent

St. Vigil is nestled in a valley surrounded by majestic mountains at 1100m above sea level.  This together with our 8am departure made for a chilly morning start. On the up side, we didn’t stay cold for long as our front wheels were pointing skywards even before we were given the word go.

Today’s menu included two long climbs, the first being around 20km and the second 15km, each followed by a tricky descent. On the first ascent my muscles felt as if they were on the edge of cramping. This was a new experience for me and I’m sure it must have been from all the sustained climbing we’ve been doing thus far. Luckily I warmed up pretty quickly allowing me to find a good rhythm for the day.

Up until this point into the race we haven’t had any of the fast flowing single track that we get at home and to have the last 10km of the stage finishing on fun flowing downhill single track was exhilarating. The burning in my legs disappeared and I was smiling all the way to the finish line at the beautiful village of Alleghe.  Aurelie and I finished in 4th place on the stage and also took back our 4th place overall in the ladies category.

Stage 5 – Alleghe to San Martino di Castrozza, 73km and 3137m of ascent
With 3137m of ascending, stage 5 contained the most climbing in this year’s edition of the race.

The route profile resembled crocodile’s teeth as we were to go up and down the whole day. Some of the hills had gradients so steep we were forced to dismount and push our bikes over the top.

Personally this day was the hardest day on the bike for me. You never got into a rhythm with all the ups, downs and bike pushing on the day. The course didn’t provide sections of respite as the rocky down hills were at times more energy sapping than the uphills.

I guess everybody was going through the same suffering just different degrees thereof.  Aurelie and I again finished 4th on the stage but this time around we extended our lead in the overall classification over the 5th placed ladies Andrea and Daniele.

Stage 6, San Martino di Castrozza to Crespano del Grappa 104km and 2781m ascent

The first part of the race consisted of a 20km jeep track descent. Your speed on a downhill is very dependent on the amount of risk you are willing to take and that morning there were plenty of riders willing to take crazy risks on the descents.  It is called ‘Euro bombing’ – a technique whereby one lets the bike go, refuse to brake and let it get as out of control as it will go.

The fact that there were only a 30 sec time gap between the seeded batch starts didn’t help either as the B batch closed in within the first 500m and this led to total chaos on the descent.

Aurelie and I were both very relieved when we reached the bottom safely. Luckily the 15km climb thereafter broke up the masses into smaller groups and we could settle into our own race pace for the day.

On the descent of the final (20km) climb we rode up to the 3rd place in the ladies category. There were only 2 km left to the finish line and Aurelie and I decided to give everything in the sprint as we might not get so close again to a podium spot in the days to come. We both crossed the finish line just ahead of Katrin Schwing and Lisa Pleyer (Team Cancer Rehab St. Veit) to give us a 3rd place finish on the day. We were both extremely happy with our result to say the least.

Stage 7 – Crespano del Grappa to Rovereto  118.5km and 3005m ascent

We left Crespano del Grappa at 8am with the temperature soaring high in the twenties already.

The first 20km of the stage was neutralized as the group was rolling through small towns on tarmac roads.  Everyone in the bunch was pushing and shoving to improve their spot in the group which made it quite daunting especially as there was a lot of road furniture to deal with as well.

The first 22km ascent was mainly on tarmac which is always hard for me as you end up riding alongside other riders and never ride at a constant speed.  Luckily around half way up we turned onto a gravel road giving Aurelie and I a chance to ride at our own race pace. The following and final climb was 12km which I honestly can’t remember much of apart from puncturing on the descent. Luckily it was a quick stop costing as minimum time. I actually can’t remember much of the scenery either. My body was getting tired as it should after 6 days of racing for 5-6h a day. During stage races your body eventually gets into a cycle of sleep, eat, suffer, eat, and sleep. You kind of switch off as you know that you have to keep this partner dialled until the end because if you lose focus you lose your race.

Aurelie and I were still keeping focus and holding onto our 4th overall after placing 5th on the stage.

Stage 8 – Rovereto to Riva Del Garda 39km and 1269m of ascent

The final stage included only one climb of 16km and one descent that would to take us into the finish area at Riva Del Garda.

I hope by now you are tired of reading about all the climbing we did, as it might give you an idea of how we felt after having to pedal up all of them.

Aurelie and I fought our last battle on the day to finish 4th on the stage and so retain our 4th place overall.

It’s been a close race between us and Team Mountain Heroes for the 4th spot. Some days we lost time to them and on other times we gained time again. Also during the last 2 days the Belgium National Champion, Sara Mertens and her teammate Laure Turpijn (Team C-Bear) gave us a run for our money as they rode most of the time with us and finished in front of us on stage 7.

The competition this year in the ladies category was very tough. Aurelie and I finished in 4th place overall that at first glance might not seem so impressive but we managed to place in front of Team C-Bear and Mountain Heroes who have finished both on top of the Absa Cape Epic ladies podium in past years and to me that says a lot. We are both very happy with our result. It was an unforgettable journey and we are richer in experience from it.

The beauty that the Alps possess is indescribable and the riding is very rewarding. This year’s edition saw the TransAlp being run by a new event company. I haven’t ridden previous editions, but for me the organisation was world class. The route was properly marked, bags were dropped off and collected at whatever hotel you made a booking and the route laid out through the Dolomites was simply beautiful.

Thanks Aurelie for being a great partner and thank you to our tour sponsor, Velogic for making this experience possible. Also thank you to Shimano Germany for looking after us throughout the entire tour. You treated us like your own team and for that we can’t say thank you enough.

Last but not least thank you to my team (bizhub), our sponsors, my friends and family for making it possible for me to do what I love doing – riding my bike.

Final results

1st         Sally Bigham and Borghild Loevset (Topeak Ergon Racing)

2nd        Cornelia Hug and Andria Fassler (Velo Shop Scott)

3rd          Katrin Schwing and Lisa Pleyer (Cancer Rehab St. Veit)

4th         Yolandi du Toit and Aurelie Halbwachs (Velogic)

5th         Andrea Kuster and Daniele Troesch (Mountain Heroes)