MTB Stage Racing: a Relationship Strengthener or Breaker?
A member of our BMC Ride Crew, the enduro specialist Ludo May recently took on the Swiss Epic, a six-day mountain bike stage race, with girlfriend and skier Nancy Pellissier. A test of their relationship as well as their endurance, they had a grueling 280 km with 7,500 meters of climbing and 15,000 meters of descending ahead of them.
Here’s their story told by Ludo:
Taking part in a 6-day MTB stage race like the Swiss Epic with 280km, 7,500m of ascent and 15,000m of descent was always going to be a challenge. But it naturally becomes an even bigger one when you’re riding it as a team – and even more so as a couple. Yet despite the risks for our otherwise happy relationship, we didn’t hesitate for a second when we got invited to compete in this legendary Swiss race.
If you're not scared, your dreams aren't big enoughSince it was first held in 2014, Swiss Epic has become a staple event in the Valais region, where we both live. As Nancy works for the tourist board, she follows it with interest. I rode the event back in 2015, but this experience would be Nancy’s first ‘proper’ mountain bike race. We often ride together anyway, so it seemed like a great opportunity for a new challenge. While Nancy was pretty worried about the distance and how she would cope with six exhausting days of riding, I knew I’d really need to adapt my riding style and speed in order for us to ride along happily with each other.
The fourth edition of the Swiss Epic was centered around the German-speaking part of the canton, mainly between Grächen and Zermatt, with a couple of stages around Leukerbad. We signed up for the more relaxed-sounding Flow category, which promised less climbing and two additional downhills each day than the regular Epic.
Our goal for the race was to have fun, make it to Zermatt in one piece, and keep our relationship intact!
Day 1 – Prologue – Grächen-Grächen
18 km | 650 m of ascent | 1,150m of descent
The race started in Grächen, a small family-friendly resort in the Zermatt valley. The start of the 18km prologue was at the top of the lift in Hannigalp. After a short but steep climb on the ski slopes, we weaved along the long and flowy singletrack to the finish line in the centre of the village. Things got off to a good start; Nancy was in good shape so I felt confident for the rest of the week. The hardest thing for me was to sense how lucid she was before hitting each descent. We usually stop at the top of each climb when we’re riding together in order to catch our breath and focus on the next downhill, but this was a whole other experience as the clock was ticking.
I dropped in ahead of her, trying to show her the best line and pick a decent speed for her to follow. Even though I wasn’t tearing down as quickly as I do when racing, it was cool to know we were doing it together on home turf. We finished the prologue with a solid 3rd place in the mixed category.
Day 2 – Stage 1 – Grächen-Leukerbad
72 km | 1,600m of ascent | 4,050m of descent
Thanks to our podium result in the prologue, we started the stage from the first block, setting off pretty relaxed but a little apprehensive for the day’s 70km and 1,600 meters of climbing. By letting most of the peloton get ahead of us, we avoided the traffic and got to pick our own lines – a major bonus for the first downhill, which was rocky and slippery. Mid-way into the descent Nancy took the lead and it was a bit of an eye-opener! Not only was she quicker than I’d realized, but it also demonstrated just how many risks one takes on a bike at times.
After a long downhill to Stalden, there was a sizeable road section to Visperterminen before a stoke-inducing singletrack to Viège. This was more our style, and we grabbed the opportunity to overtake some teams. A shuttle was waiting for us in Viège to drive us to Unterbäch, allowing us ‘Flow’ competitors to smugly bypass the grueling climb that the full Epic riders were pedaling. Another long, amazing descent took us to Raron, cementing grins on our faces – although Nancy’s soon faded when she realized there was a 15 km flat transfer ahead. I took the wind while she tried to keep my wheel, but tempers flared and motivation dwindled: “Not so fast! Slow down! How many kilometers are left?” Based on this experience, it’s fortunate that Swiss Epic stages are rarely flat; otherwise our relationship may not have survived! A final shuttle between Leuk and Leukerbad gave us time to recover before the last downhill. By the time we crossed the finish line, Nancy had regained her smile and we were stoked that the week’s longest and hardest stage was now behind us.
Day 3 – Stage 2 – Leukerbad-Leukerbad
52 km | 1,050m of ascent | 3,550m of descent
The third day started with a short climb–the perfect warm-up before the first awesome trail of the day, carpeted with soft dirt and lots of switchbacks. Yet the drawback to racing means sharing the trails with other teams and you’ll lose count of how many times you have to say ‘Pardon,’ ‘Sorry,’ or ‘On your right!’ This stage took in the breathtaking Pont de l’Araignée, which was a serious highlight of our Swiss Epic experience as it’s usually out of bounds. Known as the Spider’s Bridge, it’s a 200 meter-long suspension bridge that’s just 50 cm wide and 190 meters above the ground. Needless to say, the view was sublime.
The rain hammered down over the course of the stage, making the final trails really muddy and putting the brakes on our speed. I counseled Nancy through the worst of the gnar as we nursed our way down the descents. After making it back to Leukerbad, we went straight for a massage with Perskindol, which was an experience we could definitely get used to…
Day 4 – Stage3 – Leukerbad-Leukerbad
30 km | 800m of ascent | 2,100m of descent
There was palpable relief as we awoke to terrible weather beating on our window to hear that the organizer had decided to shorten the stage. They wanted everyone to finish safely before temperatures would plummet even further in the afternoon.
The tension between us was tangible and we pedaled alongside each other in a frosty silence for a few kilometers.
At times like these, staying in bed definitely seems like a more attractive option. But fortunately we were able to shake off the malaise and perk up for the stage ahead. It took a lot of motivation to get going in these conditions, as the stage brutally began with a climb of 800 vertical meters. The first descent had taken a battering from the weather and turned treacherously greasy and technical. I was a bit worried for Nancy, and perhaps went a bit overboard with my warnings about being cautious. Much to the amusement of a nearby team, she eventually cracked, yelling over her shoulder: ‘Come on, course I can do this!’ Clearly I’d underestimated her skills. The tension between us was tangible and we pedaled alongside each other in a frosty silence for a few kilometers. (For the record, we’re now able to look back and laugh at this episode).
It was a tough day for us both, nursing our way down the weather-beaten trails, and we were relieved that the stage had been shortened so we could enjoy a much-needed nap and a massage.
Day 5 – Stage 4 – Leukerbad-Zermatt
65 km | 1,300m of climbing | 3,250m of descent
Stage racing rapidly sees you falling into a routine: ride, massage, dinner, bed. Not a bad state of affairs, really. The sun made a reappearance for this stage but temperatures were still fresh for what looked like a promising day of flow trails to Zermatt.
The thought of reaching the Matterhorn got us pumped, but there was a long, flat transfer to tick off first that reacquainted Nancy with the definition of suffering.
We spent the majority of this stage riding with another couple, sharing the stoke and the suffering, which confirmed just how cool stage racing is. With these multi-day mountain bike events, you’re not just racing against like-minded people but also sharing adventures with them.
Once at the bottom of the Matterhorn, we took the Sunnegga funicular up for the final beautiful descent before crossing the finish line in Zermatt, a picture-postcard of a Swiss village. Day five was definitely one of our favorites!
Day 6 – Stage 5 – Zermatt-Zermatt
36 km | 1,350m of ascent | 1,900m of descent
The Swiss Epic organizers didn’t scrimp on the final stage, asking for a 1,000-meter climb to reach the Schwarzsee lake at 2,500 meters above sea level. From there we dropped into a steep, technical downhill that led us onto an undulating trail along the Riffelalp. With heavy legs, the first climb was a killer but the view of the Matterhorn drifting in and out of the mist eased the suffering substantially. As it was only 2˚C at the top of the climb, Nancy struggled to relax. We then took it easy on the downhill and soaked up the final singletrack section after a crazy week of riding. We were exhausted but beaming as we crossed the finish line.
So was the Swiss Epic the great relationship-destroyer that it could have been? Nope, far from it. We’d had a blast over the course of the six stages, ridden amazing new trails and pushed our limits, so that we ultimately had a ton of new experiences together and even strengthened our relationship. Mission accomplished!