SWISS EPIC TIPS AND FACTS
Having had this “silly” idea a couple of years ago to cycle in the Alps and enjoy the scenery (and hopefully some single tracks) MARC VAN VEEN and Mike Nixon finally managed to embark on a Swiss journey, and took part in the Spar Swiss Epic 2023.
This year’s Swiss Epic route was held in the Graubunden region which is one of the more famous ski and hiking regions in Switzerland. In this area the scenery consists of the most epic steep mountains, with here and there still some snow on the peaks and the most beautiful flowing ice blue/ grey rivers in the valleys with forestry abundant- the real “Heidi/ Swiss chocolate box” picture one dreams off. The area and some of the villages which we stayed in have held the Swiss Epic before as they belong to the meca of downhill and XC racing in Switzerland and feature often on the UCI MTB calendar. Lenzerheide, St Moritz and Davos were all part of the itinerary.
Forming part of the Epic series, it should be viewed as one of the harder stage races around and the suggested mileage (335kms) and number of days (5) does not do the required cycling effort justice. The reason for this is that the route requires you to travers 11500m of elevation and altitudes of between 1500m to 2700m in these 5 days- hence the days in the saddle can be long and arduous and us averaging between 10 and 13km/hr on most days!
Lenzerheide (also known as part of the Bike Kingdom) was chosen as the start of the 2023 Swiss Epic. Apparently, it features more than 300kms of track for beginners and advanced riders and the event was using some of the well known single tracks in the area made famous by Nino Schurter himself. It’s a pretty town with the main attraction of summer hiking and biking around the Parpaner Rothorn mountain (2800m altitude). Having arrived in Lenzerheide the day before, it already became apparent that there was a big SA contingent both on and off the field. Most of the Ciovita staff there selling merchandise were South Africans and a lot of the people helping with the administrative side had similar connections. The pre-evening consisted of the usual carbo-loading (both in food and liquid form) at the luxurious buffet at the hotel and catching up with friends who were also part of the event. After a restful sleep, day 1 had arrived.
Day 1- Lenzerheide
Having reviewed the profile the day before, day 1 was a typical example of what was to come our way in the next few days- the distances seemed to be “ridiculously” short, however the climbing was hellishly long and severe, mainly on a combination of forestry track (jeep track) and single track with in between stunning flowing single tracks taking you down back into the valleys.
After watching the pro riders shoot off, we commenced in a much more sedate pace and from the start, a gradual climb commenced on a combination of jeep track and tar which took us slowly but surely higher up into the most beautiful alpine forests. We soon got to know that the difference in a tar climb, and a jeep track climb is not just the road surface, but also the fact that jeep tracks can continue meandering upwards; whereas on tar climbs you get the relief of hairpin bends which give you a slight incline/ gradient respite.
After a number of hours of climbing the slopes of the Parpan Schwarzhorn (roughly 8kms at 8% gradient), we arrived above tree level- which lies just under 2000m altitude. Oxygen intake starts diminishing quite considerably at this level and breathing became harsher and more frequent. This is where we hit the Panorama Trail which was a traverse but also consisted of a few proper nasty spikes uphill. Then finally the first water point arrived situated around a lake with the most stunning views and good snacks. Having reloaded and revived energy levels, we had the honor of going down the Bikepark FLOWline and Nino’s Gold Trail by OKK (the trail of MTB WC 2018). These single tracks consisted of nearly 8 kms of switchback trails and dropping us back down by about 500m. We then traversed through the town to the other side of the valley to do it all over again- 13 kms of climbing up to 2300m altitude. By this stage a lot of cycling (and walking) was in the legs and a sense of humor failure set in as the dreaded CRAMPS had “sprung”. Thanks to an awesome teammate, a lengthy water stop with bouillon and pure persistence we managed to reach the June Hut ( at just over 2300 m the highest point of the day) and clamber our way down Top Fops single track with some dodgy rock garden sections. Having replenished for the last time at water point 3, we cruised back to Lenzerheide and day one was done and dusted!.
Day 2- Lenzerheide- St Moritz
Having renourished with more awesome food at the hotel buffet, day 2 had arrived with some proper dimensions- 80 kms and 2400 m elevation. This was our first transition stage in the event requiring the necessary admin with bag drops which was all organized relatively smoothly and we set off to say goodbye to Lenzerheide.
Just to make sure we hadn’t forgotten we were in the Alps, the start was straight up an incline for the first 5 kms. Then a relief arrived in the manner of 20 kms of relatively flat to a downhill section arrived through forest trails with amazing views across the valley and then some more fast kilometres along the river Albula through the stunning Alpine villages and scenery. Unfortunately, that was the end of the free kms and the 22km long climb arrived to reach us to the summit of the day with some nasty bumps along the way. Having pushed past the first waterpoint unscathed, another cramp attack awaited climbing up towards the Albula pass. The next 12 kms became a long and arduous journey with frequent stops, here and there walking and lots and lots of teammate encouragement.
Getting to the second water point became an ever distant goal; specifically having to clamber through the final single track to the top. Finally, having reached the station and finishing looking bleak, a most considerate Swiss medic decided to give me the wonder drugs of Magnesium and the best (and most painful) massage ever!. A revived cyclist left the water point with new conviction and the Albula Trail descend was commenced. This trail was around 9 kms long and 600m descending and again contained some awesome switchbacks. From there a slow gradual incline followed for the next 15 kms with the majestic Engadin mountains on either side. As all race organisers would acknowledge, there always needs to be a sting in the tail and this stage was no different- a nasty “pimple” on the map known as the Moor Plateau Alp da Staz arrived. While riding though the gorgeous surrounding pine forest gradients of 20% had to be overcome. Needless to say, this was the “moan of the evening” with every team.
MARK VAN VEEN'S TOP SWISS EPIC TIPS & FACTS:
As this is a team event, first important thing to note is select your partner carefully. I had the opportunity to do this event with a great friend of mine and who also happens to be one of the last Cape Epic lions- Mike Nixon. Funny thing was that he was still classified as a “newbie” by the Swiss. The importance of a good teammate cannot be over-stressed as he held us together with all my “palavers”.
The Swiss Epic is a much smaller event than the Cape Epic with roughly 300 teams starting, but with a similar attrition rate of around 20-25% resulting in around 235 finishing teams. Most teams who dropped out either had altitude/ health issues or accidents.
Be ready for some arduous climbing and put on some comfortable walking/ cycling shoes. Training therefore should entail both the longest and steepest climbs you can find. Most climbs are around 10kms long (continuous) and an average gradient of 8 to 10% with sections over 20%. Also walk with your bike in rough steep terrain as you will have to jump off at points (unless you are Nino Schurter).
Be prepared for some rough/rocky shale and rooted single tracks. According to some of the participating Epic legends the single tracks on the Cape Epic are actually better prepared and in better condition. Must have something to do with the cost of labour in Switzerland…
Arrive at the start village (in our case Lenzerheide) at least a day in advance as this lies at 1500m. Some of the participants had been altitude training for over 10 days; others arrived just in time which showed up in the latter stages as the altitude changes the body oxygen intake dramatically and hence affects your muscles and your performance. Also perhaps check how your body reacts to altitude as each person’s DNA is different and hence effects are different.