South Africans love a marathon stage race. For those privileged enough to have ticked Cape Epic off the bucket list, its Alpine cousin the Swiss Epic seems like an excellent next step.
When Bike Hub were offered the chance to experience the Swiss Epic first-hand with just six week’s notice there was unbridled chaos in the ranks. The Bike Hub boys have been on a bit of a mountain biking sabbatical, and I’d taken a big break post Cape Epic, and was wallowing in self-pity in the particularly miserable Cape winter. But fit or not, the chance to ride the Swiss Epic simply isn’t an opportunity you turn down, as Matt confirmed in the 2018 edition.
I roped in long-time friend and riding buddy, Ila Stow, who I knew I could rely on to climb like a mountain goat and choose the smoothest lines on the notoriously technical Alpine descents. I was going to need all the help I could get.
At 5 days long the Swiss Epic is three days shorter than its African cousin the Cape Epic. But this does not mean it is easier. Four of the five stages come in at well over 2000 metres of ascent per stage, and the slightly shorter distances are misleading. It just means each stage packs a bigger punch, with super steep gradients, and no free kilometres added into each stage.
This is not Cape Epic. The entry includes five nights of top notch Swiss hotel accommodation, a vastly different experience from the notorious Cape Epic tents. It’s an exciting feature for me: we stayed in hotels I would never ever otherwise have gotten to, and ate like kings. Each town had its own distinct character, and novelty. I was more upset about being tired after every stage because I wasn’t able to explore each destination properly, than I was concerned about the next day’s riding.
The event started from the iconic cycling destination, Lenzerheide, with a super spicy 50km lap of the Bike Kingdom trails incorporating slippery forest hiking trails, vicious forestry road climbs, and some classic bike park flow. It was quite a wake-up call for us saffas, and I’ve never seen so many people pushing their bikes as I did on the final climb of the stage. But the technical descent off the top really blew out the cobwebs and helped us end on high note.
The second stage was a transition to St. Moritz via the monstrous but historical Albula Pass with picture-postcard views all the way to the top. At 81 kilometres this was one of the longer stages, and after the long climb and a rigorous descent we really felt the final kick into St. Moritz which took us through 1000-year-old Swiss stone pine forests.
Stage 3 was another brutal day (there were no easy days, but this one really hurt). We started out with a 10km climb up to 2472 metres above sea-level, before surfing our way back to the valley floor, only to repeat the process of climbing and climbing and climbing. Every time I thought we had reached the summit we would round a corner and see riders high above us, climbing skywards. Fortunately our efforts on this stage were rewarded with incredible descents. Berms carved out of the hillside flowed downhill, to the point where our hands and arms limited the fun.
The fourth stage was another transition day, this time from St. Moritz to Davos, via the rugged Scaletta Pass. It also served as the Queen stage. I underestimated this day badly. As the only stage billed with under 2000 metres of ascent, I had expected an easier ride, but the punchy tech sections in the early kilometres, the long drag up the pass, and hike-a-bike over the summit put paid to my happy hopes. This was definitely the most spectacularly remote part of the race, and it was incredible to ride a bike in a part of the Swiss Alps that very few people will ever reach, but pushing my bike over the top definitely brought out the worst in me. The rocky and technical descent revived my flagging sense of humour, and it was all downhill to Davos for the last ten kilometres.
The final stage was a fitting send off for the Swiss Alps, as we started with a climb leading into a techy single track climb, appropriately named Alps Epic Trail. Once again we descended nearly to the valley floor, only to climb again. This time up the Clavadeleralp. Fortunately a scenic traverse and classic alpine switchback descent got us going again, before a final nasty kick took the wind out of our sails. We rolled into Davos, very ready for the finish line. It’s certainly no small feat to conquer the alps.
Stage 0: Getting There and What You Need to Know
The process of getting to the start line is the unofficial Stage 0 for any international event. Ila and I learned many lessons along the way which I’ll share, along with why this race is one for your bucket list (but not to be taken lightly).
There is simply nothing in South Africa that can prepare you for the magnitude of the Alps. Or the unpredictable affect of altitude on your body. All I can say is ride your bike. Be comfortable on it. If you are not going uphill or down, you are not training for Swiss Epic. If you can find rocks, roots, and tight switchbacks, ride them. If you can find a climb that goes on for more than an hour, do it- multiple times!
If you can afford it, try to spend a few days before the event at altitude (Every day we starts at 1000+metres above sea-level, and goes as high as 2600 metres. The climbs are unimaginably long. And in many cases outrageously steep. You are going to suffer.
Before you leave South Africa downsize your chainring. I promise, you won’t regret it.
This all sounds very dramatic, but the riding was totally different from any event I’ve experienced, and I was so grateful for the warnings and feedback I received from friends who’d been before.
Traveling with a bike is not simple. Traveling to foreign country, with a bike, for an event you’ve invested time and money into is even less so. If like us, you are doing everything as cheaply as possible, make sure your bike is serviced and in perfect working order before you fly. Fresh brake pads are advisable. If you’re boxing it yourself make sure you have the tools and know-how to reassemble it on the other side.
Swiss public transport is unbelievably smooth, download the SBB Mobile App, punch in your destination destination and it will guide you step-by-step. The key to success is installing and activating your e-sim before you land so that you don’t hack with airport WiFi while trying to book your ticket.
Do yourself a favour and budget time and money for an all-day pass for the ski-lifts a day or two before the race so that you can dial into the trails, and experience the joy of descending without the sweat of climbing. It was a real highlight of the trip for me to experience the scale of the Bike Kingdom Park, and see first-hand the level of riding there.
If you’re travelling on ZARs Switzerland is a terrifying place. A coffee costs at least R120. But on-event you will never need to reach for your wallet, unless there are catastrophic repairs to your bike. Food, transport, race nutrition are all covered, and the logistics run like a well-oiled machined. It blew my mind every time we arrived at a new destination and our bags were waiting for us at the hotel, where we were smoothly welcomed and checked in.
For a South African the Swiss Epic is an unforgettable adventure. Despite it being one of the smoothest and best-run events I’ve attended, in by far the best living conditions, and near-perfect weather, it was still one the most physically demanding races I’ve finished, and it came with a real sense of accomplishment.
As cliché as it sounds: if you love bikes, travel, and a challenge, in the most comfortable conditions imaginable, this really is one for the bucket list. I’m forever grateful for the places my bike has taken me, and the Swiss Alps is one I’ll never ever forget.
We had support from several amazing to brands to help contribute to this trip. I’m keenly aware of how privileged we are to be able to have had an experience like this, and I was extremely proud to have so many uniquely South African companies, offering world-class products and services in our corner.