Adventure and Travel

Alpine Adventures: a South African guide to conquering Swiss Epic

Words by Kylie Hanekom

· By Bike Hub Features · 9 comments

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.

The Race

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.

Stage 1

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.

Stage 2

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

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.

Stage 4

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.

Stage 5

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).

Training

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.

Travel

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.

Prematch

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.

Costs

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.

In Short

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.

Feeling Inspired? Search our Events Calendar to find your next challenge or adventure. Check out all the Epic Series events here.

Thank you

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.

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Comments

BuffsVintageBikes

Aug 29, 2023, 7:43 AM

Awesome stuff, that scenery is just magical. I was fortunate enough to race the Trans Alps many years ago and one of my fondest memories is the sound of the cow bells echoing in the valley as you're climbing those massive mountains. You're right though, nothing in SA can prepare you for the Alps, the scale of them is off the charts. Well done for finishing, it looked like an amazing adventure.
Kylie

Aug 29, 2023, 7:51 AM

6 minutes ago, BuffsVintageBikes said:

Awesome stuff, that scenery is just magical. I was fortunate enough to race the Trans Alps many years ago and one of my fondest memories is the sound of the cow bells echoing in the valley as you're climbing those massive mountains. You're right though, nothing in SA can prepare you for the Alps, the scale of them is off the charts. Well done for finishing, it looked like an amazing adventure.

It was! The level of riding really impressed me, I felt like a small fish in a big pond in those mountains. It was also so cool to see Kim and Vera smashing the ladies field. With no team support either! 

Shebeen

Aug 29, 2023, 8:07 AM

this does look awesome. I know everything is covered once you hit the *** I'm too scared too ask what the week would cost all in for a team of two and with a few days either side of the event...
Mook

Aug 29, 2023, 8:08 AM

16 minutes ago, Kylie said:

It was! The level of riding really impressed me, I felt like a small fish in a big pond in those mountains. It was also so cool to see Kim and Vera smashing the ladies field. With no team support either! 

It's Bottelary Hills for me ............................... 😏

Kylie

Aug 29, 2023, 8:30 AM

19 minutes ago, Shebeen said:

this does look awesome. I know everything is covered once you hit the *** I'm too scared too ask what the week would cost all in for a team of two and with a few days either side of the event...

Aside from the entry:

2 nights Accommodation R2k/ night including breakfast

Flights R20k

Trains etc. R3k

So say R30k all-in. I made the hotel breakfasts go pretty far ;) and didn't dive into the wine (or anything else- prices are pretty wild!)

Underachiever

Aug 29, 2023, 12:27 PM

3 hours ago, Kylie said:

Aside from the entry:

2 nights Accommodation R2k/ night including breakfast

Flights R20k

Trains etc. R3k

So say R30k all-in. I made the hotel breakfasts go pretty far ;) and didn't dive into the wine (or anything else- prices are pretty wild!)

Very, very reasonable for Swiss!!  BTW what is the cost of an entry, must be pretty steep with those hotels.

Kylie

Aug 29, 2023, 12:41 PM

11 minutes ago, Underachiever said:

Very, very reasonable for Swiss!!  BTW what is the cost of an entry, must be pretty steep with those hotels.

I can't find the exact value in CHF now, but it was about R95k/ team. I think they are able to get great deals on Ski hotels in the summer when the towns are empty: https://www.epic-series.com/swissepic-riders-package

 

Still a huge amount of cash, but compares favourably with Cape Epic in terms of value!

BMCfan

Aug 29, 2023, 2:42 PM

I followed Kylie and Ila's trip on the 'gram!!!

Super proud of you two and i had so much FOMO.

 

I was lucky enough to do it in 2022. It was the week before MTB Champs in Les Gets, so afterwards i rented a car in Zurich and drove down to France and spent a week in Morzine!!

 

My race entry, air and train tickets, stay in Arosa before Swiss Epic, car rental for a week and my stay in Morzine came in at around +/- 90-92k

 

I was away for 21days, if you compare that to half a Cape Epic entry, which is now 55k, it surely is a no brainer!!!!

The party in Les Gets after a French 1, 2, 3 in the Saturday Downhill, was alone worth 55K - HAHAAAAAAA. 

When Bruni crossed the finish at around 17:15 until the wee hours of Sunday!!!!! Old, young, fat, skinny, male, female, you name it!

 

I digress, the Swiss Epic is one hell of a race!!! Like what has been said already, nothing you'll ever do here.

I went there thinking August weather in Euroland will be awesome, nothing as hot as March Africa! I cannot try and describe how 'hot' (read - LONG AND STEEP) those climbs were HAHAAAAAA. 

 

I LOVED EVERY METER of suffering! The views and those awesome downhills are SOOOOOO rewarding, made me suffer up those climbs with a smile on my face.

 

Would i do it again, in a heartbeat!!!!

Kylie

Aug 29, 2023, 6:36 PM

3 hours ago, BMCfan said:

I followed Kylie and Ila's trip on the 'gram!!!

Super proud of you two and i had so much FOMO.

 

I was lucky enough to do it in 2022. It was the week before MTB Champs in Les Gets, so afterwards i rented a car in Zurich and drove down to France and spent a week in Morzine!!

 

My race entry, air and train tickets, stay in Arosa before Swiss Epic, car rental for a week and my stay in Morzine came in at around +/- 90-92k

 

I was away for 21days, if you compare that to half a Cape Epic entry, which is now 55k, it surely is a no brainer!!!!

The party in Les Gets after a French 1, 2, 3 in the Saturday Downhill, was alone worth 55K - HAHAAAAAAA. 

When Bruni crossed the finish at around 17:15 until the wee hours of Sunday!!!!! Old, young, fat, skinny, male, female, you name it!

 

I digress, the Swiss Epic is one hell of a race!!! Like what has been said already, nothing you'll ever do here.

I went there thinking August weather in Euroland will be awesome, nothing as hot as March Africa! I cannot try and describe how 'hot' (read - LONG AND STEEP) those climbs were HAHAAAAAA. 

 

I LOVED EVERY METER of suffering! The views and those awesome downhills are SOOOOOO rewarding, made me suffer up those climbs with a smile on my face.

 

Would i do it again, in a heartbeat!!!!

Perfect summary ;) it's just an all round experience! 

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