Zurich to Zermatt
Battle of the Body, Mind and Spirit
181miles 21,268ft (6482m) of altitude gain. Sounds simple if you say it quickly. Just over six weeks after a 24hour solo MTB race was perhaps a little ambitious.
It started badly when 9 days prior to the ride I had a heavy crash whilst riding my gravel bike - landing heavily on my left-hand side. The crash left me struggling to walk for a day or two and due to heavy swelling, I didn’t sleep well for over a week. I had planned some easy rides to keep the legs fresh however I was now too sore to undertake them. I resigned myself to just rest and recover as best I could.
I only managed to have my bike ready the day before my flight - Forza Carbon wheels fitted and some new Schwalbe Pro One tyres in 28mm (these come up narrower than previous versions as Schwalbe have now re-sized their tyres using modern internal rim widths). I packed up my bike into its bag, added my clothing, and was ready to fly out.
Another disturbed night of sleep and I was on my way. Flying from Bristol meant only an hour and a half drive to the airport so it was an easy check in and away.
On arrival at Zurich Airport I collected my bike bag and found a train to take me into the city. Careful planning had me staying close to the main train station. I checked into my small hotel room and headed straight out to meet Nigel and Josh for a beer and some food. The centre of Zurich was really interesting and we walked around after dinner taking in the atmosphere near the river.
I slept very well for the first time in over a week. This was a good sign my body was recovering from the crash. I was still sore and now my hip was sporting an impressive bruise.
After breakfast I built my bike in my room and headed out for a ride to loosen my legs. I had planned about an hour with a coffee stop but unfortunately my gears were playing up so I made a beeline for a local bike shop. The issue appeared to be the mech hanger damaged during the flight. The store seemed professional and suggested I come back in 30mins. Relieved, I left my number and grabbed some lunch. I was just finishing when the bike shop called and suggested I come back to look at the problem. They had tried to straighten the mech hanger and in the process snapped it. I was gutted - they had tried to twist the hanger cold and snapped it off. A little heat from a torch would have probably avoided this issue. Now I was staring down the possibility of not even starting the ride. My bike is a custom built Feather which has Paragon Machine Works dropouts. Thankfully Ricky Feather responded to my text and came through with a Swiss frame builder across town who had a hanger. Riding an E-bike which I borrowed from the store I set off on a mission to collect the hanger. Although the hanger fitted the mech was still bent - the gears were working better than before but not perfectly.
I was so lucky to find these hangers in Zurich
With most of my day gone I rode back to the hotel and showered. I had to get in my race kit and pack my transfer bag to be taken to the finish. As the event was not very well structured I had fitted a frame bag to carry spare food and clothing. At 6pm I took my bag to the sign on and collected my numbers and dropped off my bag. The race briefing that we were told we must attend was a waste of time. At the start they announced the briefing would all be in German and if any non-German speakers had any questions they could ask them at the end. We snuck out the back and returned to the hotel. It was now 9pm so I set my alarm for 12.30am and got to sleep. I woke to my alarm and got race ready - arm and knee warmers were a must, as well as an insulated gilet. When I left the hotel at 1am the air was cool and off I went navigating by phone the 4miles to the start where I met the others. Their start time was 20mins in front of mine so my plan was to push on at the start and catch up to ride with them.
My start time arrived and off we went. The first few miles out of the city was busy with riders coming together in groups. There were plenty of marshals to point the way until we left the city outskirts.
Lights on at the 2am start
The first issue arose when I went off course with a group of riders - the route signs were small and unmarked arrows and difficult to see and distinguish from other road signs. We realised after a km and turned around. With the route found we began the first climb – it was still dark and cool and it felt good to climb, warming up the muscles I started to feel a bit more comfortable. I was getting passed by a lot of other riders on the climb and I figured they were just going too hard at the start so I stuck to what felt like a steady pace. The climb over I rolled on feeling cold on the descent from the sweat gained on the climb. Another excursion off course had me frustrated again.
I was largely riding alone but I could see other riders ahead some of the time. Feed stations came and went and I topped up my water bottles adding a sachet of Torq energy powder to each one. Due to the cool temperatures I was not drinking much so I was conscious to eat some energy bars and dried bananas from my frame pack. I was longing for daylight to come as descending on unfamiliar roads in the dark was not much fun and I hoped the light would bring some warmth to my muscles.
The run-up to the foot of the first major climb as the sun rose was horrendous from around 6am until 7.30am. The local traffic had really built up and the roads were narrow with traffic islands at regular intervals. The morning commuters seemed impatient to pass and there were also a lot of larger trucks - on these narrow roads I felt vulnerable, constantly checking over my shoulder every time I sensed a truck behind me.
With the busy roads behind me I started the first major climb as the light finally arrived in the sky and even a little sun peeped out. The climb was long and steep taking me slowly to an elevation of 1611m. Going over the top in the mist I attacked the descent picking off some riders who had passed me on the climb. The road was narrow and a car in front pulled over to let me fly past. I had one heart in mouth moment when a truck appeared around the corner – I locked the back wheel when I grabbed at my brakes and the bike flicked around the truck – needless to say I slowed my rate of descending for a minute or two. Almost as soon as I hit the bottom of the climb the road rose up again in front of me. Having messaged the other riders from the top of the climb it was clear I was not going to catch up. Today was just not my day and my body was struggling to produce the power and speed of my other big rides this year, so I just put it down to a combination of fatigue and the aftermath of my recent crash.
First major climb
I settled into this new climb making certain to eat and drink regularly. This one topped out at just over 1000m followed by a faster descent to the foot of the biggest climb the Grimsel Pass. It certainly lived up to its name - it was Grim. About 20 miles of climbing in the mist where I could only see a few meters of road in front of me. The climb was a slog taking me just under 3 hours to complete the tougher 16 miles section. By the time I reached the top I was losing my will to carry on. I had to remind myself why I was here and of all the people who supported my 2019 cycling. As I summited the climb I was relieved to see the sun was out on the other side of the pass. I found a cafe to grab a sandwich and some extra drinks. The worst part of the climb had been my maths skills: working out how far you have to go and just how long it will take you is soul destroying when you’re not riding well.
Grim no view on the Grimsel pass
Once I was fed I pulled on my rain jacket to keep me warm on the descent. In 15mins I was off the steepest part and heading down the valley towards the final ascent to Zerrmat. 30 miles of rolling transition between climbs would have brought relief if it had not been for the constant headwind that battered my resolve.
Camera caught me eating #hamsterface
At the foot of Zermatt I felt ok - not fresh - but my endurance experience had helped me out at last. I calculated my finish time based on the speed I was riding at on the climb. I knew it would be tight to make the time limit and had to keep pushing hard on the final climb which took around 2h20m. I was not faster than the earlier climbs, nor was I any slower. As I reached Tache (the farthest point cars are allowed up the mountain) I was told there was only 3 miles to go and I had enough water and food to push past the feed station without stopping. I gripped the bars hard and pushed on just wanting this agony to end. My motivation was purely to make the pain stop. On reaching the finish I was exhausted mentally more than physically, just 15mins inside the time cut off. This ride taught me a valuable lesson. When it’s not going my way I know I can dig in and get it done. The inspiration of Riding For Mark Ridge my Uncle who passed away at the end of 2018 from Sarcoma helped me complete this final challenge. During the darker times I told myself that Mark would not give up. I am satisfied with accomplishing this mission and I doubt I will return for a faster time!