8.30 am. We take a right 90 degrees turn onto the Pointe de Mandelon plateau at 2250 meters height. A late sunrise shines in our face after climbing for 1h45m in the forest combining asphalt, gravel roads and single tracks. Middle ring (mainly 33-34) so all fine so far. The view is simply astonishing.
No time for dreaming away, a bit difficult at a 170 bpm heart rate anyways, as we get another stretch of highly technical single tracks in the next 5 kms. Yesterday during the car ride from Bourg d’Oisans to Sion we were wondering if the track would be mainly going through rather “boring” jeep tracks all. Question answered. As I have a personal preference for more “drops’n rocks” I can only smile. 10 kms further and after literally seen 3 bikers on hardtails bouncing off their bikes I know for sure: this is the real deal and I like it.
Passing through Evolene it’s the third stop and the first enthousiastic crowd. From the quality of the feed zones (they have everything) and the support you would think everyone in Switzerland is into mtb. A nice stretch of technical forest climb, keep those thumbs shifting, and off into the descent towards Eison. Single tracks and drops on the menu again, a Frenchie dives into the fields, no cows around, and ends up 15 meters lower. Luckily no harm done. Remarkable: the respect among all riders. A simple “attention – gauche/droite” is enough to pass the person in front off you. Then again, with 100m drops next to the track you’d rather not act as an idiot.
After leaving Eison it’s time for “the wall”. A 1300m, 11% average off road climb to the Pass de Lona at 2800m. During the first 5 kms we stay in the shade of the forests and the climbing percentage is feasible. All goes well until halfway the climb when turning out of the shade and into the 34C Swiss oven. Small ring, 180 bpm heart rate. Not good. Just before La Vieille at 2/3s of the climb the leader of the 120k Verbier Grand Raid, Urs Huber, passes me – yes these guys already did an extra 60k. The memory card says the worst is still to come after La Vieille but we weren’t planning to win this thing anyways. After a mix of kiwis, Isostar bars, Swiss Gruyère (I told you they have everything) and a liter of water I continue. 500m into the rocky singletrack Alban Lakata (2010 marathon world champ) passes me. I follow for 300 meters, then I hike for almost 2 kms and over 45 mins. The 25%(+?) climb in loose gravel to the top of the Pass de Lona can not be biked, the only difference is that the pros actually run up the climb. I’d conclude that carrying a 12k bike on your back after 4,5 hours of biking is pure suffering, with or without the 500(!) fans cheering you on.
The small second climb of the Pass de Lona (it’s “only” 150hm at avg 12%) announces the next part of the race: it’s downhill time. Painful legs, shoulders and lower back really enjoy this part of the track as you have no time to sit down or relax. The views are breath-taking (if any left). Further on you’re thrown into another dusty singletrack section with half a meter drops. Easy roll out to the finish? Think again.
So what was missing from the track so far? Right, river crossings. Enter a technical xc track like section with at least 6 crossings surrounded by fans and families grilling and drinking beers. Ever thought of stealing a sausage from a BBQ? I did after 6,5 hrs on this day. So that was it then? No, no and no. Switchbacks! Yes, 3k of those as well for the cramping fingers thank you.
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