Cyclocross stage racing in Switzerland, in February? That sounds like a prescription of snow, sub-zero temperatures and very challenging riding. Team Wiggle's Tim Wiggins signed up to the TorTour Cyclocross Stage Race, to find out…
If you ask most bike racers when their season begins, they will say "March", or "Easter", "when spring arrives". Most, will not say early February…
I've always been a fan of the 'long season', though. The off-season is great for reflection and rejuvenation, but come February I'm always itching for the first event of the year. That is the reason I went looking for races in this very early part of the season… call it a 'Winter Classic'.
TorTour CX - 'Ultra-cross Racing'
The TorTour Cyclocross Stage Race is based in Glattfelden, just outside Zurich. It is a three- day weekend race format: with a short prologue on the Friday, followed by longer and hillier stages on the Saturday and Sunday. Given the time of year, and the weather that this brings, it promises a challenge for physical endurance, bike and kit.
I signed up to the TorTour CX in autumn last year, and since that time I've been going over every piece of kit that I could use for a sub-zero stage race.
Have a read of my earlier Wiggle Blog post on 'Kitting up for the TorTour Cyclocross Race', if you're keen for an in-depth look at what made the cut for my kit bag.
So, to the race itself…
Last weekend, I travelled out to Switzerland; heading to the sleepy little town of Glattfelden, in the rolling hills between Zurich and the Swiss Alps.
The weather forecast looked surprisingly kind, and after months of accumulating the warmest apparel I could find, I began to wonder if I had seriously 'over-kitted' myself.
Prologue Stage - 23 kilometres, 450 metres elevation
Racing began with the short but brutal 23 kilometre Prologue stage - 8 laps of a viciously hilly circuit, just behind the hotel where the race is based.
Much like a traditional cyclocross race, the pace was flat-out from the moment the starting gun was fired. From the line there were just a few metres before you hit the wall-like gradient of the first climb; a frantic scramble for grip and placing ensued.
My heart rate and power graphs from the stage look a bit like a range of 8 mountains: both shooting well above threshold on the ascent; plateauing as we headed along the top of the climb; then providing a very brief drop-off as we descended back down to the start-line.
Lungs, legs, and brakes screaming, I managed to gain 7th on this starting stage. I don't think my body knew what had hit it; and this was just a taster of what was to come…
Stage 1 - 80 kilometres, 830 metres elevation
Stage 1 took us through rolling hills, along riverside paths, down forest tracks, and across snow-melt rivers. The length was instantly more appealing than the previous day's short prologue, for me; whilst the dry trail conditions promised a fast and flat-out race.
The racing didn't disappoint. From the moment we crossed the start-line, the field was strung out. Fast flowing single-track blended with open expanses of farmland; blistering road descents contrasted with sets of 100+ steps, and bike-shouldering brutality.
I had a good stage for me: eventually getting up to the second group on the course, I managed to hold my own on the ups and downs. After 80 kilometres of racing, the originally 15 strong group had been whittled down to just two of us… I lost the sprint for the line, but was happy with the 5th place finish that my efforts rewarded me with.
Stage 2 - 74 kilometres, 1530 metres elevation
If Stage 1 was about fast flowing single track and heavily forested trails, then Stage 2 was all about 'Vertical'... we were heading skywards.
Again the stage went from the gun. I had positioned myself better this time, but I still missed the front group of 5 riders opening up a gap on the rest of the field.
By the time I realised my error, I was left with the task of bridging across to the front group. That bridge was no small feat… in fact it turned into an hour long threshold effort. I eventually made the junction; just in time for the mammoth climb of the stage.
The trail turned skywards, and it didn't abate. For the best part of an hour we climbed; up through the forest, and out the other side above the snow line. Minus 2 degrees Celsius, and freezing fog - these were the conditions that my wardrobe had come prepared for.
The two professional riders in the race had long disappeared off the front of our little group; leaving us with a four-man chasing pack. Unfortunately, the two young Swiss riders (presumably more accustomed to riding in thick snow) soon rode away when we crested the mountain top, and began the icy and dicey descent back down to the valley floor.
The chase was then on for the last 20 kilometres; as we hammered down picturesque bike paths, with occasionally swerving off onto wooded single-track for added excitement.
I crossed the line in 4th, which took me up to 4th on Final General Classification too.
An incredible sense of relief and relish flowed over me after I crossed the finish line. As I slurped down warm Bouillon, and shovelled pasta into my mouth, I reflected on what an awesome way this had been to start the season.
An incredible race: the golden mix of physical challenge, technical trials and stunning scenery. I hope this sets the tone for the rest of the season…
Reflection and Kit Recommendations
The weather for TorTour Cyclocross was kinder than expected; with less mud and slush than last year's inaugural edition. That said, it still provided one of the most challenging events that I have raced - for kit choice, planning and preparation.
These are my '5 Kit Highlights', and recommendations for 'Early (Early) Season Race Kit':
- Winter gloves - Don't think that you can get away with using thin gloves, on the assumption that you'll have warm blood flowing to your hands from your hard physical efforts. An hour of descending in sub-zero temperatures will soon leave you with claw hands that are unable to hold the brake levers. Invest in some proper winter gloves, like the GripGrab Polaris Winter Gloves.
- Winter boots - Running up 100 stone steps in wet overshoes is not advisable. Neither is running through snow in summer mountain bike shoes. Invest in some proper winter boots, and you'll be rewarded with warm feet, and a surer foothold.
- Versatile winter jackets - Perhaps the highlight of my riding kit for this event, was the Sportful Fiandre Extreme Neoshell Jacket. Coupled with a Sportful BodyFit Pro Base Layer, this was breathable and vented enough to keep me temperate on the hour long climbs, but warm and protective enough on the extended descents. An incredibly versatile winter jacket.
- Tyre choice - I fitted a set of the new Schwalbe X-One Bite tyres for the TorTour race. They were phenomenally good. They gripped well when I needed grip; felt quick even on the tarmac sections; and I didn't puncture once. Do not run lightweight summer tyres on a race like this; one wipe-out in the ice at the top of the mountain, and the race could be over for you.
- Bike choice - There were guys racing this on mountain bikes, and big-tyre monster cross bikes (like the 3T Exploro); they were the envy of me on the technical rocky descents. However, the Kona Private Jake proved to be the perfect companion: fast, nimble, sure-footed, and fast!
The TorTour Cyclocross Race might not have had the 'horrendous' conditions that were talked about after last year's event; but I was thankful for that, it meant this was a proper stage race, rather than a survival test.
It was an incredibly challenging race, too. It is certainly not the gentle re-introduction of body and mind to the racing scene, which some people envisage. This is a lung-busting, leg-burning effort - it will wake your body up from winter hibernation.
It was a challenge I thoroughly enjoyed… I can't wait for next years' edition.