Last May, some friends and I went to see the Boston premiere of the mountain bike documentary “Strength in Numbers” premiere at Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar. Even though “Strength in Numbers” was all about going downhill (well, who would want to watch someone plodding uphill at 3mph?), the footage of riders traversing the Alps on mountain bikes had me mesmerized. Riding in the Dolomites had already been on my bucket list, but I completely fell in love with the idea of doing it on a mountain bike. Then last fall, two of Dave’s friends Alec Petro and Kevin Hines mentioned that they would be racing the TransAlp mountain bike stage race from Mittenwald, Germany to Riva del Garda, Italy in July. Perfect! Dave needed little convincing to do it as a mixed team and he even surprised me by signing us up (which required some very complicated wire transfer) and by buying us plane tickets.
According to the culprit documentary’s creators, the title “Strength in Numbers” emphasizes the ties that bind all varieties of mountain bikers together: “Tire to ground, foot to pedal, hand to bar – communities drawn together by trails of dirt.” At TransAlp, over 1000 riders participated from 35 countries, all varieties brought together by pedaling over mountain paths. There were the two South Africans whose huge engines and even huger zeal spurred them by us effortlessly every morning, until some sort of unmitigated disaster left them camped trailside with bikes upside down in a flurry of tools and parts. There was the Australian pair who we befriended on Stage 2, who took a keen interest in checking in to make sure my “husband” and I were ok every day. I climbed about the same pace as the second and third place women’s teams, one of whose members moaned and screamed and yelled “Shiza!” as if she were being hurled off of a cliff, which actually was not too far from the truth on many of our descents.
Every morning, this sea of riders all showed up to the starting line as Capital Cities “Safe and Sound” lyrics boomed in the background.
I could lift you up
I could show you what you want to see
and take you where you want to be
You could be my luck
Even if the sky is falling down
I know that we’ll be safe and sound
The sum of all these riders was a motivation and a safety, a purpose to get started every morning. The huge numbers engender emotional drafting, riders following the energy slipstream of the others, that helps normal people complete something like this: 8 Stages; 36 hours and 56 minutes of riding; 428 miles; 65,617 feet of climbing.
The number of miles and feet of climbing covered seem a cut-and-dried version of TransAlp, but those sheer numbers both scared the crap out of me and inspired me. I felt like a child who was learning to count past 10 for the first time, learning how to get up to 100 with all the grown-ups.
Alec and Kevin had done Cape Epic before, so they knew a good bit about doing a mountain bike stage race with big numbers. Their expertise was helpful because I basically saw the pretty mountains and decided it was a go, figured the rest could be sorted out…that is the training, the money, the logistics.
In a way, you do just have to be in love with the pretty mountains. You know, find the little quirks you have to deal with endearing…the sweat stinging in your eyes on a two-hour climb, the numb toes, the aching triceps from descending forever, the fogginess of fatigue, the drag of cleaning your bike and sink-washing your kits every day. On a day-to-day basis, you do have to be kind of goo-goo-ga-ga for the experience.
Lest I sound like Taylor Swift on two wheels, I will talk a bit about our preparation and planning. Each of the 4 of us who travelled together contributed something different to the experience. Alec spent hours researching transportation and lodging, using google maps to find the hotels closest to the finish lines each day. Dave generously made it financially possible for me. Kevin was there to help keep us in working order – fix a derailleur, fix a flat, find a taxi, make friends with the Specialized crew. I organized, made the packing lists, and had the bandaids on hand.
Our goal was to go in fit but not sick of riding our bikes. I did a little “training camp” out in San Diego with a friend in April, and Dave did so in Italy with some friends in May. So we each had done a block of 4 long, hard rides in a row with serious climbing. Other than that, we did some long rides on the weekends, some cross country mountain bike races, and a few days of 30/30 intervals or 3-minute intervals. Every Wednesday I got in a long ride of about 80 miles with a hard group ride thrown in the middle. We also raced the Whiteface 100k mountain bike race in June. I averaged about 70 hours of riding per month leading up to the race, if you’re wondering about training numbers.
As I mentioned, over 1000 riders participated, and all were paired into 2-person teams in 5 categories: men, women, mixed, masters (80+ years combined), and grand masters (100+ years combined). Each stage was a point-to-point race from one small town to the next. The race provided “camp” in a gymnasium or auditorium with cots or you could reserve your own hotel rooms, which we did. If you had hotel rooms, the race picked up and dropped off your luggage each day at your hotels. At night, the race paid locals in each town to cook up a pasta dinner for the racers. They also provided masseurs if you wished to pay for a massage session. Each stage started at either 8 or 9am sharp, and was a mass start with starting corrals based on current standings. The leading teams from the 5 categories got the front row, the 2-3 place teams got corral A1, the next 20 or so teams got corral A2, and then the rest of the field followed in corrals B and C.
During each stage, there were two feed stations per day with water, iso (energy drink), fruits, and sometimes cookies or snacks. I averaged 2 bottles with Scratch Labs and 2 refills with their energy drink, plus 1 package of Clif Blocks per day. It might not seem like much for 4-6 hours of racing, but I found I didn’t need more than that except on Day 5 when I was just really, really hungry during the race and had a couple bananas and a Bonk Breaker bar as well.
I rode my Cannondale hardtail F29 with SRAM XX1 and Stans Race Gold wheels. I used Racing Ralph snakeskin tires. While the climbing was often steep, the 1×11 gearing was sufficient, and I enjoyed the simplicity of having only one derailleur. No dropped chain! As to choosing a hardtail over a full suspension, having a less cumbersome, lighter frame for climbing far outweighed being less comfortable and needing to use more caution on the descents.
Stage 1 – Mittenwald, Germany to Mayrhofen, Austria
Length:110,97 km altitude:2.103 Hm
Each day the race provided the course profile as well as a summary of the course “level,” rated by total distance, climbing challenge, descent difficulty, surface condition, etc. In addition, the rating included an “emotional experience” score for the day, which incidentally the raters always concluded was a 5 out of 5.
Day 1 we had a first corral start position. Though supposedly neutral, the mass start through the quaint little town of Mittenwald saw riders hopping onto sidewalks, weaving through outdoor café tables, jumping culverts, and sneaking through yards to get better position before the race turned upward for the first climb.
We started a few rows from the front but lost probably 200 spots in the course of a few minutes! By the time the course jumped onto a gravel path we were hundreds of riders behind trying to peer through a thick cloud of dust so we didn’t ram into the bikes in front of us when the peloton screeched to a halt around sharp turns. Things sorted themselves out once climbing began. We rode together, settling into a pace around a few of the other mixed teams.
By the top of the first climb I had a bit of a gap on Dave, knowing he would fly by me on the subsequent descent. We traded back and forth on the climbs and descents for most of the race. While it was not quite what we expected in terms of riding together and sharing the experience side-by-side, we found that if we both climbed and descended at our own paces we finished the stages around the same time!
The end of stage 1 was a 20+ mile flat paved surface with a stiff tailwind. We flew down this section at 25mph, pace-lining with a few other teams. Unfortunately, Dave cramped up about 10k from the finish and could barely pedal. We finished up 8/57 mixed teams on the day.
Days 2-3 each began with approximately 2-hour climbs.
Day 3’s initial climb ascended 6,000 feet over 12 miles with an average of 9.3%! I was still feeling really strong and decided to go for it on that climb. The views from the top were unbelievable.
Dave continued to have trouble with cramping both days and we were brainstorming on any ways to alleviate it: more electrolyte pills, a greater water-sugar ratio, arnica massages at night.
Today was the first day my legs felt heavy and tired. In the peloton for the first 10k, I struggled to move and find a rhythm, even drafting felt hard! Fortunately, Dave felt great this day and set a steady, tough pace up the first climb. I hung back a bit but used his energy to stay focused and keep within a short distance. We crested the first climb in 2nd place!
On the descent, Dave gained quite a bit of time on me, but I latched onto Bart Wellen’s wheel at the bottom and caught a good ride up to the feed station where Dave was just finishing up. We blazed down the flat-ish section to the next climb. My legs finally woke up and we enjoyed climbing together for the first half of the second climb. It was great to be competing as a team. I pulled ahead toward the end of the climb, knowing Dave would fly down the steep descent to the finish. Dave and Alec both caught me together near the end of the descent, just after the 3rd place team came by. Perhaps the only thing that overrides my terror of descending is my competitive nature! Dave was riding so strong that day I didn’t want to let him down so I forced myself to let loose a little on the descent. We passed the team ahead of us and had maybe a minute on them when we hit the 5k road section leading to the finish. “I’ll pull you in!” Alec offered and we queued up behind him in a pace-line with one other rider. About 1k from the finish, Dave asked for water and I handed him a bottle. Somehow in returning me the bottle, he crossed wheels with me, then got hit from behind and went down on the pavement. He hit his hip hard and skinned his arm. Turns out he had broken his femur! At the time he didn’t know and gathered himself up and we pedaled in to our third place podium spot. Dave got cleaned up at the medical tent, took some Italian ibuprofen, and decided he was good to keep riding! Unfortunately, Kevin also had some bad luck and decided to pull out after Stage 4. He had not been feeling well. At the time he and Alec had been in 3rd place for Grand Master teams.
Day 5 – Queen Stage
Looking at the profile for Stage 5, nothing remarkable stands out! At 76km long, it was a moderate distance without any sustained climbs. “Why is it the Queen Stage?” I wondered. The route was simply relentless, around every corner was another steep incline up to a Passo or a Rifugio, often with gradients so precipitous we had to push our bikes. As an aside, the word Rifugio now scares me. The very things that make a Rifugio ideal for escaping the busyness and demands of life—namely virtual inaccessibility and soaring views from altitude—make it a daunting destination for a cyclist.
I’m not sure if Days 1-4 were just more spectacular in terms of scenery or if the altitude and fatigue had just gotten to me, but the last few days of racing seemed far less interesting. Probably the latter: “Hey did you see those cows crossing in front of you on Mount Grappa?” Dave asked. “Umm, no.” Ditto for the sweeping farms of kale, the grape vineyards, the spectacular mountain views, the mountain goats.
Day 6 began with a short climb and then a long descent. Dave flew by me on the descent and I didn’t catch him until the second of the two long climbs of the day. I latched onto a small paceline in the middle section of the race, staying put at the very back while the guys eagerly pulled through. Generally I pull my weight but I was barely hanging on as it was. That said I did feel like a loser when the road turned upward and I passed all of them on the climb.
I finally caught up to Dave, who was having an unbelievable day, remarkable considering that his femur was split down the middle. Within 5 minutes’ of our happily climbing together in the top 3-5 mixed teams, my rear tire exploded, hissing Stans out of the centimeter-sized hole caused by a sharp rock. It took us 14 minutes to change my flat because both of our tubes turned out to be ripped and we had to wait for a donation. Needless to say, we dropped several places while parked.
In Crespano del Grappa, Alec had arranged for us to stay in the nearby town of Asolo where he had friends who owned a villa. To get to the town we considered riding our bikes but it was difficult to ascertain just how far it was: “It’s 6k downhill” said one source, while another said it was 16k and uphill. Finally we agreed to take a taxi and Kevin called for one with room for 4 bikes. After waiting for an hour, we finally spotted a taxi driver with a van in search of 4 people and bikes to transport to Asolo. Thinking we’d found our guy, we started to pack up into his van. “But wait, you are not Gerard?” The driver hesitated. “No, this was for Kevin.” “Well, I am here for Gerard.” At this point 4 Dutchmen hurried over and one of them was Gerard. Almost simultaneously, another taxi arrived and a driver emerged in a tailored gray suit and dark shades. All eight of us cyclists laughed at the mix-up and assumed we could just switch taxis, but the suited driver would not have it. He began shoving our bicycles aggressively into his trailer, refusing to just switch groups. Rotors pinged and carbon squeaked as he manhandled our machines. One of the Dutchmen who was over 6 feet tall jumped up into the trailer and told the driver to settle down and to be careful. “If you don’t calm down, I will kick your ass!” He threatened. “He then got onto his phone with his assistant to confirm their private massages at their hotel.
Finally all bikes and persons were loaded in some fashion into the taxis and we arrived in Asolo, a quaint town perched on a hill just on the edge of the Alps. From the town square, we gazed down onto a vast, flat plain. Alec’s friends Jose and Olympia came and picked us up and brought us to their 17 bedroom villa for prosecco and antipasto.
They rented out parts of the villa to guests. We sat under an arbor on their patio in view of the yard and pool where 4 or 5 Danes lounged. “They haven’t moved,” Jose laughed. “Here they came all the way from Denmark to beautiful Italy to sit by our pool. They don’t go downtown, don’t go shopping, don’t go to Venice. What’s the point? Besides, now I can’t water my lawn because they’re always sitting there.” Aside from being irked by the Danes’ inactivity, Jose and Olympia were goodnatured and friendly and invited us to come back in three years to try out the first results of their newly cultivated prosecco vineyard.
We had a very nice dinner back in Asolo. Jose had driven us by his friend’s restaurant, yelled in to his friend while idling the car in the street: “Hey, I have some American friends visiting, take care of them tonight for dinner.” Or so we imagined he’d said in Italian. “Everyone in Italy needs a recommendation, you can’t just go walking in to a restaurant.” Jose explained. “Oh, and this is a good restaurant?” we inquired. “I have no idea,” he admitted, “But you can be my guinea pigs and find out.”
After a very lackluster breakfast of rolls and cereal in the morning, we continued on, not over the vast plains to the south of Asolo, but over more mountains through the Alps. Days 7-8 were a total blur which will spare you any more drawn out descriptions.
The last day was a mere 24 miles long but with over 4,000 feet of ascent, meaning the climbing was done in a hurry. On the upper half, we passed a sign reading 27% grade. I don’t even remember that, Dave told me about it after! We finished the race in 8th place of 57 mixed teams.
Having crossed the final finish line in Riva, in classic Stockholm syndrome fashion, the four of us decided to take a little leisurely tour around town on our bikes. I had to sit awkwardly on my left jean short pocket because it was the only spot that wasn’t sore, but I suppose we just didn’t want it to end. Even now I’m dragging my heels writing this race report as typing the final period ends the journey in another way, the reflecting and crafting of what it all meant. Aside from 80 degree, sunny weather every day, it wasn’t all perfect. Dave’s breaking his femur was just really tough luck. Neither of our two teams got to ride together in the fashion we all had imagined. We had our spats. But in the end we all piled together into a train cabin from Rovereto back to Munich with plenty to laugh and smile about, ready to say yes to the next adventure.