Elsa Bike Trophy 2016—my first bike race!

Posted on June 12, 2016 with tags , . Part 1 of a 8-part series on bike races. See the previous or next posts.

So today, after two months of intermittent training using Zwift and some actual outside rides, I did my first bike race. Not of 2016, not of 2000+, but like ever.

Which is strange, as I learned biking very young, and I did like to bike. But as it turned out, even though I didn’t like running as a child, I did participate in a number of running events over the years, but no biking ones.

The event

Elsa Bike Trophy is a mountain bike event—cross-country, not downhill or anything crazy; it takes part in Estavayer-le-Lac, and has two courses - one 60Km with 1’791m altitude gain, and a smaller one of 30Km with 845m altitude gain. I went, of course, for the latter. 845m is more than I ever did in a single ride, so it was good enough for a first try. The web page says that this smaller course “… est nerveux, technique et ne laisse que peu de répit”. I choose to think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, and that it will be relatively easy (as I’m not too skilled technically).

The atmosphere there was like for the running races, with the exception of bike stuff being sold, and people on very noisy rollers. I’m glad for my trainer which sounds many decibels quieter…

The long race started at 12:00, and the shorter one at 12:20. While waiting for the start I had to concerns in mind: whether I’m able to do the whole course (endurance), and whether it will be too cold (the weather kept moving towards rain). I had a small concern about the state of the course, as it was not very nice weather recently, but a small one.

And then, after one hour plus of waiting, go!

Racing, with a bit of “swimming”

At first thing went as expected. Starting on paved roads, moving towards the small town exit, a couple of 14% climbs, then more flat roads, then a nice and hard 18% short climb (I’ll never again complain about < 10%!), then… entering the woods. It became quickly apparent that the ground in the forest was in much worse state than I feared. Much worse as in a few orders of magnitude.

In about 5 minutes after entering the tree cover, my reasonably clean, reasonably light bike became a muddy, heavy monster. And the pace that until then went quite OK became walking pace, as the first rider that didn’t manage to keep going up because the wheel turned out of the track blocked the one behind him, which had to stop, and repeat until we were one line (or two, depending on how wide the trail was) of riders walking their bikes up. While on dry ground walking your bike up is no problem, or hiking through mud with good hiking shoes is also no problem, walking up with biking shoes is a pain. Your foot slides and you waste half of your energy “swimming” in the mud.

Once the climb is over, you get on the bike, and of course the pedals and cleats are full of heavy mud, so it takes a while until you can actually clip in. Here the trail version of SPD was really useful, as I could pedal reasonably well without being clipped-in, just had to be careful and push too hard.

Then maybe you exit the trail and get on paved road, but the wheels are so full of mud that you still are very slow (and accelerate very slowly), until the shed enough of the mud to become somewhat more “normal”.

After a bit of this “up through mud, flat and shedding mud”, I came upon the first real downhill section. I would have been somewhat confident in dry ground, but I got scared and got off my bike. Better safe than sorry was the thing for now.

And after this is was a repetition of the above: climb, sometimes (rarely) on the bike, most times pushing the bike, fast flat sections through muddy terrain where any mistake of controlling the bike can send the front wheel flying due to the mud being highly viscous, slow flat sections through very liquid mud where it definitely felt like swimming, or any dry sections.

My biggest fear, uphill/endurance, was unfounded. The most gains I made were on the dry uphills, where I had enough stamina to overtake. On flat ground I mostly kept order (i.e. neither being overtaken nor overtaking), but on downhill sections, I lost lots of time, and was overtaken a lot. Still, it was a good run.

And then, after about 20 kilometres out of the 30, I got tired enough of getting off the bike, on the bike, and also tired mentally and not being careful enough, that I stopped getting off the bike on downhills. And the feeling was awesome! It was actually much much easier to flow through the mud and rocks and roots on downhill, even when it was difficult (for me) like 40cm drops (estimated), than doing it on foot, where you slide without control and the bike can come crashing down on you. It was a liberating feel, like finally having overcome the mud. I was soo glad to have done a one-day training course with Swiss Alpine Adventure, as it really helped. Thanks Dave!

Of course, people were still overtaking me, but I also overtook some people (who were on foot; he he, I wasn’t the only one it seems). And being easier, I had some more energy so I was able to push a bit harder on the flats and dry uphill sections.

And then the remaining distance started shrinking, and the last downhill was over, I entered through familiar roads the small town, a passer-by cries “one kilometre left”, I push hard (I mean, hard as I could after all the effort), and I reach the finish.

Oh, and my other concern, the rain? Yes it did rain somewhat, and I was glad for it (I keep overheating); there was a single moment I felt cold, when exiting a nice cosy forest into a field where the wind was very strong—headwind, of course.

Lessons learned

I did learn a lot in this first event.

  • indoor training sessions only help with endurance (but they do good on this); they don’t help with technique, and most importantly, they don’t teach how to handle the bike in inclement weather; biking to work on paved road also doesn’t help.
  • nevertheless, indoor training does help with endurance ☺
  • mud guards…; before the race, I thought they’ll help; during the race, I cursed at the extra weight and their seemingly uselessness; after the race, after I saw how other people looked, I realised that indeed they helped a lot—I was only dirty on my legs, mostly below the knee, but not on my upper body. Unsure whether I will use the again.
  • a drop seat is not needed if your seat is set in-between, but sure damn would have been more easy with one
  • installing your GPS on your handle-bar with elastic bands in a section of non-constant diameter is a very bad idea, as it lives in an unstable equilibrium: any move towards the thinner section makes the mount very loose, and you have to lose time fixing it.


So, how did I do after all? As soon as I reached the finish and recovered my items, among which the phone, I checked the datasport page: I was rank 59/68 in my category. Damn, I hoped (and thought) I would do better. Similar % in the overall ranking for this distance.

That aside, it was mighty fun. So much fun I’d do it again tomorrow! I forgot the awesome atmosphere of such events, even in the back of the rankings.

And then, after I reach drive home and open on my workstation the datasport page, I get very confused: the overall number of participants was different. And the I realised: not everybody finished the race when I first checked (d’oh)! Final ranking: 59 out of 84 in my category, and 247/364 in the overall 30km rankings. That makes it 70% and 67% respectively, which matches somewhat with my usual running results a few years back (but a bit worse). It is in any case better than what I thought originally, yay!

Also, Strava activity for some more statistics (note that my Garmin says it was not 800+ meters of altitude…):

I’d embed a Veloviewer nice 3D-map but I can’t seem to get the embed option, hmm…

TODO: train more endurance, train more technique, train in more various conditions!