Nationalpark Bike Marathon 2016

Posted on September 3, 2016 with tags cycling. Part 2 of a 5-part series on bike races.

“Marathon” is a bit of a misnomer, since I did the short route, not the medium nor the long one. But hey, it’s the official name!

Setup

This race has four possible lengths: “Valader” which is full round-trip Scuol-Scuol (137km/4’026m), “Jauer” (Fuldera-Scuol, 103km/2’934m), “Livignasco” (Livigno-Scuol, 66km/1’871m) and “Putèr” (S-chanf to Scuol, 47Km/1’051m).

After many debates, I settled on the Livignasco route, as that was what I was reasonably confident to be able to do. The only problem was that this route (and all the longer ones, of course) were going over Pass Chaschauna, which is a quite hard climb. My bike shop person, who did the full length a number of times, just said when hearing the route I was planning: “Chaschauna is a bitch…” Bad language, proper characterisation.

The route choice also impacts the logistics: except for the full route, the question is where to sleep the night before? One can sleep either at the start place, or sleep in Scuol itself and take the official shuttle to the start place, but this means waking up much earlier. I decided to sleep in Livigno, as with a 7:45 start this would allow me to sleep until ~6:30, have a quick breakfast and be in time for the race. Problem #1…

So on Friday (26th) I drove to Scuol, picked up my start number, and then drove over to Livigno and checked in to the hotel. Speaking of picking up the start number, I saw this at the start area:

While picking up my start number: the race is so fast that an STI is needed as pacer??
While picking up my start number: the race is so fast that an STI is needed as pacer??

An STI needed as pacer? How fast are these people, I wondered?

Day of the race

My plan to have a relaxing sleep until relatively late failed. I went to sleep with difficulties: late dinner due to my late arrival in Livigno, and then I was stressed enough about not missing the race that at 05:05 I already woke up, and was checking the clock every five minutes. Finally at 05:30 I gave up and got out of bed, with only about 6½ hours of sleep. Problem #2.

The other problem was that I naïvely thought the hotel will have breakfast from 07:00 or even 07:30. Hah, as if this was Switzerland. The hotel had breakfast from 08:00, no reason to hurry, right? So I had a poor man’s breakfast in the room, some energy bars and an ice tea. Problem #3. At least I had time to grab this picture from the hotel room:

Good morning Livigno!
Good morning Livigno!

Not bad. On to the race!

But before that, remember to fill my hydration pack with 3L of water, and put it in my not-so-light backpack. Of course I had tools and some spare parts with me, what if something happens? Problem #4, over-planning.

The race

The setup at the start was pretty easy. Wait near the start until 07:45, then go. For me, not too in front, of course:

Ready for the start!
Ready for the start!

Pass Chaschauna

About 3 kilometres of easy/flat road, and then it starts. Pass Chaschauna, killing your legs softly…

Already climbing… on foot! But not everybody.
Already climbing… on foot! But not everybody.

But at least the pictures were nice!

The climb is hard, but the view is worth it!
The climb is hard, but the view is worth it!
Still climbing…
Still climbing…
So high already! Good legs :)
So high already! Good legs :)
Looking back: it's been a loong way up…
Looking back: it’s been a loong way up…
I can see the top! …and the remaining steep meters to climb :(
I can see the top! …and the remaining steep meters to climb :(

The climb is difficult. It was around 22% for most of the time, and very few people were able to bike up. Not only the absolute meters were the problem, but also the fact that the ground was quite loose, and pushing the bike, or rather climbing up while pushing the bike, was difficult to do in bike shoes with cleats. Proper hiking shoes would have been much more adequate. Maybe this is why despite the effort, some people biked as much as possible? I was careful not to over-exert myself and walked almost all the way up. Hence the pictures…

But at last, reached the top of the pass, and was very happy to be done with it. The GPX file from my Garmin says it took only 4 minutes (1.2km) after the race start to actually start climbing (it was not obvious we were climbing so early), and then 1h:20m/8Km to get from 1’817m altitude to the highest point at 2’658m. 8Km in 1h:20m, faster than walking pace but quite slower than running pace (on flat terrain, of course).

At the top of the pass I was quite happy:

Finally at the top! Clipping in and…
Finally at the top! Clipping in and…
Go! Smilling and happy!
Go! Smilling and happy!

And then the descent started:

I wonder how steep it will be going down…
I wonder how steep it will be going down…
This was an easy section :/
This was an easy section :/

All the way leading to the race I kept thinking only about climbing Chaschauna, and not about going down on it. It was quite an experience, which I won’t forget soon.

The trail was already well travelled, which means that besides the loose ground in form of large clumps of dried earth, there was a layer of fine, somewhat moist earth, about 3-5 centimetres deep, which made the downhill “interesting”. Coupled with what was a much steeper trail than going up—I saw most of the time ~33%—it’s no surprise that many, or even most, of the people were walking their bikes down. The GPX track says that the trail goes 319m down in 1Km (so a 31.9% over one entire kilometre), then another 130m over the next 1.4Km (9.28%), and then (not sure if this is the pass per se or after) another longer segment of ~260m over 3Km (8.56%). The first steep segment needs lots of skill and concentration, the others are normal gradients.

But at least things go fast. What took uphill took ~40 minutes for the last 450m up, downhill it took only 15 minutes!

Falling

I was able, thanks to recent training, to bike down the trail, or at least I thought so. So on the steep segment I was struggling to bike down and keep control of my bike, putting one leg down on some sections but in general being “on the bike”, being hit by the dirt I was throwing in the air despite the mud-guards, being careful but at the same time enjoying this difficult section.

That is, right up to the point where I got, I think, too comfortable. After the second-to-last curve, the rear wheel slides, I lose balance and fall in the (thankfully soft) dirt a bit more forcefully than I should have, the bike also sliding along in the dirt. No damage to myself, just some trivial scratches; the bike seems a bit shaken (fork was turned 180°, full of dirt, etc.). I get again on the bike and I continue down; however, something seems off: the rear brake level doesn’t have a return anymore, I have to push it to go back. Still usable, but strange.

So I continue the other two segment of this descent, and over these ~4-5Km I feel the brake issue going worse and worse: it’s actually hard to push the brake lever back, and even pressing it doesn’t seem to have much effect. And then the realisation dawns on my: I have hydraulic brakes, and the worsening thing leads me to think my brake hose has been punctured (by what? I fell in loose dirt) and I’m losing the brake fluid with every press.

Now, on flat road, biking with only the front brake is tricky but doable. On an MTB course, having only one brake is not a smart thing™. Not easy, not smart, and definitely dangerous. It also felt very strange to not have both brakes, and then I realised how much I work with the brakes in unison.

I knew that there are repair posts in the race, but I didn’t know if they can fix such things (and doing a brake fluid refill… how complicated is it, how much time does it take?). Anyway, I resolved to try and continue if the terrain allows until I reach the first repair post, and stop if it gets too steep. It would be pretty sad to have to abort the race after only 10Km, right?

The terrain did cooperate: up and down, so I was able to bleed speed easily, and even though through forest, the visibility was good enough that I could plan ahead. It was strangely lonely at this time: I was going slowly and thus not reaching from behind anyone, but also not being reached by riders from behind. I did enjoy it a bit, the quietness of the forest, just interrupted by the squeaking of my front brake…

And then I finally see the sign for “Repair: 1Km”. Yaaay! maybe I don’t have to quit the race. And then, about 100m further on, another sign: “Danger! Steep descent”. Uh-oh… tantalisingly close… Let’s go slow. And yes, here I was overtaken by 3-4 other cyclists. This was the single moment in the race where I did have a moment of real fear: at one point, I was going down with the remaining brake as pressed as I could without compromising stability, and I was still gaining speed. Not smart, and as I was debating how to fall to stop my descent, the terrain started to get less steep, and I finally reached the repair station, at kilometre 21.

Difficult repairs

There was another person being serviced for a flat rear tire, so I wait in line and discuss with him my problem. Upon hearing I only had the front brake, he said: “Wow, how did you manage to descend this last segment?” “Well, slowly…”.

My turn came up, I explain my problem and my theory, and the repair guy gives me one look, the bike one look, but doesn’t look at the brake hose. Instead, he looks once at the brake lever, sees that another cable guide on my handle bar was bent during the fall and actually was mechanically interfering with the brake lever, unbends that thing, and says “here you go”. I was stunned. 15 seconds of looking at the problem without stress, and the problem was solved. I could have done this myself if I took the time to look and think, and not hurry. And I could have enjoyed all the downhill on the pass, with two functioning brakes.

Some lessons have to be learned the hard way, and this was one. I got off easy though, as I didn’t have a real accident while biking with only one brake. And they say you get wiser as you get older…

Anyway, brake repaired, I stopped at the Sanitär tent to have my scratches disinfected, and onwards. The following few kilometres until S-chanf I enjoyed very much.

S-chanf

And then, 2 hours 10 minutes into the race, I exit the forest trail, reach S-chanf, and start climbing and descending and climbing and descending. In the sun, which now (after 10 AM) is not that light anymore. The initial climb at S-chanf, while not much, took away my remaining short-term reserves.

The route is 50m ascent, then down and then another 50m ascent, and after a bit of flat another 75m ascent… I was getting tired, despite eating energy bars and drinking water (and juice at stops). This goes one for an entire hour, during which I cover about 23Km, so not a bad speed everything considered. But getting more and more tired.

There were also some very nice segments, along the river, in the shade of the forest. Some fast downhill, some fast flat.

I got overtaken by quite a few real racers, that were going so fast I couldn’t keep up with them as in I didn’t dare ride that fast even when I had the energy. Clearly they were from the longer segments, and boy were they fast! A number of couples (or pairs?) one woman one man, a number of bigger groups, all going as if they had E-bikes or super-powers, not just biking along tired like me…

Last climb

And then, the last big climb: half an hour of going about 300m up (absolute values, so cumulative number would probably be higher), in the sun, over about 6Km, so only 5% average gradient. But I was tired and even resorted to walking on some portions… At least I could take some pictures again:

Much later, climbing again.
Much later, climbing again.

Or have pictures taken:

A bit of a smile left. Yes, that's a smile, not a grimace!
A bit of a smile left. Yes, that’s a smile, not a grimace!

Nice views:

Look, nice castle! Stopping for a picture, and not because I was *dead tired* :)
Look, nice castle! Stopping for a picture, and not because I was dead tired :)

At one point, in a bit of a shade, I stop to catch my breath. Somebody else stopped as well and, seeing as I was checking my GPS, asks:

  • “How much do we have left, about 10K?”
  • I say yes (or was it 15K? the numbers don’t match well)
  • “And how about altitude?”
  • “About 350m left…”
  • “Sigh…”

I got overtaken by a lot of cyclists here, although many of them were from S-chanf route (based on the number colour). Sad…

The thing is, besides the climbing and the sun, this and the previous part was a very nice route: through small towns, high above the valley, beautiful landscapes, etc. Just enjoying it was hard, since I wasn’t a) trained well enough and b) prepared well enough.

Last segment, last downhill

In any case, after that hard half hour, it’s flat (or rather said, average gradient zero):

Flat route, good pavement. Can catch my breath, and take a another picture.
Flat route, good pavement. Can catch my breath, and take a another picture.

Good road, good views, but I’m on the last virtual bar of my battery, so the remaining 15Km I do in 40 minutes, also “eating” the last ascent meters—still about 300 left, I think, but up/down/up/down, so you could reuse kinetic energy to gain potential one.

The only question I had now was, the route was at this moment about 400m higher (in absolute altitude) than the finish point, so when do we lose that altitude? The answer was a very very nice answer: in the last 5Km, for an average gradient of 8%, just perfect. I was tired however, so I couldn’t really enjoy or go fast here, but it was a good feeling.

Finish!

And then, entering Scuol, not really believing I’m near the finish, that I will be able to actually stop and relax. My finish picture doesn’t do justice to how happy I was at that moment:

At the finish, happy happy happy!
At the finish, happy happy happy!

However, after passing the finish line, it was a bit weird. I just stop now? What next? So weird to just walk, not push pedals, and not go up. Or down.

The funny thing here was that I thought I didn’t use much of my water (hydration pack) during the race. But soon after finishing, I drank the equivalent of about two glasses (let’s say 0.5L) and it was over. So I did manage to drink 2.5L during the race, plus the sport drinks at the stops.

Time for stats: my Garmin says 67.07Km, 4h:29m, average speed 15.0kph (hah), 1’615m elevation gain. Official numbers say 66Km, 1’871m elevation, and thus 14.22kph. Ranking-wise:

  • 147/192 in the overall men Livignasco route
  • 44/60 in my age category

Sigh, could have done better. I was aiming for somewhere around last 33%, not last 25% :-P First classed was ~66% faster than me…

Going to the train station was hard as in difficult to move my legs. Took one nice picture of Scuol though, so was able to think a bit:

After the race: Scuol is not so bad…
After the race: Scuol is not so bad…

And then the long way back to Livigno. Took me 4½h to bike to Scuol, and about 3 hours to go back via public transport. At least I ate a sandwich in the meantime. Then reached Livigno, which was also looking nice:

Took me almost as long by public transport as by bike, but finally back in Livigno. Also nice!
Took me almost as long by public transport as by bike, but finally back in Livigno. Also nice!

Then got on my bike, which at this point was magically light and easy to ride (it seems I was at least partially recovered), rode to the hotel, packed my stuff, and drove home. On the highway I had my first real meal for that day, but I was quite tired so didn’t feel like the achievement it should have been…

Lessons

The biggest takeaway from this race was the huge learning experience I got. The race was itself awesome, but the learning even more so.

First, for this particular race, it’s much better to sleep in Scuol and (if not doing the whole route) take the shuttle to the actual start. Yes, one has to wake up earlier, but you have assured breakfast via the organisers (++++!), and after the race you don’t have to get even more tired by taking the train and the bus and…

Second, I need better logistics: I don’t need to carry that heavy load (spare tube, pump, tools, jacket in case it’s cold) when the race is well organised. The water in the hydration pack was useful, but carrying it up Chaschauna was a pain. Not sure what I’ll do next; it’s possible to survive only on water/drinks from the food posts (basically 2.5-2.8L is equivalent to only 4 750ml bottles, and there were I think about 6 stops?), but the hydration pack is so easy to use…

Keeping one’s head cool and not stress about things also would help: had I looked at my brake lever in peace, I could have solved it myself, and not ride ~10Km with only one brake.

Also, losing some weight (as in losing fat, not having a lighter bike) would definitely help. I could stand to lose 5Kg easily, probably 10Kg, and that would bring me more in line with other people in the race (at least looking at the pictures). And hey, my Watts/Kg would improve magically!

And last but most important, I need better training. Training on how to use my energy, training longer rides so that my body gets used to it and doesn’t bonk after 3 hours, training training training. Which I like, but the problem is time to do it…

Also, in case anybody wonders: yes, I do recommend this race! It was definitely fun, and the route itself is very nice, nicer than the pictures here show.

Closing words: gravity rules. Up or down, it’s hard and punishing. Still: Ride on!