1997 > Grand Raid Cristalp > Tom's Report

Grand Raid Cristalp

From Foreign Correspondent Tom Lawrence


Vital statistics:

81 miles
15000 feet climbing
Camelbacks consumed, 5 per person
Languages spoken, German, French, Italian, some English

In an effort to extend the limits of bikeaholism into the European realm, I participated in Switzerland's finest this weekend, the 8th annual "Grand Raid Cristalp", sponsored by Cristalp, a local brand of mineral water. The race is billed as the biggest mountain bike race in the world, with an entry limit of 4000 riders. Two options are available, the full course from Verbier to Grimentz, covering 131 km (81 miles) and climbing 4600 m (15000 ft), and the short option, covering 75 km and climbing 2300 m, with the short option starting at the halfway point of the long course. Naturally, being a severely committed bikeaholic, I chose the longer option, in spite of the fact that I haven't ridden a mountain bike in years, and indeed, don't even own one anymore.

I began equipment preparation several days prior, experimenting with various configurations on my trusty steed, a custom Merlin touring bike. Since the bike has ample tire clearance I was able to mount a set of old but serviceable 700x38c semi-knobby hybrid tires on a set of robust 36 spoke extra heavy touring wheels. Test rides on local alpine single-track confirmed that the bike could be ridden over just about anything, and with complete confidence, my parents and I set out for Verbier in a two-car expedition the day before the race.

Upon arriving in Verbier, we checked into a hotel and I prepared my equipment while my parents unpacked. The first order of business was to sign up for the race. I had reserved a spot by fax before leaving California, but I still had to sign up and pay an entry fee. The sign-up area looked remarkably like the start/finish at the Death Ride, with an array of stands selling everything from T-shirts to complete bikes. After checking in and paying the entry fee of Sfr 90 (about $60), I was given a bag with rider number, a cateye cyclometer, and various information pamphlets for other rides. Personally I would have preferred not to receive the cyclometer as it undoubtedly raised the entry fee. I then proceeded to the mandatory technical inspection, where my brakes were checked and the bike was given a very cursory once-over. The road-style handlebars raised some eyebrows at this point, and one of the inspectors made a point of verifying that I did in fact have three chain rings. I then moved down the assembly line to the final station, where my number was securely affixed to my handlebars with oversized zip-ties such that it could be easily read from the front.

I should take a moment to digress about my choice (or lack thereof as the case may be) of equipment. Immediately after arriving in Verbier I began to look at other people's bikes. Needless to say, since this is a mountain bike race, they were essentially all mountain bikes. The thing that worried me was that there did not seem to be a single bike anywhere that did not have at least front suspension, and more than half were full-suspension. I was skeptical of some of the dedicated downhill-style bikes, wondering how all that weight would be hauled up 15000 ft of climbing, but there was no doubt that on the downhills, I was going to be at a severe disadvantage.

The following morning, the full scale of the event started to become apparent. The first tip that this was not your garden-variety cycling event was the presence of motorcycle film crews. The second tip was the presence of helicopter and blimp film crews. Clearly this is a major event. Many of the local newspapers dedicated half a page or more to it the day before, and it was featured on the local news the evening after. It is really exciting to ride in a country where cycling is viewed as a worthwhile and exciting sport rather than a fringe activity.

The strongest riders (as determined by performance in other races) departed promptly at 7 am, along with their entourage of motorcycles, helicopter and blimp. The rest of us trickled out gradually. After a 20 minute wait in line, I got to the front where the barcode on my number was swiped, and I was officially racing.

The course wastes no time and we immediately hit a 12% grade right off the starting line. I tried my best to balance between riding a warm-up pace and not appearing too wimpy. As the sole representative of the road-biking world in the entire race, I felt the need to put in a good show. Needless to say this resulted in considerable thigh burn and difficulty in warming up properly.

The first task of the day was to climb the pass that separates Verbier from La Tzoumaz. This pass was mostly paved and I was glad not to hit the dirt right away. As we climbed from 1500 m to the pass at 2174 m, I once again spent some time checking out the other riders. Of immediate concern was the fact that virtually all of them appeared to be 25 year old quad-gods. Of course I was not riding to win, or even to do well, I was riding to have a nice day in the Alps. However, there was the small matter of cut-off times, and I reasoned that if I was among the slower riders I would probably not make it to the end.

The road finally turned to dirt about 2/3 of the way to the pass, and I was reassured to find that I was completely comfortable on it. I could even stand for a change of muscles with no difficulty. At the summit, I got my first taste of the spectators that were to be found all along the route. People had scaled the pass earlier in the morning with lawn chairs and were now lining the pass cheering the riders. I threw caution to the wind as I started the descent, trusting in my knobby tires to hold the dirt road, and managed to keep up with the mountain bikes for the entire descent into La Tzoumaz, at 1300 m. Luckily we were riding mostly on very smooth mountain dirt roads, with few large rocks and no washboarding to speak of. The switchbacks were more exciting than I am accustomed to on pavement, and I erred perhaps a little on the side of conservatism. Toward the bottom we returned to pavement, and once again in my element, I proceeded to demonstrate what road bikes are good at by blasting past everyone.

In La Tzoumaz, we encountered the first of many rest stops. Actually, the term "rest stop" is inappropriate, since absolutely nobody stopped. The support staff handed cups of water, water bottles and energy bars to the riders as they rode past. I had a mostly full camelback and 4 energy bars so I declined all offerings and continued through the town. We once again left the pavement and started to climb.

The next section of the course followed mountain roads up and down somewhat minor hills, cresting at 1680 m, before arriving in the village of Nendaz at 1300 m and the 30 km mark. I noticed during this section of the course how silent the riders were. In slow speed up hills, one could almost hear a pin drop. Not a word was spoken, nobody grunted or panted, all equipment was quiet. The route was uneventful with the exception of one major bottleneck at an unrideable passage. Perhaps 50 riders shouldering their bikes were backed up trying to get through the narrow rocky uphill section. It was a trivial traverse, but required some scrambling while carrying the bike. Often, the trees opened up and an extraordinary alpine panorama presented itself. I had brought a disposable camera, and stopped often to take pictures. I must have really looked like a tourist, riding a road bike and stopping to take pictures at the slightest provocation. All that was missing was the flowered shirt.

In Nendaz we encountered yet another refueling station and this time I grabbed some energy bars as I passed through. During the next 10 km between Nendaz and Veysonnaz, a series of technical challenges was set up. We started out with some relatively tame single track traversing a cow pasture. I?m sure all of this is rideable, but something that I quickly discovered is that if the guy ahead of you doesn't think it's rideable and you are following too closely, you don't ride it either. Consequently I walked some stuff that I shouldn't have. After exiting the pasture, we came to a very steep downhill section on grass, descending at perhaps 30-35%. I was a bit intimidated, but remembering my mountain biking from years ago, I slid to the rear, relied heavily on the front brake and made it through. This section was roped off, so you had to follow a particular line, and was crowded with spectators. It was evidently one of the more fun places to watch. Immediately at the bottom of this section, we encountered a staircase where most people walked (including myself) but a few rode down the stairs. In another place, we descended a steep paved section which flattened briefly at a crossroads before descending sharply again. Spectators were gathered around hoping to see some Big Air. Not wanting to disappoint, I pulled up a bit coming over the lip, and I'm pleased to be able to report significant hang time. Another favorite with the spectators was a spot where the singletrack dropped abruptly into the woods at the edge of a pasture, down a narrow slot. As I approached the drop-off, a spectator commented loudly on my road-style handlebars. Many riders were dismounting halfway down this section, and to my great pride, I managed to maneuver around stopped traffic on a 30% rocky descent in the woods without dismounting, in full view of dozens of spectators. It was a high point for the day.

Leaving Veysonnaz, we headed for Heremence at 55 km, with a false summit at 1470 m and then the real deal at 1890 m. The tone of the trail changed at this point. The mostly dry and dusty conditions gave way to moist, soft and sometimes muddy soil. We rode primarily in the woods, and the trail was criss-crossed with small tree roots. This was the first genuine extended section of singletrack. The forest was beautiful and the air was cool and sweet smelling. I began to notice more and more that I could ride through sections that others chose to walk. By the end of the day I had decided that mountain bikers are mostly brute force types, really good at blasting downhill over big bumps with their suspension, but not very good at delicate technical stuff. At least those riders that were in my vicinity. Perhaps the faster riders were better at bike handling. I was, in all likelihood, at the back of the pack.

From Heremence, we began the first of the two big climbs in the ride, from 1200 m to 2200 m. This section was almost all paved, and I was tired and sore enough that I didn't enjoy it much. I should point out that although I had only been riding for 3-4 hours at this point, the continual bone-jarring made the miles a lot more tiring than they would have been on pavement. I was also beginning to suffer from insufficient rest stop time (none, actually). The spectacular scenery that surrounded me did little to distract me from my feeling of general fatigue and listlessness. My speed dropped considerably on this section, and I had started to feel quite pathetic when at last I arrived at a big rest stop just below the summit. This time I got off the bike and headed straight for the food table where I greedily devoured several oranges and several kiwifruits. I then refilled my camelback and headed back out. The rest stop marked the end of the pavement, and the remaining 2 km or so to the summit were on very muddy dirt road where, once again, I was one of few who rode through.

At the summit, the conditions once again changed dramatically. We spent several kilometers on a very challenging trail that traversed high alpine meadow. The track was only a foot or two wide in most places, with a steep grassy incline to one side that one definitely would not want to fall down, and was littered with rocks ranging from fist-sized and mobile to several feet across and embedded. Some sections were simply unrideable, and everyone walked. In other sections, we played leap frog, with some people walking and others passing them on the bike. When a rider lost control and had to dismount, he would lean off to the side to avoid forcing those behind him to dismount as well. He would then get back on the bike and continue, only to pass stopped riders himself. We rode for a good half hour in this fashion, picking our way across a few kilometers of trail that would require significant attention to traverse on foot.

When at last we started the descent into Evolene, from 2200 m to 1341 m, I finally started to see the advantages offered by a mountain bike. The descent started out with much the same character as the high traverse, but with the addition of a 25% grade. I held up a lot of riders at this point, and had to pull off to let them pass. It was just too bumpy for me to go fast with no suspension and comparatively skinny tires. Further down we returned to dirt road, but it was vastly more bumpy than the dirt roads I had bombed down earlier in the ride, and I was passed left and right like I wasn't even moving. I finally understood what the big advantage of flat handlebars is, trying to hold on to my vertical brake levers with sweaty hands over the bumps. It was a very discouraging section of the ride, and I started to think that it would be nice to have a mechanical failure so that I wouldn't have to continue. I had to stop several times during the descent to rest.

At the bottom of the hill, in Evolene, I was somewhat alarmed to discover that the rest stop was being packed up. Equally alarming was the ribbon that was pulled across the road and the large crowd of riders standing around. Upon investigation, I learned that I had missed the cutoff at this checkpoint by 10 minutes, at 90 km with the biggest hill still remaining. Amazingly, I wasn't the slightest bit disappointed. I had been so pulverized by the preceding descent that I was really quite ready to call it quits. I'm sure my bike was just as happy, it being far out of its element on that section. On reflection, I think that the first section of the ride, from Verbier to Heremence was by far the best part of the ride, so I'm confident I did the fun parts. The support staff cut my number off my bike, but allowed me to keep it. When I later saw bikes returning from the finish, they still had the number attached, so evidently there is some significance to that. We then all piled onto a bus to take us to the finish in Grimentz. I was amazed at how many people were eliminated, it was the biggest SAG wagon I've ever been on, and there were many riders who didn't make it onto the first bus. This also marked the first time in my cycling experience that I have been forced to abandon an event. Most people on the bus were telling of this or that difficulty, cramps and suchlike. I had no difficulty to tell of, I had simply been taken by surprise. I rode all day thinking I was safely within the time limits. Perhaps it was the last descent where I lost a lot of time. Perhaps I should not have taken so many pictures.. :)

In conclusion, this event definitely receives the Bikeaholic Stamp of Approval. It was admirably well organized and supported, and traverses some of the most stunning scenery on the planet. The course is lined from start to finish with cheering spectators, something to which I am absolutely not accustomed, and which was truly a morale booster. I would very highly recommend this event to anyone with an off-road inclination and strong legs. I have just one word of advice: bring a mountain bike.

Tom Lawrence

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