I’m currently at an altitude of 1700m, the peak is at around 2100, and I’m riding at a VAM of 800m. I assume that means I’m half an hour from the top? Right? I’m not sure. I don’t really use VAM enough to know for sure.
Let’s try distance: I’ve got around 5km to go until the next checkpoint, which I know is at the top of this mountain, and I’m riding at roughly 10km/h. Cool, that checks out, there’s half an hour to go. Oh hell, I’m riding at 160 watts again. I know I can hold 200. “Come on Josh, pay attention,” I mutter aloud.
I’m in Switzerland, riding 275km from Zurich to Zermatt as part of the Chasing Cancellara ultra fondo. I’ve been on the Grimselpass, the biggest mountain on the route, for almost 90 minutes now and I’ve needed a wee for about 85 of those. I’ve passed a Ferrari that had earlier been crashed into a wall, I’m in a race with a group of three that don’t know they’re racing, and I’m repeatedly running sums through my mind in order to work out how much more of this climb I have to go.
Two months ago, I climbed Mount Snowdon with my fiancée, on foot, and exclaimed to her grave amusement that I “f*cking hate mountains”. It was a semi-serious joke borne of my disdain for walking as much as anything, but at this moment, the thought returned.
“If I could, I’d phone her and tell her again,” I muttered aloud. “I might even tell her I prefer it on foot.”
Rewind nine hours to 00:30am. My alarm sounds. Despite having climbed into bed at 8pm, I had laid there for at least two hours before finally nodding off. It feels like I’ve done little more than blink.
The reality of the challenge ahead begins to sink in. It finally feels real and a palpable flood of anxiety washes over me. I’m about to embark on my biggest ride ever, and I’ve had fewer than two hours of sleep.
I kick myself into gear and start eating breakfast. Autopilot takes over, and before I know it, I’m fed, my teeth are brushed, and my kit is on, but just as I’m about to leave, a thought enters my mind: “What if I die?” Morbid, I know, but I’m alone in a foreign country and I’ll be descending mountains having ridden over 100 miles on two hours of sleep. Mistakes could happen. “I’ll take some ID with me, just in case”.
With my driving license in tow, I head out from the hotel to the start line a block away, guided by the booming voice of the announcer and the light pollution from hundreds of high-powered front bike lights.
I head straight to the bag drop, which will take one bag to the 193km point at Ulrichen, and another to the finish line. The first is filled with three hours’ worth of SIS Beta Fuel, a spare GPS computer in case my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt battery doesn’t live up to the task, and an extra pair of gloves. The second, bound for the finish in Zermatt, is filled with spare clothes, shoes, a power bank, and a waterproof coat.
With that out the way, I’ve got 25 minutes to kill before my start time so I stand among the crowds to take in the atmosphere. A mix of languages rattles around, people kiss their loved ones goodbye and good luck, and a sense of upbeat excitement outshines the nervousness.
My start number is 274, so when I spot number 273 alongside me, I introduce myself. His name is Thomas, he’s local, and he jokes that his attempts at going to bed at the same time as his kids the evening before had proved just as fruitless as my 8pm lights-out.
During the night, each rider was required to wear a high vis bib, so shortly before my 2:06am start time, I’m called through, bibbed up and sent to the start ramp alongside Thomas and numbers 271 and 272. A blink of an eye later, I’m rolling off the ramp and following the marshalls’ directions out of Zurich.
In my attempts to maximise battery life, I’d waited until the last moment to power on my Elemnt Bolt, so now, with the backlight switched off, I’m relying on intermittent passing of street lights to navigate the menu and load the route. The rulebook states that drafting is allowed until the first checkpoint, so I take advantage of the small group I’m in and let others pull the early turns while I get navigation sorted. After just a few kilometres, the road begins to rise, and four becomes two as Thomas and I drift off the front. Not long after, a larger group catches us, rolls to the front, and stays there. No complaints from me, I thought, the free tow is very well received. With these guys at the front, I also don’t need to worry about directions, so I switch my computer’s screen off again to save some battery life, and settle in.
Before I know it, 40 minutes have passed and I’ve not touched any of my food or drink. I can’t get that wrong, I think to myself, so I force down the first of my Maurten bars and chase it with a splash of SIS Beta Fuel. I then laugh aloud at the potency of such a mix at 2:30am, before drawing parallels to the altogether different mixes being consumed elsewhere at this time of night. Those nights are drawing to a close; my party is just getting started.
The first checkpoint comes and goes, and the newly introduced drafting rule appears to go unnoticed. My small group stays together, and given the empty roads, lack of light and time of night, I feel safer here. Besides, the group is riding safely and I’m saving energy, so a blind eye is turned to the rulebook.
I’m Ridin’ Solo
Checkpoint two is where things change. It’s around two hours in, and I know the next stop is another 33km away half way up the day’s first mountain. I have almost drunk my two bottles, so I stop for a refill. In doing so, my free ride disappears into the distance, never to be seen again. From that group, Thomas went on to finish 1st – some two hours ahead of me – and three others finished in the top seven. I do wonder what would have happened if I stuck it out, but a larger part of me believes I made the right decision to stick to my own plan.
Two bottles filled, and despite the queue of riders at the checkpoint, I somehow leave alone and remain that way for much of the next leg. A song from my youth enters my consciousness: Jason Derulo, Ridin’ Solo. I can’t shake it. A few riders catch and pass me, as I do others, but the no-drafting rule appears to be in full force now, even if not enforced or desired.
As 05:00am approaches, dawn begins to break, revealing silhouettes of the giant peaks that surround me. For half an hour now, lightning strikes have peppered the skies ahead in an ominous metaphor for things to come. This is, after all, the calm before the storm, and three mountain ascents are yet to be tackled. Cowbells chime in the fields that surround me, and since I can’t see them, I let my mind wander; “it’s nice of all the fans to line the road and cheer me on.” I talk to myself a lot on rides like this.
At 105km, I reach checkpoint three. Knowing I have at least two hours until the next, I stop again, empty my pockets of rubbish, fill up with more drink and have a toilet break. At this point, there’s a little over 170km to go, and I raise a smile at the knowledge that I’ve done 100km before the sun has even risen. I certainly won’t be waking at 00:30am to repeat the feat, but small victories like this are worth celebrating.
The next 30 minutes are the steeper ramps of the day’s first major ascent, the Glaubenbielen. It’s still dark, but the blackness of the sky has lightened to a dark navy blue that Farrow & Ball would do well to replicate. I roll out almost straight behind a man named Joël, of whom my first impression is that he has a better choice of gearing than my own. He’s using SRAM Red eTap with what looks like a 33T inner chainring and a 10-33T cassette. As the road pitches up, my 52/36 chainset and 11-32T cassette feel a little optimistic. My cadence becomes a grind, his stays high.
We ride together in silence for a while before conversation sparks. I’ve no memory of what broke the ice, but we were soon chatting like old friends. I learned of his checkpoint strategy, his experience on these roads, the fact that I’d likely notice the altitude when climbing the Grimsel later, and the relative normalcy of the lightning strikes that peppered the earlier skies.
“One thing I can’t afford to do is get this wrong”
Joël confirms his familiarity with the upcoming descent, so I feel it wise to let him have the open road and follow as best as I could. I open the map screen on the Elemnt Bolt in front of me, and the roads begin to drop. By this point, daylight was almost entirely upon us, and though the distant clouds hide the sunrise, the views over Lake Sarnen are epic.
But there’s a stark reality of descending a beautiful mountainside in a foreign country at 6:30am, riding on the wrong side of a road you’ve never ridden before. “One thing I can’t afford to do is get this wrong,” I proclaim, once again aloud as if anyone’s listening. Joël is 50 metres ahead, and he’s just had a scare when a hairpin snuck up unexpectedly. He made it round, but we’re both reminded that real life continues tomorrow.
I think of my fiancée, our pets, my promise to make it home safely to join her for a night of camping when I return, and my responsibilities as an adult. That shifts my mind to my work. Incredibly, this is work, but it’s also only a small part of it. If I want to keep my job and continue enjoying perks such as this, the absolute last thing I can afford to do is send it off the side of this mountain by making a mistake. All of that is a great mind sharpener, and I enter the flow. Check Wahoo, read the road, on the brakes, steer in, pedal out, repeat.
I will later come to regret not stopping to take some pics for the ‘gram, but the current focus on getting to the bottom safely means I allow myself little more than the odd sideways glance as I race towards the next hairpins.
Even without absorbing its full might, the descent off the Glaubenbielen is breathtaking, and as the road finally flattens, I roll up alongside Joël. We ride side by side for a minute in complete silence. Neither of us is out of breath, but I get the sense we’re both a little speechless. Maybe we’re just aware that there’s still a very long way to go.
The conversation does eventually restart, but only for a few minutes until we arrive at Lake Lungern, home to the bluest water I’ve ever seen. I proclaim said fact to my new friend but get the impression he’s seen it a thousand times as he laughs off my statement. Nonetheless, with my safety no longer in jeopardy, I couldn’t resist pulling over for a few photos, including the one you see below.
The awkward middle child
On the route profile, this middle section included two small climbs before the next checkpoint at the foot of the day’s biggest mountain, the Grimselpass. The problem is, when dwarfed between the Glaubenbielen and Grimsel, even the larger of these two climbs looks easy, so I had expected it to fly past in a flash.
But by this point I’m tired, my mind is easily tricked, and I’ve now been climbing for more than 20 minutes. Maybe I’ve somehow already made it onto the Grimselpass, I muse.
I check my Wahoo for confirmation, and I’m both relieved and frustrated to see that I haven’t. At least I have somewhere to stop for another refill soon, but I still have that monster to look forward to in its entirety.
More time alone dominates the following kilometres, and with the internal monologue becoming ever more external, I put in one of my wireless earphones and slog on to the next stop assisted by some of Spotify’s finest dance hits. Knowing that the main mountain of the day is next, I take it easy. Aches are starting to turn to pains, so I sell myself the offer of a long stop at the next checkpoint, where I can stretch in a bid to stave off back, neck and knee injuries that have flared up in the past.
“You can’t park there, mate”
Within five minutes of leaving checkpoint four, I need the loo again. I’m not going to get myself disqualified by nipping into the bushes, so it gets added to my growing list of discomforts alongside my aching lower back, neck and a new one to me, triceps.
Almost immediately, I am onto the slopes of the Grimsel. I’ve set a two-hour benchmark in my mind to get to the top, but I’m not going to bury myself in order to achieve it; this is a marathon after all, and I’ll still have 100km to go when I reach the top.
On the early slopes, I struggle to settle into a rhythm. I’m definitely more comfortable on flatter terrain, so when a group of three pass me on the first significant gradient, I subconsciously conclude they were going to ride off into the distance never to be seen again. However, moments later, the road flattens, and with the help of Baddest Of Them All by Eliza Rose and Interplanetary Criminal, I find my rhythm. I gain on them again, and I dance past.
This is it. I’m going to carry this momentum for the next couple of hours.
Not so. Unfortunately 15 minutes later I look around to see them breathing down my neck once again. They probably have no idea of the battle they’re involved in. They probably don’t even recognise me from the weirdo that was muttering lyrics to himself earlier, but to me this is becoming embarrassing. I can’t let them go past again, these guys are just out here enjoying a ride together, and I’m leapfrogging them like an annoying motorway middle lane driver who can’t decide between driving at 60 or 80.
Halfway up the climb, I spot a car parked at the side of the road. It’s a nice car, a Ferrari. I couldn’t tell you the model, because no sooner than I notice the ‘prancing horse’ badge do I notice its odd choice of parking space. It turns out this Ferrari wasn’t parked at all, but crashed into a wall side on, and left among the cobblestones that separated the road and its endpoint.
“You can’t park there, mate.” I couldn’t resist quipping as I trundled on by.
As far as crashing your Ferrari goes, this driver was lucky. Further up the slope, the road becomes much more open, exposed, beautiful, and dangerous. At one point I feel as though it has been reserved for cyclists and supercars as a stream of Porsches power past. This stunning highway snaking up the mountain is a prime case of #roadslikethese, and it’s clearly not only cyclists who have noticed.
My rhythm has been good for an hour or so, but as the end begins to near, my mind wanders. Calculations run through my mind, and I look to VAM and distance to work out how much more of this I have to endure. I run the same calculations so many times that I lose count, each with a painfully small amount of time chipped away from the total. It occupies my mind though, and along with the views, I am at least distracted from the effort.
Mistakes were made
At the top of the Grimselpass, in my now slightly weary state, I make two mistakes. I know I need to stop to get my jacket and gilet on because it’s going to be a cold descent but in my tiredness, I stop for too long. I sit down for a rest and I very quickly become cold. As a result, the subsequent ride down the other side is seriously unpleasant. I count my blessings that we don’t have snow at the top of the pass, but even so, as I freewheel my way down the mountain, I shiver relentlessly.
In my tired and cold state, I also forgot to resume my Wahoo, and this mistake went completely unnoticed when I eventually did resume it when leaving the following checkpoint 20km later.
With the descent safely complete, that checkpoint quickly arrives. I’m not in need of any sustenance right now, but this is the checkpoint at which our midpoint bags would be dropped, and I do need extra energy for later in the ride. I could also do with taking off my jacket, as I’m back into the sunshine and beginning to warm up.
The bag drop process proves incredibly efficient, and within moments of my arrival, it’s handed to me. A small dog sits in the shade beneath a pop-up gazebo, and I join him for a moment’s respite while repacking my things. The dog doesn’t say hello, but I take a photo anyway. While I’m there, the group of three joins and one of them is speaking English in a Mancunian accent. “You’re English,” I blurt in his direction. “Sounds like you are, too” he replies. We exchange pleasantries, and he suggests I stay in Switzerland to ride another huge fondo next weekend. “One mad ride is enough for me,” I respond through laughter, before clipping in once more.
Time to pull my aero socks up
The next 45km are predominantly downhill on a valley road from Ulrichen to Visp. The plan is to tap along at under 200 watts while staying aerodynamic, knowing that I would hold a pretty good pace for relatively little outlay thanks to my ability to hold a fairly aero shape (albeit one that’s untested), and my choice of aero kit.
However, traffic lights are a frequent occurrence along this road, so most of the next hour is spent stopping, starting, and riding at the pace of other cyclists holding up the traffic further ahead. Nonetheless, I’m not riding up another mountain, so I’m happy. Shortly after, I catch up with another small group, which includes my friend from the Glaubenbielenpass, Joël. I sit on. There’s another mountain to come, so I ought to save my biscuits for now.
At the next checkpoint, things get a little confusing. It’s scheduled for 240km, but as we arrive at the checkpoint, my Wahoo reads 220k. Have the organisers cut the route short? Have I somehow veered off course and back again without noticing? Do I actually still have 55km to go, not the 35km everyone else believes? Is this Wahoo broken? Is this even going to end up being my longest-ever ride?
I’ve no idea, and seemingly not the brain capacity to figure it out, but all I know is that my Wahoo is correctly telling me the remaining gradient and that from now onwards, all of it is uphill. It starts ok, but then the Wahoo loses the map. I must be outside of an area I pre-downloaded because all I have is a blank screen with the black arrows denoting which way to go. Luckily the on-course signage has been fantastic, so no issues arise, but this is a problem that occupies a greater portion of my mind than it needs to.
I also find myself chewing my tongue. It feels swollen. It feels like I’ve not brushed my teeth for three days. The sugary drinks have taken their toll, and plain water is all I crave. I’ve completely lost count of how many bottles I’ve drunk, and how much energy I’ve taken onboard, but I open my Supersapiens app to find that I’m lagging behind. I force down a caffeinated gel from the event’s sponsors, Eurosport Nutrition, take a swig of the lukewarm Beta Fuel from my bottle and continue.
A dark place
The gradient steepens, then falls, then steepens once more, and the headwind begins to blow. “I’m a pedestrian now,” I mutter to myself as I hop onto a stretch of pavement that soon disappears in front of me and spits me back onto the road. My music is back on, but this time it’s making no difference whatsoever, it’s white noise and nothing more. I’m in a pretty dark place right now. I’ve no idea if there’s 15km to go or 35km. All I know is that it’s all uphill, and every time I look, I’m riding at around 10km/h. That’s at least 90 minutes, I tell myself, and that’s the negative thought that fills my head.
As the road continues to rise, I can’t help but notice just how exposed the road is to a no-doubt unpleasant fall to the river and rocks beneath. It would take a pretty huge error to get that wrong, but I give myself an extra six inches just to be safe. As with my descent of the Glaubenbielen earlier, it’s an error I can’t afford to make.
The headwind continues, and now it’s joined by rain. At first, it’s bearable, but then it begins to pour. A distance of 80 metres separate me and a tunnel ahead where I could shelter in the dry and stop to put on my Rapha Shakedry jacket. The logic in my head is in perfect order, but it’s too far to bear. I stop at the roadside, in the rain, and wearily peel on the jacket. I certainly don’t have the confidence to do it whilst pedalling at this point in the day.
Every kilometre or so, the climb offers up a brief respite and a short period of downhill. My mind, conflicted between enjoying the easier pedalling and rueing the lost elevation can’t find a rhythm, so settles on using each of these steps as a way to break up the climb. Get to the end of this one, enjoy the respite, repeat. After what feels like a lifetime, I arrive in Täsch.
As pointed out in ‘things I learned‘, it was here I realised that the prior 10km, difficult as they were, were hampered by my own thoughts. I believed I was cooked, but I’d just talked myself into feeling cooked.
I leave Täsch, I know there’s just 5km to go, and I’m onto the home stretch. The legs finally wake up again, the power returns. One final push into Zermatt and the day would be done. I’m guided around a tight right-hand bend by a duo of marshalls and temporary barriers, and into the finishing village. My name rings aloud over the tannoy, and I’ve made it. Almost immediately, a medal is slung around my neck and a beer is placed into my hand.
“Did you enjoy it?” asks one of the organisers. “Ask me in a few hours,” I reply politely, but at that moment, in my mind, I never want to do this ride again. I’m still reeling from that final climb, the rain, the headwind, and my confusion at the distance.
A couple of hours later, after I’d eaten, showered, warmed up and rested, I start to come round. Now, writing this a few days later, I’ve fully reversed my position on the matter, I enjoyed every second.
Chasing Cancellara Zurich-Zermatt was a prime case of Type 2 fun. There was plenty of suffering and a lot of struggling, but in retrospect, it was incredible fun. The sense of achievement is pretty special too.
Hey boss, where can I go next?