CRISTALP 1999 – 3 GO MAD IN THE SWISS ALPS

Jack, Ian and Dave do the Grand Raid Cristalp

see the Terrain map for more info.

6 valleys, total altitude gain of 4600 metres ( 15,200ft) and all 131 Km make the main challenge, just to finish.

Overnight coffee induced transit racing on deserted French Auto routes, sees us arrive at the foot of a steep Swiss climb, its then up through the clouds to Verbier town. The van protests as the traffic crawls behind, whilst we just eye up the chairlift and check out any tracks we can see, we are ready to play already.

Following the race HQ signs, they stop at a sports hall car park with great slopes all around, what no camping, no razzmatazz, no trade stands or even any people, our jaws collectively hit the ground and suddenly we are all very tired. 5000 people have entered this event where are they all.

We speak to a few locals, seems all the smart people are in the mass of chalets available for the skiing season. The nearest proper camp site is at the foot of the valley, meaning a hell of an early start to race day to get back up here to the start. So its out with the Nails, and the tents and vanawning and all go up on the car park. The duty frees start to flow and we decide that its not such a bad deal as the sun sets over a fantastic view.

Saturday dawns and the place is suddenly buzzing, being Brits we naturally queue to get registered. Plenty of time to pick up all our freebies of posters, calendars and 10th anniversary Tee’s, and check out the few trade tents, do this foreign lot ride anything except Cannondales ?

Ian had entered the half distance (75Km) race starting at Heremence, but registration and start for that race were over 1½ Hrs away by road, meaning us having to split up for the night to cope, so he decided it was all or nothing and the organisers let him change no problem.

Tip 1: all in your party should enter the same event.

Next its Scrutineering, yes this is serious stuff almost a bike MOT with hoards of mechanics adjusting brakes and tightening loose bits before allowing your number to be tied on the bike, we even saw headsets being replaced.

Exploring is now the plan, bikes out its off to the chairlift, well we had to save our legs.

Up top looking down on Verbier we realised we're looking at the first climb of the race, Yikes. Finding the permanently marked out Downhill route was the distraction we needed. All the watch out for crazy VTT riders signs to warn off the walkers, soon had us throwing caution to the winds. A group of riders looking down one particular steep bit ensured we hammered down it, and I almost cried laughing as I heard the screams, and crash of branches as Dave lost it, bruised & cut but ok, great preparation for a marathon ride.

Saturday night proves dead in Verbier with everyone being deadly serious, all except Dave, who on returning to camp gets out the Schnapps, as a muscle relaxant of course – well he needed it.

Rising at 5am is a shock, and cold, must be the altitude, as the days forecast is good. Many nervous visits to the still spotless outside bogs ensued, so very Swiss. Big breakfasts were scoffed and kit sorted. The temptation to carry loads, in a rucksack as if on a epic day out, soon gets re-organised. We all go for minimal race kit stuffed in jersey pockets with a small bit of start line and first section food included. Water bottles filled, its time at 7am for the short ride into town for the start.

Tip 2: take two old, un-loved water bottles for the start and definitely not a camelback

and thick and fast here’s

Tip 3:take a helper, or failing that bin liners or an old sweater

Not having any of the above meant we shivered at the start line in our minimal kit, as we were dressed for the heat of later on. I say start line; we couldn’t see it, as being almost the last to line up we faced a huge crocodile of riders down the town’s main street.

About 10 minutes after the gun we finally pass through, with the race number Bar code read to clock us on for the days work. Very Swiss again

Tip 4: If your up against it, get to the start early those minutes could be vital

Were off, under the huge start banner and the whole town seems to be cheering us on through the streets and then out onto the first rough track. The climbing starts, and its quickly noticeable that there’s no slackers in this field. We struggle to keep the easy pace, no t-shirt warriors here not like a UK event, we're the backmarkers here.

Soon its into the smallest gear I've got and prepare for the first slog of the day, Dave starts to pull away as I watch him move up the great snake of riders ahead up the mountain, I say my goodbyes to Ian, as he drops back, knowing it will be along day before we’ll meet again.

The view is amazing as we pass above small clouds of mist into the sun, I watch the gap to Dave grow as we approach the summit, timing him over it, 2 mins before me takes my mind off the pain.

680 mtrs in 7Km to the first peak of La Tzouman and 47 mins of non-stop climbing but a great achievement.

The first checkpoint greets you at the top, a bit early for me but its good to see its well stocked with food and drink. Now it’s descending time and steaming into the first corner requires a quick line change to avoid a water bottle. Must be rough, I think riders must be losing them already, that’s until the next corner. There’s a sea of em, 100’s of bottles piled up at the side, which leads to the next tip.

Tip 5: There’s no need to carry anything even food, up the 1st climb but if you take a bottle grab 2 refills then throw yours away.

900 mtrs of fast fire track descending follow with some great 2 wheel drifts and crazy breaking into the hairpin bends. It doesn’t take long to pass loads of more sensible riders (not me sir)including Dave, but then a stop to remove my sleeved top in the sun, sees him return in front. Its quickly back into steady climbing mode for the next 8 Km which we do together, our spirits slightly knocked seeing all the fit foreigners re-pass us like mountain goats. But mine are lifted again with several cries of “Crazy English biker”as they pass, good to be recognized as the nutter who flew past them earlier, Even if I don’t finish it’s going to be fun.

A small rest in the climbing sees us ride into what looks like a school playground, and then suddenly it’s a short steep descent on wet grass. Oops going way to fast I see the sharp corner halfway down, the wheels lock and there’s no chance of stopping. As I slide off I take another two riders one female with me, much to Dave’s amusement, as we finish in a bundle on the corner. Seeing other riders falling like ninepins I don’t feel such a pratt, but it’s not all grass underwheel I realise as a flood of blood is now coming from my arm.

A rock has lifted a flap of skin on my forearm and I’ve got blood all over my shorts and leg a right mess, but no problem with the legs so we carry on.

With some middle ring action the pace is back up and I soon realise Dave is not around any more, the climbs continue as the blood starts to dry up.

The next peak before Nendaz arrives after 1hr45, more food and drink and a quick check, 26Km that’s just under 15 Km/hr – good, the final checkpoint of the race is at 105 Km at 4.30, so to reach there on time you have to average 11.6 Km/hr, looking good.

Checkpoints, oh yes forgot to mention those. Along the route there’s cut off times and go outside the times, and you’re out (Neutralisation points they call them) then it’s a bus ride to the finish.

Tip 6: Copy a small terrain route map and stick it to your bars or top tube so you know where you are.

The next descent is fun, at some stages you cross roads, then suddenly drop back onto the trail, the change gives some great drop offs to fly off. At one small village you are flying down closed smooth roads, great fun on the hairpins, the velocoraptors squirming in protest. I rode on my biggest chunky tyres to make sure of a finish, but for the terrain covered, semi-slicks are the best bet and faster, just take it easy on wet grass.

Veysonnaz the first cut off of 11:00 arrives no problem and it’s another good feed, the organisation is superb with lots of prepared fruit and energy type bars to eat, and iced tea or fruit juices to stock up with. Dave follows closely but Ian is already fighting father time as he gets here at 10:20.

The climbing gets severe again up to Les Collons, another 550 mtrs in only 6 Km. I’m joined by my first sign of a fellow Brit, a Kona rider we chat and I’m glad of the distraction from the effort required. At this slow pace you soon notice your fellow competitors, the Swiss and Germans all seem to ride Cannondales, and nobody here has ever seen a Marin before. I haven’t seen any others and they all stare at me, or is that all the blood!

The steepest Descent of the race 9 Km of heaven takes you into Heremence, the starting point for the shorter race and lowest point on the course. Cut off time here is 12:00, I pass through at 10:30 feeling great 3hrs07 for 55 Km means an increase to 18 Km/hr which on reflection was probably too fast, didnt take me much longer to realise that.

22 Km of climbing lies ahead with the first section on road, one of those classic Alpine stretch’s full of hairpins, bend after bend. Seeing the snake of riders higher than you, ahead through the trees, means that’s all you can concentrate on, as the toughness of the task hits you. This is like no climbing back home, the road doesn’t flatten off at all, there’s no resting not even for seconds, just a constant granny ring slog full of false summits, these raise your hopes then dash them again.

After 1 Hr 30 mins of solid climbing it’s back onto off road, and yes a food stop, but then the realisation that this one, unlike the others is not at the summit brings some despair. Still 7 Km to go, a rest of 5 mins to recharge is needed, much soul searching ensues.

The barren moor like summit arrives, and after 5 hrs in the saddle its now another 12 Km of fun single track and loose fire track, life’s great again, you can’t have this much fun on semi-slicks. I pass dozens of riders in a blur of dust, jumping streams and drop offs, whooping with joy as the town of Evolene is reached. This is a 2pm cut off and I’m slowing, its 12:55, reached easily but doubts are now creeping in. Everything aches from the downhill, and passing through the hoards of diners on pavement cafes, enjoying their cool beers, doesn’t help, 5 hrs 33 is still a safe 16.5 Km/hr though.

Ian never made the 1pm cut off, really struggling on the climb he got further than he expected, 70 km of great riding. A moto-x marshal stopped him up the climb, indicating that down was the direction required for the bus. Descending at speed using all the road was nearly his end as they had re-opened the road, A head on meeting with an organisation car was narrowly missed, time to get out of race mode.

Dave reached Evolene 20 mins late, bad cramp hit on the long climb, probably due to lack of drink, and he was very disappointed to finish at 90 Km.

The cheers of the crowds and a rare flat section of road spurs you on. Leaving the town the road turns right and I still remember that sinking feeling that hit at the sight of the hill stretching out into the distance. After 10 mins the body starts to protest, XTR98 gearing is no help, 26 granny gear and only 30 teeth on the rear doesn’t give me a low enough gear to spin my aching legs. People start to stream past, leg cramps and back pain cause me to sit on the verge, my confused brain full of negative thoughts, tells me its over. I’m running out of time and temporarily I give up, 1600 mtrs of climbing left, 15 Km and only 2 hrs left, Hang on,.... senses block out the pain and I realise that’s only just faster than walking pace, well on a flat road it would be - lets go.

With the temperature hitting 30 deg C it’s a struggle to push the gear, I set my wristwatch to 5 mins on the timer and set off, a plan is hatched, 5 mins of riding in pain, then 5 mins of walking/running.

The reward of a ‘rest’ when walking gives me the incentive to reach the 5 min riding target, but its tough, people still continue to pass but slowly it gets a little easier.

A small descent is next, hang on that’s over 200 mtrs down, see what this ride does to your perspective! This brings great relief, followed by some technical rooty wooded single track, this takes your mind off the pain and passing some other riders is a great boost too.

Walking along with a German we approach a clearing on a tough sharp climb, ahead is a cameraman, summoning all strength available this has to be ridden for the shot. A gate appears and bar code reader at the ready a marshal announces the 3pm checkpoint of Eison. 2:25pm I’m still ok 7 hrs of riding, the longest time I’ve ever ridden for, grabbing more food and drink there’s no time to waste.

The tree cover now recedes, as the last mountain opens up, the last checkpoint is not marked on the route plan so its all eyes on the skyline looking for any sign to spur the legs on. A loose gravelmountain road means having to carefully pick a line for good traction, walking for sections to ease the pain is still needed though.

Then in the distance the summit appears, so where’s the checkpoint, minutes later a few old farm type buildings appear, the realisation that there’s a lot of bikes scattered around slowly sinks in, I’m there, the final cut off, La Vielle and I’m ½ hr inside the time.

What a fantastic feeling, there’s bodies and bikes lying everywhere, and everyone has an insane grin, With good reason. Once you reach this point there’s no going back, you have to finish no matter how long it takes. The Marin gets thrown to the floor, and more food is scoffed, there’s 3 masseurs working on tired bodies, so I join the queue for some welcome relief. After 8 ½ hrs riding who cares how long it takes now, they even wash some of the blood and mud off me too.

After a ½ hr stop it’s a very scenic almost flat re-start, the sense of achievement is fantastic but the part all riders entering this race dread, was fast approaching, the push up the Pas de Lona. It’s a loose and very steep climb and totally un-ride able, the only way I could get up some parts of it was to push the bike in front, grab on the brakes and haul my body after it.

45 mins of hell later, the summit heralds another food stop and much admiration of the view, at 2787 mtrs there’s snow around too. Its not over though, a 2 km rolling route past a beautiful mountain lake then another cruel steep climb finally heralds the route highpoint at 2792 mtrs. That’s it, its all downhill from here, and what a view, a massive lake below is a deep blue in colour, but eyes have to follow the track as the excitement of the final stretch leads to some crazy down hilling. Suddenly it’s a race again every body in the distance is a target to beat, caution is thrown to the winds and its fun again.

A few short road blasts and almost missed turnings lead to a bonkers rocky boulder field, a winter ice melt path, brilliant yet tricky, 3 more places made up it’s a dash for the line …………….. YES THE FINSH, 10 HR 58 MINS. A final average of 12 km/hr.

A sense of Anti- climax follows, you ride through an ingenious automatic bike wash then arrive in a bustling town of Grimentz, all alone and no clear sign of what happens next.

Blocks of showers in the streets are full of riders washing, but I need to find the bus home. Now the tips come in floods

Tip 7: pack a clothes and washing bag and this gets trucked to the finish for you to freshen up.

Tip 8: if your on the bus it’s a 2 hr trip back, ensure you get one as soon as possible, and don’t loose the ticket. Make sure you have some drink and food to see you through for the journey. All non-finishers get bussed to the end then bussed back to start - could be 4 hrs. If you are camping a hot shower is available in the sports centre by registration. Get a token on Saturday, and when the bus arrives grab your bike and run, well ok hobble fast! to get there before the crowds

Tip 9: Having said the above ----- Don’t get the bus back, Verbier is dead on Sun night, the party goes on at Grimentz and is buzzing, you are entitled to get very pissed and eat at least one whole cow for crossing the finish line.Book a room here and stay the night

It’s a fantastic achievement to finish, not many Brits have, and in that age-old tradition you will return. I vowed that I had done it and would never return, but you guessed it a 2001 entry is already in.

Not finishing is cruel, club mate Adi entered the 2000 event and reached the final checkpoint 2 mins late, 2 mins after 9 hrs. There is no leeway either, 1 second late and your still on the bus, again very Swiss.

Dave tried again too in 2000 but fell fowl of tip 10 and was disappointed again.

Tip 10: Don’t ride as a group, as you know from any club ride, even two people riding together means stopping when you could be riding, although the company could spur you on.

For the 2001 event Myself, Rickfrom cats and Adi will return. Learning from experience I will be riding semi slicks, and going slower until the big climbs, also some packets of energy powder will be carried to mix in drinks on the day.

I think under 10 hrs is possible with careful preparation.

Staying in Les Arcs France for the week prior to the race with BIKE village holidays should be good for a bit of acclimatisation, if not just a rest from the long drive down.

Rooms are also booked for the finish in Grimentz at @ £24/ night. This is possible by taking the train ride to Verbier on the Saturday for registration, with all required kit and a sleeping bag. The military run an overnight stay on the floor in a sports hall, then chuck your kit on a truck to meet you at the finish.

Above all, enjoy it. The scenery is fantastic, you’ve travelled all that way, so stop on at Chamonx or Les Gets after, for some more amazing riding or some R&R