Could you conquer a gruelling 7-day alpine race?
Transalp is touted as one of the toughest mountain bike races on the planet for a good reason.
The message alert sounded on my phone, I picked it up and glanced at the screen: “Heather, did you know that you are going to be climbing 2.5 times the height of Everest on a bike over the next seven days. Lol, that is hilarious.” My stomach lurched and I thought I was going to vomit.
As I looked around at the piles of cycling jerseys, bib shorts, spare tubes, lubes and energy gels strewn around me, I knew it wasn’t just my kit that was lacking preparation for the seven days ahead, oh no, it was my body too. I had willingly signed up to one of the toughest mountain biking races on the planet and I knew I had gone past the point of no return. I’ve signed up to some pretty epic things in the past, including multi-day adventure races and running races, but at that point in time, signing up for Transalp really seemed like one of my most ludicrous decisions to date.
Arriving at the start line in Imst in Austria, I found little reassurance from my fellow competitors – I was surrounded by team buses, athletes warming up on rollers and the dulcet tones of a German MC, bellowing instructions that I couldn’t understand across the PA system.
This race looked far too pro for someone like me. After all, I had only been on my mountain bike five times since Christmas – let’s just say my training hadn’t exactly gone to plan.
Leaving the picturesque town of Imst with the locals cheering us on from the side of the road, my nerves began to settle – I mean how tough could this actually be? Two hours later, I was cursing myself for being so naïve. We were climbing on a brutal forest track, it was close to 30°C and my legs, back and arse were screaming at me to stop.
I turned to my brother and team-mate for the event and asked him when the hell we were going to reach the top of this never-ending climb. He looked at me sheepishly: “Eh, I think we're about half way up.” I stared at him in disbelief, what kind of a climb takes four hours to reach the top of?
More than I ever could have imagined it turns out. There are no shortage of four-hour climbs on the Transalp bike race, every day we were treated to some of the most gruelling ascents I have ever experienced – some of them on smooth tarmac which seemed like a luxury as the week rolled on. The majority of the climbs were on rough terrain making it almost impossible to get a steady rhythm going.
But with those climbs comes a reward in the form of epic descents and mind-blowing views which have the ability to wipe all of the pain and all negative thoughts from the mind in a matter of seconds. Parts of the route, which takes in the towns of Imst and Naunders in Austria, Scuol in Switzerland and Livigno, Bormio, Mezzana and Arco in Italy, provided riding so impressive, I'm still finding it hard to process.
High in the Alps, the second, third, fourth and fifth stages were by far the most scenic. We were treated to snow-capped peaks, luscious green meadows, turquoise lakes and some beautiful sweeping singletrack. The hellish climbs continued, but I found myself getting used to them. I forgot all about the pros at the front of the race who were already across the finish line as I reached the top of the first climb of the day and instead focused on what a unique experience the whole event was.
My usual fears about coming last in a race went out the window, I wasn’t ashamed when I had to jog my bike down a descent that was just a touch too technical for me, or push my bike up parts of a climb.
Instead I constantly reminded myself how awesome it was that someone with as little experience as myself could manage to cling on to the back of a race that's designed for the world’s riding elite. Every day I lined up at the start line in Block D, which is reserved for the slowest riders in the race, with a touch of pride that I was still there at all.
Riding more than 500km off-road across the Alps with more than 18,000m of climbing is no walk in the park – there were times that I honestly believed I couldn't manage another pedal stroke, times where I questioned my sanity, times where I shed a silent tear or two. There's no such thing as an easy day on this race. Right up to the end, the race organisers pushed us to our limits – on the final stage we were tasked with a 23km climb with 1,600m of ascent to kick start the day.
There's no denying that Transalp is absolutely brutal from start to finish. I have to admit that if I'd known the enormity of the challenge, I probably wouldn’t have signed up, but ignorance is bliss and I am so glad that my complete inability to research race profiles meant that I took the plunge and signed up. And, while my blistered backside might not forgive me for quite a while thanks to the 49 hours I spend in the saddle over the course of seven days, you’ll be hard pushed to wipe the goofy grin off my face for quite a while.