No brakes? No sweat for Patrick Seabase
What extremes can you go to with the bare minimum of equipment? Patrick Seabase pushes cycling and himself to the limit in unBRAKEable.
325km and over 8,500m of climbing on a single-speed, fixed-wheel bicycle with no brakes: in the film unBRAKEable track bike rider Patrick Seabase takes on his greatest challenge yet – to climb five mountain passes in Switzerland on a bike that was never designed for such a feat.
Find out how Seabase got on in his challenge in unBRAKEable in the video player above.
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An expert fixed-gear cyclist, Seabase is adept at navigating the issues riding such a bike entails, particularly when climbing and descending mountains. The track bike he chose to ride for this adventure has no brakes, relying instead on the rider to resist the spin of the pedals to control speed. If Seabase wants to slow down, he presses against the rotation of the pedals. Fixed wheel also means that as the wheel turns, the pedals turn, so there's no opportunity to rest while free-wheeling on descents. And it has only one gear, making climbs incredibly hard.
Seabase is Bernese – someone who hails from the Swiss town of Bern – and, as such, is more than a little familiar with the epic mountains and passes of the Swiss Alps, having conquered most of them. Some, however, hold a special significance for him. It’s an emotional connection that will be necessary to motivate him when the going gets tough, and to survive one hell of a ride.
“The special thing about this tour is the constellation of passes – the Grimsel, which I've ridden so often, the Simplon, which I love for various reasons, the mystical Gotthard, the Furka as the penultimate obstacle before the Grimsel again from the south. I associate something personal with each of these mountains, which makes this tour unique."
Grimsel: A work of art made of stone and water
“There was something apocalyptic about the trip to the Grimsel, which was also beautiful in a special way. The Grimsel is one of my favourite passes. It's easily accessible from Bern and it offers a unique spectacle for the eye: the bright, almost silvery shimmering stones alternating with greenish rock, plus the four reservoirs – which other pass offers something like that?” The 26km-long pass road from Innertkirchen to the Grimsel has already brought some racing cyclists to despair, but for Seabase it’s a local ride.
His legs are fresh, and conquering a pass at dawn gives him more mental energy than it physically demands of him. The biggest challenge is the 0-degree temperature, which is particularly noticeable on the fast descent. Seabase will only feel it later, because now full concentration is required, alternating between high-speed straights and hairpin bends. It only takes a few minutes to descend from the top of the pass at 2,164m down to Gletsch, which is a good 400m lower.
There was something apocalyptic about the trip to the Grimsel, which was also beautiful in a special way
Simplon: A monument to happiness
The route continues down the Goms to Brig and the next long ascent to the Simplon Pass. “As a child, I often drove with my parents over the Simplon and via Italy to Ticino. I loved this ride as a child and now I love it on the track bike." One of the reasons for this is the Ganter Bridge, a monument to alpine road construction. "To see this work of art from afar and then ride over it is an event for me every time."
The steady and moderate incline of the road is perfect for the tough gearing that Seabase has on the track bike, though things get more uncomfortable on the descent on the other side of the pass. On a conventional road bike complete with brakes and gears, it’s intimidatingly fast and steep and not for the faint of heart. But imagine spinning down from the Simplon Pass at 2,005m to Domodossola at 270m without the benefit of brakes, and terrifying sounds like a better description. "The tailwind shot me down the steep ramps like a cannonball and into the tunnels," describes Seabase, who is used to the fact that the descent offers no relaxation at all, but instead requires the use of different muscle groups.
From Domodossola the road begins to climb again, which means Seabase can start to put pressure on the pedals rather than working against them – a welcome relief. The route leads to the Swiss border and Centovalli, or the ‘Valley of a hundred valleys’. When he drove with his family through Centovalli as a child, he knew it was a sign that they weren’t too far from the family holiday home. “I loved driving through the Centovalli, and I love it on the bike: the road is technically demanding, requires full commitment and doesn't let me chill for a second."
Descents don’t make things easier for Seabase. In Locarno which is a scant 194m above sea level, it’s mid-summer. Temperatures are reaching 30 degrees in the shade, and there is no shade on the road to Bellinzona, the next destination. "I had great difficulty getting used to the heat after pedalling through ‘winter’ in the mountain passes a few hours earlier."
At this point, Seabase is eight hours into the challenge and the gently rising kilometres from Locarno to Airolo are a test of patience – he longs for the Gotthard Pass and knows that the toughest kilometres are still ahead.
I loved driving through the Centovalli, and I love it on the bike
Gotthard: A fight against the elements
“In Airolo I did a complete reset – physically and mentally. When I rode off towards the Gotthard Pass, at first I felt as if I had just got on my bike." He knows from earlier trips on this route that the cobblestones of the Tremola, the historic pass road, do not roll particularly well. On this day there was also a headwind in his face. “60km per hour wind from the front – that's fatal! It was as if a higher power wanted to prevent me from reaching the top."
It takes everything Seabase has to set himself against the incline and the elements to make it to the crest of the climb.
Riding a track bike up such a climb is “like an hour on the leg press in the weight room,” Seabase explains. He pulls hard on the handlebars, presses into the pedals with everything he has, and suffers his way up. To manage the metal side of such an undertaking, he divides the route into smaller and smaller sections. He thinks only about the ride to the next stopping point, or getting through the next hundred metres, reaching the next hairpin bend, or even just completing the next turn of the pedal. These mental tricks help him keep going until he finally makes it to the top of the most famous Alpine crossing in Switzerland at 2,106m above sea level. His legs are empty, but he knows it’s not over yet.
Furka: A love-hate relationship in the fog
On the descent, his cadence gets up to 150 revolutions per minute. It’s crucial to somehow keep the legs as loose as possible so they can keep up with the speed the wheels are driving through the pedals. It doesn’t take long to reach the valley bottom at 1,500m, then on to the Furka Pass. It’s one that Seabase always bypasses when he can. "I can't say why, but I don't like the Furka Pass."
“As soon as I was on the slope, thick fog came up. I neither looked back at what I had already achieved nor up to see how far it was, I just focused on the few metres in front of me.” It’s hard to keep motivated with three passes already in the legs on a section he doesn’t like. “It was gruelling,” he said, but yet again he focuses on one more pedal turn, then another, then another, until he reaches the top.
But what goes up must come down again. “The descent stressed me even more. I had no idea how I would do it with so many miles in my legs." The first part of the descent is particularly steep, with braking a brutal effort that requires Seabase to use his already tired legs to work against the pedals to decrease and control his speed, and this after being in the saddle almost non-stop for more than half a day. If he fails to slow down in good time or if he can’t find the energy that he needs, then he can no longer control his speed and risks a high-speed accident.
But years of riding over mountain passes on his track bike have trained his body well, the muscle memory meaning that he could ride even when half delirious with tiredness. The sequence is ingrained: lift the rear wheel a few centimetres, stop the rotation, put the blocked wheel on the asphalt where the tyre leaves a smoking, rubber-smelling black trail. Immediately afterwards gravity accelerates the rider and the bike again and Seabase rides the wave of acceleration until it's time for the next skid and the next blocked rear wheel.
In this way he reaches Gletsch, the village at the southern foot of the Grimsel Pass, through which he had already rolled 13 hours earlier near the start of his journey.
Grimsel to Oberaarsee: The end as the beginning
The descent from the Furka Pass merges seamlessly into the ascent to the Grimsel. Patrick Seabase has over 300km and almost 8,000m in altitude in his legs at this point. On the first steep metres of the road, he feels as if he is pulling a block of lead behind him. As if echoing his sinking energy levels, the sun sets below the horizon. But the Grimsel is not just any pass, it’s one of the mountains that turned Seabase into a cyclist. "I know the incline by heart, I always know exactly where I am and how many curves there are still ahead of me."
With every metre climbed and every turn of the pedal, his legs turn easier and his effort feels less. "It was as if an imaginary hand was pushing me up the mountain."
The top of the pass is not the goal. Seabase wants to end its giant tour at Oberaarsee, a reservoir that sits high in the mountain at 2,302m, its glittering surface reflecting the dark sky. With 150m of altitude to go, there are only a few minutes left for Seabase to savour the intense emotions the ride has brought, and he soaks them up for future reflection.
“The Oberarsee is incredibly beautiful. It feeds the Oberaar Glacier and with it the Aare, which has a special meaning for me as a Bernese. Something new is emerging from the water of this lake. That was the ideal place to end this tour.”
The bike Seabase used
How safe and natural Seabase felt on his track bike was crucial to this challenge. Each part had to be up to the task. Only the bare minimum of parts was screwed onto the BMC track bike he used – wheels, cranks, handlebars, saddle, a chainring, a fixed-wheel sprocket in the back and the chain that connects the latter two. "The way the bike rides has an enormous influence, either it hinders me or it improves my performance. Therefore everything has to fit perfectly for me."
Seabase also didn't pay attention to the weight of some of the component parts he used on the bike. He used steel components, which are strong and durable. "The chain, chainring and sprocket are my life insurance. If something tears or breaks, it becomes critical.”
Patrick Seabase already faced a superhuman challenge in a previous big project. In Seabase 1910 he rode the legendary first Pyrenees stage of the Tour de France – on his track bike of course.