In a few short years since its inception in 2014 the PERSKINDOL SWISS EPIC has grown to become one of the Worlds most prestigious Mountain Bike Stage races and arguably the hardest, most complete challenge for riders with not just the physical climbing demand but incredibly technical and fun singletrack that is so rare for similar events.
The event, which is held in the Valais region of Switzerland aims to highlight the scenery and the incredible riding on offer and aim to appeal to all styles of riders with two distinct options: Epic & Flow. The Flow categories take out some of the biggest, toughest climbs but also transport the riders higher and often on even more technical trails, but still has a chunky 8000 metres of climbing across the 6 days.
Having completed the event on both previous occasions and in both the Epic & Flow races the two races both have a fantastic friendly vibe and loved every single day of previous events it was not a hard decision to come back and race again. As much fun as the Flow was as someone who enjoys climbs and likes to earn the descent this year I opted to race the Epic Mixed category with former Rugby player and winner of the 2014 Rugby World Cup and now an Elite MTB racer Sophie Hemming as my race partner.
Our pre-race preparation was perhaps a little stressful, with my accident just weeks before leaving my participation uncertain and then the lack of suitable bikes being an issue. While I have good race bikes, they are not ideal for the style of racing here and Sophie was also short. The ideal bikes are 29er with short travel, slack head angles and a dropper post is a necessity. We managed to hit the jackpot with Kona Bikes lending us a Kona Hei Hei Race DL each and X-fusion providing the Hi-Lo Strate dropper seatpost with internal cabling and remote lever. The bikes were a competitive weight and looked great, but we had no practice rides at all, so had our fingers crossed.
Having arrived in the start town of Zermatt a few days earlier we were fortunate to have seen the prologue course first hand, although the 56CHF (~£43) price of the single lift did make us check, double check and triple check with the attendant behind the desk who was actually quite apologetic as although Switzerland is known to be expensive, I think even she found this a bit steep. The practice run gave us a good idea of what to expect. Rocks, more rocks & singletrack. It was our first ride on the bikes and although we had lots of stopped to adjust things they seemed perfect and were both extremely happy with how good they felt. I doubt many people would say that dropping in from over 3000m altitude onto a technical course is a good idea of a practice ride, but in this case it worked.
On race day we were all to start at 1 minute intervals on a beautiful, sunny day around Zermatt, even being warm at the top of the 3050m cable car (free on race day!). The course was 22km long with just 500m climbing but 1500m descending.
We started pretty fast, but unfortunately had bad luck with Sophie getting a bad puncture at the 2km marker. It didn’t seal and a hole was in a place near the bead that our tyre worms wouldn’t work so we resorted to a tube fix. That fix lasted all of a few minutes due to the severe rockiness and impatience to get moving again meaning too little pressure. Another fix and one that lasted longer but we had our third puncture after just 6km of riding. Today was not our day!
With all our spare tubes gone we had to take the remainder really steady, which was hard to accept at times as the tracks would have been so much fun to ride with more speed & flow. We finished a bit downbeat in 14th position, loosing 25 minutes to the lead team. Perhaps the most annoying thing was our “moving time” would have put us 3rd with even our cautious riding and we are both confident that given a good run we could have won the stage. That is racing though, so we put it behind us and looked ahead to the week.
Zermatt must be one of the most iconic places in the World with the incredible Matterhorn as a backdrop. Stage 1 started in the centre of the town and immediately into a climb with the mountain in full view on what was a stunning morning. We started in a different block to the top Mixed teams given our slow prologue time which meant we would be pacing the day on feel and not looking at other teams. The top 60 overall were in Block 1, the reminder in Block 2 or 3, each 15 minutes apart.
The first part of the downhill was fun and technical and it wasn’t long before we were the lead team of Block 2, regardless of categories. The stage was a long one at 94km with 3000m climbing so we were a little cautious on the stage given that we had no one to race or gauge against and no idea of how quickly the competition were riding.
A big hill after 30km led into a fantastic, long singletrack descent that we were loving and feeling great, although I was a little worried about my current downhill form as Sophie was flying and even when riding behind I was close to my comfortable limit given my current situation and recent accident.
The downhill sadly had to end and the majority of what remained was on a road climb and with the sun blazing and no shade the valley temperature had risen to 28 degrees. It was a relief to reach the next feed which was ¾ of the way up the climb and thankfully a breeze helped ease the heat. When you ride hills in the Alps you start to get a different sense of what is “normal” with a big hill at home being around 20 minutes, out here an hour is pretty normal, even at race pace.
Leukerbad is a town that has been in all previous events and it is stunning and really hidden at the top of a valley surrounded by steep mountains. The climbing didn’t relent until 1km to go, an exit point I know well and was pleased to reach. We rolled across the line after 6hrs 15min and very glad to finish such a big day. We later found out that we were 6th on the stage in a time of 6hrs 15 minutes, which had moved us up from 14th to 9th in the mixed category so far. A decent improvement, but the top teams had put a big chunk of time into us with the stage winners finishing in 5hrs 27 minutes.
The organisation had decided to try something a little new for stage 2 and instead of the big mass start we would be getting a cable car to 2200m and starting in 1 minute intervals and straight into the longest downhill of the race. This suited us as we would have missed out on Block 1 again, so at least we were in the same boat as everyone else.
The start was on the Leukerbad Flow Trail, a fairly wide singletrack-ish downhill trail with loads of berms, turns and small jumps but nothing too technical or challenging. The teams were started in reverse order, so we could gauge our performance on how many people we were passing, or being passed by.
Things were going really well on the descend and picking teams off quickly. We had some good luck finally as I hit a big rock and dented the rim and lost a load of air, but thankfully a C02 canister and a little bit of shaking the sealant in the tyre it held up. By the bottom of the downhill we were the leading mixed team on the road, but now had a huge climb to go.
The pace and level of effort was big and we were pleased with the progress, although after half the climb the leading team R’ADYS SCOTT passed us, meaning they had taken a sizeable 8 minutes out of us, most probably on the climb. We pushed on, keeping them in sight for a long while and we were hopeful of a podium place. Towards the top we sighted Trek MTB.fo team who were in 2nd place and crossed the line in Leukerbad just ahead of them, although we knew they had beaten us time wise. We had an anxious wait to see if we nabbed 3rd but were unlucky, missing out by 1 minute 30 seconds to Giant Swiss and settled for 4th.
For todays stage I had an idea of what to expect as some looked like it would be the same as the 2014 event. We were finally inside the Top 60 overall which meant a place in Block 1 and up to 7th in mixed which we were pleased with but hopeful to improve further. Today was the queen stage however, which meant 95km and 3000m climbing.
The start was at first a neutralised downhill on the road that soon led into a climb on a dirt doublertack. We seemed to be in a good position and going well with near by teams all around us, except the leaders. Although today was long I knew what to expect and what we could achieve, so pushed hard at the start and up to the famous “hike-a-bike up a cliff” bit. By the top and the start of a downhill we were inside the top 5 in category, but made up places and into 3rd before too much time. The riding was a real mixture with technical singletrack, flat but tricky trail alongside the water irrigation channels and one relatively easy section with a fast and flat section along the valley floor through Sion. Reaching the 2nd feed station felt like a big milestone, although this did mean that almost all the remaining 30km were uphill, taking on a huge 1700m vertical climb. The start was steep and evil, having us both in the easiest gear and wishing for it to ease off, which is did after about 3km of pain.
The course then became more manageable although far from easy, with a constant uphill gradient and no breather. The final feed station of the day was after 76km, in the village of La Tzoumaz and a place I knew from previous events, all be it in the opposite direction. The important bit was that I knew that the majority of the climbing was done. One final sting in the tail was on one open section we looked back and caught a glimpse of Giant Swiss catching us since they are incredible climbers.
We dug deep, trying hard to get to the highest point at 2300m in front of them. It was a relief to do so, although they were not that far behind and made the last few kilometres tense. I hoped and expected a technical bike park section to finish in Verbier similar to previous years, it was relatively easy and had another 1km of tough climbing before the finish.
Luckily we managed to hold them off and finished the stage in 3rd place, our first podium of the event and it felt great to be mixing it with the top team who had seemed so distant for the first half of the event.
With the event now remaining in Verbier until the finish I guessed today might have great riding as I have heard lots of good things about the area and not just the bike park that I have ridden previously. Today looked like a medium stage difficulty wise on paper, 62km but 2800m climbing, which made it the highest meters per KM so far.
We pushed hard from the start, although it got a little chaotic into the first narrower climb section which was relatively close to the beginning. Soon after we hit the downhill and the frustrations just got worse as so many of the riders who climb really well can’t descent as quickly as us.
The singletrack trails were tricky to pass people, so progress was slow through the mass of riders until we reached the bottom. Up ahead we could see one of the top mixed teams on the start of the climb and decided to put an effort in and catch them up. Behind us 3 other mixed teams were in view and chasing, making it really feel like a close race was happening.
The climb was pretty long, climbing from 800m to 2200m and although it was steady we were not cruising. We decided to stick behind what we called Team Neff, (real team name Flickflauder) so called as the male team member was Jolanda Neff’s Dad. Over the days we had noticed they were strong climbers and decent, but not amazing descenders, so our plan was to get ahead before the next downhill and create a gap. We were close to our limits, but also having a bit of banter, chatting about our plans knowing they can understand and hear us; you could call it psychological tactics.
Our plans only partially worked, as although we gapped Team Neff it was Trek MTB.fo team that caught us up and we had to try and gap downhill. The long downhill was fun and with the weather being wet it was slippery and more challenging but no different to riding at home. We managed to get our gap, but another big climb was in front of us before the finish and Trek MTB.fo were flying and we were not able to match their pace. The final hill was very tough with the final 1km which was extremely steep and unrideable for us and I would guess most of the UCI teams too. We crossed the line in 3rd to achieve another podium and in exactly the same order as the previous day.
The last day of a stage race is taken differently by different people. Historically I have tended to go out all guns blazing since recovery afterwards isn’t important. As the gun sounded for the final day it was clear that several teams had the same plan. Trek MTB.fo and another team, Sportbenzin – Pivot were flying, with Trek MTB.fo in particular pushing hard on the long, 700m vertical first climb out of Verbier. We were a little down the order on the climbs, 6th or sometimes 7th place but digging deep and hoping for a nice technical descent to pull back time.
The descent came and was slippery, due to the cold and wet weather but frustratingly short given the massive first climb and we only managed to pull back a few places to 5th. The middle section again was a long climb and the week was taking its toll on us with every ounce of energy having to be rung out. On the final climb of the day we were overtaken by Team Neff, to put us 6th who were riding really strongly and put a decent gap into us.
The final descent was one I knew from previous events and its fun with lots of singletrack, both natural and bike park sections with drops, jumps, berms and switchbacks making it challenging. I really hoped that we could pull back Team Neff, but to our surprise it was Giant Swiss who we managed to pass and given they must have had a huge lead on us after all the climbing it was a surprise.
The final bit was fun, but over too quickly and we were back in Verbier and across the finish line after a final 3hrs of racing to take 5th on the day and cement our 5th position overall.
Overall it was a fantastic event and although we had a nightmare prologue I don’t think it would have changed our positioning too much with 4th perhaps being the best possibility. The winning mixed team, R’ADYS SCOTT were incredible and although Trek MTB.fo won the final day they were pretty much unseen by us the remainder of the week given their front row start and fast pace. 2nd place overall Trek MTB.fo team were consistent and well rounded, being quick uphill and downhill, although they were towing a lot, which we hardly did at all. 3rd position team Giant Swiss were absolutely incredible uphill, perhaps the fastest team while climbing, but their downhill performance was not so strong but it was enough to give them an overall podium position.
Looking back on the week it feels fantastic to have finished another PERSKINDOL SWISS EPIC event and our performance has been great, especially given the adversity early on. To think that only weeks ago I had a head injury that was pretty serious, to have completed one of the Worlds toughest stage races is fantastic. I am sure all my family will be relieved to hear that I came out unscathed without a crash. I am sure my Doctor will be pleased too, as I am not sure he was too convinced that me racing here was a good idea, one of his questions being “So what are the chances of a crash” to which I didn’t really reply to but maybe smiled since MTB racing and crashing are two things that go together and you just accept, especailly on unknown, technical steep and rocky trails!
In my eyes the PERSKINDOL SWISS EPIC is probably the best and hardest all round MTB stage race in the World. It combines incredible organisation & accommodation, incredible riding that really suits the British style of riding and has a level of competition that most other stage races can’t match. The Cape Epic might still be no.1 but the quality of riding isn’t the same and Trans Alp might be bigger and well organised but lacks the level of technical trails that this does. If you want to challenge yourself and ride some of the best trails in Europe then this is the event you need to do.