“…I believe that if someone starts out on a challenging activity, completely confident that they’re going to succeed, why bother starting? It’s not much of a challenge.” — Sir Edmund Hillary
When possible I pick my “A” races each year by looking for something that is so difficult in some way that I do not know if I will be able to complete it. I also prefer it to be somewhere where good beer is served. So 540 KM and 45000 feet of climbing in the Alps with a start in Austria covered both requirements well.
In 2006, while spending the winter in Austin TX to prepare for RAAM, I visited Rick Kent. He had a poster on his fridge for a race called Race Across The Alps. I remember thinking I wish we still had races like that in ultracycling. I had assumed the race no longer existed. Fast forward a few years and I hear of another American doing Race Across the Alps , David Haase. I immediately added it to my “list” of races to do. In 2009 RATA made it to the top of the list. This is no leisurely jaunt doing one climb a day with lunch served at the top. There are no massages after 5 hours of racing. It is eleven alps passes in one race, one stage, 540 KM, 45000 ft of climbing. I wondered if I this is the race I would be broken by. I had so little idea how I would react to the excessive climbs and descents. Ive done races that had large amounts of climbing in them, but this is different. Its the alps.
The Stelvio, the Gavia, the Mortirolo are names that are famous to cyclists. The 47 switchbacks of the Stelvio are the location of some of the historic battles of the Giro. Coppi cemented his victory there in 1953 against Koblet. The Gavia is remembered as the pass where Andy Hampsten fought through blizzard conditions in a decisive move on his way to becoming the only American to win the Giro. The Mortirolo was described by Lance Armstrong in this way: “It’s a terrible climb…it’s perfect for a mountain bike. On the hardest parts, I was riding a 39×27 and I was hurting, really hurting. (Mortirolo) is the hardest climb I’ve ever ridden.”
I arrived in Europe 3 days before the start with my crew Dave and Carmichael. As a warm up, I rode the the course out to the top of the Stelvio. 47 switchbacks once you get to the point where they start keeping track. It was a hard climb, but not too bad I thought. I had a big smile plastered on my face all day. My confidence was good.
There was the usual rush to get last minute details sorted: Food, water, GPS unit setup. Austria seems to be a bit stringent on the hours you are allowed to eat, so we were consistently relegated to the a small pizza and kabob place lined with smokers(Pretty good pizza though). Dave spent many hours trying to get the route converted to my GPS unit.
The race meeting was in German, so we listened in on a translation from Christiane, the organizers daughter. Had a great time catching up with Shanna Armstrong. A good dinner and I made an attempt at sleep.
I arrived about an hour before the start and found a seat in front of a cafe to relax until it was time for the riders to line up. Met a racer and crew from England and they joked about getting a kettle for tea working in their follow vehicle.
The race began fairly easy but quick. I tried to stay in the middle of the front pack to conserve some energy until the first climb where I assumed the group would blow apart. Spent quite a bit of time weaving my way through support vehicles as i worked my way toward the climb.
The Stelvio – 9045 feet, 7.4 %, 15.1 miles
I made good time up the first pass, moving up a few places here and there. Already having done this climb I went a bit harder than my pre-race ride and made good time to the top. There I put on an extra layer and proceeded into my first alps descent. It was freezing cold and a bit tense. Short free falls followed by quick braking and hard turns through the switchbacks.
Gavia – 8700 feet, 7.9%, 10.7 miles
The Gavia is often described as one of the most beautiful climbs in the alps. On this climb I started to realize what I might be in for. A light rain started to come down and fog rolled in. I had a good conversation with another racer as we climbed at similar pace and occupied my mind by reminding myself that if another North Dakotan can win the Giro on this pass I can at least put in a strong effort. At the top I had to stop and put on some warm clothes, a common theme. Luckily, Dave had a warm rain jacket that I co-oped around this time. Fog and rain made me more cautious on the descent than I would have liked.
Aprica – 3852 feet, 3.3%, 9.3 miles
The Aprica came to be known in my mind as the recovery climb. Compared to the others this seemed like a flat road. Everything is relative.
Mortirolo – 6056 feet, 10.5 %, 7.7 miles
The deciding climb of the race. Not as high or as long as the Stelvio but steep and seems to go on forever. I was told after the race that this is the point where riders usually blow up and drop out. I didn’t consider dropping out, but I was painfully slow on this climb. It became apparent to me at this point that my goal was finishing rather than a particular placing.The follow vehicle could not follow behind me up the climb. It would stall at that slow of speed, so the support vehicles would jump ahead, wait, than jump ahead again. This could get a little dicey on what is basically a one car wide road or better described as a path. Along the climb I encountered a shrine to Marco Pantani, my first thought was yeah you’d have to be doping to climb this fast.
Aprica – 3852 feet, 3.3%, 9.3 miles
My favorite recovery climb again, though i could have used a nice Chicago overpass by this time.
Bernina – 7637 feet, 7.5%, 10.9 miles
Entered Switzerland to begin the longest climb. A hard rain during this period. I crashed, fell over actually, while crossing railroad tracks just before the start of this climb. This is where my memory starts to get a bit fuzzy as to which climb I was on. In my mind I was trying to to do the countdown of how many climbs I had left, but I couldn’t remember if there were 11 or 12 passes in the race. In hindsight I should have just asked my crew, but it never crossed my mind.
Albula – 7565 feet, 6.6%, 5.9 miles
Fluela – 7870 feet, 6.4%, 8.0 miles
Fuorn – 7050 feet, 3.1%, 13.4 miles
Umbrial/Stelvio – 9045 feet, unknown grade and distance
My remaining passes calculation was easily solved because from here on out it seemed like one big climb with an occasionally short downhill. There was a section on the Umbrial that was gravel during resurfacing, so I spent my time pretending I was riding the Giro back in Coppi’s era. After a great deal of climbing, I eventually reach a point where I can tell I’m back on the Stelvio. While there is one more climb near the end, this is the last monster. We were told by the bartender in a bar at the top of the Stelvio that it is easier from this side, but I dont think that considered the 300 mile warm-up I had just done. I slowly pulled myself to the top. I was ecstatic to have crested the last summit. Now a long descent and a fairly flat ride in to the finish line. I had plenty of time to get there under 30 hours.
The descent was not easy. Upon exiting each switchback I pressed the backs of my fingers against the handle bars and the joints would click back into place from their frozen position clinched to the brake levers. I had to stop because my hands were so tired from the braking required.
At the bottom of the descent is a left turn and 30k to the finish. I was feeling great. The race was over. Than an unwelcome surprise, a very strong headwind. I don’t know what the wind speed was, but at that point it seemed like a hurricane. I plodded along at a very un-race like pace, until my crew came up to tell me I was in danger of missing the 30 hour cutoff at this speed(I think they said 9km/hr). 2 riders were about 5 minutes ahead. If I could catch them, we could work together through this wind. I struggled to increase my pace. I couldn’t come all the way to Europe only to be a DNF. Eventually I saw the other racers and inched myself up to them. I offered to take the first pull. 40 seconds on the front and I motioned for them to pull through. They were gone. I sat up and looked around. They were long gone. Solo to the finish it is. I had energy again and thankfully it became a slight downhill.
I pulled into the finish cross-eyed from trying to get in under 30 hours. Race staff helped me off my bike and led me into a big tent. This is not like an ultra race in the states. Hundreds of people drinking, eating, and cheering for each rider as they arrive. I was brought up on stage for a quick interview and a good beer.
At the awards ceremony, I found out the cutoff is 32 hours to finish officially.
Official Time: 30:04
2nd American to ever finish