Charlie Evans has worked for British Cycling for the last eight years, developing their coaching pathway across the road and mountain bike disciplines. He has raced mountain bike XC to an elite level, though enjoys nothing more than riding his home trails of the Peak District. Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.
In January 2014 I found myself planning my main racing target around a summer road trip. I needed mountains, trails and something that provided a fear factor that would motivate me throughout my training.
It didn’t take long to find an event that intrigued me, the Grand Raid Cristalp, held in the Swiss Alps in late August between the ski resorts of Verbier and Grimentz. This event definitely provided the fear factor, with over 5,000 m of vertical ascent in its 125 km distance. Adding to the demands were average and peak elevations exceeding 1,730 m and 2,800 m respectively, thin air upping the ante on an already tough event.
I completed the 2014 event in 9 hours 28 minutes 26 seconds, 243rd place of 776 riders. The 2015 season arrived and I wanted, in fact I needed, to return.
At 6.15am it’s still dark in Verbier but there’s a lot of nervous activity. Swiss horns are being played, their soft sound adding a welcome calming influence. I’m gridded up in the rider pens, waiting for dawn. My mate Ant Morris rolls up next to me. I’ve not not seen him in a while, a year in fact and in this very place. As we chat, riders file in and the pens become much cosier. 6.30am arrives, dawn breaks and the starting pistol fires.
We’re climbing immediately, through the town and onto the trails above Verbier, tapping uphill for 12 km. From the off this event sets itself apart, pyjama-clad spectators, spectacular views and a tunnel resonating with rock music. With adrenaline from the start still pumping in my veins and the race day atmosphere, I keep reminding myself to moderate my effort, this is the first of seven passes today.
Ant and I are climbing shoulder to shoulder. Agreeing that teamwork seems logical we establish our pacing strategy. If we can just about talk, it’s just about the right pace. I back this up with a slightly more scientific approach also. Using my Garmin, I climb with a cadence of 85 rpm and avoid exceeding a heart rate of 150 bpm wherever possible.
Cresting the top of the first climb, we notice a lot of enthusiasm in the descending technique of those around us. Applying a calmer style sees us stay safe and pick plenty of riders off.
Not long after settling into the next climb, I hear a ping and jingling from my rear wheel, I’ve snapped a spoke. I pull over and secure the flailing spoke as top racer Mel Alexander cruises past us. Glancing at the race guide, I see that the next tech zone is in Nendaz and taking the time out to get it repaired would be the sensible and potentially race-saving action.
A ski-run descent spits us into the town, the tech zone and a very keen mechanic. As I’m uttering “le rayon” the mechanic responds, “Ah, the spoke” grabs my bike and runs to his workstation. In record time, it’s in the work stand, cassette off, spoke out and replacement in. I jump back on and he gives me a forceful push to send me on my way. The epitome of Swiss efficiency and a DNF averted.
The next few hours pass easily as the Grand Raid route is so varied. Fire road and tarmac sections are countered by some stunning woodland singletrack. There are the long grinding alpine passes but some punchy climbs too. And the downhills? Of course, long sweeping descents feature frequently but steep ski-slope chutes are thrown in and can easily take you by surprise.
If the first few hours pass easily, the race shows its nasty side from Evolene. A scenic and normally challenging mountain bike marathon would finish at this point and the Garmin sponsored sprint through the town centre see you crossing the finishing line. But it isn’t – you’ve still got 25 km to go and it’s this section that defines the event. That 25 km, coming as it does after six hours of saddle time, takes in the region of three hours to complete. This is where the event bites and bites hard. It’s truly brutal.
Even the metal bridge as you leave Evolene requires an effort and from there it’s onto another long climb. Unsurfaced and exposed, the only respite is some brief but welcome singletrack towards Eison. The surface switches to energy-sapping grass as we enter the village and the gradient steepens. The urge to walk is strong but enthusiastic locals line the route. I can’t disappoint these villagers, so Ant and I give it our all to clean the climb.
I’m struggling to find a rhythm and elevate my heart rate. The logical part of my brain tells me this is normal in any endurance event but the exhausted, competitive side chastises me for laziness. I ignore logic, take a gel and press on. Pushing to raise my heart rate those five extra beats does make a difference to my pace and I think to myself that this is more like it. I sense Ant thinking to himself that I’m a fool, but that doesn’t bother me, because I know this pace is theoretically sustainable. Which it is, for a few moments. Then I explode and grind to a halt. All I get from Ant is “gels worn off then?”, as he plods on past. I don’t deserve any sympathy.
I’m watching Ant ride away, the elastic has snapped and I’m struggling to maintain 130 bpm. I have blown. I keep glancing at my race guide to see where the next feed zone is – L’A Vielle at 110 km in two kilometres’ time. All I can see are switchbacks ahead, it could be a long two kilometres. On one of the bends Ant notices I’m dropped. Allowing me to get back on, like the best teammate in the world, I hear some verbal abuse but am unsure if it was aimed at me or the mountain.
We reach L’A Vielle and the start of the Pas de Lona – a full 40 minutes of hike-a-bike up a scree slope climbing to above 2,700 m. This is an on-foot section even for the fastest riders. Frankly I’m thankful to not be pedalling for a while but this relief quickly subsides. I sustain 160 bpm throughout this bike-push, with the loose lunar surface slipping away beneath each step. Ant opts to carry his bike, mine stays planted on the ground,. I eventually get over the top, a few minutes quicker than Ant, but I wait – as he did for me when my ‘rayon’, and my elastic, snapped.
One further uphill slog and onto the final long and rocky descent. However even nine hours into the race, it’s impossible to tire of the scenery. The view of the Moiry reservoir and the dam is stunning. This decent allows a smile to break through my grimace, although the arm pump from continuous hard breaking means that the grimace soon returns. Further down I’m faced with a steep rocky chute which I confidently enter, convinced I can ride. However, bailing out rather than being airlifted seems to be the better option at three km or so from the finish and I tentatively pick my way down on foot.
Back on my bike, I cross the line in 9 hours 28 minutes 20 seconds, just six seconds up on last year and an improvement of four places in the overall rankings. In the language of cycling it’s definitely a marginal gain but it’s been an amazing day and I’m more than happy with my performance.
Bike, kit and clothing
I used a Giant XTC Advanced 29er, replacing last year’s XTC Composite 29er. Carbon hardtail all the way for me. Light, simple and efficient on the climbs. I’ll deal with the consequences on the descents.
Standard, but light 29er 32 spoke wheels. Specialized Ground Control tyres (control sidewall for added durability), tubeless, set to a relatively firm 28 psi. Weight is important, but so too is durability. Added pressure due to the high speed descents.
Tools and Spares
Be self-sufficient. I carried two tubes and a pump in a seat pack. I used a bottle cage mounted SWAT multi-tool and chain tool hidden in the stem cap.
Carbon 720mm wide Easton bars. Light and comfortable, but most importantly wide bars are a good platform for the climbs and give confidence and control on the descents. Ritchey foam lock-on grips add comfort.
Mavic Chasm shoes replaced the very stiff Specialized S-Works I used last year. While stiff enough, the Mavics had a bit more give on the gruelling hike-a-bike section of the Pas de Lona.
Tips from the top
Mel Alexander is an Elite XC racer, having competed domestically and internationally for the Contessa-SCOTT- Syncross Mountain Bike Team.
Build up endurance with regular three to four hour rides – there is no need to do crazy distances. I raced seven MTB marathons in the four months prior to Grand Raid, which were great for developing consistent pacing.
Make sure you’re comfy with your bike set-up – being uncomfortable will hinder your ride. I used the lightweight SCOTT Scale hardtail which I’m very comfy on. The bike had a 1×11 SRAM groupset with a 32 tooth chainring.
Knowing the course
I printed and laminated the course profile and stuck it to my handlebars. This was really helpful as I like to know how long I am climbing for and how far feedzones and the finish are.
I carried nine Torq gels and two bottles of Torq energy. I replaced my bottles with energy drink from the feedzones and had a gel every 30 – 45 minutes. At the last two feed stops I had a cup of coke which felt amazing, and I picked up more gels.
It’s a long day ahead so relax, set a pace and embrace the race. Enjoy the challenge, the views and being around other riders. When it gets tough smile and appreciate what you are doing – it will help you relax and refocus.
Try it for yourself
If you are interested in competing in Grand Raid take a look at their website. The 2016 event is on 20 August with registration in a place called Sion on Friday 19th August. This involves a compulsory bike check along with receiving your race pack. A racing licence is not required for this event.
As one would expect from a Swiss event, the organisation is second to none. From slick registration through to an army of enthusiastic, efficient volunteers and a swift shuttle service, don’t stress too much about logistics and nutrition. The whole thing runs like, well you know.
Feedzones are well stocked and regular. Event sponsors Cristalp Water and Isostar do a fantastic job with the supplies, including fresh bottles throughout.
Shorter race distances are offered, with different starts occurring from the main towns between Verbier and Grimentz.
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