When the alarm rang at 4:30 I was already half awake, feeling really excited for the upcoming leg of the race. I had to start the day by climbing the last meters to Grindelwald, where the control was located. There I got greeted by a super friendly volunteer who seemed eager to cater to my every need, which is pretty amazing considering that he told me he had been awake all night and followed my dot since the evening, not sure how long I would rest. It’s a very comforting feeling and a big boost for the morale when you notice that someone cares about the race and is following it 🙂
From all the bikes standing around it was apparent that quite a lot of racers were staying at the hotel, but I again didn’t want to linger long and left with my stamped card, most of them would overtake me on the climb anyways.
The village was really impressive, with huge walls of rock shooting straight into the sky seemingly directly behind the houses. I filled my water bottles at a fountain at the market square and could watch the headlamps of groups of mountaineers already being busy high up. This somehow gave me the feeling that we’re not the craziest around 😀
Whilst leaving the village I got joined by two other riders, Adrien and Michal, with whom I had pleasant chats for the most part of the first climb. We reached the col just in time to see the sun come out behind the mountains, which was quite a spectacle. Whilst dressing for the descent other riders arrived, among them Adam and Max, who apparently had managed to fix their front wheel.
But I couldn’t fully enjoy the way down, since a) it was still quite cold and b) I would have to climb the same elevation and more directly after.
The next valley was becoming flooded by buses, which ferried countless cyclists from their hotels to the foot of the climb, probably as part of fully curated “we carry your luggage”-trips. I didn’t really want to admit it to myself, but a part of me was a bit envious of how them, spilling out of the buses, munching on fresh croissants and getting their super light bikes handed to them.
But whenever one of them overtook me (which obviously happend quite a lot), they had a warm and empathic smile on their face, glancing at all the bits and pieces dangling from my bike.
Further into the day and up the valley more and more tourists were roaming around, our breaths taken away by the heat, the views (and for some of us by the exhaustion 😀 ). Also the road became very busy and loud because of an endless stream of motorcycles. I was really thankful for my mountainbike crank and gearing, since I could spin along at a high cadence. Obviously I wasn’t the fastest, but it saved my knees a lot of stress, and they would definitely be the weak point on my body with all the uphill.
Half an hour later I turned around the final bend, but I wasn’t greeted with a view down into the next valley. Instead there was ANOTHER dam even higher up… Oh well, I might just continue to get it over with, so another hour of nonstop pedaling and thousands of motorcycles followed. At this point, I wasn’t able anymore to enjoy the views of this truly magnificent alpine region, I was just focused on the music in my ear and turning the pedals.
Exhausted and a bit demoralized I made the final turn onto the second dam only to receive another blow: Apparently those damned Swiss people dam their valleys three times?
This time I couldn’t just continue. I sat down on the concrete wall and munched a salami, feeling a bit sorry for myself. Of course all of this emotional turmoil could have been avoided with either a) not setting any expectations or b) looking at the elevation profile on my phone and realizing how much more climbing I would have to do.
But alas, here I was, slouched on the pavement, almost but not completely at the top with no real physical reason to stop. And that’s when I got reminded of a chapter of an audiobook I had been listening to just a couple of days ago:
In 2005, Alan St. Clair Gibson studied the effect of thwarted expectations on perception of effort in a group of 16 well-trained runners. The experiment had two parts. In one part the subjects were required to run at a steady pace for 20 minutes on a treadmill. At the end of each minute, they were asked to rate their perception of effort as well as their “positive affect,” or enjoyment level. In the other part of the experiment, the subjects were asked to run for just 10 minutes at the same pace, but at the end of the 10th minute they were told they had to run 10 minutes longer. So the second run was in fact identical to the first, but the subjects expected it to be shorter and hence easier. (The actual order of the two runs was randomized.)
When he reviewed the data he’d collected, St. Clair Gibson found that the runners’ perceived effort ratings spiked and their positive affect scores nosedived right after they were informed that they would have to run 10 minutes longer than they’d expected to. The runners did not feel worse on a purely physical level, but they developed a bad attitude about how they felt, so in effect they did feel worse.
How Bad Do You Want It? - Matt Fitzgerald
A quick mental rundown of my body confirmed that it truly was just my mind holding me back, so after a couple of minutes I got back on the bike and carried on. At almost 2000m altitude it had gotten cold anyways, even with the sun shining down in full force.
Five switchbacks and 30 minutes later I had finally, truly, completely climbed the Grimselpass and treated myself to a coke at a kiosk. Surrounded by hordes of tourists I took in the view, feeling a bit proud of myself and also very detached from all the people around me. Looking North-East I was able to spot the end of the mandatory parcours: The Furkapass. Seemingly at the same elevation, it would have been a nice little effortless ride to get over there, if it weren’t for the valley in between us.
On any other day, especially on a single-day ride, the notion of losing this much elevation only to climb it all again directly after, for the second time in just a few hours, would have devastated me. But embedded in the bigger challenge of “Dude, you’re racing across Europe, you wanted this”, and just having had the minor emotional nosedive in combination with realizing that it’s all in my mind, I was now again in a state where I could just shrug my shoulders, mutter “Oh well, gotta do what you gotta do” to myself and start bombing down the mountainside.
Just before the next climb started was a restaurant, from the looks of it frequented by most of the motorbikers with whom I shared the road all day. I was again baffled by how much food can cost, even just a big plate of chicken nuggets. Nonetheless I was very happy with just sitting at a table, munching, drinking and chatting with another racer, allowing myself to unwind a little. The Furkapass was only a third of the elevation of the pass I had just conquered, and it wasn’t even afternoon yet. Additionally, I learned my lessons and checked the map as well as the elevation profile, ensuring I wouldn’t experience any bad surprises.
But first I had to get down from the pass, which proved to be surprisingly exhausting since a strong headwind was blowing up the mountainside, forcing me to pedal on the downhill. Luckily the wind subsided once I reached Andermatt, where I made a pit stop at a supermarket to refill my stash of Haribos and Nuts. Whilst wandering through the aisles I got aware for the first time of the exhaustion, I felt like a zombie and at times couldn’t remember which items exactly I needed. But in the end my brain even worked in autopilot and I walked out with loads of snacks and ice cream.
Outside I saw the two Swedes and other racers following the same routine, refueling before climbing the Oberalppass.
Once back on the road I now truly felt embedded in a postcard world. I rode past little chalets and grazing cows, crossing paths with narrow rails for the cute little red railroad with huge windows, so that the passengers can take in those magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.
I had heard from other racers that the descent of the Oberalppass is supposed to be superb, but I truly underestimated what that meant. Usually when going downhill on mountain passes, the first quarter you’re standing on the brakes because of all the twisty turns, the next quarter you’re standing on the brakes, because you don’t quite trust the road conditions and are worried about upcoming potholes, which at possible speeds of 60km/h or higher aren’t ideal, and then the last half of the descent you’re wondering whether this false flat was the whole reason you climbed for the past hours.
Not so the Oberalppass: After only a few of S-Bends followed the best tarmac ever, at just the right steepness so that I could cruise for almost 1.5 hours without serious pedaling or breaking. A pretty nice experience which almost made up for all the climbing beforehand.
The plan for this day had only called for around 175km, 100km less than average, acknowledging the insane amount of climbing. But I surpassed my designated sleeping spot at around 18:00, still rolling downhill and now aiming for the beginning of the next climb for this nights sleeping spot.
When the downhill came to an end, I stopped at a gas station and got myself a couple of ice creams, feasting on them whilst sitting on the floor outside. A guy came out of the adjacent service station and struck up a talk with me, asking where I’m going and so on. Explaining my intention to go to Tamins, which would be a little climb, he told me that there’s a much better road with less traffic, less climbing and generally nicer views on the other side of the river, I’d just have to double back for around one kilometer. I was pretty hesitant to abandon my route with the known, but compared to the others, pretty small climb for what either could be a segment representing the icing on the cake or a total nightmare, getting lost on some dirt road and being annoyed because I should have just stayed on my route.
In the end I trusted his advice and was rewarded big time… The Rhine cut some beautiful formations in the rock, which were only visible from this side of the river, there clearly was less climbing and the lack of traffic was an added bonus.
As the sun was setting I reached the foot of the Albulapass and looked for a place to sleep. I still felt quite good, but it was highly unlikely that I had enough energy to again gain over 1500m of elevation, and I had lots of respect for the weather in the mountains, so I certainly didn’t want to sleep up there and then get caught in a thunderstorm.
I had no issues falling asleep after this day of strenuous exercise, but I woke soon after with massive discomfort in my legs. I had experienced it in last years race as well, it’s a sensation comparable to when you can’t move a joint beyond a certain angle without “popping” it, but it feels like the muscles are covered in a crust of this feeling. I wiggled around in my bivy bag, trying to stretch and massage my legs, and managed to drift back into sleep.
A little while later I got woken up again by a thunderstorm, raining down heavily on me. I didn’t really have any cover and had never tried the bivy bag in serious rain, so I was lying there, feeling each drop coming down, anxious whether the inside of the bag just got cold from the rain or actually wet. It seemed to stay quite dry, but I wasn’t really sure. In the end I decided to just try to go back to sleep, if it truly wasn’t waterproof then I’d find out soon enough and there would be no difference between getting up now and becoming soaked from the rain or getting up later, after having potentially been soaked.