Blogger, writer, MTB coach and endurance cyclist, Hannah Attenburrow (AKA Beyond the Mud), shares her experience of taking part in the uber-challenging, 521km-long, TransAlp Mountain Bike Race last year.
The TransAlp Bike Race claims to be the toughest amateur Mountain Bike stage race in Europe. In 2016, 600 teams of two (16 female, 584 male), set out from Imst in Austria on a seven-day epic journey that ended at Lake Garda, Italy.
The race is the ultimate test of mountain bike endurance and skill. My team mate Michelle and I spent seven days racing mountain passes, riding along valley floors, passing through tunnels and dropping down breathtaking descents as we crossed from Austria to Italy. We passed through 3 countries, climbed over 17,000 metres (which compares to climbing Mount Everest twice), and rode 521km.
Training in the UK can’t prepare you for the exhausting 2,000m climbs (unless you live in Scotland). As a team we burnt about 70,000 calories, went through 4 sets of brake pads, ate tonnes of bananas, watermelon and pineapple, 36 energy gels from High 5 and SIS, drank around 4.5L a day and spent 44 hours in total in the saddle.
After 17 hours of driving, we arrived at our B&B and spent Friday exploring the local bike trails. Our support crew consisted of my Dad, who has himself competed at a high level (Kayak Slalom for GB) and was excited to be supporting us, bringing with him vital knowledge, encouragement, food, water or just a thumbs up as we raced past; and Michelle’s boyfriend Tom, a semi-pro mountain bike racer whose experience of previously completing the TransAlp became invaluable.
On Saturday, the quiet Alpine town of Imst had been transformed into a hive of energy and activity. Bikers were everywhere, some already prepared with their number boards on their bikes and carrying the massive blue TransAlp kit bags, which would take clothes, spares, nutrition etc from hotel to hotel. The streets were filled with music and excitement, which gave us a huge wave of anticipation. After 10 months training and planning, we had made it to the start line.
Signing on was a simple process, and the organisation was excellent. After attaching the race number board and transponder to the front of our bikes we were given pasta party vouchers (each evening the race organised a pasta party to help riders refuel), freebies and of course our big blue kit bag.
It took me an age to drift off to sleep my head was full of checklists and questions. Could I actually do this?
Stage 1: Imst to Nauders
The start was a mass of carbon, Lycra, fresh legs, nerves and enthusiastic riders. The atmosphere was exciting with music blaring loudly and instructions over the tannoy in several different languages.
This first stage included 3,000 metres of climbing along the famous Via Claudia. Having never climbed 3,000 metres in a day before, I was going to be ‘jumping in at the deep end’ as they say.
The climbing was worth it as the most amazing scenery came into view. At points after climbing we would sweep back down into the valley and through picturesque little towns full of people cheering, which really lifted our spirits.
During each stage there was a ‘Sigma Vertical Challenge’, timed section of climb. Today’s was mega-tough as we climbed on a loose fire road. Due to the steep gradient, every now and again my pedal stroke would send my back wheel spinning out. I was not impressed that after the vertical challenge section, we continued to climb… I thought there should at least be a short downhill reward…
Stage 2: Nauders to Scuol
On day two we would country hop from Austria, Italy, and Switzerland riding through mountain borders.
Michelle and I set off, possibly too fast for the 10km uphill which greeted us. The heat was starting to get to me, with temperatures around 30-degrees; I found the uphill sections energy-sapping and had to constantly rehydrate. Having Dad and Tom for support was invaluable as they found places en route to give us extra water. Having a support team at the finish line each day was a massive help and meant we could focus on eating and getting ready for the next day.
We soon got into a post-finish routine: stretch, wash the bike, wash ourselves, eat, have a massage and then try to switch our brains off and sleep.
Stage 3: Scuol to Livigno
At 6.30 am we clambered out of bed to pack and get our kit bags downstairs for transport to the next hotel destination. Then, breakfast, the most important meal of the day and even more so when you’re riding through lunchtime! I supplemented my European breakfast of fruit and yoghurt with porridge and a few slices of bread with either honey or an egg, depending on what was on offer. Eating so much in the morning was hard, but I knew I needed to keep refueling to make it to day seven!
This stage had some of the most breathtaking scenery I had seen. Climbing high over Pass da Costainas, the route took us via an incredible single-track through the valley, which traversed a steep-sided track around the reservoir. To one side was a rock face and to the other was a scree slope down to the greeny-blue water. The Trans Alp so far had been both a physical and mental challenge. Descending fast along this thin track, which also crossed under a waterfall, was an exhilarating feeling, I felt totally in control of the situation and was just flowing along thinking how incredible and lucky I was to have this opportunity.
Stage 4: Livigno to Bormio
Today was the longest climb of all; the Umbrail Pass, (el. 2,501 m) a high mountain pass on the Swiss–Italian border. Day 4 was also a mile-stone for my cycling career as I had never ridden for 4 days in a row before.
The road twisted up through the valley climbing for 1,000m with an average incline of 9% until we ran out of tarmac and we were sent off-road on a 400m steep climb to the summit of Bocchetta di Forcola.
Standing above the snow line was unreal. I felt an immense sense of pride and accomplishment in getting this far and incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to witness such natural untouched landscapes. Mountains stretched out as far as the eye could see and below a trail of ant-sized cyclists made their way up to the summit. This moment will stay with me forever; in moments where I doubt myself, I will travel back to standing on the summit.
Stage 5: Bormio to Mezzana
Stage five was the Queen’s stage and toughest day of my TransAlp experience. I had my first mechanical when my chain jammed 800m off the start in a narrow back road. With hundreds of cyclists jostling for a place, I crept into a house doorway to sort my issue. My body then had a mechanical when my lower back problems reared their ugly head, sending pains from my back all down my leg into my foot.
By the top of Passo Gavia, at 2,600m, I was really struggling. I got off and stretched out my back which thankfully eased the pains.
Every day the Maxxis Enduro Challenge was a chance to test out single-track skills and nerve! This helped me forget my discomfort as my mind focused on making my way through the steep rock gardens and down to the valley floor. Unfortunately, it was over too quickly and we were climbing once more.
By the feed station at 45km I was again in a lot of pain and felt overwhelmed by the fact there was still over 40km to go until the finish. It’s these moments that really test your strength of character. It was a lonely climb to the top of the pass and I battled lots of demons in those 5km.
I was relieved to see Michelle, who helped me with my bike up a few steep climbs. A good team-mate on a stage race was more important than I realised; having someone there through the tough times makes all the difference.
Stage 6: Mezzana to Trento
Luckily, sleep, pilates and painkillers seemed to have helped and I kept a steady pace so not to aggravate anything. Michelle is a terrific climber and disappeared into the distance but waited for me when she could, shouting words of encouragement and support.
The highlight of the day was a steep woodland shoot through the trees with steep sides, leaf and boulder-strewn floor; line choice and nerve played a big part in getting down safely. Many parts of the TransAlp so far had been as mentally tough as they were physical.
So far, the TransAlp had included many interesting challenges and today was no different. We rode from bright sunlight into a dark tunnel, where the cold took my breath away. It was really eerie riding from bright sunlight into darkness that seemed to go on forever. A small group of us stayed close together – nobody wanted to be alone in this tunnel!
The path then continued to wind through apple groves and vineyards until a final descent, which was more like a scramble! We had to carefully make our way down the rock face carrying our bikes some of the way, as it was super-steep!
To my surprise, my body was handling the long days. Although the climbs were tough, I had found a pace that I could maintain for the 6-9 hours of continuous riding required each day. Having never biked more than 4 days in a row before, I was really pleased to make it to day 6 feeling ready for day 7!
Stage 7: Trento to Arco
The TransAlp had been an amazing journey. I had been working hard towards this final day for 10 months and the idea that my journey was ending was a little overwhelming. So it was with both happiness and sadness that I lined up in Trento ready for the last 54km of this breathtaking race.
We started the gradual climb up from 200m to 1700m. The road turned to forest tracks and gravel paths as we gradually wound our way to the top of the pass. I was feeling great, no aches or pains and was actually enjoying the demanding climb. (Clearly I was getting used to the Alps!)
My Dad had warned me of mountain thunderstorms but so far the weather had been hot and dry. As the sky darkened, loud rumbles could be heard in the distance and the heavens opened.
The Specialized Era I was riding was fantastic, apart from a few gearing issues caused by the 42t sprocket I put on for the huge climbs. The low stand-over height and rear shock gave me confidence to push myself on the single-track sections and the rear shock helped take the pounding out of climbing and descending, which helped no end.
As the rain got harder, I was glad to have my Gore Tex jacket, which up until now had sat neatly rolled in my jersey pocket. The feed station at 19km was full of chilly cyclists sipping hot soup, still with smiles on their faces. I didn’t stop for long just grabbing some pineapple and a drinks refill before continuing climbing to the summit at 24km.
I reached the top feeling relieved that my last big hill climb was behind me, but sad that I was nearly half-way through the final stage. I had experienced many highs and lows, learnt so much about myself, met some wonderful people and fully immersed myself in a real adventure.
The downhill section was bone-chilling. The first part was grassy paths through steep-sided gullies, which in the dry would have been great fun. However, the rain had made them like ice rinks. Once we hit the fire road, I enjoyed sweeping round corners, singing songs with the word rain in them (mainly, It’s Raining Men!), keeping my spirits high as the rain tumbled.
The feed station at 32km came with a very welcome hot tea and waffles. Just up the road was my Dad, standing like an ‘angel‘ with dry gloves and arm warmers. My fingers looked like I’d been sitting in the bath for too long! I have never been so happy to pull on a cosy, warm layer and this really helped get me up what was now my final climb in the Alps. L
Michelle and I took the final descent together. As we descended it became warm and, despite the damp, I felt really at home whizzing down the trails looking for the lines to avoid slippery roots.
Racing into the back roads of Arco, full of puddles and pot holes, and through the final finishing archway was incredible, I felt like I was dreaming. After visualising what it would feel like to accomplish my dream, it was difficult to describe how I felt. Relieved to have finished climbing mountains, for a while, exhilarated to have pushed my body out of the comfort zone and so proud to say I completed the toughest stage race in Europe! WE DID IT!
I enjoyed pushing myself and found the whole week one long learning curve on bike handling, climbing, teamwork, nutrition and a positive mental attitude! I enjoyed it all.
Thank you to my Dad, all my family and friends who supported me. Thanks to Specialized for designing such a great bike (the Era) and supporting my adventure. Thanks to Bike Fixers, Grip Grab, Food for Thought and Dogtag for supporting us on this journey of a lifetime.
The months after the TransAlp took me by surprise; I was the fittest I’d ever been but my motivation to train or even ride my bike seemed to have gone. It sounds funny, but I felt like I had lost something; I’d got into a ‘ride and rest’ rhythm and going back to ‘normal’ was tough.
I pulled out of the Torq 12:12 bike event because once my body started to relax out of training I started to get ill with colds.
Five months later, I got back into ‘real’ training with the help of my boyfriend Martyn who had decided that, as we were both turning 30 in 2017, we should climb a mountain together, and had swiftly booked us on an expedition to Mont Blanc. This was the shove I needed to start to feel like me again.
Another source of motivation to get going again was Sarah Williams’ Tough Girl Podcast. I listened to inspiring women who had been on epic adventures and had come back and felt exactly like I did. Phew!
So, what does it feel like to race a stage race?
I can’t quite put it into one sentence. During the pre, post and stage race itself I put my body and soul through hell and dragged it out the other side. But it was the most positive life-changing experience and I would sign up again in a heartbeat.
I think next time I would have a better plan when coming back. Now I know I’m likely to get ‘adventure blues’, I can look at setting things in motion to stop this happening on my return.
Hannah’s Stage Race Essentials
- Dates – a great source of carbohydrate.
- P20 SPF50 Sun Cream – Riding for 6/12 hours in the sun with minimal kit, you need a sun cream you can trust to stay on and do its job.
- Dioralyte – I found sweet electrolyte drinks too much, so this was a great way of taking on salts.
- Tube-less tyres – Over 7 days I didn’t get a single puncture; tube-less did me well.