Ride report: Climbs and cowbells at the 2018 Swiss Epic

When you get that phone call with an offer to ride your bike in the Swiss Alps you’d be a fool to say no, right?

On a casual Friday afternoon ride, I received one such call from a school friend and regular riding partner. With less than ten weeks until the 2018 Perskindol Swiss Epic we were all in, me with a serious absence of fitness and the lack of mountain bike to call my own.


The Swiss Epic you say?

If you’re not familiar with the event, the Swiss Epic is a five-day mountain bike race that takes place in the Valais region of Switzerland. The fifth edition of the event took place from 11-15 September 2018 over 351 kilometres with 12 550 meters of climbing. Although when founded in 2014, beyond the name there was no relation to the Cape Epic, in September 2017 that changed when it was announced that Ironman had acquired the Swiss Epic. The event now forms part of the Epic Series alongside The Pioneer (New Zealand) and, of course, “our” very own Absa Cape Epic.


With ten weeks to go, most of which consumed by work trips, illness and Netflix binges, there wasn’t a whole lot of structured or focused training to speak of. But it’s only five days I said and manageable distances. And the climbing? Well, we’ll just figure that out. Apparently it’s mostly on smooth roads, I assured myself, and besides, I enjoy climbing...


On the start line in Bettermalp. Photo: Nick Muzik


Fast forward to 11 September 2018 and we’re on an Alp, surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks, ready (or not) for Stage 1 of the Perskindol Swiss Epic.


What lay ahead on Stage 1. Photo: Alex Buschor


If Stage 1, and my entire Swiss Epic experience, could be described in just one word that would simply be ‘humbling’. The early kicker climbs at a casual 2000m above sea level left me wondering if a lung or two had been left in Dubai along with some fellow riders’ baggage. Not even 5km in on day one and I’m stumbling up a steep techy climb scrounging for something to call air.


Thankfully the next 12km would drop us over 1000m into the valley below at an average gradient of -8.5%. On paper, this all looked like a gentle introduction for the body and mind, a chance to shake off the travel-induced haze. On paper…


It’s tough to put into words just how steep, rocky and lacking of any discernible lines many of the Swiss trails are. For starters, there’s simply no getting away from the numbers with sections of -20% to -40% gradients. Throw in some rocks, tight off-camber switchbacks or the occasional bar biting tree and you’ve got a mean set of ingredients to thoroughly test skills and fitness. There’s just nothing in our fine selection of local trails that could have prepared us for this.


Photo: Nick Muzik
Barti Bucher sails through a high-speed rock-laden trail. Photo: Nick Muzik

PSE_2018_apix_stage_2-339.jpgYou can go your own way....
Photos: Alex Buschor

Photo: Nick Muzik


After the initial system shock, we soon began to get the hang of the environment and soak up some skills from our Swiss counterparts. And it quickly dawned on us that downhills here would seldom offer rest or recovery, but instead demand intense focus and endurance. With that challenge though came great reward. On occasion that reward was simple survival, but for the most part the flood of trail-induced feel-good brain chemicals was long-lasting. The stoke was high.


Tunnel vision and fistfuls of brake lever. Photo: Sportograf


Photo: Alex Buschor

SE18_Stage05_MM_0304.jpgRocky turns were the order of the day on most stages. Photo: Marius Maasewerd
SE18_Stage02_MM_0246.jpgNot all the switchbacks were ridable by mere mortals. Photo: Marius Maasewerd


Photo: Alex Buschor


Photo: Nick Muzik


With all five stages featuring no less than 2000m in vertical ascent, and three over 2600m we were mentally prepared for a significant chunk of time to be spent climbing. It is the Swiss Alps after all! As anticipated, many of the climbs through the week were indeed on tar or smooth gravel surfaces. Without a doubt technically easier than what we typically encounter in most local stage races, but, no matter how easy the going is, ascending 1000m over 10km is not typically easy. Especially with 1500m already in the legs.


Over the five days of the Swiss Epic our race progress was measured not by distance, but the meters of vertical ascent we’d clocked off.


A long climb up out of the valley on Stage 3. Don't think tar means its easy... Photo: Nick Muzik


The hammer leading the nail... I was the nail most days. Photo: Sportograf


My initial on-paper measure of this race was grossly inaccurate. With no real rest or meaningful free kilometres on offer, the stages of the Swiss Epic were among the toughest I’ve encountered across the stage racing spectrum. Perhaps I was avoiding the obvious in not doing the maths up front, but a quantitative measure which does begin to tell the story is the ratio of vertical ascent to distance.



Swiss Epic - GoPro - Stage 1.jpg
Feeling the heat, lack of oxygen and mostly lack of fitness with a good 5km of climbing to go on Stage 1.


Puncture stops were all too common. Speed + Sharp rocks = Plug time. We plugged at least two holes each day. Photo: Nick Muzik


Each day we passed through clusters of mountainside cabins and houses. Photo: Nick Muzik


While the relentless climbs and hair-raising descents of Swiss Epic are inescapably taxing, there is something magical about the Swiss riding experience. From the postcard vistas of towering snow-capped peaks to quaint mountainside cabins, the distant rhythmic rattle of cowbells, the chants of “Hopp Hopp” from encouraging locals - it’s a special place to ride a mountain bike.


One of the many impressive bridge crossings which became a standard feature on each stage. Photos Alex Buschor


SE18_STG04_NM_0603.jpgPhoto: Nick Muzik
PSE_2018_apix_stage_4-108-2.jpgPhoto: Alex Buschor


Some local support. MORE COWBELL! Photo: Nick Muzik


The Stages

Stage 1: Bettermalp - Bettermalp
Distance: 63km | Climbing: 2700m


Stage 1.jpg

Stage 2: Bettermalp - Grachen
Distance: 77km | Climbing: 2700m


Stage 2.jpg

Stage 3: Grachen - Grachen
Distance: 71km | Climbing: 2850m


Stage 3.jpg

Stage 4: Grachen - Zermatt
Distance: 63km | Climbing: 2250m


Stage 4.jpg

Stage 5: Zermatt - Zermatt
Distance: 57km | Climbing: 2050m


Stage 5.jpg


And off the bike, the sleepy, car-free villages offered a welcome slow down in pace from noisy South African city life. Instead of the de-facto stage race tent living you come to expect, all Swiss Epic participants were comfortably accommodated in surrounding hotels and holiday apartments. Spending two nights in each village also meant less frequent re-packing of bags for transport to the next location. The simple luxuries of no shower queues or portaloos might sound extravagant to the hardened stage race tent dweller, but the all-round comfort off the bike did well to offset the physical demands of each day.


A short commute to the start line in our first race village Bettmeralp. Not a bad day for a bike ride.


The only vehicles we had to contend with on the race village streets were any array of electric carts ferrying people, bags, beer or the morning's fresh bread. Photo: Marius Maasewerd

Grachen Swiss Epic GoPro-1.jpgOur home for two nights in the second race village, Grachen.
Grachen Swiss Epic GoPro-2.jpgTough to live with the view from our apartment in Grachen.


A view from above: The race village in Zermatt, our host town for Stages 4 and 5. Photos Alex Buschor


My trusty steed after a solid five days of Swiss Epic. Ready to take a nap for the trip home.


A stage race experience like no other. Across landscapes seemingly predestined to produce medal winners. Switzerland, I hope to return soon.


Photo: Sportograf




Note: The 2019 Swiss Epic now takes place a bit earlier from 20-24 August 2019 and in a new region, Graubünden with host towns of Davos, St. Moritz and Lenzerheide. While of course the route will be totally new, I'd expect that alpine terrain will be as unforgiving and the above will still apply.


Keen on 2019? See all the details on the Swiss Epic website here.


Hairy, Oct 05 2018 01:13


CharlieGaul, Oct 05 2018 04:25

Looks so rad

DJR, Oct 06 2018 07:10

Great report Matt, with awesome pictures as well. The kind of article that inspires!

Headshot, Oct 06 2018 03:27

Rumour is they're making it less technical next year. The Epic buy out strikes...

heini, Oct 09 2018 12:20

It was a awesome experience. Will definitely be back one day. Two thumbs up to the organizers, brilliant event.

Next .......... Pioneer New Zeeland