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Endura Alpen-Traum : Sportive

Stu Bowers
11 Jun 2015

The Alpen-Traum translates as 'Alpine Dream' but with a ride this hard it could become a nightmare.

I’m in a spot of bother. I’ve had this problem before, but never this badly. I don’t want to lose contact with the fast-moving group of riders that I’ve been clinging to since the start of the event, but I really, really need to pee. It’s pouring with rain, hard enough that I consider simply relieving myself in my shorts. They’re soaked through anyway, and the warming sensation might even be quite pleasant given how cold it is right now. But I somehow can’t bring myself to do it. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m only just over 50km into what’s going to be one of the longest days I’ve ever had on a bike, and I don’t fancy sitting in a puddle of urine for what’s looking likely to be at least another eight hours. In the nick of time, a sign at the roadside in Elmen indicates the first feed station is approaching. Maybe finally I can nip to the loo without being left to ride alone in the misty murk of dawn. As I prepare to pull into the lay-by where the array of trestle tables bursting with sweet and savoury treats awaits us, to my dismay, no one else in this group appears to be slowing. I drop to the rear of the bunch, indicating my intention to stop, and all but one of the other riders just races by, heads down.

I have no choice but to dive for the bushes. Re-emerging from the undergrowth with an immense sense of relief, I look up the road meandering into the hillside and already the group is out of sight. I’m resigned to the fact that, without a monumental effort that would certainly put me in a world of trouble later, that’s the last I’ll see of them today. So I about-turn and opt for the shelter of the tents to fill
my cheeks with fresh orange segments and my pockets with flapjacks.

Alpen Traum climb - Geoff Waugh

Bigger, longer, higher

Thankfully, the other rider who has also chosen to stop is Brendan Milliken from Endura, the clothing company that sponsors the event. Brendan is easy to spot as he’s clad from head to foot in Movistar team kit (Endura is the team’s kit sponsor). He’s all too aware of Rule #17 regarding the wearing of pro team kit when not a pro, but he has a good excuse. It just so happens he’s Nairo Quintana’s body doppelgänger, so is often called upon to test prototypes of his kit. Alpen-Traum is already proving a brutal testing ground, and we’ve only just begun. At least I have a friendly riding companion (who is also English speaking, as most of the entrants are German) as we rejoin the route together.

It seems the latest trend for sportives is to compete for bragging rights over who has the craziest distances, highest passes or simply the most amount of climbing. The Endura Alpen-Traum sets the bar pretty high. Now in its second year, it covers a distance of 252km and includes a massive 6,078m of vertical ascent. By comparison, the Marmotte, one of the toughest sportives on the calendar, includes a comparatively benign 5,180m. Unusually for a sportive, the Alpen-Traum is a point-to-point route that visits four countries along the way (with a return bus provided the following day) and it promises to dish out plenty of fun and pain, but not necessarily in equal measure. This is not an event to arrive at unprepared.

Alpen Traum Drinks - Geoff Waugh

This morning, soaking wet, cold and in total darkness, we’d solemnly left the town of Sonthofen in Germany in the foothills of the Alps, with the usual fanfare of a sportive start having been somewhat drowned out. It was less than 5°C at the outset, and after just 10km of trying to get blood flowing to my extremities, I’d forced my muscles to haul bike and body over the first of the route’s six passes – the 6km climb of the Oberjoch Pass, which reaches 1,155m and has an average gradient of 4%. It was little more than a molehill compared to some of the giants on the route profile, but it certainly didn’t feel like a gentle start to the day. I’d latched myself onto the front group on the road, and as rain lashed the road and icy spray from the wheel in front soaked my face, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was doing this. All I could think about on the descent, as I slapped my thighs repeatedly to try and get some feeling back in my fingers, was that things could only get better.

We crossed the border from Germany into the western corner of Austria fairly soon after the descent of the Oberjoch, and as Brendan and I now tap out a rhythm that’s a little more sociable than earlier in the day, we find ourselves heading gradually into the high Alps. Finally the rain is relenting. Before we reach the finish line in the Italian ski resort of Sulden this evening, we will find ourselves riding (on two separate occasions) in Switzerland, before eventually crossing into Italy, with just the small matter of another five passes to tackle, one of which just happens to be the mighty Stelvio at around the 200km mark. The Alpen-Traum might not boast a collection of climbs and mountains etched into racing folklore, but its route commands respect, if not outright fear.

Alpen Traum - Geoff Waugh

 Upwards and upwards

As the Hahntennjoch Pass looms, things are about to get steep for the first time. The road rises nearly 1,000m in 14.7km to its summit at 1,894m, with ramps steepening to 15% at times. It will be a big obstacle to tick off the list. There are a few hairpins in the early stages but the upper slopes are predominantly longer, more arduous traverses up the mountainside.

It feels like a slog and I’m worried my legs just aren’t up to it today. My only hope is that the forecasted improvement in the weather might provide me with a rejuvenating boost. Right now though we’re still shrouded in mist at this altitude and the temperature is barely above freezing. It’s a shame as I’m certain we’re missing some spectacular views as the summit of the Hahntennjoch approaches. Feeling thankful to be cresting this peak, I’m hoping for some recovery on the long descent. We were forewarned about this stretch due to the potential to reach some seriously high speeds combined with several unexpectedly tight turns, as well as some poor road conditions. The rain might have ceased but the tarmac is still soaking, and I fully intend to heed the caution as gravity begins to increase my pace. However my brakes are not filling me with confidence as the carbon braking surface of my wheels struggles to cope. Rather than recovering on the descent, I feel as if I’m using nearly as much energy as on the climb through fear and shivering, as well as at times squeezing the levers with all the strength my white-knuckled fists can muster. I’m a nervous wreck when I finally make it to the valley floor and the outskirts of the picturesque Austrian town of Imst, where we’ve also been warned that local police will be checking our speeds and imposing on-the-spot fines to anyone exceeding the town’s limits.

A food stop arrives and I welcome the chance to sit on the grass while stuffing down some calories. I could really do with a hot cup of tea or coffee, and I’m tempted to take a short detour into Imst, but think better of it. I need to keep up my momentum. There’s still a long way to go.

Alpen Traum Climb 02- Geoff Waugh

 Highs and lows

At times the Alpen-Traum route has a feeling of German efficiency about it. I’d describe some of the sections as more ‘purposeful’ than beautiful – simply serving to deliver riders to the next mountain pass by the most direct means possible. We find ourselves on some fairly major roads, but as it’s still before 10am on a Saturday morning the traffic is not a major issue.

Landeck, at around 115km into our ride, is the start town for the shorter route option, and by my watch I’m only just going to make it through before that event gets under way. With the weather now significantly more pleasant in the valley, those riders lined up for the shorter option (I won’t call it the ‘easy route’ as it’s still nearly 150km and includes the Stelvio) are unaware of the suffering endured by those of us who have been riding for nearly four hours already, while they were sipping coffees in the warmth of their hotels. Not that I’m bitter. A frantic, flag-waving marshal ushers me into a left-hand turn not long after leaving the town, which signals the start of the Pillerhöhe, the next installment in the Alpen-Traum’s sextuplet of climbs, standing at 1,559m with 7.4km at an average of 9%, but with gradients of up to 16%.

I’ve been riding alone for some time (I lost sight of Brendan during my nervous descent), so it comes as a bit of a shock when riders suddenly start charging past me. Very soon I’m swamped by an endless string of fresh-legged individuals who fly past me like I’m stationary. It’s not great for morale, and I have no energy to rise to a chase, especially knowing the hardest climbs are still to come. At least the descent off Pillerhöhe is made more enjoyable by the now drier conditions and my brakes working effectively. By the time I reach the top of the next climb up the Reschenpass, having topped up my reserves at the feed in Nauders, I’m surprised to suddenly be feeling quite spritely, despite having been in the saddle now for over six hours.

Alpen Traum Mountain Road- Geoff Waugh

The Strada Statale 40 takes us onto Italian soil, its smooth tarmac cutting a long zigzagging ribbon of black through the lush green valley. It feels like a motor racing circuit. The bends are wide, open and flat, and taking them at speed is a real buzz, although the valley is also channelling a strong wind and I sometimes have to struggle to avoid being blown across the lanes. Regardless, I’m full of adrenaline as I zip through the town of Laatsch and pass by the beautiful Lake Reschen on the other side.

Home and dry

All that’s gone before (now more than seven hours) is really just a warm-up for the headline act. We’re now back in Switzerland and heading for Santa Maria, which is a continuous climb before we even reach the start of the infamous Umbrail Pass, one of three ways to climb the mighty Passo dello Stelvio (Germans call it Stilsfer Joch). The pass will deliver us to 2,501m, before joining the main route up from Bormio for the remaining 256m to reach the summit at 2,757m, after a total of 17km of climbing at an average gradient of 8%. Fausto Coppi is said to have earned his nickname ‘Campionissimo’ on these slopes after the many epic battles he fought on the Stelvio during the Giro d’Italia. The word ‘iconic’ barely does it justice.

I make a mental request to my engine room for more power, but the response is limited. It appears my reserves may already have been used up. I hurriedly search in my pockets for food, and slurp down two energy gels in quick succession. I click onto the biggest sprocket, thinking that a short time spinning a small gear will relieve some of the strain, but the reality is I won’t be shifting out of my bottom gear for a very long time. I’m very grateful for the compact chainset, and for being aboard one of the lightest bikes money can buy, but there are still times on some of the Umbrail Pass’s steeper ramps when it feels as if I’m barely moving at all. I eventually arrive at the top of the Stelvio after 10 hours of riding and close to two hours of suffering on this climb alone. I’m near to breaking point, and we’re not done yet.

Alpen Traum Corner 02- Geoff Waugh

The low temperature doesn’t allow for much time to rest and take in the views at the summit. I’m shivering by about the third hairpin of the descent and there are another 45 to go before I can reach the warmth of the valley below and get my muscles working again. By the time I arrive at Gomagoi and the final feed station, I’m a pale shadow of the man who left the start line this morning. The end is a mere 12km away, but I’m a painfully long way from finishing. The final section is practically all uphill, terminating at the ski resort in Sulden at nearly 1,900m. The average gradient to get there is 7%, and just like the other climbs on the route has ramps of 16%.

Only the thought that there’s no way I can quit this close to the end keeps my cranks turning. Food and energy drinks are no longer of any use. In fact they just add to the sickening feeling in my stomach. I never actually come to a complete standstill, but there are times when I’m close. Rounding the last few turns, relief at seeing the finish banner washes over me, and there’s even a short downhill run through the town centre to send me to the moment I’ve being willing to come for the past hour. I’m done. The clock says it’s taken me just shy of 11 hours. The winner took eight and a half.

A few hours later, I’m feeling a little more human again. Andreas Schillinger, a pro for Team Netapp Endura, has joined us for dinner, having just finished sixth. He’d ridden the Tour de France just six weeks beforehand, so it gives some degree of satisfaction to everyone present when he declares he found the Alpen-Traum harder than anything he’d experienced before: ‘There are not stages in even the Tour this hard and long.’ That’s all I need to hear to feel satisfied at reaching the finish line today.

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