This is TORTOUR Cyclocross Summer, the world’s first cyclocross stage race. Over the course of its three-day programme, riders race through the mountains, forests and lakes of the Lucerne region, a unique and beautiful backdrop for a bike race.
I have raced in Switzerland before; last year at the TORTOUR Winter Cyclocross. That event featured snow, mud, mountains, and sub-zero temperatures, this race is more about gravel, rocky trails, rolling hills, and heat. It will be a test, for bike, body and mind.
With thunderstorms looming ominously in the background, the prologue is where it all begins. Short and sharp: 20 kilometres, on a 3-kilometre lapped course of the gravel paths behind the race headquarters.
From the gun the gravel flies. 100 riders kick up stones and dust on the hazy Friday afternoon. My 40c tyres buzz along the tarmac, and then grip hard as we ascend the short steep climb through the forest. Riders jostle for position. Brakes squeal in the corners.
Before we know it, the 40-minute stage is finished. Riders grab snacks and beers, and then head to dinner. We need to recover fast ahead of tomorrow’s endeavours.
Enjoy some quick video from Tim’s handlebar mounted Gopro:
The alarm sounds at 04:30. Breakfast is a pre-dawn attempt to pump some fuel into the legs. Then we line up: 06:00 the start gun sounds.
The course is mountainous, and the sun is rising as we begin the first ascent; casting long shadows over the peloton, and brining some welcome warmth to the shady forest.
I lose contact with the lead group before long, but settle into my own rhythm. Push the gear. Feel the bike grip and accelerate on the loose Swiss gravel. Hold on for the descents; keep the line, and let the bike flow through the shaded forest switchbacks.
Swiss terrain is quite different from the Dolomites, French Alps, or Pyrenees. It is a mix of rolling pastures filled with cattle and crops, interspersed by short, steep, and rocky ascents and descents; an eclectic mix, which makes for exciting and on-edge racing.
The stage finishes with a long descent, a lengthy flat, and then a punchy climb to climax. Spotting a small group ahead I let the Exploro rip on the downhill, and then make the most of the 700c speed on the flat; catching the group with enough time to overtake them on the final rise.
8thon the stage, up to 9thon the general classification – it’s not a bad start, given I am a foreigner racing locals and elites on their home turf.
The stage is followed by an afternoon of relaxing, and then an evening BBQ and beers. We are at a ‘gravel’ event after all.
My back and legs can feel the previous day’s efforts, as I make my way to the breakfast hall at first light. Today’s start is less ‘crazy-o-clock’, but still early enough to appreciate the sight of the sun emerging behind the distant Alps. The attacks go from the first sight of gravel. The field strung out like a conga line, kicking up dust in its wake.
I struggle to hold wheels on the hairpin gravel descents, but reassure myself that my bike and body can be trusted to deliver on the climbs further on in the stage. At times we emerge from the forest onto open farmland; grabbing distant glimpses of the mountains, and enough respite on smooth tarmac to grab a drink and shoot down a gel; before plunging back into the technical forest trails.
It is a sleepy Switzerland on this early summer Sunday morning, but that makes it all the more beautiful a backdrop for a fast and frantic bike race. Past gonging cowbells and soaring hot air balloons; this is a country of stereotypes, but it is all the better for it, and the reputation of great bike riding is certainly truthful. After 2.5 hours of racing we return to base in ones and twos. A few cautious descents have knocked my final standing back to 11th, but it matter little – it is an experience that has been first rate.
This was a test. It was a ride in the unknown – a new country, with new terrain; racing against new competition. The result was both enjoyable and spectacular: beautiful landscapes, challenging parcour, and new friends. Exploro more.
And here’s also a short video from the Finale Stage:
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