Outside of Cape Epic in South Africa the Swiss Epic in Graubünden, Switzerland, is probably the big destination mountain bike race of the Epic series. Being one of the qualifiers for the Cape Epic, the two-person-team five day event is hugely competitive, packed with some of Europe’s top riders racing on some of the best trails around. With the Covid outbreak and my original 2020 race partner unavailable due to injury the decision to switch to 2021 and create Team 19.5 Toes with a new rider was made. The 2020 Laax trails made way for glitzy St. Moritz and Davos, the race entry fee reflecting this to a tee – not quite, there was no price increase to postpone the race a year, just the fact that everything Swiss is on the more expensive side.

Also being a fully catered event meant that the 4000 CHF entry fee included 5 nights shared hotel accommodation with all meals, daily post-race food and drink (cappuccinos and beers included), duffel bag, and exceptional race management.

Swiss Epic 2021, the final days finish line with Team 19.5 Toes

Swiss Epic 2021, the final days finish line with Team 19.5 Toes

Beginning in St. Moritz and ending in Davos the five days takes riders on a journey of 347 kilometres and 11,800 metres of climbing. Fortunately the altitude never goes above 2,600m! The terrain was everything you could expect from the Swiss Alps; plenty of often pretty intense singletrack, gravel roads, some paved roads, and fortunately only a small amount of hike-a-bike sections. It didn’t take us long to see that the Swiss, and especially the Graubünden canton, know how to create fun and epic trails.

Arriving into the area a few days early provided ample opportunities to ride the marked demo trails beforehand – not sure whether this was a good idea or not! The plan was to drive to Davos where the final day ends, and take the optional paid park and shuttle package getting both bike and body to St Moritz. The perfect way to ride two sets of trails and give this human machine some last minute cardio training.

The trails for the Swiss Epic have been in the Graubünden canton for at least the past few years but change for each race – this luxury of almost endless trails and bike parks must give the feeling of competing in a different event. For 2021 the first day begins and ends in St Moritz, the second beginning in St Moritz and ending in Valposchiavo, the third also beginning in St Moritz before moving on to finish in the second venue of Davos, then finally the fourth and fifth days both in and out of Davos. This entire area isn’t just a mountain bikers mecca, it’s also a hiking and skiing paradise and one which the opportunities are endless.

Not sure if the pre-race course riding was a good or bad idea!

Pre-race course riding in St Moritz

The number one priority is to ensure fuel levels are always topped up

Keeping fuel levels topped up

With the race being part of the Epic series (falling under the Ironman brand) of events it was always going to have organisation second to none, and having been around since 2014 has had plenty of time to develop into the premier stage race in Europe. This year was no exception; our accommodation in St Moritz was 3 nights at the Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski, a hotel typically well out of my league, followed by a huge downgrade to the Davos Hilton, also above my usual hostel style digs! Breakfasts and dinners were communal dining with extremely good food at the Kempinski; adequate but no where near as good at the Hilton. The rooms also followed this pattern!

Then there was apres-race! Each day ended with traditional local food in the race village, washed down with as much free beer (or barista provided coffees of your choice) as one dare drink. The options for daily massages, full on bike maintenance, and extra nights at the swanky hotels were all additional expenses.

Other than the shuttle from Davos to St Moritz we chose not to purchase any of the additional packages. It was hoped that bike maintenance would be limited to a quick lube in the morning upon collection from the overnight secure storage. Bike washing at the end of each stage was included, that’s if you don’t mind having the bearings and every other sensitive part blasted by a high pressured washer! Luckily neither of us had any mechanicals.

Lots of gravel riding

Lots of gravel riding

...and a whole load of singletrack

…with epic singletrack

...and the inevitable hike-a-bike

…and inevitable hike-a-bike

And now for the race itself…

Could we do enough to qualify for the mac daddy of races, the Cape Epic in South Africa? Most definitely not, unless everyone else wrecks! But we could have a blast, competing in our own rivalries with similar teams, and making new friends. Due to our far too optimistic placing in the third departure group on day 1 it was going to take a day or two to fall into the correct place where we would spend our days both leapfrogging and being leapfrogged!

For this event there were no time trials; just a start line, a finish line, and a good amount of excellent riding in between (expect countless photo stops if your team-mate is that way inclined!). The trails were perfectly marked, both with ribbons and friendly marshals on the roads and more sketchy sections. Descents and technical sections were graded by the number of arrows, and occasionally we were instructed to walk with bikes if things were really sketchy. All in all, excellent organisation.

Swiss Epic 2021 Stage 1
Stage 1
Swiss Epic 2021 Stage 2
Stage 2
Swiss Epic 2021 Stage 3
Stage 3
Swiss Epic 2021 Stage 4
Stage 4
Swiss Epic 2021 Stage 5
Stage 5

Finally the morning had come, the inevitable pre-race nerves floating around as we forced our bodies to perform some sort of a warmup routine. Usually this consisted of finding a tree to pee up and watching the UCI men and women pro’s depart behind a pace motorbike as they were lead away from the start chute. Having this pacer usually calmed the nerves as it was always easy riding with some bullshitting and a little jostling for places thrown in… and then the pace cyclist (in our case) pulled off, initiating the call for legs and hearts to start racing.

It was typically about now that I’d be asking myself if I’d be able to keep that awesome Kempinski breakfast down?

The clock had hit 9.12am and it was our turn to head off. It wasn’t long before it was apparent that almost everyone else in this third non-pro group was going for it, leaving stragglers such as Team 19.5 Toes in their dust – in fact the teams that were starting 3, 6, and probably 9 minutes later were soon catching up!

Word of advice; don’t take a partner who wants to continually stop to take photos and make sure they can climb, and climb some more. Sorry Christian!

It was easy to forget this was a race with such amazing views

Relentless eye candy

Mountain lakes the bluest of blue

Bluest of blue lakes

Alphorn blowers keeping the riders motivated
Alphorn blowers

As soon as lungs and heart rate settled down the riding was almost always fun, the climbs providing time to exchange banter with other riders, and the descents time to concentrate and hope to stay on two wheels! It was usually the case of hauling everyone in on the climbs that had overtaken on the descents, something especially true with my race partner. Unfortunately you would have to be going downhill at snails pace for the ups and downs to be equal on time difference.

And so it would be that I’d sit at the top of a climb… waiting, waiting, then depending on the length of the climb, waiting some more, finally hitting the descents with just enough time to stay out ahead. There was almost always traffic and rarely did either of us not get held up on the singletrack.

Bottom line: Train to climb on gravel, climb on road, climb on singletrack, just climb!

The scenery was epic, always finding a way of distracting from the leg burn and racing heart. Between the climbs, the descents, and the scenery the kilometres tended to fly by. Then throw in some thrilling bike park terrain and mountain bike racing doesn’t get much better – etched into memory is the Corviglia Flow Trail above St Moritz, packing a big punch with a 480m drop over 4.4kms of awesomeness.

Chilling after a fun stage 3 on Swiss Epic 2021

Chilling with a cold ‘free’ beer

An exhausted teammate making the most of some supersized loungers!

An exhausted teammate

After our initial days departure in group 3 we soon found our place in the pack, continually hovering around 20th place in the Grand Masters division. A future top 10 has definitely not been ruled out! The stages flowed nicely into each other, each day ending in sunshine with a couple of cold beers washed down with a flat white or two, some much needed nutrition and a good amount of calories (in that order).

By my stats we climbed a pretty impressive 10,328 metres over 5 days, moving up from 184th overall to 160th, crossing the final finish line in Davos completely unscathed. Maybe that means we didn’t push hard enough?

This is an event that I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up for again, very much on par with Cape Epic, the bonus being the luxury of hotels instead of tents… and free finish line beer. What more could one ask for!

August 17th – August 21st 2021

Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski St. Moritz – 600 CHF direct
Hilton Garden Inn Davos – 200 CHF direct

Day 1: St. Moritz – St. Moritz
Grand Masters: 22nd, Overall: 184th, Total Time: 5:37:49
Distance: 63.94km, Ascent: 2,316m, Riding Time: 5:09:17, Race Time: 5:37:49
Total Distance: 63.94km, Total Ascent: 2,316m

Day 2: St.Moritz – Valposchiavo
Grand Masters: 20th, Overall: 167th, Total Time: 9:59:53
Distance: 61.44km, Ascent: 1,646m, Riding Time: 4:11:25, Race Time: 4:50:17
Total Distance: 125.38km, Total Ascent: 3,962m

Day 3: St. Moritz – Davos
Grand Masters: 21st, Overall: 166th, Total Time: 15:48:51
Distance: 74.30km, Ascent: 2,173m, Riding Time: 5:09:27, Race Time: 5:48:58
Total Distance: 199.68km, Total Ascent: 6,135m

Day 4: Davos – Davos
Grand Masters: 20th, Overall: 161st, Total Time: 21:09:05
Distance: 66.93km, Ascent: 2,119m, Riding Time: 4:43:54, Race Time: 5:20:14
Total Distance: 266.61km, Total Ascent: 8,254m

Day 5: Davos – Davos
Grand Masters: 19th, Overall: 160th, Total Time: 25:59:22
Distance: 63.15km, Ascent: 2,074m, Riding Time: 4:20:21, Race Time: 4:50:17
Total Distance: 329.76km, Total Ascent: 10,328m

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