Racing mixed doubles, victory at Trans Alp

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27.07.16 at 9:21 am

Mountain-Bike-Transalp-Champions-Ben-Thomas

A week before Bike Transalp I get a message from European Champion Sally Bigham asking if I wanted to race the mixed category with her. Did she really need an answer? 110% yes was my reply!

Dave, manager for Team Topeak Ergon, was soon in contact and all the plans were quickly in place. It wasn’t the first time I’d raced with Sally, we’d won Transalp together back in 2014. Since then we’ve done a lot more riding together so were hoping to make a much stronger pairing.

This year’s event was starting in Imst, Austria and finishing in Arco, Italy after 7 stages through the Alps. 520 kilometers and 17700 meters of ascent would provide a big challenge for the 600 teams of 2 whether they were competing for the win or just trying to complete the race.

Team Topeak Ergon also had 2 men’s teams. Legend and multiple World Champion Alban Lakata, pairing with an on form Kristian Hynek. South African Erik Kleinhans and American Jeremiah Bishop completed a truly international line-up. I’d spent time with Alban and Kristian before but was great to meet Erik and Jeremiah. When I was first getting into cycling I would watch the movie Offroad to Athens on repeat, Jeremiah was one of the main stars so it was fun to chat about it.

To look after 6 riders required a military team; 6 staff members were on hand, 2 mechanics, 2 physio’s, 1 chef, and 1 manager. My dream is to race for a professional team like this, if this is as close as I get at least I’ve experienced it. To be able to race your bike and not worry about anything else makes the job so much easier, the riders on this team are the best in the world but without the support of the staff the results wouldn’t be possible.

Over the years the Transalp race has shortened in distance with more trails being included. Anyone who thinks this event is a road race needs to think again! Yes there were some long tarmac and fireroad climbs – hour long ascents, but there were so many good trails this year. Places like Scuol, Livigno and Bormio were places I’ve always dreamt of visiting, the trails and scenery did not disappoint. We aren’t talking about short technical trails either, we are talking 30 minute technical downhill’s which would be far more suited to all mountain bikes than our short travel cross country race bikes. On the fourth stage we climbed 1600 meters to the top of the Umbrail Pass, reaching an altitude of nearly 2800 meters. At points like these I was so pleased to be racing the mixed category, it would have been a shame not to have at least a few seconds to take in the views.

Sally and I were surely one of the favourites to win the mixed category but there was some strong competition including last year’s winners Team Herzlichst Zypern (Silke Ulrich and Sascha Schwindling) from Germany. We’d beaten them in 2014 but they are a strong pair. There were plenty of others teams who could also spring a surprise. Many of the men in the mixed teams were pushing and pulling the ladies to the top of the mountains, we didn’t agree with this idea though so there was no pushing or pulling in our team. We would go at the pace of the weaker rider, whether than be Sally or me, and we would decide day by day, climb by climb.

Day 1 dawned at 6.30 with early breakfast; this was a routine we’d have to get used to. 8 o’clock we were warming up on the turbo trainers. Then 9 o’clock bang the adventure begins, we were off, heading from Imst to Nauders with 3 mountains on route.

We started as we planned to go on, not really racing our rivals, more racing at the speed we felt comfortable. It was enough to take the win on day 1 and move into the orange leader’s jersey. Our teammates Alban and Kristian also won stage 1 putting them in the yellow leader’s jersey, a dream start for the team. Sally and I won stages, 2, 3 and 4, it was going better than we’d hoped. Only a few slips had raised concerns including a 360 spin on a gravel corner coming into the finish of stage 2. I managed to stay on the bike to tell the tale and laugh about it, but it could have quite easily been a different story.

We’d built a solid lead by the end of stage 4 so started to think about minimizing risks. The men’s team lost the leaders jersey but were just seconds behind Centurion Vaude who now led, it was an exciting battle to watch. On stage 5 from Bormio to Mezzana we finished with the second place team, loosing no seconds. However we finished to the news that Kristian had had a massive over the bars crash and was in hospital. He’d successfully ridden the toughest singletrack trails of the race without issue but on a downhill fireroad he’d clipped a rock sending him flying. It was a reminder how quickly fortunes can change. We spent the evening waiting for news. Unfortunately a broken collarbone would prevent Alban and Kristian from completing this year’s Transalp, they’ll be back stronger next year ready to fight for the win.

On stage 6 we still had yesterday’s events fresh in our mind so we opted to ride with no risks. Even with a fork issue and a puncture we somehow opened up another 5 minutes lead over second place. Erik and Jeremiah were now enjoying their freedom, no longer required as a backup team they could race for themselves and they were both loving the adventure.

The final stage to Arco is short and fast but no procession. It’s a tough day and shouldn’t be underestimated especially with a 1500 meter climb from the start! All week we’d had hot sunny dry conditions, on some days I’d been consuming up to 7 x 750ml bottles of USN drink and almost as many gels. However on stage 7 the weather surprised. Rain storms from the start made the steep rocky trails wet and slippery. We are both from the UK though so a little mud wasn’t going to stop us. Sal and I both had great legs so we rode fast on the climbs and safely on the descents reaching the finish line to become Transalp champions. Erik and Jeremiah enjoyed the stage so much they rode the enduro section twice!

What a fantastic week of racing. Everyone completing Transalp 2016 was a winner because this year’s route was simply amazing. Thank you to Team Topeak Ergon for inviting me, to the riders for making me feel so welcome, and to the staff for all their hard work. I lived the dream for a week and won Transalp for a second time.

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