The Cristalp is a one day mountain bike race held in August each year. It starts in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier and finishes some 131km later in the village of Grimentz.
Although when compared to the eight day TransAlp race it is no more than 'just another day in the hills' it is a superb introduction to marathon racing in the Alps.
The ambience is only checked by the length and severity of some of the climbs as shown in the route profile below.
I did this race almost by accident in 2000 after a friend decided to drop out because of lack of training. The offer of taking his place was all to tempting,
the logistics were simple, book a flight, rent a car and drive the hour or two to Verbier. The only bit we screwed up on was hiring a car on the French side of Geneva
when we really wanted to be on the Swiss side. After crossing the border laden with bikes, rucsacs and frustration several times we got on the road.
Verbier itself is a plush ski resort in winter, but in summer, as in many alpine resorts, seems to lose some of its charm. Even on the friday afternoon before the race weekend
it seemed fairly quiet. Leaving accommodation to chance we discovered all the budget places to stay had, not surprisingly, been taken and we had to rough it in the rather
salubrious Hotel Bristol.
So, settled in, I now just had to worry about the 'expert' start time that I had inherited. In 2000 it was possible to declare yourself as a top rider and get
an extra hours lie in by starting after the mob. The main pack make there way down to the start line in the pre dawn darkness. So what's the problem with that? Well
it means that all the cut off times are foreshortened by an hour or more and this worried me a little. I had heard tales of the long steep climbs and I was happy to
admit that I had never really taken on such a challenge. Back in the South East of England there were few climbs that would take more than 5 minutes,
I now had climbs of an hour or more to contemplate.
So in order to alleviate this and calm myself we headed for the nearest coffee shop and sampled the local pastries and did some people watching.
Saturday came and nerves really started to kick in, I taped a picture of the race profile to my handlebar and added the cut off time against each checkpoint. I wasn't sure
how this would help but it somehow seemed the right thing to do.
In the morning we went for a ride up the first climb. Probably no more than 5km it wound it's way up through the woods and finally out of the tree line and to a crest where the
first downhill presented itself. The hills faded into the far distance and I realised I probably couldn't see as far as the finish. It was one of those moments when
you realise that you have got quite a task ahead but feel good about it. Downhill back to Verbier was blissful only tainted by a puncture which I did not want
to repeat on the sunday.
Saturday afternoon was race registration and bike scrutinisation both of which were slick and run with typical swiss efficiency. Even down to a dedicated person at the
bike check who zip tied your race number to your bike for you. I was riding a 1996 Specialized Stumpjumper Pro which had recently been refurbished with a set of XT cranks that
had decided to devleop an irritating squeak. The mechanics on hand were more than helpful in whipping them off, pulling out the BB and applying some grease and
thereby preventing me from slowly going insane.
Formalities over it was now time to continue eating. I can recommend the restaurant below the hotel which we visited after a less than satisfying dish at a pasta
place up the road. An early night but restless sleep.
Sunday eventually came into focus and I started on the first of two cans of Ambrosia creamed rice, my staple diet on big days. Stumbling on to the balcony we watched swathes of
riders pass underneath us, the mob had started and continued past us for a full 5 minutes. I had to feel sorry for the poor guy who had a fairly major mechanical only a few
hundred yards from the start.
View from hotel over start
View from hotel balcony over start
Showered, dressed, breakfasted and lubed we headed down to the start line and took position at pretty much the back of this second pack of faster riders. 7am came and went and
we slowly started to move. It wasn't until some time passed that we realised they were scanning each number plate and setting riders off individually. When we finally
started we were pretty much last and cut off times were the thing that now spun around in my head.
I started conservatively as Carl flew off within a few yards. I was no slouch and steadilly picked riders off on the first climb. I'm actually writing this from memory in
the summer of 2004 and can't remember every twist, turn and climb on the route which would be boring for anyone to read anyway.
Needless to say there was plenty of climbing to be done and some fast loose descents that
had you reaching for the brakes. I mentally ticked off the climbs as they came and went and relished each food stop where there was fruit, bread, cheese and fresh bottled water.
It was probably the penultimate checkpoint when I finally began to relax a little and realised that at the rate I was going I would comfortably make the last cut off time.
So what really is so great about this race? Well, for a start it's pretty big with a few thousand riders, not many events back in the UK can rival those sorts of figures
with the beauty of an Alpine backdrop. The feeling of rushing through a small alpine village where all the locals are out on the street cheering you on, helpers manning
the food stations where you snatch a banana and a bottle of water without stopping. All these things make you feel you are in a real race. The shear satisfaction of
climbing for an hour or more non stop. There are a few other things that do stick in my mind, having to stop on a bend on the last climb and stretching my shattered back
for a few minutes. The Stumpy, whilst a great xc race bike, is no all day comfort machine and my body took it's toll. Carrying that damned camelbak with tube, tools and food whilst
the knowledgeable veterans of the race carried no more than a bottle or two and a tubed taped to the seatpost - advice - leave that Camelbak at home and make your back happy.
If I were to ride this one again I'd take my FS bike which I didn't have back then. For the vast majority this race is no race it's a challenge and I would say to anyone who has the
tinyest twinkle in their eye "go do this race", you won't regret it.
Oh, and did I actually finish? Yes, 9hrs 41mins 30.8s only 2hrs 45mins behind the winner and 40mins behind Carl.