Race showcase: Tackling the epic Transalp MTB stage race - Total Women's Cycling

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Race showcase: Tackling the epic Transalp MTB stage race

Rachel Sokal is preparing for the Transalp, a gruelling mountain bike race that runs over 8 days. The race starts on Saturday 13th July, and her final preparations are under way. 

This weekend I’ll be heading off to Germany to take part in my first ever Transalp mountain bike stage race.

The race is one of the biggest in the world and this year will be the 16th time it’s been held.  That might not be many compared to the Tour de France, which is in its centenary year, but it’s pretty impressive nonetheless. It makes the ‘must-do’ list of many mountain bikers, and this year it reached the top of mine.

The Transalp; 8 days of hard mountain bike racing, but in beautiful surroundings.

The Transalp is exactly what it says it is; a race across the Alps. It starts in Mittenwald in the south of Germany and follows the main chain of the Alps, through Austria, then to north Italy ending up at Lake Garda.  The route takes in some epic scenery and the hospitality of several towns along the way.

None of it comes easily.

Riders cover more than 600km and climb a total of 21000m in the eight days of racing. As Sally Bigham, UCI Marathon Silver Medallist and last year’s female pair Transalp winner puts it;

It is incredibly challenging. The climbs are long and so are the descents. I’d say it’s the hardest stage race I’ve done from the climbing and descending point of view.

Looking at the course profiles makes me wince. The pick of the bunch is day three when the route climbs nearly 2000m in the first 20km.  I’m just pleased that it’s going to be over and done with relatively early on in the week. Sally says that overcoming the challenge adds to the sense of accomplishment as you cross the finish line. That’s something I’ll need to try and remember on each and every climb.

How’s this for a climb?

In total there are 1200 riders all competing in pairs, which means you both have to start, finish and pass through check points together. Last year, out of all those riders there were only about 75 women. Fifty of those raced as one half of a mixed team, and the rest competed as women’s pairs.

Riders with a wide range of ability and experience make up the field, from seasoned professionals to amateurs who sometimes find the going too tough.

I’ll be riding with my ‘A Quick Release Coaching’ teammate Ant Jordan in the mixed category. There will be some pretty strong mixed teams racing so we’re not seeing this as a race in which we’ll be competing against others, but more like a very big, very challenging week of riding. I’m not sure this makes it any easier, although it may afford us a few moments to stop and take in some of the views.

My only previous experience of stage racing was early this year when I competed in the Andalucía Bike Race. I had a great time and considering it was both my and my teammate’s first stage race, nothing went disastrously wrong. However, that race was much shorter and had far less climbing than the Transalp so I’m conscious not to be lulled into a false sense of security, and under-estimate the challenge ahead.

In Andalucía we benefited from the race being based in just two towns over the week, limiting the additional stress and time it takes packing and repacking each morning. This time we’ll be moving everyday as the route transverses across the Alps, something Sally found really tiring and that leaves little time for relaxation.

Andalucia looks tough, but the Transalp will be a whole lot tougher.

We initially opted for the organiser’s accommodation, which gives you a space on a sports hall floor close to the finish line. This would mean we would be at race central, making logistics much easier which is absolutely vital given we’ll be exhausted after each day’s riding. However, when we mentioned to a few people who had done the race before, the reaction from them all was the same; namely a grimace and sharp intake of breath.

Stories of snoring, smelly riders trying to get comfy on a hard floor and crowded showers persuaded us to take the more expensive, and organisationally-intensive, route of booking hotels and B&Bs in each town. Hopefully it’ll be worth the effort and we’ll get some decent rest.

Aside from sorting our accommodation, the other big headache ahead of departure is what to take with us.  As Rachel Fenton has previously said, getting your kit right is vital.

We’ll be flying so we will be limited by our weight allowance but eight days of hard riding is going to require plenty of kit. We’re going to need to be savvy with what we take.

Firstly, the bikes. This is 29er country as big wheels roll faster along the loose rocky trails. I’ve been out testing my new Cotic Solaris over lot of terrain to make sure I’ll be completely comfortable for all the long days in the saddle. As my teammate is also riding a 29er, we can share parts. We plan to take a couple of extra tyres and a set of wheels as well as loads of inner tubes, spare mechs and an extra chain. We can’t take a full toolkit, but we want to avoid having to pull out because of a mechanical in the first few days.

The next big thing is fuel to keep us going. We’ve limited this as much as possible as the quantity was getting silly and more than we could possibly fit in our bags. That said, we’ll still be taking with us 3kg of energy drink and over 100 gels and bars. That’s an awful lot of sugar! A big thanks to Torq for helping us out with our supplies.

Packing lightly? Tricky.

Finally, there’s riding kit.  For the sake of those riding near me I hope to be able to get in at least a couple of sets of kit and my shower stuff, but given how much room my bike and gels are taking up, I’m not promising myself too many changes just yet.

The race starts on Saturday 13th July. Wi-fi and post riding energy allowing, you can follow our progress on our Twitter accounts @24hrSokal @aquickrelease, as well as my blog and the A Quick Release blog.

Rachel Sokal


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