The Path // Part 5: What the 2020 Zermatt EWS was REALLY like
Welcome back to The Path! After 10 months of enduro-specific training in the Tweed Valley, Scotland, I’ve remained injury free. I’m fitter and stronger than ever, and my bike handling is all the better for it. What now? RACE TIME! In this installation of The Path, I give you an insight into what the 2020 Zermatt EWS was really like.
Conditions in Zermatt were the worst I’ve ever raced in. And i’m from Scotland; I’ve raced in some tough conditions for sure. Snow, rain, thunder and lightning, freezing temperatures, thick fog, slick rocks and improbably tight switchbacks all came together to produce, you guessed it – utter carnage. Jump on board as I tackle my first ever EWS with the fastest women on two wheels.
Initial Impressions of Zermatt
I got my first taste of Swiss Alpine terrain a few days before the event kicked off. With the £215.50 entry fee you get 4 days of full access to the funicular and gondola network out of Zermatt and neighboring Furi. That entry fee is a lot more expensive than the entry fees for the other EWS races but that’s Switzerland for you.
Along with the lift pass, you get two timing chips; a main one and a back-up, a number board, and five real fancy stickers to put on your bike. Though they look cool, they’re not there for show. These label your wheels, front triangle, rear triangle and fork crown. You’re not allowed to swap out any of those components over the course of the race – if you do, you get a five minute time penalty. Make sure your bike is bomb proof.
I met up with Graham Upton from Cannondale to get a few laps in and get familiar with the terrain. My god, the terrain. It could not have been more different to my home trails. It was still dry at this point. The dust was deep, the rocks sharp and the corners… hairpins. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was completely overwhelmed.
The majority of the trails here aren’t really mountain bike trails at all. They are largely walker’s paths that bikers are allowed to use.
Loose rock, tight switchbacks, flat turns with no support, exposure, all add up to make these trails deserving of a lot of respect. I learnt the hard way going OTB on the first hairpin turn. Classic.
Footage by Graham Upton
After some hairy moments, I soon learned to respect the trails and ride within my new limits. With two days of gondola-accessed trail riding in the heat and dust, I felt like I’d settled in to it, and was ready to push on. Until…the heavens opened up.
The Enduro Wet Series returns. And with it, a drastic drop in temperature. We were in for a very wet race in cold conditions. I’ve been training in Scotland. I got this, right?
Practice Day: Zermatt EWS
I spoke to a bunch of the Pros in the week running up to the race, including Isabeau Courdurier, Kevin Miquel and Caro Gehrig – make sure you check out our Pro Bike Checks. Swiss rider Caro of Norco Factory Racing wasn’t too off-put by the weather forecast. She reliably informed me that the rain would only improve matters on track.
And it did, in a sense. The dust turned rapidly to gritty mud, offering heaps more grip. On the other hand, the rocks were super slick in the wet – not like the grippy granite rock i’m used to riding at home.
Low-hanging fog meant practice was delayed by an hour, and the practice schedule rearranged. The race organizers needed time to get rescue teams up the mountain – they were to be on foot as conditions were too poor for helicopters to fly.
Practice on Stage 2
When we finally set off, the rain was falling hard. We were basically wet-through after the two minute pedal to the Gondola. We rode Stage 2 first. It started fast, flowy and exposed before hitting some steep, tight turns littered with that slick rock.
I could see “carnage corner” coming up – you know, the one that usually has a bunch of riders off their bikes looking for the safe line. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to ride it on sight. This was one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made on a bike.
I very slowly roll off the steepest part of the rock drop on the corner, then proceed to bounce down, lose the front wheel and face plant. It’s OK though, because it was caught on camera. Worth it, right?
The remainder of that Stage was super cool, actually. It got super wide with four line options spread across a vast area of slick slab rock. I spent a good bit of time here trying out the different lines, watching the pros do the same.
Crashes, exotic line choice and numb fingers
My goggles are now fogged up beyond rescue so I take the lens out and just wear the frame. Trust me, it’s a thing. I’m completely soaked through, and getting really, really cold.
We ride Stage 1, 3 and 4. There’s a huge pedal up to the top of Stage 4 so we at least get chance to warm up. We pedal most of it but everyone, even the pros, start pushing as it gets steeper near the top.
The most interesting thing on practice day was watching the pros. I saw Miranda Miller, ALN and Isabeau Courdurier out on the tracks. It struck me that none of them were doing anything heroic on the bike. They weren’t gapping the improbable, or cranking out stoppies on every tight corner. Even they were struggling with the tight switchbacks. This gave me a little confidence – it really was a difficult course.
I had a lot of fun on practice day. Despite the crazy weather and technically demanding tracks, I was super stoked to be there. I embraced the carnage and experimented with some exotic inside lines – not all worked out well. At one point, I was hanging so far off the back of my bike on a steep, tight corner that I managed to undo the buckle on my EVOC hip pack with the back of my saddle. Wonders never cease.
After surviving practice day, it was time to wash the wet cement off my bike, and begin the clean up ready for the race.
Race Day: Zermatt EWS
On race morning, we woke up to the same rain and low-hanging fog we were treated to the day before. Only there was thunder and lightning thrown in too. Perfect! After making my way up to the race village, I get this email:
Little did I know at the time, this was to be the first of a string of email updates. Time to find a warm cafe and… get caffeinated. The only view of the Matterhorn I’d be getting that day was on my coffee cup.
My original start time was scheduled for 10:30 AM. It wasn’t until well past 1 PM that I actually rolled out of the start gate. That’s a long time to stew. I started out, mask on, as the rain continued to pour. I was wet by the time I’d pedaled the short distance to the Sunnega funicular that took us up and under the mountain to Stage 1.
A short pedal from the funicular drop brought us to Stage 1 with plenty of time to spare. It was snowing lightly. I’d banished the lens from my goggles as they were fogging up fast in the cold and wet conditions.
Stage 1 was the Queen Stage. We raced around 50-60% of the original Stage that was ridden on practice day – that’s because the upper portion of the the Stage was covered in snow and ice.
The trail was a mess. So much rain had fallen overnight that sections of the trail had wee streams of water running down them, starting to form a nice tire width size rut. Despite how it may look in the footage, the grip was actually decent. It wasn’t a slick clay-like mud – it was gritty and the tires were able to bite really well.
The toughest element of racing that track was the battle with cold fingers. In my case, they seemed to freeze themselves to the brake levers… I was not fast! I actually felt like I was riding at a decent pace until Estelle Charles comes tearing past me. I tried my best to hang onto her wheel but my efforts were futile – she was away. In my haste to keep up with her, I managed to clip a tree with the bar, killing the little speed I did have.
Nearing the bottom of the Stage I’m exhausted and am just about managing to hold onto the bike. It was not pretty. I caught Swedish rider Josefine Bjorkman on the steepest, techiest section of the track – she moved aside to allow me to pass.
After managing a clean run of Stage 1, things were about to go downhill. On the Gondola journey to Stage 2 I noticed a big problem with my drivetrain. The lower chain-line was sagging as the rear mech had collapsed on itself. On closer inspection, I found that the B-Tension screw was wound almost all the way out – no, I can’t explain why. I had just about enough time to set it back to a reasonable position so I had functioning gears mid-block.
Then I got lost. Off the Gondola I was greeted by a Marshall who directed me down a fire road into the thick fog – “the Stage is 5 minutes that way”. I roll down the hill a short while only to find that the fire road splits into three, with no signage in sight. Bear in mind that visibility was so bad that I couldn’t see any more than around 20 metres in front of me. So I wait.
Three race plate-clad riders arrive, asking “which way is it to the Stage?”. OK, cool. So I’m not the only one having problems here. To cut a long story short, we did eventually find the Stage after finding some Swiss riders who seemed to know their bearings on that
godforsaken bleak mountainside. And, I was five minutes early for my start time.
Around 100 metres into Stage 2 and I’m in trouble again. The grass had become very rutted with the rain and traffic abuse. I hop out of the rut onto the verge, hoping to avoid any drama. I fail to look ahead enough to see that the rut was to become a little S-bend. I get my front wheel caught on the edge of the rut and thus proceed to sail out the front door. I land on my chest hard – a little winded but in one-piece.
Back on the bike, I get passed by Estelle earlier this time. She hares it past me and I (again) try my hardest to stay on her wheel. I keep her in sight much longer this time, which I’m pleased about.
The final section of Stage 2 was super physical. OK, so the big smooth berms don’t present a huge technical challenge. But, having not exactly nailed every single one, I found myself sprinting out of each corner. The surface was sticky and sapped speed quickly. I actually placed dead last on the Stage – no surprises there!
My efforts on the day placed me at 20/21. Was I hoping for better? Yes, but in reality, not much. I was stoked to beat anyone in a field that stacked. I’m trying not to focus on the result too much here, but it’s a race, everyone wants to do well!
At 4 minutes back from Isabeau Courdurier’s winning time of 17:21, I am in awe. The speed of the women at the top-end of the field is just incredible. That’s not a gap, it’s a chasm.
Having de-briefed with my coach, I now don’t feel so bad about the result. It was, after-all, my first race at the top end of the sport. In his eyes at least, it was merely an experience-gaining exercise. And some experience it was. What doesn’t kill you…
Would I do it again?
100%. With only two stages of a possible four, I do feel a little robbed of a full EWS experience. While it was very good adversity training, it wasn’t the racing experience I was hoping for. This particular itch hasn’t been fully scratched yet.
Next time on The Path
Are you considering taking on the EWS in the future? If so, you’ll need to make sure you accrue enough qualification points next season to secure a place on the Reserved Entry List for 2022. Hopefully I’ve shown you that these races are no walk in the park, so you’ll need to take your training seriously and start now!
Finally, you need to make sure you’re well protected – risk taking is part of the game but having high-performing proven protective gear makes the psychological battle much easier. Next time on The Path, we have a full review of the protective gear I’ve been running all season from MET Helmets and Bluegrass Eagle.
Thank you to Professor Geraint Florida-James for supporting my EWS Training, and BSpoke Cycles Peebles and Louise Robinson for supporting me with bike mechanics. Thanks also to Cannondale, Adrenalin Uplift, Alex Holowko and the Enduro World Series for supporting this project.