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Europe’s Big Unpaved Bike Race: Gravel Epic Switzerland

gravel epic switzerland - 1st day(Photo/Monika Sattler)
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As a seasoned gravel racer having raced the Unbound Gravel, Almanzo, Gravel Worlds, Trans Iowa, and more, I was excited about the new gravel race called Gravel Epic Switzerland. Living in Switzerland, this was a must.

Gravel Epic Switzerland is a two-stage gravel race in the Swiss Alps. Its inauguration took place at the end of a gravelly road in a cozy, rustic lodge serving as the base camp in the French-speaking part of the Swiss Alps, in Champex-Lac.

Around 90 participants pedaled a total distance of 103 miles, enduring 19,000 feet of elevation gain — all over beautiful Swiss gravel.

The participants arrived on Friday afternoon at the event village, picking up their numbers and a free massage to loosen up their legs. Every weekend should start like this!

gravel epic switzerland - massage
(Photo/Monika Sattler)

In the evening, I participated in the 14km pre-ride gravel event that gave a taste of the two days ahead and also allowed me to meet my fellow cyclists. In all, 17 nations were represented from all over the world.

In the evening, we all dined together in a cozy hut. It was a great opportunity to mingle and meet new people.

gravel epic switzerland - dinner
(Photo/Monika Sattler)

Gravel Epic Switzerland: The Courses

The event organizer, Shawn Rath, then gave the race briefing for the next day. We could choose between the 40-mile (60km) “discovery” option or the 103-mile (112km) “epic” option.

The race format entailed segments (usually uphill) that were timed. The person who had the smallest cumulative time of all segments won. But if you felt less competitive and more adventurous, all you had to do was meet the cutoff times to continue to the next segment. Fortunately, these times gave plenty of wiggle room to take pictures and enjoy the views (which I did).

Although I would usually opt for the biggest route offered in a cycling event, this time I chose the shorter route. For this event, my main goal was to experience that gravel spirit again.

After loading up on calories, we retreated to our accommodations, lodging that ranged from tents to private rooms.

gravel epic switzerland - camping
(Photo/Monika Sattler)

Gravel Epic Switzerland Day 1

The alarm clock rang at 6:20 a.m. the next morning. It was still dark outside and the air smelled fresh and crisp, but it promised a sunny and nice day.

We went for breakfast in the community room, where the mood ranged from, “Still need my first cup of coffee,” to, “Too excited to sit still.”

For this event, I rode my Stevens Cyclocross bike and opted for 33mm Schwalbe tires, which were sufficient for the smooth gravel we would face.

I ride 36-46 gearing in the front and 11-30 in the back. This gearing turned out to be way too large for the long and partial steep climbs we faced. I talked to one of the riders after the ride who had mountain bike gearing on his bike, and this seemed a lot more appropriate.

(Photo/Monika Sattler)

Still, you race what ya brung. At 8 a.m., the race started and off we went. You experience the Swiss Alps with all senses — amazing views from the mountains into the valley, cows ringing their bells while lazily watching you passing by; the smell of newly cut grass and the needle trees; and always fresh, crisp air that travels through your skin, making you feel alive.

The feed stations along the course had a fantastic range of victuals, including plenty of natural food options.

The terrain was challenging. Located in the middle of the Alps, you have two options: up or down. Because the race village sits nearly at the top of the mountain, you have to grind until the very last mile to get that much-deserved beer at the finish.

However, smooth roads made up for difficult terrain. The sketchy gravel sections I have encountered plenty in the Midwest were absent. Only the very last 5km stretch to the end had a grassy and muddy surface, which required a few extra watts to move through.

This wouldn’t prove much of an issue on fresh legs, but after a tough day in the saddle, this demanded the last bits of energy I (thankfully) still had in my legs.

Back at the finish, we enjoyed a warm post-ride meal and a massage. The evening was filled with detailed post-ride analysis and a well-deserved dinner. That night, I fell immediately asleep, putting to rest an excellent day.

Race Day 2

Ready for the next day, we awoke to rain. Today would be quite different from yesterday’s sunny conditions. The low-hanging fog made the mountains even more mystic.

These are usually not my favorite conditions to ride in, but the clouds hanging heavy in the mountains, the dark and misty atmosphere, and seeing my breath as I rode gave the day a moody, hallowed feel.

Gravel Epic Switzerland - 2nd day
(Photo/Monika Sattler)

The complete change in weather from one day to the next showed how unpredictable conditions can be in the mountains. It was funny to see the different behaviors of the riders. Some really didn’t care, and some (including me) waited until the last very moment underneath the roof eaves before facing the inevitable. As the conditions changed, riding became more slippery and soggy and required a bit more caution.

Back at the event village, we warmed up with food and drinks. It was a great finish to a fantastic weekend, one with all the things I value so much about gravel events: a welcoming, friendly atmosphere, an adventurous spirit among riders, and fantastic courses accompanied with mouth-watering food (and, of course, beer).

gravel epic switzerland - finish
(Photo/Monika Sattler)

And Just One More Thing

With the mission of getting more women into cycling and participating in cycling events, I am glad to see that the participation rate was greater than usual, reaching 20%. Yes, that was still far away from parity, so I encourage all my female fellow cyclists to get inspired and get riding.

gravel epic switzerland - participation
(Photo/Monika Sattler)

Whether you want to smash the Strava segments or just want to enjoy the incredibly beautiful landscape, this event is fantastic for all cyclists who want to get the full Swiss gravel experience.

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