SUCH Race Report

I finished the SUCH race last week, going through all 26 cantons (counties) in Switzerland in 2d 7h 15m, well inside my target of 2.5 days.

Celebrating with a Velosophe beer at the finish in Bern.

I’ve lived in Switzerland for the past 15 years and have ridden in most regions before, but it was special to go through it all in such a short space of time. It’s a beautiful country with lots of excellent roads for cycling, so it was a lot of fun. To make my goal, I didn’t always take the nicest roads, but there were still some fantastic sections to enjoy, especially Appenzell, where the riding is always fabulous.

Being early September, it was a bit chilly in the mountains and overnight, but overall the weather was good and I had far more tailwinds than headwinds.

Route Options

The route choice was very open. We all started at the same time, but from any train station. Passage through a canton was verified by the GPS tracker and mailing a postcard from a mailbox located near a train station or post office. Everyone had to finish in front of the parliament building in Bern. I already gave a brief introduction to the race in a previous blog post.

My route for the 2020 SUCH race. Click to enlarge.

I decided that the best start location was a small train station near top of the Oberalp Pass in the south-eastern canton of Graubunden. When I got off the train, I found Fiona Kolbinger waiting there, who won the 2019 Transcontinental Race. It was comforting that another well-prepared person had reached the same conclusion as me about where to start.

In addition to Fiona and myself, David Sanchez was the third solo rider starting in Graubunden and there were two guys riding as a pair, who are actually a couple of friends of mine, Stuart Woodcock and Brett Hasell. Fiona, Stu, Brett and myself had all independently chosen the same order to visit the cantons, so we often used the same roads, but David had a longer alternative planned and visited Geneva much sooner than us.

My route was about 865 km with 10,000 m of climbing, but the climbing was front-loaded, doing four 2,000 meter high passes in the first 100 km (Oberalp, Gotthard, Nufenen, Grimsel), which resulted in doing almost one third of the total climbing for the race in one almost non-stop block. Halfway up the Nufenen, the 3rd and longest of the 4 big passes, I was starting to question whether it was a wise decision, but in the end I had no regrets.

The image above shows my complete route and a condensed profile, but for full details see my rides on Strava: Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.

Descending the Gotthard pass, looking up the valley towards the Nufenen Pass.

Other popular starting locations were Airolo in the southern canton of Ticino and Geneva in the far south-west corner of the country.

Airolo allowed for the least amount of climbing, but it was a bit longer and the optimal way after descending the north side of the Gotthard Pass involved carrying the bike up a steep hiking trail and staircases for 300 vertical meters to get above Lake Luzern and around to a couple of the smaller cantons, Obwalden and Nidwalden. I’ve done the trail before, but didn’t want to do it during the race, so I was surprised by how many people chose that option.

Starting in Geneva avoided the need for a long out-and-back ride to tick off Geneva towards the end of the race, but there would be more climbing partly due to starting at a lower elevation.

The other start locations that people chose were at the top of Valais and in Delemont. On the race tracker website you can click on the map symbol next to someone’s name to see their complete route.

Fiona Kolbinger Wins

Fiona Kolbinger followed up her impressive 2019 TCR performance by beating everyone else to Bern. Adrien Liechti and Dominik Bokstaller were 2nd and 3rd, over 2 and 4 hours behind her, respectively.

Fiona’s winning time was about 34h for almost 850 km. According to her Strava record, she only had 1h 40m of total stops (5% of her elapsed time) and her average riding speed was over 26 km/h despite the very mountainous early part of the route. This is seriously impressive and far exceeds her rate of progress during any similar-length section of the 4,000 km-long 2019 TCR.

This result shows that Fiona is versatile and can win a short-format bikepacking event where the leaders don’t need to sleep and the outcome is strongly determined by riding speed in addition to super-long events like the TCR where other skills like managing rest breaks and fatigue over multiple days are important.

My Race

The variety of routes generally made it hard to compare my rate of progress to other riders. Amongst the people using the same route as me, I knew Stu and Brett were taking proper overnight stops rather than racing to finish in the shortest time possible and Fiona quickly pulled away to be 4 hours in front of me by the time I stopped at the end of Day 1. I therefore spent most of the race, and in particular all of my 360 km-long second day across the north of the country, only focusing on my own goals.

Sunrise over Lake Neuchatel. I've ridden here many times before, but if it wasn't for this race I would never come here at sunrise for this fantastic sight.

Once I left Geneva in the middle of the third day I had 150 km left to the finish in Bern and I could start to judge who else I was racing with, but we were approaching from 4 different directions (each end of Lake Geneva, near Lake Neuchatel and the Grimsel Pass), so it was still hard to judge where I stood. Even so, being on local roads and having dots on the screen to directly race re-ignited some power in my legs, which had felt pretty empty for the previous 1.5 days. My “sprint finish” consisted of going from Geneva to Bern in under 6 hours, or over 25 km/h including stops, which far surpassed any other period of my race.

In total, I had 37h 45m hours of riding time at 23 km/h and 17h 30m of stops. I had two 6h 15m stops at hotels because I wanted to have some comfort instead of racing full-on and although night riding doesn’t bother me, I don’t really enjoy it. I focused on being efficient during the day and was able to keep my stops to only 11% of the elapsed time (excluding my 2 hotel stops). I finished in 12th place out of the 27 solo starters.

Everything went very smoothly: the bike worked great, the body felt as good as I could expect, and there were no real surprises along the way. Sorry for the rather uneventful race report. In a previous blog post I described the bike and equipment that I used for this race.

Reflections

Marc, one of the organizers, hunted me down near Appenzell. He got his bike out of the van and recorded a brief rolling interview with me.

In addition to 26 of the 27 solo riders finishing, 7 of the 9 pairs finished, plus one half-pair whose partner had to scratched, so just 4 scratches total. There was also a relay category where one person did the first part of the ride and their partner took over at some point; both of the 2 relay pairs finished. All finishers arrived before the finish party, 4 days 2 hours after the start.

Due to the Covid-related travel restrictions, most of the paticipants were Swiss, expats living in the country (like myself), or people from neighboring countries. I spoke with several people who said they had treated this as a relatively straightforward (although not easy) introduction to this style of bike racing because they already knew the region well and everyone seemed to enjoy the event. Those who already had experience doing similar events, like myself, were excited to try a slightly new race concept in a more local region.

In longer events, averaging 350 km per day is often sufficient to be inside the top 10% of riders, which is what I achieved in the TransAtlantic Way in Ireland in 2018. In the SUCH, despite completing 700 km in the first 48 hours, I was only mid-pack. The field therefore seemed quite strong and most people didn’t sleep anywhere near as much as I did. I think the longer events suit my approach better and I can be more competitive once it gets beyond 4 or 5 days in length.

Vincent Muehlethaler and Marc Egger, the two organizers, did a good job. The short race and small number of competitors allowed them to keep it very laid back and friendly. They managed to track down most people on the road at least once before they had to rush to Bern to welcome the first finishers.

They hope to organize more editions of the SUCH in the future, probably with some rule variations so the optimal route is never the same. I highly recommend giving it a go, so follow their FaceBook page for more updates.

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