Welsh enduro racer Mike Thickens reports from the final round of the Avalanche Cup in Flims, Switzerland, video and pics by Sam Proctor:
This week took us to Flims in Switzerland, an amazing place with amazing views and some of the best trails I’ve ever ridden.
We arrived in Flims on Wednesday evening, set up the van and easy up, went for a bit of a walk around the town to see who was around. A couple of the French racers had arrived so we had a chat with them about their trip across and our long trip down. Always seems to be the same conversation – how was your trip? Where you staying? When are the lifts open? It does create a feeling of a big travelling circus.
Thursday – after rain all night…
I set the bike up with my standard come-rain-or-shine Maxxis Larsen TT semislick rear and Minion DHF front tyre combo and headed down to the village. Having raced this event last year I pretty much knew where the trail went but with no lift access to the top it’s a long way up.
I rode to the first lift station and after a long road pedal, the track dropped into the trees onto some awesome grassy singletrack turns with loads of switchbacks through the trees. There were plenty of high and low lines to take to slide down the inside or out brake people in during the race too. The trail popped out onto the ski piste every so often, always followed by a switchback back into the trail going at some silly speed.
It’s amazing how much you remember from pretty much a year ago, I was hitting stuff pretty fast, firing through the turns, my tyre choice making it pretty exciting. Every time it consisted of getting a drift on and then hoping it would grip up where it did last time!
I got to one section which was closed of over private land and this being Switzerland you don’t brake the rules, so headed down a walking path back down to the finish area.
Friday: sort of stopped raining, still on semi slicks…
Started off with a run down to the supermarket in Chur, now I don’t mean to stereotype although who else but the Swiss would build a supermarket underground?
Loaded up with all the necessary race food (pasta, chocolate and cake) and then found an amazing Swiss roll – the normal chocolate covered type but with a banana down the centre, what an amazing idea, give that man a medal!
Headed back up the hill picked my race number up and said hello to all the UCC crew. The lift opened at 12:30 heading up the hill the cliffs all-round were snow covered massive difference to last year in the sun. I got out at the top and there was around 5cm of fresh snow, that twinned with the wet grass was amazing fun. Top bit was hard work with the same rough, open, grassy turns taped into the course – in one word ‘sideways’…
The long pedal hadn’t got any shorter but in the bottom section just before the finish, a brand new trail had been cut in which was amazing. It flowed really well with some very techy bits and if you got the line right you were rewarded with a really fast exit, if you got it wrong you’d have a a horrible time though.
The track drying up nicely, it was still pretty wet and slippy by the afternoon but there were a few ruts beginning to appear which you could hook up on to.
Saturday – The sun was back, would it dry out for qualifying?
In the morning Charlie Williams arrived, we had a discussion on tyres as he was on mud spikes and I had basically gone the opposite way with my semi slick on the back and Minion up front but I stuck with it. As we were getting in the lift we caught up with Aidan Bishop, we all went up in the lift debating on the name of the game – tyres and tactics for the start.
Riding down with Aidan and Charlie we cleared the first open grassy snowy bit then came to a small uphill – it was really slippy and those two with their big knobbly tyres were spinning away, while the Welsh idiot with the semi slick just pedalled on by laughing. We cruised down and all went well, so Aidan and Charlie went up to do another run while I went to eat cake and chocolate!
It was time for the qualifying start so I heading back up with myself and Aidan in group two and Charlie in the last group. The start would definitely suit the fit types like Remy Absalon, Frank Parolin and XC World Champion Nino Schurter, being a standard wide start narrowing to a three metre wide tarmac road then up onto wet snowy grass.
Aidan and myself had an okay start and although he got ahead of me at the start once I got to the flat road in the middle, it was hands in the middle of the bars, head down and pedal. I absolutely punished myself past countless people. Speaking to one of the French guys Vincent afterwards he said like a rider in a little Tour du France.
I caught Aidan up and then followed him down for a while but once we got into the trees I had some tight lines that I knew I could get past him nice and cleanly on. I pulled them out and it worked just sweet so set my sights on the next place. Seemed to be riding in my own gap until the last few hundred meters where I could see two guys just in front – I caught them up but didn’t manage to get past by the finish. Looking at the results they were placed in 7th and 8th which would have got me Ligne A rather than first on Ligne B. Aidan came down and had punctured but still managed to get down in 27th place to get Ligne D, just in the Europe Cup Final, he had some work to do. Charlie came down fast enough for Ligne B also, and with his starts it could still work well for him.
Sunday: Sunny course dried up lot 2race runs a lot of effort involved
I was up early at 7am to get some breakfast, had a last check of the bike – lube the chain and make sure everything was still working. All was good so I cruised down to the lift station.
Going up on the lift looking down checking out to see if the course had dried out any more or not, it seemed to look like it had.
There was less snow on the start line but this had made the grass even wetter. The start lineup (with the standard delay because of the helicopter) got underway. I lined up just behind Remy and Guillaume, I knew those two are quick starters so I thought it would work out well for me if I stuck behind them. The tape went up, we went off! On the top section there are a lot of hidden rocks waiting to smash wheels, I hit one and it sounded as if it had smashed my wheel but all went cleanly, I had a small crash just before the road section when my back end came all the way round. Luckily I was in a bit of a gap so I didn’t loose any places. Now I had a lot of work to do on the road section.
The bottom section was so much drier than on Saturday so I flew through with a couple of nice overtakes using the whole late braking idea. I caught the guy in front then passed him on the last uphill to gain 24th place in the first race. Aidan Bishop came 32nd, Charlie Williams 44th and Alex Stock 11th but we still had to do it all again 2 hours later that day.
With Charlie and Aidan starting on the far left with the idea of dropping low, then getting the power down and firing back in to the trail. That didn’t go so well for them as someone crashed in front of them. I started in the middle again just behind Stock but some guy crashed in front of me as well, so I had to jump to avoid him. In the end my second run was even faster by over a minute as the track was drying out even more. Big respect to Alex Stock who did the second run with no goggles and came 10th – legend. Still these events are dominated by the French and the Swiss. Someone needs to take it to them big time! We are so close but us Brits are lacking the big mountains the Euro lot have to practice on.
1 Nino Schurter SWISS POWER MTB TEAM
2 Remy Absalon COMMENCAL
3 Florian Golay FELT/CROSSROAD CYCLE
10 Alex Stock CHESHIRE/SPECIALIZED
19 Ian Austermuhle YORKSHIRE/SPECIALIZED
23 Mike Thickens MTBSKILLS.EU
I’d would recommend this round of the race to anyone – it had spectacular scenery, an awesome course and a great friendly atmosphere.
Postscript – Mike went on to take joint 11th place in the Enduro Roc at the Roc D’Azur the following weekend…