With its 8848 vertical meters in 242 kilometers it would be the toughest cyclo there is: the Ultrafondo of the Tour des Stations in Switzerland. As many vertical meters as Mount Everest (spoiler: there were even more) and no fewer than eleven climbs. Together they account for 125 kilometers of climbing, of which 30 are said to be steeper than 10 percent. I was crazy about participating.
Last winter. I lie under a cozy blanket on the couch and watch a Netflix series that I can only moderately enjoy. The call of my telephone, on a side table only one arm movement away, cannot be resisted. As some downcast, yet highly intelligent Scandinavian inspector on the plasma screen in front of me gets closer and closer to solving that murder case, I start googling.
I’m looking for another cycling challenge for 2022. I once already rode the Marmotte Alpes and the Maratona dles Dolomites. I need to step it up a notch, I conclude from under the cozy blanket with a bowl of M&M’s on my lap.
Google searches like ‘heavy cycling tour’, ‘cyclo many altimeters’ bring me to the site of the Tour des Stations. To be honest, I’ve never heard of it. Closer examination shows that it is an event in the Swiss canton of Valais (Valais). There are various distances to drive (see box), but my eye immediately falls on the Ultrafondo – after all, it could be a bit more.
Well, that tooth is there. A few extra too. When I click on the distance, a profile unfolds that reminds me of the teeth of a shark that needs to see an orthodontist. The Ultrafondo has eleven categorized climbs over a distance of 242 kilometers, which together account for 8848 vertical meters. Indeed, as much as Mount Everest is high. The distance is therefore given the title ‘Ultrafondo The Everest’.
I choke on an M&M when I see the numbers, but my interest is still piqued. I google some more, but the Tour des Stations – the event is called that because you cycle to the various ski stations in the region – remains in my head. It is the toughest cyclocross there is, I read somewhere. If you’re going to go that extra mile, you should do it right the first time, right?
Fast-forward to early August. The comfortable dress – completely unnecessary, because it is very hot – and my own sofa have been exchanged for a hotel bed in Verbier, a fashionable winter sports resort and the ‘capital’ of the Tour des Stations. You understand: I put on the naughty cycling shoes and registered. After about 15,000 training kilometers, mainly in the flat north of the Netherlands, it has to happen now.
I have already explored the first climb, the Col du Lein, because I have to climb it next Saturday in the dark – the start of the Ultrafondo is at 4 a.m. – and the last 700 meters before the top and the first 800 meters after the top is also unpaved. The gravel is in reasonable condition, but I am a bit worried about how it will be there in the pitch dark (obviously illuminated by bicycle lights, if you would not attach it to your bicycle of your own accord, the organization will have it for you made easy: it’s mandatory).
Milk makes you tired
Friday morning at breakfast I get talking to David. A West Fleming who also started last year, but was unable to finish because the course was neutralized due to bad weather. On Thyon 2000, one of the toughest climbs of the day, it was only 5 degrees and it was haunted, he says.
Fortunately, the weather gods seem to be much better for us now, although it promises to be warm. He shares his experiences from a year earlier and, insofar as that was still necessary, he tells me how hard it will be. He lists the toughest climbs of the day. All but one, is my conclusion when they have all been reviewed.
There is also a gravel strip on the latter. And it looks bad, he assures me in authentic, almost unintelligible West Flemish. Moreover, on the unpaved part, it occasionally goes up by 20 percent. I’m choking on my tea – no more M&Ms so close to the race…
David drinks the necessary glasses of milk during our get-together. That has to do with the The Sleep Question. It is already difficult to sleep because of the tension, but if you have to go to bed very early because of a start at 4:00 am, it is asking for problems.
That’s why he has given up coffee and cola for a while and now there is milk in front of him. “Milk makes you tired”, he assures me in a beautiful alliterative one-liner. Soon he will also feast on sunflower seeds. Also a natural sleeping aid. Klazien from Zalk has nothing to do with it. I hope I can still dig a little bit without those pips.
That is quite disappointing. It has started to rain and just as Rob de Nijs seems to flourish with the rain gently tapping against his attic window, the rhythm of the rain on the roof under my head is getting on my nerves. Just because it’s an annoying sound, but also because I’m starting to worry.
Although this rain was predicted, it is now starting to take a long time… A wet start, in the dark. It’s a scary image. Fortunately it stays that way, because the ticking stops after I have checked all available rain radars. Sleeping is no longer possible; I have to make do with the hour that I could catch between the ticking.
The alarm clock on my phone rings, but I’ve long since eaten my homemade breakfast – oatmeal porridge with an apple and cinnamon. I pretend it’s morning and tell myself I’m as fresh and fruity as someone on a sleeping diet of milk and sunflower seeds. Pin on the jersey number, stuff my back pockets with gels, sports wine gums, some Snelle Jelles, a banana just before the start and off we go.
A healthy ‘race tension’ takes hold of me when I descend from Verbier in the dark to the start in the valley village of Le Châble. Although I barely slept, the legs feel fine, for now. At the start it is still quiet. I am one of the first of the 670 “idiots” to take on this challenge.
It is getting busier and there is also an old acquaintance who has been chartered by the organization as a mascot: Didi de Tour devil. Is that the harbinger of hell? I quickly stuff the banana just before the start, press my Garmin and off we go.
Already in the first kilometers of the Col du Lein it becomes clear that it will be a special day. Along the side of the road, someone treats the long line of cyclists to a concert with his accordion. A harmonica concert at 4am; I will probably never experience that again. That goes for much of what happens in the next few hours.
A few kilometers later I look down into the valley below and see a long ribbon of lights winding its way up the first climb of the day. It is an imposing image. After the descent, which is not too bad for me, imposing is also the right word for the sunrise. And also for the climb to Oyzonnaz, because it doesn’t run for a meter. A kind of interval training against will and thanks. Then flat again, then steep again.
Fortunately, I’m loudly cheered on by someone dressed as a chicken, with Superman by his side – it’s like the Tour de France. Only longer. Because when I’m on the road for six hours, through beautiful vineyards, beautiful Swiss villages and tough climbs, I’m not even halfway. Vingegaard and co are usually back in the team bus, but I still have to slog through for a while.
Plowing, that’s what it has become a bit by now. The hours and kilometers of climbing slowly start to count. After cycling with Jeroen van Deventer cycling club De Zwaluwen for a while, I am now on my own again. It’s food, still try to enjoy the surroundings and stairs.
At least I don’t have to worry about the route. The organization is perfect. Of course I have the gpx on my Garmin, but that really wasn’t necessary. Volunteers in yellow vests are standing at every roundabout. They stop traffic and steer me, always with a ‘Bravo!’ or “Courage!” in the right direction.
I have nothing to complain about during the stops either. You can grab cakes, jellies and waffles to your heart’s content. In addition, after 150 kilometers at the stop after the difficult (but yes, they all are ..) climb to Vercorin, my pre-issued bag with my own food is waiting.
That food, that’s something for me. It turns out to be the biggest problem towards the finish. The temperature is not too bad, although you can see from one of the photos that I still sweated enough. I am a cycling salt monster at the finish…
But the advantage of a start at 4.00 am is that you cycle in fine temperatures for the first six hours. And the advantage of all those altimeters is that you also cycle a lot at altitude, where it is a bit more pleasant – in terms of temperature then.. Only in the town of Sierre, which is about 500 meters above sea level, do I feel a warm hair dryer.
That hair dryer is nothing compared to the last hours on the bike, in which I get some stomach problems. At the beginning of the race I thought I had eaten too little. After catching up on food I go like a spear for a short time, but maybe I just ate a bit too much.
Maybe it’s just that a stomach after about 12 hours only says sugars: ‘boy, act normal, I’m not participating in this anymore’. Anyway, I notice that it is a bit different – cake that is no longer accepted. And then there’s that very heavy climb to Thyon 2000. I’m parked, especially when my Garmin indicates that I’m already at an altitude of 2000 meters, but after a series of steep hairpins to the top it’s more like Thyon 2100.
Ironically, the course continues through a piece of parking garage, after which it is downhill for the tough last 25 kilometers. On apple juice, my sports wine gums – I can just get them out – and a can of Red Bull I toil on. It’s a countdown towards the steep gravel passage that hangs above my head like a sword of Damocles.
There it is. I’m driving near a Frenchman. We see it go straight up in front of us. My companion groans a term that means the same in all languages: ‘Aiaiaiaiai’. I manage to squeeze out a smile like a peasant with a toothache. But he who struggles will emerge and this too I survive. Now the worst suffering is over. After a few more kilometers of character climbing, I spot a red carpet at the top of the Col de la Croix-de-Coeur.
14 hours, 51 minutes and 19 seconds after the starting gun sounded, I reach the finish line. I descend to Verbier, take a shower and eat some pasta. After I upload my ride to Strava – it turns out I’ve ridden 9206 altimeters – I fall asleep almost immediately with a Netflix series that I have turned on on my laptop. Not under a sofa rug, but the circle feels round enough.