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Patrick’s Report From the Snow Bike Festival in Gstaad, Switzerland

Our man in Gstaad, Patrick J. Sweeney, sent us this report form the recent Snow Bike Festival held there. The Snow Bike Festival is a stage race in true European style with 4 stages over three days. Thanks, Patrick, for the report from Gstaad! Check out www.YouTube.com/PJSweeneyAdventures for more on Patrick’s adventures.

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The Author outsprints the third place finisher of the Rocky Eliminator at the end of Stage 4 in Gstaad. Photo – Elliot Mazzolla

Snow Bike Festival 2016 – By Patrick J. Sweeney

“Dude broke his hip and got airlifted out. Just shattered his whole year.”

That foreboding quote was a year old, but still fresh in my memory. The 1st ever Snow Epic in Engleberg, Switzerland debuted in 2015. I was there and I saw “Dude” on the ice flopping around in pain like a fish trying to dislodge a hook in the bottom of a dry boat. Neither one could shake the piercing pain. I was hoping a year would change everything. 2016 was here and the Snow Epic had been renamed the Snow Bike Festival. Engleberg was dropped for the playground of the rich and famous (and now Fat) – Gstaad, Switzerland. I had three days here to find out if it was going to be the bone crushing experience it was last year or a whole new kettle of fish.

The Snow Bike Festival is the brainchild of the same people who put on the legendary Cape Epic in South Africa. These guys know how to stage a stage race. They’ve got the logistics nailed and each day is run with military precision. The 2016 event was four stage races held over three days with General Classification winners based on a point system – 1,000 points to the winner of each race, 999 for second, and so on all the way down to the final finisher. Just fewer than 100 riders from 18 countries wheeled up to the starting line each day. The town bent over backward to make riders feel at home and welcome and the weather gods played a benevolent tune for us of all white a week earlier. Day one arrived bright and crisp when I looked out the hotel window.

The first stage was held Friday morning. Riders lined up at 09.30 for the starting gun. Lou’s, Bud’s and Fat Ablert’s took over the main walking street in Gstaad, with Lycra and Gore-Tex shoulder to shoulder where fur and leather normally brushed by. The sun snuck out from behind the hill in front of us just before the crack of the starting gun. In the 20 minutes I used for a warm-up my water bottle had enough time to freeze and be rendered useless. Rookie mistake, I thought, for a guy who has raced all over from the Iditarod to the Arctic Circle. I should’ve known better.
“5, 4, 3, 2,1 …” Bang!

We rolled out, schooled tightly together looking from all angles like a Serpentined Godzilla like Monster rather than dozens of little freezing mammals we actually were. It was as if we schooled together in an attempt to scare away the alpha predator that was the FrostMiser. It wasn’t long before a couple guys began to resemble an old man’s softball team warming up. The contagiousness of the practice was comical; in seconds nearly every arm in the field was windmilling blood into the tips of icy fingers that had turned white from -15 degree (Celsius) air that pricked at them. The first 2k neutral start behind the 4-wheeler was idyllic; perfectly frosted trees hung frozen along the banks of a babbling river that was sprinkled with glitter from the low sun. I was sure this beauty couldn’t last. The snow was squeaky dry and tightly packed, the ultimate surface for Fat-biking. No studs were needed, no falls would likely be fatal (or even hip shattering). I soon realized I was wrong: the beauty rocked on.

Day 1 was the most beautiful, scenic, and well-prepared fat bike trail I’d ever ridden. We had an epic climb up the side of a ski area that was wide, challenging and seemingly never ending. Finally, at the top there was a spectator-laden aid station that warmed us with tea and fueled us with bananas and cookies. I made the mistake of taking a minute to put a windbreaker on and take some tea in. That cost me precious and hard fought seconds after battling with an diverse pack of riders the first 25km or so. I was counting on my solid descending skills to get me back to them and lead me to bragging rights as the top American. It wasn’t to be. I had been riding with a demolitions expert from Buffalo – Mike Young – who pulled ahead of me when I stopped. Worse than Young pulling away for good, were two other arch rivals I had concocted in my hyper-active (or hyper-competitive) mind pulling away. I really wanted to beat The Pink Hornet (remember Bruce Lee’s TV super hero?) and Drago the East German (I know it should be Russian but the guy racing was German and it’s my story anyway). I pushed off the summit like a pinball shot from a spring. There were dozens of back wheels sliding, a few launches over the handlebars, and tons of brakes squeeking as the main pack snaked down the final 10k. The hairpin screaming descent down a sledding track put a smile on every racers’ face and brought Stage 1 to an end. It was undoubtedly the best fat bike course most of us had ever ridden. Over the few hours out on the course the organizers threw us a bit of everything during the 32k. What a difference a year made.

Pink Hornet

Photo – Sportgrfix

The Pink Hornet turned out to be a Thai semi-professional bike rider who had never touched snow in his life until he arrived in Gstaad a couple days earlier. He was dressed head to toe in bright pink lycra and sported a Vee tire logo just about everywhere, shamelessly pimping his brand sponsor (for which the organizers gave him an award on Saturday night). The East German was an aviation engineer from Munich who had many fat bike races planned over the winter. And our man Young from Buffalo brought his wife and kids along to make the week a full vacation punctuated by the Snow Bike Festival. The families of riders had great fun not just seeing some spectacular endos and flips when front tires found unintended soft snow, or too much weight or brakes were applied to front wheels; but they also got to try a selection of fat bikes, including very speedy electric-assisted ones. Most impressive was the town of Gstaad being immensely supportive with tons to do for riders and non-riders alike. Five 5-star hotels with Spas, an outdoor skating rink, and horse drawn carriages all share the village with an active cow barn that has a section partitioned to serve fondue next to heifers giving milk with yodeling waitresses. Lest you ever forget you’re in the village of $30 million chalets you are sure to see at least one chauffer in the Bentley sitting patiently in front of Prada or Louis Vuitton.

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Photo – Sportgrfix

Needless to say each stage of the four was memorable. The three cross-country races all had great views, impressive courses and interesting challenges. The temperature hovered around freezing for day 2 and 3 giving us some relief from the first morning cold. But the real highlight for me was the Rocky Mountain Eliminator. I actually stood a chance of coming top 10 in this event given my 210 pound, former rower’s body with fast twitch fibers galore and great anaerobic threshold. I made it to the quarterfinals last year, and was set to do even better this year.

The eliminator is an event every mountain bike stage race should have – fat or skinny. It’s about a minute long, total. Five riders line up side by side. The gun fires and a mad eggbeating ensues for the first corner. The holeshot is the best predictor of the finish of this exciting, under-the-lights spectator favorite. It was 30 seconds of climbing up a curvy ski slope followed by 20-30 seconds of descent over a jump, into a banked turn and through a chicane to the finish. A formula un of fat bike, as Ricky Bobby might say. The top 1 or 2 finishers move on to the next round, everyone else grabs a beer or warm mulled wine and cheers on their favorites. I easily qualified for the second round and toed the line for round two. I was confident of moving on to round three as the countdown blasted us off the line. I lurched ahead the first 10 feet of the holeshot; then my trusty Borealis dropped down about a foot in the ass end as the quick release skewer in the rear wheel popped out from the drop outs due to the torque. My tire dislodged and left me suddenly sitting on the snow. DNF. Not the way to end the night. I was heartbroken.

The good news was I finished as the top American (bragging rights since there was more than one) and 37th over all. Most importantly, like everything in life, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. Each race was interesting, fun and challenging, everyone I met was enthusiastic and welcoming and the organization was world class. After 2016 the Snow Bike Festival has been elevated on the Sweendawg racing calendar to the rare space only held by Leadville and occasionally La Ruta as annual affairs not to be missed. It’s easily one of my favorite races of all time. Put it on your bucket list.

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Photo – Zoon Cronje

Thanks for the report, Patrick! Looking forward to your next adventures! FB.c

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