What's Cool In Road Cycling

Trans-Alp 2012: It’s All PEZ’s Fault!

I swore off the Tour Transalp after I crashed in the 2007 edition – on the first descent my front tire blew and I hit the tarmac hard. I managed to finish, but not without having a descending scar engrained deeply in my head. “Never again,” I vowed. Ah yes – famous last words from PEZ-Fan Bruce Carnevale – who made his triumphant return this August.

Words by Bruce Carnevale

So, with friends I went autonomous after that, renting vacation homes – in Alsace, France in 2009 or this year in Bavaria – and I vehemently renounced riding with 1,300 others. No pressure, no obligations, but also no crashes, no uncontrolled agro, just good fun with the guys. An occasional sprint for a city limit sign was the limit of our competition. This was the epitome of cycling’s social side – ride easy, talk, ride hard, laugh.

Then I read PEZ’s story about Monte Grappa with its nine ascents. I mailed it to my friends, suggesting it for one of our annual cycling trips. In November 2011, however, when the Transalp published its route for 2012, Monte Grappa was there. Horror of horrors, my partner from 2006 ( see my story here: ) and 2007 half seriously suggested we do it, never thinking I would agree, so I surprised him by saying yes, seriously. My descending scar had apparently receded into some sort of amnesia. So when we got a spot, it returned and I went into shock, disbelief, rejection. But I trained, jogging in the winter, riding on a home trainer when the temps went far below freezing, and did what little I could, juggling time in my relationship, job and other hobbies.

Actually, long ago Felix and I had talked about doing the Tour Transalp when we both turned 50 (or 51 in my case), so we could ride in the Grand Master’s category at our youngest possible total age. We wanted to give it our best shot, as we had learned a little on how to do it well without the team support the fastest teams always have.

This year the Transalp turned ten, is bigger and, according to several I talked with, more competitive than ever. Over 1,360 cyclists, or 680 two-person teams, began the seven-day stage race on June 24 from Mittenwald, Germany meandering through Giro country to finish in Arco, Italy, near the Garda Lake. We travelled around 810 kilometers and racked up 18,800 meters of elevation gain, rode over some famous passes, through the typical snowy mountains on the Timmelsjoch in light rain, Passo Sella, Grodnerjoch, Passo Fedaia and, yes, Monte Grappa.

Route Overview
On paper, this year’s edition seemed easier than the ones before. The stages weren’t that long, nor the passes that high. The hardest, for me at least, was the first stage as we had to scale the hard side of the Kьhtai pass: with several sections over 15% and long, it seemed to last and last and last. The second, third and fourth stages were very similar or almost identical to those in 2006. The fifth was called the queen stage, at 129 km, with Passo Valdes, Passo Rolle and Monte Grappa as the third and final mountain and 3,050 meters overall elevation gain; the sixth was the longest day at 146 km and amassed 2,740 meters elevation gain, but no real passes to speak of, mostly up and down and up and down, ‘Eierbrei’ as my partner called it. The last, to Arco, near Riva del Garda, Italy, was the easiest on paper, but the first climb lasted a good 20 km and the heat was intense. Plus, we were all tired.

Timmelsjoch. The Feed Station at 2,509 meters

It Takes Two
While the mountains from the Giro d’Italia make the Transalp very special, two other things stand out even more so. The first – teams are two members only, and the slowest of the two times counts in the overall standings. If nothing else, this two-person strategy forces communication, making or breaking a team; it cements bond or destroys them. I met a woman in a Russian mixed team where the woman was left to fend on her own – she was “less than pleased” with her partner’s behavior, who bluntly told her she was too slow. Others, one from a team sponsored by Lightweight had a former winner of the Transalp help his female friend up the mountains, sacrificing his own ambitions for the opportunity to ride with her. Indeed, the bond formed between two members becomes even more important over these seven days than the competition between teams.

Third Stage & feeling good

My partner and I had no such communication problems. On day three, the shortest but steepest, I was feeling good, passing many on the narrow (not even a car would have fit) path up the Wьrzjoch. I held back as I heard him say, “Pulse close to 160, can’t go faster.” I would eventually weaken in the last two days, whereas his diesel was just warming up. On day seven, with about 30 km left to finish the Transalp, we found ourselves in a group of ten, and when he pulled away from us, I yelled, “HEY, no one can keep up. Slow down, PLEASE!” Each of us had our good days; fortunately we complemented each other well, as did our clear and direct communication.

This video gives a good view of the narrow & steep climb up the Wьrzjoch, especially the last five minutes.

Every evening the Transalp published a two-page German-language newsletter, the ‘Gazetta,’ on the day’s stage, which reported on the winners, the next day’s weather forecast, but also included other topics – one discussed team communication: “competition is allowed,” the writer, a sports scientist and psychologist, wrote, between team members as long as the communication remains clear. Felix and I had it down pat. If you communicate well, clearly, directly, respectfully, you form a deep bond that is hard to find in other situations. The stress, the exhaustion, the need to compromise with your own limits and those of your partner, all of this puts relationships to a stress test. If they succeed, they deepen. Shared suffering makes all the difference.

It’s a Race
The other aspect making the Transalp special is the fact that it is timed. It is a race and we middle-aged men and women (indeed the “middle-aged” group at the Transalp is its largest) want that race feeling: transponders on the bike, announcers at beginning and finish, race numbers and teams, feed stops along the way, motorcyclists (doctors and race marshals) accompany your every move, and roads mostly free of cars. And once, when a helicopter just happened to pass by – no, the Transalp doesn’t have that – we felt even more in the race.

When we suffered major heat on the last few days, with the sun burning down on our backs, we needed and graciously accepted the cold water several fans poured over our heads. Never mind the temps going above 35 to 37°C, we were in a seven-day stage race through the mountains.

This aspect of the Transalp, however, also points to its weakness. While the race is touted as an everyman’s race, too much attention is paid to the leaders. There are many small stories to be told – one mother and father rode the Transalp while their kids drove the support car, handed out water bottles, street shoes, clean clothes at stage end – and I was privy to very few; they were rarely published. You hear them during and after the tour, from the riders themselves. Some were announced at the pasta parties, but since the pasta was uneven at best and the lines were long, we skipped many of them. But at the final pasta party, in 2006 and 2007, everyone was invited on stage to be congratulated and receive the finisher’s jersey – yes, that race feeling. Look out at the crowd, raise both hands, and receive the applause. Stupid perhaps, even slightly embarrassing, but that slight tingle….

Celebrating, slightly haggard.

This year we got the jerseys right at the stage finish without any brouhaha, and the only non-winner cyclists honored on stage at the final pasta party were a team who had improved the most on that day as well as the winner of the raffle for a Dura Ace-equipped Scott Foil. Otherwise it was winners, winners, winners. Sure, they deserve it, but so do many others. Here are a few exemplary stories in and around the race:

Blind Date with a Professional
The Tour Transalp draws some big names, as participants or visitors. Gilberto Simoni came via a print interview in the Gazetta, telling us he had heard of and respect for the Transalp, and he might eventually like to take part. Finn Pia Sundstedt was there to prepare for the Olympics road race; she won the overall in the mixed category. But most interesting among this prominence was how former Telekom professional Jцrg Ludewig became a part of the game this year. He had a blind date.

Suffered like a dog, and happy it’s over: Norbert Seewald (r) with new friend Jцrg Ludewig.

This year Norbert Seewald had planned on doing the Transalp with a friend and his girlfriend with one of hers. But the plans fell through when his partner cancelled in the last minute, leaving both with the Ђ650 entry fee and no team to speak of. Norbert’s girlfriend had met Jцrg at the Transalp 2011, told her boyfriend to try. So, Norbert mailed Jцrg “would you?” and Jцrg mailed Norbert “Sure.” This blind date worked perfectly, although after the fact, Norbert confessed to having suffered like never before, but also to rising above himself. He said distinctly – a real friendship has begun, confirming the thesis that the stress can strengthen what may begin superficially. What’s more, they made it all the way to seventh overall, third on the last stage (i.e. on the podium).

Go Canada!
Canadians Tannille Stickly and Monica Nelson came over via Austrian Jцrg Becker’s company, Magic Places. Becker has been bringing Canadians over to the race since 2007. Monica and Tannille said there was nothing quite like it, for roadies at least, in North America. “The Tour Transalp has become the annual highlight, if not the race of their lifetime for most of our riders,” Becker adds. “It is also the best organized event and as close to a pro race as it can get.”

Tannille and Monica let Jцrg’s Magic Places do the dirty work; all they had to do was ride.

Becker offers a complete package, door to door with bike, and his service is fully booked months in advance. Even though many in the Transalp area speak English, it isn’t easy taking care of all the particulars. The Transalp fee, for instance, does not include accommodation. While the hardcore sleep in the Transalp Camp, basically a gymnasium-sized room with place for about 200 sleeping bags, many want a little more privacy and comfort, and finding a hotel near the finishing/starting line is a chore.

In Falcade, Felix and I slept at 1,900 meters, about 11 km from the start. This meant we had to use a shuttle bus there and back, which waited interminably to fill and to leave its parking spot. We got to our hotel about four hours after we had finished. If you go with Jцrg all that is taken care of. And he organizes his own feed stations, so you need not fight to get water or food. Indeed, if you stop at the Transalp feed stations, you inevitably lose time because there is a struggle, albeit it an amicable one, to get in and out quickly.

South Tyrolean Cuisine
It is hard to imagine being taken care of more hospitably than in the restaurant “Fana Ladina.” The manager and waitress, Alma, greets all her guests, all of them, when they enter the restaurant. And she describes her restaurant’s dishes as if she were cooking them for her family. It is that personal and that good. After seeing the huge line at the pasta party in St. Vigilio in 2006, Felix and I u-turned and happened upon Fana Ladina.

Freshly picked lettuce: Alma makes her guests feel at home.

This year we were looking forward to eating there almost as much as riding in the Transalp. We were not disappointed – as we observed in 2006, she even came out in the back terrace to pluck the lettuce for our salads! If you are in the area, this is a must.

Team Names
One of the nicest things about the Transalp is the atmosphere. You feel, breath, live bikes for a full week. You meet others who do the same. And while some can only do that 24 hours a day, a lot are a little less serious. Many have special jerseys made for the occasion, giving their teams creative names. While we named ours after one of our favorite valleys where we like to ride, others were far more imaginative: “Snow White has an Affair” (a mixed team), “The 2?” (a play on the well-known German children’s books, The Three Question Marks), “The Fantastic Four” (legs, perhaps?) or “The Doubled Virgins” (a men’s Masters team).

Jцrg’s Canadians weren’t the only English speakers in the peloton. The Transalp is a German event through and through as most participants come from Germany, followed by Austria and Italy, but the nationalities present bear witness to how international it has become: English was heard, not only from me, but from the Zimbabweans, Australians, Israelis and New Zealanders! Many make the long international schlep just to be a part of this unique event.

Farewell to my Descending Angst!
Perhaps it was the Kool Stop pads I had installed, or the 25 mm Contis I rode, but I descended like a daredevil, having complete trust in my material once again, a diametrical opposite to 2007. I had learned to brake late but hard and really forecast my line through the curves. While this is daily bread for those accustomed to riding in the mountains, it wasn’t for me. I discovered cycling in the LeMond era in Florida.

Our hero descending with confidence.

The Passo Fedaia offered the best conditions: good pavement, no cars and 10% in a straight line, more or less, for several kilometers. If I hadn’t looked at my computer, seen 89 km and gotten the chills (OK, I wasn’t the fastest), I could have gone much faster; many hit over 100 km/h on this descent. Here’s an example from this very day:

Then, of course, I got overconfident and bagged a curve on Stage 5 (coming down the Grappa). The organizers had warned us the night before at the pasta party that the route was narrow and difficult. I headed into a slight turn too fast, chose a bad line and ditched it, luckily, in the grass. I got right up, pulled the grass out of my shoes and chain, collected my water bottles and shot down the hill as before, passing several for the second time. My partner couldn’t believe his eyes.

But I didn’t pass this guy:

At around 9m50s, that’s me in white getting back on the bike; my partner is in black. And at 27:30 you can see how the Transalp blocked an intersection for the cyclists – a commonplace occurrence at every intersection.

Repeat Offender
Like I wrote above, after the event in 2007, I said “never again.” Now, it’s “yes, definitely.” And to the guys who partly made it possible, I can only say, “Thanks PEZ!”

As Jцrg Becker is already fully booked for 2013, you’ll have to register online, which begins at high noon C.E.T. on December 4. Typically all 650 team spots are booked within minutes. Be well prepared, and if it doesn’t work, put yourself on the waiting list. It’s worth the effort.

For more info on the TransAlp you can check out their Website or MagicPlaces’ Website

And if you’re ever in the region and are after a good feed you couldn’t do any better than the Fana Ladina restaurant

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