It has not happened very often to me to premiere at an event.
Ok, maybe I’m lying: I was at the 1st Toros de Gravel, at the opening party of the Rapha Store Berlin (that recently turned 4 with the consequent question cartooning up my mind “4 years? What have I done in such a snap of time”), I podcasted from the Atlas Mountain Race 2020, I was the first 7th classified at the Rent a Bike time trial in Tempelhofer Feld. But the automagical feeling kissing me in those moments is always a first-timer. So, at that exact time I hit the parking lot at Champex Lac looking for the shuttle that would take me to the Relais d’Arpette to listen to Shawn’s first Gravel Epic brief, well, my guts expressed a clear Yowow sound.
How I got to know Gravel Epic
But let’s start from the beginning: I got in love with Gravel Epic when, after having been in Marocco for the AMR, I was looking around for some reference for an article, and I stumbled upon the GE website presenting the adventure in Morocco (of course) and the fabulous one on Mount Etna, one of my gravel wet dreams. From that time many things happened, while the most important for our story was the Gravel Epic becoming part of the Haute Route, that series made infamous from the documentary Icarus. Well, being Haute Route based in Switzerland, more precisely on Lake Leman, it was natural for me to get in contact with the people behind it. I met then Shawn, the Project Manager behind the GE, and together we arranged some podcast episodes, the recon of the track diligently arranged by Anthony Walker (Brit in French Switzerland roadie with a dirty mind), and, finally, my debut at the 1st ever Gravel Epic 🇨🇭.
A pinch of Gravel Epic history
But before going again to that parking lot in Champex Lac, let’s pop some history mentions. Gravel Epic was born in 2019 from the brilliant cycling minds of Tim Kremer and Ralf Birke with the help of the cycling organizer Pascal Jorritsma: a 4 event gravel series with stage races in Morocco, Mount Etna, Slovenia, and Girona. All in a sound General Classification and crowns for the winners. The launch was supposed to be in infamous 2020 but didn’t obviously happen, so the series became part of the Haute Route that, because 2021 came out more clement than 2020 but not so much, could make real only one of the 4 appointments but not in any of the planned locations. The choice dropped on the lovely Valais, where cycling is second only to adventure in terms of beauty and charm. One single 2 stages event, between some of the most beautiful corners of the grave landscape with everything you can find on the best 3 Michelin Star gravel menus.
The way up to Relais d’Arpette
That’s me in the parking lot, exactly at the entrance of the hike/ski lift where I will find the shuttle happy to bring me to the refuge also being the starting point of all the adventures of the weekend. Dropping the car, pulling the luggage, whistling at my bad mechanic skills and I am ready to move towards the first-ever Gravel Epic Event. I crack some steps then here is the first known face: Alain Rumps aka A Swiss with a Pulse, basically a celebrity in the French part of Switzerland already part of the BroomWagon Podcast 🚌 and infinite stream of marvelous rides on the other side of the Röstigraben. «Stefano come stai?» – Alain speaks brilliant Italian «I learned it while working at the UCI thanks to the numerous Italian riders in the pro peloton» – he once told me. «Pretty excited for this premiere» – that’s my answer – «and can’t wait for all the food». Yes, I have to admit, I don’t feel pretty fit for this event. It’s not the physical form, more the motivation of pushing above the limits missing this time. I got many things on my plate between August and now, and my only focus for this event is to suck all vibes, landscapes, chats, and, of course, food.
Waiting for us is Frankie and he basically drives the BroomWagon of the event, also by shuttling us up the last hill: «Hey there, sorry if I interrupt you, but let’s load luggage and bikes on the van and then wait for somebody else to come, so we will jump up in a cozier mood». «But we will be late for dinner» words come out from my mouth naturally: two conversations open and both about food, yes I am definitely hungry. «No worries Stefano, they will wait for us tell me about the last Sustainable Conversation podcast you just produced» – it is Alain asking. «Podcast? Sustainability?» it is Frankie now «Tell me more». I first perform my 3 minutes BroomWagon Podcast 🚌 then my 2 minutes Sustainable Conversations elevator pitch and Frankie’s eyes start blinking “oh wow, we need to talk more Stefano, I also have a sustainability project in Verbier, where I live, it is called Skibroa and we collect old ski garments from the schools and we transform them in pieces of art and furniture”. «Also my wife is thinking about starting a sustainable project» – is Alain now – «I will tell here to swing by Verbier then, and I am also thinking about a second-hand gear swap market next week in Villars: I have tons of apparels almost new I don’t wear anymore, somebody else should do it». «Oh wow, this is definitely the best convoy I can ask for, let’s jump in and discuss more».
Gravel Epic registration and first encounters
Well, I would keep the bus conversation technically confidential, but yeah, the stoke is quite pumped when we reached the top of the climb. I jump out, I collect my bike and here Federico is. We met in Morocco where I was podcasting while he was busy winning the pair race of the first (and for now last) Atlas Mountain Race. «Stefano, you look great, but I’m sure tomorrow with your BroomWagon kit you will look even better» – Federico aside from being an ultraendurance racer, also leads the marketing at Sportful, and together we created my cycling kit for 2021. «Yo Federico: I hope it will still look the same after the 200 km and 6000m of elevation of the next two days» we laugh, we chat and then I jump at the registration desk. On my way to it, I meet briefly Mikel, the guy behind the Amani Project and the Migration Gravel Race: «Helping those guys out, and then will see you later, Stefano» – he says, but damn’, it didn’t happen, even if I had the chance to spend quite some time with the Fursa Team: basically the East-Africa dream time born from these 2 projects. I jump at the desk and I find Guillaume, who leads the comms at the Haute Route, but because the whole organization is always committed to any events, he will take on service duty here «Guillaume, what are you doing outside of your tarmac comfort zone?» – I say – «I have to admit Stefano: I really like getting dirty and playing with mud».
A bit of Gravel Epic Drama
We say bye, I get my goodie bag, I drop the bike under the big tent, I climb up the steps to get into my room, I chat with my roommates, I drop my bags and I realize I’ve made one of the biggest mistakes of my cycling life: I left the helmet at home. DAMMIT! I run down looking for Shawn: «Buddy, for god sake, tell me you brought an extra helmet so I can ride tomorrow» – I shout – «Stefano, hi» – Shawn has a clueless face – «Actually not, as I am not supposed to ride this weekend, but ask Anthony…» Shawn probably wants to tell me something else when I leave him there poking on my phone and dialing the number «Anthony, hi, Stefano here. Do you have an extra helmet for me?» – last time we talked was on the way down from Col de la Croix de Coeur during the Gravel Epic recce, but he feels me straight away – «Hey Stefano, yes I have one. I can bring it to you tomorrow morning, no worries. I’m on the front of the Arpette now, we will talk about it in person in less than 3 minutes». I am safe, this was close.
The first Gravel Epic Food and the evanescence practice
With this win in into the back pocket, I move to dinner and I see what Shawn meant when we talked about the event: «Food is brilliant, you will see it» – and I did. Finished my dinner with a great gelato while talking with Linda and Philippe: they are Haute Route veterans hooked by the gravel germ: now ready to tackle the Gravel Epic challenge, tomorrow they will line up for the Atlas Mountain Race as a pair. It is time for a fast briefing from Anthony and Shawn, and then everybody practices the evanescence, the Haute Route spirit is really present here, nobody wants to be found tired for tomorrow: after all Gravel Epic is a race. Fortunately sometimes everybody doesn’t really mean everybody: I found somebody to hit the bar and have some chats: I meet Alain, he lives in Brussels and he speaks Italian with an amazing accent. Don’t ask me what we talked about: I lost contact with topics pretty quickly, but kept an eye on the beers’ count: four each creating a circle with many other dudes swinging by. Like Federico, part of the Enough Cycling Collective, with his Amaro Braulio, Peter who won a BroomWagon kit thanks to the giveaway, Mario and Andreas, legends of the Bern gravel community and arrived last minute with a taxi paid from the Swiss Train Company. When everybody really disappeared – at 9pm – I couldn’t find anything better to do than go to bed, and it was a bad decision, as I later got to know that the Enough people built a bonfire spending some more hours outside.
Gravel Epic day #1
Finally morning, the night was not the best: the room was roasting hot so I decided to create some air stream by keeping windows and doors open, but somebody was over-worried outside, walking nervously until a very deep time in the night. Anyway, I am confused but not completely confused, so I get my pooping strategy right: go to the toilette before everybody else, even before breakfast.
Lighter, I jump down and I have breakfast with Ricky from Velocio and Alain, talking about the best layering for the day: the forecast says the weather will be on the cold side on the first downhill, then hot while climbing, and then cold again at the end of the day. «I will go with merino base-layer, shorts, short sleeves jersey, arm warmers, gilet, gloves in the frame bag, and, of course, a cappellino under my helmet». They apparently both liked my solution, layering is always the best. Breakfast is done so it is time to get ready. I pull together my clothing, I go down and the weather is a bit colder than expected, but, hey, the magic rule says: “if you are not cold before starting riding, you made a mistake”. Dunno if shaking is also included in the rulebook, but that’s what I’m doing anyway. I pick up my bike, jump to the mechanic van to collect a zip tie, and go to the start line. It is cold, damn if it is cold, I start riding in circles like a dumbass, checking how the other participants are doing, then I see Ollie from GCN really well covered and with a huge question mark on my head I hear my name: «Calamaro!» – I turn around and the question mark becomes even bigger – «it is me, Frederick, we met at the Atlas Mountain Race and we raced together also the Fixed42 World Championship in 2017» I will be damn’ if I remembered anything of that, and I make it pretty clear «Sorry Frederick, I cannot remember it, but who cares, how are you doing today?» – I say «No problem man, I feel great, first time tackling some real mountains this year, but I am pretty exciting of seeing how the race will evolve». We keep on chatting, and then the countdown is on: «3-2-1 GO!» I say bye to Friedrick, I let most of the people pass by, and then I start the downhill, not exactly my cup of tea. I roll down with ease on the tarmac, then I take it slower on the gravel until we arrive at Sembracher to start the way up. Circa 20km in 35minutes.
Col du Lein: the first climb
I cross the railway, ride my way over the vineyards, move forward across the first uphill gravel session that will be the first timed segment, and will take me to le Col du Lein. This climb is just more than beautiful: empty gravel double track into a forest, with beautiful landscapes and stunning colors. On my way up I meet Mario and Andreas: «Why are you pushing so hard Stefano, are getting competitive?» – is Mario teasing me – «LOL, damn’ Mario, now that you made me realize I have a transponder on my bike the system is gonna collapse» – it can sound like a joke, but it is definitely not. Since 2018 every time I have been part of a proper bike race, with timed sections, general classifications, and real agonism, I have never seen the finish line. I really don’t know what’s wrong, but hey, who knows if this time is going to be different.
I take it easy from now, I talk with the Bernese gang, then I push forward having breaks every few pedal strokes with the excuse of taking photos but with the intent of absorbing as much as the Valais has to offer me and I swear it is a lot. I carry on and I have the pleasure to meet some more leisure cyclists on the way to the top of Col du Lein: imagine a big open plateau on high mountains surrounded by larch trees, it is just breathtaking. At the top, I find the first checkpoint, with a lot of people and something I oversee or probably choose to not take into consideration: the switch between Epic and Discovery route. I don’t remember if I put any thought on it, but after a short stop for eating and peeing, I go for the longest of the two, heading to le Col de la Croix de Coeur, nothing new for me, but from one side I’ve never approached. My legs are still doing great, and I jump down the pass with ease by crossing villages built with the same substance of cheese and green valleys. I have to be completely sincere: when I moved to Switzerland from Berlin in 2018 I visualized myself living in one of these remote and picturesque 4-houses-villages in the Alps, spending my time writing, farming, cooking, and, sometimes, riding my bike.
Le Croix de Coeur and the unespected
After all these dreams, reality cracked my focus pretty easily. I stop for water at Le Fregoley and here I see Shawn patrolling the course: «How are you doing, Stefano?» – he says – «Still awesomely buddy». «Cool, don’t underestimate this climb it is a real deal» – Shawn leaves me there, with my bottles half empty and still the confidence that I can do it. Well, the climb is about 20km and 1500m of elevation, a bit more than half in gravel, not the toughest I’ve ever done, but enough to challenge my legs tired by an interesting end of the year. The first half is ok, but then, suddenly, the hammer of the fatigue hits the head of my ride: I have to stop after any second kilometer to take a break. I see many people overtaking me, I also have the impression to have somebody always in front of me, but at a certain point, I have enough. "I will walk until the pass, and then from there I will get on the plateau and from then, I will arrive easily at home" – that’s my mind playing tricks on me just after Les Shlerondes with its incredible waterfalls. The top of the climb is visible, but I will not arrive 'till there. I see the medical car on the last switchback, then a little car coming down the mountain:
Shawn «Stefano, how are you doing?»
Calamaro 🦑 «Crappy legs, probably I cannot process any more food, and my mind is not clear»
Shawn «No problems buddy, I am not any hallucination: do you want to carry on? You are the last one on course, and probably you won’t make it to the cut-off time at the next checkpoint. If you want to carry on please consider it a risk, otherwise I can offer you 2 options: you can push it down and then call the BroomWagon, or I can be your BroomWagon bringing you to the last resupply point and then you can go back to the refuge with any of the support cars»
Calamaro 🦑 «Yep, I think I’m done for today, my personal BroomWagon. I will call it a day at 2.200 meters of elevation, it will be for next time».
We load my bike in the car, and Shawn keeps me into a conversation for a bit , offering me more food, checking mildly my conditions, basically taking good care of me. The transponder course had me again, I scratched from day 1 of the Gravel Epic in one of the most beautiful climbs I’ve ever seen after 62.28km, 2,625m. of climbing and 5:24:36h of rolling time.
The rest of the day goes smoothly, I stop at the last checkpoint, I eat some stuff, and then Davide from the mechanic service brings me back to the Arpette after fixing as many mechanicals as possible.
Time at the refuge
At the refuge I listen to some of the stories: Mario and Andreas decided to go for the short route, because of cramps; Peter ended up climbing way more than needed on the Croix de Coeur, reaching an alpine dam and adding 40km and almost 1000m of climbing to the original route; Federico crashed badly on his 3T, rolling down a ditch with a broken helmet and a lot of fear; Carlos got scared on the first unpaved descend finishing his race after a handful of kilometers; Ricky finished her stage with a lot of grit and satisfaction. All these chats are flowing around also thanks to Komoot providing us with Gin&Tonic and popcorns: really well deserved. At dinner I join Fursa table, I finally can give Sule a copy of AlVento with my article about him and the Migration Gravel Race, and talk with him, Finley, and Ruben about a new wave of cyclists and the difference between cycling and running for Kenyan kids. This was probably the night I loved the most up to the Arpette: bonding with people all over the world without only talking about cycling but everything’s around.
Gravel Epic day #2
To bed earlier than the day before, but the day after the shredding is not at its best. The second night is better, but the morning felt a bit weird, and I can only blame my bad legs and the weather. It has been raining for hours, and the organization decided to shorten up the stage: 42km instead of 54km, with less dangerous segments and a more safe ride. I arrive ready to ride on my way to collecting the bike, but when I go out and I see the heavy rain, my motivation becomes even lower: what do I have to do? Shall I jump on the bike and get wet and miserable, or I can just take it easy and put a DNS close to Calamaro’s 🦑 name? I think about it for some minutes then I release the knot while talking with Davide:
«Hey Davide: do you have space in your track for today?»
«And can I join you?»
Any doubt is over: I am here to live an experience, without boundaries, and I can continue living it also without a bike, just following the course on the service van and collecting stories and emotions directly from there. I go back up, change my clothes and jump on the van, happy to go around with my analog camera.
The community circle
The day is as beautiful as ever even if the rain hits the course for the whole time of the race. I had time to talk with Davide about his job, his passions, and future project; with Guillaume about kids and communication patterns; with Isabelle about women and pro cycling; with Ricky about cycling to bike events; with Mario about hardtail mountain bikes and the cycling business in Switzerland; with Peter about jobs, responsibilities, and passions; with Julie about running an international company in the sport/event industry as a woman; with Ali about cycling technique; and with many many more people about so many topics that will take an incredible amount of time to write but that will stay with me until I won’t lose my memory.
Ride bikes make memories
I’m back in my car now, after the podium celebrations and saying goodbye to a bunch of new friends, and I think about the transponder course affecting me so much, but then I realize that taking part in a cycling event is bliss, not because of competition, something I was never really into, but because of the magic that brings together so many different personalities in something we can firmly call the gravel community.