Although I have embarked on a few long bicycle rides in the last couple of years I have yet to take part in an actual endurance bike race, Albextrem would be the event to put that right. Albextrem has a certain reputation in the area of Baden Wuerttemburg east of Stuttgart that I now call home. This area sits at the foot of the Schaebisch Alb which provides a great playground full of weekend challenges for masochistic cyclists. In the case of Albextrem the organisers plan 3 routes through (actually up and down, many times) the alb.All routes start and finish at the same point, the small town of Ottenbach and run along the same roads until two splits in the route, leading to a ‘classic’ version of 200km and 3300m altitude, ‘mid-size’ 250km 4400m and the ultimate ‘Traufkönig’ (untranslatable, but you get the idea from the numbers!) 300km 5600m. Map of the routes and an altitude profile are below.
Much like my failed attempt to enter the Transcontinental race in 2016 I was also too slow in entering the Albextrem this year but luckily for me, and unluckily for him, a fellow member of my triathlon club had to pull out with an injury, so after a bit of a fuss to transfer his participant number I was ready to roll and attempt to conquer the ‘mid-size ‘Albextrem’
As I am slowly but surely finding out, endurance sport is only partly about the physical training to ensure your body is capable of carrying you through to the finish, but equally important is the planning phase. You can undo all your hard work pounding the tarmac for hours and hours if you neglect to also put in the time to preparation. In the case of Albextrem this manifested itself in getting myself and my kit to the start line on time and in a decent state. In order to give the participants a fighting chance of getting round their chosen route the start is at the slightly ungodly hour of 0630. Seeing as the start is 40km away from where I live and the trains only get me to within 10km and even then they certainly do not run before 6am on Sundays, then I decided to cycle to the start the night before and kip there in the hope of catching an about an hour and a half more sleep compared to making the journey on the Sunday. According to the website, this plan of action was catered for and those of us unwilling to travel on the race day could stay for free in the sports hall adjacent to the start area, you just need to bring your own sleeping bag etc. I really wasn’t expecting much when I arrived, laden with an overfull rucksack, but was greeted by wha felt like a mini festival, a tent full of people eating and drinking (beer, although I could not tell in most cases if it was alcoholic or not) and a german band running through a medley mixture of german oompah music and Abba covers.
Before I settled into a bowl full of spaghetti and a cool non alcoholic beer I scoped out the accommodation, as the sunset. Once I found the sports hall I discovered about half a dozen guys had already staked a claim to a segment of floor space, some with their bike propped up against the wall next to their sleeping bag, like a loyal steed. There was still plenty of space left so I found a place with a respectable distance to my new neighbours and laid out my stuff and then wandered back to the tent. I paid only a cursory attention to the fact that the hall was split in two by a large curtain, with sleeping on one side and a projector with chairs on the other side. It wasn’t until later that I realised the significance.
After enjoying the atmosphere for a while the time came to get some shut eye, especially important for me as someone who really loves their sleep and generally I am an early to bed, early to rise sort of guy. However, as Albextrem took place in the middle of the Euro 2016 football finals, the half of the hall designated for sleeping was also being used as by a number of die hard fans to watch the latest game. So a group of u tried to turn in and hope that the game would not be too exciting or go to extra time! Luckily I can fall asleep pretty easily and the noise was not enough to keep me awake for long. Sleeping on a yoga mat however does not lead to the most restful of nights sleep and after rousing from a light sleep a multiple times I decided to get ready for the start as the sun rose over the sports hall.
We had arranged with a group of the other Trias Wernau club members to meet at the startline just before 0600 so I made my way to the main tent again to take advantage of the breakfast on offer, 5 euro all you can eat affair and try to resist the temptation to eat everything, thinking I can fuel up like an oil tanker to carry me through the day. With a reasonably full belly and caffeine in the blood I head off to the start to meet the group after kindly asking the race organisers to look after my rucksack containing the yoga mat and sleeping bag (I am one of the very few who stayed the night and did not come by car, extra effort points I feel, shouldn’t I get a head start?)
Slowly but surely they all arrive, all having made the journey that morning from their homes. Pleasantries are exchanged, enquiries are made about how everyone slept and if they had enough breakfast, how chilly it is but that the weather looks like it is going to be perfect. Forming ourselves into groups according to our expected route (the small, middle or long loop) I get together with the guys who are planning the middle route and then we slot ourselves into the slow moving queue to the official start around 0600(see above).
After passing through the start line, which is more a formality to enable the organisers to hand out the wristbands that will allow access to the food and drink stations along the way, the route winds quickly up a local climb giving a taste of things to come. Overcome with enthusiasm I step up on the pedals and start to climb at a normal weekend pace, only to be rightly told by the far more experienced (and fitter!) Andi that I should save the juice for later….noted, for now and always, I am no hare, and this type of event calls for tortoise type tactics. Taking a slower and more considered pace also allowed me to really appreciate the great views over the valley as the sun rose and clears the light low level mist, sadly I didn’t stop for a photo, but it was a great advert for starting your ride before the sun peeps above the horizon.
Although the start number we have all tied to our bikes has a timing chip on it, this event is not a race and the organisers are at pains to remind you of this, no doubt this is part of the deal with the police and local authorities to allow so many cyclists on the road at one time. Furthermore, given that alot of people dont tackle this length or toughness of route very often (if at all) then it is probably better to avoid encouraging people to ride too fast.
Nonetheless, shortly after the start the siren of an ambulance could be heard, and sre enough, on one of the early descents, a small group could be seen tending to someone who had overcooked it going into the curve, such a shame to see but it did seem at least that they were in one piece.
Our group tended to disintegrate up most climbs and by the time we came to the first aid station after 50km we were in groups of maximum 2 people. The aid stations were a well organised affair (next two photos below) with plenty of calories and liquid to suit your needs, even bretzels and cake on offer! Sadly I was toward the back of our strung out group and therefore had less time to take advantage (this would haunt me a little later on) before we assembled ourselves to take on the next leg.
And basically so we continued for the next 100km……not much to report, except the experience of trying to master drafting behind other cyclists long enough to have the energy to bridge up to the following group. This is a skill I have yet to master, and having talked to my boss after the event, who also took part, he had a much higher average speed than me and he puts it down to being more efficient in his drafting.
After about 150km you come to the decision point, although you have registered as wanting to do one of the three length variations of Albextrem, you are allowed to freely choose which one you do on the day (this isn’t a race remember, just you against yourself) so when we reached the third aid station we had to decide who was going to do the mid size and who would head ‘directly’ for the finish. Luckily for my flagging power levels the decision was made for us, in the sense that the organisers take away the signage showing the longer routes after a certain time of day, to avoid people attempting the long route when there is only marginally enough to complete the route, and certainly insufficient time in the highly likely case that people hit the wall on the way. So luckily for me, but disappointingly for my group we had to head for the finish at this stage, I tried to contain my pleasure that the end was now in sight, since I have slowly lost my mojo with every climb. Not to say that it wasn’t still fun at that point, but the thought of and extra 50km and more than a kilometre of climbing was not appealing.
The organisers dont let you get off lightly even if you are ‘just’ doing the short route, and everyone has to make the final tough climb just before reaching the start/finish area. I felt like a snail going up that last steep climb and Andi’s earlier words of wisdom when I foolishly sped up the first climb of the day echoed loudly through my sweating and panting. But all in all, getting over the finish and back into the festival atmosphere around 1600 made it all worthwhile and the sense of achievement began to sink in, along with the feeling that next year, I can do better!