Dienstag, 26. August 2014

Tortour Report English

Here is my English report of how I experienced my victory at this year's Tortour:

The 2014 Tortour was my third and last race this season, after an unfortunate DNF at the Race Around Slovenia (RAS) earlier this year, and my third place at the Race Across The Alps (RATA). At the same time, this 1003 kilometer long race around Switzerland, including 14.500 meters of climbing, would also be my last ultra-cycling race before participating at the Race Across America (RAAM) next year.

I started my Swiss adventure in the early morning of Wednesday, August 13  - travelling from my home-town Graz all the way to Schaffhausen, which took more than 10 hours. Luckily, I had booked  “Meister's Bed & Breakfast”, led by cycling enthusiasts Ruth and Theo, and probably one of the most bicycle-friendly accommodations I have ever been to!

My four-men crew and I had thereby found the perfect base for our pre- race preparations. My experienced support team this time consisted of my loyal crew chief Martin Orthacker (“Sic”), team doctor Christoph Auferbauer (“Chrisi”), 2013 RAAM Rookie of the Year David Misch (“David”), and last but not least Michael Grubinger (“Mike”) who was the crew chief of Alex Gepp at RAAM in 2005.

Thursday, August 14, was the day for technical inspection, riders and crew-meetings, AND the pre-race prologue: an 800 meter uphill time trial near the picturesque Rhine Falls, in which the starting time and order was determined – the winner of the prologue would start the Tortour first, the second placed rider 30 seconds later, and so on. A nice concept – the idea behind it is that the position on the road would automatically refer to the position in the race as well.

At first, I was not convinced whether riding this time trial as fast as possible would yield some fatigue at the actual race start later on or not. Yet, I decided to go as hard as I could and my lungs were screaming once I crossed the finish-line! But it was worth it! I finished third (out of 32 competitors in the “Solo Men” category), hence my starting time was defined as 02:01:30am on Friday, August 15, 2014.

Due to the rather unusual starting time, I only managed about 2.5 hours of sleep the evening before I commenced my adventure around Switzerland. I left the IWC-Arena Schaffhausen at 1 minute and 30 seconds past 2am sharp and started to ride through the peaceful Swiss night, followed by my 4-men support crew (at Tortour, follow-vehicle mode is only allowed at night time, during the day only leap-frog support is permitted).

My aim was to find a good pace according to my speed and the data of my power meter – not too fast to have enough power towards the end of the race, but not too slow either to still be in contention for a podium finish later on. Only concentrating on my own race and ignoring the fact that I was overtaken by a few, very fast starting competitors, I was soon able to settle into my own rhythm and I was pleased to reach the third time station in Chur in fifth position.

The first night was over, I had ridden 180 kilometers with an average speed of about 35km/h. Still feeling relaxed, I was really looking forward to the mountainous terrain that would follow; especially the Albula and Flüela Passes, which I had already conquered at the RATA earlier this year, albeit both from the other side in reverse direction and at night. I couldn't wait to see the impressive landscape in daylight for the first time!

On the first ascent to Lenzerheide, I was able to overtake fourth-placed Mario Kugler from Switzerland and had a nice fight for the position with him. Eventually, I was able to leave him behind and enjoyed the breathtaking landscape and especially the deep canyon right next to the road which I never noticed during my fast and quite risky descents at RATA – which is probably a good thing that I didn't know about the canyon back then!

After the Albula Pass, it started to rain. Due to problems with my wet Garmin-display, I was having difficulty reading the GPS track and missed the correct junction to the fifth time station in Zernez. I was alone at that very moment as my crew, which had had to switch to “leap-frog support” at the break of dawn just before Chur, had already driven ahead to the time station to prepare the next handover of nutrition and material. The strict rules at Tortour state that such handovers are not allowed while moving, both crew and rider have to stop and stand still during such action. We had therefore decided prior to the race that we would accomplish these handovers at the time stations, where I needed to stop anyway to sign and confirm my arrival.

Hence, I had to phone my team to get the directions to the time station and lost about 5 minutes. Soaking wet and a bit angry, but quite pumped up due to the navigation incident, I started to climb up the Flüela Pass and soon felt good again. During the ascent, it stopped raining and I consolidated my fourth place, and consequently I reached the pass happy and quite dry again, and immediately started the descent towards Chur.

This section, however, proved to be quite tricky with respect to navigation again. The route book stipulated that I had to use a bicycle track which my crew was not allowed to take and hence had to opt for an alternative route. By myself, I lost the way several times again, mainly due to some returning rain showers and the wet Garmin display, and got a bit annoyed.

By the time we finally reached Chur for the second time (this time serving as the sixth time station), I had lost my fourth place to Mario Kugler again. To make things worse, my digestion was starting to play up – I had had problems the day before the race as well – and I had to take an extended bathroom break which did cost more valuable time. At that very moment, I was having some doubts whether I was still enjoying the race...

Nevertheless, I was trying to find the right rhythm again on the following short climbs. Luckily, was able to set a good uphill pace again and soon recovered my fourth position from Mario Kugler. Yet, while I was climbing the Oberalp Pass, my crew informed me that fellow Austrian rider Hans Eisenbraun was closing in rapidly from behind and I knew I had to push a bit harder to not let him overtake me.

Leaving Oberalp behind in beautiful weather, I had some problems finding the way in Andermatt again, while some heavy rain returned and thick fog suddenly covered the complete landscape. Really tough conditions, especially because the Furka Pass – the highest point of the Tortour (2410 metres above sea-level) – was next. On the way up, I had to stop for another bathroom break in the most miserable weather conditions imaginable, it even started to snow for the last 300 meters of climbing.

I reached the Furka Pass at dusk, I was soaking wet and freezing cold, and thus had to take a longer break in my pace car. The temperature had fallen to 1ºC, it snowed and rained, it was extremely windy and foggy, and it had become already pretty dark. In addition, Hans Eisenbraun reached the top shortly before me, so I was back in fifth position. The current leader and race favorite, Marko Baloh from Slovenia, was nearly 90 minutes ahead at that point. My motivation to continue the race had hit a low point at that very moment.

I changed all my clothes, I put on my down-feather jacket and all my rain gear and started the dangerous descent. The conditions on the slippery road were horrible. Several times I thought I was going crash. I could see hardly anything, and I started to seriously doubt whether a race in such weather conditions made sense at all. Several riders must have had the same thoughts in that phase of the race, as shown by the many DNFs (only 13 out of 32 riders eventually finished the race!)

Although I tried to hide my negative emotions, my team soon sensed the bad mood that I was in and started to cheer and motivate me as much as they could. So quitting was therefore not an option for me, and to my surprise some 20 kilometers down the route, the road was completely dry and I was riding at 14ºC again! Had it rained here at all? It was unbelievable how crazy the weather was at the Tortour this year!

I got rid of my warm clothes and my team started to play perfect motivating music on the team radio. My mood totally changed and I started having fun again. On the next flat section to the time station in Sion, I found some really good speed again and even overtook a few 2-Person teams. It seemed that the other riders had even bigger problems during the second night of the race.

I reached the time station in Aigle in fourth place, about 10km ahead of Hans Eisenbraun who had paused at Furka much longer than I had, while the distance to the next riders in front was getting smaller and smaller. Shortly after Montreux, I finally caught third-placed Italian Omar di Felice on a 400 meter climb and overtook him. About half a minute later, he counter-attacked and sprinted up the hill.

Not wanting to get involved in a fight for a position at that stage of the race, I decided to continue my own race and to ride as consistently as possible. It wasn't long until I caught up to Omar at the break of dawn again, this time finding him drafting only a few meters behind two 4-person teams. Observing him from a safe distance – the race rules stipulate that there have to be at least 50 meters between two riders – I started another attempt to overtake Omar. When I passed, Omar and the two team-riders pushed harder as well, stayed in my slipstream and didn’t let me get away. I slowed down again, in order not to risk a penalty, and stayed at a safe distance behind that pack of three.

Slightly annoyed, I attempted to overtake Omar one more time, and the same incident happened again: I was about 15km/h faster when I passed him, yet he immediately sped up and was sucking directly on my back wheel. I tried to remind him of the rules, that he had to let me overtake until I was 50 meters ahead, before he could launch a counter-attack himself. He negated this and claimed that 3-5 meters were enough.

I was surprised that Omar and/or his crew had neither read nor understood the rules, and I wondered whether they simply ignored them? Acting the way he did, there would have been no chance for me (or anybody else) to overtake him in a non-drafting race. Since there were no race officials around to have a look at this situation and my digestion played up again, I stopped for two more toilette breaks between Muntelier and Balsthal.

As a consequence I lost Omar out of sight, but I managed to overtake Markus Amstutz from Switzerland, who had been riding in a courageous second position for a long time, and suddenly found myself in third place – a podium finish had been my goal for the race and there it was again, the chance to finish in the Top 3 at the Tortour!

In addition, and pretty much at the same moment, I received a phone call from the crew of Christoph Strasser, who was racing at the Race Around Austria at the same time (which he ended up winning in an unbelievable time of 87 hours and 24 minutes! Congratulations!). Christoph is a good friend of mine and the short phone call gave me new motivation to fight. When I reached the time station in Balsthal, Marko Baloh was only 8km and Omar 1 km ahead, with Markus Amstutz trailing only 3km behind me – this race was to become a real thriller!

The stretch between the time stations in Balsthal and Laufenburg was probably the hardest part of the race. Steep climbs with an incline of more than 20% were a challenge for any racer after 850km on the bike. Somewhere in these hills, I caught Omar again and sped up in the following flats. Omar was slipstreaming again, not keeping nowhere near the requested 50 meters. However, I was totally focused on catching Marko Baloh, which suddenly seemed possible as he had lost a lot of his advantage on that mountainous stage.

Somewhere between Laufenburg and Glattfelden, about 80km before the finish-line, I finally caught Marko. I was quite surprised to catch him in the flats – normally the perfect terrain for Marko. He was obviously suffering and was not in a good shape anymore. With Omar in my back, there where suddenly three competitors fighting for the victory. We slowed down a bit and I had a quick chat with Marko, before I took a short stop to get rid of my warm clothes – the weather had become nice and warm during noon of the second day, too warm to still be wearing my rain outfit!

I had soon caught up to Marko and Omar, and I decided to speed up again on a 5% ascent. Looking back, I realized that Marko couldn’t follow but Omar was still behind me. Some minutes later, my team informed me, that they had just found out that Omar had received a 15 minutes penalty earlier in the race, which was confirmed on the official web page and by the race office as well. Omar and I reached the last time station in Glattfelden at the same time, Marko was already 10 minutes behind.

I had 40kms to go to the inofficial finish-line at the BBC Arena in Schaffhausen, 40kms to defend a 10 minutes lead over Marko and 15 minutes over Omar. Once again we had to ride through torrential rain, so I decided that I didn't want to take any risks at all and kept riding in front for the entire section – why Omar never attempted to cut back on these 15 minutes that he was still trailing, is incomprehensible to me.

When we reached the city of Schaffhausen, surrounded by a motorbike-marshal and a few 4-person teams, Omar suddenly attacked on the last ascent to the inofficial finish line at BBC-Arena. I knew I didn’t have to fight or follow him anymore because of his 15 minutes penalty, which he would have to serve at the BBC-Arena before continuing to the official finish at the IWC Arena.

I reached that same finish line on Saturday, 16th of August at 2:24pm. I was just happy to be there, still not totally sure whether I had really won, but definitely satisfied to have reached my goal, the podium of the “Solo Men” category at the Tortour Switzerland. Just a few moments later, one of the race organizers confirmed Omar's penalty one more time and declared me to be the winner of the Tortour 2014! Extremely happy, but also totally exhausted, I lifted my bike into the air!

Some minutes later, two motorbikes accompanied me to the official finish line at the IWC-Arena where the finisher medals were awarded to the racers. Just seconds after I had ridden up the stage, one of Omar's crew members was crashing the ceremony, running onto the stage, shouting at me, wildly gesticulating and claiming that I was not the real winner.

I got frightened, felt threatened and had to endure some tense moments until the organizers finally ushered him from the stage. The rest of Omar's crew was booing and whistling in the crowd. I could not believe what was happening - there I stood now, having accomplished the greatest victory of my career, and yet I had imagined this moment to be very differently, indeed. My happiness took a massive damper and I needed some time to compose myself again before I was able to answer the questions on the stage.

The race organizers decided to disqualify Omar after the race, due to the inappropriate and truly unacceptable behavior of his crew at my winner's ceremony. This was a sad ending to an epic race, because Omar is a great cyclist and I have huge respect for his past achievements. However, with respect to the incidents at my presentation and the fact that he breached the rules also during the race (Baloh's crew confirmed that he was drafting all the time behind Marko as well), I believe the decision is justified. The will to win must NEVER prevail over fairness!

Looking back at the race, I’m very pleased with my performance. I stuck to my tactics, stayed calm when I lost time at the beginning of the race and kept fun cycling most of the time. Especially the last 16 hours of the race were nearly perfect, and only with a perfect ride had I a chance to beat Marko. To win the Tortour just before him is probably my greatest success in ultra cycling! Marko, it was a great honour to ride against you! Your are a great champion and sportsman.

Thanks a lot to my crew: you did an outstanding job once again! I really look forward to starting at my next race with you, the 2015 Race Across America! :-)

The official results:
1. Severin Zotter (AUT) 36:18:44
Marko Baloh (SLO) 36:57:28
3. Markus Amstutz (SUI) 37:15:09

1 Kommentar:

  1. Excellent story Sevi!! Amazing accomplishment. I'm following you on RAAM 2015.