Swiss alpine meadows and snowy peaked mountains – Raid Evolenard

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A small town called Evolène situated within the Valais area
of Switzerland and Pennine Alps hosts a marathon event called Raid Evolenard.  This past weekend was my opportunity
to discover why this event comes with such enthusiastic recommendations,
attracts such a star studied line-up, has hosted numerous Swiss National
Championships and has been awarded European Championships in 2021. Now I’ve
experienced Raid Evolenard for myself I can tell you why you need to be in
Evolene next June for this amazing mountain bike race.


The Swiss alpine meadows and snowy peaked mountain
scenery offer photo opportunities everywhere you turn. Evolene sits at 1400
metres, La Dent Blanche towers above at 4357 metres. The Raid Evolenard race
track takes participants to 2500 metres and over 62 kilometres we’d climb more
than 2600 metres. Evolene is the main settlement of the area, chosen for its flood and avalanche
protection. Nearly 8% of the local residents are foreign Nationals with
Portugese, German and Italian the most common languages after French. Over 50%
of Evolene’s apartments are seasonally occupied, this and the large quantity of
hotels host visiting tourists. One of the best places to stay in the region is
the mountain huts of Anakolodge, six agricultural buildings which were destined
to be demolished but instead restored to retain the local architectural
traditions typical to the Valais region. The area is popular for winter and
summer sports, writers and artists also enjoy the area because of its tranquil
setting. We stayed in Hotel de la Sage 300 meters above Evolène with
beautiful views down into the valley.

Image: Nicolas Sedlatchek

On arriving in Switzerland I joined 2 other Brits
for an hour’s recovery ride.  Whilst it’s not so easy to do a recovery spin in the mountains we were treated to one of the most
beautiful rides we’ve ever been on. We rode up to the base of the 4-mile-long
Ferpècle Glacier, one of the most spectacular
location in the area.

Sunday morning a sleepy street in Evolène
was brought to life with a blaze of brightly
coloured lycra and the sound of the excited commentator announcing top name
riders. The tension was building and a 9am the start gun fired the race into
motion.

Early on a group of 5 was established including the
eventual podium finishers, plus Adrien Chenaux and Hansueli Stauffer.  We
set a quick pace up the first 8 kilometre climb with 639 vertical metres to
Chalet Vieux and the following 5 kilometre climb with 462 vertical metres.
Stauffer was forced to abandon from a mechanical leaving 4 riders up front. The
climbs are really long but you can get into a rhythm and take in the beautiful
views.

On the third climb of the day starting at 35
kilometre Huber led through the tricky river side trails, here the pressure
began to build and Chenaux was dispatched from the group. No one could make a
mistake on the technical steep trails at risk of being left behind. After the
timed hill climb section Huber was able to open a gap, on this 10% gradient
climb we were all on our limits but on the following tarmac road I was strong
enough to pull back his lead, Frans was working hard but was glued on my
wheel. 

I was very fortunate to be offered feed zone
support from the Claes family, I was expecting to race with no support like I
do at many other races. Thanks to Frans and his parents for their generosity,
it makes a big difference having support. The Raid Evolenard feed zones were well
stocked with cereal bars and powershots from PowerBar, fresh fruit, dry fruit
and even dried meat! Water, cola and PowerBar drinks were available and staff
were handing up water bottles, great for those racing for position or a
personal best time.

During the next 30-minute climb from La Forclaz to
Breona the pace remained fairly steady, Huber, Claes and myself nervous about
the high altitude, the final climb and being the first to try making a risky
race winning move. On the Cotter to Beplan climb rising at an average of 11.5% gradient
and with sections at over 25% the race blew apart, Huber putting in several
hard efforts on route to the summit at 2500 metres. I raced with my heart and
not my head and probably held on a little too long, if I’d let go a little
earlier I might have been able to go my own pace and not lose a minute by the
top of the climb. Frans was able to stay within touching distance of Huber and
was able to rejoin him on the descent to Evolene. Claes was then able to open a
5 second gap before the bottom of the 20 minute descent but sadly for him Huber
was able to overall his lead in the closing kilometres.

Just 24 hours after finishing second in the
demanding Sella Ronda Hero in Wolkenstein, South Tyrol, Italy, Swiss MTB
champion Urs Huber was able to take the victory here at Raid Evolenard. In a
tight battle he finished ahead of former Belgian champion Frans Claes with
myself in third. In the women’s competition Estonian Greete Steinburg triumphed
ahead of Ilona Chavaillaz and former Swiss champion Esther Süss.

“After yesterday’s race in Italy, I knew that
I was not allowed to do too much in terms of speed. As I only slept three hours
between the two races, I had to make an effort to keep my focus on the last
run,” said Huber. Claes could not hide his disappointment about the second
place. He said in the finish area: “I was close to Urs. He missed few
things and I could have won.”

The women’s winner Greete Steinburg set the pace at
the front of the race from the start and was very satisfied with her strategy,
“I knew I had to set the pace if I wanted to beat Esther. It worked
perfectly.” Ilona Chavaillaz finished second and was surprised to beat Süss.
“I did not expect that”. As expected Süss was not very happy with the
third place, “I just did not have legs today” said the seven-time
Swiss MTB marathon champion. 

For me a third place at Raid Evolenard against
competition that strong was an amazing achievement, especially so soon after
Friday’s race.  After the success earlier in the year I managed some really
good training at home but with time you begin to doubt whether you can repeat
that success. This weekend I was able to prove my abilities again. I didn’t
expect to be challenging riders like Huber and Claes this year but I’m really
happy to be in such a position and even more motivated to train hard for my
next races.

Raid Evolenard will be back next year and in 2021
will host the European Marathon Championships, don’t miss your opportunity to
visit this beautiful location and race these fantastic trails. I’m already
excited to visit the area again and spend some more days exploring the Valais
region, see you there!

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