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10-08-2022 | Michiel Minnaert

Tour des Stations Ultrafondo, un tour des étoiles

Exactly at 2:45 am my alarm clock rings. Normally my alarm is only at such an hour if there is a long car journey ahead or I must not miss my flight. This time something else is about to happen, a long bike ride. I'm trying to make it look better, in reality there's a horrible race on the schedule, with a very early start time, 4 am sharp. As my Strava indicates afterwards, it's still night when I make my way to the start, night ride. That sounds cool.

Everesting in an ultra fondo

This beastly race has the name Tour des Stations, but I didn't see many stations. Mostly lots of star power, but also beautiful mountains. On 250km you get 9,000 meters of climbings, so the new everesting. You don't go up and down one mountain, but combine the two mountains of the Valais region. The first 120km consist of the north flank, and then you follow the course of the gran fondo along the south flank with another good 120km. This was a day when I could say that the course of the gran fondo was just small beer.

The Ultra fondo is indeed a race, because there is a classification. However, I realize that for most it is a goal to complete this ride, and the classification is incidental. This may be why 508 fanatics are here at the start at 4 a.m.

Cycling and more cycling

Did I prepare especially for this race? Yes and no. I just did a lot of what I love to do: cycling. Spent the hours as efficiently as possible. So there is still room for some more specificity in terms of long distance and nutrition. This is actually something that will apply to every participant, so no complaining.

After a short breakfast I leave for the start around 20 to 4. The light makes me visible, but I don't see that much myself. The speaker (the indispensable Didier Marinesse, the fixed voice during la Marmotte) romanticizes the whole event, but actually it comes down to one thing today, a lot of cycling and especially a lot of climbing...

In Wahoo we trust

During the first ascent (Col de Lein) and descent it's still dark, near the top of the second climb it only gets light. The first ascent is taken at a slow pace, just like the descent. Fortunately, because I am one of the few participants with a smaller light. So I position myself well in front and ride as close as possible to the person in front of me who does have a good light. In addition, I trust the map of my Wahoo. That will tell me when braking is really necessary.

After the Col de Lein I'm in the breakaway of 7 riders. The second and very steep climb is the one to Ovronnaz. That's where the lead group is actually formed. After a head start I notice that only Justin Paroz (the runner up from last year) is following me. A little later Steve Morabito (former pro and 4th last year) joins me. The leading group has been created and that after only 40 kilometers.

The peloton of fanatics

On the second climb my father hands me a water bottle for the first time. It has to be said, next to all the fanatic starters there is a family or relatives who join in this fanaticism, kudos for that. The brand new Cervélo R5 from the bicycle store and club sponsor Bataia in Gentbrugge climbs and descends fantastic!

These are all the pieces of a puzzle, some days they fit a bit better than others, but at the end of the ride all these fanatics have their own masterpiece.

After the second climb, the race is stable for the next few hours. The atmosphere is good and a cool atmosphere is developing within our leading group. I guess this can be found in every group in the race somewhere. In the end, you are each other's competitor, but the more you suffer together, the more the competitor is pushed into the background. The ever sympathetic Steve Morabito does what he can but it becomes clear by then that my main opponent will be Justin Paroz.

In the meantime everything is going perfect, the legs are feeling good, drinking and eating enough is the message. The latter is also much more important than in other races. The chance that you have to deal with the man with the hammer in a 5 hour race is smaller than in a race of 10 hours or more.

Where's my plan B?

In the descent of Crans-Montana things go wrong. In one of the pits during a descent, I lose my large water bottle. My other water bottle is almost empty. Meanwhile, we are approaching the second part of the race, starting with the climb to Vercorin. Fortunately, I can get some water from the organization and my dad is up the hill with fresh provisions! On Vercorin I decide to ride a little harder on the steep parts, leaving Justin Paroz and myself. On top of Vercorin there is a supply post with a lot of atmosphere and a real fanfare. What an experience! Nothing was missing!

For me personally there was someone missing, my father got lost in the Swiss maze and didn't make it to Vercorin. A personal a disaster, because in these races eating and drinking without stopping is crucial. When it really comes to riding a result this is very important, there is actually no one of the podium contenders who stops at the supplies. In retrospect, I would have done better at Vercorin. Because I stuck most of the food to the water bottles, I also barely had any food left. This was going to be tricky, but I didn't have a plan B. Actually, this just shows the difficulty of this race. For the soigneurs this is also a tough job, and without them there was not even a podium. So despite some swearing during the race, a sincere thank you is justified!

The devil had a hammer, or the devil and the hammer

As the mascot of this race, the famous devil is present. On one of the most difficult climbs of the day, Thyon 2000, I encountered the second mascot of this race, the man with the hammer. At the foot of this climb, my father stood with provisions, but I fear that not eating and drinking enough for too long was taking its toll. On this climb, the Tour des Stations became the Tour des Étoiles. Real stars I saw at the start, figurative stars I saw from here. On this climb I had to let go of my co-fighter Justin Paroz. All credit to him, he just kept riding as hard as he did a few hours ago and was able to pull through to the finish, hats off.

On top of Thyon 2000 I decided to stop at the organisation's supply point. I was already a few minutes behind and one minute more or less makes no difference at this point.

The greater the suffering the greater the pleasure

The gravel discipline is becoming increasingly popular. But the Tour des Stations included a gravel section in the final climb from the first edition. Personally, it didn't feel so enjoyable anymore. Steep strips with stones, balancing between the people riding the gran fondo. Oh well, we're almost there and will finish second. I drag myself to the finish, tired but satisfied. One of the many legendary passages in Tim Krabbé's book, The Ride, is about suffering on the bike.

"For all suffering turns into a memory of pleasure after the finish line, and the greater the suffering has been the greater the pleasure."

I personally think this quote perfectly describes how every finisher and non-finisher thinks about it afterwards.

Swiss precision

And the organization? Well, very simply, it was perfect. A magnificent and sometimes adventurous course. The sometimes bad roads is the fault of the Swiss government and not the organization. But it is part of the authentic character of this race. They manage to make the experience complete. I think this makes every participant in this extreme event feel fully appealed. In retrospect, we are allowed to romanticize for a moment. If there is something I could give to the organization, it is that they should not adjust too much. The course doesn't need to be heavier, the experience around the event and structure is there and is complete.

The start hour could be a bit later from me. Although this might become more problematic for the last finishers. Oh well, there is something to be said for everything. The early start hour doesn't really matter anymore afterwards. The enjoyment takes the place of the suffering. I can absolutely recommend this event, but you must be fanatical enough and make enough time to spend hours on the bike to be able to bring this to a good end.

The stars in the title are not only there because of the stars I saw during the race, but the organization really deserves a five star label! On to next year, ready for a new phase of suffering and enjoyment.

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