In the prologue, I rode to a solid 11th place and I was not too disappointed. A little more than a kilometer long prologue with 20% incline is certainly not too much in favor of a 80kg rider, who does not need an explosive power for his racing (and thus neither trained accordingly). I was sure that I'll make up the 5 minutes that I’ve lost in the prologue before the end of the first time station which is 49km long. After the prologue I had a few interviews and than to bed for a few hours, as the start of the race was at 2AM. Four hours of sleep passed too quickly, at 1AM we were up, had a quick breakfast and drove to the start!
For the first time at this race I started with Time Trial bike since the first three time stations were rather flat. Those 182km I rode with an average speed of more than 37km/h. As I planned, I caught all competitors that started in front of me before the first time station Kreuzlingen. I continued with a fast pace because I wanted to have some advantage over climbing specialists before the mountain stages. I did not count on Omar Di Felice obviously drafting me. My crew warned him and his team, but unfortunately there was no discernable effect. Since this has not stopped, we also informed organizers at one of the checkpoints. Unfortunately, there was no visible effect it want on all the way to the third stage in Chur. Here we lost a couple of minutes (too many) with changing bikes (TT bike for a road bike) and Omar escaped for a few minutes before the first Alpine incline Lenzerheide.
On the downhill I made a big mistake and missed a turn. The team was still some way behind men because they stopped at the top to find a piece of equipment. So they needed quite some time to catch me on the descent. We've lost more than 15 minutes. ;) Of course, I cursed some time silently (or maybe not so silently), but I pushed the pedals a little bit more, so I could catch/overtake Omar as soon as possible. The next two climbs Albula Pass and Pass Fluela I climbed very well, but we also received the first rain storms of the race. A warning over things to come? I caught Omar a a few kilometers after passing the time station in Chur for the second passing. I overtook him and of course he repeated his drafting just a few meters behind me (rules determine the distance between cyclists 50m). Interestingly, when I was in front he could ride 45km/h, when I slowed down a bit to have him overtake me, his speed was however only 33-35km/h. We both came together to TS Disentis and on the climb of Oberalp Pass I spent some time following him (within a reasonable distance, of course). I noticed that the tempo was not so good for a climber, so I assumed that the 470km already traveled had their impact. I decided to overtake him and go on with my own pace, knowing that up climbs drafting doesn’t help very much. My 330-350W on powermeter was enough for him to slowly started to lose contact. At the top I had a few minutes advantage, I quickly put on a winter jacket and was quickly on the descent towards Andermatt and the last alpine climb Furka Pass, which I wanted to pass in the daylight.
Up this climb I wasn’t so convincing anymore, my watts are hardly exceed 330W, but Omar still was nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, the weather was changing dramaticly, the peak was in fog, it started raining and even snowing at the top. Since it was extremely cold, I had to dress up warm for the night. We made a mistake and underestimated precipitation. We thought that it was only raining/snowing from fog or clouds, but not that it will rain so severe as it did later on. Therefore, I was not dressed for rain, the only was a rain jacket over the winter jacket. Completely wet and really, really cold I came to the time station at Brig and there was no other way out than to change clothing again, because everything was soaked wet. Losing precious time again of course (because I only had the advantage of good 20 minutes), but even I can not imagine what it would happen if, in this situation, I would continue riding wet as I was. In front of us were two flat stages and we changed to Time Trial bike. The reason it was not as fast as from the start was in a very strong headwind. Still I felt very good at this stage and my advantage remained close to the half hour. Unfortunately, during the next station once again started to rain, but wasn’t nearly as cold as in the Alps. So, we continued as planned, but all dressed up for rain I didn’t eat properly and this showed its effect later in the race.
Everything was going according to plan until the time station in Balstahl, which begins with the royal ascent of the race, even if less that 2km long, but with an average gradient of more than 20%! This one sucked the last remaining energy from me. Even the granny gearing 34-30 I could barely, barely turn around, honestly, I thought my knees will be thrown from the hinge. Due to the narrow, wet and extremely dangerous road, it even the downhill was slower than it should be. The crew was warning me that Omar and Severin are decreasing my advantage quickly, but my energy levels were simply empty. On the uphills I could hardly puch around 300W, on the flat it was better, but still not nearly as well as I would have liked and was able to in normal conditions. So at the 78km from the finish line we were all three together, Zotter, Di Felice and me. Nothin new really as Omar was still drafting, this time 5m behind Zotter, that was also confirmed by the Austrians crew. Of course, my morale has dropped significantly, but I did not want to give up just like that. On the flats there was no big problems, but as the road began to climb, I started to lose their speed and with it the sight of them. A few times I managed to catch them back, but I realized that my time was up. When Zotter decided to test us a bit and turned up the pace, I finally lost connection. My morale took a big blow at that moment, but I had to fight to the end, not to lose a podium place, as the fourth placed Swiss rider Amstutz was already closing up pretty fast.
I survived the last kilometers and I reached the finish line in quite a solid time of under 37 hours (at an average speed higher than 27km/h), but the feeling was anything but jubilant. Once you're so close to the victory, despite reaching the podium you feel like the biggest loser. The last kilometers I kept asking myself whether I might be too old for it. After a night's sleep, I can say that this one man, even if not the youngest anymore, is not yet old junk. I still feel fit well enough to beat competitors younger than myself. I have to come to terms with the fact that young people come to the front and of course their objective is to defeat the best. It was never difficult for me to congratulate the one who beat me in a fair fight and Zotter has certainly earned the victory this time, and thus my sincere congratulations. By the way, the race got a quite a surprising conclusion. Omar's team has earned the penalty of 15 minutes due to impeding of traffic on one of the Alpine passes. Therefore, Zotter didn’t even need to follow when Di Felice attacked on the back incline a few kilometers before the finish, after drafting him all the last time stations. Since Omar had to serve his 15 minutes penalty prior to the finish and when Zotter was brought on stage as the winner, the Italians crew made an ugly scene with "buuu-ing", whistling, in essence, they wanted to break up on stage and prevent the coronation of the winner (as I was told). It must have been quite severe, since it was because of this riot the Omar got disqualified from the race. The decision might seem strict, but the rider is definitely responsible for the behavior of his crew and the letter of the rules say that inappropriate behavior of a crew can be a reason for disqualification. I am bit sorry for Omar, but only that the organizers could penalise him already for riding in the slipstream, which would have been a better lesson. In the ultra-cycling race we have to ride at a distance, it is 50m under the rules of racing on Tortour. Too bad for Omar, because he is a great rider and he would have been at the forefront also in a completely honest way. Maybe with time he will learn that it doesn’t take only victories to make a true champion...
1. Severin Zotter (Avstrija) 36 28min
2. Marko Baloh (Slovenija) 36ur 57min
3. Markus Amstutz (Švica) 37ur 14min