Saas Fee Glacier Race 2012 | "Shredding the Gnar"
I was abruptly brought to my senses by the sickening churning in my stomach and the inevitable carnage of the 9th Saas Fee Glacier race...
I was abruptly brought to my senses and the reality of the here and now by the sickening churning in my stomach and the inevitable carnage of the 9th Saas Fee Glacier race ...
From Dirt Issue 123 - May 2012
Words by ‘Rohan’ Sorrell. Photos by Andy Lloyd.
Two weeks previously I had been in much warmer climes, a pleasant and relaxing place, memories of cruising down dusty and flowing trails on the paradise island of Jamaica in playful rider trains were instantly wiped from my memory as I was abruptly brought to my senses and the reality of the here and now by the sickening churning in my stomach and the inevitable carnage of the 9th Saas Fee Glacier race.
The contrast couldn't be greater and I felt completely out of my depth and unprepared for what was about to happen. I was sat in the cable car with one of the race organisers, Rafael a Swiss ex–World Cup racer who was chatting through some of the intricacies of riding on snow and ice at well over 60mph, he was almost making it sound completely feasible. But no, this was madness, looking down on the run from the lift it looked straighter, faster and steeper than I had imagined, yet there was no getting out of it for me, despite inadvertently adopting a pseudo name of ‘Rohan’ for this event, ducking out at this stage was not an option left open to me.
You see us Brits just don’t get to ride on snow, a couple of seconds on the sorry little patch remaining at last year’s Mega and a few skids in the street when we get a dusting back home is about the extent of it for me, yet it always looks so fun and appealing, though perhaps staring up at this mountain it was growing less so by the minute. That said, my goal for this weekend was simple, I wanted to go faster than I had ever been on a bike before, tales of 80–90mph max speed sounded bonkers and I was up for a bit of that.>>
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From around 3:00pm on the Friday a large numbers of excitable riders started gathering around the bottom lift station waiting for the ski piste to be closed off for the remainder of the afternoon and their chance to test out the mountain on two wheels. At 3:30 they closed the mountain to skiers and it was time to practice; the more practice the better too, in order to get to grips with the unfamiliar properties of the white stuff.
After two cable cars and a funicular we reached the top and apprehension and anxiety were probably some of the most prevalent feelings in my head before we were let loose down the course for the first time.
The Swiss had taken a no–nonsense approach to this event; a quick brief at the top was all that was required before they set the group off down the hill being stopped at regular intervals where there was a steep feature or a corner so that you’d know for your race run.
Those familiar with the surface and the course clearly had the upper hand. Even on this stuttering first run the rush of the speed and the acceleration was clear, with absolutely no effort whatsoever you were really shifting along, and I mean shifting.
Practice was clearly a mix of those that had got it and those that had not – and the void was quite obvious. Charging and power drifting or dribbling and sledging alongside one’s bike, I really didn’t want to be one of the latter but with no time to get into a groove and work things out I was dangerously close to the precipice.
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Looking through the field of entrants it was quite an eclectic bunch, not your typical downhill race, there was definitely an emphasis here towards the experience of the event, perhaps exemplified by the sheer number of helmet/chest cameras on riders. Genuinely every other rider had one on, and then there was of course a serious element of competitors in lycra, skin suits and/or running the bullet lid.
Race day began with an early wake–up call to get to the top of the mountain in time, the air was colder, everyone was silent in the cable car and funicular and I’m not going to lie, I was bricking it. The chaos in a few of the turns in the practice run had done little to settle any nerves as people had ploughed into, through and over each other during that run and the thought of 150 riders all charging at speeds over 60mph was a little unsettling.
Go, Go. Go…it was elbows out and jostling to stay on your feet, as many didn’t, and hold your position over the 100 metres or so, at 3,500 metres altitude this wasn’t easy. Once on the bikes a pedal across the flat separated people out before you accelerated up to speed into the first tight switchback turn. Once through this turn riders began to space out almost instantly as the speeds rocketed, the leaders seemingly accelerated off into the distance and you were left with your own battles to contend with. The super steep panorama drop gave a huge burst of acceleration pushing my speedo up to 84.4mph, so the leaders in skinsuits and bullet peaks must have breached the 90mph mark, without a doubt. The next major feature came around half way down the course with a steep and long piste that boiled brakes into two reasonably tight (at this speed) 90º left hand turns. I couldn’t slow down to set the bike up for the turn and lost the wheel as I tipped it in binning it down into the soft snow berm that had formed on the edge of the piste.
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From that point on it was just pure fun holding the bike wide–open down the lower slopes only to be passed by five riders on the final flat pedal just before the line.
As a race it was a disaster, I did just about everything wrong and normally I’d be angry with myself and a right miserable git, yet I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The endorphins were pumping and as I looked out for fellow racers to cross the line they all crossed with equally big grins and were animatedly recounting their runs.
Adam Orr had made the heroic solo journey from Scotland all the way out to Switzerland by car with his bike and board, he seemed to have had the most fun of anyone on the grid with a beaming smile telling the story loud and clear to all.
Lutz Petyo from Germany was the last man down to cross the line and received an ovation from the rest of the riders, when asked if he had enjoyed the run he replied ‘no, it scared the hell out of me’ but he’d made it down and that was the main thing. His time was some 20 minutes slower than the winner Charly Di Pasquale, a French flyer from Metabief who had beaten the locals without any preparation on the track. Last year’s winner Ben Roeschs put in a solid run to take second showing that he consistently has the speed to do well here.
Lycra and bullet peaks were definitely the order of the day with the front runners and I was kicking myself to have not found a top from somewhere and whipped the peak off as the wind was strong on the fast straights and there really is no argument as to their effect in a race like this…and they didn’t even look out of place on the big fast pistes.
The top guys were pretty crazy, not sure they were wired up right as they were flat out power sliding around the steep off camber corners with big drops off the outside, it was awesome to witness just what you can do with a big dose of confidence and being fully committed on snow.
As we finished our race the ski pistes were just opening up so many of the riders grabbed their skis or boards and spent the rest of the day on the slopes and I think this is the beauty of the trip you can combine both winter and summer sports over the couple of days.
With more and more ski resorts hosting races on their ski pistes for downhill bikes it’s catching on as an exciting form of racing bikes. Will I be back next year? You’ll have to wait and see.
Start height 3500m
Length of run 9.0 km
Fastest time 7min 31sec
My top speed 135.9 km/h (84 mph)
1. Charly Di Pasquale 7min 31.4sec
2. Bernhaed Rosch 7.38.0 +0.06.6
3. Lukas Albert 7.38.1 +0.06.7
4. Andreas Halter 7.39.9 +0.08.5
5. Leander Rankwiler 7.49.1 +0.17.7