Saas Fee Glacier Bike
50mph on snow and iceBy Andrew Revitt
The Glacier Bike downhill race in Saas Fee, Switzerland used to run in summer and was part snow, part trail like the Megavalanche. 1999 was the last year they ran it in early summer. In 2004 it returned in April as a snow race from start to finish.
In 1999 this was billed as a downhill marathon race but the 60 or so racers (mainly Swiss) came equipped for a full on downhill race.
Apart from the odd mad local (in motorcycle leathers and road race helmet) the pack were pure 7 inch dual crown fork equipped speed demons. The 5 inch single crown Bomber equipped Specialized FSR I was on looked thin. During practice the massive rocks and high speed sections didn't help the confidence - that and flipping over the bars. Practice on the glacier was not allowed so some better equipped riders like Rafael Rhyner tested in on their snowboards.
So with no real idea of what riding on snow or ice was all about I got up at 5.45am and headed towards the Alpin Express. 45 minutes later and via two cable cars and a funciular, I arrived at 3500m (11,000ft) and zero degrees temperature.
The race dropped 1800m back to Saas Fee and covered 6km from the snow pistes at the top to a really nasty rock section and onto rocky firetrack, short forest singletrack and finally the finish at the Alpin Express cable car station. The race was run at 7.30am to make sure the snow was firm and pisted, ideal for doing 60mph on sheet ice.
The group huddled in the 7am cold of the Mittelallalin restaurant. It was a little different from practice and the Maste 4 (2574m) start where only a little snow remained and your teeth didn't chatter.
We were ushered out onto the snow for a Le Mans style start. Wow that was cold. Helicopters hovered and ski equipped marshals looked on as we ran to our bikes and peddled away into the unknown. I have never ridden snow before and it felt pretty grippy, but to the other guys it must have felt like glue. They were off. The pisted snow descents were long and very steep with the occasional switchback. Speeds were high down some of the pistes, upto 120kmh (75mph), but 70-80kmh seemed uncontrollable on 2.1 inch tyres with way less tread than I would have liked. The bike weaved on the grooves made by the piste bullies, and breaking made little difference - rim brakes and snow do not mix. Turning at these speeds was difficult. One really steep piste was snowy and not as crisp as the rest and the back wheel went side to side almost highsiding me for what seemed like forever (about 3 seconds). I ran very wide and was dropped by the pack.
It was a relief to exit the snow at Maste 4 and get back on terra firma, gaining back the gap and overtaking a couple of racers. The rock garden where I had crashed twice in practice was awaiting, and it almost felt grippy compared with the snow. The problem was I couldn't feel my hands from the cold and trying to brake. The combination of tight switchbacks and one line through the rocks meant sliding the back end to get round the corners. This and the strength in my hands fading from too much braking on the snow, riders ahead again started to disappear. I thought I had made in through this most difficult bit when the next thing I know the bike appeared over my head.
Bruised but seemingly alright I remounted and continued out into the firetrack. This is the longest section of the course and it switches back and forth down towards Saas Fee, crossing numerous glacial streams. Plenty of water gullies and rocks to keep your speed down and knock you off line. I was having trouble holding onto the bars at this point as they flapped over every rock section.
Eventually the short singletrack appeared and disappeared without incident and I passed a couple of riders with flats. The finish appeared and read 28 Swatch minutes. I thought that seemed reasonable until I saw Wildhabers time of 15 minutes. Still I wasn't last, in fact there were a hand full behind me and a good number of DNF's. I planned my returned for the next year with big tyres, more suspension and disc brakes but they didn't run the race again. It's now a pure snow race and one day I might return.