Tales From the Tail of a Race: TransAlp 2023

"I had done this race—the TransAlp—once before, in 2016 so I was aware of the pain cave I’d voluntarily entered. Turns out seven more years on the engine, five months less training and a dithering bout of Covid can wreak havoc. Who knew?"
Another in a long string of gob-smackingly beautiful gazillion foot climbs. Photo by Sportograf.

“I’m sure you are a perfectly nice guy, I just really don’t want to see you right now.” He nodded with a small smile but something in it indicated he was merely acknowledging that sounds had come from my mouth. And why should he understand? We were in Austria and I do not speak German. 

Staring down the barrel of a seven-day mountain bike stage race over the Austrian, Swiss and Italian Alps, I was undertrained and overwhelmed. And now here were the tail gunners—the five or so dudes riding last each day to pick up the stragglers, the lost, the injured, and to take down route markings. Their presence meant I was DFL—Dead Fucking Last. 

I had done this race—the TransAlp—once before, in 2016 so I was aware of the pain cave I’d voluntarily entered. Turns out seven more years on the engine, five months less training and a dithering bout of Covid can wreak havoc. Who knew? Bike TransAlp began in 1998 and was thus celebrating its 25th anniversary. Routes, mileage and elevation change slightly every year, and it seems that race organizers were searching for a sort of masochistic “best of” to celebrate this milestone. At 308 miles and 57,000 feet of climbing—and not all of it on the bike mind you—it may not have been the absolute hardest version, but the rain, thunder, lightning, hail and heat gave any one of them a run for their money.

Stage 2 approaching Livigno, Italy. Photo by Sportograf.

Show time

Not having raced in many years, I’d forgotten that such an event can create a buzz that envelopes the atmosphere and makes its own weather. There was a nervous energy in town the night before stage one in Nauders, Austria, and even in civilian clothing, any racer was easily identifiable, floating as if they were an inch off the ground. The giant, inflatable Maxxis arch that formed the start line served as the backdrop to our dinner al fresco on the plaza of an old Austrian mountain town and added to the giddiness of the scene. Three sips into my Aperol spritz and the digital clock embedded into the arch blinked to life and started the countdown. 13:45:23 til race time. *Gulp*

The TransAlp can be done solo, but is most often done in teams of two. My partner was a long-time friend, legendary for her climbing ability. I’m legendary for my ability to give up and walk. She inquired early on if we needed to stick together.

“Heck no. You do you and I’ll be along sometime after that. Though maybe I can make up time on the downhills.”

“Yeah, you’re faster than me on the downhills.” Hmph. She regularly finished 30-90 minutes ahead of me, and those are just the times when I forced her to tell me how long she’d been waiting. As a team event, placement is dependent on the slowest team-member’s time. Sorry, Anne (okay, to be fair to me, I never ended any day DFL. But it was close).

As with any race, but a multi-day stage race in particular, one naturally falls in with their own, other racers in their speed, fitness and ability category. You form a crew, a posse, even if you can’t understand anything aside from “Guttenmorgen.” One of these for me was a man with one leg. You know the old refrain about “Getting beat by a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest”? Yup.  

A mid-thigh amputee with a prosthetic leg was a staple in my posse. Every morning I’d pass him, he’d pass me, leapfrog infinity. I really wanted to talk to this man. 

“Good morning!  One heck of a climb, eh?” 

“…?…   Deutsche??” 

“Oh jeez, no…damn…”


My mother was chagrined that her family never taught her German though it was their native tongue. Now it was generational. I’d offer a few cheerful things in English, he in German, and we’d have to leave it at that. 

It was hard enough to fathom the riding itself, but as noted above, there was an inordinate amount of hike-a-bike. One particularly heinous segment that everyone walked, including the pros, featured slick mud, wet roots, step-ups, and swear-laden slogging. While deep in my own pissy/moan-y cavern of doom, here’s the one-legged guy making his way, slow and steady up the trail. Guess I’ll shut up now. 

But this is a lot of kavetch. Kavetch about being slow, kavetch about it being hard, kavetch about the self-doubt and recrimination that can move into the mind on hour five, day three, too many kilometers to go. The beauty of the Alps is inimitable. “Can’t copy the Alps” was a tagline of the race. Mountain passes with new and captivating wildflowers were little waving temptresses, beckoning me to stop and ogle, admire, sit a spell. I didn’t give in, but it was not easy. 

Babbling brooks attended by soft, emerald moss had me trotting off into la-la land, thinking I’d just seen a unicorn sipping from the stream. The crunch of tires from behind booted me back into reality, and spooked the unicorn, but she farted a rainbow in her retreat so that was neat. The hum and glow of the forest remained, and for a few magical moments my legs, heart and lungs (and butt) were quiet.

Back for more

The author is relieved to be going downhill. Photo by Sportograf.

Many fellow racers I fell in with had unfinished business with Bike TransAlp. Rikki from Denmark had come in 2000 on a bike too big and surrendered to knee pain. Ronan from Ireland was here 12 years earlier and suffered a dislocated shoulder. Steve from California broke his body but not his bike, so offered it to a stranger whose same size Trek SuperCaliber was broken. 

“He barely adjusted my seat, added his own bike tool, clipped right in and calmly looked at me and said the following in his Turkish accent (and humbly), “thanks Steve….don’t worry…I’ll smoke em.” I was bewildered by the comment. The race was already 20 minutes old. 

Unbeknownst to Steve, that guy was Husayn Celebi who went on to not only catch the pack, but then won the stage and later gave Steve his winner’s jersey.

Shelter from the storm

World War II tank barriers on Platmort pass between Austria and Italy. Or how to keep dinosaurs out of your yard. Photo by Sportograf.

That many of these roads and passes were key locations in World War II was brought into stark relief on Platmort pass between Austria and Italy where we shimmied around a menacing array of cone-shaped iron spikes set in concrete. Placed in 1938 to deter tanks and other heavy equipment from crossing, they were a strange and haunting juxtaposition amongst blue skies, alpine lakes, and that guy on the $11,000 S-Works who just passed me like a jet fighter passing a transport plane. 

Every stage was hard, but looming large over them all was Stage 4—the Queen’s Stage. 62 miles and 10,718’ of climbing. After three days of racing. We awoke that morning in Bormio to wind, thunder, lightning and hail. We rode into town, found the start, got into our starting pens. The music started, announcements regarding the day, occasional mentions of how many minutes til liftoff. Distant thunder became less so, lightning now occurring in tandem with its audio partner. Then came the downpour.

En masse, people abandoned their bikes where they stood, laying them down in the start paddocks and seeking shelter. A few of the herd’s smarter specimens had nabbed overhangs early, but these became quickly overrun. Hundreds of humans in too little clothing scattered for cover beneath the big tree, the store awning, the neighbor’s stoop. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in bicycles lay abandoned in the street, getting a thorough-if-unwanted cleaning. 

The start line was around the street corner and therefore blocked from view. But something strange was happening. People were leaving. With their bikes. Slowly at first, then in larger waves reaching back toward us. 

“Why haven’t they made an announcement about what’s happening?” I asked a fellow drowned rat.

“The P.A. system got zapped! And the Maxxis inflatable arch collapsed…the stage is canceled.”

Reader, let me tell you that never in the history of the world has any person EVER been more filled with joy at the cancellation of something she paid good money for. I almost cried. They herded everyone to the TransAlp camp, that gymnasium or recreation center in every stage town that was home to hundreds of racers every night. As luck would have it, this camp had an adjacent café where a crush of nearly hypothermic, lycra-clad, racers donning gold-foil emergency blankets made the place look like a weird disco where everyone showered in their clothes and brought the exceedingly wrong shoes. 

Race organization was a strong suit in 2016, and was doubly impressive in the clutch. In under two hours, 550 racers and their bikes and their day bags were on the move via buses to the next stage town. Upon arrival in Malé, the post-race meal awaited us. We tried to make a dent in our calorie deficit, then took a nap. A nap!

See, told ya I could walk like a pro. Photo by Sportograf.

Back down to earth

Arriving on the last day in Riva del Garda, head swimming from conflicting emotions—relief, happiness, and a generous helping of heat bonk—I hugged my race partner and hiccupped a confused laugh/sob.

We took our photo in front of the TransAlp 25th Anniversary backdrop (that some of our friends on social media mistook for the podium—ouch!) and when I caught the eye of the one-legged man, our faces mirrored the same heartfelt smile. Despite never having said anything aside from ‘Good Morning’ to each other for a week, we shared a ridiculously joyful, and uplifting bear-hug. He said things to me in German. I laughed. I said things to him in English. He laughed. It was delightfully absurd.

Top o’ the world. Photo by Markus Greber.

When the bicycle sweeps rolled into the finish line all together, a horn, a cheer, and a solid blast of confetti erupted. Five minutes later the same was repeated when the moto-medics passed under the fully inflated yellow Maxxis archway, marking the official end of the race. And there it was again, that bike race buzz. Seven days, 246 miles and 47,000 feet of climbing may have lowered the amount by which these racers floated off the ground, but not by much. 

Gear and stats recap

Many thanks to Specialized for the opportunity to train on, race and review the 2023 Epic EVO. It was amazing. Read my review here. Also a solid holla to Velocio Cycling Apparel for outfitting both of us with shorts, jerseys, vests, jackets, socks and arm warmers despite being warned on no uncertain terms that we’d be nowhere near the podium. You’re the best.

Stats Sidebar: 

  • Stage 1: Nauders to Reschensee. 32 miles, 7,247’
  • Stage 2: Reschensee to Livigno. 61 miles, 10,104’
  • Stage 3: Livigno to Bormio. 40 miles, 7,280’
  • Stage 4: Bormio to Malé CANCELED (62 miles and 10,718’)
  • Stage 5: Malé to Valle Del Chiese. 44 miles, 8,277’
  • Stage 6: Valle Del Chiese to Valle di Ledro. 40 miles, 8,270’
  • Stage 7: Valle di Ledro to Riva del Garda. 30 miles, 5,603’