The Quest for Epic Legend Status in the Swiss Alps - Part 2

Mike Blewitt, Craig Wylie and Gavin Wille are all in search of the final finisher’s medal in their Epic Series respective palmarès at the Swiss Epic. If they complete the Swiss Epic they will join the prestigious Epic Legends club.

Stage 2 of the Epic Series race, The Swiss Epic, took riders to the highest point of the race; the Laj Alv natural reservoir, at 2 543 metres above sea level. The route is back-loaded with climbing, with the day’s two most significant climbs falling within the final 25 kilometres of the 69-kilometre-long stage.

The potential Epic Legends featured today all live in Australia or New Zealand who have made the journey to the other side of the world in picturesque Switzerland.

Mike Blewitt, or Mr. Marathon MTB (as he is affectionately known), is no stranger to stage races and has made a career of the mountain biking industry from a racing and media perspective. Mike first encountered the Epic Series when he ventured to South Africa’s Western Cape in 2011 to tackle the Untamed African MTB Race – the Absa Cape Epic.

A tough first bite at the Epic Series was enough to have him hooked and in 2017 he completed his first Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain in the backcountry of New Zealand, followed by a consecutive finish in 2018. The Swiss Epic hasn’t been smooth sailing for Mike though; his first attempt was back in 2015 where he was set to add another notch to his metaphorical Epic Series belt, but he was forced to withdraw due to illness. This year he is back and is set on claiming his Epic Legend status and accompanying medal, “I don’t want to count chickens before they hatch but getting the Epic Legend medal is a big motivator for me” he said.

After Stage 2, Mike and his partner, Imogen Smith, are currently leading the mixed category; Mike has completed done all other Epic Series races bar the Port to Port (which is next on their combined bucket list). Imogen is no stranger to stage races either and has her eyes set on her Epic Legend medal at the 2020 Absa Cape Epic.

Craig Wylie and Gavin Wille were given the title of Unlikely Legends, a title they are looking to ditch at this year’s Swiss Epic.

Craig and Gavin have quite a story that dates back long before they even set foot on the start line in Graubünden (read the history of these chaps here) and are both looking to claim their Epic Legends medals upon their safe return to Davos in roughly 250km and 8000m of climbing’s time. Yesterday they completed the opening stage in 06:39:57 and bettered their time today when they completed Stage 2 in 6:14:55 with smiles spread widely across their faces and plenty of energy in the reserves (the proof is in the victorious bunny hop). Craig said, “Back in 2017 we got everything wrong in the Absa Cape Epic, from a nutrition and game plan point of view. It’s just gotten better and better from last year’s Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain and now it is great!”. In comparing the Epic Series races, he admitted “They’re all tough. The Cape Epic is sandy and rocky, the Pioneer has tons of climbing, and the Swiss Epic has even more climbing per kilometre. But I cried more in the Cape Epic.”

Neither of the two have visited the Graubünden region before and Gavin had to admit that “Looking down to St. Moritz today was the best part. You simply cannot beat this view.” The pair then went on to compare the best and worst of each race: “The Swiss Epic wins hands down with the hotel comfort and sleep ins. And no bag pipes waking you up at 05:30 like at the Cape Epic!”

Legend of the Epic Series but not Yet an Epic Series Legend

Kross Racing Team star Ariane Lüthi has 8 Absa Cape Epic and 3 Swiss Epic finishes to her name. At the 2019 Swiss Epic she is aiming to add a fourth to her palmarès with New Zealand’s Samara Sheppard.

Lüthi is undeniably a legend of the Epic Series. Though she has yet to complete all three week-long Epic Series races and earn the coveted Epic Legend medal. The three-time Swiss marathon champion has three UCI women’s and two Virgin Active mixed category titles at the Absa Cape Epic to her name; to go with the two additional podium finishes in the Untamed African MTB Race and the title of inaugural champion of the Swiss Epic. In total she has notched up 8 Absa Cape Epic and 3 Swiss Epic finishes. At the 2019 Swiss Epic she is riding with New Zealand’s Samara Sheppard; the cross-country multiple national champion, who is making her first steps into the world of stage racing.

Sheppard was born in Clyde; 80 kilometres to the east of Queenstown, the starting point for The Pioneer, powered by Nutri-Grain. “I was born in Clyde, but grew up in Wellington, so it’s definitely on the list and I’m hoping to do it this December” Sheppard, a little guiltily, explained. She has however competed in the other Antipodean Epic Series events; Australia’s Port to Port, Reef to Reef and the Cape to Cape stage races. “Those events used to be single races, so I could race solo. But now they have all changed to be team races” the 2019 Port to Port champion said.

Having raced to solo success in the past this year has seen Sheppard step into team stage racing to great effect. In May she turned out with Australian cross-country champion Kate Mcilroy to win the Port to Port, Epic Series stage race in New South Wales. “The challenge in team races is to find someone you are compatible with, in terms of strengths. Ariane (Lüthi) asked if I’d like to do Swiss Epic and I’ve always loved riding in Switzerland, but it’s always been for cross-country racing. Now I’m getting into a bit more marathon racing so it was a great opportunity to ride with an experience rider and do this one” Sheppard recounted.

Given Lüthi’s palmarès it is unsurprising that Sheppard jumped at the chance to ride and learn from her. “The Epic Series races in Australia are no where near as challenging as the Absa Cape Epic, Swiss Epic or The Pioneer. Those three are just on another level of duration, difficulty and climbing. The ones in Australia have got a bit more singletrack and more kind-of fun, playing on your bike a bit more style of riding. But it’s cool that they form part of this big series from where riders can qualify for an Absa Cape Epic slot," she elaborated. “The vibe in those shorter races is also very chilled. You can just do it with your mate, without too much training, you just need to enjoy riding your bike. But to come over here everyone, not just the elite riders, have put in a lot of time working on their fitness. And that’s really crucial to making it through the five days. It’s a real challenge, even to the elite riders.”

Lüthi knows the challenge provided by the Swiss Epic all-to-well. She remains excited to take on the task though, aware that to the rest of the field her job of racing her bike around the globe seems ideal. “It is a great privilege to see so much from my bike” the well-travelled Swiss confessed. “I’ve just come back from a race in Romania. I’ve seen a lot of South Africa, especially the Western Cape with the Absa Cape Epic, and it’s really cool. I love the marathon racing in particular because you get to see a lot of a country.”

“You also get to meet so many people, especially at the Absa Cape Epic and the Swiss Epic” Lüthi continued, elaborating at the social side of stage racing which casual fans and non-riders miss out on. “These races bring a lot of people from all over the world together, which is absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, at the Absa Cape Epic I’m so focused I almost don’t get the chance to talk to anyone. But I hope it will be better here. Already, we have quite an international team; I don’t know Samara so well. So, it’s great to get to meet and spend time with New Zealanders and Australians, which is really cool.”

The pair got the race off to a fantastic start in challenging conditions and managed to secure a second place on Stage 1.

Hopefully Luthi enjoys her Antipodean teammate and support crew during the week long Swiss Epic enough to pursue her racing ambitions into December this year. The Pioneer, powered by Nutri-Grain, is set to start in Queensland, on New Zealand’s South Island, on the 1st of December. The final event in the 2019 Epic Series calendar features 6 days of amazing mountain biking in the picturesque Southern Alps.

The Quest for Epic Legend Status in the Swiss Alps – Part 1

The 2019 Swiss Epic kicked off at 07:30 on Tuesday 20 August, in torrential rain, that turned the already challenging trails into a muddy slop that ensured even the most seasoned professionals got their money’s worth.

287 teams of two riders travelled from all corners of the globe to compete in this magnificent race that takes in some of the Graubünden region’s famed mountain bike trails.

In amongst those 287 teams are 12 potential Epic Legends. Epic Legends are individuals who have completed all three week-long races in the Epic Series, namely the Absa Cape Epic, the Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain in New Zealand, and the Swiss Epic. These 12 individuals all have the medal within their grasp and a tale of why and how they have gone about their quest so far; these are a few of their stories:

Antonio Faundez is from Switzerland and it is rather fitting that he has the opportunity to claim Legend Status in his home land. Antonio first ventured to South Africa in 2017 to participate in the Absa Cape Epic and it still holds a very sentimental place in his heart, “I love the Cape Epic. The size and the whole vibe in the race and the village; especially that I can ride with the best mountain bikers in the world on the same route!”

Upon completion of today’s wet and muddy stage, Antonio laughed, “Today’s stage felt like I was at The Pioneer again with wet weather, clouds and climbing it was awesome! I really hope I finish and can get my medal!” Antonio’s partner, Alex Kruger, has completed 10 Absa Cape Epics and says that someday he may make it to New Zealand to tackle the Pioneer – one thing’s for sure, Antonio and Alex sure have enough experience to put up a good fight, no matter the challenges ahead.

Alex and Antonio after Stage 1 of the 2019 Swiss Epic

Benjamin Ramirez and his partner Aldean Philip travelled over 10 000 kilometres from the Philippines with their girlfriends and mothers in tow as the trusted support crew. The team, who were a far cry away from the usual terrain that they ride in, finished today’s stage full of smiles, “We are having so much fun riding; the trails are flowy, but this is really cold for us coming from the Philippines!”.

Benjamin is set to receive his Epic Legend medal and status should he and Aldean cross the finish line in Davos in four days’ time. Benjamin receiving his medal will also be a huge stepping stone for Aldean, as all that will be left for him to do to claim his Epic Legend medal, is complete the 2020 Absa Cape Epic – for which they are already registered!

All the way from the Philippines, Aldean and Benjamin experienced some new conditions during Stage 1 of the 2019 Swiss Epic.

There are two current Epic Legends participating, Timothy Hammond, riding for DEVMCO Umhlanga Arch SPOT Africa became an Epic Legend when he took on New Zealand’s backcountry during the 2018 Pioneer, Fuelled by Nutri-Grain. Today’s muddy Alpine challenge had Timothy in the corner: “Today was cool, the trails were a lot of fun in the wet. I suffered a bit, but I think I’ve blown out the cobwebs with this really tough stage. The scenery was just spectacular – the old railway bridges, big pine forests and the long tunnel were all really cool features. Weather wise, it can only get better!”

Alexander Donaldson, from New Zealand, is no stranger to the current weather conditions being experienced in Davos. He became an Epic Legend at the 2018 Absa Cape Epic and is participating in the Swiss Epic for the second time. “I live and work in London and absolutely had to come over and experience the new route in Graubünden this year! It is fantastic and I can’t wait to see what else is in store for us throughout the remainder of the week.”

We’ll catch up with a few of the possible Epic Legends each day, so be sure to stay tuned.