A rare moment of indecision darted across Ariane Kleinhans's face at the start line of the Raid Evolènade, Swiss Marathon Championships in Evolène on Sunday, 19 June. She was puzzling at the grey skies all around her. Should she race with a wind vest or not?
Freezing overnight showers had abated for the 10am start, but a glance at the dark clouds shrouding the towering snow-capped peaks above her had her second guessing her race apparel layers. A flimsy wind vest might be the difference between victory and defeat in the Alps.
Ariane was going all in for her national championship jersey. With true Swiss precision, she had studied the course and broken the race profile down to five feedzones. Using power data from last year's race, where she finished second to seven-time Swiss XCM Champion, Esther Süss, she had meticulously measured her race nutrition to within grams and millimeters – she wouldn't be taking any extra weight on the climber's course. She had practiced her sprinting line into the finishing straight, should the race be reduced to an all-out brawl over the final flat kilometres. She was racing her superlight Specialized S-Works Fate hardtail. She had opted for S-Works Fast Traks, the lightest tyres in Specialized's range. Ariane even decided to race without a spare tube...
As the announcer counted 30 seconds to start, Ariane's eyes sharpened. She stripped her wind vest from her body and threw it over to her support crew. If you want it badly, you've got to risk it. All in!
The starter's gun pierced the crisp air and all hell broke loose. 120 riders jostled for position in the mass start down Evolène's narrow main street. 62km and over 2600m of vertical ascent lay ahead. When racing for a jersey in Switzerland you better come ready to climb...
The route featured a lung-busting jeep track and then singletrack climb from the start, up the western walls of the valley. Within the first 9km, riders ascended 600m. Ariane had the experience of last year's second place playing through her mind in the early racing. "I went way too hard in the beginning and really paid for it last year," Ariane said. "This year I really wanted to make sure I was pacing myself right so I discussed it with my coach Andrew Smith and we figured out good power numbers for me to start out with."
"Esther went quite hard in the beginning and I didn’t have a problem staying with her. Nadia Walker also stayed with us. I realised Esther was slowing down a bit and I started pacing. Nadia came to the front and entered the singletrack first and went into the first climb ahead. So I pushed past them to get into the next singletrack."
Ariane's early attack paid off – at the first feedzone at 15km she had opened up a two-minute gap on Nadia Walker, with Esther Süss following closely in third. Another precipitous climb awaited, before a high-speed descent brought the riders to the finish village of Les Haudères at the 35km mark.
As the race passed through Les Haudères the gap had grown to three minutes. Although Ariane couldn't see her competitors, the race was far from over. The weather was closing in on the eastern mountainside and Ariane had taken so few spares, and such light clothing, she couldn't afford to put a foot (or tyre!) wrong.
And now the proper climbing started! "I was surprised [at the time gap], I thought maybe Esther had a mechanical. I was riding in a comfortable zone and pacing myself really well according to the numbers that I got from my coach," she said of the start of the race's major climb at 35km. The 18km ascent would take riders high above the valley floor and into the snowline in two parts. A short, slippery, technical singletrack descent punctuated the 1,100m slogfest.
Ariane kept applying the pressure, pacing to perfection and opening up a six-minute gap by the time she hit the final climb in freezing rain and cloud. A nervous descent to the valley floor in Les Haudères followed. Ariane knew the race was hers to loose. "My only concern [at that stage] was the equipment. Not that I don’t trust my equipment, but I didn’t take any spares with me, except for one Co2 bomb. When I heard the gap was at six or seven minutes I looked at every rock I rode over very carefully," Ariane said, laughing. "I didn’t take any risks in that last downhill!"
Ariane's equipment and skills kept her upright and she powered home, with an eight-minute win over second-placed Nadia Walker and Esther Süss in third, a further five minutes back.
"It was really special to celebrate the win with Nic [Lamond, Team Spur Manager]. It's definitely a very special moment for me – to grab that jersey is huge! I’m just really really happy to be the Swiss Champ," an elated Ariane said.
"I want to say thank you to Team Spur for the opportunity; to my sponsors for making this all happen: Spur, Specialized and everyone else involved; and to all the people supporting me out there. The organisers of the race did a really good job. It was a very cool day and we even got a TV team there and got to organise some time with the kids. They are so cute! All the little kids came to the prizegiving and we had an autograph session. It was just heartbreaking how they come there, smile and look up to you. That’s what we there for – to help kids live their passion and motivate them."