Karen van Meerbeeck is a five-time British downhill champion, so on the singletracks of the Swiss Epic she is in her element. On the climbs, however, it is a slightly different matter. The skills coach is, nonetheless, full of advice for would be mountain biking visitors to Graubünden.
Despite her Flemish sounding name Van Meerbeeck hails from the Yorkshire moors, in a region that loves its cycling. As a former national downhill champion, she puts her technical skills to use coaching riders in her homeland. On her visit to Graubünden, she is racing alongside Ruth Thompson, as team Yorkshire Puddings.
“This is probably the most technical but fun stuff I’ve ridden in a long, long time” Van Meerbeeck smiled. “Knowing that before I entered the Swiss Epic was a big part of the motivation to ride it. It’s definitely good to keep your skills sharp if you intend on taking part in any stage race, but it’s particularly important if you plan on coming here, to the Swiss Epic in Graubünden.”
“The scenery is amazing and the singletrack downhills are brilliant fun” Thompson chimed in. “We’ve been having fun on all the trails. We were unfortunate to split a tyre on Stage 1, though. Which we had to fix on the hill, but we did it. The people have also been so friendly.”
“Yeah, the camaraderie has been brilliant” Van Meerbeeck added. “We’ve met loads of nice people on the course.”
Turning her focus to advice for the clients she coaches Van Meerbeeck advised: “If you wish to enter the Swiss Epic, don’t underestimate the climbing involved, the steepness of the hills and the length of the climbs.” “I don’t mind the hills; I’ve enjoyed them in a sadistic sort of way” Thompson interjected with a laugh. “But if you’re not used to climbing, you do really need to put in a lot of training if you’re going to enjoy it to the fullest.”
“As a former downhiller the uphills have been really tough” Van Meerbeeck admitted. “They’ve actually been much tougher than I expected even. So, yeah, you really do need to put in the preparation work.”
Stage racing is not just about what happens on the bike, however. Recovery between stages is key too, as is keeping one’s bike in good working order. “In St. Moritz it was so hot after the stage that we cooled off in the river. The chilly mountain water is great for tired muscles” Van Meerbeeck recounted. “Having your bikes well prepared for each stage is also essential. We had to get that tyre sorted out, because you can’t start the next stage on a tyre you nursed to the finish the day before. Even if you’re exhausted, getting your bike sorted is essential.”
Fortunately, at the Swiss Epic, as at all Epic Series events, there are mechanics in the race village. MASQUEBICI are on hand to sort out major issues, though riders were advised to book a service package; which included re-building bikes upon arrival at the Swiss Epic; a bike wash, lube and tune after each stage, discount on any spare parts and major repairs required in the case of a major mechanical; and boxing up the bike for transit back home after the race.
“Along with getting your bike ready for each stage it’s important to get plenty of sleep” Van Meerbeeck counselled. “We had a really long day getting to Graubünden on Sunday. We drove for 13 and a half hours, from Rotterdam, then on Monday we had to drive for 2 hours to Davos to drop the vehicle off. So, we had no rest pre-race. Which wasn’t ideal. We could have arrived a couple of days earlier and got more rest here in Graubünden, that’s what I would recommend to other people. But both Ruth [Thompson] and I have work commitments, so we couldn’t come any earlier. In that case the only thing you can do is take the pressure off yourself. Focus on having fun and enjoying the stage race experience.”