Stage 1 of the 2023 SPAR Swiss Epic saw Canyon Northwave and Elysator Efficient Infinity Insure get their campaigns off to winning starts in Lenzerheide on Tuesday, 15 August. Martin Stošek and Marc Stutzmann proved the strongest combination on the opening day in the UCI Men’s competition, while Vera Looser and Kim le Court dominated the stage in the UCI Women’s race.
Bike Kingdom Lenzerheide provided the perfect venue for the opening day of the 2023 SPAR Swiss Epic. The village, best known for hosting mountain bike World Cup and World Championship cross-country and downhill events, not only provided a mix of thrillingly testing natural singletracks and awe-inspiring flow trails, but also served up sunshine for Stage 1. The Canyon Northwave and Elysator Efficient Infinity Insure teams made hay while the sun shone too, establishing early leads in the race for the top step of the UCI categories’ podiums.
The SPAR Swiss Epic is a Ledged status, five-day, event within the Epic Series of global mountain bike races. Hosted by the Graubünden canton in south eastern Switzerland it features a new route every year and takes in a blend of high alpine riding – with arduous climbs to well over 2 000 meters above sea level, exceptional trails, and a field made up of some of the world’s best mountain bike stage racers. Its Pro/Am format sees competitive age category teams racing on the same course as the elite squads, testing themselves not only against the course but also measuring themselves against the best.
In 2023 its 339 kilometres long route boasts 10 850 metres of climbing and 10 800 metres of descending. Stage 1 was a 51 kilometre test, with 2 000 metres of elevation gain, starting and finishing in Lenzerheide. The day’s highlights included the Panorama Trail, the Bikepark FLOWline, Nino’s Gold Trail, and Top Flops. The climb to June Hut, at 2 216 metres, was the day’s second and eventually decisive climb.
For the UCI Men’s teams, the stage begun at a furious pace. A 31-team deep elite start group meant that the real contenders would need to thin out the squads who would only be fighting for minor places and eliminate them from the front of the race. The early pace was set by Canyon Northwave, Willier Pirelli, Torpado Factory and BUFF MEGAMO. On the climb to the first service station, at the 18 kilometre mark, an elite selection of three teams slipped off the front as Hans Becking and Peeter Pruus were distanced.
Shortly thereafter Casey South, of Torpado Factory, suffered a rear wheel puncture. Despite bombing and plugging the tyre he and Jakob Dorigoni continued to ship time throughout the rest of the stage, eventually conceding 18 minutes and 29 seconds to the day’s victors. Once Martin Stošek and Marc Stutzmann were away with the defending champion, Daniel Geismayr, and his Wilier Pirelli teammate, Wout Alleman, the Canyon Northwave combination began to ratchet up the pressure. This eventually told when they made a decisive break on the climb to the June Hut.
“It was a hard one, today,” Stutzmann smiled post-stage. “It was the Swiss national marathon championships on Saturday; so, I was unsure not of my shape, but of my legs. Given that, we’re both really happy with the win today.”
The newly crowned Swiss XCM Champion’s partner, Stošek, confessed that there had not been a specific plan for the stage. “We wanted to see how Marc would feel after the nationals. But from the beginning he looked good so we pushed when we could and, in the end, we were able to make a good gap. When I saw it was over a minute, I decided that we would keep pushing, because anything can happen in the downhills and the race is long. It was a good but slightly unexpected opportunity to take time and the leaders’ jerseys today.”
Canyon Northwave’s winning time was 2 hours, 30 minutes and 33 seconds for the stage. Which sees them take a 2 minute and 43 second lead over Wilier Pirelli's Daniel Geismayr and Wout Alleman into Stage 2. Hans Becking and Peeter Pruus, of the BUFF Megamo Team, will start the second day with a 3 minute and 52 second deficit to the first Ciovita yellow jersey wearers of the 2023 SPAR Swiss Epic.
In the UCI Women’s competition, the two pre-race favourite teams were soon alone at the front together. Then Elysator Efficient Infinity Insure’s Vera Looser and Kim Le Court put pressure on the Davos Klosters combination until Bettina Janas faltered. On the first significant climb, to the Panorama Trail, Janas had to dismount her bike and run. This moment gave Looser and Le Court the first bit of advantage they needed.
Over the course of the remaining 35 kilometres the Namibian and Mauritian Absa Cape Epic champions proceeded to extend their lead to a significant 11 minutes and 33 seconds. “We didn’t quite expect this,” Looser pointed out. “I was a bit under the weather last week and Kim was still racing the UCI Road World Champs on Sunday, so we only arrived here in Lenzerheide late yesterday afternoon. To win and by quite a margin is a great feeling; especially because we both didn’t have the best days. But apparently it wasn’t that bad after-all.”
That last comment might be ominous for their rivals. The silver lining for the Davos Klosters team is that they have come from behind to win the SPAR Swiss Epic before. In 2019 Janas and Morath conceded 17 minutes and 15 seconds to Corina Gantenbein and Kathrin Stirnemann on the opening stage, before storming to overall victory four days later. As Stošek highlighted, anything can happen in mountain bike racing.
The next opportunity for the unexpected to strike is provided by Stage 2. It features an 81 kilometre route from Lenzerheide to St. Moritz and takes in 2 350 meters of climbing. Along with more typical Graubünden marathon racing it includes an ascent of the Albula Pass to 2 312 metres above sea level as well as a 10 kilometre false flat drag along the Moor Plateau Alp da Staz. Any weakness on the Albula will amplify over the second half of the stage and could lead to major time gains or losses.