TORTOUR. A name that wasn’t up for misinterpretation for Fabian Scholz and Max Hilger. The cyclocross stage race that exceeded their worst expectations, telling a story of dirt, pain and friendship.
Just lie down. Lie there. Don’t go any further. My feet are ankle-deep in mud, the bike’s weighing down on my shoulder and I can’t see the top of this steep climb. But because Fabi keeps going, so too do I.
Three months ago we got wind of the world premiere of the TORTOUR. It sounded like a serious challenge. As the world’s first cyclocross stage race, the TORTOUR would include a 20 km prologue, followed by two stages of 97 and 90 kilometres respectively. Looping around the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, there would be 3,750 metres of elevation to conquer as well. But it wasn’t even on tarmac; the race would be all off-road, taking the rough with the smooth, whatever the ground threw at us. My teammate Fabian Scholz agreed to ride the TORTOUR in a pair with me.
Nerves suddenly hit me at the start of the prologue, with a thousand questions whizzing around my head: How much did that bout of the flu take out of me? Am I really going to make this? How bad is the weather going to be? I hold out my fist to Fabi, he returns the gesture and we’re off. Three. Two. One. The pack set off, the hunt begins. It’s like a road race as we pelt along the dry dirt road, the weather’s still fine. Race mode kicks in, full gas in the slipstream. Spot on. In the middle of the race I realize that Fabi isn’t behind me any more. I reluctantly give up my slipstream and wait for him. “Too quick!” a red-faced Fabi snaps at me as he catches up. We reach the finish together, joking about the fast race, complaining about the lack of trails and bragging about our exploits. It starts to rain that night.
A change in the weather
The next morning brings with it wholly different weather conditions, with snow and rain predicted for the entire day. The temperature will hover just above zero, they say, and we know we’re climbing up to 900 metres above sea level. It doesn’t sound promising. The altitude profile of the stage grins at us maliciously. Despite this we still attack, leading from the front. Fabi groans: “Take it easier!” I throw his warning to the wind and encourage him to take my slipstream. I’m feeling good. Snow and sunshine beat their way through the mist and the dense forest. The fallen trees and filthy, deep mud add to the hunger for adventure.
We’re doing well in the race, overtaking more and more riders on the technical sections and the downhills. But we also have enough power to keep the pace through the deep mud and snowfields. This is where TORTOUR tightens the screws; the route never rolls and we barely see any tarmac sections. The organisers send us straight over fields for kilometer upon kilometer, with slush that is as deep as our vision through the thick mist.
After 60 kilometres I hit the wall. Unexpectedly and intensely. We’re still climbing, and each corner makes it worse. The organisers add an obstacle that none of the competitors would have expected: we have to carry our Mares for 1.5 kilometres, climbing 300 metres of altitude in that section. “No one is going to believe this!” curses Fabi. Our shoes sink into slippery loam. I fling the Mares down. Is this purgatory? When did the underworld start going uphill? Fabi stomps onwards. I duly follow. He roars at me: “I’m only doing this for you! And I’m just carrying on because of you, Fabi.
We reach the top, skidding our way down the treacherous downhill. There are sharp-edged stones as big as ostrich eggs underneath the slushy, snowy surface. Every single limb is soaked through and frozen to the bone. Our hands feel double their size; they’re too numb and incapable of carrying out any skillful maneuvers. Braking becomes potluck.
It’s unimaginable to imagine the damage that a puncture could cause to our morale. The Mares takes all the obstacles in its stride and we get through the whole race without any mechanical issues.
As the crowning culmination of the stage there’s one last, never-ending, helter-skelter of a climb. Fabi and I aren’t speaking by this point. I keep holding my fist out, a gesture that’s become our ritual and fulfills a number of duties: encouragement, but also confirmation that neither of us are about to fall off the Mares. I daren’t ask Fabi how he’s feeling. It’s enough when his fist meets mine in the air, and we intuitively continue at the same pace. Stoical. Keeping this tempo is what is keeping us going,and stopping us from dismounting right there and then.
After the long carrying section steals our power, this endless climb does its best to rob us of our morale. Just a bit higher, a bit further. We make it to the top. The night before we’d scoured the route profile – it should go downhill from here. But we’re wrong. The snow’s really deep at 900 metres. And the route goes up and down again. We battle on through the forests. In disbelief, exhausted, and empty. There are frequent sections of unrideable snow; we’re forced to carry the bike. Heroic suffering turns into serious concerns. There’s no end in sight.
Suddenly we spot a man in the woods, he’s cheering us on. In Swiss German he tells us we’re almost there. Asks us seriously if we want a Ricola sweet. I give Fabi an incredulous look, he shakes his head. It isn’t a mirage; he’s seen him too. I heave myself back onto my bike with my last remaining strength. Head in the direction of the valley, to the finish and a warm shower.
At the finish we lick our wounds, muttering words of encouragement to each other. I can’t rid my mind of one question though: how are we supposed to get over a day like this? Back at the hotel we go over the details of tomorrow’s stage. There’s less climbing, we note, but after a day like today in the legs it doesn’t seem to matter. Perseverance. That’s the only thing that counts for tomorrow. Fabi holds out his fist and I give mine in return. He switches off the light.
We manage to make it to the start the next morning. It feels like the field has halved; yesterday’s stage clearly took its toll. This time we start slowly, let the pack set the pace and ease our weary bodies slowly back into motion. I prepare myself mentally for another never-ending day. After the first long climb, the day’s highlight awaits: four kilometres of single track that boosts our spirits. We light a veritable trail firework and I try to keep Fabi’s wheel. We whizz by the competition on our Mares, as they’re forced to carry their bikes at times. I drift sublimely around a corner and let out a whoop of joy, frightening a dismounted rider nearby.
Everyone loves our downhilling, and we’re celebrated like rockstars. ‘Great descending, guys!” In the face of such adulation we miss a turning, which had in fact been well signposted. The injection to our spirits lasts exactly 20 kilometres. Then comes more carrying and more dirt roads and we’re back communicating with the fist. The guys from Rapiro Racing Teams overtake us – and take pity on us at the same time. The worst thing that could happen to us. They want us to take their slipstream. This means riding faster than we actually want to. I shout to them: “Just keep riding!”
The guys don’t listen to me. The slipstream takes us up and down, traversing vineyards, along the Rhine, through pretty villages. I don’t see anything though. I lost my vision somewhere in the gravel and the mud. It can’t get much worse. Another drop lands on my glasses.
In the pouring down rain I cling on to the back wheel of the Rapiro guys, Fabi holds mine. The stage can’t last much longer, but that’s exactly what we thought yesterday. Loose gravel crunches under our tyres. I’m caught in a painful hell, but I’m not alone. I cast a glance at Fabi, offer him my fist, brothers in pain. We’re going at snail’s’ pace now.
At some point we make it to the finish, riding in side by side. The time for fists is over; I throw myself around Fabi’s neck, embracing him so tightly that water runs out of our clothes. “16 centimetres,” murmers Fabi, “I’m now 16 centimetres bigger.“
More Information can be found on the Tortour Website.
Words: Max Hilger Photos: Focus Bikes
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