Cast your mind back through all of the cycling events that you have ever ridden in, and then pick the best one. Why did you pick this particular one? Because you won it? Because you did it with friends? Because the weather was good and the scenery spectacular? Because you didn’t get a puncture and your bike never broke? Because you were part of the Tour de France?…………or, because the place, the people, the course, the post race awards (and drinks), had masses of soul, style, energy and inclusiveness. Oh yes, and it didn’t rain. In fact, maybe even the sun shone throughout the day! Let me welcome you to my ‘bestest’ event ever, and it was held in the first weekend of March, somewhere in Zurich, Switzerland. Just as the first of the UCI Spring Classic races kicked off in Belgium with all of the professional road cycling teams, so did this Swiss Spring Classic race. Welcome to Punk Maskara IV!
This race is relatively unofficial. It is not that it is illegal, it is just that there are no UCI points awarded to aid your place in the World Cup rankings. This year saw the fourth edition of the event and with a larger field than usual at ‘about’ 31 riders. The gender balance was good across the field, as was the spread of fitness, ability and choice of cycle. There was also an active fashion move against the ‘dressed in all black’ riders of today, with a good percentage of riders dressing as something other than a pro’ cyclist. Like a sheep for example.
Whilst race marketing relies on a FaceBook page and general gossip on the ‘Zurich jungle telephone’, the small team of dedicated organisers do everything else with style. Their own style to be precise. I had heard about the event through a previously mentioned friend and rider, Terrance Malone. This is he who has designed the new Terra One, Rider T1 tyre that you may have read about in some previous posts. If you haven’t read them, you clearly nearly to play catch-up. Terrance asked me if I wanted to strap on a race number and join him in thrashing around on a pair of his new tyres, which I had already fitted to my vintage Cannondale. Spookily, I was in the Zurich area that very day, so we agreed to meet at ‘the start point’ at 11am. Terrance had explained roughly how the event worked and like all new things, you don’t always understand what you’ve agreed to until you get there. Anyway, in summary, it’s like a cycle-cross race. Nearly.
We meet at the correct time (this is Switzerland after all) and find that nobody else has turned up. The sun is shining and the temperature is about 14 degrees, so not bad weather at all for early March, and better weather than the Pro-cyclists were getting in their first Belgium Spring Classic. Almost immediately, other riders start coming from all directions and congregate in the meeting (not start) location, which has a river on one side and a big bicycle pump track on the other side. I am greeted by smiling, friendly faces in cycle helmets with handshakes. A man walks over to us, greets Terrance warmly and shakes my hand. This man is the guru, head honcho and mastermind behind the Punk Maskara race. Let me introduce you to Christoph Vetter. As a day job, he owns and runs the Zurich bike shop, The Flamme Rouge https://www.flammerouge.ch/zuerich/index.php and is an all-round cycling and life enthusiast. Whilst he is smiling and talking, his eyes are well concealed by a pair of mirror-lensed, 1990s Oakley Sub Zero 0.3 sunglasses. Today these sunglasses look a bit of a novelty, but back in the 1990s, you were ‘cutting edge cool’ if you had a pair of these. On his head, he has a kind of mini-gangster hat or what I would call a ‘Pork Pie’ hat. His shoes are white, hand made in Greece and hand painted with Snoopy characters. The look is finished off with a vintage camera swinging on a leather strap across his stomach. He’s naturally ridden to the meeting point on a vintage Merlin mountain bike. If vintage mountain bike points where more credible than UCI points, this bike would make him world Champion, such is the rarity and original cost of this titanium wonder.
Quite a crowd has gathered within 15 minutes of our arrival and each rider hands over a nominal start fee, completes a form, gets a race number and a strip of ‘laminated by hand’ numbers. This strip gets attached to one of the race number ties. I assume that this strip of numbers is something to do with either a lottery or the lap counting system. It turns out to be the latter. When all of the riders are signed on and race numbers attached, everyone follows Christoph and his dedicated team of helpers on a ride out to the course. We weave our way through families out for a Sunday walk with errant dogs and kids running everywhere. I had been advised by Terrance to attach a bell onto my ‘race bike’ handlebars so that I would be compliant with riding a bicycle in a Swiss, public area, which I naturally did. Terrance forgot to put one on his.
We arrive at the course and the start area and I get chance to walk around and look at all of the bikes that are about to be raced. Apart from the vintage mountain bikes that Terrance and I were riding, there were the cycle-cross bikes, some hybrid single speeders, some modern mountain bikes, and gravel bikes. Some bikes that were once something that they aren’t now, had clearly gone through a number of transition phases as their owners changed fashion or needs. Whilst a number sported a few bolt-on things like front racks and even bells, what really deserved some top engineering respect was the bike below. It had two pairs of handlebars on it. One pair used the original stem for a fixing and the other pair was attached to the first pair with two CNC machine alloy blocks. That’s innovation that is!
It is now time to race! The race rules are announced through a hand held, loud-haler device. The rules of the course, race etc are delivered in the local language and then everyone is instructed to do a walk of the course. There is a big road bridge that sweeps high over the area that we are going to ride in, and this bridge actually features in the architecturally striking flyer that was made for the event. If you were standing on the bridge and looking over the guard rail, you would see an eclectic site. A group of what appear to be cyclists, but all walking together in a strange circuit. You would know that they were cyclists because they are all wearing cycling helmets, it’s just that there are no bicycles in evidence. What would also catch your eye, is that some of the cyclists appear to be dressed as things like animals, ice hockey players and even the occasional short dress. Interesting huh?
The course walk is a very social event, in fact, I paid little attention to the actual course as I was engaged in conversation with the ‘Clerk of the Course’, Mr C Vetter. However, I did pay attention when it came to the stream crossing. What is usually a small stream running through fields, had become a bit wider and faster flowing following the previous nights heavy rain. A quick look at the narrowest route revealed the following three options; walk through it and get your shoes cleaned every lap, or try to jump from one slippery rock to another whilst leaning on the bike for balance, or lastly, just ride through it. During the race, all three options were used and with varying degrees of success and spectacular failure.
We arrive back at the start line and instructed to lay our bikes on the ground and walk back about 50 metres. The Punk Maskara race start is also quite unique in that it is of the ‘Le Mans’ variety. For those of you not initiated in the famous French endurance motor race, it involves drivers running to their cars, starting their engines and racing off. This was how this Swiss Spring Classic commenced. The gun went off and everyone ran to their bikes. I had decided to start running last and video it all from behind with my phone. Unfortunately, instead of pressing the video function when I started running, I just took one photo, and didn’t realise this until a few hours after the race. The price I paid for the single, and crap quality photo meant that I was at the back of the field and need to play catch up. Fast!
The race duration was 18 laps, which involved all sorts of terrain, obstacles and the infamous stream crossing. At the end of each lap, every rider had to stop to have a number cut off the strip attached to his or her handlebars. This was the lap counter. When the first rider had completed his or her 18 laps, the race was over and the number of digits left on your strip indicated how many laps you had completed and hence, your final ranking in the race. Clear?
I made up quite a few places in the first 5 laps. I always dismounted to leap the deadly stream crossing, to be on the safe side. I did have to drive home and had work the next day, so any injuries would have been at the very least, inconvenient. As the race went on, the wet ground got more muddy and tougher to pedal, but on the positive side, there were lots of different types of surface on the course, so it was diverse and great fun going from mud to dust to stream to tarmac etc. There were clearly some riders out for the win and some out for a good time. I was in the latter category. The fastest rider and subsequent winner was a slim, bearded man wearing a short, red tutu skirt. From a fashion perspective, it was an interesting choice, and from a practical point of view, it gave him complete cycling mobility. I finished in my usual ‘mid-pack’ result, being lapped 5 times by the tutu-wearing winner. I also got passed by a number of animal outfits, one being a sheep which clearly had a very fast woman inside it. Not only was she fast, she was also probably very hot inside, although this didn’t appear to slow her down.
The course condition wasn’t easy after several laps, and was a good test of bike handling skills as well as fitness. There were also lots of photographers out on the course to capture the fun. A few spectators that had come to see their friends race as well as a few bemused weekend walkers who were at least a bit intrigued at what they saw cycling around a course, and under a big bridge. Of course I missed the winner finishing, but I did arrive at the finish line to a throng of steaming, smiling riders and their friends, family and some other cyclists that had just stopped to watch and look at the bikes etc.
My next surprise was when the post race refreshments were handed out. This was classic post race recovery food and drink. Delicious homemade cakes of different types and hot Glühwein, which is a Swiss version of what I know as Mulled Wine or known as Gløgg in the Nordics. Standing in the sun at the end of the race with my body tingling from exertion, my mouth full of delicious cake and my right hand being rapidly warmed through due to the plastic cup of hot wine, I felt really great! Eating and chatting to a very inclusive group of people, post race is rare, and something to recognise.
The ‘Chef du course’ then raised the loud-haler to his mouth and announced the winners of the 10 different categories which ranged from the fastest young rider to the best dressed. So, 10 prizes later, lots of crowd recognition and photos, and the event was over sadly. My friend Terrance and I had finished on the same lap, so in case you are wondering about the performance of the prototype Rider T1 tyres we were racing on, they were great, and particularly grippy on the harder and looser surfaces of the course, whilst maintaining traction in the very muddy bits.
Terrance and I said our thank-you’s and goodbye’s to people and we headed off back to where we first met at 11am that day. Both ourselves and our bikes were covered in mud, so mine got wrapped up and put in the van, and Terrance took his home on the train. I wasn’t wise in wearing a white cycling top in those conditions, but at least it came clean in the wash, as did the bike. I guess the sheep outfit also cleaned up in the wash.
Finally, here is the killer question for me to answer; Was this best cycling event I’ve ever done? Undoubtedly, yes. I’ve done lots of different races in my time, but none of them had the ’soul’ of this amazing, Swiss, Spring Classic race. Many thanks to Christoph and his team of helpers. If you are in the Zurich area next March, start looking on FaceBook for the Punk Maskara V race, and don’t ask me why the race is called Punk Maskara either, because I really don’t know….
All photos by me, apart from the one of me, which was by somebody else. Thanks!