Two friends, three bikes, a camper van and a race for the ages
The challenge materialised after an off-the-cuff comment. René Wildhaber, a sometimes-retired professional enduro rider who shreds with the best of them, had had enough of his mechanic’s driving.
Legendary enduro riders like René are patient and calculated, but you don’t get to the top of the enduro game by going slowly. And 'slow' was a kind way to describe the way his mechanic, photographer, friend and driver Urban Engel navigated the roads surrounding the Enduro World Series stop at the Italian Riviera.
Everything else was perfection. Italy’s food, coffee and trails rank among René’s favourites, and he even took the top spot on the podium in the Masters category. But throughout the weekend, a reality hung like a dark cloud over the Swiss mountain biker: it would be a long 310-mile return trip to Switzerland in the passenger seat as Urban’s camper laboured at a painfully slow pace along the motorway.
This wasn’t a new predicament. The pair knew that they kept a different pace behind the wheel, and their long-standing friendship was forged in spite of this. Until, at last, they reached a breaking point in Italy after the EWS Finale.
'Faster,' said René.
'I drive at my pace,' said Urban.
'You could at least keep up with that Piaggio three-wheeler,' said René.
'If you don’t like the way I drive,' said Urban, 'then you can ride your bike home.'
René was struck with an idea. He quickly took inventory. 'Well,' he said, 'then that’s exactly what I’ll do. And I’ll beat you there.'
And so the race was on.
René had in his quiver a Madone, Slash and Powerfly e-MTB – three distinctly different bikes, each with a role to play on the long ride back to Flumserberg. Urban had his home on wheels, his trusty camper van.
Madone: Finale – Milano – Splügenpass
Like most mornings in the Italian Riviera, the morning of their race began with cappuccino. René chose Madone for the climb from the coast to the Po Valley, hitting 50 mph on the descents.
'It takes some nerve,' he said, 'but with such a stiff frame, it’s no problem.'
He coasted into the cathedral square after 124 miles, the clear victor of stage one, while Urban and the camper van were still rolling through the city centre in Milan.
He continued with Madone on day two, cranking up the 6,939-foot Splügen Pass that separates Italy and Switzerland. It was a tough stretch, both for René and for Urban. The vertical was a challenge for the van’s engine, and the switchbacks were tough on the driver’s arms.
Slash: Splügenpass – Ilanz
When Urban finally caught up at Splügen Pass, René swapped his Madone for his Slash, his favourite bike to ride, then tore down a mountain road built by the Romans over 2,000 years ago, and turned off onto a narrow trail into Grisons. Even at his pace, Slash ironed out the bumps, turning the rough hiking path into a flow trail.
Meanwhile, Urban and his rolling holiday home skated slowly down the curves of the Splügen Pass. Both René and Urban were in their element. When at last they met in Ilanz, René made a final bike change.
Powerfly: Ilanz – Panixerpass – Flumserberg
The last day was the most extreme. Panix Pass is steep. On a normal mountain bike, it’s the kind of pass you’d hike with the bike on your back. But the 250-watt Bosch motor on René’s Powerfly made short work of the climbs, allowing him to ride 95% of the trail. 'I had to keep wear my rucksack on my stomach to shift more weight forwards and keep the front wheel on the ground,' said René.
He spent the night in a mountain shelter while Urban drifted along the Rhine through Grisons. If someone were to put paper boats on the river, they’d have left the camper behind.
This final stage of their gentleman’s challenge traced a route from the Panix Pass into the Sernf Valley in Glarus and back up to Flumserberg, their final destination. René gave Powerfly the spurs, and Urban put the pedal to the metal, hitting 50.6 mph on the motorway.
When he was nearly home, René turned onto familiar dirt, choosing to ride one of the trails he co-designed on the Flumserberg. He pedalled his Powerfly to the top of the Prodkamm and let it loose down 'Red Fox and Blue Salamander'. It was the perfect end to a perfect ride. Or so René thought.
In the car park, a relaxed Urban emerged from his camper. 310 miles at his pace, without an impatient companion, suited him fine.
In the end, they called it a draw, agreeing that it was the most entertaining return trip ever from the EWS Finale. Tortoise or hare, it’s all fun when you go your own pace.