There are only a handful of truly epic multi-day mountain bike races in the world: the TransRockies Challenge in B.C., La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica, the Cape Epic in South Africa, and, the granddaddy of them all, the annual TransAlp Challenge.
The TransAlp Challenge was the first real epic, and though it has inspired countless other events it remains the most difficult as teams of two riders work together to complete a 700 km route through the Alps of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy over eight hard days. This year teams will climb and descend over 18 different mountain passes with a total vertical of 22,000 metres (72,000 feet), with the highest pass at an altitude of over 3,000 metres.
In terms of vertical gain that’s the equivalent of biking from sea level to the top of Mount Everest twice, then following up with a bike up to the Roundhouse Lodge.
The course does change slightly from year to year, and according to Thomas the 2006 route is most similar to the course from 2004 with some almost identical stages. Thomas has raced in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005.
With that experience to build on Thomas is hoping to complete a few stages in the top-20 or top-25, mainly on the strength of his technical skills.
"(Past teammate) Ryan (Watts) and I attained a few top 25 stages in the past and I think it’s doable again. With a little luck we’ll have a top-20 this year," he said.
"I’m definitely better later in the week – it’s a little more technical and other riders are getting tired. It just comes from knowing how to pace early on and being aware of what I’m capable of. I’m not the best climber, but I know I can pass people on the flats and on the downhill sections."
Thomas says he considers the TransAlp Challenge to be more of a "sadistic annual vacation" than a race, given that some of the top World Cup mountain bike and road riders are in the field each year, as well as past Tour de France racers. Thomas says he has been in the top-10 before on stages after a technical descent, only to have to the top riders pass him on the uphill like he is standing still. "It’s really pretty amazing how fast the top guys can climb," he said. "You want to do better every year, but when you see who you’re up against it takes away the sting."
His partner in the 2006 race is Tracy Anderson, a doctor from Sun Valley, Idaho. Thomas met Anderson at the 2004 TransAlp Challenge, and believes they will be a good match with similar strengths. Both riders have to start and finish each stage together, and can never be separated by more than two minutes at each checkpoint.