Words by Alex Jacobson (@alex_a_jacobson)
In a world where the “big” bikepacking ultras have been canceled, most of us have been left looking into our local communities for events to fill the void. Sure, 2020 may have shut some doors, but it’s left us exploring our own backyards, which are often every bit as good. And so turned out to be the case with A-cross the 3, a bikepacking event pretty much smack dab in the heart of Europe. With 485 kilometers, 10,000 meters of climbing (11,000+ according to Strava), and just 72 hours, it’s a very real challenge. If just finishing isn’t hard enough, there are plenty of experts on board who are sure to detract from any kind of sleep schedule and give A-cross the 3 that extra bit of competition.
As is typical for me, the count down to the race was as pronounced by the coming of bad weather as it was by the 1:00 PM start time. The day the race started, the weather dropped throughout Europe by 15°C (59°F), followed shortly thereafter by the rain. I thought about not setting my alarm and letting the sounds of the coming rain wake me, but all of that would be in vain as my fiancé Christina always manages to get me first. Waking up in my own bed and driving just three hours to the start was in itself new to me, and in comparison with packing a bike to fly somewhere, very chill. I made it to Eupen, Belgium (the start and finish), just in time for race registration and to receive my bag full of goodies provided by the race organization and sponsors. Included was a liter of beer by which I was tempted, but with the help of the almighty I managed restrain. I had a look around to see if there were any takers and sure enough, there were. After all, this is bikepacking.
Rather than a grand depart, we were left adrift with a COVID-friendly, socially distanced start. It wasn’t long thereafter I was saying high and waving bye to the friends I had meet at other events around the world and the new friends I would gain from this one. The initial impressions from the first 60 kilometers of trail, landscape, and resupply give a strong indication of what the race is about. For a race located in Western Europe, I was incredibly happy to have the feeling I was somewhere remote—a real feeling of bikepacking.
The route is more or less a patchwork of forests laid out like a quilt that someone has cleverly managed to draw a line connecting all the green squares on in a big circular loop. There are only a handful of resupply locations close to the route and just a couple actually on route, which adds to the strategy and art of the race. I found the trail itself well balanced in the amount of enjoyable riding, challenging riding, hike-a-bike, and WTF am I riding riding to help occupy my mind. One would be wise to keep in mind this is not a gravel bike race, but a 29er with front suspension kind of race. I survived on a rigid but my arms and hands held a persuasive debate with my legs for whom I should feel more pity.
Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium are all very beautiful places to ride and the route covers some of the finer areas of the three countries. It’s full of lush forests, streams and lakes, rolling hills, and plenty of wildlife to keep the eyes occupied. Lacking a degree in botany and/or geology I could likely only identify the country I am in based on the following: Germany has big hills, Luxembourg has singletrack and hike-a bike-hills, and Belgium has hills that feel as big as Germany but somehow don’t add up as fast on the Garmin.
As for me, I set out with the intention of riding the full course without sleep. An ambitious plan but nevertheless I knew if I managed I would feel that strong sense of achievement I might otherwise get from a longer and more demanding race. I’ve been fortunate in the work from home COVID world, which as left me with a bit more time to train, and thanks to my training partner Jens I felt like I had the physical fitness to match the mental. Off the start I made sure to stay out of the red zone and by nightfall seven hours later I could feel the glucose depletion kick as I watched my heart rate start to drop.
I had one time goal: make it to the halfway mark in Esch-sur-Sûre for breakfast, which I managed to do. I had an easy two pizza/several coffee breakfast and resupply before I set off on the return. While the first night was rather easy and fun, by about the 28 hour mark the type 3 fun (not at all fun now but fun in 1 year’s time) kicked in. I managed to stay motivated as there were two strong riders chasing, but around midnight I made the mistake of checking the tracker to find they had stopped, later learning it was to get some relief from the rain.
As I lost that extra bit of motivation, Einstein’s theory of slowing down time by riding a bike for 35 hours held up to my scrutiny as every kilometer became 10. Plants started to take the shape of animals, and trees and rocks of luxurious sleeping spots. At 4:00 AM, just under 39 hours later, I managed to arrive at the finish, welcomed by a warm greeting from race organizer Berten. In my glorious celebration I was offered a warm shower, which I was forced to decline for an even more extravagant reward: five minutes later I was asleep in the back seat of my car.
Alex Jacobson finished in first place with a finish time of 1 day, 15 hours, 2 minutes. Guido Dreesen and Manu Cattrysse tied for second with a time of 1 day, 18 hours, 55 minutes. Femke van Kessel was the first woman to finish with a time of 2 days, 7 hours, 55 minutes, followed by Anne De Smet at 2 days, 23 hours, 55 minutes. Next year’s A-Cross the 3 is scheduled for April 28th, 2021—keep an eye on the events calendar for more details.
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