In 2017, the BIKE Transalp is taking place for the 20th time. It's an anniversary which has to be celebrated. In this interview, Transalp inventor Uli Stanciu recalls how things got started and which hurdles he had to clear to get the first mountain bike stage race – simply the original – underway.
When did you have the idea to make an actual event out of the – back then – still young mountain bike Transalp idea?
Uli Stanciu: It was back in 1994. Until then I had annually done one Transalp expedition, and I had always reported about them in the BIKE Magazin, mostly as photo stories. Our readers were excited and wanted to get more details on the route. Therefore, we decided to write a road book in 1993 which was planned to be published in the the magazine. But in the end, we had more than 30 pages of tables. It was impossible to get those printed. As a result, we placed a little info box in the story asking all readers who are interested in the road book to send a postcard.
Well, we didn't expect such a run demand. We received 4,500 requests within the first week. My assistant Anette and me, we were both totally swamped. But I new one thing: this new holiday idea called Transalp definitely stroke. And I asked myself, why don't we do an event, some sort of fun run or race...?
How did the first ideas for such an event look like?
Uli Stanciu: Well, from 1994 until 1997 I played with all kind of ideas. I didn't have any kind of experience. I had been at many bike events before but never played the role as a host. Besides that, I had my work cut out already being the editor-in-chief of the BIKE Magazin which came out on a monthly base.
But in the spring of 1997, at the World Cup in Napa Valley, CA, I met Wolfgang Renner, the boss of Centurion and I talked about my idea of an orientation race during our dinner: Transalp – participants meet in Mittenwald, receive their road books which will help them finding the right route; everything on their own responsibility and without any further organisation.
Back then, I didn't believe that I would get all the necessary permissions to run an actual race. As a result, we had planned 20 turn points which every one would have had to pass and get a stamp at on their way to Riva.
Those who would be in Riva early would have to wait for the rest; which is, in fact, no penalty in Riva del Garda.
When Renner heard of this concept he said: “Uli, if you do this race, I'm your first sponsor.” I asked: “How much?” He replied: “25,000 Mark.” That was the actual starting signal as the funding of such an event has always been a crucial factor.
So, what was next? Which hurdles did you have to take? Who had to be convinced?
Uli Stanciu: When I came back from the US, I sat together with Heini Albrecht, CEO of the event agency which was organising our BIKE Festival back in the days. He was also hooked right away.
I then wrote the concept over summer with the main idea of a team race as you shouldn't do any kind of things on your own which could be close to being dangerous – diving, climbing, crossing the Alps on a mountain bike. I couldn't think of a medic support for the whole course of the race as we do have it nowadays. I liked the idea that you have a partner who is able to help you or call for help in case you need it.
In the BIKE November issue of 1997 we did the first announcement and immediately had 250 teams of two ready to go; 500 participants. That was my goal at first hand. However, the publishing company was pretty sceptic: “We are a publishing house and not an event organiser.” I used all powers of persuasion, outlined that an event like this would cement the relationship of reader and magazine, that we should deliver true experiences and not only printed papers and that the BIKE Magazin could gain a worldwide attention for this step. In the end, my publisher agreed to let it happen.
However, I had to get rid of the initial idea of an orientation race soon after Hubert Schwarz, an extreme mountain biker who had pedalled around the world in 80 days, had called me saying that he would ride without any break, at day and night, aiming to make it to Riva in 48 hours.
At first, I was impressed but then I thought that such a well-experienced athlete might be able to do it but what happens if an 18 year-old kid tries to equal him and gets stuck in a storm at night time and dies... No matter how many disclaimer this kid might have signed, his mother would for sure blame me. That's when I knew that we have to do a stage race.
Who have been the most important companions of the first ever Transalp?
Uli Stanciu: For sure Heini Albrecht. When we decided to go for a stage race in January 1998, he organised a meeting with Tirol Werbung as I had the most concerns going through Tyrol. Would we get the permission of the land owners, etc.?
In Innsbruck, we presented the idea to Luis Thurner, who was the Head of Marketing back then. Against all expectations he almost hugged me saying: “This is the idea we all have been waiting for. Right now, Tyrol is only a transit country as everyone is driving further south to Lake Garda. But with this race we get the chance to show that we have some really cool mountain bike tracks as well.” I was asking for permissions and he answered: “Consider it done.”
That was it, I specified the stage towns, visited one after the other. I got a lot of support by my friend Paolo Zontini, an hotelier from Riva, Franz Call, an hotelier from St. Vigil as well as by Giovanna Dorigati, Tourism Director Folgaria back in the days and my wife now. They all understood what the Transalp was all about and helped making it possible.
Why did it finally kick off in 1998? Did you have enough time for the planning or was it a shot in the blue?
Uli Stanciu: We were able to start with the fine tuning as soon as we had agreed on a stage race and had the confirmation of all stage towns. I had the route in my head, but I never had rode it before like this. It was my goal to put together the best parts of all Transalp trips I had done so far. So, I decided to pedal the route in June, only six weeks ahead of the actual race start – together with sponsor Wolfgang Renner and Karen Eller as a photo model. Karen did win the race a few times later on.
During this trip, I finalised the road book and also determined where to place the feed zones. Then, everything had to be organised pretty fast, especially the race organisation, the instruction of the team, the support of our sponsors, especially adidas, the first ever title sponsor.
When did the registration kick off and how many teams finally started?
Uli Stanciu: The registration was a fast-selling item. We had the 500 participants, the number we were aiming for, in a short amount of time. Despite the fact that you couldn't just register but you had to actually apply for the team entry. We were aiming for the really tough ones as only the strong survive.
A little anecdote: We did print 500 road books knowing that the fastest teams would definitely not take the time to check the route at every crossing. So, I decided to take a motor cross machine and mark the route with green coloured arrows, green coloured Transalp letters etc. I always started some 15 minutes ahead of the field.
From my experience, I knew how long it would take up to the Karwendel Haus. I thought that the fastest guys would be a bit faster. So, I took some time and did spray a lot. When I was at the Hochalm saddle, I turned around and saw the first riders coming. Half an hour earlier than I expected them to arrive. I was stunned by how fast Ekki Doerschlag and Sigi Hochenwarter were riding. I jumped on my bike and stormed down to Ahornboden but they were faster than me. As a result, I couldn't mark the route for them. I managed to pass them again in the climb to Plumsjoch but down in Achensee they had passed me again while I was spraying an arrow. I then lost contact with them until the finish in Weerberg which they had reached on the normal road because they didn't had checked the road book for the actual route. They got a penalty but in the end, it was a lesson for me.
What was the feedback of the first ever Transalp participants?
Uli Stanciu: What was special about the Transalp was the team concept. It was brand new. Nobody had an idea of what to expect, and to be perfectly honest, me neither. But the route was nice and the organisation perfect. It definitely surpassed all of my expectation and the ones of the participants.
I still recall the evening of stage three in St. Vigil as if it was yesterday. Our speaker Mike Hamel had played AC/DC's “Highway to hell” and then asked the audience how they like the Transalp. And the participants went nuts: there was howling, dancing with glee with some jumping on the table and clapping their hands with the music. It was a sense of unity. It gave me a chill. This common sense of happiness remained until Riva where finishers clasp in each others arms, some with tears in their eyes. And I was thinking: a Transalp doesn't cost much but makes you pretty rich.
How much of this adventurer spirit is still there and what has changed?
Uli Stanciu: The team character is still essential for the success of the Transalp. Although I brought it up due to safety reasons at first place it was emerging at the inaugural edition right away that this would lead to an unique atmosphere. In all other races, every competitor is your rival, at Transalp you have a partner, a friend. You win together, you lose together. You share a lot of experiences – that was brand new. Maybe that's why this concept got copied all over the world, and that makes me proud. Only good ideas get copied.
On the other hand, this pioneering spirit isn't there anymore. Every team knows what to expect since the race has been around for 20 years now. And you cannot really reinvent the wheel. However, the routes are still beautiful, the experience is still outstanding and so is the sense of unity.
And what will always remain is this special Transalp feeling which is so different compared to all other races. We are conquering the Alps, this huge barrier in the middle of Europe, only with sheer muscular strength – just like the Romans did back in the days. Traversing a mountain range from the cool North to the warmer South on a route you don't know when getting up in the morning, that's the adventure of the BIKE Transalp.