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Going over the top on a bicycle

  • Story Highlights
  • Bike riders will climb three times height of Everest in race
  • TransAlp passes through four countries in eight days
  • Up to 1,100 riders expected to compete for $27,000 in prize money
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By CNN's Barry Neild
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- In a small town in Germany this month, 1,100 people dressed with complete disregard for fashion will climb aboard a fleet of finely tuned bicycles and begin riding south.

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The TransAlp crosses four European countries and covers more than 600 kilometers.

Not content with a couple of hours in the saddle, most will continue pedaling high into the hills, then higher into the mountains and, eventually, higher still into the snow-capped peaks where even eagles don't dare.

In fact, if everything goes well, all 1,100 will keep on riding for eight days, traversing the entire Alpine mountain range through four European countries, covering roughly 600 kilometers (375 miles) climbing 19,500 meters (65,000 feet) and eating several times their own bodyweight in pasta and interesting regional cheeses.

Welcome to the Jeantex TransAlp, an annual mountain bike race whose claim of being one of the world's toughest is unlikely to be disputed by the riders who cross the finish line on the shores of Italy's Lake Garda to dunk battered backsides in cool waters amid hissing clouds of steam.

To assume only complete idiots would attempt such a journey is wrong. With $27,000 in prize money up for grabs, many are seasoned professionals whose bulging legs are more than a match for slopes so steep even the goats stay roped together.

The rest will be enthusiastic amateurs, competing just for the thrill of riding through some of the world's most spectacular scenery and the achievement of completing such a monumental voyage in one piece.

In all likelihood, there will only be one idiot at the starting line on July 14 in the Bavarian town of Mittenwald: A man who until six months ago had never sat astride a mountain bike, let alone ridden one up the equivalent of three Mount Everests wearing a pair of embarrassing Lycra shorts. Me.

I do like riding bicycles. I like riding them to the shop to buy a newspaper, then riding them home to read it, preferably in bed. In summer, I sometimes even ride my bike to work. Often, if the following summer is nice, I'll ride it home.

This has been a pleasant, if somewhat lazy state of affairs for a while, but with the long distance runner's fitness I enjoyed a couple of years ago fast fading to flab, it clearly needed some kind of shake-up.

When a friend last winter suggested joining him on the TransAlp, I initially scoffed at the idea.

That night I also scoffed a large and extremely fattening Indian meal and several glasses of beer. Noticing my fleshy and unhealthy face in a mirror shortly afterwards, I enthusiastically and perhaps rather drunkenly changed my mind.

In the cold, sober light of a December morning, this decision had unpleasant consequences. The first was financial: In London, to buy a bike capable of crossing the Alps, you face shelling out at least $2,000.

Then there's the weather. While summer in the Alps is usually dry and hot, winter in Britain is cold, wet and muddy. Whether due to global warming or just meteorological whimsy, this year's spring and summer in Britain have also been cold, wet and muddy.

Faced with these prospects, I nearly fell at the first hurdle and was only persuaded against abandoning the idea by the prospect of owning one of the gleaming new machines in Cycle Surgery, my local bike shop, and by the shop staff themselves who were extremely encouraging -- a fact I hope was not linked to the vast amount of money I was about to part with.

For gadget fiends, modern mountain bikes are, until they're covered in mud, delights to behold. Hi-tech disc brakes to stop in all weathers, splashy suspension systems that iron out the rocks and an arsenal of gears with which to battle the hills.

After drooling for hours over the various makes and models, I chose my weapon. For those who know about these things, it is a Specialized Stumpjumper Comp XC hardtail. For those who don't, it's a black bike with straight handlebars.

Luke, the knowledgeable cycle mechanic who helped me make my choice and managed not to laugh when he asked my weight to adjust the suspension, gave me ominous words of wisdom as I wobbled out of the door into a freezing shower of sleet.

"It's a tough race, but you can do it," he said, looking gleefully at the leaden sky. "But only if you start training right now."

I bought a paper on the way home, and went straight to bed.

Next report: Training for the TransAlp E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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