Thursday 25 February 2016

ABR - The survival stage

It’s never going to be a good day when you’re on the first climb at 15km and your mantra is “just get through it”. There wasn’t even a suggestion of racing today from either of us. Not that we’d said that, we just knew. Not that either of us felt bad or couldn’t have raced, somehow, we just didn’t want to, it was all about getting to the end.

The trails were what has now become the norm – steep uphills and miles of swoopy singletrack. I got shouted at by a Spanish guy at one point for jumping a queue to get through a gate. How dare he! Doesn’t he know the British invented queuing etiquette?!

At Feed Zone 2 Sally told me she’d caught the leading pair and they’d darted off in a panic, they were three minutes ahead now. We both just shrugged. With 20km to go (again!) we caught them up and the conversation went along the lines of: “It’s them.” “Aw, really?!” “Yup.” “I’m not playing, I’m not doing it.” “Me neither.” “I’m stopping to take some photos.” “Good idea.” And that’s what we did, it was a lovely day with a lovely view.

At feed zone 3 I had some Power Bar Power Shot cubes and clearly the sugar rush was enough to make me go a bit loopy for 5 minutes. I had a very entertaining conversation with myself while giving a running commentary on the course. I think the week of exertion might finally be getting to me.

The last 10km was the same as yesterday and we were glad we hadn’t put the effort in to chase. When faced with the option of chasing hard and busting our backsides to come second again, or chilling out, taking some photos and enjoying ourselves to still get second, the latter option was by far the best choice. It is a holiday after all and today was filled which much witty banter and laughter. (And as it turns out, we were only six minutes behind them at the end.) Andalucia Bike Race stage 5 results are here.

So as a quick recap before the final day: Stage 1 – 5th/last after Sally had a big crash and we lost about 20 minutes. Stage 2 – 3rd having not had a great day but moved into 3rd overall. Stage 3 – 2nd after a sprint finish, still 3rd overall. Stage 4 – 2nd again after a 20km chase for first, moved into 2nd overall. Stage 5 – 2nd again, not really racing today, 2nd overall and a comfortable lead over 3rd. Overall standings after Stage 5 of ABR 2016 are here.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

ABR - The longest day

Life has now become about three things: eating, drinking and riding bikes. Sleep and rest might also sneak in but nothing else matters. I’m at that point where having three platefuls of breakfast knowing I’m going to be riding for 5-6 hours that day is totally normal; anyone who has ever done a stage race will know what I mean. And you also find yourself saying things like “just 40km to go”, “this climb only goes up to 700m” and “there’s a couple of big climbs and the rest are less than 3km long”.

At 90km today was the longest stage of the week and also took us past the half way point in terms of distance – finally! The start in Cordoba was incredible, in amongst the Roman temples, theatres and ruins. We started next to the river and headed across the old Roman bridge on a very twisting and dangerous 5km run out of town and onto the Cordoba estate.

Needless to say the countryside was gorgeous, views amazing and more ancient ruins were scattered around. The riding was also brilliant. Anyone thinking of going on a mountain bike holiday to Spain should really come to Andalucia – there are miles and miles of beautiful, buff, flowing, rocky, rooty, steep singletrack that seems to go on forever! I’m sure our race route is just scratching the surface and it definitely deserves a repeat visit. A proper holiday next time.

Today also gave me a new contender for my ‘most unfun things I’ve ever done on a bike’ list: the old railway line. I don’t mean some polished, flattened, landscaped old railway line that Sustrans have as part of their enormous National Cycle Route network. Oh no, I mean 2km of actual ‘old railway line’ with sleepers, tracks, stone infill and all, just abandoned. If you’ve never ridden a bike along an actual railway line it’s quite hard to imagine how uncomfortable, bumpy and awful it really is. Go try it some time.

After 50km we were ticking along just wanting to get through the day, until the inevitable happened and with 20km to go we caught up first place. From here the route pretty much climbed for 9km and ended with a 6km downhill. There was no way I’d stay with them on the climb so I told Sally to take the climb and descent at her own pace and I’d catch her/them up towards the finish; a gutsy plan knowing the level of rocky trails we’d been riding all day, but I was confident.

Now it’s probably appropriate here to point out that the first time I ever rode the Canyon Exceed CF SLX I’ve been using as my race bike was during the first stage on Sunday. I’ve only ridden a 29er half a dozen times, I’ve never ridden the Rock Shox RS1 fork and there are a number of other components that are new to me, including SRAM XX1. So I’m sure it’s testament to the bike’s ability and my new favourite suspension fork that I actually made it down in one piece.

I’d been using the lazy ‘point and shoot’ technique all day (the one where you don’t pick a line you just go straight and hang on) and now was no different. I hit everything full on, fingers off the brakes as much as possible just letting the bike roll and suck up every rock, drop, jump and lump that was in my way. “Sketchy” would be an understatement, “on the edge” more like it and I’d definitely throw in “hooning” because I like the sound of it. Arm/wrist pump didn’t take too long to set in and with the lack of strength in my right hand it was an effort just to hold the bars – turns out faster equals smoother due to less time on the ground. Bonus!

I managed to make up about three minutes and caught up the others as we turned onto a flatter gravel track. Sally had nothing left and with the few minor uphills we had to the finish, and the fact the leading pair were riding in with a group of mates, I just couldn’t close the gap no matter how hard I pushed. Their winning margin was just a couple of corners through the finish area, 31 seconds. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow…

Tuesday 23 February 2016

ABR - The sprint finish

Today should have been a slightly easier day although it’s funny how quickly your perspective changes during these events. It’s rare to call 72km of off-road with 1,800m of climbing ‘easy’ but compared to yesterday, it should have been.

I knew something was up quite early on as ‘things’ just weren’t feeling right; my shorts weren’t comfy, my vest was riding up, I forgot to put my heart rate monitor on. Nothing was flowing. And to cap it all my right thumb had lost all strength and I was unable to grab clothing, open gel packets or (more importantly) push a gear lever with ease.

The start was another mass panic through town and out across the fields, followed by lots of walking down into little gullies to cross a stream and then walking up out the other side. This was not the flattish first 20km I had expected and my legs just weren’t there. The whole day I had nothing, no real feeling of getting going, I was just going through the motions with my heart rate hardly getting about 160bpm.

Even steeper than it looks
The real kicker came around 55km and the big climb which, although fire road, loomed over the valley and looked almost vertical at the top. It was tough but at least the summit marked the start of the last descent. As I reached it, Sally was waiting for it and happened to mention she’d caught the pair who were probably in second place, they were only about 8 minutes ahead. Hmmm, 14km to go, mostly descent, 8 minutes gap, never going to happen, forget about it…

We flew down the final descent like we were invincible. Steering and braking was a thing of the past as we were now confident enough in our ability, and that of the bike that we could just straight line everything and the bike would suck it up. How right we were and much fun was had, despite a few dodgy line choices. Ahem.

Then it happened. As we rejoined the section that had been the first 6km, we spotted the pair in second. Subconsciously I picked up the pace a little bit – well, I’d done nothing all day, it’s not as if I was tired. We soon caught them on the undulating sections and I desperately tried to remember the route home. The 5km to go sign and we were sitting on their wheels. Competitive? Us? Never.

I told Sally to hang back and not go past, save her legs, she might have to tow me home. Down onto the gravel track and they were leading us out. They sat up a bit and eased off. At the next slight descent I went for it and Sally sat on, it took them a while to get up to speed but they soon did and were sat on our wheels. I sat up, knowing we weren’t going to shake them and let Sally come alongside to give her a crash course in race tactics.

At around 2km to go Sally upped the pace and I tucked in behind, keeping an eye on the chasing pair. Soon we were approaching tarmac roads at the edge of town, “make sure we get into the streets first, they’ll be tight in places” I said. My Garmin then said 1km to go and on the closed roads of Andujar I dropped low on the bike and went as hard as I could just hoping Sally was with me. The roads were long and straight for a while, maybe I’d gone too early, better dig in and hope. But then came the last couple of bends and the finish line, we’d done it!

Only metres later all four of us were high fives and hugs, what an awesome way to finish 5 hours of racing. The ladies from the Polar Team were just as happy as we were; who doesn’t like a healthy bit of competition and a good bit of tactical bike racing. Andalucia Bike Race stage 3 results are here.

Monday 22 February 2016

ABR - The big day and the mass start

The mass start
Yesterday was a pleasant time trial start, just me and Sally bumbling down the road at our own pace. Today was the mass start and our category was gridded about a third of the way down the field. When the hooter went the chaos began as hundreds of Masters Men sped past us as we made our way around the narrow, twisting start roads. How ten cyclists fit across one road lane, riding within inches of one another at 20mph+ always astonishes me, considering the varying abilities. Soon the peloton was snaking out in front of us as far as the eye could see; a thousand riders strong, five times the size of the Tour de France.

Then came the inevitable bottle neck on the first climb and from then on it was a constant stream of riders grinding up the hill when gears would allow and walking when the going got tough. After an hour and a considerable amount of hike a bike we were almost at the top of the first climb. Last night we’d decided today would be the ‘hardest day’ at 76km and 2,400m of ascent, topping out at around 1,300 metres twice, so it would be a case of head down and just get through it.

I’d previously joked with a friend that by the end of stage 2 I’d be shattered and at the end of stage 3 I’d be on my knees, sobbing and in need of a hug. With 40km to go I’d already entered the stony cold silent phase, when there’s nothing but emptiness inside; too tired to speak and look up, never mind moan or cry and you just want it to be over. Some might joke this is the point at which people have a sense of humour failure, but really it’s just your body shutting down all non-essential functions such as the need to process human speech, never mind action an appropriate response to witty comments.

Hike a bike
Even the descents were taking their toll – burning glutes, aching arms and weak hands having to grab the brakes with two fingers – a momentary lapse of concentration could lead to disaster. Having not ridden off road since Christmas it’s amazing how quickly your descending techniques come back to you when faced with 10 steep, rocky switchbacks in a row. This is when 20 years of experience of riding a variety of bikes comes in very handy.

The last 10km contained a colourful selection of expletives followed by “this isn’t on the bloody profile” until finally, after almost 6 hours, we reached the finish line and somehow managed a short sprint to make sure we were under the magic 6 (it mattered to us). Done. Well and truly done. One of the hardest days I’ve ever had on a mountain bike.

To our surprise we were met by an organiser telling us we’d actually come third and were needed for the podium in ten minutes – clearly this was met with hysterical laughter and the best high five we could muster which wasn’t very impressive. Stage 2 results for the Andalucia Bike Race are here.