Marathon MTB Riding at it’s best: Andalucia Bike Race 2016 part 1

How on earth did I get here?

Back in January, I got invited to do the Andalucia Bike Race (ABR) courtesy of Bike Radar and Canyon Bikes. Of course, without hesitation or actually thinking in depth about what it involved, I said ‘yes’.  All expenses paid trip to Spain to go mountain biking on a top spec bike, who would say no to that, right? Not me!

Let’s rewind a bit…November 2014 I got organised for once and did a pre-entry for the first round of the Scott MTB Marathon Series (great rides for all the family, if you ever fancy it) and entered a competition to get the following sweet prize:

Like a lot of people, you think nothing of it, don’t expect to win and forget about it. Only this time I did win, oh yeah!

My 5 minutes of magazine fame!

What a great experience that was. 5 cracking rides of about 75km’s across Wales and England, which I loved.  At a later date I may divulge some more of that series’ highlights, but not right now! This whole series gave me experience in riding longer distances, but also a taste of writing articles, maybe this is what prompted the lovely guys at Bike Radar to think of me for this ‘Horse for the Course’ article that entailed seeing if the Canyon Exceed CF SLX 9.9 Pro Race, could handle the ABR 6 stage race. I wasn’t worried about the bike handling the race, but what about me! This was a step up from anything I had done previously, but I wasn’t going to let it pass me by.

If you’re like me, you may not have even heard of the ABR, so here’s a brief lo-down of what it entails:

  • Location: Andalusia region of Spain; Jaén & Córdoba
  • Race: 6 day mtb pairs stage race staying within 2 minutes at the timing gates of your team mate
  • Terrain: Mixed; Road, wide fire tracks, challenging climbs, dry & dusty flowing single track and rocky, rooty technical descents
  • Total distance: 443km
  • Total Ascent: 11,658m

Let me state, my previous experience is a couple of 12 hour solo races, and a handful of MTB Marathons, not a great basis for attempting a multi-day race in foreign lands, but there’s no fun in keeping life too easy. One good thing was that I had to find a partner and thankfully after a quick scout about I found someone who just couldn’t say no and who actually made the experience a whole heap of fun! We both now had 6 weeks to cram in as much training as possible, simply nuts! I learnt to love my turbo trainer with hill climb and endurance sessions, oh and I even did my first hundred miler on the road bike, but that was about it, would it be enough. I had absolutely no idea!

Stepping into the unknown

Packing for a trip that I knew very little about was interesting, some kit was provided by Canyon and Mavic, but didn’t know if it would be enough, so chucked in a random IMG_0664selection  of my own cycling stuff. I didn’t know really what the weather was like and maybe naively packed a bit too much like a summer holiday, it wasn’t that warm! I also knew using energy product your body is used to is essential, so stuffed in loads of Torq powder and gels hoping they got through customs (thankfully it was seamless). That and the essential English tea bags and I was set, I hoped!

The adventure begins! We got to finally see the bikes we were going to ride for the week on the morning of the first stage. Oh my word, the bike was probably the lightest mountain bike I have ever got my hands on, (there’ll be a review of the bike following shortly). A very quick set up of the bike and we headed to the start arena, where we waited with eager anticipation for our start time to come around. We watched several pairs sprint out of the start, both looked at each other and said ‘we’re not doing that right, let’s just keep a steady pace’. Baring in mind this is the first time we had ridden together as well and the first day of 6.

Number 155 was on the bike along with the stage profile that gave you the distance and all the climbing, not sure I wanted to look too much at that, thank you! Dressed in our Canyon kit, we may have looked the part, but inside I was just an excited kid on a cool adventure bike ride! Our time to shine was 13:50 and we actually led the way for our category; Masters 30. The amount of women entering into mountain bike racing is still massively low, but it is slowly growing. There was only 17 womens’ pairs in total and just 5 of them in ours which was new for 2016, perfect timing! Not really knowing anything about the stage, the bike or how we would fair, we set no time to complete it in and set out to have fun and just finish.

My trusted steed, the Canyon Exceed CF SLX Pro Race, boom!

Stage one: Time trial: 49.95km with 1409m of ascent

Stage 1 route, no clue what was ahead!

Heart racing, crowds cheering, it was go, go go. A flat section to start and with 30 seconds between each pair we were quickly caught, as we weren’t racing! It quickly started the first 600m climb, for those who know me I’m not

What we had to look, a whole load of climbing!

one to shy away from a good climbing challenge, but here a climb lasts a little longer and gets a tad steeper, but I would give ’em a good go! It started nice and steady, giving us a false sense of security that it would be steady on day one. Oh how wrong we were, after 10 minutes on a gravel track I was feeling good, but then it diverted off onto a steep, rocky single track sec
tion. If I had a smaller chainring than a 32 tooth it could have been a clean climb, but one section where it just went that bit steeper I stalled on a rock and had to admit defeat and walk until it thankfully got a little (only a little) easier. The climbing was not over though, nope the track carved up the side of the mountain with several switchbacks until eventually it levelled out and we could catch our breath and check out the view; miles and miles of olive trees!

Olive Trees, absolutely surrounded!

Not a great start…

As for what happened next I could blame the bike, so I will, but it was probably was down to rider error. This fail was something I then had to carry with me for the rest of the week. I find I rarely crash on the technical singletrack descents probably because I’m concentrating a bit more and going slightly slower, but it’s on the wide open, gravel downhills that I have had several sketchy moments and this was no exception. It was fast and loose and coming into the first corner. I turned, grabbed a bit of brake to scrub some speed and found myself in a matter of seconds literally eating stones, OUCH! The bike had washed out slamming me to the ground, first my knee and then my face. Spitting out blood and stones I thought it was game over, but to my amazement all teeth were intact, nothing broken and bike was fine. I just had a deep cut above my upper lip, deep grazes on my knee and knuckles and a sore thumb.

It looks a whole lot worse than it was, thankfully, don’t get me wrong it hurt, but it wasn’t enough to stop me carrying on. There was a medic at the first timing zone, so after about 20 minutes getting patched up and watching all the ladies in our category and the elites ride pass us by, we set off again. I was now over cautious, my confidence on the bike was knocked massively and I was feeling a bit shaky and sore with every pedal stroke, but hey ho, just keep going!

There was more descending to do and I found that really tough as it wasn’t easy. You knew there was something interesting coming up when suddenly  a crowd appears in the wood, not really what I wanted and not seeing a clear line down the loose and rocky section I wimped out and attempted to walk down (definitely would have been easier to ride). I got a mix of, I’m assuming Spanish encouragement and then the universal point and ‘aaawww’ when they saw that I had an off! Unlike the relatively short descents in the UK, these seem to just go on and on! After a quick minute of recovery on a gravel track it abruptly turned off again heading onto further single track. For some it was probably the most interesting and fun part of the stage, but for me the ‘good feeling’ had gone and I just wanted to get back. I was not vibing with the bike and just hanging on (being used to riding 650b full suss bikes this was a big change) and after walking another section of steep rock it finally got easier and smoother giving me a bit of a break.

It may be strange to say I was happy to see it was time to climb, much to the demise of Sara who is more suited to fast paced flat and gnarly downhill, bit of a beast on the descents and great to follow down a trail! Typically no climb was the same and this was no exception, it moved from smooth tarmac to a traditional cobbled street that was pretty steep that went on for about 300m. That wasn’t the end either it continued to ascend up into the Olive tree fields where a vague route with intermittent arrows weaved through the endless amount of olive trees, just so many! After a quick stop at the feed station with the brightly coloured Blue Power Aid (glad I had my own stuff!). We were on the home stretch and knowing it was all flat, I could relax a little bit and just spin it out to the end.

Sally Bigham on the stage one climb, my inspiration, plus we share the same name!

Phew, day one over, another trip to the medic to properly clean out my wounds with some excruciatingly painful spray ( I screamed the  ambulance down, thankfully it was sound proofed!). They said, ‘if it doesn’t sting like crazy, it’s not doing any good’. My knee was already beginning to seize up and I knew it would probably be worse in the morning, making the next day even harder than it already was. We got chauffeured back to the hotel (loving the pro treatment), showered, reflect on the day and then headed down to pile our plates up at the evening buffet (guilt free excessive eating!), then to bed.

Well,what an introduction to stage racing, not one I want to repeat, but one that I have definitely learned a few valuable lessons in a short few hours

  1. Ride a bike that you have ridden for more than 10 minutes round a smooth hanger so you notice small things like THE BRAKES BEING THE WRONG WAY ROUND!!! (I’ll blame this and the tyres for my crash!)
  2. Advisable if you get the chance to ride the bike on a section of the trail so you know what’s involved and set tyre pressure accordingly, not going with a ‘yeah that’ll do!’
  3. It only takes a silly moment and you could be down and out, so better to be a little cautious on the descents as you can make more time up on the climb, so don’t be stupid!

What a day, what a start we came last in our category with 3 hours 14. However this was only 20 minutes behind the leaders, anything could happen (Etape 1) and still 5 days to go. Things could only get better as well as harder!

To be continued…










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