The adventure continues…
One day down, only 5 to go! Waking up after only a few intermittent hours sleep, I felt surprisingly ok, apart from my knee, that had seized up overnight and was pretty tight to move at all, even the steps were a struggle down to breakfast. How was it going to be with repetitive movement on the bike? Simply, it had to be ok, there was no other option, it can heal when I get home! After breakfast it was time to head to the start, make essential adjustments to the bike, now we had a better feel of how they handled and what the terrain was like. This meant switching the brakes over, drastically reducing the tyre pressures (losing about 20psi) and fork pressure (I was now running these lower than the recommended minimal pressure!). Popped my Garmin back on the bars, bottle in the cage and the next stage profile on the back of the number board. We were set. It’s amazing how quickly a routine sets in!
Let’s head into the action of the stages
STAGE 2: 76.53km with 2,631m of ascent
A different start to the race today; mass start, SCARY BEANS! This was going to be the norm for the rest of the week too, not sure I’m a fan, especially when they position all the ladies, just behind the elite men and in front of EVERYONE ELSE, what’s that all about? This is where ‘ladies first’ can shove off! A shuffle forward, a glance around then ‘10, 9, 8…3, 2, 1’ and we were off, My heart rate quickly spiked, internally I was telling myself just to ‘calm down and keep my own pace‘. It’s hard when the average speed is between 30-40km and riders passing you on both sides sneaking into the non-existent gaps to get back in the peloton, absolutely BONKERS.
It was a flat 10km to start, which was ace for me as I wasn’t doing the whole warm up on rollers for 30 minutes before the race, more like tracking down where the toilet was (if there was one). I was feeling quite sluggish to start (it always takes me a while to get into a ride…maybe a warm up is scientifically proven or something, I should try it!). My knee was sore, but after a few km it loosened up and I forgot about it. As soon as we turned off the road to a gravel climb it bottlenecked and came to an abrupt standstill due to the vast number of riders. A quick walk, a short spin on the bike, then onto single track, so ‘hike a bike’ it was for at least 40 minutes up a rocky strewn ascent. This is where the closer you were to the front the more chance you had of actually pedalling, but back with the bunch it was a chance for Sara to take some pics, have a chat with other riders and appreciate having a light bike to carry. Finally the hike ended and we emerged onto a road, the climb wasn’t over though, but now we could get back on the bikes to finally reach the top at 1300m, ready to descend.
It was a gooden too, part of a way-marked, smooth dirt trail with a few cheeky drops and rollers. This was just what I needed to get my confidence back and the bike was handling it so much better than the previous day with the adjustments (small changes do make a difference). There was still congestion on the trails as soon as it had any kind of incline. This was where Sara somehow managed to kick open the ratchet on my shoe as she walked behind me, quite a skill to be fair, bet she couldn’t do it again if she tried! The climbs kept coming, something we were to get used to, I guess! I got ahead of a few riders and managed to actually ride the forest trail for few minutes, but I thought we were coming up to the timing zone so hung on for Sara, but it turned out they had switched the feed zone and time zone. This did however work well as to my surprise I had drunk all my drink (I’m not great at keeping myself hydrated on rides). This meant I was onto the blue Powerade drinks, though in a moment of delusion I chucked my bottle lid in a box of rubbish and for a couple of minutes was wandering around working out where I had put it, not a great sign of being totally with it, but I was alright, honest! Oh and I found my valuable lid, phew that was needed.
We’d broken the back of the climbing for the day, but by no way was it over. The downhill trails on this stage were right up my street, flowing, grippy and smooth, even when they were pretty steep with tasty switchbacks. The bike was on form and handled them with such ease and I felt in control at what felt pretty fast. Whether I got the line right or just straight-lined it the bike handled it with ease. The rest of the route was on fast, smooth roads (good recovery) onto undulating (my word for hilly) tracks, short single track section, finally onto my least favourite terrain, the loose gravel track, fast and sketchy, I was uber cautious, but got through it!
Now with 10km to go unlike other long distance rides I’ve done it’s usually all downhill to the end, but not here. A couple of short, sharp climbs followed by an olive tree slalom onto the uphill finish. We were completely unaware that we had somehow got 3rd place, we were actually shocked when we got called over by one of the organisers to say we needed to be at the podium as soon as possible! Ok, it was in out little bubble of a category, but take nothing away from it, we went the distance, which for the average joe would be a win in itself. Getting a 3rd today, meant the cheeky comments of ‘2nd tomorrow’ was getting mentioned, but ‘we’re not racing!’ This became a comedy saying by the end of the week! Stage 2 done in a time of 5:58:54 (Etape 2), happy with a sub 6 hour ride. A tough stage, but a gooden, already loving the whole vibe of these multi-stage events!
STAGE 3: 72.04km with 1852m of ascent
New location in between the 2 hotels in Andujar, but it didn’t matter because the routine was the same. Get up, stuff your face with food, kit up and go. I now have a nice red ratchet on my right shoe as it snapped off all together at some point on the stage. It was another mass start, which is where we lose time as we don’t sprint with the pack, just go a speed we are comfortable with (we really weren’t racing). The first 20km was on a rough, undulating off-road track with short, sharp climbs and quick steep descents with a couple of water crossings chucked in for good measure. It was a bit stop, start with some tracks safer to walk down to avoid crashing into other riders! It was quite energy zapping, but I seemed to recover quickly and good job too as we were onto the first of the major climbs. As climbs go this was great, yes it was long, but it was steady and gradual so could go at a nice pace and enjoy the views with fewer olive trees over this way. A little spin across the tops in between various farmers fields and nature reserves, then onto an interesting boulder fest of a descent that went on for a good distance. It’s been a while since I have ridden a hardtail, especially on anything rough. It certainly keeps you on your toes!
After the first hour or so and you’ve settled into your own pace you find yourself with the same bunch of riders each day. There was a cracking Irish team who we kept meeting either at the first feed station or pass them on the climb and then catch us up on the descents, sometimes! One big climb, not technical, but tough because of the gradient, kicking steeper as it turned each corner. I love a challenge and this was one of them, I wasn’t going to stop until the top, hitting 180 bpm at one point! It wasn’t over either, diverting off onto a narrow technical track that just went up and up! Half way up this section I caught sight of the Polaris team, currently sitting in 2nd. I decided to stop, before they saw me, so they wouldn’t react to me and let Sara catch up. I mentioned that they were now about 8 minutes ahead, the response I got was ‘Oh, I don’t want to chase them down’ (translated to: ‘we could totally have them!’). We carried on together focusing on our ride and to be honest loving the trails, whoever was ahead. Another sweet, long trail with rocks and tight lines, nothing too steep, but nice and technical. Apparently we are pretty darn good at the descents because as we started the 20km to the finish we spotted the Polaris team again, just ahead. We both had the same thought, the race was on for 2nd, let the chase begin! It was on the same tracks as we used on the way out, so after a few of the short climbs we were on their tale. They kept a good pace so we stayed with them until we hit the road. Sara has been in this situation before so I followed her lead, taking time at the front to push us on, switch and get carried along. Then it was GO TIME! pedal, breathe, push harder…steady round the final corner and sprint for the line, we had them. We had done enough and got them by a second or so. What a rush, I’m no sprinter, but that was exciting and we now stood at 2nd place! What was happening, we’re not competitive!?! (Etape 3) 4:59:38 (General Classification 3).
So, what’s for dinner?
This is so much fun, podium again then jetted to the next hotel. I could definitely get used to this, however being a veggie in Spain is not that great. My evening meals consisted of spaghetti and tomato sauce, mash potato, potato wedges, Spanish omelette and salad. It gets a little hard to stomach day after day and in such vast quantities, but at least I was getting the carbs in! The puddings were amusing to, guessing what they were and seeing peoples reaction when they took the first bite, they certainly don’t do the same rice pudding over there!
STAGE 4: 89.91km with 1,897m of ascent
This was a biggen! In terms of distance it was long, but less climbing, so a walk in the park then! This was as long as we actually get to the new start location. Use Sat Nav with caution or you might get stuck (literally!). It took us through the back lanes, which got narrower and narrower until the car got wedged, ha ha! This left us to walk to the start, to not find the Canyon crewe anywhere near the start. There was now 30 minutes before the start and we finally got tracked down and guided to the bikes on the other side of a very pretty yet long bridge over a wide river. A bit of a mad dash to the start, but we made it with 5 minutes to spare, no problem, phew!
The start of the race was controlled through the city streets, the pace for everyone was slower, a great warm up. As soon as the control car left it was game on, rush to be first onto the narrower canal track, pace increased, dust flying up everywhere and lots of shouting for riders to get past. It turned into a very long train of riders for all the canal track and started to spread out as the climbs came into play. We hit the top and it flowed nicely into some sweet trail, up and down keeping the momentum and speed up, nice.
Then it was onto possibly the WORST section of the entire race, no exaggeration! They decided it would be a good idea to utilise a disused railway line, with sleepers still in place and the gaps filled in with hundreds of big rocks. It wasn’t even a short section, about 3km of the stuff! I would say that no bike would have made it enjoyable, but some more bearable than others, tackling the continuous pummelling, going over every rock and over each sleeper was horrible and flipping exhausting. There was a sigh of relief when it was over, steep climbs were better than that, which is what came next. It didn’t go on too long, thankfully and then began dropping firstly on narrow, twisty mud tracks with sneaky slab drops to river crossings and rocky steep climbs up the other side. This certainly kept me engaged and it all happened before I thought too much about it, which I know is where I hesitate and bale, but I rode it all through, well chuffed!
A relaxing and fast road descent took us into the final 20km where we caught sight of the ladies in first place! WHAT’S GOING ON, how are we getting faster or are they tiring? We hung back, but they spotted us and increased there pace, rallied some of the Spanish riders around them and started to break away. I managed to catch up and stay with them up the pretty testing and relentless off-road climb, starting on tight turning trail onto a wider yet steeper rock strewn dusty track and they just kept pushing (they were to tough cookies). I didn’t continue to push and gave myself a chance to recover and stick to my pace especially as having already done this climb on the previous stage I knew how long it went on for, it was tough. I had left Sara behind at this point, but I knew she would give it beans on the descent and catch us all up just before the last few km. It was a very rocky, but faster was easier and though hard to spot it did have some lines to lead you down a bit smoother.
Trying to chase people down, definitely put’s a speed boost into getting down, well it did for me, it felt fast. I caught up to the 2nd rider of the pair and passed her only to misread the arrows and diverted right too early allowing them to pass again! (very annoying!). At this point Sara had caught up, we had 5km to go on the flat, but with the Spanish having riders supporting them and blocking the wind they had an easier road to the finish, whereas we were on our own. I’d given a lot on the previous climb and I’m not great at pushing on the flat and felt the fatigue in my legs. It was clear they had just pipped us to it so we relaxed into the finish. We crossed the line 29 seconds after them. We had however, moved up to 2nd in the overall standing as the Polar team had a rough day and lost a lot of time. Another podium finish then! (Etape 4) 5:33:36 (General Classification 4). My mind did wonder whether we could win a stage, but not knowing the area or the number of things that could happen within the stage I pushed it to the back of my mind and just wanted to enjoy the whole experience, come what may!
STAGE 5: 82.62km with 2,080m of ascent
The last two stages were starting and finishing at the same locations and in fact using some of the same trails as stage 4. It was nice to know some of what we’d be riding, but negative when you knew when a climb was coming up! The temperature was a little milder, which meant cold feet for me! The same start through the town onto the canal track at a quicker pace than the previous day, I guess riders knew the trail. It then to my delight led us onto a road climb, right in my comfort zone, yes it was long, but at a good pace it went quickly passing some of the elite women riders was quite satisfying as well as the 1st place team, but it was early days and Sara was further back (not much mind!). I didn’t pass enough riders before it headed onto the narrow trail, so it quickly bottle necked and went to a standstill as we filed from 8 wide to 2. Some tried to sneak around the side, but a lot of unhappy groans and ‘eh, eh, eh’ went on. I continued on when we finally got back riding and headed to the first feed station, to wait for Sara, where I saw Mark from the Irish duo, who kindly mentioned that the 1st place ladies only just left, cheers for that!
It was a nice gradual climb now on fire roads that both of us appreciated and kept a good pace to the tops to enjoy views over the forest/park lands. We headed back onto familiar tracks as the previous stage. I went ahead as I seem to shift into one pace for climbing that I find hard to slow down or in fact speed up! I turned a corner and unfortunately saw 1st place ladies again with 40km to go, but had no plan to chase or catch up so stayed behind. I heard them say ‘just one’ in Spanish and I guess they weren’t as threatened by just me!
I rolled into feed station 2 with them, but as they got handed a fresh bottle by there support crewe and pedalled on, there was no point in me chasing and waited for Sara, just keeping one eye on the clock to see what the gap was (still not racing!). It was only 3 minutes gap. I nearly didn’t mention it as I knew I needed a steady ride, but I did and the feeling was mutual. we were quite happy for them to carry on looking over there shoulders looking for us whilst we enjoyed the ride at our pace stopping to take a few pictures along the way! (It was a holiday!). Thankfully no train tracks today, but another long road climb and some more fun technical singletrack with some push up climbs that were hard enough just to walk up let alone ride up! It led us round to the same last descent and not chasing I could enjoy it a bit more, trying to pick better lines, but it was still quite energy sapping.
We did see them again, but had no urgency to have a repeat of yesterday and exhaust ourselves, just to come second again. Instead we took it in our stride and just had fun, Sara even went a bit loopy on some powerbar chews and broke out into song! It was fantastic and highly entertaining! That day was ended in high spirits, I think we had got this race nailed and just wanted to enjoy the whole experience! (Etape 5) 5:48:59 (General classification 5)
STAGE 6: 69.12km with 1,789m of ascent
Alright, final stage, same area so now the trails were getting very familiar and it was shorter. It’s funny how at the start, 70km seemed epic and now we were saying it was short! This was going to be a bit quicker as there was a little less climbing to and seemingly the trails were slightly easier or we had just improved in our bike ability as the week went on (naturally the latter!). One thing did change and that was the weather, it began cold and got colder.
I’m guessing by this point you and I both are getting used to the terrain, so let’s skip to the exciting finale! After again going at our own pace, a few whispers of ‘they are not that far ahead’ crept in. We were onto the last 20km, Sara was getting a flat tyre (tubeless, pfft) so we stopped and I pumped it up hoping it would last ’til the end. I followed her to make sure it was all good through the next fast, flowing trail, seemingly it was ok. The rain started to fall, what I’m on holiday it’s not allowed to rain! I wish I put my glasses on, as before long I got mud in the eye that wouldn’t come out (didn’t come out until the morning), so carried on with one eye shut most of the time!
We stuck to our game, but by the final fire track we spotted them ahead, doh! It was the last stage so why not give it a shot! Not knowing when the final descent began we pushed, but just not enough and caught up to them as they turned down into the single track descent. They were quite frankly rubbish down the steep, muddy and rocky track, but we just could’t get passed, so FRUSTRATING, especially when they had a trusty Spaniard bloke to block us too! We followed them all the way down until it hit the wider track at the bottom. Sara was able to stay with them, but I was struggling especially when it started to climb to push it. The gap got a little wider, but with a little jostling up ahead I clawed my way back , but it just wasn’t enough. They crossed the line a second ahead of us and took first place. We were a little bit miffed, I think our reaction showed that, but at least we weren’t sick after crossing the line! We may not have beaten them, but we certainly pushed them to the edge, which was quite satisfying! (Etape 6) 4:54:56 (General classification 6).
What a week, what a race, what an experience. We came 2nd in masters after just 5 weeks of training, boom! We completed the 6 days in 30:30:09 with first finishing in a respectable 29:43:25 and to put it into perspective: Elite men – 18:38:28, Elite Women – 23:28:38, Master 30 men – 20:11:49 (They are machines, complete respect! We may have been riding for over 10 hours more than them, but they do this for a living, we were doing it on a wing and a prayer!
Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat! It was just fantastic from start to finish, I could go on and on, but I think I have said way too much already! I was amazed at how the human body can endure so much and recover so quickly. I hope to repeat it, but whether I will be able to is another matter. For now, I will just reminisce on all the fun I had out there, topping it off with the much deserved post race party where we could let our hair down! Simply Awesome
What will be my next adventure…watch this space…???