Iron Bike Prologue & Stage 1
This year the prologue was the same format as last year, an urban crit around the start town of Limone Piemonte. It means very little for the overall, other than handing out the leaders jerseys. Its a great way to get the town involved and held at 8pm when the town is busy. A very simple format, two laps of a 1km circuit through narrow streets, alley ways including a flight of steps. It fast, furious and great fun. Two heats are held, odd numbers and even numbers then the fastest 30 go into a final.
I had a good heat, finishing 2nd and went into the final comfortably. The final was hard work, 5 minutes at maximum effort and I wasn’t able to hold onto the wheels of the top guys, who were the Fojtek brothers (Ondrej Fojtek was 2012 winner) and was pipped to 3rd by a fast finishing Spaniard. With the evening fun over it was time to get some food, relax and get ready for the real racing!
Stage 1: 68km, 3200m ascent (not including Heli-lift). Maximum time limit: 9hrs
A relative warm up for Iron Bike, especially compared to last years monster 140km epic. Still not an easy ride, but a good way to get riders ready for the long days ahead.
The stage start was the same special atmosphere with the helicopter flying over head and then into we were off! A quick spin down a road then into the first climb, which was a reasonable 500m climb up a steep track. It separated the pack nicely, although not part of a special stage so there was no huge surge of pace. I climbed in a group of 8-10 and this stayed together over the top and through the next section onto the early sections of the second climb. Following the same path as last year I recognised the route as we gently climbed through a beautiful valley and towards the start of the first special stage.
The special stage started at the 48km mark and I knew what to expect. A long, steep and loose climb meandering upwards and onto a ridge then over to a lake. It was the first real chance to see how the Pivot LES would be with a 120mm fork and I was really happy, no front wheel lift even on the steepest bits. The track was mostly rideable to the lake, although a very loose at times. From the lake it kicked up and the final 1km was hike-a-bike including a long section through the snow that was still on the ground. Walking is definitely my weakness at Iron Bike, but there are perhaps a few early signs of progress from last year. Having more suitable shoes helped as well, Fizik M5’s with a more flexible sole and addition of some rubber football studs to the front. Through the climb stage I was passed by the Fojtek brothers and one other Spanish rider, but didn’t loose too much time. From the start of the downhill I was keen to get going, so lowered the saddle and went straight down. We were warned in the briefing the previous night that it was a dangerous descent and there would be big patches of snow. Last year it was completely snow free, so quite a difference. I managed to pass the Spanish rider and hopefully make up for lost time. It was super rough, really rocky with boulders at times and difficult to maintain momentum. With the special stage finish line in sight I had a slow-mo over the bars as my wheel got stuck in a 29er size hole between boulders, thankfully no damage done.
At the end of the special stage finish we had a 30min wait before the highlight of the day: A helicopter lift to the top of another mountain! A special metal bike rack had been made which held 15 bikes and hoisted those off to the top of Cima Rima then it returned to pick riders up, 5 at a time. It will go down as one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. The “landing pad” was rather insane for the take off but the top of the mountain was even more extreme with the pilot having to land perfectly on a piece of rocky ground barely big enough for the skids and with a 2 metre wall right in front, rotor blades almost hitting. Only at Iron Bike!! No doubt its partly because they can, being relatively small in terms of rider numbers and having the facilities to do so, but the main reason it because there is only one way up and one way down, so without a helicopter lift it would be impossible to race down.
From the top, having collected the bike it was time to hit the final run to the days finish. A 13km descent, from the peak of Cima Riva at 2500m to the finish Vinadio fort at 850m. I was the 2nd rider to start, just behind multiple time winner Radoslav Sibl. He was running down tricky sections where I was riding and holding me up near the top. The singletrack was absolutely incredible but there was also nowhere to pass. Eventually he made a mistake and I got past. From there it was one of the best descents I’ve ever done, starting with narrow rocky singletrack higher up then into the trees and loamy singletrack and finally onto a loose, gravel track that I remembered having a few brown trouser moments last year! No such worries this year as my brakes were performing brilliantly, no fading or loss of power. I knew I was going to get a good time as there were no riders in sight, so as we hit the flat at the bottom I pushed hard to stay ahead and crossed the line as the first rider back, although I was pretty gutted to later find out that I had been beaten by just 10 seconds on the second special stage. So the bike has been unbelievable, light and fast on the uphills and way more capable than previous years on the downhills. Many people question why I run a dropper seatpost and until you come here to see the crazy downhills for yourself you will always wonder.
Current overall position: 5th (5th SS1, 2nd SS2)
Other British riders:
Simon Hawken: 31st
Michael McCutcheon: 27th
Luke Harrison: 50th
Stage 2: 86km, 4800m ascent, Maximum time limit: 13hrs. Time taken: 7hrs 50min
If yesterdays stage could be considered a warm up by Iron Bike standard then today was definitely the real deal. 3 major climbs, a 3000m peak and a total climbing figure to make any rider wince. Whats more, unlike yesterday almost all todays riding would be special stages, meaning no let off and full gas nearly all the time.
It was a 5am wake up call for a 7am set off, or at least for the first group off. We were set off in wave in reverse order and individually in the top 10 which made is 7:20 by the time I left. The first 14km was steady as it was the only section outside of a special stage and proved to be a good warm up. The first climb of the day was new to me and new to Iron Bike I think, from the bottom at 1100m it was a 13km climb to the summit at 2440m, very steep at first, then eventually easing but becoming loose. I started within myself, not only thinking about the special stage or even the day but the week as a whole, with 8 full stages now is not the time to put myself into the red!
I was passed by the Fojtek Brothers, Jan (2nd overall) and Ondrej (4th overall) and they were flying, a little later Radoslav Sibl (leader) passed but nowhere near as quickly but he seemed to be blowing pretty hard but was a little encouraging for me! It wasn’t until right at the top that Elias (3rd place) passed so overall I think I did OK. A few kilometres of traverse followed and then a 1km steep climb back to another pass at 2450m. From here it was a brilliant alpine descent with flowing singletrack and some rougher sections all the way to the finish of the first special stage at 1700m at the 40km marker where there was a feed stop. Everyone was buzzing after the descent and with some time to spare the top riders were able to take plenty of time to refuel before setting off again. Another brilliant descent followed, although as it went through several small villages and crossed a few roads it was untimed. Reaching the valley at 1200m it was scorching hot despite the altitude it was showing 27 degrees and I was really feeling it.
A steep tarmac climb then took us to the start of the second special stage, which was a monster climb to the peak of Monte Bellino at 3000m! I’ve done the climb in both previous Iron Bikes but we were starting from a different point, avoid a killer “portage” section. I was the first to start, but soon followed by all 4 top riders and the blitzed passed, way too fast for me to contemplate staying on. Elias dropped off fairly soon after and only pulled away gradually. The climb to Bellino is almost 20km, gaining 1800m which works out at a rather painful 9%! I was pretty comfortable the whole way up and seemed to cope with the altitude near the top better than previous years. Elias had gained about 5 minutes by the top and I could see a Spanish rider chasing hard behind. It is all rideable to 2800m, then follows a traverse and the final section is a really steep hill to the summit. Just before the summit the Spaniard appeared on the ridge and I am sure he took a short cut onto the top. I reached the summit just before him and hoped that I’d be OK going down, although my stomach was in knots and feeling pretty ill. The descent is one of the best I’ve done. Seriously technical with it starting on a scree slope, then going to singletrack and being so high up there was the occasional bit of snow to cross. It lasted for about 40 minutes, reaching a neutral feed zone by which time my hands really needed a break.
At neutralised feed stations we can take up to 15 minutes which is not counted as part of the special stage timing, but as soon as we head past the timing mat it resumes. I used about 10 minutes and while waiting realised I’d made up about 8 minutes on the descent over the Spanish rider (no.11 plate). After the feed station a up and down section followed, then a track through a series of villages (at race speed this time!) and then onto the last climb of the day. Compared to the previous two it looked small on the map, only 700m vertical rise but having done the same climb in 2011 I knew it would be a sting in the tail. Memories had faded a little and I was not expecting it to be quite as painful as it was! Seriously steep in places, winding through paddocks of cattle to a pass at 2300m. A few drops of rain were falling, which would have been pleasant if it wasn’t so humid, sweat was really pouring from my head all the way up. Rider no.11 passed me going really quickly and I saw him also pass Elias just before the top. The descent I remembered being quite “special”, starting with an near vertical pitch then a series of drop offs and into a unrelenting steep track through the trees without a single chance to let off the brakes, for the entire 700 vertical meter descent. The brakes were absolutely stunning, again no fade or pump, although my arms and fingers were getting seriously tired by the time I neared the bottom. The rain had made it really slippery with plenty of roots, rocks and a slippery muddy track to make it even more difficult. I chose to be a little conservative, not wanting to crash but rode it all and reached the bottom in one piece and without any offs. Just a few hundred meters from the bottom of the slope to the finish line and I was very relived to cross and sit down for a well deserved recovery drink! Today was definitely a proper Iron Bike stage and will have finished a few people off for sure. Massive climbs and technical descents with no time to rest.
Current overall position: 6th (7th SS1, 6nd SS2)
Other British riders:
Simon Hawken: 24th
Michael McCutcheon: 22nd
Luke Harrison: 66th