Stage 5: 80km, 3500m ascent (not including chairlift). Maximum time limit: 12hrs. Time taken: 7hrs 40min
The longer this race goes on, the harder the recovery becomes, especially after a hard stages it can be really difficult to get everything needed done as well as getting enough sleep. I don’t think I would even consider doing Iron Bike without having a supporter, or at least consider trying to race it. With Nia unable to make it out to support this year due to work commitments, I put a call out on Facebook to see if anyone was able to help support Simon Hawken and myself. Nerys Evans was up for the challenge, perhaps not really knowing what she was letting herself in for, but her support has been vital during the week so far. Having my van and supplies at each camp and taking the pressure off us time wise. Mid way through a stage race this long, I think there is a natural lull in morale at times. Not close enough to the finish to think about the finish and tired and hurting after a few hard days in the saddle.
This morning, the day of stage 5 I really struggled to get myself going. I was really tired although at least my legs felt better which was at least something. At 8am riders started heading off, again in reverse order so it was 8:25 when I left. I’d got about 1km when I realised I’d forgotten my camelbak, which has absolutely everything I need. A quick U-turn and luckily the van was still there, otherwise I would have been in really big trouble.
The very first part was a gentle road climb, then onto smaller roads and eventually a dirt track. After 16km we hit “The Steepest Road in the World™”. Ok, so it might not be that, but it gained 850m in 6km and was very severe in places, beyond 25%. Riders (including myself) were weaving all over the road to get up, which was causing trouble for a few cars braving the road. At the end of the road we hit Rifugio Barbara (1750m alt) and this was the starting point of the first special stage. I decided to be tactical and started immediately after Luca Ruffa, who was just a minute or so behind me on GC. There was a short technical traverse where I got a 30 second gap and then onto a long climb on a military road. This was quite an amazing sight and must have taken ages to build, snaking all the way up the mountain. The gradient really suited me and I kept the gap to the top, at 2400m alt. I remembered the climb from Iron Bike 2011 and also the descent, which I knew would be bumpy and fast. I tried to make the most of the gap, but there were some big rocks and I remember the leader broke a rim here in 2011 and I also passed Jan Fojtek who had punctured, so I decided not to go crazy.
After a refreshing river crossing we headed onto a smoother gravel descent, which was lightning fast and as I soon realised, very popular with walkers and 4×4’s! There were a few really close calls and I was probably taking more risks than sensible, but I wanted to keep the gap onto the next climb, which was a killer! Starting steep, then going steady before finally going crazy steep but annoyingly still rideable as my legs were screaming. I caught sight of Luca behind me and he was much stronger on the steeper pitches and soon got passed me. Not long after it turned to a hike-a-bike and I thought my chance was over. It was perhaps 2-3km walking and I managed to keep the gap to 2 minutes as we passed over the colle at 2450m. I was really hoping it would be a technical but rideable descent, but the first 400m was unrideable and I feared the worst. Thankfully it became rideable, all be it still very technical and I pushed on, catching him fairly soon and making the most of the remaining 700m vertical descent. The special stage finished in a village called Pralli and I’d managed to put a 2min gap in, which I was over the moon with.
At Pralli there was a feed stop, then a bit of luxury, we had a chairlift that gave us 1000m of free ascent. From the top it looked simple on the road map, a tiny climb then a long descent, but I’ve done this twice in reverse, so knew it would be challenging. I was right behind the 3 leading Czech riders and followed them as the track traversed then past an old monastery or something similar, then we started climbing. We went up a few kilometres when I realised I hadn’t seen a sign in a while, so decided to start heading across open land towards the peak that I knew we should be heading to. Eventually I found the track, but had lost at least 5 minutes in the mix up. I pushed as hard as I could to the top, which was mostly hike-a-bike and summited at 2700m. The descent was really tricky, but possible for the majority of it although there was a small section involving a clamber across some car sized boulders. We joined another military road, which was really rough and loose and decided to let go a bit and hope I didn’t puncture. It went on for several kilometers to another feed station where the front 2 riders were eating. I knew there was a real possibility of a stage win, although there was 10 kilometers left, half of which was a technical traverse then the remainder a steep technical descent.
The opportunity was too good to miss and I seemed to get a second wind and I was running up any section that was impossible to ride and pushing as hard as possible when I could ride. The track was amazing but on the edge of a steep mountain and a mistake in the wrong place would have been a disaster. I become really super focused and just went for it, reaching the final col I knew it was downhill to the finish, although it was very technical I enjoyed every minute of it! There were drops, switchbacks, roots and rocks and I just felt absolutely at home on the bike. Towards the bottom a massive rock hidden in the grass hit the rim through the tyre and I feared the worst, but luckily it held air and I crossed the line as the first rider back. That didn’t really mean much, except I’d beaten the Czech trio, so I had to wait until 9pm when the results were released and a little disappointed to see that I’d been beaten to the win by 4 minutes over the final stage. If only I’d not taken that wrong turn! The good news however is that overall I’d put time into the 2 riders close to me and moved up to 5th place.
Tomorrow we head into the mine, the only Iron Bike stage I’ve ever won and I’ll be hoping to do the same again this year.
Current overall position: 5th (5th SS1, 2nd SS2)
Other British riders:
Simon Hawken: 21st
Michael McCutcheon: 37th
Luke Harrison: 61st