Stage 6: 90km. 4100m ascent. Maximum time limit: 12hrs. Time taken: 7hrs 06min
Today I slept through my alarm for the first time, tiredness has reached a new level and writing this at 6pm I feel like crashing out, but with just 2 days left I hope I can keep things together. Despite sleeping at 1000m it was still a hot and sticky night in the tent, but at least everyone is in the same boat as its a rule of the race that everyone must sleep under canvas.
After getting ready I was actually pretty excited about the stage mostly because of the special stage through the mine. Last year I won it, although I got caught behind loads of riders so as soon as we were let off I set off pretty hard, trying to chase all the riders ahead of me and get a clear run. The first 5-6km was a steady climb, Ruffa (7th place) hugged my wheel the whole way up and also down the next descent, which was mostly loose gravel and the bottom was asphalt. A long, gradual climb followed to the start of the mine at around 23km. I was the second person to start the mine stage, although there was no sign of the first, so I hoped he had set off long before me and I’d have a good shot at it. I set my Go Pro ready to film, then set off. Annoyingly it beeped at me less than 2 seconds after going over the timing mat, so no footage sorry!
The mine is bonkers and so much fun. It is a pitch black, cold and damp 2km tunnel through a working mine that is shut off for the day. There are narrow gauge tracks that you must ride between and every now and again there are junctions and points that are like ice and you must lift the front wheel over. Being my third run through I vaguely remembered the direction and where the junctions were, so pushed on where I could and was cautious when needed. I caught the first rider with a few hundred meters to go, but a quick shout and he moved right out of the way, barely slowing me down at all. Emerging the other side and straight over the timing mats it was the clearest run I’ve had.
I’d pushed hard, so was out of breath but the pain wasn’t over. Although the mine was a special stage, another started immediately with no chance for a break and included a 400vm gravel climb, which was relatively easy then a fun descent, starting loose then into some fantastic singletrack. Right near the end there was some poor marking on a 180 degree bend and I ended up 1km down a road with some confused people at a feed station. I asked where the finish was, but no one seemed to know so I headed back up and eventually found the track, but the mistake had cost me 4 minutes. When you are fighting for every second and having a close battle with other riders, 4 minutes is a massive margin and especially so when I feel it was absolutely not my fault. A little later another 2 riders made exactly the same mistake and they then sent a bike up to remark it.
There was nothing I could do at the time, so decided to carry on and head to the next timed section. This was an altogether different beast, 10km long, 1000vm ascent climb then a crazy downhill. I remembered it all from the previous 2 years, but it was even more painful than I recalled. From 1200 to 1800 was rideable, most of it possible in the big ring but reaching 1800m it turned uphill very steeply on a hiking trail and continued for several kilometers to the peak at 2100m. I felt incredibly slow and was probably leeching time on this section to other riders. Reaching the top and a sigh of relief but the first few minutes was too risky to ride and I had a huge moment there in 2011, so decided to be a little cautious. When I did get on it was still a bit sketchy and I had a scary moment doing something I coach people NOT to do, riding sat down with feet out! One big stone and I was lifted in the air, bouncing down, somehow managing to stay with the bike and not crashing. After that it mellowed a bit and I rode way more than I did last year, simply because I was more confident on the Pivot LES than last years bike. A 3 degree slacker head angle and 20mm more travel made a huge difference. A neutralised feed station was half way down the descent, which was a little odd but I still decided to stop and then got told off for taking too much Cola!
The remainder was really fun, down a really old stepped stone pathway and the final section a super fast loose track where I had some full on 2 wheel drifts. It could tell I was loosing height quickly as my ears were popping every 30 seconds or so.
Reaching the end of the special stage I thought that was the end of the target/maximum stage time too, or at least that is what we were told at the briefing the previous night so I started to cruise back and not worry about the time. The final 20km was evil and I’m sure the organisers use it as a way to frustrate everyone, winding up and down and through little villages then a track alongside a river that constantly undulated before eventually reaching the bottom of the fort. From this point we had a 1100m climb to the end of the day and I knew it was a brute, but since we could cruise I didn’t have to panic. We climbed up an old walking or cart track which was in no way designed for bikes, being few degrees too steep and way too loose. Last year I had a tantrum walking up, but this year I knew what to expect and time actually passed pretty quickly. From 1600m it was rideable and 6km before the end we crossed a timing mat. I was pretty confused and was told that this was the end of the stage and looking at my time I was 6 minutes over the target time. Not a huge deal, as it would only mean 6 penalty points but frustrating none the less.
The last 6km was easy enough on a dirt road to our nights stop at Rifugo Selleries, one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been, although unfortunately this year it is completely surrounded in clouds, so we can’t even see the helicopter pilot do his crazy dive off the side of the mountain!
Almost as soon as I arrived back I quizzed the race director about the timing issue and the marking earlier on and was greeted by a blank face. He was absolutely not interested and refused to accept the marking was incorrect or at least confusing despite several of us going wrong and it wasn’t until everyone else started to complain about the timing issue that he neutralised the stage from the end of the special stage. So with a big chunk of points lost today, I’ve really got my work cut out to hold on to 5th as I know I will loose a massive chunk on the climb up Chabberton, especially as the downhill is not timed. My only hope is to fly down the Fenestrelle fort and do well on the final day. The only good news from today is that I won the mine stage again! This time cracking the 5 minute mark, setting a new record of 4min 54sec.
Tomorrow we cover two of the most infamous sections of Iron Bike, the Fenestrelle Fort and Mt Chabberton (3200m).
Stage 7: 90km. 4300m ascent. Maximum time limit: 11.5hrs. Time taken: 9hrs 6min
In every stage race there is a queen stage, that is the hardest or biggest day of the race. Today was the Iron Bike 2013 queen stage. A descent of the Fenestrelle Fort and climbing Mt Chabberton. In between and afterwards, another 80km of tough riding. I’d been partly looking forward and partly dreading today all week because last year it ended my race.
Somehow I managed to sleep through the constant chorus of cow bells through the night at the rifigio and awoke feeling fairly good. It was an 8am start with the usual reverse starting order and plenty of time between riders to allow for the Fort. The first 10km was mostly downhill and while it was OK, my mind was on the steps. Arriving at the steps (1800m alt) there was a small queue, so I waited a while and let everyone go first and left a 2 minute gap. The only rider setting off after me was Mauro (6th place rider), who was happy to wait. I set the Go Pro up and off I went!
The first section outside is simple, then it goes inside and I completely forgot about how rough that section was. I had a mini off, managing to step off before it got out of control and walked a few steps. Back outside I remembered it exactly and rode everything I did last year. I did have another mini off on a 90 degree right that I didn’t ride last year. It knocked my chain off and that took a while to get back on. As soon as it turned back inside, I walked. I didn’t want a repeat of last year! Back outside and to the finish it was simple enough, through a series of gravel switchbacks down to the finish. I clocked a time of 10:22, which gave me the win by just 1 second, although it wasn’t until much later in the evening that I actually found out.
After my heart rate had settled slightly I set off again, ready to tackle the next 50km to Chabberton. One thing I keep forgetting is to never trust the race book elevation profile, which showed a gradual 30km climb. It was anything but! Constantly going up and down on the side of a steep hillside. It was a relief to reach Sestriere and from here we took a gondola from 2000m to 2700m. The downhill wasn’t anything to write home about, mostly down ski pistes and even had some monster steep climbs in it. After just over 50km of riding I arrived at the bottom of Chabberton. I took the time to eat a bit, fill my bottle up and had 5 minutes to psyche myself up for the climb ahead. Looking up from the bottom the mountain is very imposing, standing right above and with the old gun tunnels barely visible on the top.
Starting at 1300m and finishing at 3200m over about 15km in distance. I have massive respect for the mountain and in 2011 it took me 2hrs 40min to reach the top. I knew I would have to do much better this year, or 5th place would be out the window. At first I felt rubbish, my legs were dead and I was breathing heavily. I was in the inner chainring from the start and slowly got myself going. The climb is fine to ride to 2000m, being mostly on gravel forest road. Then it turns nasty very quickly, with a series of very steep and very loose switchbacks. It was here that the Fojtek brothers passed me and also where I got off for the first time. Next year (maybe!) I will bring a 24t front chainring. From here to the ridge at 2700m it is only partially rideable and in worse condition than 2 years ago as rock falls and made some places impossible to ride.
I was passed by a few more getting up the the ridge, but I was able to get back on and ride here so made some ground back and improved my position. I was amazed by how well I was coping with the altitude, riding far more sections than I did 2 years ago. The top was in sight and this seemed to spur me on, breathing really heavily but I kept pushing as hard as I could. Reaching the top I was exhausted and checked my watch to see the time. 2hrs 17min, over 20 minutes faster than 2 years ago and 6th fastest on the day! I think at least half of the time difference is because of the 29er. It has way more traction and makes it possible to ride in places than smaller wheels struggle.
After a few minutes to take in the view it was time to descent. The first part is possible, although steep and very loose but with care it is fine to the ridge, at which point we drop off the other side and head into France! From the ridge it becomes too rough, rocky and loose. Big boulders block the trail and in places its a mixture of scree slope and rock fall, meaning progress is slow. Today the organisers had set a 7hr target time, which you aim to get within to avoid time penalties of 1 point per second. In reality it never really concerns the top riders, but today 7hrs was just impossible for everyone. With Ruffa Lucas ahead of me I had to limit the damage on the remaining 15km.
Into Claviere the singletrack is superb, then you head out and to avoid the main road you head off onto some Via Ferrata style tracks… but without the ropes, because this is Iron Bike after all! After a mental track in a ravine a short climb and fast descent we arrived at another chairlift ride, this time a much shorter one. Arriving at 1700m we had 10km remaining, which as usual was a sting in the tail, especially after such a tough day. With Sestriere in sight we headed up through the trees on a really steep track, before eventually relenting at 2100m altitude and dropping into the finish town.
A huge sigh of relief after what was definitely the hardest day of this years Iron Bike! Unfortunately, Mauro had a really bad crash on the Fort, breaking several bones and is in hospital. It is a real shame, as we were having a great battle for 5th place and I wish him a good recovery.