Stage 8 (Final Day): 60km. 2700m ascent. Maximum time limit: 6.5hrs. Time taken: 4hrs 5min
Like many other stage races, Iron Bike finishes with a relatively easy day. That is, easy compared to the rest of the week and not just a walk in the park! In the book it was 55km with 3 major climbs and 3 descents.
Before setting off, it was easy to see that people were definitely glad to make it to the final day and there was a lot of excitement and a little nervousness around. I’d already got it in my head that I’d push hard right through and try and be the first rider back. We were well spaced out to start as we caught a gondola from Sestriere at 2000m to one of the higher peaks at 2700m. The clouds were looming and the weather wasn’t looking too promising, but as we started heading up it was looking a little brighter. The first special stage started immediately at the top and has become a staple at Iron Bike for the last 3 years at least, a DH timed section from 2700m all the way down to 1400m. I’ve always wanted to win the stage, but despite 2 good finishes I’ve never managed it.
Reaching the top, I set off flat out and into the first section, which was part of a DH mtb run, complete with big berms, doubles, drops and loose corners. It was great fun and although I kept telling myself I had more to lose than to gain I disregarded it and continued to push. In the middle section there was some fantastic singletrack and just a few pedalling bits. The final section to the bottom was through a village, weaving along narrow streets, round a really fast loose corner and a flat out section to the finish line! I didn’t know how I did at the time, although it felt pretty good with only one small mistake where I overshot a corner. It wasn’t until much later after the finish that I found out that I’d won the stage by 54 seconds! Not bad going for a 16 minute special stage!
Continuing with my idea of going flat out all day, I went straight through the first feed station. I decided to carry 2 TORQ bottles today, rather than a bladder to make refills easier later on. I was also carrying 5 TORQ gels, which would hopefully be enough for the day. We were straight into the biggest climb, from the valley floor at 1300m it climbed right up to 2400m. It was a very easy, straightforward climb all on very smooth tracks and I managed to stay in the big ring the whole way. I was passing people frequently and getting cheered on and a few people were reminding me that it wasn’t a special stage. Just before the top I passed the 2 Spanish riders from Buff who were the leading pair and the first on the course. They were being tracked by the race helicopter, but they stopped at a feed and I pushed on. A very steep final section to the top led to an amazing downhill and now I was in front, the helicopter was tracking me!
The downhill was one of the sweetest of the week. Not overly technical, but very fast and flowing with enough to keep me on my toes. I was going to use the descent to recover, but since the helicopter was tracking me and filming really closely it spurred me on and went a little faster without taking too many risks. After a sweet 20 minutes of singletrack we hit a road and I caught up with the 2 lead motorbikes that were marking the course! The helicopter was still tracking and they must have thought I was crazy pushing so hard. It was brilliant fun racing against the motos, seeing if they could keep up. They would stop to mark the track, I’d speed past then 10 seconds later they would come by again and we kept it going for almost 30 minutes, right through Cesana to a climb where they pulled away and as I went into the trees I also lost the helicopter, which was a relief as I eased up a touch!
After a section that meandered through a few small villages where people were out to watch I arrived at the 2nd and final timed stage of the day which I knew it well from previous years. I stopped to top up a bottle and had a quick chat with Caeser, the race owner who had been following in the helicopter, his only words to me were “loco, loco!”, translated meaning “Crazy, crazy”. I was only stopped for 30 seconds maximum then on my way, starting the long climb from 1350m to the top at 2100m. At first it was a steep and loose gravel road, climbing to just passed 1600m, then some singletrack traverse to a village called Desserts, where we had a steep hike through a gulley. It was only a few hundred meters and reaching the top I thought I could now pedal to the finish! From 1800-2100m at the summit was back on gravel roads and the clouds had blown in making visibility greatly reduced. I was glad to have the Garmin and check the elevation so I knew how close I was to the top.
Finally reaching the top, there was a neutralised feed station. Here you can take up to 15 minutes and it doesn’t affect the special stage timing, but I wanted to head off pretty quickly. The marshals had other ideas though, “You can’t go. The track is not marked, it is not safe. Please wait 15 minutes”.
I hadn’t slogged myself to wait for other riders to catch me, so I tried to persuade them to let me head off earlier and after some bartering I waited about 5 minutes before starting the descent, with the special stage timer on again.
The final descent of the event is crazy and really fun. In 2011 I almost lost my bike off a big drop and last year I was walking sections but this year I was feeling more confident and rode everything, all be it with a few slightly scary moments on the drops higher up! It had a bit of everything including a rock garden that must have lasted almost 1 kilometer! Ouch.
Breathing a sigh of relief as I crossed the special stage finish line I guessed I’d done enough to secure 5th overall, although wouldn’t find out until later on. It wouldn’t be Iron Bike without a sting in the tail and the last climb to Sauze d’Oulx is just that! Steep, loose and it goes on and on. 55Km came and went and the final altitude of 1600m also went by, then finally I arrived at the town… only to see that this year the route was different. My heart sank, the signs pointed us away from the village and up a steep climb. I rode a bit, then relented and had to walk. I was cursing and muttering under my breath and even out aloud and if Fabrizio the race director had been there, he would have had it! I could picture his face laughing at us as we grovelled up “Hey, it’s Iron Bike” would be his words. After an “extra” 3km and several hundred meters of climbing I popped out of the woods and crossed a timing mat, an extra surprise!
“Congratulations, you have finished”. There was no one there apart from 2 marshals and it was a bit of an anti-climax and in my head I wondered if the last climb was a conspiracy to stop me crossing the line first! I sat down, grabbed a drink then less than a minute later everything changed, “OK, follow the motorbikes, they will take you over the finish”. Woohoo! The final run into the town centre was fantastic, the streets were busy and hundreds of people were out watching. I could hear the tannoy sounding as I got closer and had loads of support and cheers as I rode the final 100m and over the finish line!
I stopped, had a quick interview with Fabrizio then was told, “OK, you must go back up and do it again, the TV camera missed it”. I couldn’t quite believe it and could only laugh about it as I rode back up 200m, turned around and rode back over the ceremonial finish line again, to the same big cheers. The cycling equivalent to a lap of honour? Of course, I’d not won the race, but it felt great all the same and especially so when I heard that I was 40 minutes ahead of anyone else!
Later on I found out that I’d finished 4th on the final special stage, to comfortably hold onto 5th position overall and equal my result in 2011, although this time the level of competition was much tougher. It was my 2nd time as an Iron Bike finisher in the 3 years I’ve entered. Not too long later Simon Hawken crossed the line, who finished 21st overall and was the only other British rider to be a finisher. This year the event was just as hard as ever and the stats are pretty scary.
8 stages. Almost 700km with over 30,000m climbing.
120 people entered, 90 made it to the start line. 45 finished.
The head of the race was dominated by the fast Czech riders:
1st: Ondrej Fojtek (CZE)
2nd: Jan Fojtek (CZE)
3rd: Radoslav Sibl (CZE)
4th: Joseba Albizu Lizaso (SPA)
This year the top Italian rider was Mauro Canale, a very popular local rider who finished 7th. With Ruffa Luca 6th (SWI) and Belgian rider Dieter Luypaert finished 10th there were 6 different nationalities inside the top 10.
“The hardest MTB stage race in the World” has lived up to its reputation and I don’t think there is anything quite like it anywhere else. Despite being stupidly tough it has enormous appeal and I love the racing and all the emotions that it gives. Nothing else I’ve ever ridden demands a more rounded rider or fitness. To be a finisher at Iron Bike is a tremendous achievement and its an event that I would absolutely recommend to anyone who wants a challenge. Physically I was spent, mentally stage 3 broke me and every other day brought unique challenges within my mind to overcome.
So who is up for Iron Bike 2014? Put my name down again.
Final overall position:
(1st SS1, 4th SS2)
Other British riders:
Simon Hawken: 21st – FINISHER!