Sunday, 9 March 2014

Andalucia Bike Race

Andalucia Bike Race. A long-awaited one. If thinking about an event counted as a training, I'd have beaten everybody there! The first stage race so I had no idea what to expect.
I've teamed up with Anna Cipullo to ride for Orbital Racing Team.

All shiny and ready to start!

Saturday, 22nd February. We arrive to Spain early afternoon, thinking we have a whole day ahead to organise ourselves and relax but it quickly shrinks due to incorrect coordinates, 'relaxed' organisation at the paddock (which meant waiting around a lot), having to build our bikes in the evening and all the pre-race hassle. It didn't matter in the end, I can't fall sleep anyway :)

Sunday. Day 1. Jaén.
Distance: 61.47km, climbing: 2044m, 4:38:13.
We arrive at the paddock early and begin our preparations for the race. The place is crowded with people - 716 riders, countless supporters, mechanics, marshals, security guys... Over a thousand bike-orientated people, the atmosphere is amazing, you can feel that you are a part of something huge and it is an amazing feeling!

All riders get grided according to the category which meant we were starting close to the front (which would change soon, we know). And off we go! The crowd starts like if it's a flat-out 1-hour cyclocross race and not a 6-day long stage event! The day is windy and first 7km is on the road so I try my best to stay on the wheel of the guy in front of me. I change the wheels regularly, dropping back successively but still remain at the front, covered from the wind, I know I'll get some rest once we get offroad. All is going well until my handlebar starts to move and it costs me a few minutes to sort it out, while the rest of the riders wait in a bottleneck to get off the road. I finally get on the bike again, now at the back of the group, and I try to catch up with Anna, who's now well ahead...
Once re-joined, we take our climbing steady, pace ourselves well, decide to stay on the safe side and not to blow it on the first day. We chat, enjoy the gorgeous weather and feel all relaxed until we hit a queue at the first singletrack. What the heck, why don't you ride it?! We can't believe the guys ahead are really walking it, it's perfectly rideable, such a waste of singletrack! We try to overtake them whenever we can and are soon nicknamed "crazy girls!", two words which we will hear repeatedly for the rest of the week, on various courses and paddocks. And only because we can ride offroad! Ok, I admit, we don't take it easy on the descents, going literally offroad, in straight lines, regardless of the paths and making up for the time lost on climbs. And what adds to the fun is the fact that it is the first time we properly test our bikes in hard conditions. A bit of "Will the bike make it?... Let's find out". And the bike makes it, over and over again, shooting down the rocks like a bullet.

The only time when my heart rate goes really high is when we're flying down a fireroad and the saddlebag breaks and slips down between the rear wheel and the seatpost bringing the wheel to a halt and throwing it left and right. It is a miracle that I recover the bike and don't go flying off the road into olive trees!
We arrive at the second feed station where our Tech Boxes are supposed to wait for us but they're not there. Our spare parts, bottles, gels and bars for the second half of the day...It takes us a while to figure out that they are really not there (for the next time Ill need to learn Spanish!) and we set off, what else can we do.
On the second big climb of the day Anna blows up slightly but I'm more than happy to slow down. It takes us 45minutes to climb the hill, it's crazy hot, our bodies get confused, after all we spent last months adapting to flooding and here we get 25 degrees and cloudless sky! What is that supposed to be! ;)
What is amazing is that most of the guys around us look very fit and athletic, and yet we're amongst them! We feel happy with ourselves!

We finish after 4.5hr in 9th position, get the biggest dinner ever in a cafe in the paddock, where we spend an hour with Cris, Andrew, Darragh and Mark, re-living the experience of the first day!
After that we head to the hotel and spend our evening washing the kit and fixing the bikes so they're ready for the second day...
Start of  day #1 - all smiles :)
Second climb of day #1
Scorching Spanish sun in February, life's not bad...

Climbing, climbing, feeling good...
And we're done (with day #1) - delighted, as you can see!

Day 2. Jaén.
Distance: 60.03km, climbing, 1867m, 5:53:00.
Today we're greeted by fog and rain but the weather forecast in the hotel's lift shows only passing showers and increase in temperatures around the noon so we're not discouraged.
We plan to take the climb easy again and then scream like crazy on the singletrack so the guys will get scared and move out of our way.

Today we're grided according to the time, not the category, so we're starting in 6th box. The start is fast again but we soon start a 20km climb so the crowd spreads up nicely. It's still foggy and cold but hopefully not for long as my wind jacket is already soaked through. We climb and climb and climb. A wide road changes into a narrow path in a forest zig-zagging up the mountain. It's too narrow and too cold to overtake. And we climb and climb into the clouds. And the world turns white and the snow squeaks under our wheels. And I think that the weather forecast is given for towns, not for mountain peaks... At first it's fun ("Oh look! Snow! :) ). But then it's not any longer.. My whole body shakes, the teeth chatter, it becomes tricky to hold the bike in a straight line.
Finally we get into a singletrack. The local soil is clay so it's very slippery. Today we don't need to scream to get through a singletrack, those fit athletic guys cannot ride on muddy rocks for the lives of theirs, they ride off the corners or simply walk the trail so we can overtake them smoothly. Fine with us!
I'm so cold and shaky that I stop bothering about anything, unfortunately that includes food and soon I'm weaker and weaker. My wheels get clogged with mud and stones that scratch my frame, I had to stop several times to clean it off because the wheels won't turn. Anna's less threaded Racing Ralphs seem to be coping better with these conditions. There's no way the bike can be ridden up those muddy hills, it's hard to even push it back, the day seem to be dragging forever. Anna waits for me more and more often as I become slower. It gets to the point when I start falling asleep on the bike and struggle to keep my eyes open. That finally sets off alarm bells in my head and I force myself to start eating again. I force in gels and energy drinks until I cannot consume anything more and regain some energy.

We finish exhausted and I shake from cold for the rest of the day. It was a very hard day, with lots of walking and pushing the bikes, with aggressive bushes attacking me all the time (the bushes in the UK and Ireland are softer!) and I'm all scratched and bruised.
It was the same distance as the day before, slightly less climbing, but yet it took us 1hr 15min longer to finish.
But at the same time it was satisfying... After all WE DID IT!
We get to the hotel, spend ages washing our kit and get ourselves ready for the next day, when we leave the hotel early in the morning and drive to Andújar where the third stage takes place.

Climbing into the clouds and snow...
Still smiling, unaware that it'll only get colder and harder.
A peek through the clouds onto the city left behind.

Teeth chattering (but the downhill bits were fun!)

Day 3. Andújar.
Distance: 71.28km, climbing 1608m, 6:05:34.
This stage is a 45minutes drive away and starts to the cheer of hundreds local people. Even if we are tired after two days racing, nobody admits that and we fly off the start line!

The day starts with several very steep but short hills and very steep but short descents. Up and down and up and down and up and down. A lot of people push the bikes up, a lot walks them down, we stay in the saddle for most of the time, enjoying lactic acid building up in our legs. We even almost catch Crispin and Andrew, we're just a meter behind them when a long climb starts and they're gone...
The climb is long but not steep, with beautiful views around, cloudless sky and not too high temperatures, it feels like holidays. Anna has decided not too eat breakfast this morning (eating in the morning has become very difficult. We wake up starving but the first bite just sticks in the throat and it's a challenge to fill the hole in the stomach) so she blows up an hour into the ride but after my yesterday's fantastic hypoglycemic performance I really cannot complain. I adjust to her pace and enjoy a beautiful day, relaxing on the bike in Spanish sunshine, in February. Really, life's beautiful.

On one of the paths in the side of the hill I almost fell off the cliff when I get distracted by the view of thousands olive trees spreading out to the horizon. It's breathtaking!
It also takes my breath away when I fly over the bars and land face first in a deep puddle. It's a soft landing and everybody around laughs, especially the guys who we overtook confidently a few seconds earlier. Now, I haven't gone over the bars in a long time and now did it twice in two days, that's weird...
But the descents! If we lost a lot of time on the climb, we're certainly making up for it going down. A few days ago, back at home, I was reading descriptions of Andalucia terrain and wondering whether I like rocks. I've been living in London long enough to have forgotten... But today I know: I like rocks! I really like rocks! The only distracting thing is a rattling noise in the front part of my bike. I cannot figure out what it is, maybe just dirt in my brakes, but what I know is that the bike shouldn't make such noises and it makes me feel really uncomfortable and I take the descents easy. Anna advises me just to relax, not to worry, to enjoy the day and just to let it go... after which she flies spectacularly over the bars and lands on a huge rock. Luckily herself and the bike are ok and it results in only a few bruises.

We finish the ride after 6 hrs, 9th again, and while Anna stays in the car with Mark making sure she's eating, Darragh helps me wash our bikes. I've swollen so much that I cannot put my clothes on.
We then go to a local supermarket to buy some food, drive to Cordoba and find a paddock where we leave our bikes with SRAM mechanics and get a massage. It turns out that the rattling noise was a loose headset, now tighten up nicely. Also, our SRAM friend replaced parts in my shock so it should feel better now.And he even straightened my handlebars, I feel touched!

We eventually get to the hotel and then go out for a big and delicious dinner with our Irish friends. We make it back into the hotel around 11pm, just in time to wash the kit and dry the shoes with a hairdryer. At least it's not crazy hot in this hotel so there's a chance I'll get some sleep tonight...

Olive trees everywhere!


Try to focus on the what's ahead and don't look around...

Day 4. Cordoba.
Distance: 72.94km, climbing 1358m, 5:27:33.
Day No.4, an infamous one. It's relatively easy to ride for three day, that's what you do on long weekends, but 4 days seem to be a stretch to an untrained body. We prepare ourselves for a hard time...
And we're sleepy, so so sleepy. And hungry. And sleepy. Do we really have to cycle today? Can't we just et back to bed? We turn an auto-pilot and with half-open eyes get ourselves ready. Shoes on, helmet on, gloves on. Gels, bars, tools to the pocket. A bottle into the cage. Bikes and ourselves to the start line. Like two hungry zombies.
And then we're off, sprinting like crazy, all tiredness miraculously gone. Fresh, strong, alert, making decisions in a split second when rolling down steep sharp rocks. The racing buzz is amazing. The climbs are split up nicely and the descents are most rewarding. The upgraded shock feels amazing, I forget there's a bike between me and the trail, I just fly down, grin on my face, like there's no world beyond those rocks.
There's hike-a-bike again, like everyday. Some of the climbs are too steep and full of loose rocks to bother, on some we just don't have enough fuel in our legs. I'd love to come here one day just to climb those sketchy climbs...
The last 5km or so are along a canal, pan-flat, into the wind. We make it into big gear and hammer towards the finish line. We don't have anybody around us who we could join so we just swap the places between the two of us and turn it into 10-minute time trail, giving it all we have, flat-out until we finally cross the line, with our hearts pounding, legs shaking, and with sparks with our eyes.
The most dreaded day No.4 has turned out to be the most amazing! If we didn't have two more days ahead of us, I'd go back up there just to ride those descents again. Outstanding!
And we move to the 8th position too :)

We don't know whether to laugh or to cry when we see (and taste) the dinner, next time I'll need to make sure I have more emergency food in the car! The bike needs to have the cable changed, the shifter has gone on stike and I was riding  lot in the smallest gear today. Not the worst option, it could have been the big gear ;)
We make it back to the hotel at... well, me make it, that matters.



Climb climb...


Day 5. Cordoba.
Distance: 81.77km, climbing 1534m, 6:22:21.
Here's what I posted on Facebook on day 5: "I know why our number plates have our names on them! First I thought it was to easily identify the bike and the rider but that's not true. After a few days of racing you're in such a state that you're likely not to remember who you are (you will surely find your bike though)." Really, figuring out which shoe goes on which foot was the peak of my brain's abilities and Anna felt alike. Seriously, if one is so tired why one keeps waking up at night! That's counterproductive!
Both Anna and me are tired, we snail up the hills and smash it on the way down. We walk some climbs, which is not easy at all. At some stage, when it got particularly steep, I shift the gears down. While pushing the bike. The brain at its best, really...
The day is a blur, a lot of climbs, rocks, slow going up, fun going down. Eating and drinking fine, none of us bonked, but we were tired. River crossings (a lot!), sheep blocking a path, olive trees, sun and a long long ride. 6.5 hours.
We finally make it back. Crispin tightens my rear hub which has got loose. We go for a dinner but the cafe is closed, turns out they close at 6pm, at which time there are still people riding! We eat whatever food we have in the car, clean the bikes, get a massage, buy some food in a supermarket and finally make it to the hotel, exhausted, starving and a bit frustrated with the lack of proper dinner (which we paid for on day 1). For the whole day we haven't eaten anything hot, except for the breakfast tea) and it doesn't feel nice.
I'm still crazy swollen, the skin on my face hurts it's so stretched. I get more Ibuprofen and go to bed.
Tomorrow's the last day...

Some fun bits worth the climbing.
Fast dusty singletrack
More rocks!

Day 6. Cordoba.
Distance: 55.86km, climbing 1059m, 4:38:31.

A foggy morning of the last day...

The last day. I can't believe it. We just enjoy ourselves, as long as we finish in one piece, we'll be in 8th position, no need to take unnecessary risks. The 'highlight' of the day is the railway tracks - whose idea was it?! It's going on for a very long time and shakes us up properly! There are more hike-a-bike steep climbs and more rocky, swoopy descends, where the wind makes the eyes tear up.
On the last feed station we meet Mark, who got separated from Darragh, we assume Darragh is ahead and head down together, smashing the last singletracks! Mark is really surprised how quickly we clear them, I'm not sure whether it's a compliment or an insult! ;)
At the end we reach the familiar canal and Mark tells us to get onto his wheel and powers towards the finish. We do our best to stick to him, he suggests we can go to the front if it's to slow for us but I can hardly catch enough breath to say that we're happy with him at the front. We ride until the lungs hurt, at the last few meters Mark waves us to the front and lets us cross the finish line first.

And that's how we did it. 6 days of racing, 33 hours 5 minutes 12 seconds or riding (and probably the same of sleeping). Scorching sun, snow, rain, wind, mud, rocks, rivers, dust, grass, olive trees. Purple legs and swollen bodies. Bikes attended to by mechanics every single night but I must say they performed brilliantly! So many people didn't finish due to mechanicals (of the bikes or the riders) - countless punctures, broken wheels, broken forks, broken frames, and we just needed to look after them in the evening, they were brilliant! And the SRAM mechanics were brilliant too, both in the paddock and in the feed zones when they attended to every bike, cleaned and lubed the chain (and provisionally fixed my shifters) in a few seconds.
Hard, hard, hard. I'm writing this a week later, I'm still swollen and my brain is just about starting to work properly.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! I'd like to try it with proper rest because at the end it was the lack of sleep and food that crashed us down, not the biking itself.

Crossing the river with loose rocks at the bottom... nearly at the other end...
... almost made it!
Railway tracks. Shaken not stirred.
Beautiful rocky descent through olive groves.
Picturesque trails.
We did it, we did it, we did it! :D
Can't believe we've made it!
 

Big big THANK YOU must go to:
- Bikesoup.com - for all the never-ending support
- Niner bikes - for the bikes
- Schwalbe - for Racing Ralphs and Rocket Rons, the best tyres ever
- SIS - for tonnes of great energy products which we were still able to consume after 6 long days of racing, they're tasty and they work
- Kask - for helmets that are light, comfy and look good


Lessons for the future:
- Take your packing lists with you and check each position before leaving the hotel (I've left a lot of expensive stuff behind, a Garmin, pair of Vibram FiveFingers, a rear mech - even emailed the hotels, got no response though).
- Take sandwiches with you, always, and a lot. I brought a few from home and it was the best idea ever, at least for the first two days.
- Don't buy dinner vouchers. If the dinner is fine (and if it's there), you can pay on the spot.
- Take two pairs of shoes.
- Take at least three sets of kit.
- Take Ice gel (only after applying the cooling gel all over my body was I able to fall asleep on the first night).
- Take throat lozenges, anti inflammatory drugs, blister plasters.
- Take ear plugs.
- Take sleeping drops/herbs/whatever. Don't assume you'll be so tired you'll sleep like a log, in fact all the excitement and energy drinks can leave you restless.
- Look after the bike, or have somebody to do so, every evening.
- If possible - get somebody to support you: to clean the bike, hand you a warm jumper at the finish line, think for you, anything.
- Eat breakfast, no matter how hard it gets.
- Consult local weather forecast and always take some extra clothes with you - it may be heavier and less handy but it's better to freeze to the bone.

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