By Tim Kirkus, Pure Mountains founder and guide.
See the photo album here.
Iron Bike is an 8 day MTB stage race that claims to be the toughest mtb raid (European for stage race – I think) on THE PLANET.
It runs every July / August in the spectacularly beautiful Italian Alps. It's run by a huge band of genial Italian enthusiasts who cook, marshal, shout, ride dirt bikes (eye-wateringly fast), fly helicopters, play country and western at 4am, shout and generally welcome you into their bonkers family. And shout.
I first read about it in an article by Matt Page in Privateer magazine and thought it seemed something one should do before dying. Probably immediately before dying. Huge distances, vast mountains, full-on technical descents etc etc. I roped in a great friend of mine, Johan, and we signed up. Immediately, the tone was set as Johan, being their first Swede, was given a free place. So we knew this was likely to be something special.
All the racers gathered at the official camp site in Limone Piemonte, picked up their numbers (all with little national flags – sweet), electronic ankle bracelets (not the only parallel with being in prison) and road books. The latter were a mixed blessing: absolutely crucial for planning the race, but utterly demoralizing when read in a damp tent after a crushingly tough day. But that was yet to come.
First was the PROLOGUE http://www.strava.com/activities/178713812 a 4km bun fight through the streets of our little Italian village which gave us a flavor of the general approach to health and safety: if you can’t stay upright that’s your own lookout. This is Iron Bike and it’s bloody dangerous. So, a flat out sprint through very narrow streets, over wet cobbles, down steep steps and all for the honour of wearing the leaders jersey the following day. Needless to say, a group of eighty or so very nervous bike racers attempted to fit into the space that might comfortably accommodate two. I saw two guys attempting to pass a third on a flight of steps that most were walking down and that was the end of the race for one of them. Bonkers.
Camping: Part 1
Everyone else had :
a. One of those ‘chuck this thing in the air and it lands as a tent’ tents and
b. A TENT TO THEMSELVES!
Johan and I had:
a. A tent that apparently could be used at the North Pole but which took the best part of an hour to pitch and had to be guy-roped down (not easy on a basketball court – more of that later)
b. ONE TENT BETWEEN US! So we had to share.
Then came another brilliant staple of the Iron bike experience: The Briefing. This took place every evening and was where the leaders jerseys were handed out and the details of the following day’s stage were given. Fabrizio Bruno ran this, as with most other things, and did so with panache. With help from his splendid side kick Patrizia, English, Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese were all spoken. We came to recognize the evil grin that followed ‘it quite hard’ and ‘Iron bike have own kilometres’ and ‘a bit of carrying’. No matter. Eventually we stopped trying to remember the details and focused on the following day’s wake-up time – usually horrendously early.
STAGE 1 http://www.strava.com/activities/178713867 After a largely sleepless night (see camping. part 1) We all gathered in Limone Piemonte for the official presentation and the start of the first stage. Obviously we were all a bit tense but there was much Latin hugging and kissing whilst the northern Europeans eyed each other suspiciously and tried to guess what category we were racing in (but that might only have been me). Off we went, down a long stretch of tarmac at warp speed. It’s suprising many of us weren’t wiped out then and there but eventually we turned off into the hills and the race proper began. This stage involved 75k, 2500m of climbing, a timed stage up and over a 2400m peak and a raucous downhill thrash to the finish. The final stretch was through, THROUGH, a lake and then into a gathering of video game lookalikes: bonkers - but this was Iron Bike. J and I were thrilled to get to the end of the first proper stage and the overall challenge suddenly seemed less impossible.
The Iron Bike itself is actually a massive XC enduro race, with timed sections during the day that count towards the overall, and relatively relaxed transition stages between them. However, ‘relatively relaxed’ in Iron Bike terms usually involves a three hour single-track climb and a white-knuckle, brake-boiling descent. You also have to finish the day within a certain time to avoid being hauled out of the event, a brutal and inflexible scythe that eliminated a number of distraught riders. Ho hum. ‘This is Iron bike’ as Fabrizio said, many times.
The primary ambition of all the Iron Bikers was to get the "FINISHERS' T SHIRT" and, as was made clear from the start, that was not going to be easy. Finish outside the time limit on any day: no shirt. Fail to complete any stage or timed stage: no shirt. Accumulate enough penalty points (awarded for almost anything untoward): no shirt.
Previous Iron Bikers relished telling stories of how few participants ever got the treasured T.
STAGE 2 http://www.strava.com/activities/178713876 A monster. We started at 6.30am after a 4am wakeup and began with superb singletrack and then a massive climb up to Cima Bellino with a full kilometre of hike-a-bike at the top. We then plunged down one of the most technical descents I’ve ever done, through snow to begin with and then down simply amazing technical trails to a welcome feed stop at the bottom. This was when the boys (Richard and Andy - excellent blokes and male pair winners) told me Johan and I wouldn’t be considered a pair as there was more than a minute between us when we passed a timing gate. This turned out to be true, though there is no mention of it in the rules. Ho hum. We met Jenny and her parents and the dogs in Sampeyre and it’s hard to convey how our morale was boosted by seeing them. The weather was turning against us now and as we struggled up to Colle del Prete. At 1717m it absolutely threw it down and the final descent down to Cavour was lethal. But we made it.
Camping: Part 2
By now the Pure Mountains team had become famous for their daily tent fiasco. Whilst we flailed around in the pouring rain with our vast, wet, flannel of a tent, the rest of the riders just watched and smiled from the warmth of their own. The Spanish boys – a group of ten, super friendly riders – had a great time over the eight days gently mocking us.
STAGE 3 http://www.strava.com/activities/178713801 Today looked like a recovery day compared with the previous stage, but it bit me very hard indeed. We did a couple of laps around a monastery above Cavour and then set off into the hills. As we approached the top of the first big climb of the day the weather came in again, but this time as a full blown storm. I had never seen rain as heavy as this before and after huddling together at a feed station for a while, we decided we had to keep going. As we descended the rain turned to painfully large hail and the cold was so intense I could barely control the bike. My body was shaking uncontrollably and I was starting to see odd shapes and lights in my peripheral vision. I could hear Johan shouting– trying to get something intelligible from me - as we hurtled through the flood but couldn’t form anything like words to respond with. Very scary indeed. Things improved slightly as we got lower down but when the organisers took the unprecedented step of curtailing the stage, I was extremely relieved and was actually looking forward to the soaking tent.
STAGE 4 Forgot to charge the Garmin. This was a tough, tough day. Two major climbs, descents that were unbelievably technical and dangerous, epic Alpine singletrack, my first ride in a chairlift and a major mechanical breakdown. As with the Andalucia Bike Race last year, the internals of my XX shifters shredded themselves and I was left with two gears for the majority of today’s 75k. I may have been unlucky but my love affair with SRAM for these tougher stage races is over. We fixed everything back at the campsite, but when recovery is crucial, time spent fixing stuff that should just work is a pain.
STAGE 5 http://www.strava.com/activities/178713790 This was the shortest stage of the week but, as this was Iron Bike, not straightforward. 3000m of climbing and a wonderful but lairy series of rocky, very loose descents . Great to have working gears again! Comedy camping moment: we pitched the enormous wet flannel on the only flat site available that night which happened to be home to a number of toads. One of which was sitting staring at me from the top of my kit bag when I woke the following morning.
STAGE 6 http://www.strava.com/activities/178713816 The Queen Stage of this year’s Iron Bike. 5000m of climbing, Chaberton – the high point of the event - and the infamous Fenestrelle steps to begin with. These are 4000 steps, most of which are wet, broken and in the dark, a truly extraordinary experience. Then came Chabba. A ferocious climb up to 3100m that began as a beautiful, green double track and morphed into super-demanding singletrack on an exposed moonscape that demanded total concentration for what seemed like hours. Obviously riding it was much the fastest way up, but if you made a mistake you were going down a long, long way. Terrifyingly brilliant. The views from the summit were astonishing and the descent back down went really well for J and me. A cable car took us to the start of another great descent and we rolled into camp after my best ever day on a bike. Nearly there.
STAGE 7 http://www.strava.com/activities/178713729 The last day and those of us still standing had one thing on our minds: the FINISHERS' T SHIRT. Not a long day by comparison, but the cut-off time was much tighter than normal and us mortals were up against it. There were the usual tough climbs and wild descents but the final Iron Bike sting was the climb to the finish in Sauze d’Oulx which was steep and required J and me to give everything to make the time cut. We made it by less than 20 mins but we made it. Jenny and the dogs were waiting at the finish and I burst into tears (not unusual for me). We were given our frankly hideous but massively treasured FINISHERS' T SHIRTS on stage with the rest of the racers and then got plastered with Andy ,Richard, Jorge, Huw, the ever-smiling Spaniards and many others. A brilliant and extraordinary eight days in one of the most beautiful places on earth, properly demanding riding with a great mate. I’m going back.
Me and Johan were the second quickest male pair but not ranked due to the 'minute rule'. We came 35th and 37th overall.
Villains and Heroes
Mr Flouro. How not to behave. Arrogant, unfriendly and in an unhilarious episode took out four of us who were struggling to stay upright on a timed singletrack ascent whilst he rode back down, untimed. Very classy.
Milton Ramos. Overall winner and thoroughly nice guy. Incredibly friendly and supportive whilst clearly the class of the field.
Matteo Salvo ‘Mr Shoes’. Italian racer who missed the time cut-off on day 1 (therefore effectively out) but continued to ride every metre of the race, usually finishing in the dark and then got up at dawn to do it again. Always smiling and had an unbreakable spirit that one or two could learn from.
Erin Greene. Teak-hard Kiwi who fought tooth and nail for the women’s overall whilst entirely on her own with none of the backup many others had.
Johan, my mate. Put up with me, so a hero.