By Jenny Mayhew, guide and co-founder of Pure Mountains, mountain bike holidays in Spain’s Sierra Nevada.
Photo album on Facebook.
I live and work surrounded by mountain bike nuts. I am a mountain bike nut. So how come I had never done a stage race?
I have always been ambivalent about racing. I like the idea of it, I like having done it, but I get very nervous beforehand and am anxious right up to the finish line.
Despite that, I had raced one day MTB marathons and the odd enduro, even getting onto the podium occasionally. I had been to stage races as team organizer and supporter and looked on with a mix of envy and relief that I didn’t have to go out day after day and race myself ragged. But I always wondered: could I do it if I wanted to?
Only one way to find out. So, I signed up with my partner, Tim, as a mixed pair in the inaugural, four day, Costa Blanca Bike Race. It looked like a gentle introduction to stage racing, being only four stages, taking place in January in Benidorm, which has a famously benign winter climate, and offering the possibility staying in a rented villa (with our dogs) rather than in a honking tent.
Now, I have raced with Tim before as a mixed pair, in 12 and 24 hour relay races, where you take turns to do laps, with the winning pair accumulating the most laps. We had won most of these, thanks to Tim being unusually fast and me just plugging away. But racing as a pair, riding the whole course together, was a different prospect. The rules stated that pairs had to keep within a minute of each other at all times. Tim is a stage race veteran, having raced Andalucía Bike Race, La Rioja and Iron Bike. He’s also much faster than I am, especially uphill. How was it going to work? My ambition was to survive the four stages and to avoid the ignominious DNF (did not finish).
I realised I would have to do some proper training for this race over the winter, which luckily is the quiet time of year for our business. Guiding guests is good exercise, but it’s not really training.
I got a three month training plan from Extreme Element Endurance Coaching and followed it pretty closely. I averaged nine or ten hours a week on the bike. I never could seem to get my heart rate over 165 BPM, but I could feel and measure myself getting fitter and faster. We had a mild, dry winter in Andalucía, so I didn’t lose any days to bad weather. I have to admit that on the longer rides, of two or more hours, I did tend to stop for a snack and to tweet photos of interesting birds and clouds.
I also invested in a new pair of proper winter boots, which were fantastic for getting me out of the door on cold days.
I usually ride a 27.5” Canyon Spectral full-suspension trail bike with 140mm travel, but I could see that Costa Blanca Bike Race demanded a cross country 29er. Tim loaned me his carbon Santa Cruz Tallboy 29er, size large, with some miniscule amount of travel front and rear. We fitted a very stubby stem and, while the bike was still a bit too big for me, it was amazingly light and fast. The twist grips, for changing gear, took a bit of getting used to. We added a dropper seat post, which proved to be invaluable. We both decided to take a lightweight race backpack with a 1.5 litre bladder for water and to carry a bottle of energy drink on the frame.
With such perfect preparation, what could possibly go wrong?
The day we were due to set off with bikes, bags, cat and dogs all packed up, we got snowed in. One set of broken snow chains, a lot of shovel work and swearing later and we were on our way.
Our old friend, Bob, was flying in from the UK to be our soigneur / dog minder. He went to Glasgow airport, but his flight was from Edinburgh. He missed his flight. Luckily we had a day in hand and he arrived the next day.
It was a relief to get to race sign-on and to pick up our numbers, which incorporated a timing chip, and goodie bags. It was the usual organised chaos and I started to feel quite nervous, again. I spent the rest of the evening arranging and re-arranging my race clothes, shoes, helmet, bottles and what not.
STAGE 1, Thursday 22 January, Benidorm, 42km, 1,436 metres of climbing.
The first stage started right next to the beach in Benidorm. We arrived an hour early and warmed up by having a coffee in a nice seafront café. There were hundreds of competitors milling around. They all looked very good. It was impressive that a brand new race managed to get UCI accreditation and attract an international field. I began to get quite excited.
To some thumping latino dance music and excitable commentary, we were off. The first kilometre was neutralized, but everyone set off at a cracking pace up a long, steep hill. This type of start became familiar over the next four days. I tried to pedal quickly, but not too quickly. I’m not very good at climbing fast from a cold start and lots of teams passed us. I hoped Tim wasn’t feeling too disappointed.
We quickly got onto some scrubland with narrow, technical trails winding between dense trees, with abrupt ups and downs and very stony terrain. We clawed back a few places. It was great fun finding spots to squeeze past other riders. It seems the etiquette is not to pass if you have all stopped at a traffic jam of riders (which happened a few times) but that it’s fair enough if you’re all riding as fast as you can. There were some very loose, steep descents and we had to keep out eyes open for other riders stopping or falling off in front of us. It always amazes me how good, fast riders can be so relatively hopeless at descending. I bet they wished they had a dropper post too!
Tim and I quickly realised that this wasn’t a race for numpties and that the pace was going to be fast. We had decided beforehand that I would ride ahead of Tim, so that he could see where I was and wouldn’t have to worry about dropping me or have to keep shouting to check I was there (unlike one mixed pair we saw a lot of, the female half of which was evidently called Isa, and she was shouted at relentlessly).
We had briefly thought about the pushing and pulling issue before the race. This is where the stronger / faster of the pair pushes and / or pulls the weaker / slower rider to increase the pace of the pair. It’s within the rules.
Once out on the course, it became strikingly clear what a huge difference pushing and pulling would make to our speed. Particularly on long, uphill drags and open flat sections. Tim started off giving me the occasional push from behind, but we worked out that the really effective method on those climbs was for me to hang onto his backpack with my left hand and for us both to pedal as hard as we could. I could change gear with my right hand without having to alter my grip on the bars or let go of Tim’s pack, which was an unexpected advantage of the twist grips. We flew along like that and regularly overtook male pairs (who cheered us on) and mixed pairs (who did not). Spectators loved to see this and several called out: “¡Esto es compañerismo!” (“That is team spirit!”). We wondered whether this was akin to cheating, but concluded that if the faster rider in a pair doesn’t help the slower rider, then they are just racing at the pace of the slower rider, rather than as a team.
We decided not to stop at any of the feed stations, or in fact to stop at all. This regime was a bit of a shock for me. Before, when I have raced alone, I’ve looked forward to the feed stations and always stopped to have half a banana, a drink and a chat. This time, we ate and drank on the fly. I tried to eat an energy bar, but couldn’t chew whilst riding flat out and it fell out of my mouth in half-chewed lumps. Instead, I took a Torq gel every 40 minutes and that saw me though. At one point one of my leg warmers fell down and had to stay unattractively runkled up for the rest of the race. No time to stop!
There were stretches on this stage, and the others, where I felt a kind of desperation. I was physically and mentally giving it all I could, but it somehow didn’t seem enough and I just wanted it to stop. It’s hard to explain why anyone would choose to do that.
Towards the end of a mountainous 45km, I could feel incipient cramp in one thigh, but managed to keep pedalling. We finished the stage in 3 hours 16 minutes and we came in fifth out of twelve mixed pairs. At the end, racers dispersed, because of course it wasn’t the end of the race. I thought this was a bit of an anticlimax compared with the end of most Spanish MTB marathons where there is a communal paella and a party mood.
STAGE 2, Friday 23 January, L’Alfas del Pi, 7.4km, 444m of climbing.
What an odd idea: to put a 7.5km uphill time trial into a stage race!
Teams were set off from the start ramp at 30 second intervals in reverse order within category. After my sluggish start the day before, I decided to go for a warm-up ride and rolled back to the start ramp to frantic shouting: we had 15 seconds to get onto the ramp or we’d miss our spot. Not a good start. Next year maybe I’ll take some rollers to warm up on, like the pros.
After a circuit through the woods, where we managed to keep the team behind us (yesterday’s fourth-placed team) at bay, we emerged onto the steepest, silliest road I’ve ever seen and off they went! Parts of this road were 30% and were thronged with encouraging / sadistic spectators. I did my best, but it wasn’t great. Tim couldn’t really help me, because in his lowest 1x11 gear he couldn’t go as slowly as me in my lowest 2x10 gear. He tried to encourage me and I, peevishly, told him to “shush!”. There were a lot of people walking, including me. Tim pushed my bike up the steepest section (also allowed, but not universally approved of, I sensed).
We finished in 28 minutes 57 seconds and a bit of a grump. We were eighth for the stage, but managed to hold onto fifth in the general classification.
The finish was at the top of a mountain with amazing views across the Med. Our friend Bob was there to greet us with the dogs, which was a welcome sight.
STAGE 3, Saturday 24 January, Polop, 60km, 2,653 m of climbing.
This was the “queen stage”, the biggie, the one everyone was nervously anticipating. The start was in Polop a pretty, but at 9am very cold, mountain village. I wished I’d worn my winter boots, as my feet were frozen in the start gate. We wore lightweight windproofs and hoped for the best.
Once again the stage started with a long, painful tarmac climb. We took advantage of a singletrack traffic jam to peel off our windproofs. In a nervous flap as always, I managed to break the zip on mine and struggled to get it off.
The rest of the day was a mixture of technical climbs and descents and a long, long road climb up to the snow line at 1100 metres. We employed the backpack technique and sailed past the team who were sixth in the GC. I didn’t dare to look over my shoulder!
By now we were recognising a lot of the pairs we rode with each day. They would pass us, we would pass them. Sometimes we would have a chat.
Riding through an icy puddle, my right foot got drenched. It was cold all the way up the hour’s climb and I found myself worrying how much colder it would be on the way back down. And the windproof. How would I put that back on for the descent?
In the frenzy of the descent, all that was forgotten. Some of the trails were super-fast, loose and stony, with a narrow, stone-free strip down the middle. I rode these as fast as I dared. Overtaking riders involved deviating from the strip for a few terrifying seconds. Other trails were in the woods with rocks, roots and plenty of potentially handlebar-grabbing saplings. I shouted warnings back to Tim of impending hazards and we whooped and hollered all the way down.
Of course what could have been the bottom wasn’t the bottom. The race organisers threw in five or six brutal climbs in the last few kilometres. On one particularly steep one, a spectator said, in English: “This is the last climb, I promise you”. It was not.
Throughout the week, the spectators and marshals were energetically encouraging, shouting: “¡Venga, venga, ánimo!” (“Come on, come on, courage!”). When they realized that were foreigners, they would shout: “Let’s go!” I don’t know where they got “let’s go” from, but it was nice.
We finished the stage in 4 hours 59 minutes and held onto fifth place in the GC. The fourth placed pair were by now 42 minutes faster than us over the three stages, so were well out of reach. The sixth placed pair were just 12 minutes behind us, which didn’t seem like much to me. I reflected how my ambition for the race had morphed from simply finishing to wanting to do well in the rankings.
STAGE 4, Sunday 25 January, Finestrat, 47.5km, 1,387 m of climbing.
Although the start village was higher, it was much warmer, which was a relief. The end was in sight, but this made me nervous as well. What if I fell off, or dropped down exhausted and couldn’t finish?
In the start gate there were quite a few solo riders, whose partners had fallen by the wayside. There are so many things that can go wrong in a stage race from mechanical problems, illness and injury through to getting lost and missing the start.
The uphill road start wasn’t as long as other days and we were quickly into narrow trails and a major traffic jam. Several riders got flustered remounting and just toppled over off the side of the hill.
The route signage was a bit hit and miss and we went wrong a few times, but the trails were some of the best I have ever ridden. At one stage we were in a train of about ten riders, on some snaking wooded singletrack, all shouting with joy. Another section took us along the top of the coastal cliffs, where we did our best to avoid weekend dog-walkers while the Med sparkled below us and the skyscrapers of Benidorm glittered in the distance.
Spectators had gathered at the most entertaining descents and they shouted line advice and encouragement. They particularly loved it when a chica managed to stay upright.
After crossing and re-crossing a rather unsavoury creek and slipping into it more than once, we began a trying climb from sea-level back to start village at 300 metres. The final km was up a series of steep and super-steep streets. We went hell for leather, with pushing and pulling galore, and managed to pass three or four pairs, to make the finish in 3 hours and 31 minutes and retain fifth place in the GC.
We had a chat with some of the other teams, collected our finisher’s medals, watched the podium presentations and then went for a beer and tapas. I was very pleased to have completed the race. Tim thought it was all over too quickly.
After the race I didn’t get back on my bike for a week. I don’t know why, except that I had a lot of other stuff to catch up with and I didn’t really feel like it.
I am really glad to have done it, not to have made a complete arse of myself and to have joined the stage race club. I might even do another one.