Words: Matthew Page
Maximum time limit: 13hrs
Time taken: 7hrs 50min
If yesterday’s stage could be considered a warm up by Iron Bike standard then today was definitely the real deal. 3 major climbs, a 3000m peak and a total climbing figure to make any rider wince. What’s more, unlike yesterday almost all today’s riding would be special stages, meaning no let off and full gas nearly all the time.
It was a 5am wake up call for a 7am set off, or at least for the first group off. We were set off in wave in reverse order and individually in the top 10 which made it 7:20 by the time I left. The first 14km was steady as it was the only section outside of a special stage and proved to be a good warm up. The first climb of the day was new to me and new to Iron Bike I think, from the bottom at 1100m it was a 13km climb to the summit at 2440m, very steep at first, then eventually easing but becoming loose. I started within myself, not only thinking about the special stage or even the day but the week as a whole, with 8 full stages now is not the time to put myself into the red!
I was passed by the Fojtek Brothers, Jan (2nd overall) and Ondrej (4th overall) and they were flying, a little later Radoslav Sibl (leader) passed but nowhere near as quickly but he seemed to be blowing pretty hard but was a little encouraging for me! It wasn’t until right at the top that Elias (3rd place) passed so overall I think I did OK. A few kilometres of traverse followed and then a 1km steep climb back to another pass at 2450m. From here it was a brilliant alpine descent with flowing singletrack and some rougher sections all the way to the finish of the first special stage at 1700m at the 40km marker where there was a feed stop. Everyone was buzzing after the descent and with some time to spare the top riders were able to take plenty of time to refuel before setting off again. Another brilliant descent followed, although as it went through several small villages and crossed a few roads it was untimed. Reaching the valley at 1200m it was scorching hot despite the altitude it was showing 27 degrees and I was really feeling it.
A steep tarmac climb then took us to the start of the second special stage, which was a monster climb to the peak of Monte Bellino at 3000m! I’ve done the climb in both previous Iron Bikes but we were starting from a different point, avoid a killer “portage” section. I was the first to start, but soon followed by all 4 top riders and the blitzed passed, way too fast for me to contemplate staying on. Elias dropped off fairly soon after and only pulled away gradually. The climb to Bellino is almost 20km, gaining 1800m which works out at a rather painful 9%! I was pretty comfortable the whole way up and seemed to cope with the altitude near the top better than previous years. Elias had gained about 5 minutes by the top and I could see a Spanish rider chasing hard behind. It is all rideable to 2800m, then follows a traverse and the final section is a really steep hill to the summit. Just before the summit the Spaniard appeared on the ridge and I am sure he took a short cut onto the top. I reached the summit just before him and hoped that I’d be OK going down, although my stomach was in knots and feeling pretty ill. The descent is one of the best I’ve done. Seriously technical with it starting on a scree slope, then going to singletrack and being so high up there was the occasional bit of snow to cross. It lasted for about 40 minutes, reaching a neutral feed zone by which time my hands really needed a break.
At neutralised feed stations we can take up to 15 minutes which is not counted as part of the special stage timing, but as soon as we head past the timing mat it resumes. I used about 10 minutes and while waiting realised I’d made up about 8 minutes on the descent over the Spanish rider (no.11 plate). After the feed station an up and down section followed, then a track through a series of villages (at race speed this time!) and then onto the last climb of the day. Compared to the previous two it looked small on the map, only 700m vertical rise but having done the same climb in 2011 I knew it would be a sting in the tail. Memories had faded a little and I was not expecting it to be quite as painful as it was! Seriously steep in places, winding through paddocks of cattle to a pass at 2300m. A few drops of rain were falling, which would have been pleasant if it wasn’t so humid, sweat was really pouring from my head all the way up. Rider no.11 passed me going really quickly and I saw him also pass Elias just before the top. The descent I remembered being quite “special”, starting with a near-vertical pitch then a series of drop offs and into a unrelenting steep track through the trees without a single chance to let off the brakes, for the entire 700 vertical meter descent. The brakes were absolutely stunning, again no fade or pump, although my arms and fingers were getting seriously tired by the time I neared the bottom. The rain had made it really slippery with plenty of roots, rocks and a slippery muddy track to make it even more difficult. I chose to be a little conservative, not wanting to crash but rode it all and reached the bottom in one piece and without any offs. Just a few hundred metres from the bottom of the slope to the finish line and I was very relived to cross and sit down for a well deserved recovery drink! Today was definitely a proper Iron Bike stage and will have finished a few people off for sure. Massive climbs and technical descents with no time to rest.
On paper, tomorrow looks easier, but I know better than to just go off the map we are given!
Current overall position:
(7th SS1, 6nd SS2)
Other British riders:
Simon Hawken: 24th
Michael McCutcheon: 22nd
Luke Harrison: 66th