Maximum time limit: 12hrs
Time taken: 7hrs 06min
Today I slept through my alarm for the first time; tiredness has reached a new level and writing this at 6pm I feel like crashing out, but with just 2 days left I hope I can keep things together. Despite sleeping at 1000m it was still a hot and sticky night in the tent, but at least everyone is in the same boat as it’s a rule of the race that everyone must sleep under canvas.
After getting ready I was actually pretty excited about the day, mostly because of the special stage through the mine. Last year I won it, although I got caught behind loads of riders so as soon as we were let off I set off pretty hard, trying to chase all the riders ahead of me and get a clear run. The first 5-6km was a steady climb, Ruffa (7th place) hugged my wheel the whole way up and also down the next descent, which was mostly loose gravel and the bottom was asphalt. A long, gradual climb followed to the start of the mine at around 23km. I was the second person to start the mine stage, although there was no sign of the first, so I hoped he had set off long before me and I’d have a good shot at it. I set my GoPro ready to film, then set off. Annoyingly it beeped at me less than two seconds after going over the timing mat, so no footage sorry!
The mine is bonkers and so much fun. It is a pitch black, cold and damp 2km tunnel through a working mine that is shut off for the day. There are narrow gauge tracks that you must ride between and every now and again there are junctions and points that are like ice and you must lift the front wheel over. Being my third run through I vaguely remembered the direction and where the junctions were, so pushed on where I could and was cautious when needed. I caught the first rider with a few hundred metres to go, but a quick shout and he moved right out of the way, barely slowing me down at all. Emerging the other side and straight over the timing mats it was the clearest run I’ve had.
I’d pushed hard, so was out of breath but the pain wasn’t over. Although the mine was a special stage, another started immediately with no chance for a break and included a 400 vertical metre gravel climb, which was relatively easy, then a fun descent, starting loose then into some fantastic singletrack. Right near the end there was some poor marking on a 180-degree bend and I ended up 1km down a road with some confused people at a feed station. I asked where the finish was, but no one seemed to know so I headed back up and eventually found the track, but the mistake had cost me four minutes. When you are fighting for every second and having a close battle with other riders, four minutes is a massive margin and especially so when I feel it was absolutely not my fault. A little later another two riders made exactly the same mistake and they then sent a bike up to remark it.
There was nothing I could do at the time, so decided to carry on and head to the next timed section. This was an altogether different beast:10km long, 1000vm ascent climb then a crazy downhill. I remembered it all from the previous two years, but it was even more painful than I recalled. From 1200 to 1800 was ride-able, most of it possible in the big ring but reaching 1800m it turned uphill very steeply on a hiking trail and continued for several kilometres to the peak at 2100m. I felt incredibly slow and was probably leeching time on this section to other riders. Reaching the top and a sigh of relief but the first few minutes was too risky to ride and I had a huge moment there in 2011, so decided to be a little cautious. When I did get on it was still a bit sketchy and I had a scary moment doing something I coach people NOT to do – riding sat down with feet out! One big stone and I was lifted in the air, bouncing down, somehow managing to stay with the bike and not crashing. After that it mellowed a bit and I rode way more than I did last year, simply because I was more confident on the Pivot LES than last year’s bike. A three-degree slacker head angle and 20mm more travel made a huge difference. A neutralised feed station was half way down the descent, which was a little odd but I still decided to stop and then got told off for taking too much Cola!
The remainder was really fun, down a really old stepped stone pathway and the final section a super fast loose track where I had some full on two-wheel drifts. It could tell I was losing height quickly as my ears were popping every 30 seconds or so.
Reaching the end of the special stage I thought that was the end of the target/ maximum stage time too, or at least that is what we were told at the briefing the previous night so I started to cruise back and not worry about the time. The final 20km was evil and I’m sure the organisers used it as a way to frustrate everyone, winding up and down and through little villages then a track alongside a river that constantly undulated before eventually reaching the bottom of the fort. From this point we had a 1100m climb to the end of the day and I knew it was a brute, but since we could cruise I didn’t have to panic. We climbed up an old walking or cart track, which was in no way designed for bikes being a few degrees too steep and way too loose. Last year I had a tantrum walking up, but this year I knew what to expect and time actually passed pretty quickly. From 1600m it was ride-able and 6km before the end we crossed a timing mat. I was pretty confused and was told that this was the end of the stage and looking at my time I was six minutes over the target time. Not a huge deal, as it would only mean six penalty points but frustrating none the less.
The last 6km was easy enough on a dirt road to our night’s stop at Rifugo Selleries, one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been, although unfortunately this year it is completely surrounded in clouds, so we can’t even see the helicopter pilot do his crazy dive off the side of the mountain!
Almost as soon as I arrived back I quizzed the race director about the timing issue and the marking earlier on and was greeted by a blank face. He was absolutely not interested and refused to accept the marking was incorrect or at least confusing despite several of us going wrong and it wasn’t until everyone else started to complain about the timing issue that he neutralised the stage from the end of the special stage. So with a big chunk of points lost today, I’ve really got my work cut out to hold on to fifth place as I know I will lose a massive chunk on the climb up Chabberton, especially as the downhill is not timed. My only hope is to fly down the Fenestrelle Fort and do well on the final day. The only good news from today is that I won the mine stage again! This time cracking the five-minute mark, setting a new record of 4min 54sec.
Tomorrow we cover two of the most infamous sections of Iron Bike, the Fenestrelle Fort and Mt Chabberton (3200m).
Current overall position:
(10th SS1, 5th SS2)
Other British riders:
Simon Hawken: 22nd
Michael McCutcheon: 34th
Luke Harrison: 59th