Italy’s Iron Bike competition sounds like complete and utter madness to us. It’s tough beyond reason and above the physical challenge of thousands of metres of climbing per day, there are many rough, technical challenges as well as plenty of exposure on the side of steep Italian mountains.
Matt Page rode the event this year for the third time and was one of the few who finish this famously sadistic event. Here is his entire diary from what is possibly the most ridiculous mountain bike stage race in the world:
This year the prologue was the same format as last year, an urban crit around the start town of Limone Piemonte. It means very little for the overall, other than handing out the leaders jerseys. It’s a great way to get the town involved and is held at 8pm when the town is busy. A very simple format, two laps of a 1km circuit through narrow streets and alleyways including a flight of steps. It’s fast, furious and great fun. Two heats are held; odd numbers and even numbers then the fastest 30 go into a final.
I had a good heat, finishing 2nd and went into the final comfortably. The final was hard work, 5 minutes at maximum effort and I wasn’t able to hold onto the wheels of the top guys, who were the Fojtek brothers (Ondrej Fojtek was 2012 winner) and was pipped to 3rd by a fast finishing Spaniard. With the evening fun over it was time to get some food, relax and get ready for the real racing!
3200m ascent (not including Heli-lift)
Maximum time limit: 9hrs
A relative warm up for Iron Bike, especially compared to last years monster 140km epic. This year was a mere 68km with 3200m climbing. Still not an easy ride, but a good way to get riders ready for the long days ahead.
The stage start was the same special atmosphere with the helicopter flying over head and then we were off! A quick spin down a road then into the first climb, which was a reasonable 500m climb up a steep track. It separated the pack nicely, although not part of a special stage so there was no huge serge of pace. I climbed in a group of 8-10 and this stayed together over the top and through the next section onto the early sections of the second climb. Following the same path as last year I recognised the route as we gently climbed through a beautiful valley and towards the start of the first special stage.
The special stage started at the 48km mark and I knew what to expect. A long, steep and loose climb meandering upwards and onto a ridge then over to a lake. It was the first real chance to see how the Pivot LES would be with a 120mm fork and I was really happy, no front wheel lift even on the steepest bits. The track was mostly rideable to the lake, although very loose at times. From the lake it kicked up and the final 1km was hike-a-bike including a long section through the snow that was still on the ground. Walking is definitely my weakness at Iron Bike, but there are perhaps a few early signs of progress from last year. Having more suitable shoes helped as well, Fizik M5s with a more flexible sole and addition of some rubber football studs to the front.
Through the climb stage I was passed by the Fojtek brothers and one other Spanish rider, but didn’t loose too much time. From the start of the downhill I was keen to get going, so lowered the saddle and went straight down. We were warned in the briefing the previous night that it was a dangerous descent and there would be big patches of snow. Last year it was completely snow free, so quite a difference. I managed to pass the Spanish rider and hopefully make up for lost time. It was super rough, really rocky with boulders at times and difficult to maintain momentum. With the special stage finish line in sight I had a slow-mo over the bars as my wheel got stuck in a 29er size hole between boulders, thankfully no damage done.
At the end of the special stage finish we had a 30min wait before the highlight of the day: A helicopter lift to the top of another mountain! A special metal bike rack had been made which held 15 bikes and hoisted those off to the top of Cima Rima then it returned to pick riders up, 5 at a time. It will go down as one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. The “landing pad” was rather insane for the take off but the top of the mountain was even more extreme with the pilot having to land perfectly on a piece of rocky ground barely big enough for the skids and with a 2 metre wall right in front, rotor blades almost hitting. Only at Iron Bike! No doubt it’s partly because they can, being relatively small in terms of rider numbers and having the facilities to do so, but the main reason it because there is only one way up and one way down, so without a helicopter lift it would be impossible to race down.
From the top, having collected the bike it was time to hit the final run to the day’s finish. A 13km descent, from the peak of Cima Riva at 2500m to the finish Vinadio fort at 850m. I was the 2nd rider to start, just behind multiple time winner Radoslav Sibl. He was running down tricky sections where I was riding and holding me up near the top. The singletrack was absolutely incredible but there was also nowhere to pass. Eventually he made a mistake and I got past. From there it was one of the best descents I’ve ever done, starting with narrow rocky singletrack higher up then into the trees and loamy singletrack and finally onto a loose, gravel track that I remembered having a few brown trouser moments on last year! No such worries this year, as my brakes were performing brilliantly, no fading or loss of power. I knew I was going to get a good time as there were no riders in sight, so as we hit the flat at the bottom I pushed hard to stay ahead and crossed the line as the first rider back, although I was pretty gutted to later find out that I had been beaten by just 10 seconds on the second special stage.
The bike has been unbelievable, light and fast on the uphills and way more capable than previous years on the downhills. Many people question why I run a dropper seatpost and until you come here to see the crazy downhills for yourself you will always wonder.
Tomorrow the “warm up” stops and more typical Iron Bike riding starts. More distance, more climbing and a 3000m peak of Monte Bellino. It is guaranteed to be snow covered near the top, but hopefully most will be clear as I remember it being a very special downhill.
Current overall position:
(5th SS1, 2nd SS2)
Other British riders:
Simon Hawken: 31st
Michael McCutcheon: 27th
Luke Harrison: 50th