Maximum time limit: 11.5hrs
Time taken: 9hrs 6min
In every stage race there is a queen stage that is the hardest or biggest day of the race. Today was the Iron Bike 2013 queen stage. A descent of the Fenestrelle Fort and a climb to Mt Chabberton, with another 80km of tough riding thrown in for good measure. I’d been partly looking forward and partly dreading today all week because last year it ended my race.
Somehow I managed to sleep through the constant chorus of cowbells through the night at the rifigio and awoke feeling fairly good. It was an 8am start with the usual reverse starting order and plenty of time between riders to allow for the Fort. The first 10km was mostly downhill and while it was OK, my mind was on the steps. Arriving at the steps (1800m alt) there was a small queue, so I waited a while and let everyone go first and left a two minute gap. The only rider setting off after me was Mauro (6th place rider), who was happy to wait. I set the Go Pro up and off I went!
The first section outside is simple, then it goes inside and I completely forgot about how rough that section was. I had a mini off, managing to step off before it got out of control and walked a few steps. Back outside I remembered it exactly and rode everything I did last year. I did have another mini off on a 90-degree right that I didn’t ride last year. It knocked my chain off and that took a while to get back on. As soon as it turned back inside, I walked. I didn’t want a repeat of last year! Back outside and to the finish it was simple enough through a series of gravel switchbacks down to the finish. I clocked a time of 10:22, which gave me the win by just one second, although it wasn’t until much later in the evening that I actually found out.
After my heart rate had settled slightly I set off again, ready to tackle the next 50km to Chabberton. One thing I keep forgetting is to never trust the race book elevation profile, which showed a gradual 30km climb. It was anything but! Constantly going up and down on the side of a steep hillside. It was a relief to reach Sestriere and from there we took a gondola from 2000m to 2700m. The downhill wasn’t anything to write home about, mostly down ski pistes and even had some monster steep climbs in it. After just over 50km of riding I arrived at the bottom of Chabberton. I took the time to eat a bit, fill my bottle up and had five minutes to psyche myself up for the climb ahead. Looking up from the bottom the mountain is very imposing, standing right above and with the old gun tunnels barely visible on the top.
Starting at 1300m and finishing at 3200m over about 15km in distance. I have massive respect for the mountain and in 2011 it took me 2hrs 40min to reach the top. I knew I would have to do much better this year, or fifth place would be out the window. At first I felt rubbish, my legs were dead and I was breathing heavily. I was in the inner chainring from the start and slowly got myself going. The climb is fine to ride to 2000m, being mostly on gravel forest road. Then it turns nasty very quickly, with a series of very steep and very loose switchbacks. It was here that the Fojtek brothers passed me, and also where I got off for the first time. Next year (maybe!) I will bring a 24t front chainring. From here to the ridge at 2700m it is only partially ride-able, and in worse condition than two years ago as rock falls had made some places impossible to ride.
I was passed by a few more getting up the ridge, but I was able to get back on and ride here so made some ground back and improved my position. I was amazed by how well I was coping with the altitude, riding far more sections than I did two years ago. The top was in sight and this seemed to spur me on, breathing really heavily but I kept pushing as hard as I could. Reaching the top I was exhausted and checked my watch to see the time. 2hrs 17min, over 20 minutes faster than two years ago and sixth fastest on the day! I think at least half of the time difference is because of the 29er. It has way more traction and makes it possible to ride in places than smaller wheels struggle.
After a few minutes to take in the view it was time to descent. The first part is possible, although steep and very loose but with care it is fine to the ridge, at which point we drop off the other side and head into France! From the ridge it becomes too rough, rocky and loose. Big boulders block the trail and in places it’s a mixture of scree slope and rock fall, meaning progress is slow. Today the organisers had set a seven-hour target time, which you aim to get within to avoid time penalties of one point per second. In reality it never really concerns the top riders, but today 7hrs was just impossible for everyone. With Ruffa Lucas ahead of me I had to limit the damage on the remaining 15km.
Into Claviere the singletrack is superb, then you head out and to avoid the main road you head off onto some Via Ferrata style tracks… but without the ropes, because this is Iron Bike after all! After a mental track in a ravine, a short climb and fast descent, we arrived at another chairlift ride, this time a much shorter one. Arriving at 1700m we had 10km remaining, which as usual was a sting in the tail, especially after such a tough day. With Sestriere in sight we headed up through the trees on a really steep track, before eventually relenting at 2100m altitude and dropping into the finish town.
A huge sigh of relief after what was definitely the hardest day of this year’s Iron Bike! Unfortunately, Mauro had a really bad crash on the Fort, breaking several bones and is in hospital. It is a real shame, as we were having a great battle for fifth place and I wish him a good recovery.
Current overall position:
(1st SS1, 6th SS2)
Other British riders:
Simon Hawken: 22nd