Crispin Doyle Reports From The Andalucía Bike Race
I think I’m mostly a ‘crosser. I’ve raced on the road and mountain bike, but only to get fitter or braver for cyclocross. There are lots of good things about ‘cross. It tests finesse and power in equal measure. It’s fast, close racing in which skill, nerve, fitness and tactics are all required. You can spend an hour going eyeballs out, elbow-to-elbow, knocking lumps out of the competition and then be mates afterwards. It’s great to be part of team, to be looked after and to look after others in turn and finally, during the race itself you’re going so hard you barely feel the cold. One undoubted bad thing is that the season is so intense and the races so hard that you get little time to do anything except race, recover, bang out a few intervals and get ready for the next race. Your endurance can really suffer. By the end of the season, your mind needs a break just as much as your body, but it would be a shame to waste all that hard-earned form, so I decided that the ‘break’ would be a little different to previous years. Thus I came to decide, without the help of beer, that doing a mountain bike stage race would be a Good Idea.
To be honest, it wasn’t all my fault. Part of the, ahem, credit should go to my ‘cross teammate, regular chauffeur and occasional MTB inspiration Anna Cipullo. She’d been telling me for quite a while that I should try longer events, that I might like them and might even be good at them. I resisted at first. If I’m honest, perhaps I was a little afraid that she might be right, but when she told me about this thing called the Andalucía Bike Race that she’d entered, I did a little research of my own and I thought ‘why not?’ So now we all know why after one week off after the CX Nationals, I was back on the turbo trainer knocking out hours in Zone 2 (my new favourite heart rate zone) for the first time in my life. Between commuting, turbo sessions and weekend rides, I squeezed out 1200 km in just over one month. That was more than I’d ever done before at this time of year, but would it be enough? Time would tell.
Andalucía Bike Race
Time for a bit of background. The Andalucía Bike Race is a mountain bike stage race for teams of 2 riders. Based around Jaén and Córdoba in southern Spain, it covers 400 km in 6 days, with over 10 000 m of climbing. It has only been going for 4 years but is well-regarded for its combination of varied terrain, tricky singletrack (both uphill and down) and beautiful countryside. The fact that the average temperature is a balmy 15 °C doesn’t hurt its appeal. It has a high ‘S1’ ranking so with plenty of valuable UCI points up for grabs, it attracts many strong riders wanting an early-season workout, not to mention hundreds of weekend warriors after a challenge. The race package includes technical service from the SRAM big rig and hotel accommodation, with optional post-race meals and massages if you want to treat yourself to the full ‘pro’ stage race experience.
I’d left it a bit late to enter so I had to hunt around for a teammate. I didn’t know any of the established UK stage racers and they didn’t know me, so I ended up partnering with another first-timer, Andrew Halliday. He was a really fit road cyclist and had done a fair amount of mountain biking, but relatively little cross-country racing. Although we spoke a few times on the phone, we didn’t get a chance to meet until the day before the race, when he picked me up at Malaga airport. We were both taking a chance but it had got us into the race and we were now committed to putting on a good performance. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Day 1. (60 km, 1900 m climbing)
We got up at 6 am and nervously forced down more breakfast than was comfortable. Arriving early at the start, we watched as the car park filled with more and more racers, all with immaculate bikes and team kit, all going through well-rehearsed routines to prepare themselves. I hoped that we looked as confident as them and I couldn’t suppress the uncharitable thought that I hoped they were, on the inside, as apprehensive as I was. Soon enough, we were put in our start boxes, around two-thirds of the way back in a field of over 700 riders. There was time for a brief handshake and a shouted ‘good luck’ to some other Brits I’d spotted before the Spanish commentator became more and more animated. I didn’t know what he was saying but the crescendo of words built up until at 10 am, to the sound of cheering supporters and a mercifully brief burst of rubbish Europop, the race rolled on closed roads. We were off!
As soon as we left the shelter of the town, we were exposed to strong crosswinds and the race strung out immediately, then splintered into groups. I shouted to Andy to follow my wheel and we made steady progress up the field, jumping from one group to another, until we were in the first hundred or so riders. He put in a strong showing on the first major climb, a tarmac and fire-road slog of 10 km at a 6% gradient, and we made up more places. I was pretty impressed by his riding and thought I’d be hard pushed to keep up if he kept going like that all week. At the top, the route turned to twisty, woody singletrack and we joined a queue of racers walking and pushing, shouting and jostling. (This was Spain, remember!) Soon, the terrain became shallower and the tracks wider and we were on the move again. I checked that Andrew was on my wheel and slotted into a line of fast-moving riders on a moderately tricky descent. After a fun-filled few minutes, I heard shouting behind me. I didn’t recognise the words but I heard ‘compañero’ a few times. This means ‘teammate’ and it turns out the other words meant, ‘Stop! Your’, and ‘has crashed’. Oops. I pulled over and a few minutes later, an apologetic and slightly muddied Andrew appeared.
‘Ok. Let’s go!’
and we were off again, only this time I kept one eye behind me. The process was repeated a couple more times, both times with no damage done, followed by an awful-looking over-the-bars moment on a fast, steep-ish rocky track. As I picked him up and he got his wind back, it became clear that his lack of XC race experience meant that he just wasn’t used to this sort of fast, technical riding. On top of that, his strong climbing had put us amongst teams of Elites and really handy Masters and he was trying hard to keep up with them.
To be honest, I was a little frustrated at this point. We weren’t in the race any more and I abandoned thoughts of being competitive. Instead, we had to make it a priority to get round. We needed a new race plan and I came up with one, which went like this:
‘Don’t crash. Run as much of it as you like but don’t bloody well crash.’
This method worked for the remainder of the stage. We lost many places on the descents but there was no more blood and we made up time on the climbs to finish in 4 h 5 min, 84th out of 118 teams in the Masters 30 category.
That evening, as we tucked into platefuls of food in a local Italian restaurant, I tried to do a bit of impromptu coaching about descending, braking, weight distribution and the like. Andrew listened intently, but he’d have to learn fast if we were going to get through this week.
Day 2 (60 km 2000 m climbing)
The day dawned with mist, fog and drizzle. In the car park, we joked with fellow Brits that this was our weather and this was going to be our day. Ha.
The rain was incessant, relieved only by a couple of hail showers as we slogged up a 1000 m climb to the highest point on the race. It did pause once or twice, only to lure you into thinking it really was stopping. We pedalled as hard as we could on the fireroad descent in a vain effort to warm up. Soon, we were on singletrack and the character of the day became apparent. Easy trails became technical, requiring constant concentration and technical trails became nightmarish quagmires. Andrew was running nearly everything and at some points, so was I. We dropped back a good few places and I was having real trouble warming up. I convinced myself that the upside of having a fair complexion and getting rubbish cycling tans was an innate tolerance of the cold and good peripheral circulation. I’m not sure this is true – at one stage I had to look down at my fingers to make sure I still had one on the brake levers, but it seemed to work. The joke was on us, but as we got to the valley bottom, the cloud lifted a little, everything thawed out and we felt much better about the last half of the stage.
Andrew’s riding had improved remarkably and things were looking up. The hard school of the Andalucía mountain trails made for quick progress. There were a no more crashes (well, I might have made one or two unscheduled dismounts…) and a good few awesomely entertaining singletrack descents. The bike performed faultlessly and the canteen meal at the end tasted like the ambrosia of the gods. Yay for Specialized Stumpjumpers and FastTrak tyres, boo for the rain in Spain not staying on the plain.
Day 3 (70 km, 2000 m climbing)
Another day, more progress. The clouds stayed, the rain held off and we were treated to some amazing views, not that we had much time to appreciate them. Savagely steep climbs (now I really know what bottom gear is for), led us to beautiful forest singletrack and fast, flowing rocky descents. Andrew was learning fast and the trails were more welcoming and enjoyable than on previous days. I felt more and more confident in Andrew’s descending ability, so I let rip on the downhill sections, trying to find out just what you could do on a race-bred hardtail 29er. The answer is: a damn sight more than I thought! We were still amongst the back of the field and the bike let me find unexpected lines around slower riders. Every so often I rolled to a stop and minutes later, my teammate would join me, breathless but grinning. This was properly hard work – but an absolute blast! We rolled over the line feeling happy and satisfied. Andrew was loving it and I was quietly pleased to see how far he’d come in such a short time. Best day of the race so far, by far.
As it turned out, it was also the last day. That evening, the combined effects of three days of unaccustomed effort, plus perhaps the after-effects of his first day crashes, caught up with my unfortunate teammate. He couldn’t eat, became feverish and finally fainted. I called an ambulance for him – it turned up inside 10 minutes and he was carted off to hospital. Blood tests revealed that he’d tried so hard and damaged his muscles so much, the toxins released as they broke down had clogged his kidneys. Whatever else, you couldn’t fault his determination. Our race was over but it didn’t seem to matter then as he was put on a drip to flush the rubbish out of his bloodstream. I don’t think I slept much that night.
Day 4 (73 km, 1700 m climbing)
With Andrew still in hospital, I went to the race office to withdraw. There was no symbolic cutting off or crossing out of numbers, just an apologetic smile from the girl in the office as she told me to report to the timing tent. The race rules allow lone riders to continue for recreation, albeit starting from the very back of the grid. As I waited for the start with 600-odd riders ahead of me, I realised that I felt relaxed. Without having the literal or metaphorical number on my back, there was no pressure, no butterflies, no nervous snatched conversations. Today was going to be harder and faster than before and it was going to hurt more, but I wasn’t racing. I had two full bottles and a full pocket of gels, enough for three an hour for the whole race. I had a clear head, all I needed now was a clear track ahead and no-one was going to give me one of those, I had to go out and chase it.
I can’t remember details of this day. The first hour was like a cyclocross race – constantly hopping off the bike to run past stalled riders on climbs, hopping back on to get to the next group, then off, then on, I don’t know how many times, desperately trying to maintain momentum. Once I was out of traffic, I knew I had to keep the pedals turning everywhere. I’d catch some groups on the steepest climbs as they ran out of gears and other groups on the flats as they took a rest and I didn’t. It was all over too quickly but in the real world outside me and my bike, it took 3 ½ hours. That time would’ve put me third in my age group or in the mid-thirties in the Elites. Granted, they’d had three had days and this was my first, but I was unbelievably chuffed. Some days you just feel like a machine. Not many, but this was one of them.
To top it off, I’d heard that Andrew had been given the all-clear and released from hospital. When I got the hotel he was there, looking tired but a much healthier colour than when I’d last seen him. What a day.
Day 5 (80 km, 1900 m climbing)
This was the longest stage of the race. Starting with the laughing group at the back, I had the pleasure of telling the rest of the Brits, as I caught up to them, that Andrew was recovering well. I tried the same trick as on Day 4 and spent the stage setting a new pb for overtaking. Today’s tracks were neither as technical as some previous days, nor the climbs as steep, so the test came from the distance. It was relentless: long gravel roads, rolling meadows, tortuous woody trails, tarmac climbs and streams to ford, one after the other, no time to rest. My inner roadie was right at home, right up until I ran out of gels with 10 km to go and the legs followed 5 km later. I pedalled squares through treacle to the finish, losing minutes and a couple of places. I’d found the secret of yesterday’s performance: good pacing and good fuelling. Today I did the pacing bit right but ran out of fuel. I still finished in about the same position, just felt absolutely hollow at the end.
That evening, I wanted to eat the hell out of everything and went for a blow-out with a couple of Irish guys who’d taken pity on me and offered me a lift to the stage start that morning. Andrew, feeling much perkier now, came too. For starters, a plate of cheesy chips with bacon bits hit the spot. Job done.
Day 6 (56 km 1300 m climbing)
Rolling up to the start, you could tell this was the last day. The atmosphere was subtly different. For some teams, the end was in sight and they eased off the pressure to make sure they got round without mishap. For others, where there were still places at stake, the game was very much on.
I was less likely to run out of gas during the shorter stage so I thought I’d better give it some stick again. During the last hour, I got caught up in a scrap as one of the Brit Elite teams tried to close a gap. It was like being in an XC race! I had to let them go, until we got to a long hike-a-bike section. I’d wolfed down a gel a few minutes before and told myself, ‘if you can’t run up this, you can’t call yourself a crosser.” That did the trick. I soon caught them, and pushed on with the bike on my back, getting a gap over the top and TT-ing to the finish for no reason other than that I could.
That was it. 2 hrs 58 for the day and I was all done. I helped myself to the free bananas and hot soup at the finish and watched the rest of the field roll across the line. I sat, alone, and watched as they came in with arms in the air, or holding hands. One or two of the more ambitious ones even rolled over the line with their arms over each other’s shoulders. There was a lot of joy, relief, hugging and excited chattering at the finish. The other British and Irish teams came in and stopped to talk, but I was still alone. They had finished the race and I hadn’t. I was just a recreational rider, after all. No pressure and no nerves so no pay-off.
We all went out for a meal, washed down with a few carefree beers, before moving on to the after-race party, where all the finishers picked up little wooden plaques, engraved with their names and their finish times and their positions. I didn’t. The emotion surprised me. I’ve still got a lump in my throat now as I write this. I’ll be back, I have unfinished business in Andalucía.
Comments on kit and caboodle
Bike: 2012 Stumpjumper Comp Carbon. (Upgraded with XT gears and brakes and running Specialized FastTrak 2Bliss tyres.)
What can I say? The bike was perfect for this sort of event. Specialized bikes might not be fashionable but they’re exceptionally competent and fun to ride too. It covered the ground efficiently and was comfortable to sit in and grind on the climbs, no matter how steep. It was a bit awkward on the longer hike-a-bike sections, but I’ve spent the winter being spoiled by carrying a featherweight cyclocross bike so I won’t complain. Best of all, it gave me the confidence to push on the descents until by the end of the race, I was straight-lining steep steps and long rock gardens where days earlier I’d’ve been gingerly picking my way through. The FastTraks were spot on too – fast on tarmac and gravel roads, great on hardpack and over rocks and grippier than I thought they’d the right to be in the wet, considering how they are billed as a dry conditions tyre. They were just about tough enough for the terrain, too. I nicked a sidewall on one but it didn’t cut through and the sealant held, allowing me to finish the stage.
Food. I used energy drinks, gels and recovery shakes. I’d not done this before but when you’re using these energy products properly over long days, it really makes a difference to your pacing and how consistently you can hold that pace, as I discovered to my cost one day when I ran out mid-stage. I mixed and matched manufacturers and to be honest, everything seemed to work, but some were, let’s say, more palatable than others. Actually, let’s be honest, some tasted like an unholy cocktail of cough medicine and neat orange squash, with a thistle chaser. I won’t name names, but every time I pulled one of the offensive articles out of my pocket, my eye began to twitch in anticipation of the gut-wrenchingly awful taste to come. Lesson – do your tasting before the race, idiot!
Thanks to Hargroves Cycles RT for the loan of the bike box and providing heaps of extra clothing (for my one-off team-mate too), Mark and Steve in Hargroves Cycles Swindon for bike and fork fettling, Anna for putting the idea in my head and to all my new friends for making it such a memorable trip. So, Agata, Darragh and Mark, Mel and Mark, Rachel and Rickie, Grant, Alan, Scott, Matt, Ant: see you next time!