Andalucía Bike Race 2016
Two years ago, in my first ever stage race, I crashed out of the Andalucía Bike Race (ABR). This time I’d changed my approach and was more experienced to tackle six days of mountain bike racing of 450+kms and 14,000 metres of climbing.
Training for ABR
Last time I’d been training on average five hours a week more. I’d arrived over-trained and started the race ill. I’d under performed on the first stage and let my partner down. The rest of the race I’d spend chasing to make up, eventually crashing out on the second to last day from pushing too hard.
This time was different. I’d started a new and exciting job, so couldn’t afford any junk training miles. I’d done a sports science test with Jon Fearne of e3coaching in November. My training based on Jon’s plan was laser-focused on doing the right sessions for me, which meant I trained less, better, and harder.
The science – one of the best measures for a training program is blood lactate levels during different exercise intensities. This is what the sports science test measured. Having a high lactate threshold and turn point would enable me to exercise at a higher intensity for longer. Training at or above my lactate threshold and turn point would result in small but significant improvements. For me, that meant training at or above 170bpm, which is what I did a lot in the months leading up to ABR.
Andalucía Bike Race is based around the cities of Jaén and Córdoba. 2016 was the sixth edition of the race. It offers sublime single track, big climbs, and thrilling descents with a huge percentage taking place off road. ABR is a pairs event. This factor is easily the most difficult variable of this race. My partner was as experienced as they get – Nick Butler of Southfork Racing has been European water-ski racing champion before getting into cycling. He races Downhill and Mega Enduro in the UK and France, XC at national level and he is the ‘dark horse’ at many road races.
Nick and I made an unusual pair. Nick lost his right eye in an accident when he was sixteen. We both giggled when we realised that half-arsed had paired up with one-eyed racer. You’d never tell, the way Nick descends even the trickiest sections of trail.
In addition to Nick and I, Southfork also had an Elite team made up of Matt Loake and and Harry Snow. Matt is an experienced XC racer and Harry a motocross rider, who would perform spectacularly in one of his first mountain bike races. One to watch at this year’s National XC Series.
Distance – 52.8 km
Climbing – 1,454m
Day one is usually about setting a good pace and not smoking your legs out in big gears. ABR 2016 had a surprising start – a 50km mountain bike time trial, with the start and finish in the a beautiful little town of Martos. Nick had been sick in the run up to the event. It’s hard to train in the UK during winter, when sickness is everywhere, and make it to the race fit and well. This, added to our uncertainty about how we’d race together, meant that we didn’t set off too hard.
On the start ramp in the middle of town, with the sun shining, and crowds cheering, I was full of excitement. I thought of the people I’d leant on to make this possible, like Jane, Amy and Esme and the good folks at True where I work. Then we were off. Teams were sent off at 30 second intervals. We soon caught the team in front. Once we hit the first climb, a vicious section with 38% gradient, it became clear that being 10kg lighter would mean that I’d pull away from Nick on the climbs. At 10km we got to the real climb of the day and I felt good. Once we got to the first descent, it became clear that Nick had put his extra weight to great use as he hurtled down the descents. I had to pedal hard just to keep up, and often couldn’t.
On the next climb we set out our tactics. I’d go ahead on the climbs and Nick would catch up on the descents. This was working well until one section where there was no way to tell which line to take. Bike racing here is very different to the UK, where they’d mark technical sections with arrows. Here, you have to find out yourself. I was following Nick’s line when he hit the deck. I changed line but also went down. We were both okay and giggled at what looked like my sympathy fall.
I wasn’t happy with my descending. My downhill mojo was missing. I didn’t panic as I knew with six days, there was plenty of time to ride into it. In the meantime, it was highly entertaining following Nick, who as he admits, isn’t a follower. Wherever possible Nick, with his big 29er would take the straightest, fastest line instead of the well-trodden one. Over the course of the race, Nick would be instrumental in me finding my descending mojo and becoming a better descender from following his unconventional – and at times questionable – lines.
The second climb of the day came at 30km and had a steep section of cobble, which really hurt everyone, but particularly Nick, who slipped further back. On the descent, I began to cramp. I backed off to make sure it calmed. This cramping, I’ve found, often happens on the first day of a race like this. I think it’s because, for people who train for the race in the UK, it’s hard to mountain bike at race pace in our winter conditions, so it’s a shock to the system when you do. Luckily, this cramp usually only lasts a day or two. The countryside was littered with pockets of supporters shouting us on. I was in heaven. The sprint home was fast and fun. We got home in 2.36mins. Not blistering, but good for a first day.
Then it was straight into the stage race routine – warm down, clean bike, eat, rest up, eat, sleep and do it all again.
Distance – 78.9 km
Altitude – 1308 m
Climbing – 2686 m
This was to be the hardest climbing day of the race, rising to 1306 metres with 2630 metres of climbing and some huge gradients. The stage started with a 10km road section, which I done at an average speed of 35km per hour. Not bad on a mountain bike. It was frenetic and there were a couple of heavy crashes. Nick got off to such a flying start that he was in the first group on the road. I was a few groups back. The flat has never been my thing, especially at that pace. I’d recently changed my gearing. I was now running a single 32 ring on the front. My cadence was averaging 120, but I still couldn’t keep with Nick, who slowed up for me before we hit a left-hand turn for the first climb of the day. It was carnage as people bottled necked. We’d made very good ground and we were surrounded by elite riders for the first half of the day.
This stage involved 40kms of brutal climbing. We had progressed well but Nick was getting increasingly further back on the climbs, and was having to work hard on the descents to catch up – something (luckily) he was great at. The distance grew as the day went. Nick was having a tough day on the bike and was wheezing a lot. To be fair to Nick, he had been sick in the run up to the event, but he gritted his teeth and did all he could to limit our losses. In a six day stage race, it’s was unlikely that we would get to the finish without a bad day for at least one of us. At the end of the stage, we had moved from 26th to 23rd. Not bad but it should have been so much better.
As ever, I was blown away by the stunning Andalusian countryside. The climbing was tough, the descents were sketchy and the trails thrilling. All in all I felt truly privileged to be here – physically and mentally able to race with the support of those I love pushing me over every climb.
Distance – 72.04 km
Altitude – 673 m
Climbing – 2,056 m
We had a busy night and morning packing up ahead of the move to Cordoba that evening. Switching venues mid race is hard with tired bodies, but this change brings with it new trails and different racing. From 2014, this was a standout stage, with truly dizzying descents down dried-up river beds. After another frantic start of 5kms we hit single track and rolling hills with short, sharp climbs, which suited Nick and his power. This went on for a further 15kms before the first big climb of the day. This Buff section provided a kick up towards the end, before a wonderful descent to the finish. This was mountain biking at its fast, thrilling best and we were loving it. We came home 23rd in category. After the stage, we headed to the race’s third venue – the beautiful old city of Cordoba.
Stage 4 – Queens stage
Distance – 89.1 km
Altitude – 644 m
Climbing – 2,177 m
This stage was never going to be easy. The cumulative effect of three days of racing was starting to tell, although spirits in the Southfork camp were still high. We even had a glass of wine that evening. Staying in Cordoba, we were able to ride down hill to the start, which was in the centre. There was great support along the route. The first 10km was neutralised, but my speed was still 30km per hour. After the neutralised section, we hit gravel fire roads, which was where the wind was noticeable and large groups were formed. I was still really struggling on these flat starts. I found a group, dug in and held my position. When we hit the first climb I started to pick off lots of places and was soon back to Nick.
This was a turning point in the race for me. Once with Nick, I had lots in my legs to continue up the climb, but knew if I did, Nick would be lost behind. For this and the remaining days, it was about getting to the finish together at all costs. I couldn’t not finish again. I had to be a team player and it wasn’t all bad. Nick and I were still strong on the flats and making up lots of places on the descents – with smiles wide.
After a feed station Nick and I headed off to do a sublime section of descending down a dried up river bed with many challenging switch backs. We were caught behind a slower team, but Nick managed to pass on a corner where one of them came off. I was stuck behind as Nick descended at speed. When I reached the bottom, I knew Nick was ahead as I came to the the next time check. Now, here’s the rules with a pairs team in this race – you have to cross the time check within three minutes of each other or you get a time penalty. Nick and I had agreed that no one crosses a time check without the other person – so you wait up. When I got to the time check point – a large rubber mat going the whole way across the trail – to my surprise there was no Nick. I knew if I crossed then I’d be breaking our rule and what if Nick wasn’t ahead? After 10 minutes, I crossed and began the really difficult climb of the day, which I flew up to see Nick waiting on top. I was delighted to see him, but annoyed that he’d crossed without me. Nick’s defense was that he hadn’t seen the time check – a reasonable excuse for a one-eyed man. Either way, it was great to be back together and we hit for home. We’d get a 5 minute time penalty that day. I’d stopped checking our overall poison now, knowing that it didn’t represent where we should be.
Distance – 84.5 km
Altitude – 586 m
Climbing – 2,285 m
Yes, you guessed it – another 10km flat start from the town through the crowds before we hit a gravel track, where bunches formed. The start was less frantic today. Riders were getting tired. We were noticing how low our heart rates were. We just couldn’t get them up. Riders were less competitive and more likely to give way as the shared hardship formed bonds. Then it was straight into the first climb of the day. Today was proportionately a mountain biker’s dream with single track outweighing the climbs. My role now was helping Nick where ever possible. Nick, however, is a real fighter, and not one to take help easy. Today he had to capitulate and let me stay on the front as much as possible. The stage ended with an almost spirit-breaking series of climbs for Nick, which was luckily followed by another amazing descent back to the finish.
The finish was about 5km out of town. After each stage we’d grab some food, then drag our sorry asses back into town and up a long hill to our hotel. Then it was clean bike, get food, eat, rest up, eat, sleep and do it all again.
Distance – 71.7 km
Altitude – 644 m
Climbing – 2,038 m
Just 70km to go and we are done. Rumored to be the ‘fun’ stage, normally Nick and I would eat this for breakfast and do it in under 4 hours. Not today. It would take us four and half hours and nearly break Nick. There was a shorter flat start than normal, which I liked, then it was straight into the first climb of the day. This climb was the previous day’s wonderful descent, so wasn’t too steep. Nick started climbing well, and we were hopeful for the day. At the top of the climb there was major bottle-necking, which gave everyone time to catch their breath. What followed was some wonderful single track.
By stage six every climb was misery for Nick, as the cumulative effects of the week took its toll. While Nick worsening, I was getting stronger. This caused issues when I’d get on the front and leave Nick cursing me. So, I’d stay with Nick, let him draft, and occasionally push him one handed up longer climbs. Nick, like the competitor he is, didn’t like this, but he wasn’t well and had by now accepted that to get to the finish, we’d do whatever it took.
With all the hills out of the way, and as we approached the line, I felt really proud. Nick was relieved and happy too. We’d done it. Not the way we’d planned, but we’d done it, stayed friends and did the best we could as a team. Good result!
For me, I came to Andalucía to race. As it turned out I never really got to open up to see what I could really do. But I leave feeling very happy to have finally finished. I’m delighted with the new friends I made. I felt disappointed for Nick. He was sick in the run up to the event, and as it turns out, ill after it too. We should have guessed when Nick was wheezing later in the race on the climbs. He really struggled, but to his credit, Nick bit down and got it done when it really hurt and counted. A great teammate!
The backdrop to all of this was Andalucia and some of the best mountain you’ll find. If you ever considered doing a stage race, then this is one I can’t recommend highly enough.
What I learned
– Race every day like it’s the last
– Trust your body – it will recover
– Arrive rested
– Abandon all mental limitations – you really can do more than you think you can
– Adopt quickly the stage race routine – race, eat, sleep, repeat
– Don’t let that fact it’s your first time hold you back
– Listen and learn from others around you
– Find a partner of similar ability to you
– When you finish, you might be sorry you’re not racing again tomorrow!
The past few years have been all about new cycling experiences. This year will be no different. I could do the National XC series, but I’ve done all that. I’ll most likely do the Tour of Wessex, a road stage race, as I’ve never done anything on the road before. I’m definitely doing the hardest mountain bike marathon in Europe – the Salzkammergut. It looks mental – so I’m in for the longer distance of 211km with 7,500m of climbing. If I survive Salzkammergut, with a 50% drop out rate, I’ll see what other new adventures the rest of the season holds.
I wore predominantly Gore bikewear gear. I’ve been really impressed by two items in particular. Their Xenon 2.0 Active Shell Vest and Xenon 2.0 Active Shell Jacket. Both breathable, packable, warm and water resistant. On my arms and legs I wore Sportful No-Rain Knee Warmers, which stayed up, didn’t gather behind the knee or elbow and kept me warm when needed.
I stuck with what I knew to be gluten free, being a coeliac. I used Torq gels, High Five 4:1 energy powder and Torq recovery. For solids I had Battle Oats which were ace. I particularly liked the cranberry and blueberry fusion flavor. I also had Beet it juice with breakfast. The feed stations had everything you could need like walnuts, bananas, dates, water, Gatorade and Coke. I brought much of what I needed with me, like gluten free pasta, and porridge, which are the essentials of a stage race.
I can’t thank my wife, Jane enough and my daughters Amy and Esme for the unwavering support through the race, training and every other day in between.