Hero to zero – Andalucia Bike Race 2014
As I lay in my race gear, cold, thirsty and sore on a hospital stretcher in a foreign country, I was struck by how vulnerable I had become. Only moments before, I was a mountain bike hero, cheered on by spectators, as I rode around Andalucia’s astounding countryside. Now, without the language, identification, or even a cent on me, I was persona non grata. But would I change anything? Hell no! I’m Alan, aka Half-arsed Racer, and this is my story of the Andalucia Bike Race 2014 – a race of ups and downs.
Andalucía Bike Race starts in the city of Jaén and ends in the city of Córdoba. 2014 was it’s forth edition. It offers sublime single track, big climbs, thrilling descents with a huge percentage taking place off road. It’s a pairs event and I was partnering with Scott Cornish, a seasoned stage racer. The stages average 60km, with the queens stage reaching over 80km. If you ever considered doing a stage race, then this is one I can’t recommend highly enough.
The build up started with a mixture fear and excitement for me. My home resembled a small hospital and my glands were up and stomach had been unwell for two days. There was some doubt as to whether I’d start the race. There were other doubts too, as this was my first stage race, like would I finish? Yet there was an overwhelming sense of excitement. I was flying to Andalucia, Spain to race my bike for six days in a row and I couldn’t wait.
I’m neither an endurance or stage rider. For years I’ve been doing one day cross country (xc) events, which tend to be a frantic one hour forty minutes races. I’d spent three months transforming myself into an endurance rider. As with any first time, I knew I would suck a bit, but was looking forward to the learning curve being as steep as the climbs. I’m writing this to shed light for others who are considering a stage race.
Day 1 – Jaén
Situated in the hearth of Andalucia, Jaén held the first two stages of this race. Our accommodation was organised by Rachel Sokal, racing for LeisureLakesBike and A Quick Release with Rickie Cotter in the female pairs. These two along with Ant Jordan would be our flat mates for the week. Our first accommodation was in Mancha Real, situated 15km from Jaén. On the night of the first stage, we hit the hay early, but I couldn’t sleep with anticipation. I was also breaking out in cold sweats, which I had been doing for a few nights. The next morning Scott advised me to spin a low gear on the big hills, in order not to burn out our legs too early in the race. This advice would prove invaluable later.
At the race HQ in Jaén, the atmosphere was hectic with cyclists form all over the world milling around. I began to get a sense that this was something special. The day was steeped in beautiful sunshine, and mountains were towering all round. Before the off, I did my usual warm up and noticed how tight chested felt. Not surprising as my glands in my neck were still huge. I hoped this would pass once we got going. I anticipated a steady start to the event. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The grid was split into boxes, with elite/pro riders in box 1. We were in box 4. With the timer ticking down I was eternally grateful to all the friends and family, who had made this possible. Then we were off to cheers from the spectators lining the route. The start was fast, with people immediately vying for position before we’d even left the neutral zone, which consisted of 3km of road riding to space riders. The trails started with a bottleneck of riders being crammed into a small piece of uphill single track. We would experience the frustration of bottle necking again over the six days.
The line of riders stretched into single file along the first piece of single track, which would lead to the biggest climb of the day. I was already becoming aware just how good the single track was as we made our way down the first descent. We were then at the base of the big climb. To put this into perspective, I’ve never climbed more than 10km before and the first climb of the race was 20km. It was on this climb that it became clear that I didn’t have it in my legs. It was disappointing, but I knew I needed to dig in and as Rickie would say, “have a glass of man the fuck up”.
We lost time on this climb. On the following descent I stopped to throw up. Thankfully, I descend well, so was able to relax and compose before the next big hill at 40k. I was unable to talk to Scott on this ascent. I was starting to cramp, my guts were in knots, and I considered stopping. Too much had gone into this to stop. I carried on, but we lost 10 to 12 places in the last 20km alone. I had made it to the finish and lived to fight another day. @ukxcnews reported that we had come home in 36th ion the master 40 category.
Then it was back to the flat and into a routine, which I would become very accustomed to. Scott encouraged me to eat as much as possible, both during the race and after. He also recommended sleeping whenever I could. I went to bed early that night. Needles to say I didn’t sleep wondering if I could possibly feel better for stage two, which was a beast. Even unwell I was blown away by sublime trails, which I couldn’t stop playing back in my head as I tried to sleep.
Here’s what I posted to Facebook after stage 1: 23 February near Mancha Real, Spain
You plan, train and hope that on the day it will all come right. Swollen glands were a sign of me not being well for Andalucia Bike Race, Really suffered today and lost lots of time. Resting up and hoping the second day is better. Thanks to all for the support.
Minimum height: 377,28 m
Maximum height: 1065,81m
Total climbing: 1.872,05 m
Day 2 – Jaén
I woke up on day two feeling ok. My glands were still up, but my stomach was better. All I wanted to do was feel how I normally feel on a bike – happy and up for a fight. The weather for day 2 was the opposite to day one. It had rained heavy overnight. I had packed for bad weather, which the race had had the year before. My Gore Bike Ware Xenon 2.0 Active Shell Jacket was a god send. Under this I had Gore Bike Ware Thermo Arm Warmers and Sportful knee warmers. I felt ready for anything, which as it turns out was the way to be.
I was hopeful after a good warm up. The start was again frantic until we hit another bottleneck before we quickly hit the first big 20km climb. Scott started to pull ahead. I didn’t panic and just kept spinning the pedals in a low gear. I found, unlike the day before, I was able to come back to Scott’s wheel and said the words I’m sure Scott wanted to hear – ‘Push on’. We climbed well into the snow and cold in the rain. We were picking off riders whenever possible. I was surprised by how many riders lacked the climbing skills in the mud and rocks along this long climb. I thought “bloody roadies”. I felt good and we raced over the climb and past the first 30km. Then the mud was such tough going that everyone began to struggle. It was bitterly cold, especially on the descents and river crossings. But even the cold and mud did not detract from the wonderful single track. I was finding that I could make up time and places on the descents. We descended in Jean with 50km done. This descent was amazing as we overlooked the city and began to warm up.
I hoped that this was the end, but it was not. We had another 10km around the city’s muddy trails before we finished. I was beginning to find that I was ok for the first 40 / 50km, but then would struggle somewhat for the rest. This wasn’t a surprise coming from xc racing as I do. I can’t describe how much grit and dirt I had in my eyes after this stage. People had to get medical attention to get their eyes washed out. We came home in a more respectable 21st position, which we were keen to improve on this the next day.
Facebook status update: 24 February near Mancha Real, Spain
Wow, what a day. Rain, snow, mud, huge climbs to 1,800 meters and the most fantastically tricky descents. Felt like myself for some of today, but hopefully more to come. Two biggest stages out of the way. Move to Cordoba now for rest of race. Finished 21 places up on yesterday’s result. Looking forward to tomorrow now.
Minimum height: 399,34 m
Maximum height: 1360,95 m
Total climbing: 1.896,85 m
Day 3 – Andújar
The next stage was a 45 minute drive to Anjubar. We had progressed up the grid to box 2. When the gun went, I was learning, that even thought this was a stage race, not to hold back. This stage had truly amazing climbs and dizzying descents. One section in particular, down a dried up river bed, with lots of switch backs, brought a smile to people’s faces. I was learning to really trust my descending skills. My Scott Scale 710 had just enough give in the rear stays to make the ride perfect. The sheer length of the descents meant that you had time to sit in, relax, and enjoy it. This was mountain biking at its absolute best, and I was loving it.
We finished 18th on the stage, so had progress again, but not by much. That evening we packed all our stuff and we headed to new accommodation in the centre of Cordoba, which would be our home for the remainder of the race. We slept in the car in the centre of Cordoba for 40 winks, while waiting for our flatmates to arrive. I spoke to Jane and the girls that evening and explained that this was all we saw of the city. They all expressed disbelief. But this was stage racing. All you do is race, eat and sleep and I was loving it. Any competitive cyclist will have thought, what would it be like to be a professional? This lifestyle was a small glimpse into it, without any of the perks. I have to say, while I loved the racing, I found it hard not go out and experience Spain.
Facebook update: 25 February near Córdoba, Spain
Jesus what have I got myself into. Only three days down and I can’t imagine how I’m going to race again tomorrow. Here’s what have learned: 1. You really can do more than you think you can. 2. I’m good for approx 3 hours per day, that’s it. 3. Love and support carries you over the line.
Minimum height: 194,42 m
Maximum height: 670,11 m
Total climbing: 1.664,49 m
Day 4 – Córdoba
On the morning of day 4 we had arrived at the race paddock early in order to get a chain for my bike. The new chain made all the difference – no more chain suck or noise, which had hampered me the day before. I had learned a valuable lesson – to put on a brand new chain ahead of any stage race. This was a day I really enjoyed. There were lots of hard climbs, but these were always rewarded by thrilling descents. I had learned to go like there’s no tomorrow, trusting that my body would have enough to fight again. This surprised me but was very liberating. At about 30km in there was a very steep clay climb lined by spectators, which I might have thought about pushing the bike up, but with all this support, everyone dropped the gears and went for it lifted by the crowd.
The Cordoba stages had about 400 metres less climbing per day, but there was still plenty of hard climbs to sap the legs and descent to exhilarate the soul. I wasn’t the only Irishman in the race. You could normally spot us by our lobster red heads and care free descending. With about 20km to go I followed one said Irishmen down a trail, which turned out to be a wrong turn. I could use this as an excuse for our poorer than expected result on the day, but I don’t think that would be true. We came home in 25th, which was a big step backwards for us. We still rewarded ourselves with dried meat, boiled eggs, avocado, and salted nuts from out of the back of our car after the stage. Things never taste better than when you’re been outside your comfort zone, are tired and cold from your efforts.
I wasn’t dejected. I knew I had tried hard all day. I was starting to enjoy the routine of sleeping badly, eating functionally, resting whenever possible, and only experiencing the country when racing. I was really looking forward to day 5 now and was prepared to give it even more, knowing that we were on the home straight.
Facebook update: 26 February near Córdoba, Spain
Day 4 down. Again wonderful trails. I pushed like there was no tomorrow. Result didn’t reflect it though. Finishing starting to look possible with two days to go. Tomorrow is the Queen’s stage so the longest. Still amazing at how tired I feel on the start line, but when asked, there’s has always been enough to get me by. Amazing!
Distance: 73,43 Km
Minimum height: 194,42 m
Maximum height: 633,28 m
Total climbing: 1.524,61 m
Day 5 – Córdoba
The penultimate day was set to be the harder, longer and more technical. The first real obstacle was a proper Spanish one. A heard of goats were running everywhere as we tried to cross a river in the first kilometers. The Spanish farmer could not look more put out as 1,200 cyclist milled by shouting in 30 languages. Then there was an hour of full on xc racing on wonderfully up and down trails, only interrupted by some ‘hike your bike’ up dried river beds. One section of hike your bike lasted for 10 minutes or so. Hiking with a bike is hard enough, but it really sucks in cycling shoes. Luckily this was followed by the most wonderful dried river descent, before scooting briefly across a road, up a hill then into a huge, steep gravel descent, where spectators were vying for blood. Some riders where not riding it. I didn’t hesitate and flew down it. At the end of this long descent, where it felt like I’d been hanging of the back of the bike for an age, I spotted some big rocks and chose my line over them. I could not see what was on the other side, but had seen two riders go over. I was following another rider and was committed at this point. At the last second, the rider in front hit the brakes and came to a complete stop in my path. I knew I was in trouble. I could either hit him or go around. I choose the later. Unfortunately, in doing so I left myself facing a huge drop sideways. I tried to land it, but it was no good. I hit the rocks below the drop. I went over the bars, onto my right shoulder. I got up and looked back up to see riders stopping people from coming over on top of me. I shook myself off. Without thinking, I jumped back on the bike and was off again. I was quickly back onto a flat fire road, where the pain started to hit. I was unable to grip the bars properly on the right. I was starting to get passed by other riders.
I rode to the next feed station, where a marshal took a look at my shoulder. It was obvious he hadn’t a clue, so I re-mounted and carried on. Scott had caught me up at this point and I rode behind him for a bit, but I was in some pain. At the end of the next piece of fire road, we entered a roundabout. Scott took a look and I decided to ask for a medic, which I knew was requesting the end to my race. I told Scott to go on, which he reluctantly did. I sat on the roundabout dejected as many echelons spun by. Sometime later, Rachael and Rickie passed and asked if I was ok. They later joked about how grey I looked. As I watched all the other riders go by, I was amazed at how far up we were. I was in pain, but not unhappy, as I had gone out fighting. My bike headed off separately in a marshals car. The ambulance took some time getting to me. When it did they were great. They put a bandage and strap around both my shoulders. This meant I couldn’t move either arm as we drove to the hospital.
I arrived at the hospital with no Spanish, no id and no money. They were reluctant to admit me. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I had no contact number in Spain, and didn’t know the address where we were staying. I had plummeted from hero to zero so quickly. From invincible to vulnerable in a blink of an eye. What followed was lots of poor communication, a doctors assessment, an x-ray, another doctors assessment and in between all of this, lots of waiting, with both arms strapped down. Finally a female doctor came and told me the words I wanted to hear ’ not broken’. Things began to look up from there as they cleaned the cuts all the way down my right-hand side, strapped up my shoulder, and put it in a sling. They gave me some pain killers, and let me just walk out the door. I had no money, was sore, wet, cold and still in my race lycra. I got a taxi back to the start finish at the University in Cordoba, which turned out to be 10km away. I had been in the hospital for 4 hours. I met a race organiser, Siw Johansen who was very helpful. She told me Scott had finished and was gone to the hospital – a good partner to the end.
Facebook update: 27 February
Thanks for every word of support. Unfortunately my race ended today. Forced to take a huge drop off rocks after a rider stopped right in front. Drop was too big and I hit rocks. Ambulance, hospital. X-ray, sling. Nothing broken. Dislocated, cut and bruised. What an adventure right to the end. For all the ups, I’ll take this down.
Distance: 82,86 Km
Minimum height: 129,67 m
Maximum height: 568,76 m
Total climbing: 1.602,69 m
Day 6 Córdoba
I still had it in my mind to race the last day. However, having not slept a wink due to the pain, and being even stiffer and sorer in the morning, I knew then for sure my race was run. Scott did race the final stage which was a 59km around Cordoba, coming home in 17th position on the day. He had been an amazing partner, always quick to share his knowledge about the body, bikes and racing. He’s also a very talented bike rider.
I expected a strong feeling of disappointment in not finishing, which didn’t happen. Instead I felt elated to have taken part. I went to support the other cyclists in finishing the last stage. There were some tears, beers and lots of wheelies over the line. Rachel and Rickie came over to finished 6th overall in the Elite female category, which is an incredible result. Other Brits doing well were Grant Leavy and Matthew Thompson, who came home 35th in the Elite men. Mark Spratt and Melanie Alexander finished a fantastic 4th in the Mixed pairs. Finally, a old foe, Nick Butler came home in 15th with partner Stephen Roundhill in the Master 40 category. Although it had just ended, already I was thinking what next?
Minimum height: 131,29 m
Maximum height: 541,26 m
Total climbing: 1.182.95 m
That evening I was in royal company, with some of the UK’s most talented and experienced endurance mountain bike riders. We went for a Mexican in Cordoba, our first Spanish experience (I know, we should have gone for tapas). there was Grant, Emma, Mark, Anna, Agata, Chrispin, Melanie, Rickie, Rachel, Scott, Mark O’Shea, Darragh and I. Needless to say, there was very little alcohol consumed. The meal was quickly followed up by ice-creams. Nothing was off the menu, we deserved to eat whatever we wanted now.
I came to The Andalucia Bike Race to compete, not just to finish. Although finishing would have been ideal, since Scott had failed to finish the year before, due to broken ribs. I enjoyed every climb, descent, rock drop, switch back and even river crossing. I’d ridden higher, longer and further than ever before and done it, for the most part, with a smile on my face. Nothing, not even the glaring hospital lights could erase the wonderful memories. I know the memories will live on after the scars, contusions and even dislocation has faded and healed.
If you are thinking of doing a stage race, don’t let my fall put you off. I would do it all again in a heart beat. It has been the most exhilarating and rewarding sporting event I’ve ever done. It may have converted me away from xc racing to endurance events, simply because you get more time on the bike, and that’s what all cyclists want right? I’d highly recommend The Andalucia Bike Race. The trails are sublime, location amazing and organisation well executed. I’d encourage you to ride with a smile on your face, as it’s a huge privilege just to be there. So many things need to fall into place for this to happen. Once on the start line, you just have to go for it, and enjoy every moment.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
– Get more sleep
– Race every day like it’s the last
– Trust your body will recover
– Include higher intensity long rides in training
– Abandon all mental limitations – you really can do more than you think you can
– Adopt quickly the stage race routine – just go with it
– Don’t let that fact it’s your first time hold you back
– Don’t worry that it’s six days
– Listen and learn from others
– Find a partner of similar ability to you
– Think that, baring injury or a mechanical, you’ll finish
– When you finish, you might be sorry you’re not racing again tomorrow!
I’d planned to race the 1st Round of the National XC Series on the 30th of March. With my shoulder, it will be at least 4 to 6 weeks before I’m back on a mountain bike. I’m reviewing my racing calendar for this year, not just because of the injury, but also with an eye on endurance events, like the European Marathon Championships near my family home in Ireland in June.
My Scott Scale 710 came into it’s own. The big surprise was how well it descended. The rear stays flex wonderfully for a hard tail. On the climbs it was light and coupled with Maxxis Ardent tires and American Classic Race Wheels, it was the perfect combination.
I wore predominantly Gore Bike Ware gear, who sponsor Scott. 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. We had all types of weather and they did the job nicely. Finally, in changing conditions, the Gore Bike Wear Power Socks worked well.
On my legs I wore Sportful No-Rain Knee Warmers, which stayed up, didn’t gather behind the knee and kept me warm when needed. It worth remember to pack rain and cold weather gear for this race, as the weather is very changeable. In some ways, the fact that it’s not just all sunshine, adds to the challenge and the experience of this special race.
I stuck with what I knew to be gluten free, being a coeliac. I used SIS gels, High Five 4:1 energy powder and recovery food. For solids I had Eat Natural Bars, which were ace. I particularly liked the date and walnut ones. I also had the a Beet it juice with breakfast. The feed stations, which we only used when really needed, were well manned and 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 enough my wife, Jane, and my daughters Amy and Esme for the unwavering support through the race, training and every other day in between. A special thanks also to my brother Keith and my Dad and Mum.