I don’t need to tell you that this will almost certainly be the hardest, most physically demanding challenge you will ever undertake. This is not a blog telling you how to train, but one that gives you an insight in to what it’s like racing Ironbike and tries to pre-empt everything you want to know. If it’s not covered here, email the organisation!
When I was preparing for Ironbike, I wanted to know as much as possible so that I could be as prepared as possible. Other racers were a great source of information, but doing Ironbike is a very different prospect supported to unsupported. As an unsupported rider, you have to manage pretty much everything yourself, often in way less time than you’d like. Your most valuable commodity will be time, so the more efficient you can be the better, and that means being as prepared as you can be.
Packing / logistics / general:
– Try and arrive a day early and leave the following day after the finish, stopping over in Sauze d’Oulx. I drove all the way back to the UK after the final stage, and although I got to see my family earlier than planned, it properly fucked me.
– I got really hung up on bag weight, trying to get everything down to the last gram to hit the weight limit (30kgs tent included). I needn’t have bothered. So don’t get too hung up on the bag weight limit – there’s a guy with a set of bathroom scales in the car park who’s just checking to make sure you’re not trying to get away with 50kg of gear.
– Compartmentalise your bag. You can get specific compartment thingies from outdoor shops , or you can just use different carrier bags / large zip-loc freezer bags: 1 for your riding gear, 1 for your dirty kit, 1 for casual clothes, tupperware for your spares, etc
– Adapters: be aware that there is a difference between Northern and Southern European plugs even though they look very similar (learnt the hard way!) Take one adapter per bit of kit – you’re not going to have time to charge one thing then another. They normally have a spider charger which you can leave phone and Garmin attached to overnight.
– Kit washing: you won’t find any laundrettes on the way, so you need to be prepared to wash your kit in a sink. Take some hand washing detergent and on a day that’s warm and you finish relatively early, get it done early and hung out to dry as soon as possible. If you’re lucky, it will stay warm enough overnight that you can leave stuff hanging out.
– You’re pretty well covered as an English-speaker at Ironbike, but a bit of effort goes a long with the locals. Even small things like ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Excuse me’, ‘I have a compound fracture of the tibia’ or ‘More wine, love’.
– I took a load of nutrition products, figuring I’d treat each day like a marathon race. Gels and bloks are useful, but the feed stops are well stocked and I ended up carrying too much.
– If you’re not brave enough to top up on the supplied energy drink (I can’t remember what was offered, but it was nothing I’d heard of), take your own favourite energy drink, and carry sachets of it for topping up during the day.
– Having said that, the evening meals are generally very good, and there’s plenty of food – to the point that you can overeat (not that that’s ever really a problem…)
Bike and equipment:
– Your bike needs to be a compromise between lightweight and being strong enough to last 8 days in the Alps. Bear in mind that you are going to have to ride (and literally carry, in many cases) your bike over about 27000m of climbing, so light is good, but if in doubt, go for strength.
– I didn’t even think about fitting bigger brakes to my bike beforehand, but will do next time. I just had race brakes on which had performed perfectly beforehand, but I got to the Alps and suffered from overheating, brake fade, the works.
– Spares: You have to figure that most standard stuff will be covered. The stuff you need to take with you is individual. Go over your bike and look at every single component and think, what would happen if that broke? The one thing that proved a god-send for me was a replacement saddle.
– Dropper post. Get one. A brilliant recommendation from another racer and worth its weight in gold.
– It should go without saying that Ironbike is not the time to try anything new. I took along a hydration pack that was new-ish, that I’d used on a few shorter rides. Unfortunately, on longer rides, it rubbed my spine and left my back weeping. Always go for tried and tested.
Recovery, recovery, recovery:
– The most important factor of the race is not so much how well you do on one day, but how quickly you recover for the next.
– Pre and post-racing, your aim is to sort everything out as quickly and with as minimum of fuss as possible. Manage everything well and you will be more relaxed, less stressed and that allows for better recovery.
– There are big advantages go to those who finish the earliest: shorter queues for bike wash / showers / masseurs, you get time to do your mechanics, eat, drink and relax. The following morning, the slower riders go off first, so you if you’re higher up the leaderboard, you can have anything up to an extra hour to prepare and do bits and bobs that you didn’t have the chance to do the night before.
– Compression stockings / socks. Iook for some compression stockings that include in-built socks and try and keep your legs elevated when resting.
– Some days are so hot, you’ll push the front of your helmet and sweat will piss down your face. In those situations, it’s almost impossible to take on enough fluid, so consider rehydration salts for the end of the day.
– Give consideration to getting a massage each day. There’s an option to buy a massage each day, or get a week-long ‘season ticket’. There were one or two days where I didn’t really need it, but others where it made a huge difference.
– Camping: Get a pop-up tent and learn to take it up and down quickly. You will be thankful for this, as it’ll save you loads of time.
– You will be in (very) close proximity to riders who seem to be happy to sit up and chat till gone midnight, snore, fart, etc. And nothing’s worse when you’re exhausted and want to go to sleep than getting wound up by inconsiderate wankers. In my experience, ear plugs don’t cut it. I found noise cancelling headphones and some relaxing music on an iPod are far more effective.
– Some nights are cold, some nights are very warm. A sleeping bag liner is useful, silk if you can afford it.
– With 100-odd marathon racers running on carbo nutrition combined with limited and basic resources, some of the toilets can get pretty grim.
– What bike for…? All the top guys were on carbon / ti 29ers. They’re probably the fastest, but not necessarily the comfiest. When you consider that you’ll be riding ~10 hours a day in the Alps, then an FS is certainly worth considering. Oddly, it’s not the descents where they bring the most benefit, but the rocky uphills. I rode a lightweight 26” FS, but I’d probably go for a 29er HT next time. Horses for courses.
– What tyres for…? There’s little mud to speak of; lots of fireroad, singletrack and (pointy) rocks. Both Matt and I ran snakeskin Racing Ralphs and I’d go with the same again. Be warned, your tyres will take an absolute caning.So think about taking a spare or even two.
– What gears for…? I went 2×10, 38/26 front with an 11-36 cassette. That was pretty much spot on for me. If in doubt, go for a lower ratio.
– Each day generally takes the following format: a long ride interspersed with two special stages. These special stages are timed and determine your position. There are a few exceptions, but generally, the special stages start at the bottom of a mountain and finish at the bottom the other side, so your time depends on how fast you can go up a mountain and come down the other side.
– There is a points system, but to be honest, the intricacies of it still leave me a bit confused. I’ll try and keep it as simple as possible – I think this is how it works:
Essentially, there is a ‘recommended’ time and a final ‘cut-off’ time a few hours later. The important thing is to make sure you finish inside the ‘cut-off’ time – finish outside of this time and you’re deemed a ‘non-finisher’.
You get points based on how far you are outside the ‘recommended’ time.
You also get points for each special stage based on how far you are behind the person who wins that stage.
At the end of the day, your points for each special stage are added to your points for finishing outside the ‘recommended’ time to give you a total. That gives you your position for the day, and then your points are added to the previous days’ points to give your overall position. Easy!
My advice would be to just ride the special stages as fast as you can, don’t fall outside the ‘cut-off’ time and let somebody else worry about calculating the points.
– You’ll need to find your groove. Some folk seemed to be able to cruise really slowly on the transfer sections and then absolutely fly through the special stages. That’s how you should really do it, but I found that really difficult, so I just ended up riding it as a 8/9/10 hour marathon and went from a mediocre pace to a speed marginally quicker for the special stages.
– The worst pre-conception I had was that although it was going to be in the Alps, the climbs wouldn’t be too hard. Much like Alpine road climbs, they’d be big, go on for ages, but generally not be that steep. Big, big mistake. The climbs are big, they go on for ages, but they are steep too. Imagine climbing for an hour at 20-25%. Come the summer, you won’t need to imagine any longer.
– Temperature swings can be huge. It can be below zero and snowing on some of the peaks, yet 30 degrees later in the day in the valleys. Some rider seem able to cope with just a gilet, but I’d recommend a good, lightweight packable jacket. Combine with base layers, arm warmers, medium weight gloves, etc.
– The top guys race with a couple of bottles and full jersey pockets, but for most folk a hydration pack is a must.
– Patience, patience, patience. Consistency, consistency, consistency. Always try and keep in the back of your mind that it’s a week-long race. Time you give up earlier in the week to guys who are nailing themselves (and there are nutters who do nail it from the off), will easily be claimed back.
– Discretion is often the better part of valour. This is a really tricky one – some of the descents are insanely difficult, and you’re frequently knackered, so sometimes you need to back off, suck it up and walk. The only problem is that there are so many technical descents, that making that call becomes really tricky. Matt and I discussed this and opined that if you got off and walked all the bits you thought you might crash on, you’d spend twice as long in the mountains! So it’s a balancing act, sometimes you’ll get it right and on the times you get it wrong, close your eyes, cross your fingers and hope you land on something soft!
– Altitude is a big factor. The higher you go over 2000m, the more noticeable you’ll find the effects. Your pace will slow, your energy will dissipate and you can’t get your heart rate up.
– There’s a lot of hike-a-bike involved at Ironbike. You’ll often get near the top of a mountain and then have to sling your bike on your back for an hour or so. Practice how you’re going to carry your bike. According to the masseurs last year, they saw a lot of issues with people who carried their bike on only one shoulder, so look to swap frequently, or sling it across your back. Some guys tape pipe insulation to their top tube to make things a little comfier, but I didn’t feel it necessary. However, I was often resting the bike on the top of my hydration pack, so the weight was borne by the pack straps.
– The 4000 steps of the Forte di Fenestrelle. You’ll need lights for this stage too (just don’t forget to turn them on before you start the stage) The 4000 steps are absolutely punishing on the arms, so unless you’re the kind of person that doesn’t suffer from arm pump, then you’ll probably have to stop for a couple of breaks. The temptation is to open up the suspension all the way, but with several steep sections, you really want to try and avoid fork dive, so lock out your (front) suspension, drop the saddle and hang off the back for 10-15 minutes! Don’t ride the last section of steps! Watch these videos to see where that is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IT2LeSera0 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x41oJoxfDAo