Never say never. I should know that but I had always thought that Mountain Bike Stage racing just sounded like something I would never want to do. Putting that many hours on a bike some of which can be grueling just had never appealed to me, that is until Jenny Smith, successful Xterra and MTB Stage Racer, called with an opportunity of a lifetime.
A paid “vacation?” Geez, who can say no to that really. Hotels? Eating off china plates as though you were actually normal and civilized? Free Massages after the race? Accommodations paid for? Transportation and Transfers included?
Well “DUH”, of course I want to go!!! I think?!?!
Jenny and I made sure we were on the same page before signing up as a team. The goal? Get some ripping base training and mileage in. Never mind the fact that I have yet to put in over 4.5 hours on the bike (that may even be a stretch) let alone doing that 6 days in a row!
SLC to ATL to Paris to Malaga, Spain
Let the mishaps begin: No luggage
Ah heck, who needs luggage anyway? Well at least the Air France pilot warned us to “Not smoke IN the toilet”. That mean I can smoke outside of the toilet??? Just wondering.
I probably should have been a little more alarmed than I was without luggage, being alone in Spain and hoping that my ride from the race organizers was going to be there. I don’t speak Spanish and my husband Chris (aka Pepe) who does, was flying in the next day. Oh boy.
My luck turned around as a gal I started talking to in Paris, was native to Malaga, spoke English and Spanish and knew exactly what to do about lost luggage. She waited so patiently with me at the luggage carousel to make sure my bags were indeed not there and then walked me over to the “window” to file a lost luggage claim. This was taking time and I was sweating a little that my ride (that I hadn’t seen yet) would leave me since I was officially late for the pickup. Ok, getting nervous. And I can’t go outside and get the driver because I can’t go back in!!! So I made a few calls (that’s gonna hurt!!!) and found out that the van driver was there and would wait. Relief.
Next mishap: Towed van
Secretly I didn’t mind not having to lug my luggage around the airport to the van. Only thing was that our van wasn’t there. The driver, Pablo was, but no van. Apparently he parked a bit too long waiting for me and the van was towed. Oops.
In the meantime myself, Jenny who had appeared on scene from another flight, Thomas from Specialized, Henrick and his race partner Mads (eventual Masters Overall winners) hung out at the airport Starbucks. Yep, Starbucks is near the Mediterranean too.
Mishap #3: Got insurance?
Once Pablo figured out the van situation and paid the fine we packed and were off…..well until he scraped the side mirror on the concrete parking structure. Poor Pablo!! And once he got going again Henrick took his fist and hit the side of the van to make Pablo think he hit something else!! Pretty funny but I think at that point Pablo was ready to abandon ship!
I could see clearly that this was going to be quite the experience!
Malaga to Cordoba
Spain was super green as we made our way through the hills, expansive olive groves/plantations and even some bull fighting arenas. To make the area even more beautiful there was a dam nestled in between the mountains. Incredible area.
A couple hour drive to the beautiful hotel in Cordoba and a frantic trip to the quick mart (think 7-11) that had a BAKERY in the back of it and Jenny and I were feeling like we could start getting settled.
Well that was after rearranging the room, identifying that thing in the bathroom as a bidet and laughing about the hairdryer that looked like a hose vacuum.
The next day my bike showed up and I got it built just in time to join Jenny for a ride. The ride felt great after 2 days of no riding and the warmth felt exceptional. Even got a sneak peek of some of the singletrack in the area. Hard packed smooth dirt-loving it!
The next morning we got up around 6:30am for what turned out to be an excellent buffet breakfast by the hotel. Pretty much everything you could ask for to include the thickest black coffee ever along with salty meats and cheeses galore. Olive oil was abundant as we were in the olive oil production capital of the world. And, In case you are wondering what the current MTB World Champion, Jose Hermida, chose as his pre race food it was a fresh baked baguette with olive oil drizzled all over it.
Now it was time for the real test for me…..to figure out what to eat on the bike. What was I going to want to eat? I don’t know!!! I rarely eat on the bike and usually only fuel with sports drink but now that we were going to be on the bike for 60 + miles I HAD to eat. I just packed it all (gels, blocks, bars, etc) so that I had a choice. Better off with some food that you will actually eat because what sounds good now may not sound good at race pace. I was ALREADY thinking about Stage 6 and how I could make it that far without depleting my body or getting dehydrated so I really wanted to be careful. I also settled for carrying 2 sports bottles and no camelback because there were going to be plenty of feed stations along the way.
Neutral Start: CRASH
Before the race started I was on my head. There was a neutral roll out from the hotel to downtown Cordoba before Stage 1 began. I knew jitters were in the air and I told myself to stay out of trouble. I purposely put myself ALONE in the extremely large pack when from out of nowhere a guy swooped in, crossing bars with mine!! We fought it for a while and I ended up going down hard on the pavement. Everything flew out of my pockets and no one hit me thank heavens. Jenny was luckily right there to gather everything that had launched and get us back up to the group before the stage start.
The bike was fine and I was fine- more just annoyed. Got the first war wound on my bike from that one. Can’t believe everything was ok aside from what turned into a sore left arm for the rest of the week. To think that my (our) race could have been over before it even began!!!
STAGE 1: Córdoba–Cerro Muriano
Jenny and I rolled up to the start of the race only having a few minutes to shake off the shock of the crash. The gun goes off and I send my body into more shock racing from downtown Cordoba towards the hills for 6400 feet of climbing. That kind of intensity trying to get a good position in the pack made me feel like I wanted to barf for the first 2 hours of the race. Awesome feeling.
But my mind was easily diverted as all the Andalucía Bike Racers had been started WITH a separate Marathon race that had 1000 starters. It was flat out mayhem as Jenny and I rode with groups for the first 2.5 hours of the race. Still at that point there was only about a 10 second gap to the next person. I even gave some poor guy begging for food as I rode by my sports bar. When you are out in the middle of nowhere like that, you are all in it together.
We headed up paved roads, thru tight singletrack, into tiny towns, and down some of the sketchiest descents that I found myself riding thanks to my Nobby Nics by Schwalbe Tires! We passed some amazing ruins during the stage too. It was truly breathtaking out there. But it wasn’t completely dry. There were MANY stream crossings that were ridable but left you with a cold, wet, and frozen foot for the rest of the race.
At about the point we thought the race should be ending it just kept going and going and going. Oops, they forgot about that last hellish 7k. And it’s not that the last 7k was that bad but when you expect it to end and it’s not, that’s when the troubles with the head begin.
But Jenny and I kept trucking along even pushing ourselves up one hideous climb only because people were lining it screaming. It just about cracked me. That is what you call peer pressure and we succumbed and both decided after maybe that wasn’t the best idea in the world.
When we finally crossed the line we were told we had come in 2nd and I really thought that they had made a mistake. But after a few interviews for Spanish TV and a bunch of pictures, it was reality that we had indeed really come in 2nd!! Wow, in my first stage race ever. I think I could like this stuff! : )
Notes: I am loving the international feel of this race!! 14 countries are represented and it’s a hit or miss if the person speaks English or not. Even have some heavy hitters from the pro road arena (Heras and Beltran) mixing it up in the dirt and dust!
STAGE 2: Western Cordoba
What a crazy way to start a race…..take 170 riders up a 10 second sprint on a dirt road and pinch them all through a 2 person wide hole in the fence which sends everyone STRAIGHT down a steep loose rocky hill. It was tempting to ride that steep part but with all the mayhem, carnage and people slipping everywhere (on foot and on bike) I chose to think about the bike and the rest of the LONG day we had ahead and run the sucker.
It was a good move because whatever Jenny and I did allowed us to jump on Mads and Henricks wheels (current Masters Leaders) across the flats. They were drilling it to get a gap on their competition while Jenny and I held on strong behind them before going our own pace up the long climb. We were doing well at this point. So well that we were in the lead!
The leaders caught us towards the top and we continued to put the pressure on when Jenny said “We are doing GREAT Kathy”. And (not even kidding) a second later she says “OH NO!!” Jenny had chain suck BAD. So bad that she had to take the chain apart to repair. I was calm as I didn’t want to rush the repair job. I was confident in our ability to get back in there if we could do a solid fix. The real thing I was worried about was what seemed to be an angry bull headed our way. He got close but didn’t bother us (amen!). 15 minutes later we were back on the bike and riding our own Tempo in 5th place now. Such is bike racing!
It took us about an hour to catch up to the next competitors. As we made our way through the field, fellow racers were cheering, giving us time gaps and letting us draft off them. Pretty neat to see the excitement and enthusiasm everyone had to race a bike and help us get back up front!
I think we ran into almost every kind of scenario on this day. From the mechanical to horses merging onto the path that we needed to take, some random hike a bikes on the river (it was NICE change to get off the bike), some missed turns (discovered quickly – no time loss) and a few dropped water bottles (which must be collected in a race like this) but we found our way to back up to 2nd place and 2nd overall in the race!!
Note: I think I am already getting as good as those competitive eaters are at powering down bananas and figs in the feed zone. What a sight!! It’s something you’d not want to be caught doing at the dinner table!