The winter months often seem to take an age to pass but suddenly the race season is upon us. This past week I started the season at Europe’s first UCI stage race of 2016, Costa Blanca Bike Race. I paired up with fast British XC racer Tom Bell.
Golden beaches and warm blue skies, the start of Costa Blanca Bike Race stage 1 could have been a dream of any cyclist. After a short dash through the streets of Benidorm the international field of athletes were treated to a fantastic route with some truly amazing singletrack.
Sadly after 30km the course tape had been removed causing a large quantity of riders including ourselves to take an incorrect turn. The organisers made the right decision to give everyone the same time. It was a shame for Tom and me as we’d practised this stage and we were using the knowledge to our advantage.
The one section we had not pre ridden actually turned out to be the most technical, luckily I just held onto my new Turner Czar and it got me through.
Stage 2 started in pretty cold conditions but the racing was still red hot. There were some seriously quick cross country riders honing their form and collecting some UCI points for their Olympic qualification. The start was rapid but the steep ascent to the 7km mark quickly slowed the speed. With pitches of 25% riders were chewing on the stem.
After this though we enjoyed almost 20km of descending, all the way down to the amazing coastline at Benidorm with some great singletrack sections.
The last 15km took us from sea level up to 400 meters. Tom and I were surprised to see the finish town quite so quickly. It took us just 2 hours to complete what we’d expected to be a 2 hours 30 stage. Over the line we were 21st but the time gaps were close. If we’d known the stage was going to be short we could have pushed on harder on the final climb and made up time to the leaders.
Great YouTube footage, shame about the cold-sores.
Costa Blanca Bike Race stage 3: the Queen Stage.
The stats of 78km’s and 2776 meters of ascent don’t tell the story. Forget easy fireroad alpine miles, this was as rough as you’ve ever seen. I’ve seen downhill World Cups on easier trails! This was action packed uphill and downhill with nowhere to rest.
Tom and I made our best start so far; both of us had great legs on the opening climb and positioned ourselves well inside the top 10 with all the big name riders. By the top of the second mountain we were still top 10 with the Trek Factory duo of Kohei Yamamoto and Sergio Mantecon Gutierrez.
The following descent was pretty insane! I’d seen the hairpin bends when studying the maps the night before but the rock gardens were huge. I don’t know how Tom made it down in one piece on his little 27” wheeled hardtail.
I opened up the Turner Czar in downhill mode, the bike was taking it all in its stride, and I was hanging on for dear life! By the bottom I could feel the fatigue and just wanted a smooth bit of tarmac or fireroad. No chance! It was a left turn straight into a 15% gradient offroad rocky loose climb which ascended 700 metres altitude.
We lost a couple of places on this climb. From the 50km mark it was all downhill for 20km. It seemed to take an age and when we passed a reservoir I’d seen on the map I knew we still had a good half an hour to go. Eventually we dropped down towards the finish town of Polop but the organisers had one last trick up their sleeves. A technical 25% gradient ascent into town, lined with spectators we were determined enough to clean the climb but I was sure the last hop up a step was going to see my legs cramp. They didn’t and we made it to the finish after 4 hours, completely spent.
Stage 4, the finale of Costa Blanca Bike Race 2016, was a 7km timetrial. The route looked simple enough on paper but there was a great big dirty 300 meter ascent in the last 2km’s. There was talk of there being sections of 30 percent gradient, not possible we thought! On arriving to the venue we could see the only way up the hill, okay that looks steep!
Pairs set off at 30 second intervals. Tom and I weren’t off until 12.13. The morning was spent nervously watching the clock. Eventually it was time to ride to the venue and warm up. Sitting in 16th place overall and the TT being run in reverse order, there was a good crowd formed by the time we went off both at the start and also on the steep ascent to the hilltop. We had a comfortable gap over 17th place on the GC but there was just a 4 second gap to catch the team ahead of us in 15th.
3,2,1, go. We were off heading into the first 5km twisty suburban track which I led us around, the flat punchy circuit suiting me much better than the lightweight Tom. As the climb began we had almost caught the 2 teams who’d started in front of us. Tom slotted in front for the climb, I was suffering but we still caught and overtook 3 teams.
It’s hard to explain how steep this was but the final 500 meters was like a wall. Successfully over the line we first gasped for air, had a lie down, and then started to consider our time. Had we done enough to make up the 4 seconds? Oh yes, 29 seconds gap to our advantage, high fives! We were 13th on the stage and moved up to 15th overall. The Rotor INpower cranks recorded a normalized power of 420 watts for this 23 minute timetrial.
The Costa Blanca Bike Race turned out to be a fantastic way to start the season. There were some eyebrows raised after the issues on stage 1, but this was soon forgotten with the many kilometres of fantastic trails and excellent organisation on the following days. I leave Spain feeling stronger, more confident on the trails, with a suntan and a good handful of UCI points.