My earlier blurble should have prepared you a little bit for the story that’s about to come, but it might be useful to give a bit more background to put the whole thing into some sort of context.
I’ve never done a stage race before, but from what I’d been told, this was a good one to try. There was no slumming it by having to camp or share a gym hall with a thousand other smelly, snoring riders. Instead, the TP organisers arrange 3 or 4 star hotel accommodation for the riders each night, transport all your bags so that they are in your room by the time you get to the hotel, organise evening meals, massage and mechanics. So the comfort stuff was all taken care of. I felt okay about all of that before we left. What I felt less okay about was the actual riding. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the terrain; I was pretty certain the other riders would be gnarly and scary; I wasn’t sure how my body would cope with the sun and heat (given that 20 degrees counts as a baking hot day in these parts); but most of all, I wasn’t sure whether my body, particularly my legs, would do it day after day.
On the technical race side, I knew we had to be self-supporting from the time we left the start point each morning until we got to the finish in the evening (or had to call for help from one of the checkpoints). I also knew that the cut off times were based on the fastest finishing times from last year (I think the sums go like this: fastest finishing time x 1.67 = checkpoint closing time).
I tried not to spend too much time analysing the race before hand because I knew it would just turn me into a bag of nerves (even more so than I usually am before a race), so I just focussed on riding my bike as much as possible and toughening up my bottom so that I wouldn’t get terrible saddle sores. The only real analysis I did was to try to figure out the route. Since we couldn’t get OS maps for Portugal, this meant getting 3 road maps – Portugal north, Portugal centre, Portugal south – and trying to match up some of the place names we’d been given with the tiny specs on the maps. A 3 map ride is usually a biggie, but when the 3 maps cover 1,000km, that’s bigger than the average 3 map ride!
The whole adventure sort of split itself naturally into four parts for me, so I’m going to try to put it down on “paper” that way to try to make some sense of the jumble in my head (yes, even a week after coming home, I’m still trying to sort through all that I experienced!)
Edinburgh – Braganca
Quite a few km
Dark Chris and I had an early start to catch the red eye down to the chaos that is terminal 5 to then catch a connection on to Lisbon. That’s a bad start right there. Our flight from Edinburgh was delayed by 45 minutes, which meant it was going to be tight for us to get from T5 to T1 to catch our connection. After a sprint to catch the bus between terminals, we made it just as our fight had started boarding and settled down on the flight in the knowledge that it was very unlikely that all of our luggage would make it.
Surprise, surprise, after waiting in the baggage reclaim area of Lisbon airport for nearly an hour, we gave up and went to report out bikes missing. Luckily, a few other riders had had the same problem, so the guy at the lost luggage told us that Patricia, one of the race officials, was going to be picking up a bunch of other bikes later in the day and would be able to pick up ours which were expected to arrive on the next flight.
There really wasn’t much more we could do, so we went out to meet Patricia, who put us in a taxi and sent us off to Hotel Barcelona in central Lisbon, where all the other riders were meeting up to be collected by the bus taking us all up to Braganca. (I had to take my cardi off when I stepped out of the arrivals hall – it was baking hot, but quite pleasant after a chilly start in Edinburgh).
Most of the riders were already at the hotel by the time we arrived, including Paul West, our friend who had persuaded us to do the race. Paul introduced us to some of the riders he knew, which was great but unfortunately it set me off into panic mode….they were all so experienced! The excited chatter (which I usually try to avoid pre-race) was about how the race went last year and the targets for this year, the other races folks had done over the last few years and the races coming up after this one. There were a lot of experienced riders – Cape Epic, Trans Alp, Trans Rockies, BC Bike Race, Trans Wales, Race Across America, Race Across the West.
What was I thinking – I couldn’t possibly ride with people like this!
Luckily the 8 hour bus trip to Braganca was so hot that most of us dozed off for most of the trip and by the time we arrived in Braganca, we all just checked into the hotel and went straight to bed.
Braganca – Braganca
After a strong coffee at breakfast, Dark Chris and I ventured out to the hotel carpark where all the bikes were being unloaded to see if our bikes had turned up. Luckily they were both there and after building them back up, I was pleased to see mine looked to be unscathed. The same couldn’t quite be said for Dark Chris’ – a small crack had appeared in the seat stay, but it was decided that the seatpost would hold it all together, so nothing to worry about.
After bikes were fettled, it was off to register, get GPS’ set up and have the first race briefing. Then we had time for lunch, before another race briefing, followed by a GPS session, then we were all encouraged to go out for a test ride to the first village of the race to make sure we, our bikes and our GPS’ were working.
By this time it was 7pm, so I figured a little pootle would be quite nice in the evening. Unfortunately, it was still around 30 degreed when we venured out of the hotel, so Dark Chris and I just rode along to the first hill after the village and decided to head back (along with a lot of other riders, who were all commenting on how scarily hot it was).
After a quick shower, we all had our first dinner together before the final race briefing where we were given the vital statistics for day 1. These daily statistics proved to be crucial for me each day since they showed the places where we could get water during the day – this turned out to be far more important than I thought!
Braganca – Freixo
139km, 3,878m climbing
Cut off 20.33
Because of the handicap system, I was set off at 08.10 in the morning along with the 2 other youngsters (yes, really, I was one of the youngest female riders). The other 2, Manuala Vilaseca and Shanti Tilling, looked pretty capable, so I decided to just let them go and I’d ride on my own. When it was 30 degrees at 08.10 in the morning, I didn’t really have much choice!
I don’t remember very much about day 1. I remember coming across Shanti at the side of the trail some time between check points 1 and 2. She was feeling pretty unwell because of the heat, so had called to be rescued. Since her husband was with her (he had passed me some time earlier and had caught up with her), I plodded on.
Since I was out on my own, I decided I needed to structure my day a little bit…I had set my HRM on when I started, so every hour, I’d have either an energy bar or a gel, every half hour in between, I’d have a sweetie. I also started focusing on how much I was drinking every hour to make sure I was having enough. Unfortunately, this proved to be a problem. By late morning, the temperature was up in the high 30’s, so I’d had to slow right down and it was taking me much longer to reach the water points than expected. So I had to start conserving water.
By mid afternoon, I hadn’t seen another rider, or person for that matter, for hours. I was feeling pretty unwell because I was so hot (I think the thoughts that were going through my head were something like “can a person really be cooked alive?”, “how will they find me if I collapse?” “I’d better just keep plodding until I get to the next checkpoint because they’ll never be able to get down this trail to find me”). I felt pretty bad and was really anxious. Eventually I stopped in a village called To so that I could fill up with water. I sat beside the water fountain and just poured the water over my feet. I just couldn’t get going again. I managed to get along to checkpoint 4, which was at 102km.
Although I was within the time cut off, I was now riding so slowly that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the end, so I decided to call it a day.
So, Jose came and picked me up in the van, along with Nuno, one of the Portugese riders who was struggling in the heat, and drove me to Freixo with the bike in the back of the van.
I arrived in Freixo to find a pretty motley crew of broken riders collapsed around the outside of the sportshall that was being used as race HQ for the evening.
So, on day 1, of the 69 riders, 8 of us didn’t manage to finish because of the heat. That meant that we were awarded the slowest time for the day, but the distance we had covered did count towards our overall placing. The stage winner, Frans Claes, managed to complete the stage in 5hours 35 minutes.
A very downcast Dark Chris met me at the finish and said that his bike was “gubbed”. That crack in the frame had got a lot worse and now went all the way around the seatstay and top tube. It wouldn’t last even the smallest of bumps, so it wasn’t safe to ride. Antonio, race director, and Jose, race mechanic, reckoned they might be able to find a new bike for him to buy, but it wouldn’t be until day 3 unfortunately.
There was just time to get to our very nice accommodation on the outskirts of town, quick wash of kit, eat dinner, check start time for tomorrow, get race briefing with crucial water info, then bed.
Freixo – Alafaites
115km, 2,351m climbing
Cut off 18:03
It was a slightly later start for us youngsters on day 2 – we were off at 09.28.
Shanti was still looking pretty wobbly after day 1 and I was already starting to feel like I was cooking, but Manuela (who is from Brasil, by the way) set off as strong as ever. Just like day 1, I decided to let them go and do their own thing, but I managed to hang on to them until the bottom of the first climb, where chain suck meant I had to stop and fettle with my chain to get it sorted and ended up having to push the sort sharp climb. Luckliy I managed to catch sight of them again and was starting to close the gap a little bit (I even saw one of the girls who was set off in an earlier bunch than us!), but I managed to misread my GPS and rode off on a parallel track for 10 minutes and ended up at a dead end with a 10ft drop to shimmy down to get back to the right track – don’t tut too loudly, the GPS didn’t show 2 tracks, so I followed the one with the most bike tracks on it, but obviously I backed the wrong horse!
Not to be beaten, I dusted myself down, picked the thorns out of my bottom and got back on the bike. Luckily, the climb wasn’t too long before it reached a fantastic mountain road which snaked up and down for a few k (I almost wished I had a road bike!). The road then turned into a dirt track which then petered out into a bit of wide singletrack, then it started dropping down into a gorge. The track turned into pretty jiggy cobbled / rocky / exposed descent that was just like the stuff I love in Spain, so I giggled all the way down – passing the race photographer along the way as he shouted “Be careful. Very Dangerous”. To which I think I replied “Can we have more of this please?”
I managed to make some pretty good time down that section (I later found out that I was one of only a few riders who rode it) and managed to catch sight of some of the other girls again. A bit of a push back out the other side of the gorge spat us out onto another mountain road which wound its way down to the Douro river (the natural border between Spain and Portugal).
From the river, we then had a 27km climb through olive groves which then turned into scrub land and then into desert. I was passed by the race leaders and the quick guys part way up this climb, but then the heat started to take it’s toll again. By the time I reached the desert, I was pretty much out of water. I managed to spill half of my reserve water in my panic, so I was running pretty much on empty. Again the temperatures were up in the high 30’s and my body was starting to bake. Just as the climb started to level out, we crossed a stream, so I laid my bike down on the other side and had a wee bit of a paddle to try to keep cool. Luckily, Sidi’s retain water quite well, so I managed to keep my feet cool for a bit.
Erik Bakke, one of the Canadian riders, caught up with me at this point and he was in a pretty bad way. Erik is a strong rider, but he was stopping and lying down at the side of the trail every couple of hundred yards. I managed to keep going until we got to a road and had to shoot off track to find a petrol station to get some water. The nice lady in the petrol station looked pretty concerned when I asked for 3 big bottles of water, but wished me luck when I headed off again. I caught back up with Erik when I got back on the trail and rode with him for a bit, but he decided to stop in the village along with 3 or 4 other riders who were hiding in the shade.
The official water point was a fountain in a village park, so when I reached there, there were more riders hiding in the shade or pouring cold water over their head. I stopped and did the same for a few minutes because I knew there was another big climb coming up.
A big push up to the hill top village of Castelo Rodrigo got me to checkpoint 2 and another welcome fountain, before heading back down the other side of the hill onto the plains below.
This is when the riding changed. I was able to make pretty good time on the plains, and felt I was going okay. I came across lots of riders lying by the side of the trail looking broken. Offers of help and food were generally met with tearful smiles and assurances that they’d be okay and they’d just make it to the next checkpoint.
I was surprised to find that I made it to the next checkpoint in plenty of time (even after stopping to help one of the French riders who’d managed to rip his tyre….emptying my entire camelback on the trail brought giggles from all the male riders who’d stopped to help, but none of them had jelly babies and tyre boots!).
The next section of plain was very, very, very hot with very little shade, so again I started to slow down. I had managed to get to around 90k with about an hour to go and tried desperately to pick up my pace so that I would make it. But then, another incident of chain suck saw my chain get completely tangled in my chain rings, so I had to pull over, break my chain, unstuck it and fix it again. Although this didn’t take a huge amount of time, I felt like it ate up so much time. Just after I got going again, all that water I’d been drinking was suddenly too much and I had to find some bushes (I later found out that when women do Iron Man races, they just wee on the go, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it). This all cost me too much time and a tiny spec started to appear in the distance and slowly catch up…the sweeper. We rode together to the final checkpoint at 102k, and I then jumped in the van with Jose again whilst Rui the sweeper went off in search of Evgeny, the missing Russian rider whom I’d passed at checkpoint 3, but hadn’t been seen since.
So, although day 2 was much more optimistic, I still didn’t manage to finish and felt pretty down by the time I got back to the hotel at the end of the day. Luckily, Jose the mechanic, took my bike to try to sort out the chain suck and Cassie, one of the masseuses, gave my legs a good pummelling, so I went to bed feeling slightly more optimistic about what day 3 had in store. Oh, and Dark Chris’ new bike turned up, so he was a bit cheerier too.
I was also reassured to find that 20 other riders hadn’t been able to complete the day’s stage either – mostly because of the heat, but again the distance I had covered counted towards my overall position. Oh, and I still wasn’t DFL!
To be continued...