With entry for the 2015 edition of the Andalucia Bike Race opening soon - and sure to sell fast, we thought it would be a great idea to revisit the 2014 edition. This was Scott Cornish's third attempt at the Andalucia Bike Race, and he's kindly agreed to share his 2014 experience with us so we can find out why this early season stage race is quickly becoming the essential Cross-Country mountain bike racers opener of choice!
Andalucia Bike Race 2014
It’s that time of year again, looking to 2015 events. Entries are opening and some will fill fast. A superb early season opener is the Andalucia Bike Race. I raced it with Alan Colville last year and not without mishap. 2014, a review.
Having told Alan to bring cold weather riding gear just in case, I wasn’t actually expecting to have to use my winter GoreBikeWear kit, figuring that last year’s freezing cold rain and snow was just an anomaly. I was hopefully for a repeat of my first Andalucia Bike Race experience of 2 years ago, 6 days of racing in hot weather, working on velominati rule #7. Riding up through rain, then sleet, then snow on stage 2’s big climb, I was glad of my ‘just in case’ packing. That was a cold day on the bike, all part of stage racing, expect the unexpected, and for Alan, stage 5 was to be just that.
The 2014 edition was third time lucky for me, having crashed on both previous editions, last year on day 2, breaking 2 ribs. The stubborn fool in me kept riding, completing stage 3, but eventually pulling out on stage 4, the pain and discomfort too much. I was back for this 2014 edition, mainly because it is simply a great event, but also to complete the race incident free and eager for a top result. My partner was Alan Colville, a friend from Bristol, a strong, determined rider who I have raced with before at the local 12 and 8 hour Bristol Bikefests, with top results. I knew his strengths and he is a great character to be around. This would be a first for him though, 6 days of racing back to back.
I had forgotten what it is like, that first stage race (mine was the Cape Epic in 2006), the anticipation of the unexpected, wondering whether the legs would hold out, had I brought enough chamois cream, enough spares and of course, the nervous excitement of a new challenge. I remember being given advice from Matt Carr at that first race, what to bring, how to ride, to drop that early, over eager riding, and mostly to get out of the big ring! This time round I was ‘Matt’.
I was nervous this year, having put a lot of pressure on myself, to ride fast, to let go of my nervous descending, especially as Alan descends well. This year I kept questioning my ability, had my training been specific enough, what was my current average power, resting heart rate? I was feeling tired, had I done too much? Meeting Alan on the Saturday morning, he put that all back into perspective. He was just there to do his best, to finish well and to enjoy the trails and the race experience, the essence of why we ride. I had lost that focus, too concerned with numbers.
Stepping out of Malaga airport in the afternoon to sunny skies and 20 plus degrees, it was easy to forget that it was only March. This was still early season, where the daily distance was not so long, height gains were significant, but not massive and with a start time of 10am, we had the luxury of a sociable wake up time and relatively relaxed mornings. Coffee was the first order of the day and Alan had even bought his coffee grinder. Good call. Now that was something I hadn’t thought about doing.
The good weather continued for Stage 1, so the pasty white legs were out, although I still wore arm warmers and a gilet, still too cold this time of the day to ride without. We were all nervous smiles heading off to the start area, Alan looking forward to getting on with it after months of hard training.
The start area is always a social place, a chance to meet old faces, and many new ones. There was a big turnout from the UK this year. Signing on is straightforward (and can be done the day before), just don’t forget your race licence, as it will be checked. Many of the organisation speak English, some with perfect fluidity, so language is never an issue.
Start spot was box 4 for us, a fair way behind the front of the race, but no matter, the race would soon be climbing high and it was 6 days after all. Nerves and a general air of excitement built in the starting pens, as we waited for the off, legs eager to get going after a good period of tapering. Once out of the confines of the arena, get going they did, as did everyone else’s; the mass of riders surging forward like it was the start to an xc race.
Gone was the neutralized zone through the town of previous years. Groups quickly formed in the first few kms of open road, some riders reluctant to take turns out front due to the strong headwind. We joined groups, passed groups, then joined up with Mel Alexander (Scott UK) and partner Mark Spratt as they raced forward.
We were making up good ground, heart rates racing in those opening kms before the race hit dirt. Then it came, just as we hung a left onto trails, the bottleneck, hundreds of riders fighting to get up this narrow first section. Gutted, as riders behind caught us up, having worked hard to move up the field.
In reverse from previous editions, Jaen was host to stages 1 and 2, which were for the climbers. My kind of stage, well, the climbing part anyway. Descending has always been my weak link, losing some of what I had gained going up. Mostly due to a lack of confidence due to a pelvis issue which affects balance. Alan descends like a pro, which was going to push me beyond my comfort zone.
Mentally I was waiting for the climbing to start, the bottom sections usually wide enough to be able to make up valuable places, but without blowing out the legs. Starting steadily upwards, I could see Alan doing his xc thing, riding in the big ring. Spin Alan, spin! 16km up is a long way to go. As I found the climbing legs, others seemed to slow down and it was a good opportunity to do some passing, I rode on expecting Alan to be just behind. He wasn’t. He was way back. Mechanical, puncture? No, but his face said it all, he was properly struggling to find a good pace. This wasn’t Alan, and we both knew it. His family home had been sick bay before leaving. He was disappointed, pushing on as fast as the legs would allow, hoping that this would pass.
The singletrack around the edge of the mountain as we neared the top was great fun, albeit with a big drop to one side. The views spectacular, but my nemesis was coming up, the descent and I knew parts of this one from previous years, some steep, loose sections which I struggle on. Dropping down through the trees, along the singletrack I seemed to find my rhythm, flowing through the swooping, tree lined turns without my usual loss of speed. I was on different tyres this year too, a Bontrager XR2 upfront and an XR1 at the rear. The bike just felt surefooted, the front end gripping super well on the loose dirt, giving the confidence to ride sections I would otherwise think twice about. I was actually enjoying the descending, although I stopped at giving the small jumps a go on the downhill track, not wanting to tempt fate.
A good day on the bike, steady for me, but Alan was questioning what was going on and his ability to carry on. To his full credit, he was down, but far from out, prepping that evening for stage 2, hoping for a better day on the bike.
Waking to the sound of heavy rain and cold temperatures on day 2 wasn’t welcome, but this time we were well prepared with water and windproof gear from GoreBikeWear, andSealSkinz socks. Some riders were braving it with minimal gear, but we were going high today with reports of snow on top.
The race shot out of town on open trail, wet mud quickly coating riders and bikes. The bottleneck a few kms along wasn’t welcome, as track suddenly became singletrack, riders scrambling all over the embankment trying to gain ground. Some sussed out a way through via stone steps high above the trail, getting them well ahead of the snail paced crowd. Once through, the climbing began, bicycle path lead to open track which gradually narrowed to singletrack, switchbacking its way up the mountain.
Good news was that Alan was feeling better, and he was fighting to gain ground from the previous day. Setting a steady rhythm, the climbing was tough, long and cold as rain gave way to snow near the top. Some riders were walking the slightest of technical sections without even attempting to ride. Alan rode steadily, never faltering, constant communication between us was key to staying together.
Normally offering spectacular views, we were glad to get off the mountain and away from the snow, not stopping at the top side feed station. The descent left hands stinging and numb from the cold. One silver lining, the mud was wet, not the thick, frame clogging, tyre sucking stuff we get in the UK. The rest of the day’s trails were just wet and slippery, pushing the limits of the dry weather tyres, but, impressively, grip they did. The trails were fun, some clinging to hillsides, with sharp, tight descents through the trees. The last climb of the day was a minor one, 440m to 1100m, and then a descent almost to the finish, we couldn’t get warm clothes on quick enough. A cold, but exhilarating day’s riding in the mountains. The big climbs were done, longer stages were to follow, but of a more ‘rolling’ variety with a number of smaller, punchy climbs and, of course, the occasional longer grind.
Stage 3 was an all new destination, Andujar, which did mean missing out an amazing rocky valley descent, but the day’s riding more than made up for it. The weather was greatly improved, although the legs didn’t quite make a full appearance, hidden under knee warmers.
Another crazy fast xc start to the stage along narrow country lanes. Once off road, riders spread out across the width of the open hills, trying to gain ground over the mass of riders. This was tough, short, steep punchy climbs and loose, steep, muddy descending. Alan and I were staying level with each other, but he was across the other side of the terrain! Once at the highest point, the descending was cracking, the terrain a mixture of sand, mud and rock. The main descent was tough on bike and body, riding down a dry river bed and a steep, rocky hiking trail. Full sus riders would have been rejoicing. My Niner Air9 rdo handled supremely well and I was actually again enjoying the descending, throwing the bike into corners with a confidence that usually eludes me. Alan was having a blast too. The climb back up hit the legs hard, super steep and lined with spectators cheering on the hardy legged giving it a good go. A rear wheel spin out near the top ended my attempt. In the sandy, muddy terrain Alan was suffering badly from the daemon that is chain suck, but were we almost home. A good, fun day on the bike.
I always look forward to the riding around Cordoba, the peaks aren't high, but the trails are fun twisting singletrack, rocky and technical. Stage 4 was a mixture of old trails and new, made hard going by the constant up and down. Only one big climb today, a gradual, winding 12km, broken up by short sections of flat, so not so bad. Tiredness was starting to show through, as riders made mistakes. One rider’s day was over, a smashed carbon rim meant a walk to the finish. My descending confidence clung on, riding sections at speed which would normally have me hard on the brakes. You could see the delight in Alan’s face as he descended like a pro. Towing him back along the final flat 5km, he was tired, but smiling, looking forward to riding some more of the same on stage 5.
As the race went on, the starts seemed to get more frantic, riders jostling for positions in the first few kms along a not so wide canal path. I was struggling a bit, the legs finding it harder to turn the pedals, on the Trek Fuel Ex which I had borrowed. Simply because it was heavier and not a race set up. It was a total blast to ride otherwise. Since stage 3 my back had started to really hurt, the pain affecting sleep overnight after stage 4. Nothing to do with the bike, but my degenerative spinal condition. An exacerbation of the symptoms last year led me to question the use of a hardtail for multi day events, but the Niner Air9 rdo is such a great bike to ride that I wanted to take it.
A huge thanks to Ruben at the Trek stand who lent me the Fuel Ex and set it all up. I did have to swap across the Ergon GS1 grips and ergon SM3 saddle though. It made the difference for my back, resolving the pain.
The local goat farmer couldn’t have been too pleased as hundreds of cyclists tried to ride through his herd at speed a few kms in from the start! Goats shot off in all directions. Once the herd was negotiated, it was all fun riding, the Fuel Ex allowing me to tackle lines I wouldn’t have done on a hardtail, blasting through rocky sections, past hardtail riders, but I was paying for the added weight on the climbs.
The full suspended ride was a saviour down the day’s super rocky descent, where line choice is crucial to maintain speed and avoid punctures, but I have yet to master the bottom section, a sweeping right hander which drops riders into a steeper, loose and rutted section . I knew Alan would enjoy this one! Catching back up with him at the feed station at the bottom, he was clutching his right shoulder, face in pain. He had stacked it on the descent, a rider in front came to a sudden halt, forcing him off line and a spill onto the rocks. On quick examination, nothing seemed broken, but he was in agony riding along the flat canal side path. Pain forced him to stop at the next marshalled junction. His race was over. Not wanting to leave him, but he was adamant that I should continue, finish the race. I reluctantly carried on. It was odd to be riding sans partner, just passing from one group of riders to another, occasionally saying hi to familiar faces, but always wondering about Alan, whether he was still sitting, waiting for an ambulance. Puncturing later added to the frustration, riding like I was on tubeless tyres. I slowed up considerable for the rest of the day, especially on the section where I broke ribs last year.
Back at the paddock it was an anxious wait for Alan. The organisation were really helpful, taking me to the hospital, but we had missed each other. Reunited, diagnosis was a subluxed ac joint. Not good news, but Alan was in good spirits having really enjoyed the past 4 ½ days, despite lacking his usual climbing prowess. Pulling out is always a tough decision, but if it is bad enough to be considering it, then it is probably the best decision.
Setting out on stage 6 sans partner was pretty sombre and I didn’t feel much like racing, just enjoying today’s ride on the full sus. Motivation was low, but a steep climb early on soon brought me back as rider after rider came to halt and dismounted. I saw Crispin Doyle pass me, so that was it, I dug in, refusing to let the less than willing legs and the steep slope get the better of me.
Climbs were many, but short and steep, the descents rocky and fast. Many were puncturing today. After the final feed, I recognised the trail, the train track section was back. I wasn’t exactly gliding along the tracks, but my body was glad of the full sus. Fate was properly tempted today, the route taking us back over THAT spot again from last year, twice! I rode it at speed the last time just to show fate who was boss. It was a real shame to not be riding towards the finish with Alan, just 2 days earlier we had been riding along the same section together to the finish.
There were many broken, tired riders at the finish, but they were all smiling. It’s a great event, the riding out here quite spectacular; a great mixture of big and rolling climbs and descents, heaps of twisting fun singletrack, some of it technical, rocky, steep, testing the abilities of all riders. Some of the singletrack used this year was just sublime, especially on stage 3 in Andujar.
Logistically, it was all change for this year, due to the event’s year on year growth in popularity.
Accommodation: riders, have to find their own. Get in as early as possible though if you want something super close to the start venue. A self catering apartment is a good choice if in a group or there are a number of hostels in Cordoba and Jaen. We ended up in an apartment in Mancha Real for stages 1 and 2, a 25 minute drive away, but a nice quiet town. Being in central Cordoba, (about 10km from the start), again in an apartment, worked out well too.
Clothing: GoreBikeWear. A great range of everything a rider would need! Instead of overshoes, I used Sealskinz socks to great effect. Bring cold/wet weather riding kit, just in case!
Bike: Niner Air 9 rdo. A hardtail is perfect, but a fully is great fun on many sections. I use GS1 grips and an SM3 saddle from Ergon. The grips save the hands!
Gears: 2x10 Shimano XTR with Rotor Q rings 38/27 up front.
Fuel: MuleBar gels and bars (recovery ones too)
Transfers: Best option is car rental from the airport, as you will have to find your own to and from the transfer stage 3. Facilities here are very limited too, so it’s ideal to have everything you need in the car.
Kit bags: At registration, riders are issued with a small bag which can be handed in at each stage start and collected at the end. Useful for spare clothing, recovery foods etc, especially if riding to and from the start areas.
Race Licence: These aren't a requirement, but it will save you the 60euro for a temporary Spanish race licence for the week. Just remember to bring it along as it will be checked at registration.
Feed stations: Are well stocked with fruit, energy drink and water, but no bars or gels, so do bring your own. There are more than enough on each stage. Plan the day and you won’t need to stop at each one.
If you havn’t done it before, it’s a great start to the season and the area is well worth a visit if you have the time post race to spend some time there. Have a look: http://www.andaluciabikerace.com/?lang=eng
Information for 2015 entry:
For its fifth edition, the organisation has developed several registration options to satisfy the personal needs of the participants. There will be a basic entry fee (from 390 €per person), which will be useful for those only wanting to enter the competition and will sort logistics and accommodation for themselves. Its pricing will vary according to the following periods:
First period: 'soon' until 2nd of December 2014 = 390€/person.
Second period: 3rd of December 2014 until 7th of January 2015 = 420 €/person.
Third period: 8th until 29th of January 2015 = 510 €/person.
The Premium option will be limited to one hundred riders (fifty teams), and is thought for those who do not want to worry about anything other than riding their bikes and look for a full board personalised service. It will have a unique price during the entire registration period.