Anyone who races bikes or knows someone who races bikes will know that the run up to a big race can be all consuming what with all the training, getting all the logistics sorted, and generally being a bit stressed out. With the peak racing season running through summer, this can be a bit disruptive for long suffering partners, family and the like. To avoid all that this year I was looking for a big race for this year that was early enough in the season to be able to leave the summer clear but not so early as to not leave enough time to get ready. Enter (stage left) the Andalucia Bike Race. This was a race I wanted to do last year (but my plans hadn’t come together then) and which for 2019 had been moved from February to April meaning that I’d be able to avoid the foul weather they had on the last occasion and it would be guaranteed sun, yeah? Being highly recommended by various bike racers it was always going to be on my hit list and with it being a six day stage race it would be a new challenge given that I’d previously only raced three days back to back. These factors meant that it ticked all the boxes for me.

So with the aforementioned training, preparation and getting stressed out all done, I was on my way to ABR for my first six day Spanish stage race. The basic format of the race is six stages of racing over six days with the first day being a time trial and the remaining days being standard marathon distances races. Distances ranged from 38 km for the time trail though to 87 km for the queen stage. Climbing on each stage was not massive but enough over the six days to keep you honest. We would start in one location (Linares) race two days there then move to another town for stage three, another for the start of stage 4 then then final two stages would start from Cordoba.

Stage 1 was a time trial – the “Flash Stage” over 38 km with only 500 metres of climbing. The shorter distance and lack of significant climbing meant that it promised to be a flat out sprint which would not play to my strengths. New to me was starting from a ramp off the podium stage. You’re set off at 30 second intervals down a ramp which, with the rain that we had (yes rain!), could quite likely be extremely slippery. There was every possibility that with the nerves of queuing for your count in, and the watching crowd, that I’d slip a peddle, wipe out on the ramp and face plant. As it was, it all went smoothly and I powered off to try and chase down the riders in front of me. The stage itself seemed to go pretty well as far as I could tell. I was passed by one rider early on but then did nothing but pass other riders after that suggesting that I was holding my own with those riders in front or behind me.

Stage 2 was a proper marathon distance stage at 75km. The same starting location as stage one and some of the trails crossed over or used the same trails as for the Flash Stage. A reasonably good placing in stage 1 meant that I was starting towards the front of box 4. There were still a lot of riders in front of me but not bad all the same. Knowing that it was a relatively flat run in, I knew it was going to be quite an extended, quick paced start while people jostled for position before we go into the singletrack sections. This all went fairly well for me. I think I held my own but perhaps didn’t gain a whole load of places. I was cruising along in a group of riders when we found ourselves split and the second half of the group held up by a herd of cows. Once the cows cleared, I was at the front of the remainder of the pack and pressed on, enjoying the clear trail ahead and having a bit of a blast. I’d put a gap between me and the riders behind me when I must have clipped a sharp rock or similar because I started to hear the tell tail sound of air escaping from one of my tyres. I was hoping that it would seal but as I started on the next climb I could tell that it was going to need some attention. There then ensued a lot of faffing as I tried to fix the leak. Reluctant to put tube in if I could avoid it, I tried to plug the hole but was hampered by mud hiding where the leak was coming from. As all this was going on at the side of the trail, it seemed like the entire field overtook me. By the time I got going again I guessed at least 200 riders had gone past and I must have been right to the back of the field. Even when, like me, you’re only in the race to feature somewhere mid-field, to have put all the effort in to get the position you had got to only to lose it all to a puncture, it can be a tad demoralising. I’d gone from feeling like I was racing a bike to pootling along on a long bike ride. To rub salt into the wound I managed to flick a small branch into my rear wheel which jammed in between the cassette and spokes taking another 10 minutes to get that out. By the next technical zone I realised the puncture wasn’t sealing even with plug in it so I made use of a track pump to put some air. Then, on the next descent, the plug came out and I was back to square one. This was not turning out to be a good day on the bike. By the finish I’d lost 193 places against my general classification for the previous day. Ouch!

With my slight hiccup on Stage 2 I’d had to do a whole bunch of mental juggling overnight to come into the third stage in a positive frame of mind. That translated to a strategy of going flat out at the start and hanging on as long as I could before getting into what I assumed would be the normal procession as we hit a big climb and got into the singletrack. Flat out is a bit relative for me because I haven’t got the fastest turn of speed when it come to sprinting. That said, I seemed to be making up loads of places but the singletrack/climb I had anticipated turned out not to arrive as soon as expected and instead we had 20 km of undulating double track. I found a fast-ish group and opted to hang on to them as long as I could. Even when we hit the first big climb of the stage, we were still on doubletrack and I’d resigned myself to the probability that the stage was going to be a little dull. Ultimately it turned out that the course seemed to have been arranged to bring us out at this mental descent shortly after the second feed station. To lift my spirits, Cate had also made it to that feed station so I was able to grab a much needed bottle on the hoof. The descent that followed was pretty full on – basically a technical rocky path that extended for a what felt like an age. Miraculously the bike and I made it down unscathed but, having the route profile taped to the handlebars, I was aware that what followed was a mahoosive climb over the same distance i.e. super steep. It was a bit of a beast. Thereafter it was a fun and varied ride to the finish and certainly a much better day on the bike than the one that had preceded it.

For stage 4 we were now based in Cordoba but travelled back towards Linares to Villa Franca for the start and I’m back in the racing frame of mind after a good stage 3 and it’s more of the same. Racing bicycles on excellent Spanish singletrack and now in the sun! Frankly I can’t remember a lot of the detail of what happened in Stage 5 but over the course of the last stage and this one I’m starting to make up a few places in the standings. Minor improvements but improvements all the same. What’s more the stage finished with a 1000 egg fry up. Yes that right, the organisers fried 1000 eggs for the riders at the end of the stage. Only in Spain. Life is good. Yes life is good right up to the evening post ride when tasting a raw fish based dish in a local restaurant seemed like an acceptable food choice. Lets just say that the night that followed wasn’t ideal race preparation.

Stage 5 was the queen stage – the big one. Yes, on a six day stage race they wait until you’re truly knackered after four days of racing, then they drop the big one on you. In this case, that equated to 87 km and 1700 metres of climbing. With the night that preceded it, I was a little apprehensive about how this was going to go and fully expected to struggle with energy levels. By some sort of miracle I felt great! In fact this stage was probably the most satisfying of the whole race. The basic gist of the stage was a super rapid run in on the road follow by a bad ass climb which proved to be a little frustrating due to bottlenecks and the like making for slow progress. Then from about 20 km though to the 65 km mark you stay at roughly the same altitude – not that it’s without climbing but no, single massive climbs if you get my meaning. As with the other stages, none of the riding is all that technical but that doesn’t mean that it’s not fun. Think lots of flowy singletrack. From 65 km you begin a big long descent that spits you out in a park in the middle of Cordoba.

Stage 6 and it’s time to bring it home. Slightly shorter at 58 km the last stage also starts from Cordoba so it’s similar trails to those on the Queen stage which is no bad thing. The weather’s good and I’m still feeling strong so it’s a great way to finish the race.

To sum up then, the Andalucia Bike Race lived up to all my expectations. The trails were a lot of fun if not super technical and at the end of the sixth stage, could happily look back in the knowledge that I’d achieved what I set out to do which was to take on a new challenge, give it my all and finish the race. So where did all that leave me in the standings? 78th in category and 215th overall which equates to top half in category and top 25%ish overall. Impressive, eh? Well perhaps not but you can only place as well as the competition you’re up against allows and in choosing this race I was choosing to go up against some of the quickest riders around it seems. Obviously my issues on stage 2 didn’t help but even then I wouldn’t have been able to make up that many more places without significantly more time to train, more talent, better genetics or a combination thereof. That said, if you’re of a mind to give one of these things a go, don’t let the tough competition put you off as this stage racing thing is a hell of buzz.

Now I’m left with the post race question of what event to target next. Ideas anyone?