Sam and Dani Humphrey recently raced the Catalunya mountain bike stage race with a 4th GC finish and 3rd place in one of the stage races for Sam and and 8th GC finish for Dani. Sam tells us a little bit more about the race in detail ....
I have just got back from a wind swept and soaking wet dog walk, wearing welly boots and squelching through mud, Dani and I hid in the trees to avoid the worst of the rain! it’s a stark contrast to the sun bleached high altitude mountains on the French/Spanish border in the Pyrenees, welcome home to the British autumn!
Last month saw the third edition of the 4 stage Catalunya bike race set in the base town of Puigcerda sitting at 1200 meters above sea level in the beautiful mountains surrounded by Andorra, Spain and France. This is a Catalan speaking region, which exposes my lack of Spanish language skills even more as I struggle to grasp the differences between the two! But I am not alone in my floundering, Dani is with me and we blunder around trying to get signed on and find out about start gridding in three different broken languages, it all adds to the sense of adventure and pioneering spirit, indeed there are only three Brits here!
Stage racing is becoming ever more popular in the mountain bike racing world on the continent, it brings in masses of racers and riders from all across Europe and is as close as we amateurs get to living like a pro for a few days! For me, it is a welcome shift back towards the reasons I started mountain bike riding in the first place, it gets you out into the wilds on real mountain trails in amazing places.
It’s also a different skill set, and requires a more experienced and rounded ability to compete over unknown terrain on multiple days, its not just about the “engine” there is no “pre riding” the course to dial in your lines and equipment choices….you need to be able to read the ground features and make quick decisions, often when the heat is on and you are pretty exhausted, all the while not neglecting your nutrition, as a failure in that department not only affects the here and now, it has knock on effects for the coming days! You need a solid knowledge of how your bike works…and how to keep it working! And the ability to look at the course profile and interpret roughly how long it will take so you can gauge your effort, Dani and I love it!
The bikes are set up a bit different as well, when climbs are 45 minutes long and descents can be up to 30 minutes of anything from fast forest roads to incredibly steep rocky stepped single tracks that would not be out of place in an EWS race (Enduro world series) the “short circuit” XC set up can quickly get out of its depth. In this environment, the downhill’s are almost as important as the climbs so a bit more travel, more robust tires with, maybe with inserts, slightly larger discs, wide enough gear ranges to cope with varied terrain and the capacity to stow tools and fluids are all needed to ensure the fastest most consistent strategy, some people even use dropper posts!!!! Ok, almost everyone.
In the weeks building up to the race, Dani and I went over bike specs, kit choices and predicted race strategies based on a seasons worth of race data, all with a view to giving the race our best shot. We have both competed in stage races and endurance events before, so we had a good idea what we would face, but until you get tires on the ground, you never truly know. That ground as it turned out, was talcum powder dry dust, with rocks and gravel that had not seen rain for ages and it was chuffing hot! Coupled with a base altitude of 1150m, we were accepting that disciplined pacing and hydration was going to be needed. Signing on at the brand new sports complex was the usual excited but nervous affair, the officials studied our racing licenses and were incredibly patient and helpful with our broken language questions! We walked out with our race welcome packs, looked around at all the other competitors…who all seemed to be small, tanned and very lean and started getting the numbers boards on the bikes, wrist bands on and sussing out how the start boxes would work, music is playing…..teams are setting up bikes…..why does everyone else look so fit ? its definitely pretty serious here!
Two hours to go now…..Stage 1 was 31km, with a high point of 1910m, it was essentially a huge climb, followed by an equally huge descent.
We both went with one large bottle as we felt that we would drink most of it going up, and it would be too tricky to drink on the way down, and descending with an emptier bottle meant less chance of it bouncing out of the bottle cage! Getting gridded according to sign on number was a bit of a lottery…but we were on the grid and ready.
And were off……..The race started in waves and each wave was totally manic as it was escorted through town by outriders, I was fortunate to have been put on the front row so simply had to hold my position rather than fight to move up, but it was full on and I was at my threshold before we even hit the main climb. Dani was also near the front of her wave, she was being smart on the main climb and holding back a bit, memories of going too hard on day one in Switzerland fresh in her mind, it would prove to be a good move as the days went on! I however was not being so smart! Riding in the lead group, I was at my max sustainable pace and struggled to hold on once we got over 1500m high, I slipped back to about 12th by the summit…but my bike set up was near perfect and the descent was a total blast to start with…I was moving back up, and then it got really rocky and steep! People were braking hard, getting off and running down steep pitches, climbing down rocks…general chaos, but it worked out for me and I crossed the line in 8th, still in the fight! Dani rode in with a three racers from the Compex team, she was 13th…but had not burnt too many matches! We were across the line safely, and as with all stage racing…bike prep, food, showers and recovery followed. This was a bit tougher than normal as this opening stage didn’t start until late afternoon so it was all a bit of a rush, but luckily we had a crack support team (Dani’s Mum and Dad) who had prepared all our food already! Amazing. That evening’s thoughts were mainly about how hard the climbing was….but also how surprisingly technical the downhill’s were, with three more stages to come and two of those being 60 plus km’s we sat on the sofa in quiet contemplation……this was going to be a tough race, but at least the weather forecast was good. We drifted off watching Spanish telly with two teams running around lobbing a ball at each other…..I thought it was dodgeball…..but couldn’t see Patches o Houlihan on the sideline…….I think it was just a Hand ball match!!!!! Random.
Day two…beautiful clear blue skies, crisp mountain air….and a good cup of coffee with porridge, golden syrup, nuts and a banana, we were ready to go!
We both went with the Camelbaks today, it was a 62km stage with two feed zones and my intention was not to stop at any of them. My rationale was that I would burn at least 1 min in each if I stopped and by carrying all my fluids for the day, I would have an advantage as I could ride without stopping. Now I hate wearing a Camelbak…but Im gonna come right out and say it, I think that it was the difference between finishing on the podium and not. Part of the reason was that when all others are flapping about trying to drink, I pop my straw in and I can drink even on the technical single track downhill’s, when the descents are so long, you cant just not eat or drink as it will catch up with you! This had two benefits…its keeps you well fuelled…and it gives you a mental edge as you watch others with bottles struggling! Its also pretty difficult to drop a Camelbak !
The other factor I had not considered was that pretty much every one of my rivals had an army of supporters in each feed zone…so they didn’t have to stop either! Bugger, so without carrying all my nutrition….I would have lost loads of time!
However…after fighting a mass start of 750 riders for the first 10km’s…(no wave starts today) I reached the first 9km climb, I immediately began cursing the fact that I was 6ft 2” tall and weigh 70kg’s and also had a full large bottle and 1 ½ liters of fluid on my back…I simply had to adopt a heart rate based approach and let the leaders ride away on the climb…after day one, I figured I could give them two minutes and still get back to them on the downhill. The climb was a real exercise in self belief and control, it felt like s steady stream of people were passing me all the way up…but sure enough, the descent was amazing and I was on the move again. Dani was having exactly the same experience as well, she was being really smart again, holding the pre agreed pace and drinking well, this would really pay off for her going into days three and four.
We both rode hard but with a degree of sense and due to not knowing anyone or speaking the lingo, neither of us had any idea where we were in the race. I was genuinely surprised to hear I had finished third on the stage, especially as I was riding with one of my rivals who I let cross the line in front of me ! this moved me up to 4th on GC I was feeling good and now I knew that I could climb well enough……but partly due to my bike set up, I could descend better than most…..the game was afoot! Dani meanwhile had ridden brilliantly and rolled across the line inside the top ten….she was moving up too ! so it was podium, bikes, showers, food sofa again……the stage doesn’t finish until you are sat eating! We watched storage wars in Spanish….it was just as shite.
AAArrgghhh….alarm clock, shutters open and it was beautiful blue skies again….coffee etc…….stage three was over 60km again so it was Camelbaks again, six gels…..lots of chamois cream! And factor 50 sun cream…don’t mix those up though.
No waves again today…..gridded up in blocks then all set off together, its thrilling and terrifying in the same measure to be part of a peloton of 700 plus riders. The day kicked off with another savage opening climb…same plan of riding smart but the difference this time was that it was so steep that we spent most of the time in our lowest gears, which for me was 34 x 50 sat on the nose of the seat trying desperately not to go too far into the red zone! As the gradient eased, it was the same as yesterday…watch the heart rate, drink well and take some calculated risks on the descents….OK, I mean go nuts!
Dani was having a different experience today, the climb was so steep that where she was riding, the bottle necks were so bad that she was off and queuing and walking up the steepest bits, this may have been a slight blessing as overtaking was tougher and as she had been so smart in the first 10km’s she had energy in reserve for when the stage got tougher, she rode an amazing last 5km’s and crossed the line in 7th! I managed to come home in 5th and was just holding on to 4th on GC still! so then……bike prep, shower, food…….etc……The Mont Blanc ultra trail marathon was on telly…….I went to bed happy I had a bike to ride.
AAAARRrgghhhh……alarm again……it’s the last stage ! shutters, blue sky…coffee, nervous drive up to the start, park in the same place again, nervous wee….again.
The last stage was a shorter one…but they saved the best/worst for last ! the profile was more saw tooth than the last two days, more repeated climbing and descending looked like the order of the day. We went Camelbaks and no bottles today. The race was really on now, some people had saved a bit, some were maxed out, and start was frantic again. We climbed up to the 1600m height the profile showed…and kept climbing ! surprise!!!!!!! We actually climbed all the way up to 1910m again as we crested the same climb as day one! I was struggling to hold on again up high and lost a few places going over the top, my descending reputation was getting around now and two of my rivals elbowed their way in front of me going into the single track downhill…this sucked as I needed all available KM’s to claw back time. After a couple of do or die overtakes I cut loose and made up at least two minutes as I passed rider after rider with flat tires…it was really fast…if you took chances….and really rocky! I must have passed 10 riders with flats…but not one of them was in my category!
Dani was having a storming ride today…she had paced the four days brilliantly and was now riding in 6th place ! so as we both crested the last steep 5km long single track climb we were both looking at great overall placings! I was holding 5th and starting to run out of gas…but coming off the last amazing descent, I spotted a green number ahead, it was one of my rivals, I pushed as hard as I could to reel him in, I took a huge risk on the last straight steep chute downhill and went off line catching my left shoe in the bushes…which popped open both my boa dials so it felt like I was riding in wellys ! popping out the bottom of the trail and onto the fire roads…..my rival was now aware I was on my way and was putting the hammer down…..whilst I was faffing around trying to do my shoe back up !
With 2km to go I caught him, attacked immediately and managed to put 22 seconds into him by the finish…unfortunately it was not enough and I dropped to 5th overall on GC, for me it was done…and I was really happy with my race, especially when I found out that the winner in my category is the current Spanish Champion and reigning masters World Champion!
Dani was again fighting hard and rode a solid last few km’s to finish 6th on the day….meaning she finished up 7th on GC ! What an amazing ride and a perfect demonstration of pacing over 4 days, she thinks it was her best race yet!
We didn’t clean our bikes that night…we showered, ate Pringles, found a bar and had a beer…then a massive Pizza !
The feeling you get after such an all consuming experience is almost intoxicating, we both felt tired but fantastic, we were sat in a beautiful town square with the evening sun still warm re living our experiences and already thinking about coming back ! Dani’s mum and dad were amazing support crew throughout the race and we had a mate with us who had ridden solidly in the top 50 as part of his preparation for the Cape Epic next March…it was just one of those priceless lovely moments that make races like these a huge draw.
Would we go back? Definitely, we are already making plans to race in a 4 day race in Belgium in May and return to the Catalunya bike race in early October…. just waiting to see how Brexit pans out !
We have been speaking with Marc at the shop about building the perfect marathon and stage racing bike……it looks like the Trek Top fuel will again be the best tool for the job, we are exploring a custom build where we will put the bike on a diet ! the goal……more suspension for the descents, that we can lockout, and light weight for the climbs……it already looks like the perfect platform so we will keep you posted on how they pan out!
My welly boots are now clean, as are the dogs. I have a grotty cold…and I am back to work in a couple of days, I also have a David Dickinson sun tan! But already I am reading articles on endurance training, we’re looking at bike specs and I am half planning our winter programs. Next season will be a bit different for us, we will focus more on marathons and races like the Big Dog etc, we would also like to support the southern XC races where time off permits, but the two big stage races will be our main focal points. All the marathons and stage race’s we go to are so well attended….with the Swiss epic and Catalunya selling out with several hundreds of riders each year, it is great to be involved in that growing side of the sport and it brings travel, real mountain riding and adventure all together.
Huge thanks to Marc at Bournemouth Cycleworks, team boss Rich, and all the very generous sponsors of our team, having such a professional outfit and excellent equipment makes doing stuff like this all the more achievable.
We want to wish you all a productive autumn and winter training season…don’t lose sight of those goals, remember, trophies are won in winter and collected in the summer! So we hope to see you on a club ride or two…and maybe at a winter race…sun permitting! If anyone would like more info on the CBR in Spain, drop me a line or come for a ride…it will involve coffee and cake.
Now back to my bike component spreadsheets… How can I save 50 more grams?