Ironbike – living up to its reputation

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Ironbike started out exactly as it would carry on, with a stiff climb up winding mountain trails and back down along perfect singletrack. This opening prologue was a mere warmup for the main event, its 1500m of climbing a minor dent in the overall 27,000m of vertical gain that riders would face. The next 6 days would take riders high into the mountains of the Piedmont region of Italy and back down via technical trails to challenge even the best riders. This was also Ironbike’s 25th anniversary and to celebrate, they made it one of the toughest yet.

Ironbike’s focus is about the ride, about riding some of most exhilarating and tough high mountain trails in the region. The routes aren’t designed around easy access for spectators or media, but around giving the best mountain biking experience. Ironbike is rustic, super tough and without the luxury of hotel options, yet it sells out every year for good reason.

Every rider, even the elites, has to sleep in a tent, which you will need to supply. It doesn’t count towards your 30kg bag allowance so go big!  For the early bird entry fee of 600 Euro you get all the base elements you need, including a well tuned medical service and the famous Ironbike helicopter. You will have to pitch and take down your own tent each day though and clean and service your bike. Of course there are mechanics on hand to do any servicing for a fee, but they get REALLY busy as the race goes on! Ironbike veterans will recommend paying the additional 250€ to bring your own support person/crew. When stages start to encroach on 10+ hours, that option makes real sense and a significant difference to daily recovery. There’s no laundry service, chill out areas, bike cleaning service or any mollycoddling of any kind, Ironbike is pure adventure, but that’s its charm! Riders clearly think so as it’s full every year with a significant waiting list.

Raced solo or in 2 person teams, participant numbers are deliberately small to keep the race flowing over even the tightest of singletrack trails. It avoids bottlenecks and helps to keep riders safe out there on the fast descents. For its 25th edition entry numbers were higher than usual though, at around 155, but you wouldn’t have known that out on course.

The prologue from Tende isn’t until late afternoon. For those of us who opted for the organised transport, pick up is from the finish town carpark of Sauze d’Oulx (where you can leave your car for the week in dedicated parking) for the 3 hour journey to Limone, arriving with a couple of hours spare to set up tents and have a full race briefing from the race director in 3 languages. It takes a while! A brief train ride took us to the prologue start, where we got reunited with bikes.

Snacky food is laid on and after rapid bike checks and a swift warm up spin, it’s a final briefing before the fun finally begins and the only mass start of the event. For Ironbike veterans, they knew exactly was in store, but for newbies like me, it was a world of nervous anticipation and excitement given Ironbike’s reputation.

Getting underway at Ironbike

No breaking us in gently. From the start at 800m, it was straight up to 2040m, staying high along rolling mountainside tracks before dropping 1000m to the finish in Limone. Threatening all day, brewing as we climbed deep into the surrounding hills, the rain unleashed on the wooded singletrack descent, making the Brits feel right at home, muddy trails to the finish. Welcome to Ironbike.

Timings and positions are not determined from the simple action of arrival positions. It is based on the rally raid’s system of points accrued (due to the director’s background of racing these events). The least points a rider has, the higher in the rankings. For each stage, an arrival time is stated in the road book.  For every minute over that a rider accrues points. An overall maximum allowed time is also given for each stage. Arrive outside of that and you’re out of the overall results, but can continue to ride. Then there’s the daily special stages, usually part climb, part descent and varying in length and technical challenge. For these you accrue significantly more points for every minute you are behind the special stage winner’s time. Essentially you can ride ‘easy’ outside of the special stages then put the ‘hammer down’ on the special stages. For many the pace remains identical, simply riding to finish within the daily cut off!  The vertical metres per stage listed in the road book is sometimes approximate. Just be prepared to climb a bit more than expected. A quirk of Ironbike, but adds to the adventure!

Stage 1 and it was straight into the daily routine of early starts, getting a good breakfast and packing gear to be transported to the stage’s end, hoping for sunshine to dry out damp tents. The stage didn’t hold back, with over 4000m of vertical for its 110km, opening our eyes to the stunning high mountain trails and hike-a-bike we would face over the coming week.

Emergency blankets (given out by the organisers) an emergency whistle and a waterproof jacket are a must. Yesterday’s weather proved that point. I was astounded that some riders weren’t prepared for these high mountains. Another storm hit on the final descent to the finish at an alpine chalet, with a few descending km remaining to get back to camp. A perfect place to finish as it turned out given the weather. We lingered inside, infront of the open wood fire, only stepping back outside to grab more food! One rider came in shivering. No waterproof and only in his racing SS jersey. Even stripped off, covered in blankets and sitting close to the fire, he continued to shiver. Stupid to get yourself in that position for the sake of carrying a few extra grams of wet weather gear.

By foot or by bike

Hike-a-bike sections are numerous, often the last kilometres up to the high peaks are along steep singletrack, so don’t bring your super stiff carbon race shoes.  They won’t last long! The concomitant descents are like nothing else most people have ever ridden. High mountain tight switchbacks to super tech sections that only the most skilled riders will ride. A dropper post is the one piece of kit that will make a significant difference to your ability to descend and not scare yourself.

To reduce traffic on the mountain trails, riders go off in reverse position order after stage 1, at 1 minute intervals from 7h30. Long days for those at the back, a relaxing start for those up front. Start times aren’t posted, so you have to check the overall standings and work out your approximate start time from that.

Stage 2 included the first 3000m+ peak and it was straight up, an 1800m climb which was the 1st special stage of the day too. A hike to its exposed and tiny peak revealed a pretty special 360° view. Tight scree switchbacks led the way back down, bums hanging right off the back of saddles for those without droppers, terrain changing from boulder scree to tech rocky singletrack. Wow. Just leave your lightweight xc tyres at home. Bring tough treads and ones that hook up well in loose terrain.

A standard day at Ironbike with ‘only’ 3000m of climbing, but there’s also  ‘just for fun’ sections. A few chairlift assisted climbs for some bonus descending! This one whisked (more meandered as it was a small, local chairlift) riders up 900m for a full 1300m descent of mostly singletrack to the stage finish. Not without a 400m climb off the lift first of course.

Each stage is fully marked, but cutting the course, even if unintentional, as a UK pair did following the wrong coloured arrows, will get you a hefty points penalty. They ended up being at the back. Give them their due though, they fought back hard to make it into 3rd in their category.

The evening’s briefing revealed that under the rules only 60 of 150 competitors remained in the competition due to not making the time limit. The organisers admitted that they might have been a bit tight on the maximum time limit as they had used some new trails. They made the decision to keep all riders in the running, but this would be the only time!

With eased minds for many riders that evening at dinner, it got even better as the gelato store next door opened up.

Easier days at Ironbike

Stage 3 was a virtual rest day, with a ‘mere’ 2700m+ and only a single special stage. Calm before the storm? The following 3 stages were the toughest. Riders revelled in the relatively early finish, replenishing calories lost and soaking tired legs in the icy cold waters of the river alongside camp.

With legs ‘rested’, stage 4 kicked off with a 1600m climb for a total of 3 special stages over the day, 1 entirely for the downhillers too, a steep 1100m drop straight off a chairlift. Personally, I would barely make it past Refuge Barbara, ⅔ way up, the start of the 1st stage. Catching my front wheel in an innocuous ditch, I landed wrists first, coming to an abrupt stop. With the left wrist displaced rearward, it was game over, both the ulnar and radius fractured.

Riding with Mark Spratt, he graciously stopped to help me up and get the attention of the medical staff. If you have ever wondered what the medical support is like at events like this, the answer is efficient. With no need for a heli evacuation, it wasn’t long before I was at the nearest hospital and the forearm in plaster. At least my misfortune helped another rider. Having snapped his seat post and mine being the identical size,  a quick swap and he was back in the race.

Being over the maximum time set for each stage meant not being listed as an official finisher, but the next 3 stages had imposed time cut offs as well for rider safety. Fairly generous, but miss these and you’d get pulled from the stage.

Racing or surviving?

Stage 5 was big, many just making it under the 12 hour cut off. Little respite in the climbing and descending all day, but with incredible trails riders had now come to expect. The 2nd special stage began half way up the stage’s monster 1750m climb, finishing 1400m down the other side of the peak at the stage finish, but not all was quite done.  13km still remained to camp with 700m of climbing, up to the spectacular mountain side Refuge Selleries, for a total of nearly 5000m vertical for the day.

Stage 6 is the one every rider ‘looks forward to’. The 1st special stage is the descent down the steps of Forte Fenestrelle, committed and part super steep, exhilarating, but a mistake can be race ending!. With 2 ‘for fun’ descents straight off chairlifts, 1 a lengthy 1500m drop and 2 imposed cut offs, stage 6 is a full on finale to these 3 tough stages. With only 3000m of vertical, but with most of that up to the infamous 3120m high Chaberton peak, itself a special stage. The peak is also renowned for its localised stormy weather, which was at least kind this year. Snow has been known! Once down its technical descent it’s a steady (in Ironbike terms) 600m up to the stage finish in Sestriere.

The final stage is almost just for fun. An almost insignificant 1200m of climbing with only 2 brief special stages, but ones where good descenders can make up places. A chairlift barely a few km from the start takes riders to 2700m dropping them off into an 1100m mostly singletrack tech descent. In Ironbike terms, it’s  rolling terrain for the next 30km until a 2nd chairlift and the final descent and special stage to the race end in Sauze d’Oulx.

Chaberton

So what is Ironbike?

Both exhilarating and demanding in equal measure, Ironbike is a stage race like no other with a whopping 27,000m of climbing over 700km. It’s more than a simple MTB stage race, it’s a full on adventure into the high mountains reaching heights you’ve probably never been with your bike before. Granted, reaching some of those peaks requires some hefty hike-a-bike, but the descents make it worthwhile. They are exceptional, challenging, sometimes super technical requiring real poise and focus, sometimes simply fast and flowy, a mix of stunning singletrack to more open 4×4 tracks.

Ironbike is revered for the sheer amount of climbing, but every one takes you high into the Piedmont mountains. All of it with exceptional vistas. It’s a real challenge, incredible and intense riding, but what a ride. It has to be experienced. If just once. Many return multiple times, with some having raced 7 editions. Just come prepared for high mountain weather. It really isn’t worth skimping on a few grams. I, of course, have unfinished business.

Camping is on a mix of soft and hard surfaces, so best to bring a self standing tent. The pop up ones are ideal.

Food wise, it’s plentiful, but if you do have some particular preferences, bring your own. If you are Coeliac do make sure that you make the organisers aware.

Recommended gear for Ironbike

The current crop of XC bike designs lend themselves perfectly to riding Ironbike. Many ride their xc rigs with 100mm quite happily, but do bring a dropper post. Fully or HT? Whatever you are happy riding. The split was probably 50:50. As mentioned, think tougher tyres, the rocky terrain will shred light xc sidewalls. Tubeless of course.

I went with an Orbea Alma, light for the climbs and hike-a-bike sections with comfort enhancing stays for the extended saddle time.

Tyres wise I ran WTB Rangers in 29×2.25. Good volume for running lower pressures and a fast rolling tyre for its grip.

Wet weather kit. I had a Gore Wear Shakedry jacket for its pack size and breathability, a set of their thin waterproof gloves and goretex cap. It can get really cold when the weather comes in!

Other useful gear:

Revelate top tube bag for the phone and wet weather gear. It remained watertight throughout! Revelate feedbags, perfect for filling with dried fruit or other snack foods.  Within eye shot, it reminds you to regularly snack as the days are long.

I’m a fan of the Rotor Q ring, I was running their new Kapic chainset. Super light and gives multiple options to fine tune the maximum/minimum peak point.

 

If you are concerned about running carbon rims, don’t be. Plenty of riders were using them without issue and the Orbea was shod with Mavic’s Pro Carbon wheelset. Setting the WTB tyres up tubeless on Mavic’s UST bead was the easiest I have ever experienced.

Small shoe spikes adds traction on the hike-a-bike sections. 

All you need to do if you think it all sounds good is arrange an entry.

 

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