Preparing to take on Ironbike

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Ironbike is one of the longest running and probably the most renowned mountain bike stage race in the calendar, for simply being the toughest. This year Ironbike celebrates 25 years of pitting man against mountain and despite its reputation for leaving riders broken, this race sells out every year with a significant waiting list. Held in the Piedmont region of Italy, it’s more of a high mountain adventure than your normal mountain bike stage race. Ironbike may ‘only’ be 700km, but it packs in over 25,000m of climbing across the 7 stages and the prologue. With high mountain camps, remote trails and 3000m passes, this is real mountain biking, demanding resilient physical and mental fitness to get through each day. Preparing for this race takes planning as well as a bike that is more trail orientated than pure XC.

IronBike’s creator was Cesare Giraudo, a former rally driver and adventurer, although he lacked any background in mountain biking whatsoever! He was a regular at the Camel Trophy, winning the event in 1982 as well as clocking up a  third place in the notorious Paris-Dakar. It was the spirit of the rally raid, long distance, multi-day and off-road racing that formed Cesare’s vision for a multi-day, challenging race through the Italian mountains around his home.

The early pioneers of Ironbike

The first edition of Ironbike was organised in 1994 with a group of his friends who had also participated in the African rallies, originally as an excuse to ride off-road bikes in the mountains which wasn’t appreciated at that time. 47 participants took part in that 1st edition, a majority by invitation. The total length was around 450 km with 12,000m of climbing with the event being entirely held in the province of Cuneo. Its notoriety rapidly spread and for the 2nd edition many foreign riders were asking to participate. Participant numbers have swelled yearly and from 2005 IronBike extended the route into the mountains of the province of Turin. With that the race’s overall distance has crept up to around 700 km and with a concomitant increase in the vertical challenge, doubling up, to over 25,000m! Ironbike’s reputation as the hardest mountain bike stage race has spread worldwide with riders from across the globe hitting the enter button every year, some to race, many to simply pit themselves against its incredible landscape and survive to the end. 

So how can I prepare for Ironbike?

Winter training used to be the usual long rides and occasional training camp on a Spanish island, but this was the 1st year living high in the Alps and having to adapt to rather different winter climate. A long winter of heavy and still lingering snow on the higher roads and trails well into Spring, cycling specific training has presented its challenges living in Chamonix. Getting in long winter kilometres hasn’t been an option, having to get creative with training on the fatbike and general fitness from ski touring. At least getting up high has been useful for altitude acclimatisation. Speed and distance are straightforward to train for, but the altitude and the relentless climbing of Ironbike are the challenges, which seems to be the allure of this race, no other mountain bike event in Europe tends to reach the lofty heights of 3000m passes or has riders over-nighting in high mountain camps. It’s truly a unique race that challenges and excites. Riders have to be prepared for lengthy portage sections like no others. If anyone has raced the Grand Raid BCVS (Cristalp as it was previously known), sections are much like the renowned scree portage over the Pas de Lona col, but longer and more regular!

Winter training!

Ironbike is as much about the descending as well as the 25,000m+ of vertical. Descents are steep, demanding, exhilarating, sometimes exposed and regularly super technical, including ancient, long stone step sections. Fully committed and no fall scenarios! A dropper post is a real requirement!

Without a chance to get out to any sun soaked training camps in the Spanish ilslands, the return to full cycling fitness has been short and sharp, with the Holy Land Bikepacking Challenge at the tail end of April being the first real back to back days on the bike. A 1400km race that I didn’t get to complete, due to breaking 2 ribs.

Early season training ‘camp’, racing the Holy Land bikepacking Challenge

With 1800m climbs, 45 minute singletrack descents and the climb up to the 3150m high Mt Chabberton, nothing quite prepares riders for this race. Even with my proximal access to alpine climbs, the higher trails and many of the road cols have only been accessible in the past 4 weeks due to the sheer amount of snow this winter. Negotiating avalanche debris on a proportion of the upper trails in the Chamonix valley has been a whole new riding experience!

Negotiating avalanche debris

Chamonix’s  steep valley sides have been ideal for practising the all essential technical descending, for a race that’s going to significantly challenge my mental and physical descending ability, or rather lack thereof!  It’s a race that’ll push us mere mortals to the edge and beyond of our fitness and bike handling abilities.

One major aspect I have learnt to deal with living here, through being overtly naive on the 1st couple of rides, is the mountain weather and just how rapidly it can change, from an idyllic ride in the sunshine to heavy rain and severe drops in temperatures within minutes. That tan topping ride can soon become a fight to maintain braking control on big descents as hands become numb from the cold. On every ride now, even leaving under deep blue clear skies, carrying full warm/waterproof gear; jacket, gloves, arm/knee warmers and goretex cap has become the norm. This may seem excessive, but ideal practice for Ironbike. Better to carry a few extra grams than end up wrapped in a thermal blanket at the bottom of the mountain warding off hypothermia!

As well as the training and dealing with the changes in the weather, a 3rd essential aspect is the bike of course, a set up that will handle the daily abuse, climbs efficiently, descends with confidence and light enough to not be a real burden on the daily portage sections.  Not being your average xc stage race, Ironbike requires a bike of split personality between xc and trail. A dropper post is a must for the tech descents,  with a hardtail being ideal for simplicity and base maintenance, despite the huge amount of descending. Plenty of riders use full-suspension bikes, but Ironbike has been known to take its toll on rear shocks! This race resonates the mantra of the ultra distance bikepacker ‘keep it simple, stupid’.
I’ll be taking out a Pinnacle Ramin3, a frame designed around trail riding and super confident when pointed downwards. It has internal routing for a dropper  and an additional water bottle mount under the downtube. A handy addition if the weather turns out to be super hot. Frame clearance allows  for up to a 29x 2.4 tyre, but I’ll be riding WTB Rangers 29x 2.25″, a tyre designed for fast trail riding. An ideal Ironbike bike, just the pilot being the limiting factor.

Comfortable, robust shoes are a must

Shoes are another piece of gear that needs to be considered. A super stiff xc shoe will just be uncomfortable for the achilles and will get a real beating from the amount of portage. A shoe with a little more flex in the sole and where the sole is carbon, it is protected by rubber. Not only will this give added grip, but also stop the carbon from being wrecked.  I’ll be taking my custom Luck Cycling shoes. A carbon sole, but at the lower end of the scale in terms of stiffness and the carbon is well protected. Consequently, not a super light shoe, but reliably robust, well tested on the Tour du Mont Blanc MTB route.

Portage training

With training done, tapering will include a couple of nights out at altitude for some last minute acclimatisation and relief from the throngs of tourists in town.  With a strong contingent from the UK and many returnees from across Europe, all eager to pit themselves against this challenging race, this is going to be a real mountain adventure come what may!

Tapering, time to get used to sleeping high. Sunrise at Lac Blanc.

Depending on WiFi availability, we’ll have daily coverage from the race on our Instagram page.

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