Bike Racing Time
Epic Israel, as I said, is a 4 day stage race. UCI standard is 4 days to be considered a stage race with the minimum of at least one 60+km marathon stage. Epic Israel decided that the format would be best done as a prologue and 3 stages. Therefore, the race was as such:
- Prologue: 22km – Flat, open and with a couple kilometres through the Crusaders Fort.
- Stage 1: 95km – 1650m of climbing. Majority of climbing done at once. Hot and humid. Rough open climbing – chunky and loose.
- Stage 2: 91km – 1450m of climbing. Elevations split over three major climbs. Single track, loose and flowy.
- Stage 3: 71km – 880m of climbing. Majority of climbing done at once. 15+km straight of single track. Tactical start.
Prologue – Kicking things off in the heat:
The prologue was a nasty time trial. Epic Israel was the first race I’ve ever done where the racing was done as pairs. Lespy and I had a good go, battling the wind and the power sucking loose sand. A time trial is all about emptying the tank, but time your effort wrong and you run out of gas before the finish line. Luckily this was a short day, only 40 minutes of racing to complete the 22km. Not bad on mountain bikes off road.
Stage 1 – Day 2 – The King & Queen Stage
Stage 1 would prove to be the toughest day of the race. Not only was it the longest, hilliest and hottest but it was also a day of misfortune.
The stages started quite early. 7am is when the gun went off and we started rolling out. For this style event it is a room and board experience. Therefore, we were subject to the organizers schedule, such as breakfast starting at 5am, dinner at 7:30pm. That being said, I was mildly reluctant to get up and at it for the early start Stage 1. I think this would’ve been a great day to have eaten as early as possible because I was a little too relaxed getting breakfast down and wasn’t digested by the time the intensity started 30 minutes into the stage. Consequently, I was burping some breakfast for the first 45-60 minutes of Stage 1, making things mildly unpleasant and the fast effort compounded the discomfort. Excuses aside, we were there at the front. Lespy was riding great. I was surviving. The group was together and large – no signs of fatigue from any of the players. And then it happened… some contact between bikes had broken a spoke on Lespy’s front wheel. Not a terrible setback, except when the spoke broke under tension it punctured the rim tape inside the tire causing an instant (and confusing) flat. This was the most time-consuming stop of the day. Diagnosis took a minute or so, then the repair (putting a tube in) was another few minutes.
Moving forward now, we were off the back of the front group, obviously, but slowly making up positions. When we arrived at the 2nd feed-zone and only tech-zone of the day we swapped that front wheel out so Lespy had all of his spokes. More time lost while stopped and we weren’t done yet.
The track to this point, and for the remainder of the stage, had been brutal. There was minimal single-track. Loose, open, steep ATV / double track was how we gained our elevation. Descending similar terrain was fun at first but then my hands just started to die. I was running World Cup pressure in my suspension, pressure for big hits and technical features. There were no big hits, just lots of small vibration, small bumps and grapefruit size rocks. I would learn my lesson and softened everything up for the rest of the race.
The next hour or so of racing was uneventful. A fast sweeping road descent next to a ravine was adrenaline inducing and would later be talked about as a ‘no room for error’ part of the track. It would’ve been a long fall… There were a few river crossings, the deepest being axel height and the shallowest being covered in green growth and extremely slick.
As we were approaching feed-zone 3, about 70km into the stage, I got a small puncture in my front tire. Just a little slice, sealant tried its best, but it was unreliable as it kept intermittently hissing. We tossed a plug in it quick, hit it with a bit of CO2 and were back at it but not before being passed by the 3 teams we had just worked hard to catch.
Fast forward to 8km to go. We are more than 3.5hrs in, 87km ridden, all the climbing complete and riding through the agricultural fields back to the race village. Oh, also, it’s now horribly hot out and I’m well into the red. This is where the digging really deep started. My skin was afire. My head fuzzy – probably dehydration / heat stroke. My stomach telling me no more. My hands, numb at best or red-hot at worst. My muscles, well, can’t really remember, I just remember being really tired, not going that fast and trying to just make it to the line. Lespy pulled the majority of the conclusion of Stage 1 as I clearly was in a bad place. Remember, you can’t drop your partner, the time only stops when the 2nd person crosses the line.
Upon conclusion I drank +/- 8L of water mixed with electrolytes over the next 6 hours. I laid in bed for 3 hours. We lost over 10 minutes on the stage. I was crushed – I couldn’t see how that could be recoverable. But this is mountain bike stage racing, anything can happen, and it usually does.
Stage 2 – Day 3.
Good morning Israel!
I was up and at breakfast right at 5am and on a mission: plow as much food into me in 20 minutes thus giving me as much time to digest before the start of Stage 2.
I should mention, the race village, where all the stages begin and conclude, is located not far from the sea. Therefore, stages start with 15-25km of flat racing through agricultural fields or on roads before we hit ‘trail’ and/or the first climb.
Pack racing for the first hour was fun but when it became ‘go time’ Lespy and I were right up at the front. We snuck away from the group with the two German leaders of the race. Stage 2 was the inverse of Stage 1 – trails – single-track, smooth flowy climbs awaited us. Lespy, Georg, Max and I rode well together. Compared to Stage 1 where Lespy and I were trying to make up for some misfortune by pinning it all day, I was baffled by the easy, steady pace at the front of the race on Stage 2.
Remember when I said anything can happen in stage racing? Well, one second, we are a group of 4 and the next Lespy and I are riding away in the lead 30km into the race. The Germans had a puncture and it was a sizable sidewall slice.
Lespy and I rode well. I was invested and very confident that we were going to win the stage if nothing went wrong. We were more dialled today by being quick in the feed-zones, smooth on the bikes, making sure we stayed hydrated and fueled. We were pacing well and hadn’t gotten word or had visual contact of anyone closing from behind, but they were coming.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the leaders, the Germans, on a hike-a-bike section we had just completed. Mild panic, no way did I want to get caught and we still had to finish off this last major climb and survive the flat 20km to the finish. Lespy and I picked up the pace and had a mild scare when they closed in on us at the 3rd feed-zone. We needed to be as quick as possible, so we filled our bottles quick and grabbed a large jug and drank from it while rolling away – anything to keep moving forward.
It paid off, as we later saw on the TV feed, the Germans were very close and our quick feed-zone execution coupled with a throw-down on the following descent gave us a pretty good gap. But, it wouldn’t be enough, unfortunately.
The Germans came out of nowhere on a long, straight dirt road. We couldn’t see too far behind us as the vehicle with the camera aboard was kicking up too much dust. Out of nowhere it seemed they appeared and were eager to work towards the common objective of getting to the line a quick as possible. Recall, Stage 1 we lost more than 10 minutes, the fact that we were still at the front of the race with no one else but the leaders in sight meant that we could claw back valuable time and regain positions on GC.
How were we going to win? That was the question running through my head. I knew from talking to the guys about Stage 1 that this German duo of Georg and Max had attacked them with a filthy acceleration and drove the small gap they got very hard until they secured the stage win. That being said, how do you coordinate an attack with two people and make it stick? Lespy and I had never been in this situation before and I had no idea how to quietly plan it.
It wouldn’t come to a decisive throw down due to a quick bobble coupled with the ‘slinky effect’ and the Germans seizing the opportunity of a little space between our teams. Remember, you have to have your partner – even if Lespy was with the leaders and charging, if I get popped off the back, he has to come back to save me.
We clawed and fought tooth and nail for the remaining 10 minutes of the stage. A second-place finish on the day was awesome and it was great momentum heading into the final day of the race. Even better, and this was in fact very good, was finishing well ahead of the majority of teams. We were able to offset our bad Stage 1 with a very good Stage 2. Yes, we were still 10+ minutes back from the lead, but now we were in 5th GC. A good day’s work and loads of camera time.
Stage 3 – Day 4 – The princess stage.
Princess stage is what the organizers called it; short, sassy and fun. It was short, relatively speaking, only 71km.
Remember to do your homework when stage racing. You need to know who poses a threat to your GC, who you can prey on and how you can best use the stage to do these things. For Lespy and I we didn’t have a lot to lose. 5th was good but we could do better. The Germans had GC locked up and had won every stage thus far, so naturally, I was itching to deny them a clean sweep. The Austrian team, currently 2nd, was too far away to be realistically overtaken. The French team was within striking distance at 1 minute and 41 seconds ahead of us. USA was sitting 4th but not safe, only a few dozen seconds ahead of us after they had a difficult Stage 2. Therefore, 3rd was the goal. The French team 1min 41sec up on us wore red kits – Project Red was a go. We would need to pass, drop and gap them to overtake them in GC.
The stage was beautiful – coastal roads, Mediterranean Sea and a 15+km single-track with some great riding. Lespy was on today. Myself, not so much. Of the 2.5 hours Stage 3 took us I was not feeling it for the first 90 minutes. My body was pretty tired, and my head was even more so. Eventually, after Lespy set an unreal pace through the single-track, my body started to wake up.
At the 2nd feed-zone (the only one we would stop at on today’s short stage) it was hectic. There was still a solid group of 4-5 teams and getting water quickly proved difficult as other riders were scrambling around you and boxing you in. Project Red had yet to take shape, the French riders were a part of the leading group. We had dropped the Americans so at the moment 4th in GC was secured. The Austrians and the Germans were still with us therefore reclaiming time on 1st and 2nd wouldn’t be in the cards today.
Approaching the last climb of the day the lead group was split. Lespy in with the leaders, and myself, well I was forced to chase. Since Lespy and I were the only team to be split up the responsibility fell on me to bring the groups back together. I just repeatedly attacked my group to make it hard on them and eventually closed to the leaders. Project Red was in full swing, those boys were on the ropes and we would put the nail in the coffin by hitting this last climb hard.
The survivors out of the climb and single-track descent: Norco Factory Team and Lexware (German leaders). Ok, so right where we were when we were caught near the end of Stage 2 – how were we going to win this stage?
Remember what I said about it isn’t over until it is over and anything can happen? Well, riding through one of the many banana plantations about 5km from the finish Georg got a piece of fabric caught in his cassette. I started freaking out at him to stop pedalling. I was surely going to witness the end of their race – a broken hanger, snapped derailleur or other tremendous failure would undoubtedly put them fully out of the race and the previous 3 days would’ve been for nothing. Luckily, he understood my hysteria and quickly came to a stop. It took them a bit to get it sorted out (I later saw when watching a replay) but at this point Lespy and I were racing off to the finish.
Thoughts going through my head: ok we will win this stage. Project Red is in full swing but how big is the gap? Oh crap, I wonder if the Germans are going to motor up to us again like they did yesterday. Etc, etc.
Reality: we obliterated the final 5km. I was so stoked. We crushed it.
Stage 3 Day 4 Winners: Andrew L’esperance and Peter Disera! Boom!
In the end, Project Red was a success as we put almost 2.5 minutes into the French team. The Americans had another rough day and we surpassed them as well in GC. 3rd place in the general classification at Epic Israel! What a wild ride! And to think, I wasn’t sure what we could salvage out of the race after such a difficult Stage 1. It just goes to show, fight fight fight!
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Acknowledgements and Praise:
I’d like to thank the organizers of the Epic Israel event for putting on a great race.
Let it be known, the gold standard of televising MTB events has now been set. Please, please go watch some of the replays and you’ll see what I mean. It was truly incredible to race with a helicopter chasing us around. It was pleasant having our e-bike camera man as company during our time out front on Stage 2. It was wild having a side-by-side ripping next to you with a cameraman hanging out getting all the action. Truly incredible and if by chance if it doesn’t line up to participate in this event next year, you know I’ll be watching the incredible live feed.
Finally, I’d like to thank Tourism Israel for showing us a good time before and after the event. It was an incredible experience to explore Israel and I learned a lot. I have such an appreciation for this area of the World and I am overjoyed to have had the opportunity to experience new cultures, ancient history and stand in the presence of such iconic landmarks. A once-in-a-lifetime trip; but I plan on making it a twice-in-a-lifetime next year! And so on…