FROM THE RACING DIARY OF A BIKEPACKER LUBOŠ SEIDL: IBERICA TRAVERSA #1
10. 06. 2019
After my first bikepacking race, the 1000 Miles Adventure 2017, it was only a matter of time before I would take part in a similar race. I attentively watched the growing number of bikepacking events and considered all pros and cons. I found out that I didn't want to ride on a tarmac road. I rather wanted to explore the landscape and nature on a mountain bike. At the end of September 2018, I and my friends went on a stunning expedition across Estonia, but, being a competitive type, I also needed to race. Sometime in October - November, I was trying to decide whether to take part in the "Miles" again in 2019 or try Iberica Traversa race across Spain. My wife decided for me, using a single sentence: "You're not going anywhere where you have already been, are you."
So, I signed for Iberica and commenced my training. The race was scheduled to start as early as April 13th 2019, so most of the training took place in the winter months, which seemed to be a problem at first (in the end it turned out that winter conditions were not so bad for cycling). I restricted the originally planned two-month rest without a bike to November only and on December 1st, I was already training. At the same time, I started planning the equipment, technologies and transportation and I also wanted to start studying the track and the local conditions.
As far as the technologies were concerned, I did not know whether the race would take place on MTBs, or if the track would be faster and "more rideable" and would be more suitable for gravel bikes. However, I followed the golden rule of bikepacking, saying: “Just ride the bike you have!” and I decided to use my Specialized Epic full-suspension bike. I just made some adjustments to turn my racing predator into a tourist bike with an emphasis on durability and rider comfort. A shorter stem facing upwards, ergonomic grips, triathlon bar extensions for flat sections and as a relief for the wrist and a 120-year-old Brooks leather saddle model that would take care of my comfort. I equipped the front wheel with a dynamo to generate electricity while driving, thus reducing the number of batteries required for the light, telephone, cycling computer and navigation and saving the time otherwise "wasted" by charging the devices from a socket.
As for the equipment, I completely changed the system of sleeping. The race was scheduled for April and temperatures could range between -5 °C and +35° C. In addition, I hadn't slept very well during the "Miles", so I opted for the Therm and Rest inflatable mat and Cumulus down sleeping bag (hereby I would like to say thanks to Hlučín Net for this amazing sponsorship gift). Also, I was at a loss about the choice of clothing for such conditions, but I was very lucky, and I started cooperating with Kilpi and became their ambassador as well as a member of the Kilpi Racing Team. In mid-January, I started testing the brand's products. Looking for the right one for me and my purposes became an integral part of my training. I had never expected how much fun it would be. Finally, I found myself in quite the opposite situation than I had expected, as I had to solve the riddle of: "Which jacket should I leave at home? Each of them is unique in some way."
The last thing I had to decide were the cycling shoes. The ones I had chosen were not available in the Czech Republic, so I opted for comfort in the first place and I tried them on in brick-and-mortar shops regardless of their brand. Unfortunately, I had to wear winter bike shoes for most of the training period and I only got to proper testing of the shoes for the race at the end of March, which was not enough time for the feet to get used to the new shoes and for everything to settle as it should. In the end, I chose the old, tried-and-tested bike shoes, regardless of the apparent signs of the ravages of time (and other ravages).
Journey to the starting line
Everything was tested, prepared and packaged and I flew to Spain on April 9th, 2019. With me, I had a box with the bike and all the equipment and only a small backpack on my back, with just a few things that couldn't be in the baggage hold (batteries and electronic devices). I flew to Malaga, where I met another racer, Jesse Blough (USA), with whom we journeyed together (on a bike, naturally) for the 200 km to the starting line in Tarifa, the southernmost point of Spain and continental Europe. We enjoyed the journey. We had enough time and there was nowhere to hurry, so we divided it into two days. Each day, we rode about 100 km along the coast of Andalusia with a stop in Gibraltar, which never disappoints, and as we were entering the province, we had to stop at the traffic lights and give way to a starting Boeing plane (which was not the only spectacle that awaited us in Gibraltar). And I made my childhood dream come true - the one about visiting a place that I had known only from the travel documentaries.
Upon our arrival to Tarifa, we still had a free day left. We washed all our clothes in AirBnB, bought food and presented ourselves for the race. We met the other racers at the presentation. There were only 11 of us, which was a bit disappointing, but things like this happen in the first year. Nobody knows what to expect and which bike and equipment to select, which has its own magic. However, the quality of the racers was huge. Each of them had already taken part in several similar races (such as Tour Divide, TCR, NCT, NC4000, French / Italy Divide) and they had achieved great results. They all had custom-made and very well-thought-out equipment, so I felt a bit like an "apprentice" among them. Except for two, they all had hardtail bikes, two of which were gravels. At least two had a suspension fork and I was the only one riding on a full-suspension bike. No one knew what the track would look like, so our expected times varied greatly. While I imagined a track similar to the Miles and assumed that the 1,750 km long track would take me between 8-10 days with a reserve of 12 (and a scheduled departure 15 days after the start), others thought they would reach the finish line in 6-8 days and 10 days would be a disappointment for them. We were all in for a surprise...
They were all amazing people, there was a great atmosphere, and we immediately understood each other and became friends. The organizer, Andy Buchs, gave us some instructions about the track (the first two days would be dry and then we would see), the rules and checkpoints (the points from which we had to send a selfie to prove we had been there).
Day 1 Saturday, April 13th, 2019
Tarifa – El Burgo 196 km / superelevation 3,960 m, time spent on the road 14:54
In the morning before the start, we loaded the bags with our civilian clothes into Andy's car and went to the starting line. The last group photo at 9:00, then the countdown, we clapped our hands, wished godspeed to each other and set out on the journey. We left Tariffa riding all together following the bike trail along the beach. When we left the town, the Italian competitor Stefano Cento came to say goodbye, saying he had a feeling he would not see me again. He was right. After that came the first flat meadow which was pretty bumpy, and my full-suspension bike went on like a hot knife through butter. Having crossed the meadow, I found out that there were only two of us: me and another Italian, Nicola Canzian, who had finished fourth on French Divide the previous year. As we continued along the road, I leaned down on the bar extensions and calmly kept my pace. There was a ban on drafting, so Nicola and I went side by side for a while. I was in the lead for a few dozen meters, then he caught me again, and we went on like this for some time. After a few kilometres, we hit the rough terrain again. A short stretch where we both had to stand on the pedals, followed by a downhill ride. I did not expect to see Nicola again after that, but to my surprise, he raced downhill on his steel hardtail bike as fast as I did on my full-suspension one. This went on for another hour or so and after that we saw nobody behind us. Not even in the distance. We took photos of each other on a bike and promised to exchange them later. The pace was truly crazy, and I definitely had not expected to start a 10-day journey like that. Moreover, it was already hot as hell, so I stopped to take off my jacket and leg warmers. Nikola just said: "See you in two kilometres“ and he rode on. Finally, I could set my own pace. It was a wonderful day, the track was hilly, but fast and "ridable" (except for those gravel bikes) and I enjoyed the beauty of the new views that awaited behind every corner. The only thing that broke my peace was the onslaught of WhatsApp messages from my friends who reported how far the other competitors were ahead of me and behind me and their speed based on the readings from GPS tracking on the web. This created such an intense pressure that I finally asked them to send me the info once per day but what else could they do when it was such horrible weather at home.
There was a pub after 70 km where I had planned to stop and replenish water and have some quick soup if possible. I met a group of Englishmen who had set out on a journey on road bikes from Gibraltar sitting there. They helped me make my order with their knowledge of Spanish and I learned the first words needed to order something to eat and drink. As I hit the track again, another biker, Alex (FRA), arrived, riding a pure gravel bike with a 42mm tire. We shortly greeted each other, and I set off again (that was the last time I saw him on the track). There was a flat passage up to the town of Jimena de Frontera. I knew that after that, there would be another 43 km stretch without the possibility of water replenishment (according to the route on mapy.cz server). Indeed, the road rose, and we drove into the hills, dry and hot like a sauna. I was rewarded with great views (of the hills that I still had to "beat"), which was partly beautiful and partly depressing. After about 30 km I ran out of water and I switched to survival mode to cross the sector somehow. The thirst was followed by hunger that I could not drive away without water. That was the first crisis, but nothing that I could not endure. In the following village, I tried to combat my dehydration in the pub. I was able to drink but I could not eat anything at all. I rode on and I occupied another tavern in the next village where I settled the balance with a non-alcoholic beer and some ice lolly. I added an energy bar from my bike and bought another can of coke for the journey.
Then followed an amazing, technical and pure bike single track traversing the steep bank of a river canyon, and I regained the joy of the ride and the incredible landscape around me. At the end of the single track, Andy was lurking with his camera, so I stopped by him, sparkling with euphoria, and told him excitedly how beautiful the race was and how much I was enjoying myself. I just verified that it was about 15 km to the first checkpoint (CP) in Ronda, and Andy told me he thought I would meet Nicola there. I had forgotten about Nicola and after the previous crisis I was surprised he was somewhere nearby, but at least I got another dose of motivation and continued to the town sitting on a rock and boasting a beautiful historical centre. I reached Ronda after having ridden about 170 km. It was still daylight and it was clear that it was my last contact with the civilization for the day and the last opportunity to properly eat and replenish my supplies. I had an honest dinner in a restaurant (while Nicola stepped out of another restaurant and hit the road again). I had a proper drink, replenished my water reserves, and, shortly before 9 P.M., I continued to CP1 to take a selfie with the bridge. There I met Andy with a camera again. He could not believe I was going to ride further. There was a long but rather pleasant uphill ride to an elevation of about 1,200 m, during which it got dark, and then a downhill section which led across the pastures, where I had to dismount, open the gate, get through, close it behind me and ride. I had to repeat this every 300-400 m. After the pastures, the track fell very steeply down along narrow single tracks with loose stones running deep into the valley until I finally appeared somewhere in the middle of a dry riverbed with boulders as big as a truck. It took me nearly half an hour to find my way out. Fortunately, the reflection of high visibility marking of the hiking trail showed me the direction, so I just climbed up the high bank and was on a trail that turned into a pleasant forest path after a while. I kept going, but I already knew that it had been enough for the day if I wanted to avoid total exhaustion and to be OK the next day. So, the tactic was quite simple: “I will just go downhill as far as I could, and when the trail starts climbing up the hill again, I will find a bivouac. Thus, I will start with an uphill ride in the morning and warm up faster instead of freezing like hell in some downhill section”. I rode through the village of El Burgo behind which another climb was supposed to start according to the profile. I found a small clearing and right at midnight I turned off the GPS and started preparing my bivouac. As I was lying down, I received a message from Jesse, who was planning to go without sleeping through the first night, saying that he and the other two were taking a room at the Hotel in Ronda. Well, it was good that they waited with the downhill section until the next morning. I had a short look at the tracking on the website and I could see Nicola was bivouacking in the village I had just passed, and no one else had come out of Ronda. Although I had originally planned to ride a little further, I could still be satisfied after all. I felt great. I was in the lead and the track was difficult, which suited me more than some gravel roads. I set the alarm clock to 4:00 and went to sleep.
You can find another part of the diary here: https://www.kilpi.cz/cs/aktualne/blog/ze-zavodniho-deniku-bikepackera-lubose-seidla-iberica-traversa-2
Photo by: Luboš Seidl, Nicola Canzian, Andy Buchs – Iberica Traversa