Stage 6: The Penultimate Stage
The Penultimate Stage
Stage 6 of the Transpyr
by Scott Penzarella
At the beginning of stage 6, it was becoming more and more noticeable that this race was far from over. There had been a healthy shake down in stage 3, where Johan and myself moved from 4th and 3rd place, respectively, to 1st and 2nd. Chusso (Jesus) and Ruben were battling for 3rd and a few news names moving up the ranks. I was mainly intent upon putting pressure on Johan despite his healthy lead and simply watching 3rd, 4th, and 5th battling it out. As outlined in my previous blog, stage 3 was a massive loss for me, with thoughts of abandoning present on my mind. It wasn’t for lack of desire or motivation, but rather a very unhealthy and painful left knee. During Stage 1 I clearly pushed too hard for the first of seven days and I had been suffering from severe swollen knees since. The left, my weaker leg, was particularly sore and enlarged.
At the beginning of stage 6, however, thanks to the magic of the talented massage team, I was able to keep the pain at bay (not to mention a healthy rotation of ice, 600mg of Ibuprofen at night and some focused stretching). I was happy to be heading out on this day, riding to put up a good flight.
Looking at the course profile, and knowing that Johan struggled on the technical descents, I began to formulate a plan of attack. The profile of stage 6 was incredibly intimidating; km 65 to 85 was a slow march upward to a very steep climb, so steep we pushed our bikes uphill for nearly an hour. At km 96, we repeated this drill, though riding most of the climb to the top, one slow pedal stoke after the next.
The 136km and 2.550+ meters of elevation gain made for the longest (and perhaps hardest) stage of the race thus far, a route that connected Jaca to Burguete, the latter famous for the world-famous start of the Santiago de Compostella hiking/biking trek. By the end of today’s stage, we will have completed 775 kms thus far and, as a result, began to witness a high number of abandoned riders.
There was only one timed section for the day, a long 80+ km “crono” starting at km 32 and ending at about km 113, with two very steep climbs and one important technical descent. I mistakenly started at the back of the group in the morning and couldn’t make my way to the lead group in the initial hour due to a number of bottlenecks and technical river crossings. As a result, I rode steady tempo by myself until the beginning of the timed section. I quickly stopped, refilled my hydration pack, stuffed my pockets with food and set off. Unfortunately, the #1 man was already off with an elite group made up of the mixed leaders in the master’s category, Andy and Richard, and a few other strong teams. By km 50 or so, I found a strong chase group that helped motivate me to bridge over to Johan’s group just after the aid station at Burgi, at km 72. In fact, when I spotted them up the road, I decided to burn an important match to bridge across by myself. Just the idea of bridging across groups in a mountain bike race seems strange but in these long endurance races it is critical to maintaining top times by picking the right group and keeping pace.
When I reached the group, I realized Johan was not there, but Richard quickly mentioned he was already up the road. Richard and Andy knew Johan and I were battling for 1st and they enjoyed poking the bear whenever they could. By the time we hit base of the very steep climb at km 80, however, we were all back together and Johan looked nervous by my sudden appearance. He knew, like I, that at the top of the 400-meter climb, which turned out to be a full on “hike-a-bike,” there was a 350-meter descent. What we didn’t know was how technical the descent would be and that favored no one. However, at 85km, the trail turned steep and narrow and an opportunity presented itself. I attacked and it was scary, yet there was little choice.
The descent was not as steep and technical as I hoped and certainly not as long either, yet I created a gap and decided to keep going. After a quick hesitation on route direction, the now double track pointed down and I drilled it. After a few kilometers of flat to rolling dirt, I turned right onto the main highway and hit a stiff headwind. Though the road pointed more or less downhill for a few kms, I had to pedal hard, much harder than I expected. With nearly 20 kms to go in the timed section and a steep, long climb ahead, I hesitated at the conclusion of the highway where the course turned uphill. After looking over my shoulder, however, seeing no one in sight, I pushed on. About 2 kms up the trail, however, I could hear riders coming and I literally “sat up” in defeat. I was neither going to win the stage nor arrive first, as two strong riders, the boys from Cicle Artia (the men in black) caught me. I asked if they brought along Johan, which they confirmed, but he was still not in sight. Johan enjoyed a 5-man pace line down the highway and, something that came to light later, didn’t believe I was up the road: he thought I must have gotten lost again…. something that did happen to me often when I was navigating with my Garmin. Nonetheless, this time it turned out to be an advantage and allowed me to keep a gap and more importantly out of sight.
I started the climb a few meters behind the Cicle Artia boys who slowly pulled away as the climb got steeper and steeper, but my focus was simply to put some time into Johan. We climbed for over an hour and when I hit the top, I once again came across the Cicle Artia riders who again flatted. As the trail turned downhill, I drilled it, taking chances and reaching really high speeds. I was less than 5kms from the bottom when the trail turned up and the pain set in. I didn’t want to look over my shoulder, but I did. To my surprise, still no one in sight. Despite a few missed turns, I ended up coming across the line of the timed section FIRST! I couldn’t believe it. Next came a few others teams and finally roaring down came Johann who couldn’t believe his own eyes: I was sitting there with a huge smile, stuffing my face with aide station treats. I hit my timer on my Garmin and I had over 5 minutes on Johan. Turned out it was more like 10 minutes in total. I had entered the timed section, as noted above, 5 minutes after him and the attack paid off. By the end of the day, I closed the gap on his lead by just over 10 minutes. The race for the top podium spot remained a bit less elusive to me than at any time since the end of stage 3.
In the end, Stage 6 reminded me of the book, “How bad do you want it,” a theory that at the highest level of physical exertion, so much of the pain we suffer is in our head, not our body. A few friends prior to Stage 6 reminded me of this via email after Stage 1 where I feared my extreme effort would force me out of contention. On the contrary, during the entire 30+ km solo attack, it was top of mind. I really did want it badly and decided that my desire to win and my belief that I could took me to a new place. Yes, my knee hurt. Yes, my legs burned. And yes, my body was a physical mess of low caloric intake and total dehydration. However, I really wanted it badly and I got it. I got the stage win and 6th overall for the day.
PS: For the Data geeks…
The Training Stress Score (TSS), commonly low by this point in a 7-day stage race, was 338.9, due mainly to an extremely tired heart as the effort was extreme. 7:57 minutes of racing and 85.6 miles today--- again on a mountain bike. Unlike Stage 1, where my TSS was 360 for a similar distance, today’s stage begins to show you incredibly fatiguing these events can be, despite racing full on.