180 km on gravel, more than 5000 meters of climbing, and in more than 30ºC, Iron Gravel would be a challenge for every rider. When I had two flats and had to walk for 15 km in the burning heat, it became one of the most challenging days on the bike this year. But also one of the most beautiful and epic! Iron Gravel - I hated and loved you!
It's 4.15 AM. I had my morning coffee and oatmeal. I have dressed up in my CCN kit and pumped the tires. I am already on my way, driving from Guardamar to Busot for Iron Gravel. My alarm rang early, but waking up at 3.30 AM was easy.
I am excited — riding 180 km in the mountains around Alicante. I have done most of the asphalt roads here before. The area north of Alicante is an Eldorado for climbing. Yet today, the course will lead me to the less known roads. The other 107 participants and I follow the backroads around the famous Col de Tudons, Guadalest, Confrides, and Carrasqueta. I look forward to seeing what fun Miguel Angel, the main organizer, has found for us.
Now, I have another 30 minutes of my 70 min drive to Busot.
Miguel Angel is wishing us good luck as we head off. It's still dark, and our bike lights are illuminating the road. Dark, but not cold. It's comfortable at 20ºC. And that's before sunrise! I assume it will be a hot day.
I make a small talk with another rider. I am the only non-Spanish rider doing the 180. Is this race only for loco Spanish matadores?
The rider tells me this is the fourth edition of Iron Gravel. He has done all of them. I don't know his name, but he must be a badass!
Soon we turn off the asphalt and head onto the gravel. Then, the climbing starts. Lots of elevation is waiting.
It doesn't take many pedal strokes before things are getting spicy. A rider sets the pace, and I follow. I feel strong, and even though the speed is high, I am comfortable.
Most riders do the intelligent thing, let us go and find their march speed. We are only four riders putting down the hammer.
Quickly we gain elevation. Seven km to the top.
As we are closing into the top, the sun is rising. It's a beautiful sight towards Alicante. I am left in the front with one other rider. We are not planning to drop each other off now; it's nice to have some company. It will be a long day. He tells me his name is David, and he has been racing more mountain bikes until now. Gravel is his new thing. He also tells me he lives near the top of the climb, so he is familiar with the area.
We are arriving at the top. As we head downhill, another rider makes up the ground. We are now a trio. The three musketeers?
A few km later, we are at the bottom of the descent. The new rider introduces him as Javier. He is one of the legends who has done several Iron Gravel. I look forward to riding with these hitters.
I have been having technical troubles in my latest races—punctures in Gravel Locos and Unbound, then a chain drop at the worst time in FNLD GRVL. I hope my bad luck is over now. Nothing would feel better than a clean race today.
We are passing Torremanzanas and on asphalt road. Then we turn left off onto a short downhill trail. I follow David. Then it happens again; I hit a small rock, and my rear tires is losing air at the same time sealant is squirting everywhere.
Man, not again.
I jump off my bike and look for the hole where the sealant comes out. I cannot find it. Maybe it did seal? I'll add a CO2 cartridge. But wait, something is wrong! The gas goes everywhere, and I don’t get anything in my tire. As I loosen the cartridge adapter, I see the problem. The valve is broken.
I have to put it in a tube. So I do. Several riders pass me, but I must focus on doing it right.
– Don’t stress, Jonas, Iron Gravel is long, I tell myself.
A few minutes later, I can ride on. What a start to the challenge. Hopefully, it’s the end of my bad luck now.
I get in a good rhythm. The first riders aren’t to see, but I am catching others. It gives me a motivational boost. They try to hold on, but I am in a flow state and soon leave them—next goal – catching the first two.
We are passing Alcoleja and following some farm roads across small bridges and through small villages. The course varies, and it’s fun. I am pushing the pedals, but I am looking more at the course on my head unit than my power. Left, right, steep hills, steeper downhills. I am enjoying it.
I am alone and passing the 50k mark. I am moving steadily and hope to see the first soon. Now we are mostly on concrete roads mixed with gravel sectors. The concrete climbs are steep, and it’s important to be careful on the gravel downhill as there are many rocks. Some are loose; some are rising from the ground. It is a risk of punctures here too.
I am by myself and riding across some loose stones. Then I hear an all too familiar sound. It happens again!
Bad luck seems to follow bad luck. Flat again!
Madre Mia, why shall I have so much bad luck? Or is it my riding style? Or the tires? I should have chosen a little bit more rigid rear tire for this course, that’s for sure. There is no need to evaluate now; I must figure out how to get home. I am out of spare tubes. I was planning to plug, but with a broken valve, I had to use my emergency tube. And that tube is also flat now.
I am in the Spanish mountains with an unrideable bike.
I start walking. Soon the riders behind are catching me. I ask them for a spare tube, but no one wants to help. More riders are passing. I am getting more and more desperate. I call the race organizer. They understand but tell me I need to ask passing riders and try to make it the 16 km to the aid station.
More riders are passing. But still no Good Samaritan.
They say they need it themselves. I understand, but I am stranded in the heat!
Then finally, I convince a rider to give me a tube. He is hesitant and unhappy about it but gives me a tube. I am grateful and start to change the tube. But as I try to inflate the tube, I realize the tube valve is too short for my DT Swiss wheels with a 50mm profile. Nothing goes my way! A friendly rider on a Felt bike asks me if I need anything. We change tubes in the hope his valve is a little longer. Barely, but it still doesn’t work.
The minutes fly. More riders are coming by, and many riders ask if I need help. The back troop has more time than the first racers. But nobody has a tube with a longer valve. A fellow rider puts in a massive effort to help me inflate the tube I have, but we just can’t get the air into the valve as it’s just too short.
I give up the tube. I have to start walking.
Step by step. I am moving, but it’s slow. The last riders have passed me, and I am now dead last. Nobody around. Walking in cycling shoes is not comfortable. Walking on rocks and uneven surfaces is not comfortable either. Dragging the bike up and down these hills is also a hassle.
Sometimes the challenge is getting so ridiculous it starts being epic. And epic riders, I love. So as I keep walking for the fourth hour, I am enjoying it too. The course is beautiful, and I am getting closer to the aid station. Two more km. It’s hot but a cooling breeze. I had a hydration pack, so I had water until now, which is fine. It’s not long to the aid station.
As I am closing in, a vehicle is heading my way. They are honking and stopping in front of me. It’s the organizers, they got a new tube for me!
I have been walking for 15 km and can’t wait to get rolling again!
I am still last, but now the km is passing by. If I said quickly, I’d be lying. The climbs are steep, and I am rolling carefully downhill. After all, I don’t have a spare tube, and if I puncture again…. I don’t want to walk another 15 kilometers!
The sun is strong, and the heat is increasing. The surroundings opening up in front of me are amazing—a big blue lake covered with green trees. I've done 110 kilometers as I see the famous Guadalest castle – a popular tourist location. I have no time to stop today.
I am riding steadily but trying to keep a good pace. However, it feels like each climb is getting steeper. I am getting toasted in the sun.
There, finally, I see a fellow Iron Gravel rider.
– Hola, todo bien? I ask.
– Si, bien. He answers with a smile.
It's nice to see he’s positive in this tiring challenge. We still have climbs to do.
Soon I pass other riders. I am finally back in the race.
There are no electrolytes at the feed zones, and I am low on salts. I through in salt nuts and serrano ham. In this heat, you will lose lots of salt, and having enough electrolytes is crucial for your water balance. I wish I’d brought my salt tablets.
I hear familiar words as I keep chewing nuts and filling Coke in my bottle and water in my hydration pack.
Two Swedes and a fellow Norwegian rider from the 110 race are also refueling at the feed zone. They tell me it’s a big challenge for them. They are tired and hope to make it by dark. But they are keeping their chin up. They are doing a good job so far. This course is next level, even for the 110-course. I wish them good luck and get on my bike.
Soon, I am climbing again. It seems to be steeper and longer than before.
It has been a long day. I am almost there—just a last push up the climb to Busot, where we started.
From Orxeta, it has been easier, with less climbing and more asphalt. I needed it, as I have been starting to feel the day. My head unit shows me 13 hours of elapsed time. I also show elevation gain well above 5600 meters. It has been a personal challenge. A mental challenge. A challenge of never giving up.
I had times I hated it. All the suffering, never-ending climbs, and always another hill. The burning heat. The rough gravel roads.
But there were more times I loved it—all the beautiful landscape. The variating course has many turns and always something new around the next corner. The many good people I met. And also the craziness. I love a good challenge.
I climb the last hill to something looking like the ruins of an old hospital. I am fatigued, but I shouldn’t need ER.
I follow the gravel road and onto a technical section.
– Don’t do anything stupid now, Jonas. No flats, no crash, just make it home! I tell myself.
I turn into Busot, and I see the banner around the corner. I am done! I made it.
Miguel Angel runs towards me. He is proud of me for making it to the finish after walking 15 km. He says I showed a real Iron spirit;
– That’s what it’s all about. Keep going no matter what.
Now he hands me paella and cerveza. What a day it was. 13 hours out there.
I am dehydrated, so I choose water. I need to make sure I get home to Guardamar to my fiancé safely. We are having a week of well-deserved vacation with ice creams and sunbathing on the Playas.
Gracias, Iron Gravel. This was something else. Loco.
READ MORE: Unbound Gravel 2023