I opened the curtains in our Tenby apartment to be greeted by a bright and sunny morning, the air was still and the sea was calm, I could only hope for conditions like this on race day, in seven months time. We were lucky, many a childhood summer has been spent on British beaches, sheltering behind a windbreaker under grey skies, but this late February weekend was unseasonably mild; perfect for exploring the Ironman Wales bike course. Assuming we could find it – in my haste I’d forgotten maps or GPS files – a scribbled diagram and terse notes taken from the web site were all we had to guide us. Success was dependent on my girlfriend’s cartographic skills and given the momentarily heated debate we’d had on the previous weekend’s ride, I had my concerns. Wholly unfounded, during the two days we took one wrong turn.
The bike course comprises two laps – the first incorporating both a western loop out to Angle and a northern loop to Narbeth, and the second repeating only the northern loop. For our reconnaissance rides we reversed the order – prioritising the more challenging northern loop by riding it on the Saturday, followed by a trip to Angle on the Sunday. With the exception of a short out and back into the centre of Pembroke and the one turning we missed, we covered every section of the course in those two days.
It’s challenging. The undulating terrain and constantly changing gradient makes pacing difficult, each hill draws you out of that comfortable Ironman steady-state and tempts you to push harder. Red line once or twice and perhaps you’ll get away with it, do it too often over 112 miles and it will be a different story.
While it’s the bottom-gear-grinding hills or the out-of-the-saddle walls that are easily remembered, the good news is much of the course simply undulates, gradually climbing or descending, but under the right conditions fast. Should race day replicate last weekend there will be many opportunities to regain time lost to the hills. But those steep, slow climbs that divide these, potentially, fast sections define Ironman Wales – none are very long and few are very steep, they punctuate the course and sap energy; even cruising round in training they take their toll. After Lanzarote I was glad I’d left the TT bike at home, the standard gearing of my road bike was kinder on my legs, but a 27 cog on the back would have been a nice touch. I am under no illusion that this course is quick.
It feels premature to propose race strategies this early in the season and the relaxed pace of my trip leaves me unsure how hard I could ride. It’s clearly a tough race, but then I’ve not encountered an easy Ironman – whatever the terrain if you push yourself enough you will suffer; a course like this simply makes the process of pacing more challenging. How hard can you push the hills? How much can you recover on the limited flats? For now I’ll adopt one of my prepackaged strategies: two power caps, one for flats and one for proper hills; hold back during the first lap and save something for the second time up those climbs. It has broadly worked before, but a course like Wales will test the approach and my discipline to the limits. I think I’d like to ride it again in anger before I decide how I feel about this race.
Whatever equipment I choose and strategy I adopt one thing I’m certain of – I need to be very bike fit in September. Because when I enter T2, legs shot from every out-of-the-saddle climb, the run that follows is far from flat.