Qualifying


We emerged from the underground car park early on Friday morning. It was warm and sunny and, even more unusually, not raining. We then went back inside in order to check that we were indeed awake and not dreaming. No, we were right, it had actually stopped raining!

Qualifying itself would consist of 15 heats, each of 130 riders. The top 23 from each would go into the main event, 24th down to 46th into the ‘Challengers’ and 47th to 69th into the ‘Amateurs’. Anyone finishing 70th or lower would not be able to compete but would be allowed to ride the course after the races. The ladies would have a separate heat on their own and would race on the Saturday, followed by the Challengers, with the main race and the Amateurs racing on Sunday morning.

I have no idea how the numbers had been allocated, as far as we could tell it was more or less done at random. However, I was not complaining, I had been given Number 210 and this meant a front row spot in the second heat.

 The start was moved to new location just here

Because of the atrocious weather in the preceding days it had been decided to move the start of qualifying to just above the second life, DMC2, near the end of the fireroad section. The wind, and especially the fog, meant that it would be difficult to get the rescue helicopter up high enough were it to be required.

I headed up to the top nice and early and was in plenty of time to watch the first heat assemble and then depart. The atmosphere up there was electric, I don’t know many races I have done over the years, literally hundreds, but this was something special.

The second heat were called forward a row at a time to take their positions, I got a spot over on the right hand side, being on one side in any race is always the favoured position, too much can go wrong starting in the centre. The only downside with being over there was that I was starting on quite a lose surface, I used the wait between the heats to clear a few of the larger rocks out of my way and got ready for the off.

I am sure that you will all know exactly what I am talking about when I refer to that music, we have heard it so many times before. However, hearing it standing on the top of the mountain, on the front row of the grid with 129 riders behind you all fired up and ready to go is a feeling which is very hard to describe, and so I won’t. If you haven’t been there and done it you should.

The music peaked, the tape lifted and we all shot off like the proverbial from the shovel. Well, not quite all of us. I wasted my front row advantage in a hail of stones and wheelspin. This actually turned out to be rather a good thing. Those who had got a better start all barrelled into the first turn at quite a significant speed and immediately collected each other in a tangle of flailing limbs and cartwheeling bikes. I was far enough back to see this happening and take avoiding action around the righthand side.

Those of us who had survived the first corner encountered another bottleneck a little further along, someone got it wrong in the snow and everyone else behind them came to a stop, I leapt off and ran before remounting and sprinting down the hill towards the lift station.

 Me!
You may notice that I am not in my usual XCRacer/Scimitar team kit. These are instead the colours of Team Romeo Racing, worn in tribute to Kane Vandenberg who was tragically killed shortly before the 2013 24hr World Championship

The track narrowed significantly as we plunged down the mountainside and we were into the techy rocky singletrack which is so much fun. There was another bottleneck at the boardwalk section, which I expected. A number of people had been struggling here in practice, the lack of grip on the wooden sections causing all kinds of problems, and so it was no surprise to see so many having difficulties in the race. I had expected this and planned my lines accordingly. I rounded the turn and dived left into the drainage channel, sliding down over the rocks. This missed out the top section of the boardwalk where braking to line oneself up for the second section had been such a problem, and meant that I joined it on the little flat bit between the two sections. There was some swearing behind me as I obviously got in someone’s way doing this, but then I was down, off the jump at the end, landing nicely on the downward slope and leaning into the next corner, absolutely perfect.

I stopped briefly to put my chain back on and then set off again.

The fireroad and little rocky climb up to the lower lift were both fine. Ever better the traverse below it had dried out considerably, so much so that it was now possible to steer on it, a big improvement over the previous few days.

 Hover bike

There was one section of the qualifying track which I seemed able to do better than most, a little descent with a couple of line choices and a short, sharp climb after, it was the climb which everyone else seemed to be struggling with. I also struggled today as my chain came off again on the descent, forcing me to run up the climb and over the little bridge. I paused again at the top to put it back on and resumed my chase of those in front.

The section along the side of the road had also dried out and was rolling pretty fast, there were a lot of spectators here as it was quite simple to get to.


We plunged down through the town of Alpe d’Huez, a lovely little section riding through drainage channels, tunnels, bridges and jumps, people out in force here to cheer us on. The final section down to Huez was a bit like a helter-skelter, partly because it was composed of a seemingly endless succession of steep, tight, twisty turns, but mostly because all you could really do was hold on and hope for the best.


The very bottom had been changed slightly from practice; in order to slow us we entered the last tunnel two new chicanes had been added. These took us all by surprise as we hurtled into these new corners far too fast and outbraked ourselves. The guy behind me had obviously seen what I was doing and had a little more warning, he emerged from the tunnel right on my wheel, heading for the final drop-off. I went left, he went right. Our handlebars touched in mid-air, we landed together, bumped shoulders again and both sprinted for the corner. He just got it, and I sprinted down the road after him and across the finish line.

As mentioned above, only the 69 fastest riders from each heat would actually get to race. I knew my time, but not my position. It was a long wait to find out if I had done enough. There were also rumours circulating that the forecast for the following day was looking a bit grim to say the least. It was therefore looking likely that the ladies, the Challengers, and half of the non-qualifiers would not get to start on the glacier at all. Sunday’s starts were by no means guaranteed either.

After I’d had a bite to eat the results were posted. 65th, I was in a race. Job done. But would I actually get to race on the glacier? Let’s be honest here, the glacier is the Mega, it was a long way to come not to do it, I’d done my bit, it was now up to the weather gods.


More Of The Same, But With Added Snow


It is still raining.
It is still bloody cold.
It is still foggy

This may sound familiar to those of you who read the post from yesterday, Wednesday. We had been hoping for better but upon venturing up from our new home in the underground car park we discovered that nothing had changed, it was still miserable. However, there was work to be done and so we suited up and headed out into the rain.

With qualifying tomorrow we decided that we really should have a look at the very top section, having not been up there yet. This was a bit of a mission to get to, we took the main lift, DMC, up two levels to DMC2 and then the Telecabine de Poutran lift down in the opposite direction to Oz. There was a short walk across the village to the Telecabine de l’Apette and then a long wait for the Telephecique Alpette Rousses, which was more like a monorail than a ski-lift, it even has a driver.

 The view looking north from the top of the qualifying track

We emerged from the gondola into a complete white-out. This was not due to the snow, although there was plenty of that about, but because of the dense fog, it was very much like the conditions down below, only even colder.

Half a dozen guys who clearly knew where they were going immediately took off down the mountainside. We followed straight away, partly because it was so cold and we were not keen to spend any longer on the summit than we really had to but mostly because we had no idea where we were and could not see any of the course markings through the fog, following someone seemed like the best idea.

Once clear of the peak the mist thinned enough for us to be able to see the landscape. Not the surrounding mountains, they were still hidden by the clouds and rain, but the area we were riding through. This was truly spectacular, it looked as though it was composed of one giant rock, eroded into a multitude of interesting shapes giving lots of choice for lines to ride. This was all covered in patches of snow of various sizes, from about the size of a pool table to the size of a football pitch. I generally use imperial measurements for things but being in France the metric system seems to be quite common, so to avoid any confusion I will be using the Standard Comparison System (the Elephant for weight, the Nelson’s Column for height, the Olympic-Size Swimming pool for volume, that kind of thing)

Two riders disappearing into the distance

An area of bare rock that size, devoid of any vegetation at all and with patches of snow dotted around gave an impression of riding through the set of a sci-fi film. It was a huge amount of fun, picking lines down through the levels of rock, trying to work out where the grip would be in the snow. We eventually emerged from this across some Baby’s Head sized rocks and onto a vehicle track. I’m not really sure what to call it, fireroad is obviously the wrong name, there is clearly no chance of a fire up there so little need of a firebreak

Rounding a corner I spotted two people standing by the side of the track and stopped to see if they were OK. We got talking as, like every Dutchman, they spoke perfect English. They said that they had heard on the grapevine that the start of qualifying had been changed due to the weather conditions, there would be no chance of getting the rescue helicopter up to the top and so qualifying would start just above DMC2 instead. This would be a real shame, the top section had been great fun to ride. I had loved every minute of it, so much in fact that when I reached Alpe d’Huez I immediately climbed back into the lift and headed for the top again. I knew it wouldn’t be used but there was no harm in having another go at it.


I was the only person up there the second time, and it was really a bleak and lonely place, with pretty much zero chance of being found before I froze to death if anything went wrong, but it didn’t so that was fine.

I went to check on the situation when I next got to the bottom and it was indeed confirmed that the qualifying would start on the fireroad above DMC2. Whether they would be able to start the race itself from the glacier on Pic Blanc would depend on the weather. It was not looking good.

Still Raining


It is still raining.
It is still bloody cold.
It is still foggy.

I was not especially keen to repeat yesterday’s route, and indeed still had quite a lot of it stuck to my bike, despite spending ages with the jet wash, so I therefore confined myself to the qualifying track and did two runs from the second lift, DMC2 down to the finish in Huez village. 

 Not me, I'm taking the picture this time.

I quite like the section through Alpe d’Huez, some nice swoopy corners, jumps and a tunnel, and then into a succession of tight steep berms as we dropped down to Huez.

The lift back from Huez was rather slow, mainly down to the fact that it could only take five bikes at once. 

 Also not me. There are a lot of people here who aren't me.

After the second run the rain had eased off a little and so we decided to ride back up to where we were camped, rather than face queuing for the lift again. Climbing a couple of thousand feet on downhill bikes in body armour and full face helmets isn’t as easy as it sounds but we made it, almost as wet from sweat as from the rain.

As the rain worsened again we had a ‘why haven’t we thought of this before’ moment and decided to move campsite into the underground carpark. This was a stroke of genius, we could hang wet kit out and attempt to dry it, tinker with our bikes in the dry and without the cold making our hands numb and even managed to get the gas stove going without the wind blowing the flame out.

 Before

After

The weather was of course the main topic of conversation down at the main arena. With the problems getting the helicopter up to the glacier would they be able to run the race from there? What would they do if they can’t? They must have contingency plans for events like this. Time will tell.

My bike


Some of you may have spotted in the picture of my bike above that the forks don't seem to be getting anywhere near full travel. Probably time for a service...
 

Is This The Most Glamorous MTB Race In The World?


The Megavelanche is one race of which I assume most people have heard, and no doubt they have the same mental image of it as I did. This will probably consist of bright blue cloudless skies, the sun blazing down on the glacier as they plummet down the side of the mountain. The race is of course based in the French resort of Alpe d’Huez, which is home to the rich and famous during the skiing season but is taken over by some of the world’s top mountain bikers for a week every July.

Having decided that the rain was unlikely to stop any time soon I eventually dragged myself out of the van and into the quagmire of the campsite. I spent a short while huddled from the rain and biting wind as I got the bike ready.

 The magnificent view from the ski lift

The top lift, from DMC2 to the top of Pic Blanc, was shut due to the weather, we couldn’t even see the summit through the rain and fog, so there would be no chance of getting a helicopter up there were anyone to hurt themselves. I took the lift up as high as I could and set off down the qualifying course. The track had deteriorated a lot since yesterday; where there were no rocks there was a lot of standing water and where there were rocks the mud had been dragged across them robbing them of what little grip they would have had.

I saw one spectacular crash off the boardwalk section, someone lost his rear wheel, overcorrected, and then slide off to the right. He bounced off the first boulder still holding on to his bike, but this then flung him upwards before he came down on the second, arms and legs flailing this time, rolled over another boulder and nearly stopped before going over the ledge. Nearly. He then fell about 15ft, landing heavily on the rocks right next to the crash mat which had been put there to protect those who fell further down the trail. Then his bike landed on him. A couple of us started climbing down towards him, but other than a bent brake rotor he was pretty much unscathed.

 There is everything here from proper DH bikes to little hardtails
No idea who this is.

I made it down pretty much in one piece, just one tumble off the traverse below the main lift, it was a very wet clay-like soil which was rather difficult to steer on.

Being a glutton for punishment I took the lift back up for another go. However, this time at the point where the race route crossed the qualifying I took the race track, along with a couple of new friends I had met in the lift. There was a bit of a climb to start with and then we headed into the woods on the far side of the mountain.

I can’t go into too much detail here, the human mind has a marvellous capacity for blotting out traumatic experiences from it’s memory. The mud was absolutely indescribable, I’ll resist making any comparisons to the trenches of the First World War, the usual similes for this kind of mud, although we had nearly reached the end before we came across an American.

I don't know who he is either

There was one particularly notable descent, I suppose you have all seen the videos of people sliding down the glacier, standing upright next to the bikes, using the bike to balance as they ski down on their feet, I can report that it is a lot less fun doing this on the mud.

Myself and a couple of others seemed to be coping better than most and avoiding the worst effects of the mud, we could still ride most of it. The majority of bikes were clogging up in every possible way, around the fork braces, the front mech and bottom bracket area, the top of the rear wheel, the rear mechs. The wheels just stopped turning, but the amount of accumulated mud made them far too heavy to carry for any distance on that sort of terrain, so people were left with little option but to dig it out as best they could with sticks. Those of us who did have decent mud clearance were of course enormously sympathetic to their plight and refrained from laughing and taking the Mickey in any way.



Due to the mud and the rain we were starting to struggle in the motivation department and so called it a day when we got to Oz rather than the bottom in Allemont, and got the lift back up. I wonder what tomorrow will have in store, hopefully some sun but the forecast doesn’t look good.

All The Gear But No Idea


It had been lovely weather here at Alpe D’Huez for quite a while and as a result the trails yesterday were all dry and dusty, I was really looking forward to riding them today. The thunder storm overnight had however dampened a lot more than my enthusiasm. I headed up the hill to the village of Alpe d’Huez and managed to get one of the converted camping spots right underneath the main lift, as I discovered when the fog briefly lifted enough for me to see where I was..

I got the bike out and got it ready to go. I have a new-to-me bike for this race, a 2008 Kona Stinky. I am not used to riding anything this size, and have only ridden this bike on four occasions prior to my arrival here. The weight of the thing is unbelievable, despite the best efforts of Mt Zoom and their lightweight bit and bobs. To be fair it has gone from being very, very heavy to merely very heavy so they have helped. I’ve been using various parts of theirs for a number of years and feel confident that even the lightest bits are more than up to the job of an Alpine downhill race.

I am also equipped with every kind of body armour I could get my hands on. Well, not my hands but pretty much everything else; shoulders, elbows, forearms, chest, spine, kidneys, knees and shins. I have a brand new full face helmet, which is still far too clean and shiny and clearly marks me out as a newbie, and some goggles to go with it.

I spent about 2½ hours bleeding my rear brake while we waited for the lift to open, apparently they are not allowed to run it while there is lightning in the area. It’s health and safety gone mad! What could possibly go wrong in metal box 80ft above the ground suspended by a metal cable from a series of metal pylons on an open hillside?


The front brake took about 10 minutes to bleed. Once I had discovered that the syringe itself was leaking air rather than the brake the process had become a lot quicker.

Eventually the weather cleared enough for the lifts to begin operating and I climbed aboard and headed for the top of the qualifying run. From the lift station we headed left and down and in less than a minute I realised just how out of my depth I was.
I made it down the first section in one piece, the bike clearly far more capable than I was. I had to have two attempts at the first boardwalk section, braking on the upper part was very sketchy in the wet, and there was a wee drop off at the end. I picked up confidence as we continued down the hill, trying to keep up with the others as best I could.

 Spot the rider

It all went wrong at the first gap-jump. I was in that no-mans land of going too fast to see it in time to avoid it and go round it but not going fast enough to actually clear it. I realised too late, panicked, braked and slid off the end, down a hefty drop into the gap. My nice new helmet now has it’s first scars and the bike took a hell of a whack, front wheel first into the back of the landing with all of my weight behind it. Once I had recovered from being winded I was able to pick it up and have a look at it. Absolutely fine, which surprised me a lot, and was more than could be said for my right hand, one of only two parts of me not covered by some sort of armour. Oddly enough the other is my left hand.

Below the middle lift station the track got easier, a slippery traverse on which I felt much more at home and then a lovely section of berms and (much smaller!) jumps back into the town. We continued through the streets, and various tunnels and drainage channels, and out the other side.

This next section reminded me very much of a helter-skelter, partly because of the succession of tight twisty corners and steep gradients but mainly because the only way down seemed to be to just hold on and hope for the best.

There is a smaller lift back up to the campsite, with just a piece of bungee keeping the bike attached to the outside. 


The main lift stopped running at 5pm and so with the weather closing in again there was little else to do than to put some dinner on to cook and see if I could get my hand working again, or at least back to nearly normal size.