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.
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.
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.