Megavalanche - Race Day

Race day. It has been announced that the Megavalanche will start from the glacier. I am going to do it. Help!!!

Bikes and skis heading for the top
The first time I saw the glacier close up was on my way to the start line. As I am sure you recall from my previous posts on here I had been unable to reach it during the practice sessions, either the lift had been closed due to the weather or the glacier itself was closed if the rescue helicopter was unable to fly.
The glacier is there somewhere. This really is as much of it as
I had seen before I raced down it!

However, in a dramatic break from tradition Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny, or at least less bad than of late. I took the main lift up to DMC2 at 8:30, and then the cable-car from there up to the summit of Pic Blanc, at 10,800ft. The results of qualifying had been used to determine who would be allowed to race, only the top 69 from each heat would be in the mass-start events, and I had just scraped in at 65th, so I would be starting three rows from the back.

 This is the view from the top of the second lift, DMC2
We would be starting on the summit, the lift cables
are visible, the lift itself is hidden in the fog

Everyone in front of me was already lined up and ready to go, so I slithered my way down to the back of the grid and took my place over on the left. There was blue sky behind me, but cloud and fog in front. I could see the rest of the 400-odd riders, some odder than others, lined up in front of me but beyond that the ground just disappeared over the crest and down the face of the glacier, everything beyond this was completely hidden by the mist. My first go down it would be in a race, blind, and with 400 other people. Everyone I had spoken to was in the same boat. This would be interesting.

 This is my home-made bungee and Velcro tether, to stop the bike 
getting away from me if when I come off on the ice

There was quite a long wait between being gridded and the start of the race, which did little to calm my nerves. Eventually that music began playing and amid much enthusiastic shouting, the tape rose and we were off.

I had seen the videos of the start and it appeared that the best line was to be found over to the right hand side, stay high and there would be less chance of ending up in the catch fencing along the top of the cliff or the huge pile of bikes and bodies which seemed to accumulate there. I realised with hindsight that these videos all showed the main race, which was fine - it is the one everyone wants to see, but it also happens to be the one with the nicely pisted snow, which is nice and easy to ride on. Starting near the back of a group of nearly 400 after another 400 have already raced meant that it was somewhat less well pisted by the time I launched myself over the crest and into the unknown.

Because of the gradient picking up speed was not hard, but the deeply rutted snow was extremely difficult to steer on and soon the bike was travelling faster than I could think. The first time I fell I slid quite a way, my tether doing it’s job nicely, just keeping the bike close enough for me to able to grab the bars properly. Getting back on again proved rather tricky and I rode, slipped and slithered the rest of the way down the first section. The course flattened out slightly after the first corner but in the deep snow it was much quicker to get off and run than to attempt to ride. I leapt back on at the top of the next big drop and flung myself down it.

The next time I hit the ground I couldn’t even get back up again, I was picking up speed so rapidly that I was unable to get to my feet to climb back aboard the bike, so I remained seated, picked my feet up in front of me to reduce drag, and held onto the bike as I sledged down the mountain on my bottom. I have no idea what speed I was doing here but it felt like a lot!

Eventually reaching the bottom I was finally able to resume an upright position, although not resume riding. This actually worked out quite well for me, I’m a reasonable runner and was able to make up quite a lot of places as we all dragged our bikes along through the snow. The running here was a lot harder than I expected, I’m used to running in snow from my time fell-running in Scotland, but I’m not used to that altitude. Even by this stage we were still at about 10,000ft and it was noticeably harder than normal trying to breath deeply when putting in any effort.

We eventually cleared the snow and set off down the mountain. The course was much easier than the qualifying track, there weren’t so my places where I was out of my depth and I felt fine riding it blind. There were a couple of steep chutes which were taken by just holding on and hoping for the best, but because there were so many of us all racing at once it was easy to spot the really tricky bits as these would tend to create little bottlenecks. Once we were on the narrow singletracks it also became quite difficult to get passed people, the trick seems to be just to hurtle up behind them shouting gibberish and generally making a lot of noise. There are so many languages spoken there and everything is so distorted by the full-face helmets that trying to shout anything polite is a bit of a waste of time.

We eventually joined the qualifying track somewhere above the town and split off from the main route. The main race had continued down to Allemont but because of the conditions Race 3, my race, was to finish in Alpe d’Huez. There was a final blast down the swoopy, jumpy section into the top of the town to the finish line by the main lift. The race was a lot longer than it had felt, it had taken me 1hr04m, I would have guessed about 20 minutes. Time does go quick when you are enjoying yourself.

364 riders finished from my race, and I was 104th. I had a rough attempt to work out where this put me overall, if we say everyone in the other two races beat me, and I beat those who didn’t qualify, then I make it 724th out of about 2,200, not bad for my first ever DH race. I’m not just saying this because I finished so far down but the positions don’t really matter here, it is one of those races which people do just for the experience and I can see why. The atmosphere is fantastic, it really feels like we are part of something special, the start line in particular really is something which everyone should experience at least once, and despite everything the weather had thrown at us I had thoroughly enjoyed myself.

I would like to say a very big thank-you to loads of people, far too many to list, but I will mention Sam Acland for helping out so many times during the week and especially for being the genius who thought of the underground car park. All of the lightweight Mt Zoom bits on my bike somehow survived a week of DH racing by a complete novice, not at all what they were designed for, but they all proved more than strong enough. Accelerade kept me fed and watered throughout.

Saturday Muddy Saturday

Because of the conditions at the top of the mountain it had been announced that the Saturday races would not start from the glacier. These were the womens’ race and the Challengers, followed by the faster of the non-qualifiers. They would instead start from where qualifying should have started yesterday. Sunday’s races, the main race and the Amateurs (me) followed by the other non-qualifiers may start from the glacier, it would depend on the weather and if the rescue helicopter could fly.

After a brief respite from the atrocious conditions for Friday qualifying normal service had been resumed for Saturday. We had moved camp down to Allemont but even several thousand feet lower down it was still cold and miserable. I eventually dragged myself from my bed and out into the cold and went to watch the finish of the women’s race, Melanie Pugin (France) taking the win from Meggie Bichard (New Zealand) and Manon Carpenter (UK) I then headed into town for breakfast, mainly so that I could sit in a bakery and try to get warm again.

When I returned there were a lot more people there, and what a sorry sight they looked. There was mud everywhere, everyone was a uniform shade of brown from head to toe, making it rather difficult to tell who was who. The bikes which were coming across the line were so clogged with mud the wheels would barely turn. There was a huge queue for the bike wash and the stream was full of people trying to get rid of the worst of it from themselves. A significant number of people were arriving with parts missing from their bikes, mainly chains and rear mechs, but also spokes, tyres and various other bits.

This bike belongs to a New Zealander, who's name I have forgotten
Look carefully, there is a rear mech and chain in there, just not
where you might normally expect to find them. Several spokes are 
broken and there is no air in the tyre.

I decided to wander up the track to see exactly what I was in for tomorrow. I crossed a river and then headed up the hill. This was quite a major undertaking, it was pretty much impossible to stand on it, never mind walk, and I ended up in the undergrowth on the left dragging myself up with my hands. I saw a huge crash here, someone came barrelling into the top section at about Warp Speed 3, lost the back end of the bike and veered off the track to his left, my right. Myself and another guy were about 50 yards from him but clearly heard the sound of helmet on tree. He didn’t move. We somehow found some extra speed and headed for him as fast as we could. He was still conscious and, although quite dazed, seemed unhurt. He was still also clipped into his bike, which we managed to remove from him. He got to his feet very unsteadily looking a little like a drunk trying to stand and then, once we had reminded him which way he was supposed to be going, slid off down the hill towards the finish.

I continued up the hill. The next big crash I saw the person concerned remarkably got away with. A steep right hand turn lead into a steep left, dropping down over some tree roots, polished smooth by the riders who had already been across them. He made the right turn OK, lost his back wheel on the roots which sent him left and over the edge of the cliff. I am not exaggerating here, the cliff must have been 30-40ft high. It’s difficult to be precise as the bottom was largely hidden by the trees and undergrowth. These appear to have saved him from serious injury, slowing his fall as he crashed through them.

Me and another spectator ran over to the top and peered over the edge. We could see nothing through the foliage, so we shouted. A faint voice came back in a Dutch accent:
“I’m OK”
“How do I get back?”
This was a very good question. We could see the broken undergrowth where he had gone, but nothing beyond that, as far as we could tell it was pretty much vertical, almost impossible to climb at the best of times, never mind in full armour and with a 40lb DH bike. A discussion ensued of the likely options, but in the absence of a rope they were all abandoned. We could just about see the river behind him so directed him to go that way and then wade along it to his right until he crossed the track further down. I’m sure he wouldn’t be penalised for missing part of the course in the circumstances. As he was unhurt we just left him to it, we could hear him for quite some time fighting his way through the ferns and brambles. We remained there a while longer, shouting encouragement and a warning as the last of the non-qualifiers made their way down one by one in various bedraggled states and with their bikes in various states of disrepair

He got to about here and then turned left.
Not caught on my camera, I hope he had a helmet-cam on.

The official announcement as to what would happen on Sunday would be made at 7:30. Would I actually get to ride the glacier? The notice went up in the main arena in Alpe d’Huez. The start of both races would be one hour later than scheduled. The main race would start on the glacier and finish in Allemont. The Amateurs (me) would start from the glacier, but would finish in Alpe d’Huez, as would the non-qualifiers who rode the course after us. Perfect, I get to do all the fun bit, without the horrible muddy section below the town.

All subject to a final weather check in the morning of course. Nothing is guaranteed.

The news we were all waiting for.

Megavalanche 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.

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.



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...