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Tom rides the MEGA

Monday, 24 September 2012

Race day at the top of the Megavalanche in Alpe d'Huez. Photo: Tom Fenton

Race day at the top of the Megavalanche, Alpe d'Huez. Photo: Tom Fenton

A bit late, this one, but I’m sitting in the office staring at a rain-splattered window and dreaming of dry and dusty Alpine trails … (It’s also a bit long. Put the kettle on!)

The French do a lot of things better than we do. They make better wine, then sell it for half the price. Their own-brand supermarket chocolate makes M&S’s best efforts taste bland. And our idea of ‘bread’ is pathetic.

Their approach to ‘Health and Safety’ is better too. This is because they don’t understand the concept. Ever dodged warp-speed three-year-olds on an Alpine ski slope? Feared for their safety as they reach terminal velocity in a power snowplough? Check out the grins on their faces and you’ll see what I mean.

Perhaps because of this, the French also create better chaos than we do. Look at what happens when two snakes of skiing toddlers meet on the slope, barrelling into one another while their instructor merrily shouts instructions from below.

So chuck away the H&S forms, embrace the resulting chaos and you’ll get some idea of mountain bike racing, French style.

The epitome of this is the Megavalanche. Which is so stupid it’s fantastic. (Throw in some wine, chocolate and baguettes and you’ve got a pretty good holiday.)

The Mega involves getting up when it’s still dark, climbing to the very top of a mountain and then riding to the bottom. You start down a slippery black ski run, get tumble-dried through a series of rocky drops and jagged slabs and then spat at full speed into blown-out, rock-strewn singletrack – most of which has a precipitous drop awaiting you if crash and forget to roll to the right (check out the plummeting bike at 2.34 …).

Next, they make you pedal as fast as you can up a series of lung-bursting climbs (you’re still well over 2500 metres above sea level) before sending you off the edge of the Alpe d’Huez plateau and into tree-lined Armageddon, smashing berms and ripping through clouds of dust on rooty singletrack. It would be fun, if your arms weren’t so pumped that it’s all you can do to hang on to the bike.

And that’s not all. That’s still far too safe and orderly for the French. Why have only one rider on the course when you could have 400? 400 riders who all want to get to the finish line before you do…

But before all that, there’s the simple matter of qualifying to address.

Qualifying should be easy. It only starts halfway up the mountain and only has half the number of riders trying to squeeze down the track ahead of you. And you don’t even have to win – you just have to finish in the top 35 if you want to be in the main race, or the top 70 if you reckon you’re content with the B final. Sketch down in the top 100 and you’re in the C final. Finish behind that and they’ll still let you do a timed run down the main track.

But you don’t want that. You don’t even want to be in the B final. You want to be in the main race – the one with the World Cup stars, the helicopters circling overhead and the TV cameras out... And that ups the game somewhat!

So when you’re starting in position 190 out of 200, you’ve got some work to do. The only way I’m going to make up the 155 places needed to satisfy my ego and get me into the main race is by riding like an absolute ****.

The lower half of the qualifying course. Photo by Tom Fenton.

Qualifying

I make sure I’m the first person to line up on the back row. This means I can pick a spot behind the smallest rider on the row in front. I make myself as wide as possible, thus ensuring that no one else gets a shot at the little fellow.  

Last time I raced the Mega, I felt sick at this point. I seriously considered ducking under the tape and shuffling off home to my mum. This time, I’m buzzing. The dodgy Europop music gets louder and louder, and I am twitching with excitement. The other riders are too, gloved hands waving in the air to the music and heads bouncing. It’s electric.

Just when my heart’s about to burst out of my chest, the tape drops. I aim for shorty, who, it turns out, has quite a sprint in his little legs. Everyone’s flat out immediately, elbow to elbow and bars clashing. There’s a huge clattering pile-up ahead, as two riders tangle, taking out another five or so. Shorty veers left and I go after him – around the pile of riders I won’t have to try to pass further on. Schadenfreude is a wonderful thing.

The top of the course is fire road straights and big, rutted switchback corners. The key is to pedal like hell down the straights, pick one of the deep ruts through the corners and slam the bike into it, sliding on the fist-sized rocks. Hopefully, no one else picks the same rut. If they do, plan B is to stick your elbows out and hope that it’s you that stays up.

This works well until I pick the wrong rut and tangle with someone bigger than me. Down we go. Luckily, I land in front of him and, after a brief battle as my pedal goes through his spokes, get up ahead of him too. Back on the pedals and back on it.

I hit the first snow slope feet up and flat out. This wasn’t the plan and it’s way too fast for comfort. I throw a foot out, more through panic than design and then go down anyway as someone smashes into my rear wheel and I’m sent over the bars and out the front door.

Getupgetupgetup! WHERE’S MY BIKE? About 10 metres back up the snow slope, that’s where! Grab it. I’m being passed left right and centre. Try and ride? No. Run.

Slithering down the snow, I gain the grippy safety of the rock slabs ahead. Still running, I crest a small rise and leap on without breaking stride. Pedals whirring, I’m in a line of strung-out (in more ways than one) riders, all aiming for a small drop into narrow gully ahead. But I know something they don’t …

Cheeky Line No.1

Always watch the locals in practice. They know where they’re going and a final practice run squeezed in as the lifts shut has allowed me to glimpse a French rider rocket past me before vanishing over the edge of a cliff. So, while everyone funnels into the gully and into a solid wedge of bikes and bodies, I head uphill and off the edge of the world.

Or not – once you’ve dropped into space, you realise that there’s actually a line of ledges leading down to the fire road below. So, hanging off the back of the bike, brakes fully on and eyes wide in terror, I tumble downhill, sketching back on to the flat and into what I know is a B-final position.

I don’t know how I know, I just do, and this knowledge splits my face with a huge grin. I relax. Realistically, this was all I was hoping for and I’m happy with that.

Still, that doesn’t mean I’m letting up! I pick off another half-dozen riders before the singletrack and then more by straight-lining an S-bend on the way in. This involves picking up and over a huge rock and hitting, mainly by luck, the only smooth ramp off it again. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

... 2, 3 and 4

We’re into the meat of the qualifier now – the rocky singletrack that snakes downhill for several kilometres. Blown-out switchback follows blown out switchback, split by rocky straights and slabby drops. It’s some of the best riding you’ll ever do. It also allows multiple-line choices and sneaky passes.

I pick off the first rider at the top of a berm. As he drops in, I slam the brakes on and cut left, clattering through the rocky apex of the corner and bulldozing my way past and into the next one.

Rider number two stalls on a slight rise between two singletrack berms. I see him look back, and we both know he’s messed up, allowing me to squeeze alongside him. He’s not having that, and pushes on as we drop into the berm side by side. I look straight ahead and pretend he’s not there, knowing that I’m on the inside line and that if I just keep going, he’s going to have to brake ... Sorry mate.

Rider three misses the line that everybody has been practising all week, taking the long way around two rocky slabs and I cut over the tops to pass him. This race is going unbelievably well.

Then it almost goes wrong as a rider goes down three feet ahead of me. I don’t think I run him over, but I career off the track, one foot pedalling at thin air. Staying up through sheer luck, I veer back on course and off down the track and, in a second piece of totally undeserved luck, he rolls back into the track, blocking it and stopping the chasing riders dead.

The pressure’s off. Just as well, as my arms are getting seriously pumped and it’s all I can do to hang on. I splash through the river, soaking myself and just about avoid getting bucked off on the braking bumps below. I hang on over the jumps for dear life and slither through the final dusty turns to the bottom, where I get some amazing news. As I’m devouring the contents of my free picnic bag, wiping away the coating of dust and gibbering excitedly at anyone who’ll listen, they put the results up. And I have, somehow, done the impossible and sneaked through to 33rd position and in to the back of the main race.

The Mega

The Megavalanche. Photo by Julia HobsonI last raced in the Mega in 2008 and, over an hour and five minutes of racing, beat my friend Russ by half a second in a full-on sprint finish. What a race. We didn’t do too badly either, finishing halfway up the field.

After my qualifier this year, I was feeling pretty good about the main race. Yeah, I was at the back of the pack again, but was pretty relaxed about the whole thing. Standing on the start line in the early morning sun, incredible views of the mountains all around, I’d even almost convinced myself that I didn’t care where I came – I’d made it in, and that was enough.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

As helicopters thumped overhead and the music blared, the front row – Nico Vouilloz, Jerome Clementz, René Wildhaber, Rémy Absalon, Dan Atherton et al – barrelled down the snow and into the first corner (check out the 'Mega Carnage' that resulted from that.)

Sadly, I didn’t. I slithered into the back of people, fell over and then crashed into a pile of rocks, resulting in a bloody shin and a virtually dead-last position. Looking up from the floor, there were only a handful of riders behind, and I think that knocked all the fight out of me. I wasn’t the only one either – an impressive crash and similar glance back up the field resulted in an almighty howl of despair from a racer to my right.

I got some good lines through the snow, picking up an eye-watering amount of speed and scaring the bejeezus out of myself as I tried to no-brake the steepest part of the slope. It did the trick though as I made up a fair few places.

The singletrack was as much fun as ever. The rocky drops and slabs gave some multiple line-choices and stunningly technical riding – and the fast rocky singletrack remains one of my favourite Alpine trails. And riding over technical ground in a queue of riders all going absolutely flat-out is a pretty unique experience!

Sadly, it wasn’t long before bottlenecks and queues appeared. For some reason, I wasn’t really fighting for places and just settled for maintaining my position. Soon, however, I got horribly arm-pumped – to the point where I wasn’t really ‘riding’ any more, just hanging on. And it got worse. As my brakes heated up and started to fade, I found myself hurtling into a rooty, tree-lined gully at high speed. My useless hands couldn’t pull my not-working brakes hard enough and my tired mind couldn’t convince the rest of my body to get off the brakes and regain control. Bouncing off a tree and several feet away from the track, ten or so riders flew by. To make matters worse, they were chatting. Catching up, I discovered one had broken his bike near the top and so, as he accelerated away, I had to resign myself to finishing behind a man with no front brake.

Tom Fenton. Photo by Julia Hobson

In the words of Dirt magazine’s Steve Jones, the Mega is ‘something that any mountain biker should do’. He’s not wrong. It’s a stupid race, but it’s a unique experience and one you are unlikely to forget. For something like 90 Euros, you get a lift pass for a week, two races and, provided you’ve brought your Speedos, free access to the swimming pool. The tracks are stunningly good fun and the racing is nuts. Yeah, my main race didn’t go to plan (finishing somewhere around 230th – over 100 places down on my last attempt – wasn’t what I had in mind) and, to be honest, I was pretty cheesed off about it. But now, several weeks later, I think I’m over it and, as ever, I can only remember the good stuff. Besides, I know what to do differently next year… 

Tom.

(Huge thanks to Julia Hobson for the additional photos – she managed to squeeze in some photography while cheerfully speeding to 28th place in the women’s race. And in a field which included at least 5 DH World Champions, that’s a result and a half!)

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