The first images I saw of the monster were back in my early days getting into the sport. I can vividly remember watching and re-watching the footage of Nicolas Vouilloz aboard his Sunn Radical doing battle with the long and relentless course in humid conditions as unforgiving as the track itself. Rocks, roots, holes, trees, high speeds in the open; the absolute epitome of downhill and enough to hook me for a lifetime of riding and following the race scene.
With the place having built such a legendary reputation not only in my head but in the sport, for me it became a place I just had to visit. A pilgrimage of sorts to come face to face with a hill that inspired me onto a lifetime journey.
And there it was: all the sights that have graced so many magazine and website reports through time, that have featured in so many videos. The ‘Cyclorama’ sign on the approach to MSA was enough to get me positively trembling. Finally I was in Mont Sainte Anne.
Once I’d calmed down, had a word with myself and got a little less dramatic it was time to hit the hill. Action was GO with Thursday practice and timed training. And what a show it was.
I decided to hike the hill instead of catching the gondola for maximum time inspecting the rocks and roots that have been a staple of the downhill circuit for years… decades. While in its 25 years the MSA course hasn’t greatly diverted from its original route down the mountain – only one or two blips on the fabled timeline where a new, shorter, more exciting! course was used and then soon laid to rest – that is in no way a bad thing. Speak to any of the top riders who have been coming here for years – Sam Hill among others has been annually since 2001 – and you’ll soon appreciate how loved this course is. And it isn’t hard to see why.
If there’s anything I learnt from hiking the track while practice was on and descending it in the calm after the chaos (that’ll be mostly down to Brendan Fairclough), it’s that cameras really don’t show gradient. All the sections that I’d long taken for being reasonably level – namely the wide open bits down the piste – are in fact unrelenting and steep. And there is zero pedalling. No wonder Hill likes the place so much. The rock sections in the woods have always carried a buzz to them, but approach them in person and you’ll find that this is no friendly place to be. Knife edges one after the other glare up at riders, waiting to take a wheel and spit it out in pieces (I definitely witnessed some good examples of this). Meanwhile the smooth boulders glisten with cruel intent if only given half an ounce of moisture. Time in the air is perhaps the only respite from this bout with the beast, but even the run-ins to each jump are rutted, blown out and just waiting to catch riders off-guard. Hell, even the curvy lines of the start ramp make the very first metres of the ride something to think about.
It’s amazing that Mont Sainte Anne has been a central date in the calendar for so many years now. With any other venue it’s certain that riders would be tired of it, but somehow there is as much of a buzz about this place as I’m sure there were all those years ago.
Enjoy the superb gallery from Seb Schieck and the killer video from Tom Caldwell and batton down the hatches – the rain kicked off after close of play on Thursday and it’s threatening to turn this venue into a true battleground. Rider vs. mountain. That’s what this sport is all about.