The Megavalanche is the most amazing biking event ever. I say event because it is more than just a race. Of course the top guys are there to race but for most it is a battle, it is survival…it is real mountainbiking, and it is a life experience.
Mentally, physically and mechanically the Megavalanche rips you to shreds. Mechanically bikes are given a beating. In the days that we were there we saw broken frames, forks, wheels, mechs, pedals, cranks, gear cables and much more. Physically your body takes a beating. This is no winter holiday where the après ski goes on till five in the morning. Rocks and trees hurts a lot more than a lump of snow, you need to have your wits about you, so a hangover is not a good idea! Even if you manage to stay on your bike your body will go through hell. Your muscles will be aching and your breathing laboured. You can feel the altitude in Alpe d’Huez at its 1860m elevation, but at the top of the Pic Blanc (where the start is) at 3,330m you really notice it. Just walking around up there is hard work, never mind riding a bike.
And then finally there is the mental element…well you don’t really want to go there. Just the thought of riding 21km whilst dropping 2,700m (almost 9000 feet!) is a hard one to comprehend, especially when the top guys do it in well under one hour. But then factor in that you will be riding in a group of hundreds of riders and things can really start to freak you out. In total 1217 riders took part in this years race, starting off in four waves. I mean it is just pure insanity. Add to that the fact that the top section is down a black ski run, which then drops on to a glacier, and things really start to get interesting.
And what a riding experience it is. Broken up into simple elements it goes from freezing cold snow, to soaking wet glacier (which was surprisingly grippy) then on to high rock sections leading to high alpine singletrack. It is the kind of singletrack that is rocky, rough and down right dangerous. There are few technical sections and some small lung busting climbs, then some open grassy sections before you cross through the town of Alpe d’Huez and onto the bottom section of the course. There are some long drags as you teeter along the edge of the valley before dropping, climbing and then entering the rooty, dusty and choking wooded sections before finishing in the small town at Allemont at 720m. That is a highly simplified breakdown of the course. There isn’t really much that can prepare you for this event. Bike handling skills and fitness are key, but experience and preparation are essential.
Just hanging on whilst riding is hard enough but to actually be competitive and race seems to me to be nearly impossible. But like I say, there were those that were there to race and it was quite a shock to turn up on the Tuesday to find that the whole Atherton family were in attendance along with Neil Donoghue and Helen Gaskell. These are world class downhillers, many of them champions in their own right. Then as we looked around a little more we began to notice that almost everyone had an English accent. It was like a bloody NPS or Midlands Super Series race. The huge turn out of UK riders made the event seem every special. In fact the entries from the UK were second only to the hosts France, 18% of the entry was from the UK. In total there were 264 riders who had made the trip. But to add to the international feel of the event there were also riders from New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Spain, Italy, USA, Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Finland, Canada, Peru and more.
There was also a bit of a rumour going around that Nico Vouilloz was down on the start list to race. Unless you are a complete newcomer to the downhill scene you should know that Vouilloz dominated downhill racing for a long long time, his ten World Championship wins are testament to that. Could it be true that he had come out of retirement to compete in this, the toughest race in the world? Was it just a publicity stunt? Would he pull out with an injury? Was he still fast? Was he still fit? And was he still competitive? There is nothing worse than watching the ‘once great’ make comebacks and ultimately make fools of themselves. Surely Vouilloz wasn’t going to make this mistake. In most peoples eyes he was (or still is) the ultimate competitor, the ultimate technician and the ultimate athlete. The people who seriously race the Megavalanche are specialists. The likes of Rene Wildhaber, Jerome Clementz, Frank Parolin and Tomi Misser are not here to mess around. They train and work tirelessly towards preparing for these events. In fact Wildhaber has made this his event. So what was Vouilloz’s game?
Then the reports starting coming in. People had seen Vouilloz high up on the mountain riding sections then pushing back up to try them again. Meticulously looking at lines. Neil Arnold from Hope (who was staying in the same hotel as us) had told us that he somehow came to be riding with Vouilloz and his friends on the upper section of the course. Neil was quite pleased that he had managed to stay with Vouilloz for some time. But then Vouilloz just dropped it down a gear and was gone!
So the messages were coming in that he was here for business. The real indication came when Vouilloz lined up in the first group of the qualifying race (which was held on a shorter track than the main event but was great fun to ride). He was off the line and into the first turn ahead of 200 other riders as if he was in a 4X main. There was no pussyfooting around, this was pure race action. Out in the front, defending his line and moving ahead. It is not that I’m a ‘non believer’ but the qualifier may have been his but surely not the main event, with its snow, ice, rocks and bodies? We would have to wait and see.
On race day it was clear that the British invasion was well underway. Many people were asking how well they could do but it appeared to me that they would need another couple of years getting to know the track, how to race the event and how to prepare their bikes before they would threaten the podium (my guess is that next year there will be a UK rider on the podium, there was fire in some of their eyes). The favourites got on the lifts at 6am, ready for a 9am start, and were all there lined up and ready to take the race head on. The helicopters hovered, the music blared out and then they were off. A sea of bodies. Some riding, some sliding speedway style, some side–saddle, some dragging their bikes behind them like an anchor, some trying the ‘tripod’ method and others just free falling. They were like fish being let out of a net, flailing their way hopelessly down the piste. But then on closer inspection there were some riders out at the front actually riding. Last years winner Jerome Clementz looked the most impressive. Feet up and furious, he dropped down the main snow chute then across the gravel (picking up speed all the time) and then back onto the hard packed snow at the end of turn one. After that it was difficult to spot anyone, except I did see a rider in Lapierre race gear in about ninth or tenth position. Vouilloz was there…or thereabouts. I was on the first corner firing off pictures, watching as the line of riders made its way down to the Sarenne glacier and then across onto the first gravel tracks behind me. As the leaders began to disappear from view I turned around to look back up the start hill to see riders still scrambling their way down. This was going to be one hell of a ride. Mike Rose
There are many who firmly believe that Nicholas Vouilloz wouldn’t stand a chance if he were to return to World Cups. In reality it’s doubtful he would fail at any competition, whether he be lined up behind the wheels of Sebastien Loeb or the board with Andy Fordham. There were murmurings on the bus back from Os en Oisans after the semi final that this just wasn’t downhill though. Strange then that the most successful downhiller ever and one of the most prolific World Cup points scorers ever dominated the 2006 Megavalanche.
This was painful, an insight into why the most successful racers, no, I mean the most successful racers, are more than just loose cannons.
Vouilloz almost murdered himself on this mountain.
Burying himself on the climbs, tight and horribly laboured, he then got way loose on the downhill sections (which wouldn’t be out of place on the toughest tracks of all) and rode into Os fifty minutes later as cool as a ten time World Champion. Imagine what it was like for the rest of the entry. Or may be that was it, he was prepared to put his body on the line that bit more than the rest. Whether it was it downhill, cross-country or roller hockey entirely misses the point, but rest assured that Nico, Pascal and The Don would have filled similar places.
From the helicopter at over 11,000ft the top group who had made the cut in qualifying anxiously stretch out below in a compact eyeball to eyeball, three hundred and fifty man one way scrum. The one in one snow runway stretches ahead of them, the early morning sun sharpening the edges of The Dauphine in the distance.
For several minutes the snow specialists get their way, maybe this wasn’t downhill after all, as Vouilloz and Pascal make heavy work of the snow and fight to keep the leaders in sight. Then suddenly Pascal is cutting loose down the glacier as if his life depended on it. Vouilloz was now in pursuit of his fellow Frenchman, who has taken control of the race. Mickael pulls maybe 800m ahead of Nico but is visibly pressing on more raggedly than the cool ex World Champion across the long exposed singletrack ten minutes into the race. It begins to look ominous for the Q Bikes star as Alp d’Huez comes into sight, breathlessly fighting to keep ahead as Nico reels him in.
The pass takes place on the first short climb but both are moving only just faster than walking pace, the ‘copter moves in to within thirty metres and the pain in Nico’s face is very clear. Then, within seconds of cresting a rise it becomes more like the pursuit of a Paris Dakar rider such is the pace of the Lapierre mounted champion. Through Alp d’Huez the pair open up an unassailable lead over six-time winner Rene Wildhaber.
Even the helicopters move rapidly as the leading duo head out of the famous Alpine village with the names of famous road riders metres to their left. Pantani may have once climbed the mountain road in 37 minutes 35 seconds. Vouilloz already had half an hours descending on the clock by this point. And it was about to show because after a short climb Vouilloz seemed to almost fall over with exhaustion, the bike barely moving ahead. With dropped shoulders Nico then dropped into downhill gear and opened up an inexorable lead. It had all the hallmarks of a merciless Armstrong ascent but going the other way.
The helicopter circled as the Frenchman headed into the last twenty minutes of wooded section, the mountain behind devoid of riders. About two to three kilometres back the leading group of British riders, Neil Donoghue and Dan Atherton, had just rounded the rise at the head of the valley that Vouilloz was now well and truly tearing the hell out of. As he went out of sight he was dominating the event in the same relentless manner that made him such a difficult racer to beat. That was the last I saw of him.
Megavalanche Rookie and Animal Giant Team Rider – Finished 11th in 56mins 50.80sec
Arriving in Alp d’Huez to find everywhere packed full of Brits, if British national entries are slacking it’s not through lack of riders, there’s hundreds here and all for the same reason. The Megavalanche is a refreshing race not just the usual three day rush, but it’s spaced out over the whole week, with the Sprint race on Wednesday then a few days to ride what you want, qualifying on Saturday and the main event on Sunday. It’s amazing there aren’t more races in this format, so relaxed and so much riding for your money.
Two weeks ago Dan Brown (team manager) and me had decided to come out to the Megavalanche to give two junior riders some experience. So here we are in Alp d’Huez with neither of them in sight, Darrel Upton had torn his ligaments in his knee and
Marcus Williams had forgotten you need a passport to leave Wales.
So it was Gas (Helen Gaskell), Rach (Atherton) and Don (Neil Donoghue) joining us.
Qualifying was for me by far the hardest event, on the start line Don and me were so nervous, neither of us knew what to expect. All the riders were clearing little ruts of the start to get the best possible traction, I looked along the line to see everyone in the normal position, no one lent back to use there hips to get the snap. I didn’t have a clue when to go, so just watched the starters hands to see when he would lift the tape, the first movement and that was it, five hard pedal strokes and I was leading 200 riders down a 30 minute downhill track. It took about 10 seconds before my mouth was bone dry and another 30 seconds before I thought “Shit, I’m knackered, how can I lose them?” You can’t, they just follow your every move, any mistake you make they see and avoid it, any line you get right they follow. About 10 minutes in I was so tired and I still couldn’t lose them, half way up the climb I wanted to give up but in a race like this you have no choice but to keep going. The first of the French heroes came past, at the top of the climb Nico Vink was sat on his BMX shouting encouragement, then another Frenchie came past me. Onto the final downhill section I dropped my goggles, I stopped and two more riders came past, so I was not happy. Their downhill skills were OK but they were not 4X riders, so they left some gaps and I ended up in first by the bottom, with a banging headache and not looking forward to Sunday.
Time is a great healer and the pain of qualifying has gone. Up at 5am and down to the pits to check the bikes, Gee makes a bottle cage out of a milk bottle, and some adjustments are made to the home grown spring loaded seat posts. Two gondola rides later and we are sitting at 3330metres high, Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe at 4807, can been seen in the distance. To get over a 1000 riders to that height is amazing in itself. Everyone is called to the start line in order of qualifying and puts their bike on the line and returns to the lift station for hot tea and rum, which according to Flooksy (Tim Flooks) is the only drink to have before the Mega. So some dude takes this to heart and fills is whole camelback with hot tea and rum!
The first race is called and we return to our bikes. Waiting on the start line with the glacier field stretching out down below and 300 hundred riders behind, you do not want to crash. The atmosphere is amazing with helicopters circulating above and ACDC pumping out on the speakers, it really is a mountain bike race that you are proud to be part of.
Pontefract carpets, Megavalanche Rookie who snapped his chain at the half way point. Finished 259th in 1hr 23min 42.50sec.
All I remember was the noise, it was a lot of noise, and it made me very scared.
“Angus, Angus, Angus…THUNDER
Angus, Angus, Angus…THUNDER”
08.54am…crystal blue sky…10,000ft in the sky…sun shining…1200 riders…snow glistening…two DJ’s and 10000 watts of classic throbbing metal reverberating around the Alps.
“Ah-ah-ah-ah…THUNDER. I was caught, In the middle of a railroad track!…THUNDER”
Well not a railroad exactly, more like a French mountain. A big one. A very big one. With snow on it. Shit. And I felt caught. Nervous. Excited…shit.
“I looked ‘round, And I knew there was no turnin’ back!…THUNDER”
Bloody too right, there was no turning back now…shit…race on…shit…the only way out was down. F–k. A long way down. More down than I’ve ever done before…ever. Shit. And it looked bloody steep.
“My mind raced, and I thought, ‘What could I do?’…THUNDER”
08.55am…f–k, now I wanted a poo…on snow? No way! Now I wished I’d drunk the rum. A lot of it.
“And I knew, there was no help, no help from you!…THUNDER”
Help, from who? Jesus? Angus? Vouilloz? No chance. You’re on your own now, just you, your bike and your thoughts. All ten thousand of them. Shit. What am I doing here?
“Sound of the drums…beatin’ in my heart!”
08.56am, more thunder! Two helicopters explode from the mountain side. Wap. Wap. Shit. I really need a poo.
“The thunder of guns, yeah…tore me apart!”
08.58am…THUNDER…it’s getting more like Vietnam every second. Flashes exploding from above. The French are screaming. Shit. My heart really cant take much more of this, never mind my underpants. Did I put clean ones on? Did I put any on? Shit! I think I’ve forgotten how to ride a bike.
“And I was shakin’ at the knees! Could I come again, please? Yeah, the ladies were too kind!”
08.59am, what ladies? Shit! This is it, this really is it! F–k! Over the top!
08.59.50. Silence…beating hearts…trois…deux…une…gooooooooo! Aaaahhhh…carnage! Mega!
“You’ve been…You’ve been… thunderstruck! Aahhh…Thunderstruck!
Two things you need to do, one is to buy a live AC/DC album, the one with Thunderstruck on it. Your long haired mate in the denim jacket with the studs on the back will tell you which one it is, he’ll tell you where it was recorded too, and who was on bass at the time if you let him, he knows cause ‘he was there man’. Or, just download the song, I’m shit at computers, but I managed it.
The other thing you got to do is enter the bloody race. I’m shit at that too. I wasn’t going ‘till the day before. But I managed it. Mates are great aren’t they, they wont listen to excuses will they. What’s yours?
Dirt Team Rider and Megavalanche Rookie. Finished 21st in 56min 38.20sec.
I got a phone call from Mike Rose asking ever so politely “would you like to ride the Megavalanche next week.” No prizes for guessing what my reaction was! Of course,
who wouldn’t want to race against 1200 riders down an hour long downhill?
It was appealing in the sense that ‘race’ is used in its real meaning, racing other racers. From the inspiring pictures I’d seen, the footage from Earthed 3, and of course little gems of wisdom from my friend Steve Jones, it still didn’t really paint a complete picture of what the Megavalanche is all about. There was no mention about the pain involved, how deep you had to dig to satisfy your competitive curse. My weapon of choice was an Intense Uzzi VPX, with around 7.5” of travel, I was thinking that it was more than enough for the downhill and light enough to pedal. Looking back a long travel XC bike would have been better suited, purely from the fact that pedalling was the biggest objective.
Alp d’Huez is an inspiring place. The tension builds soon as you arrive at Bourg d’Oisans and start to climb, reading the Tour de France riders names painted on the infamous tarmac hill climb clearly shows the exuberance and atmosphere. Timing the Dirt van to the top of the hill took 27mins. The record is set by the late Marco Pantani in 1995 taking a mere 37mins 35sec to cycle. That’s insane!
The Mega week didn’t quite go to plan for me, I had to spend the first three days in my hotel room with a pulled muscle in my back. Spending that amount of time in bed was sending me crazy but it might have also been a blessing. Burning yourself out was a big issue with the amount of technical riding available.
Everybody has to race the Megavalanche at least once. It’s a mountain bike race that tests all aspects of your mountain biking ability. Qualifying was the most enjoyable but in no means was it to be taken lightly, as it governs your crucial start position on race day. Qualifying was broken up into six waves consisting of 250 riders in each. My race number meant that I had to start on the back line, but it also meant a lot of fun. Having to battle your way up to the front took patience as well as timed aggression. It reminded me of my motocross enduro days. Everyone I spoke to had a massive smile on their face, they all had a story to tell about a do or die manoeuvre somewhere on the 30min long course. As it was mostly single track all overtaking was do or die, pure aggression. In fact I think I wanted to kill everyone I saw! Finishing 12th meant the third row on the starting grid.
OK, race day. Imagine sitting on top of a 3300m high ski piste with 1200 other nervous riders wondering how to survive the 300m snow section. Suddenly the mood changes, AC DC Thunderstruck starts playing and the helicopter with the film crew hovers up into view. It was such a moment. It took away your doubts, you were there buzzing in anticipation, wanting to race down the course the best you could! Goggles on and you’re off into the surrealness of carnage and entanglement. With my only goal being to stay on down the steep snow and get a good start. Thankfully I did and found myself riding into the half way stage at Alp d’Huez in the top 15. From that point on it was a test of fitness. You had passed the extreme, technical part of the track and were digging deeper than ever finding out how hard you can push yourself. It came to a point where the downhills were merely recovery sections preparing to mentally fight for the next up hill. Finishing 21st was a dream come true, I was left feeling exhausted but worthy of all the effort I had put in. Next year we’re all going to train harder!
Halfords Bike Hut Riders and Second Megavalanche. Finished 44th in 1hour 4min 18.20sec
The first time I rode the ‘Mega’, I swore to myself that it would be my last. I rode a full on DH bike, no practise, no Camelback. Completely unprepared! By half way my lungs were on the floor and I was seriously considering jacking it in. But by the time I reached the finish my thoughts on it had changed full circle.
On the lift back up I already had an image of the perfect bike in my mind and had all sorts of crazy training plans to work on.
Two years later, I returned no fitter than last time with a hybrid XC/DH bike to punish myself yet again. At least this time I had a vivid idea of what was in store and I also had four ‘Mega virgins’ alongside me to have a laugh with.
The Brit presence for ‘06 was far greater than the last time I raced, mainly due to all the coverage over the last couple of years, and it was great to see familiar faces all over the bars in town. Come race day, I forgot how painful the 5.00 am wake up time was, the thought of what I had to come made me feel even worse. Cruising down the trails in Chamonix sounded like a better idea by far, but I put all of that down to pre race nerves.
By the time I was on the start line I was ready to rain hell, memories of my previous attempt had completely disappeared from my head. I was going to nail the snow, sprint every climb and kill every downhill. As the helicopters passed to signal the start it all came back to me. The only way I can describe it is like something from WW1, when the soldiers charged out of their bunkers across no mans land into direct machinegun fire. Everyone sprints down the line as fast as they can, but instantly start to fall by the wayside and go down all around you. It’s just a matter of waiting for it to happen to you.
This year I had the luck of the gods and managed to get away with a perfect snow run. I planned to not get too excited at the start and get some space in front of me before I got up to speed. Then I found a nice firm line to the right of the piste which allowed me to pass a huge amount of riders feet up and at full speed. On the lower section and onto the glacier I was pedalling faster than my gears could go and had managed to move from line eight (riders 250 to 300) to just inside the top 50. It’s all about the snow, if you mess that up you have a seriously hard day on your hands.
From there it was just a matter of hanging onto the guy in front, passing as many riders as I could on the downhills and beasting myself on the climbs. Having got used to the course in practise, it felt so much easier than the last time I rode it, but needless to say I was still breathing out of my arse the whole way down. The climbs are hard bUt the descents are so rewarding, its just such a shame that you feel half unconscious when riding them.
When you reach the bottom of the course it is such a great feeling. If you forget about the chronic pain and overwhelming exhaustion, you feel a great amount of satisfaction and quite a buzz, something I hadn’t felt from normal DH racing for such a long time. It was good to see Nico back on top form too.
If I could give one piece of advice it would be to nail the qualifier, getting up there on the grid on race day makes a whole world of difference. Next year I will be fitter!
1. Nico Vouilloz: 50.00:30
2. Rene Wildhaber: 50.39:40
3. Mickael Pascal: 52.48:70
4. Jerome Clementz: 53.13:90
5. Fabien Cousinie: 54.38:50
1. Anne Caroline Chausson: 1.07.29:70
2. Helen Gaskell: 1.17.49:40
3. Birgit Braumann: 1.19.54:10
The Megavalanche is the most amazing biking event ever. I say event because it is more than just a race. Of course the top guys are there to race but for most it is a battle, it is survival…it is real mountainbiking, and it is a life experience.