MOUNTAIN OF HELL

 

By Jake Ireland

 

There really is no way of describing to anyone who hasn’t competed in this race just what it’s like. Having a massive crash on Thursday just after lunch (out riding with Jeremie, a super cool French dude who works in the favourite local takeaway creperie) where my front wheel hit the opposite side of a (very deep) hidden drainage ditch and threw me over the bars onto some seriously rocky terrain ended my day. This was after my linkage fell apart and we ended up repairing it for the weekend using Dan’s (the competition winner) multi tool. My linkage was now fully prepared for the trail, with spoke keys, spanners, and the all important bottle opener! The riding I had done though was stupidly dusty. Turns were totally blown out. We were praying for rain, just to get the trails away from their thirsty state, but I think the devil was listening.

 

Friday morning was sign on. All race numbered up, this called for some practice riding the final trail for the second time, but a couple of Km in I hit a patch of snow a bit skew-wif, and managed to put my foot through my forks (between my stanchions!) and tore my front brake hose out of the caliper. I had to take it easy down the fire roads to the nearest lift station and went back down in the lift to town.

 

I gave the bike to Hope FR race support with the intention of it being fixed in half an hour and getting back out for an afternoon rip. Needless to say the rain arrived. Not just a bit. A lot. And then hail. There was talk of there being snow at the middle Jandri lift station (at 2400m). The rain was relentless, the thunder arrived, and with that, the lifts were all closed, to be opened again when the storm passed. We went to the ‘briefing’ in the evening, and sat through a 20 minute long speech in French. We thought there was to be no English briefing, and were using Mark, Mick Hannah’s mechanic as a translator! Shockingly the English brief started. Not so shockingly, the brief was brief, lasting less than 5 minutes! We did learn of a cool rule from Mark though. If you want to put in a complaint about another rider, it’ll cost you. 15 Euros to be exact! But- if the complaint is deemed valid you get your money back, and if not, they keep your 15e. No petty complaints then! Anyway, the storm did eventually pass, sometime early on Saturday morning!

 

We awoke to a snow topped mountain out of the chalet window, and a misty, eerie surrounding. After eating an early (7am!) breakfast, we got ready to head up for a practice run down the qualifying track, then the timed run. After the rain starting again, and the temperature dropping, we decided to sack off the practice and Anka and I would be going into the bottom section of the track blind. Set off in waves of just over 100, and the trail about 30 minutes long featuring a pretty mental shale slope, it was almost going to be a full on race in itself, especially as the weather conditions were so harsh. We were sure they must have changed the track in some way or another, probably getting rid of the more mental parts and re-routing the trail to miss the shale out. There was an uneasy vibe around, no-one was quite sure what was going on, probably as the Choucas Bikers were on the stage in Smithy’s bar the night before, drunken singing with the four bald white dudes singing Bob Marley covers. We eventually found out (by skills of deduction and bad French) that there would be a decision at 11 o’clock. That said, we didn’t know what the decision would be on! Was it whether the trail would be re-routed, or run at all? Anka needed to be on the lift at 12, and we hadn’t heard anything, so she and Sven headed to the lift to get up the hill. Jon, Dan, Posh James and I had all walked down to the pits to check out what was going on anyway. It turned out quali’s were delayed for an hour, so we all came back to the Chalet to psych ourselves up ready. I was led on the sofa listening to some old skool hip hop at silly volume on my generic mp3 player, eyes shut and nodding my head to the beat. I just happened to open my eyes, and Anka was stood there. She’d gone up for qualifying. Was I dreaming? Was there something funny in the Crepe from Jeremy’s place?! I took out my headphones to hear two words. I wasn’t sure I heard them right, but after hearing them the second time it started to sink in. “It’s cancelled". It turned out the snow wasn’t in the mood to budge, the eerie mist hadn’t risen, and it wasn’t safe to run. We decided we weren’t going to miss out on a whole day’s riding, so kitted up straight away and hit the trails off the two lifts that were open! The hiking trail on the top of the Pied Moutet was the highlight, soaking wet, mega slippery, and super technical, but a huge amount of fun. The trail to Venosc was pretty awesome too, the fresh greasy top layer meant you could really let it hang out. The Valleé Blanche is also an awesome trail. Starting off the top of the Pied Moutet again, it picks up on some of the sections of the World Cup track from 2004 where Peaty smashed it with a 5 second win over the rest of the field. That said though, it doesn’t look like the track has had a huge amount of maintenance since! The braking bumps are super huge and go all the way up and around the berms so there’s no escape, and it really is super high speed all the way down. Saturday evening came, along with a brilliant spag bol, and bike maintenance and an early night were the main items on the agenda ready for Sunday’s race. The bikes had all taken a beating over the last few days but had held up really quite well, with no mechanical’s (just 3 flats between the 6 of us!) out on the trail. Bedtime was appreciated on Saturday night, just the chance to rest was great, even though sleep was minimal in anticipation of the race to come – and the 5am start to get to the top of the mountain in time!

 

5am came all too quickly, and this was it, the day of the race. Mountain of Hell. After the last few days it looked like it was going to be living up to it’s name. We managed to almost be on time to the Jandri lift, that takes you up all the way up to 3200m. After a cold journey up the lift, we managed to get some relaxed time in the cafe at the top, sitting with hot chocolate’s and chatting away about the hour to come. The race was scheduled to start at 9am, so at 8, we left the cafe in search of the funiculare to the race start. The funiculare experience is a bit peculiar, after spending what seemed like an age queuing to get on, once you get in there, the floor is stepped on an angle so it feels like you’re standing on flat whilst you’re really hammering up hill. It was absolutely rammed in there too, and for the amount of people in there, there was hardly any noise apart from the whirring away of the cables powering us up there. Imagine the calm before the storm, a rammed train carriage of your mountain biking comrades, but also your rivals in this great race to the bottom of the hill. The funiculare eventually winded to a stop (on a slope, but with the floor steps level, weird!) and it was as if everyone had accepted that this was it. No-one was in a particular rush to get out of the station. We eventually trundled out, with no idea of the epic view ahead of us. It was amazing. Snow. Mountains. Bikes. The mass start grid just where the gradient starts to get a bit steeper was filling up with bikes. The responsibility of the Row 2 start was dawning. When there are nigh on 500 bikes behind you, it is slightly scary. We were called over (in French!) for the (French) briefing, where it was made clear that the red ‘Ayton’ run that the race was scheduled to go down was going to be shut because of the snow, and would run on access roads until after that section. It would still be gnarly because of the amount of snow on the access roads, and the thought of missing the ‘mess up and end up at the bottom of the massive off camber slope’ section was almost pleasing to the mind, after seeing it covered in a thick blanket of snow in the lift up. Once the briefing ended (there was no English briefing) everyone resorted to exercise to keep warm. The running man was the move to be pulling out of the bag, big fish little fish was so last year! That was the moment. The realisation that this really was it. I’m about to throw myself, full on, no bull, down this mountain. Oh.

 

The flag was removed from the start line as everyone lined up behind their bikes ready to pounce onto them and pedal off down the glacier. Pascal (one of the Choucas Bikers, organisers of the race) picked up an air horn. Here we go. This is it.

 

I pounced onto the bike and thought I had a great start, pedalling off down this snowscape. That was, until I looked left, to see Jon slowly creeping past me. Hammertime. I put down a real snappy stroke on the pedals. Too snappy though, as I span sideways and was ploughed into by some French dude! I was down. Sliding down the hill bikeless. After managing to get up, the sight of hundreds of people going past was awful. I was losing my position. I had a duty to the second row start to pull a result out of the bag.

 

Back on the bike, headed off the glacier I was pinned. I had to regain these places. After a long access road pedal, overtaking all along, we dropped into the ‘mess up and....’ section. Hold on, they just told us it was closed! Nothing I can do now I suppose, let’s just keep it pinned! After having to run past people queuing to walk along some off camber I hit the first climb. Trying to climb on an 8" travel downhill bike really isn’t easy. Especially when you’re on a roadie cassette too. I had to do it though. I sat down, and I cranked. All the way upto the (supposedly closed) ‘Ayton’ run. It was open. Doesn’t surprise me. After the Ayton came another climb for around 2km. Downhill all the way now then. After hitting the town and pedalling through, there was a detour. Into a shopping arcade, then into a bar, then out, then 2 stair sets. Awesome! You could even stop and do a shot if you thought that was a good idea! After hitting the wooden floor in the bar and getting a full on slide on, the stair sets felt great, and then the part of the track everyone had the most doubts over. The hiking trail to Venosc. If you read Rowans travel guides, then you will have heard how great the riding trail to Venosc is, but this is totally different, and turned out to be equally amazing. Super tight, uneven steps, big ‘mess up and die’ corners, and some sneaky metal drainage gutters, that if you hit even a tad sideways, it was slide time. The trail eventually drops into the Venosc biking trail, for some amazing big, fast, no brake corners to the end. The finish was down some tarmac and around a left hander. Seeing the finish line sparked mixed emotions. How did I do? Why did I bin it? Why wasn’t the track longer? Crossing the finish line was amazing. The most conquering feeling ever. That mountain was mine. I’d done it.

 

I think that’s the feeling that needs to be experienced to be understood. There really isn’t a way of describing how good it feels to put yourself through this kind of race. I could try and describe it, but I could never do it justice. If you’ve done something like this, you’ll know the feeling. If not, go in search of it. When you find it, you’ll know.

 

We'd like to thank the crew out at Ride Oisans www.rideoisans.com for looking after us and our Dirt competition winners.

 

All photos by Sven Martin

 

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