The greatest Megavalanche story ever written
The 2014 Megavalanche has just been and gone, and it reminded us of this incredible account of the race from issue 79. It's quite possibly the greatest article that's ever been in Dirt.
Mega Traffic Jam
Megavalanche Alpe D'Huez 2008
Words: Steve Bancroft
Photos: Victor Lucas
There’s a whole lot of pressure involved in the losing of one’s virginity. Expectations and anticipations are elevated to celestial heights and, unfortunately for some, it’s reported that your performance during the ‘popping of your cherry’ acts as the defining moment in making you who you will be in the future. It’s not just copulation where this is the case: whenever you partake in something for the first time, that primary experience will have a lasting effect on your perception of whatever activity it was.
The 2008 Megavalanche was my first mountain bike race. The 2008 Megavalanche was my last mountain bike race. As a sexual encounter my performance in the event was comparable to an awkward fumbling under the sheets of a single bed in my mother’s house where I shot my bolt after the first two minutes then spent the next hour and 16 minutes limply flopping around trying to pretend that I hadn’t.
I don’t really know how I ended up at the top of a mountain – wearing a padded leotard, on a ‘full suss’ (gay name) bike – as for 15 years BMX has owned my life and I’ve spent the last five working full time for Ride BMX Magazine (of which I’m currently the Editor). So although I have only recently lost my mountain bike V plates, I’ve been knocking around on bikes for a fair while. During my time working for Ride(a printed publication that once shared the office as the very magazine from which you are now reading the word COCK in) I incubated a strange loathing for mountain biking. You see, as a devoted BMXer from an early age, the basis for my contempt towards ‘MTBs’ is rooted in my very genes, written into my DNA if you will. I was brought up on a strict 20inch philosophy and being so fanatical about my beliefs in my prepubescent years, it wasn’t unheard of me to vent my religious extremities by shouting things like “21 gears for queers" at passing motorless motorbikes. However, now that my beard grows fairly thick, now that the sparse wispy blond whiskers on my chin are coarse, dark, and numerous, I’ve begun to question my angered feelings towards the parallel world that is MTB. So I thought I’d stick my neck out, do something wacky, and give it a chance: an act not dissimilar to a life long vegan waking up one morning and tucking into a large doner kebab for breakfast.
I see it a bit like this: MTB and BMX were both born of the same mother, twins I suppose. But soon after birth their parents got a divorce and they went their separate ways. BMX chose to go live with his Dad who was a bit of a hell raiser, he got into a lot of mischief and although academically he might not be too hot, he had a helluva good time. Meanwhile MTB got stuck with his mother, not really getting up to much and turning out to be a bit boring but pretty clever. BMX never really liked MTB and for years they never spoke. But after a while MTB tracked down BMX and began to idolize him, following him around, lurking in his shadow, secretly trying to mimic his actions. No-one likes a cling-on. But anyway, in a rare, karma inspired change of heart I decided to give my weiner of a brother a chance, so went on holiday with him to France.
I signed up for the Mega completely blind, I’d never ridden a MTB with a retail value of more than £79.95 before in my life. And while my travel companions packed fork oil, brake fluid, spare shocks, energy bars, bike stands, spare bikes, a team of mechanics, thick rimmed glasses sellotaped in the middle and jet washers: I took an orange suitcase and the heavy red bike that Dirt editor Mike Rose had kindly lent me.
I bought my suitcase as part of a £2 job lot from the dump and after I’d finished packing for my downhill excursion I’d guess that the total value of the suitcase was about £22. It was like a makeover from a boys brigade jumble sale. I borrowed Diana (he means Dainese: Ed) one-piece padded leotard from Steve Geall (which strangely enough smelt of gin). A duffed up carbon head pot from the Dirt office and a bag pipe from our local drug dealer. My get-up was topped off by a pair of board shorts and either my favourite shirt of my lucky shirt. These two shirts have experienced the heavenliest of highs and the darkest of lows together, they’re my boys, I trust them with my life and feel safe with them around – they quite literally have my back. I have no idea how all of the other riders do something as crazy as riding down a mountain in the company of a fluorescent logo’d up 60% lycra prick.
Upon arrival to Alp d’Huez I was really excited and eager to try this new sport. Upon donning my riding costume I felt and smelt horrible and wanted to go home. All my senses were numb, I couldn’t hear anything because of the lid, I couldn’t move because of the padded catsuit. I’m sure the mountain air was fresh and clear but inside my head piece all I could smell was sweat and cigarettes, and the small murky moto-X goggles lent to me by my housemate made it seem like I was drunk and stuck down the end of toilet tube roll. I tried to pedal the bike around for the first time and it felt like it was broken: whatever I pushed on, be it bars or pedals, everything just seemed to move out of the way. I felt like Mr Soft.
[part title="Part 2"]
So the day of qualifying rolls round and I’m awoken at 5AM. I meant what the f—k! Who rides bikes in the middle of the night?! If they want the best out of me they should let me wake up about 9, let me lie in for a bit with a cup of tea, maybe crack one out, a couple of rounds of toast with Jeremy Kyle, go through my emails, make a few phone calls, take a shower then think about getting dressed before rolling out of the house. If they let me have it my way I’d have been up on the mountain at about 2PM fresh, limbered up and ready to send it. But oh no! They want the very first thing I do that day to be travel bleary eyed down a rock face at 40MPH with 200 other chumps.
So I take a plethora of strangely shaped lifts up to the tip of the world to get to the qualifying race. Hundreds of other early risers congregate at the top of the peak, looking down at the valley below where the cars looked like ants and also where the race ended. I look down at my bike, then I look down to the bottom of the mountain and the “maff" just doesn’t seem to be adding up. A parachute seemed more appropriate. Through riding BMX for 15 years I’ve travelled all round the world and ridden some truly crazy spots. But even the 30ft wide fullpipes in Australia, the massive sets of trails in America and the 25ft deep empty reservoir up North, all of them paled into insignificance as I sat up there on top of a f-king mountain on a f-king pogo stick on wheels.
The wind is blowing, it’s trying to rain, I’m freezing cold and I’m wearing a leotard. My first time certainly wasn’t a love story that’s for sure. And there was no chance of me getting anyone pregnant up there as I was wearing a lot more protection than Durex could ever offer. I used my D-grade in GCSE French to listen out for my number to be called and it was almost immediately. Turns out some moron had decided I should start on the front row. So I take my place at the front of the grid, it might as well have been death row. Then the bastards make me sit there for 20mins while they round up as many other people as they can get to put behind me and chase me down the hill. As the five ‘minute to go’ was held up by a vaguely good looking girl who, although wearing a full-length jacket, definitely had one of those tattoo at the bottom of her back, I got scared. I looked over my shoulder and it looked like one of them battle scenes from Lord of the Rungs. One million helmeted Orcs shouting and jeering with me cowering like a sheep right at the front.
Up goes the ‘1 minute’ board. Now I’m really shitting it, I’m seriously looking for a way out. I look around, helplessly trying to find an exit, but it was gonna take more than a note from my mum to get me out of this physical education lesson. So I sit there surrounded by Orcs and sift through my seriously limited options for when the rope drops and conclude that the only thing I can do is go with it. So with my heart in my mouth the 30 second board goes up and this crazy euro pop music starts blaring and suddenly I’m awake, wide f–king awake! Upon my arrival at the summit my primary concern was with the steep mountain that we had to ride down. Now my biggest fear was the army behind me and the mountain was now my saviour, my only way to get away from them. So when the rope dropped my cherry popped. The high concentration of adrenalin pumping round my body meant I actually got a pretty good start and for the first 50 metres or so it felt like the ‘running of the bulls’. I felt like a small Spanish boy running for his life down a street with a herd of angry mechanical bulls hurtling down behind him, baying to gorge his heart out. By the first bottleneck of a corner the pack was upon me and then the race really turned nasty. I’ve seen more civilized bar fights, with the dust thick like smoke and bikes flying around like bar stools it felt more like a south London pub on a Friday night than the top of a mountain. Most people I spoke to claimed to be entering the Avalanche for just for a laugh: they were lying, every one of them was lying through their full–face helmets. They wanted blood, my blood it felt. During the fight I managed to duck out the back door but they continued to chase me. And I thought your first time was supposed to be special.
Rocks, snow, mud, French people...my knobbly tyres sure did pass over many different surfaces on their journey down the hill. As the pack thinned out my fears swung back from other people to the mountain before me. I’m used to 20inch wheels and zero inches of suspension, so every time my front wheel slammed another water melon sized rock I shut my eyes, expecting a massive impact and to get sent OTB. But it never happened, I just bounced right over them, I guess I was literally riding on air. After the first 5mins or so I fell into some kind of trance: I felt like the pilot of a fighter plane in a Top Gun movie, dodging and weaving, ducking and diving. I was really getting into it until I realized I’d stopped breathing.
After pulling over to get some air into my tar filled prune like lungs I was good to go again. But after another five minutes of playing the arcade game that is downhill mountain biking I had to stop again. This time my hands had stopped working. If anyone says your first time doesn’t hurt then they too are lying, my hands throbbed from arm pump, they were all stuck fast, curled up like stiff dead crabs. Unable to get my way through it, I propped myself up against the Pain Barrier for a couple of minutes for a breather and wished it was all over.
I could sense the finish approaching and spent the last five minutes not looking where I was going, just looking at my hands as I tried every possible combination of finger/brake lever/gear changer arrangement to minimize pain in my hands. After crossing the line I fell into a steaming heap on the floor, after catching my breath and realizing that the damage to my hands wasn’t permanent, I pulled my self up and took a walk around. The scene was reminiscent of a war zone: I stumbled through worn out bodies and broken bikes trying to find my platoon, I was issued my rations, which of course were compromised of ham and cheese with a dry bagpipe, the token stale bread would have probably hurt to swallow, but I was numb to pain by this point so down it went. With my breath fully back and my hands working again I took my condom off and sat down for a post coitus cigarette to reflect on my performance.
I didn’t do too bad. If the mountain were a woman then she would have been left semi–satisfied, but seeking complete fulfillment she invited me back to try again the next day. I ended up qualifying for the Mega Promo, which is a poor mans version of the Megavalanche, but not quite the homeless, smackhead version which is the Mega Infinity. The top 400 qualifiers go in the Mega, the next 400 go in the Promo and all the pot–heads go in the Infinity.
[part title="Part 3"]
That night I celebrated losing my V–plates with a few too many in the O Bar and tried to forget the fact that the next day I was going to enter a race twice as long, twice as grueling and with twice as many enemy troops.
When I woke up it was raining. I was so happy I could have shit. The mountain was thick with cloud and rain fell like snapped off fork legs. “No one is racing metal horses today" I thought to myself as I smugly poured warm UHT milk onto my unsweetened cornflakes. But as the morning went on, despite my protests, the rain gradually eased. I felt a horrible sinking feeling inside as I watched the wind drag the clouds off the mountain, it felt like some big omni–present arsehole was dragging the ‘get out of jail free card’ from my clenched fists.
As it turned out, and much to my dismay: rain generally doesn’t stop mountain bike races. When I found out that 400 people had been stuck at the top of the mountain in the pissing rain and icy wind since first light I laughed, I laughed at how crazy these bastards really were (in my sport it only takes a solitary drop of rain to call a session off and head to the bar). But with all joking aside, it was pretty serious cock up, lifts were shut off, people were stranded, visibility was none, scenes were likened to those of New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. People were cold, people were wet and people were pissed off, but the show went on.
The bad weather prevented the race starting on the glacier, which was another kick in the already kicked in teeth. I was two hours late getting to the top of the mountain, but despite my best efforts to miss the start, the mad bastards were all still up there getting ready to go. This time I was positioned mid pack and this changed my mentality completely. With one race firmly under my belt I felt like more like a hunter than the hunted. This time I was one of the sea of Orcs shouting and cheering, no longer running away, I sat there baying for blood. The atmosphere was building and the anticipation of the battle ahead elevated me to some kind of anarchic, dreamlike state, as if I was part of a big lawless riot. The ropey girl with the tramp stamp held up her 30 seconds to go board, feeling like a drunk football hooligan, the rope dropped and 400 Neanderthals let out war cries as they hurtled down the mountain. Again the first corner was carnage, f–king bunch of cannibals this lot, at one point in the pile up I swear some dude tried to get on my bike!
After a while it all separated out and once again my fight with my nemesis Arm Pump started. If there were a suggestions box at the bottom of the
mountain I would take one of the little slips and write “it’s just too damn bumpy you crazy bastards" and pop it through the slot on the top.
400 people and a course only wide enough for one person at a time? You do the maff. The ‘race’ slowed to a snails pace as people slopped and flopped around in a queue of mud. Everyone was knackered, pissed off and smelt bad: it was like pension day at the post office. I actually got bored at one point in the Mega Traffic Jam. I ended up finishing in an hour and 20mins and although it was an ordeal I was glad I’d made it down. I felt a slight sense of pride as I gazed back up to the top of the distant mountain where it had all began.
Throughout my trip to the Megavalanche I experience a whole host of different emotions. From the darkest depths of boredom sat in the back of a van for days on end listening to the same song over and over. To the horrific fear of being on the front row at the start of my first race. To the rush of bouncing down rock faces at 40mph. To the excruciating pain of arm pump. To the disappointment of finding out that I’d qualified. To the euphoric relief of making it down in one piece. It truly was an emotional ride.
To conclude, I’d say that the Megavalanche is a mass congregation of primitive males, whose only skill is the ability to steer a pushbike down a hill. Although my first time was an enjoyable experience I’m not going mountain biking again. It’s a stupid sport for stupid crazy people.
Arm pump, Camel cigarettes, everyone who knocked me off, the crazy gardener on our campsite who gave me a bollocking for taking a dump with one shoe on, the weather on Saturday, the music word game that we played for 18 hours straight on the way home. Ham and cheese everything.
Steve Atkins, Foy and Dave Blow for being great travel companions and for helping me out all week. Steve Geall for the padded catsuit. Mike Rose for the bike and lid. Rich Siebel for the goggles. Local drug dealer for the Camel Toe. Victor Lucus for having patience with amateurs. All the people who picked me up and put me back on my bike, The O Bar in Alp d’Huez for the free drinks and BBQ, the kebab shop in Dover. And finally a big thanks to Dave Whitehead for keeping group morale up and for fixing my bike at least five times everyday. Cheers, I’ll see none of you next year.