megavalanche alpe d'huez july 14-17
megavalanche alpe d'huez july 14-17

He’s been there, seen the films, read the books (well, magazines), and he thinks he even has the T–shirt, but Richard Cunynghame has never raced the Megavalanche … until now ...

From Dirt Issue 139 - September 2013

Words by Richard Cunynghame. Photos by Sven Martin.

After all the races I’ve done on a mountain bike and having actually watched it once, I haven’t competed at one of the most legendary races of them all… ‘The Mega’. It was about time that I got myself up that stupidly high mountain and rode down it with those hundreds of other riders.

When explaining to non–MTB people about racing bikes down a hill the Megavalanche is usually an image they have seen. Photographs of riders hurtling down a snowy mountain top have been printed and screened everywhere. It’s one of the iconic shots that has infiltrated the mainstream. I’ve seen full page photos in daily newspapers and footage played on TV shows that wouldn’t normally go anywhere near bikes. It is often a touchstone in a ‘look at these idiots’ kind of way. If mountain biking is an ‘Extreme’ sport and excuse me, I hate that phrase as much as I hope you do, then this is surely the most extreme of all mountain bike races. It’s so far out–there that I don’t even think there’s a proper name for this type of racing, let alone a category it can fit into. Whilst others have come close in emulation they don’t ever take away the jewel in this race’s crown.>>

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[part title="Megavalanche, Alpe D'Huez, July 14th - Page 2..."]

megavalanche alpe d'huez july 14-11
megavalanche alpe d'huez july 14-11

The town of Alpe d’Huez has a nice vibe to it. Some amazing restaurants, the streets come alive with markets and the bars always have a good vibe. I did hear one comment of ‘Megadorm’, the comparison with the coastal Spanish town may be a little wayward, although the sheer number of ‘Brits Abroad’ that fill the bars is accurate. The town’s steeped history with Le Tour de France certainly adds some class. With this event lying the weekend before Le Tour passed through, the twenty-one cornered climb was adorned with the camper vans, flags, deckchairs and tanned beer bellies that preface any Tour visit. The sheer quantity of supporters and their arrival over a week early was still astounding. I wonder how many left their fiercely guarded pitch to stroll up the hill and take a look at our dirty event?

With such a large quantity of riders at our race, first comes the distillation process of qualifying. A shorter course, with a winning time of around twenty–one minutes, tests groups of 200 riders. Starting in a deeply cut vein of wet dirt through the still standing snow, even at this lower height, it provided a unique departure. This wide start continues for a few corners feeling akin to a motocross track. The bar–to–bar action off the line is thrilling. There’s not many times when as a mountain bike rider you feel the force and intimidating harassment of a couple of hundred riders behind you. That’s exactly what I was feeling, for, to my surprise, I was sat in second behind Dan Atherton. After practicing together it looked to be a comfortable chase of my mate. After a brief respite of slick rock, it wasn't long before the snow took hold again. With so many riders through it all week, the ruts were now deep. So much so that at times it was almost impossible to keep either foot on the pedals. And that’s where I punctured, on a rock hidden at the bottom of one of these snaking lines of awkwardness. Pulling over to the side I sat and watched as rider after rider tackled this treacherous section. It’s quite an experience to see at close quarters, so many people taking on such a challenge. One that I enjoyed being at the sharp–end of, if only for a few brief moments.

megavalanche alpe d'huez july 14-14
megavalanche alpe d'huez july 14-14

With my qualification scuppered and any real chance of a top result from a front row start gone with it, I elected to be the last person off the grid in the final. Picking a spot dead centre and as far back as possible; to gain the perfect vantage point on what was to be my first personal view of this phenomenon. Making the final an exercise in magnetic voyeurism. For all the sense in me that said to stay back and out of trouble, there was this innate lunacy that could not do anything in the face of the magnetic pull into the mayhem. Nowhere to go but to keep on rolling towards the others that had flung themselves down this too–huge mountain.

[part title="Megavalanche, Alpe D'Huez, July 14th - Page 3..."]

at the third round of the Enduro World Series, Les 2 Alps, France
at the third round of the Enduro World Series, Les 2 Alps, France

For all the aggression at the top of the slopes, with battles waged, sliding bikes and the occasional rider so caught up in the moment they shout and swear so much that it becomes an unspoken but shared joke amongst the surrounding pack; the finish area is a picture of serene bonhomie only occasionally spiked with a shrill curse from a straggler crossing the line. Rolling into this throng, it’s an abundance of stories and tales. All the different reasons for being here and varying versions of the shared experience. Entering into it the stories come thick and fast and will give you a better impression than my generalities and encounters trickling down at the back.

Joe Lintl, an Austrian currently living in the States made the trip over here to do it for the fifth time. “I guess you hate it after three days because everything starts hurting, but once you’ve done the qualifying and finished well or make it to the finals, it’s really just the best thing you could possibly do. You always come back for more abuse. I’m always riding pretty well, the first three days, in fact you ride too much when you’re here for a week. I should ride less, I guess pros do that but I can’t because I’m here for fun. You ride too much and you suffer pain, that’s what you do."

Another expat was Brit Ben Thompson, who lives in the far more conveniently placed (for this race) location of Bourg St Maurice, got caught up in the glacier carnage I witnessed and explained the experience to me, “It was pretty interesting at the start, everyone just had a massive pile up in the left hand corner, dunno, hundred people, hundred and twenty people. By the time that all finished, most of the field had disappeared down the glacier. You can’t do anything, you’ll try and get on your feet and your bike will still be sliding, then somebody else will take you out from behind and there’s people trying to climb over the top of you and you’re trying to climb over the top of them to get back on your bike."

at the third round of the Enduro World Series, Les 2 Alps, France
at the third round of the Enduro World Series, Les 2 Alps, France

Californian Kyle Warner came in a strong 34th and appeared enthralled by the race, “We came out here for the first time, it’s a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience and I’d never done a mass start so figured I might as well try it. It was good, it was scary. I came off the glacier in like fifteenth and then crashed, got passed by a bunch of people. Then had to try and pass riders all the way down, it was pretty gnarly. I normally race Enduro in the U.S., this is way better, this is what it should be. Definitely back next year. They don’t have any mass starts in the U.S., too much insurance, people crash a lot." The draw to this race is worldwide for those reasons, walking through I noticed just how many nationalities where here, a point taken up by Vincent Hauleg from Metabief. Speaking in a manner of unfinished sentences that only the French can make work, his emphatic excitement that morphed one sentence into another was only topped by the pink rabbit outfit he was wearing. “You must come here to know what it is. If you don’t, you can’t say, ‘Ah, Megavalanche this... Megavalanche that... ’. No you must ride one time and after, you must come again. It’s too good, you’re two hundred people and this is a war, on the snow, for your life, if somebody fall in front of you, you don’t want to crash them... it’s a war. There’s a lot of the best downhill riders, you have all the best Enduro riders, British riders are also on the front line, there’s 26 different nationalities competing. People have come from everywhere, so we can say it’s an international race. I’ve done this race for ten or twelve years, it’s too good, the best you can find." [part title="Megavalanche, Alpe D'Huez, July 14th - Page 4..."]

at the third round of the Enduro World Series, Les 2 Alps, France
at the third round of the Enduro World Series, Les 2 Alps, France

I get the feeling it’s something Dan won’t let rest until he’s finished in first. Iago Garay of Spain is certainly committed to it and it’s paying off, having previously clocked up a twentieth and twenty-first, it was eighth place this time, “This was my sixth start at the Megavalanche, I’ve been racing here since I was fifteen. It’s my favourite race of every year. The thing I like the most is the whole week training here, riding all day with your friends, awesome trails, great scenery, usually great weather too and then the race is just super fun." It appears that what can be a mess at the back is a lot more dignified up front, “We know each other, who’s fast on the downhill parts, who’s fast on the climbs, so if someone’s faster than me I’ll let him go. It’s pretty cool, I haven’t had problems with any riders. It’s quite stressful because with this race you always have mechanicals and crashes, when you’re up there you’re always thinking don’t screw it up, just keep going. There’s a really good vibe, it’s not like downhill, people respect each other and have fun and are always talking. At the start line everyone is saying good luck to everyone."

Over here to race the Enduro World Series and tagging this on the end of his trip for some fun, Trek World Racing’s Justin Leov had a good perspective on whether we’d ever see a world series of these events like we’ve seen happen with Enduro stage races. “I don’t think it’ll get into the EWS stuff just because I think maybe it’s more special to have events like this, to have the mass start. Where I think the EWS, people would not be a fan because they want to eliminate as much of other people’s influence and actually see the true rider, but saying that, look at the results, Jerome won last week (in Les Deux Alpes EWS) and he won here, so the same guys still win."

megavalanche alpe d'huez july 14-5
megavalanche alpe d'huez july 14-5

Starting racing downhill in 1991 and winning the first Megavalanche in 1995 Francois Dola, from Nice, explained what first attracted him to the race and has kept him coming back ever since, “I’d heard it started at 3,300 metres and finished in the valley, that for me was real downhill. Not only five minutes on the slope made with a truck. There’s some thinking about the race, how to manage it, not only full gas. I also like natural trails." Winning the masters 40 category and finishing 30th overall he obviously still has it. When I asked if he felt proud to have been there at the beginning, now that these races have grown so big, he replies, “You just think, you knew that before. I always knew it was good. Now you can see that everybody likes it."

RESULTS

MEN

1.         Jerome Clementz    Cannondale Overmountain           38:42.850

2.         Remy Absalon         Commencal + 00:34

3.         Dan Atherton            GT Factory Racing   + 01:26

4.         Lukas Anrig  Norco Enduro World Team                       + 02:20

5.         Nicolas Quere          Commencal Superteam    + 02:24

WOMEN

1.         Anne-Caroline Chausson Ibis     0:47:57.120

2.         Pauline Dieffenthaler          Cannondale Overmountain           + 03:49

3.         Alba Wunderlin        Stuetzraedli   + 04:35

4.         Isabeau Courdurier            Maxima Team          + 04:56

5.         Valerie Schandene Cube Action Team  + 05:13