Megavalanche 2014 start line.

One riders tale - 2014 Megavalanche

Words: Aidan Bishop

[splitpost]This year’s edition is the 20th year for the Megavalanche and it still attracts 1800 male and 100 female racers, so it really is infamous. As such an iconic event it is more than just a race, you can make a holiday of it, coming out and booking your lift pass with your entry for the whole week in the run up to race day. Normally the alpine weather and scenery treat you to days of high quality views and riding...this year however was an exception! Consecutive poor weather made conditions pretty grim, with low cloud, rain and some thunder every day the week was literally a wash out, with the welcome exception of Friday when the sun came out and clouds parted for the qualifying races, and also for Sunday finals. The tracks were wet through though with the wooded sections becoming a struggle to get down without your bike clogging to a stop from the claggy mud sticking to the wheels, so every day was a case of ride one or two sections of some of the tracks then get back, wash up and get warm.

Monday, and the first day of practice.

With the finals starting up on the glacier there is limited space and so only room for the 350 riders per final. There are four finals available to qualify for and qualifying races for everyone to take part in to earn their place. In each qualifier, 1st and 2nd place qualify for the front row of the main final, 3rd and 4th make the 2nd row, and so on. Saturday hosts the women’s final followed by the B and D final, with Sunday hosting the A and C final.

Another day of muddy practice on Tuesday, and I managed to take a bit of a tumble which I am still feeling the consequences of to this day.

This being my 4th time racing the Mega, I know the tracks and what to expect and so I wasn’t riding for as long each day as you normally would in dry conditions. Monday I revisited the qualifier track, Tuesday we tried to go to the top and ride the glacier but it was closed. Wednesday I didn’t ride as a pretty nasty crash on Tuesday (caught on my ION camera) left me with bruised thumb, wrist, chest and knee! Thursday we could only ride the qualifier track again, and Friday was qualifying day.

Practice on Thursday and a glimpse of how awful the conditions were. This race is tough enough in the dry, the mud just made it even more tortuous.

4” of fresh snow at top of the qualifier track on Tuesday.

With the weather being poor and visibility being a safety issue for the organisers the qualifying race start line was brought down the mountain to start below the snow level (yes it had snowed lots at the top...in July!). The problem with this was it meant a narrow gravel track start line and then they decided to include a chicane 60m after the start meaning 20 riders were sprinting for a gap wide enough for two! Unfortunately I didn’t quite get there quick enough to get through unscathed and so people from my left came in and took a bunch of us down, me being caught in the middle of it. What seemed like an age later I had untangled my cables from another guys bike and got going again to find my brake lever badly out of position. A couple of bangs whilst pedalling and it was useable but strange. From here it was a case of overtaking as many riders as I could to try and salvage an A final position from the wreckage of my qualifying heat. I used my ION camera facing rearwards to try and capture the highlights of the race, but unfortunately in the scrum my camera got knocked and so the angle isn’t ideal but I still managed to capture parts of the race. Despite the awful start I finished in 12th position (the first 23 make the A final), so a mid-pack start for Sundays final means if I want a good result in the main race I will have a lot of overtaking to do early on!

Qualifying from a rearward perspective. I was trying to do nothing but look forward though.

Many brits qualified well this year, with seven being top two in their qualifier and making the front row for the final, namely Sam Dale, Charlie Williams, Martyn Brookes, Chris Keeble-Smith and Sam Flanagan. Another 19 finished in the top ten, so there is still a growing presence of UK riders out there and making their mark on this event.

Lower qualifying race start, a questionable first chicane caused pile ups!

Click below for part two...

[part title="Part 2"]

Saturday holds finals and first up is the Women’s final followed by the ‘B’ and ‘D’ final for male qualifiers respectively. The UK had a strong favourite in the women’s this year in the form of Manon Carpenter. The current DH World Cup leader lived up to form and led the race until she had to stop twice, apparently to pick up her back number (which contains a timing chip), and in doing so got overtaken by two other riders leaving her finishing up in 3rd place. She was told they had to finish with their numbers which is why she stopped to make sure she didn’t lose it, and not get penalised. I wonder if her result would have been affected or not by not having a number on her back, seems a shame to me.

Conditions poor to appalling, I was thankful of the Lefty Supermax’s mud clearing abilities!

It wasn’t until Saturday evening that news broke that the main final on Sunday would actually start up on the top glacier at Pic Blanc, but an hour later than usual at 10am. At least we had an extra hour in bed! I was hoping for it not to stop raining on Saturday so that the mid wooded section would keep wet rather than start to dry as it was some of the worst conditions I have ever ridden in. The mud simply stopped wheels from going round and resulted in an exhausting push or walk with your bike if you lost momentum. In the end the ‘C’ final that runs after the ‘A’ one was diverted to miss this section and apparently finished just below Alpe D’Huez rather than Allemont at the valley floor, such were the crapness of conditions down there.

View from the front row on Sunday, into the abyss!

Sunday morning came and the weather looked better than most days, maybe it would turn out to be ok for race day. The usual long queues to get on the gondola to the top came and went and we were all called out like cattle to line up on our respective rows, 30 riders per row. With me being mid pack on row ‘F’ that meant there were 150 riders between me and the finish line, this was going to be messy!

Ready, set, go...

The cloud was hanging around making the start straight kind of eerie with the snow covered piste dropping away into the mist. The euro music piped up over the loud speakers, the tape lifted and the carnage began! Expectedly it was near impossible to find a clear line down the steep bank at the start but I managed to keep left and made my way past many riders only to turn right and into a scrum of riders and rutted softening snow at the first corner. From here it was a physical scoot trying to keep some momentum whilst keeping the bike upright, then a turn down onto the next glacier section where committing to keeping off the brakes and holding a straight line meant some good speed but there were many soft patches hidden along the route that sucked your speed right down, if it didn’t throw you over the bars that is. This was the case until exiting the snow, where riders were rolling past you whilst you were reduced to walking speed in soft snow. You'd then get rolling again and pass riders back who found another patch. Trying to find hard snow was exhausting. Once onto the rocky single-track you could catch your breath, try and clear your goggles or glasses and get going. I ended up following a group of riders who were rolling along nicely, a good indicator that I had made my way through the pack a decent amount. Nearly out of the rocky trail and I felt my rear rim hitting the ground...gutted! I fixed it and used a canister to inflate the tyre but it didn’t get as much pressure in it as I would have liked (I think the gas froze the valve slightly and so didn’t inflate it fully). I got going again and started overtaking riders quickly, I was just aiming to finish and try and have some fun overtaking as many as possible as a decent result now was far fetched. Five minutes later and my rear wheel lost air again...game over for this year.

Finals time.

It was a France’s Pierre Charles George who took the win on the day, but taking a podium spot in 5th was Whyte bikes Martyn Brookes, a great result for him and also Joe Rafferty who ended up in 9th and Sam Dale in 11th. A good showing of determination from all riders who managed to finish, but especially those guys. Post-race and my good friend Gummy (who made it to the finish), who equipped his bike with full spike tyres told me of how bad the mud section got, with most riders ignoring the taped tracks and literally freeriding their way down through the forest, listening out for spectators cheering at the bottom as somewhere to head for! So another year passes for the Megavalanche, a special (not for good reasons) one at that. Many people came out expecting days of quality, dusty alpine trails to ride and race but were instead faced with wet weather and had to battle with the mountain all week. It's all just part of of the game in this sport we love!?

Big thanks to Cannondale, Mavic, ION cameras, MRP, ION bike, RRP for their support.