Monday, 6 August 2007

Megavalanche 07

Dave, Kenny Andy and Me above Alpe d'Huez

This was the big trip of the year, heading down to Alpe d'Huez for the second time to compete in the Mega. I know for James and Kenny this has been a long time coming, James didn't even make it to the end of qualifying last year after breaking his arm about 10 meters from the finish and kenny got air lifted off the mountain two thirds of the way down the mountain on the main race. We were definately looking for a bit more success this time round! With us were the 5 of us from last year plus some Mega newbies all psyched by the stories and vids they had seen. Last year I had qualified at the front of the 2nd group and was hoping to make it into the first group this time round.

The Group missing me John and Eamon,
from left to right: Dave, Mike, James, Joe, Tom, Kenny, Andy.

The trails at Alpe d'Huez are amazing. The riding is all very natural lots of tight winding singletrack loads of switchbacks and not much in the way of fire roads. First day in and I was regretting having done Rheola the previous weekend, the lower bushings in my 888's had become seriously worn causing the forks to lock out on sharp hits. I only discovered this after being sent over the bars twice on the first run tweaking my ankle badly in the process. The next day was possibly more painful though with my bank account being emptied to fund a new pair of forks! This was not the end of the bad luck, James twisted his knee which put him out for the rest of the week and John came off on the switchback trail down to Oz that then became known as "Bast@#d Track!" resulting in a badly swollen hand. Even the weather wasn't going all our way the first few days were wet and cold, not the dry hot dusty conditions we were expecting, John was moaning a bit as I had made him leave his mud tyres back in England!
Waiting at the start of the Sprint race in Oz

With the Mega you get three races the sprint race that is a 5 minute long downhill race, the qualifying and the main event. The sprint track is amazing, I would go back straight away to ride that track. The track changed from last year with a rock section being removed and being replaced by a steep roll into a flat out bermed set of turns that felt like were taken straight from a motocross track and which I was absolutely loving. The track itself is steep and fast, the top section was a bit pedaly for my liking but once you dropped down the first lot of rocks it was full on. It sends you flying into big loose turns, rock wall rides before becoming really dusty and drifty. Then it tightens up a bit into a wooded section where there is a steep narrow rooty chute that spits you straight at a 90 degree corner with a tree on the other side to stop you, this got challenging as I was experiencing serious brake fade by this point and having to slam the bike around to get through. This lead into a long fast fire road before dropping into more steep rougher turns that were hitting hard on the hands. The finished emerged following a series of flat out off camber grass corners. First race run I managed to run one of the Aberystwyth boys off the track, he pulled out of the way and then slipped off the edge, probably not the best move as they were all staying in our hotel! I came in with a time of 5:15, Aim for next run was a sub 5 min run. Didn't quite get it though ending up with 5:06 which was enough to sneak me into the top 100 with 99th place! I later discovered my chain had decided to re-route itself over the top of my chain device, hence lack of pedaling, or at least a good excuse for it! The Finals turned out to be a good show, Si Paton was on the commentary drumming up the English-French rivalry, the top times were coming in around the 4 and a half minute mark. The riders were charging into the finish section. Ben Cathro was flying and got a huge wobble on on the last corner just holding it to take 5th and top Brit.

Thursday we headed over to Les Deux Alpes. The scene was a lot more lively this side of the hill, more touristy and more going on. Getting on the lifts was more of a fashion show with all the snowboarders about, am glad DH still isn't trendy! The riding at Deux Alpes is again switchback after switchback. One track we named scallextric was quality. It had every type of corner in it and wound down for ages through a valley, definately helping push everyones cornering skills. The black run was the first thing I have ever ridden that really deserves the title. It was super steep with big chutes and gullies that had the back wheel being dragged the whole way, it was like having an engine release the brake and get silly acceleration. There were even a few stupid drops into even sillier landings, not even Ken was tempted. Final run of the day was on a trail that finished down by the river. this was one of the most fun trails Ive ever ridden. It was made up of berm after berm the ground was loose and the speed flat out. Each corner the drift was getting pushed a bit further foot out moto style, awesome!

Tom, Kenny, Andy, Joe, Mike and Me resting halfway down the qualifying track.

The Mega qualifying is probably one of the best bits of the hole week. The track is mint long enough to be a challenge but short enough that you don't have to worry about pacing yourself too much and can absolutely rag it from the start. The start line is at the top of a set of fireroad switchbacks leading to a wide open rocky area with patches of snow loads of lines and some pretty hairy drops and gaps if you take the wrong path. Down from here a fireroad takes you to the top of track 2, one of my favourite tracks at the resort. This is a proper downhill track narrow, rocky lots of sketchy inside lines on the corners. Then theres a bit of an xc loop to a climb over the other side of d'Huez into some scary fast singletrack with huge exposure on one side, the views are awesome but you are oblivious as you are fully focused on trying to stick to the narrow single track. This leads into hundreds of switchbacks, I was having serious problems on this section, I was loving it too much getting a bit excited and flying way to hot into the corners, I think the guys had to fish me out of the hedge several times the first day we did it. second time we hit this section it was still wet and all the turns were super greasy. It was like being back in wales sliding about everywhere, load of fun! Following this is some mega fast fireroad which is good for picking up a few positions and then into more singletrack with a big rockgarden and some bus stops to finish.

Dave, John, Andy and Me at the start of the qualifying race.

Qualifying didn't exactly go my way. I was at the back of the grid (incentive to get your entries in early) and had to make some ground up. In front of me in the grid was one of the ancillotti boys in yellow, knowing they are quick riders I set myself the challenge of keeping on his tail. As the helicopters circled and the tapes were lifted, the chaos began. Most people seem pretty intimidated by that number of riders around them, bmx racing is good training so with elbows out I found a line on the outside charging past loads of people, cutting in in the corners, t-boning the odd person. through the rock section the helicopter was about 5m off the ground chasing us down. Absolutely buzzing, pedaled all the way to track 2 here managed to get past a few people on inside lines in the corners, there was a about 6 riders in a chain in front of me being held up by a slower rider determined to get passed I cut across a load of rocks that cut off a big ox bend only to come smashing over the top into a jagged rock which gave me a flat. By the time id got the rear axle off and wrestled with the tyre everyone in the group was long gone. The aim now was to make it to the bottom without getting overtaken by anyone from the next qualifying group. after the climb (which i stayed on and pedaled up to the cattle grid!) I had caught a few of the back markers then heard 2 irate Frenchmen on my tail that were absolutely hauling down the singletrack. I thought off the brakes was fast these guys were fully on the pedals! The next rider from their group didn't catch me until half way through the switchbacks so they must have had a considerable lead. Andy had a stormer of a qualifying run, after I dumped the bike and sat down I looked round to see Andy come through in 18th putting him ahead of Nico on the grid. I was disappointed with qualifying but at the same time felt an achievement as I had put a huge amount more effort into pedaling than last year, it made me realise i do have the fitness but am just usually too scared of using it!

Me and John representing for Swansea

Main race was a bit of an anti-climax. Qualifying at the back put me in the "Mega Affinity" This meant no mass start just riders being trickled off. One of the most memorable bits of the event last year was the start. 400 riders charging down a glacier is absolute carnage. Riders are falling down all around you whilst you have very little control over your speed or the direction your 'riding' in! I was giggling the whole way the experience was pure comedy. This year I was faced with about 20 riders strewn over the snow definitely not the same. Snow still caused us some laughs though, John was trailing Eamon with his headcam , Eamon's snow technique 'starfishing' consists of placing his belly on the saddle and dragging both legs out wide behind him, an interesting technique to say the least! The race was a bit of a slalom, I had made the decision not to do any dirty overtaking, its quite easy to pressurise people into making mistakes and crashing but this seemed unfair seeing as I missed the race. Because of the lack of mass start there were hundreds of slow riders regularly spaced down the track which meant plenty of overtaking to be had. This did however turn singletrack into traffic jams the pace was more leisurely than practice and a lot of it was able to be ridden on the saddle, definitely a different pace than last year. Most of the easy overtaking is on the climbs so i made a concerted effort to charge the climbs as much as possible fighting my usual instinct to walk. Being in the affinity removed all sense of a race and competition that goes with the mega it was only by the second half where there was a much greater density of riders that I really felt the buzz of racing. The mega is definitely a physical challenge, getting to the finish gives you an amazing sense of achievement. Looking around at the finish everyone has got huge grins on there face and stories to tell. The race itself is full of conflicts and friendly competition especially when it comes to Dh and the xc riders. To do well you have to be strong on both fronts at the bottom there were a few brits getting worked up on the descents but weren't prepared to put the efforts in on the flat sections where the overtaking was available. Likewise it gets frustrating when a light bike gets pedaled past you and then brakes get slammed on when the riding gets challenging. This lead to a few interesting moments at the top of a drop or rocky chute where theres a bit of a lemming moment as everyone gets pushed over the edge. Memorable moments for me were ragging past the guy from Aber again! cutting him up as we came into the big fast grass field on the bottom half. The lower section in the trees where it got really tight and fast. there was probably at least 10 riders in front of me and a load behind all riding wheel to wheel down some really fun bits of trail. I was sticking to the guy in front of me who was going all out on the overtaking, at one point there was a shortcut into a chute wide enough for one bike yet there were four of us side by side piling in somehow squeezing back into formation without too much carnage.

Finishing at the bottom of the valley there was a bus back to Oz then the lift back up over the sprint track to d'Huez, seeing it winding below I couldn't resist one last chance at riding the Sprint track, this kept repeating until i had done 7 runs and could hardly hold on to the bars and my brakes were barely working. I was such an awesome session, working on my cornering and drifting I was confident had knocked those 6 seconds off my time. on the penultimate run I drifted way too much through one of the sandy turns jack knifing into a rock and putting a huge gash down the side of my new forks, gutted! Still I will definitely be heading back down to France to ride that track again!

Overall the trip was a success everyone finished! Andy managing to take 80th overall and more or less top unsponsored rider. v. impressive, especially seeing as this was on an ironhorse sunday with an inch of play in the back end! Me and Andy share a huge amount of friendly rivalry, trouble is it means I definitely need to come back now the bar has been set! My final result was 108th out of the 600 riders in the promo and affinity, with a time of 1:23. This is definitely a success as it was a slightly quicker time than last year despite some incredibly slow sections of single track. My biggest achievement though was pedaling up near on all the climbs, it is possible! This is still by far one of the best weeks you can have on a bike. The place is buzzing, you have the chance to ride some of the best trails in the world with your mates and head to head with hundreds of other riders. I am hooked, plans have already started for next year!

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