World Cup downhill squad Team ChainReactionCycles/Intense have just returned from the annual Megavalanche race in France, and manager Nigel Page has given us his 'competitor's eye's view' on this crazy race.
The Megavalanche is an epic enduro downhill that drops 2,000 metres over a 30km course and takes in everything from mountain-top glaciers to grassy meadows. It's often spoken of as the one race all mountain bikers should have a go at.
After taking part in the Avalanche Cup sprint race in Oz en Oisans as a warm-up – where team-member Chris Kovarik took the win ahead of former world champion Fabien Barel – the CRC/Intense squad headed to Alpe d'Huez last Thursday for the main event. Here's what Nigel had to say:
"We got up early, swapped our DH bikes for our tricked-out Intense Tracers and headed up the mountain to the Pic Blanc at 3,330m to check out the top section of the MegaAvalanche course with excitement and nerves! The specialists and most of the other competitors had been practising for the past two days while we were doing the sprint race, so we had to do at least one run to know a little bit about where we would be racing.
"The course is really tough on your bike and body, and my lungs! It starts off on a small patch of snow, then into a 45-degree off-camber boulder field, then left into a very steep boulder field across a huge patch of sketchy snow and then into more loose boulders. Then you're onto the snow section. On this morning it was pretty easy to ride as it was cold and the snow was pretty packed so you could ride a lot of it pretty fast, feet up.
"After you had survived this section the track went into a crazy mix of everything you can imagine to ride – rocky singletrack, stream crossings, rock drop-offs, cool singletrack DH, short lung-busting climbs, 20 minutes of flat singletrack pedalling and amazing steep technical descending in the forest with so many switchbacks. It's great to ride at your own pace, stopping to catch your breath here and there, but just ridiculous to race in one go with another 399 riders!
"After we had ridden the top section down to Alpe d'Huez we stopped for some lunch and then rode the bottom section down to the finish line in Allemont at 730m. I thought: 'There's no way I can ride all that in one go without stopping!' Anyway, we headed back up to Oz en Oisans, on the provided transport of coaches and trailers for the bikes, and then onto a series of gondolas to get back up to Alpe d'Huez, where we then headed over to Dome des Petites Rousses on another gondola for the start of the Mega qualifying track.
"The qualifying track is a completely different track to the Mega race track. It has more DH on it with fewer flat sections. This starts right out of the gondola on a loose, rocky fireroad with many switchbacks then into a fast DH chute and across to snow sections and into some flat and technical rocky sections. There is then some great, rough, bermed-up, loose, rocky DH with drops, and the track continues on with singletrack sections, an uphill road climb (which sucks) and then the final section of singletrack DH and then forest DH, which is the best riding in the two races. The start of the qualifying track in Dome des Petites Rousses is at 2,800m and the finish is in Oz en Oisans at 1,350m.
"Qualifying started the next morning. Ruaridh [Cunningham, CRC team-member and former junior downhill world champ] and I were in the first group of 200. Ruaridh was on the front row of 25 and I was in the third row. Each row has 25 riders, making up a total field of 200.
"Ruaridh got the holeshot in front of six-time winner of the Mega Rene Wildhaber, and I had to make my way through the field into the top 45 to qualify for the MegaAvalanche on the Sunday morning. Ruaridh eventually finished the qualifier in second place in 23min 50sec, only 1min down on Rene, and I managed to finish ninth, 2min 27sec down.
"I thought I was going to die at the finish. I was coughing and choking that much from pushing way beyond my fitness levels. After about an hour I started to recover and realised I had made the Mega final and would start on the third row. Much better than I thought I would.
"Chris [Kovarik] finished fourth in his qualifier with a time of 24min 16sec. Matt [Simmonds] was sixth in his group with a time of 25min 1sec (with a snapped gear cable halfway down). Claire [Buchar] finished eighth in the women's qualifier with 30min 24sec. Michael Cowan of Chain Reaction Cycles was riding great in about 10th place in his qualifier but got a puncture and missed out on the top 45, putting him out of the Mega final on the Sunday. He was gutted but made up for it in the Mega Promo race on the Saturday (this is for the riders who didn't make it through to the final on Sunday), placing sixth and being the third placed master behind the winner of the race, [Scottish ex-downhill racer] Crawford Carrick-Anderson.
"Saturday morning and it was the women's Mega race. The amazing Anne Caroline-Chausson [nine-time downhill world champion] took the win, to no one's surprise, and Claire did great, placing ninth and completing the course in a great time.
"Sunday morning and it was an early start on the lift at 6am to get to the top and get in our rows for the start at 9am. Ruaridh was on the front row next to Fabien Barel, Chris and Matt on row two and me on row three. It was pretty scary lining up with 400 riders to try and get into the first singletrack corner before dropping into the boulder field and then into the snow.
"Before we knew it the Euro techno music was blaring and the 30 second board was up. Five seconds and we were off... Chaos! The top guys were away and on a mission. The legendary Nicholas Vouilloz got the holeshot, closely followed by the other favourites. I got held up in a mass carnage of bikes and riders trying to get into the first turn. Then it was every man for himself as we hit the snow. It was a lot warmer today than on previous days so the snow was soft and very hard to ride on in a straight line. Everyone was crashing, running, walking, and I rode most of it with my feel off and my stomach on my seat.
"I had a few crashes and then saw Chris in the netting off the side of the track. He'd had a huge crash and was lucky not to be injured. Anyway, eventually we got out of the snow section and into the rocky singletrack where you get stuck behind slower riders, but then I'm one of the slower riders on the climbs!
"The race was the toughest thing I've done. At one point, about 10 minutes from the end, I thought I'd have to stop as my body went numb and it felt like I was going to pass out, but then you get to another descent and recover a little.
"Chris ended up pulling out after his big crash. Matt finished 251st in a time of 1hr 20min but with no chain and his pedal fell off. I managed to finish down in 66th in 1hr 6min and Ruaridh finished 30th in 1hr. Nice one Ruaridh! It was a great experience and if you ride mountain bikes you have to do this one time in your life. It's such a buzz!"
French enduro downhill specialist Remy Absalon (Commencal) went on to win the race in a time of 49min 28sec, with Rene Wildhaber (Trek) of Switzerland coming in just 16 seconds behind and Nico Vouilloz bagging third place with 51min 36sec. For full results, see www.megavalanche.com/megavalanche-alpe-dhuez-resultats-09.html.
Team CRC/Intense used the Avalance Cup as a warm-up, but Chris Kovarik still took first place