The Megavalanche….because i haven’t done that many potentially stupid things lately. But in all seriousness it was the man and bike against mountain feeling that drew me most to this insane event.
I’ve planned doing the Mega for a couple of years now and probably bored a lot of people with questions about the riding there, the trails, which bike to bring etc. But 2015 was the year it all fell into place. I had the fitness, adequate to survive but by no means good enough to be competitive. I had the right bike, a 2014 Specialized Stumpjumper evo which i’ve beefed up a little to make it more suited to Alpine riding. I’ve watched pretty much all that youtube had to offer regarding the race, read blogs and looked at trail maps and pictures from the previous races. And i had no idea if the bike or i would hold up. I suppose anxiety’s good sometimes, it makes you prepare that little bit extra.
The bike and packing it:
A pretty much stock 2014 Stumpjumper evo. I’ve swapped out the rear wheel for a Mavic 872 rim laced to a Hope pro 2 evo hub, bevause i blew up the stock hub a few months prior. Schwalbe Magic Mary tires got wrapped around both wheels. The brakes were upgraded to Shimano Zee with 203mm rotors and the stem was swapped out to and equally long but super burly 50mm stem.
The spares i took had to be kept to a minimum due to weight restrictions but still had to do in case i broke something. Extra spokes for both wheels, an extra chain, an extra rear derailleur and some shifter cables and a few heavy duty DH inner tubes and 4 sets of brake pads got stuffed in my Evoc bike gav along with a downscaled set of tools. I also took an extra tyre just in case. Shoes, pads and my helmet filled the rest of the bag making sure the frame wouldn’t suffer too much abuse from the bagage apes at the airport.
This took just as much research due to the fact that i stayed in Annecy for a few days with my girlfriend before scurrying off into the mountains on my own. On a side note, Annecy is a beautiful town. They call it Venice of the Alps and it doesn’t let that name down. There are several canals that run through the city and run out into Lake Annecy. The city’s full of old buildings, cafes and restaurants, and probably the best icecream i’ve eaten in the last decade or so.
But getting back on track here…from Annecy, getting to Alpe d’Huez is relatively simple. A train ride to Grenoble, then a bus ride to Oisans just below Alpe d’Huez and another short bus ride to the top. The return trip to Geneva was not much different, Grenoble is a bus ride away and then there’s a direct train to Geneva.
Alpe d’Hues and the Megavalanche trail:
Alpe d’Huez is a picturesque little mountain resort, with a cycling heritige. This basically means lots of cafes. There was actually a pretty nice selection of bike and other sports stores, so if something breaks, chances are good they will have it or at least be able to fix it.
I booked the room relatively early asuming that the closer i get to the week of the Mega the harder it would be to find something cheap.This was apparently not the case, ADH has to much lodging that it’s not too hard to find something reasonable in the summer months. I settled for L’ours Blanc, a few hundred meters from the main DMC lift. The rooms there are quite small but very well equipped.There was a lot of jumping over bags and moving the bikes in and out of the room was a little like playing tetris. Four beds, a very decent bathroom, a kitchenette and a balcony for roughly 400 eur for the entire week. This split between the 3 of us staying in the room was probably the least i’ve ever payed for a whole week of lodging.
Towards the Mega week you could see the unofficial camping under the DMC lift fill up until it was about the size of a small town just on its own. While the idea of camping does appeal to me, i just felt that roughing it out after a full day of riding would be too much to take.
Entrance to the hotel. A small shopping centre in the passage to ther right with a few more restaurants lining the streets. Forgetting to bring stuff is a non-issue, there’s a shop for everything.
The food wasn’t bad either. The restaurant right in front of L’Ours Blanc served great post ride beers and snacks. Most of the daily meals were home cooked though, the usual…pasta.
We struck it lucky regarding the weather…so much that in spite the fresh air at 2500m, my head was cooking in my helmet. Pretty much all the trails were blown out and dusty, with a remarkable amount of grip. ADH offers a mix of snow, high alpine riding with exposed rocky trails and very little vegetation, lots of steep forest trails and bikepark style bermed runs with jumps.
So starting from the top, this is what the race course looks like: The glacier is only open in the mornings to help preserve the snow. Riding in the slush that forms past about 10am isn’t that fun anyway. This is an experience in itself. You’re basically biking down a really steep black ski slope, where the snow isn’t particularly hard packed and where ruts form easily. It’s sketchy in the sense that steering ability is compromised and crashes do happen but the risk to get injured is minimal. The most unpleasant thing that could happen is snow being shoveled down your kit in a crash. Getting a little cold and wet is unavoidable. Past the ski slope, there’s a bout a couple of km of really sticky glacier ice. No need for studded tyres, but braking should be selective.This is almost a place to relax a little since the gradient eases off. Then we get into the exposed rocky alpine trail. Apart from a few pretty sketchy places where you need to know what’s coming up in order top pick the right line, you can pretty much just control the speed and ride. It’s not too technical but the trail traverses a slope full of shingle so getting off line is hard to correct. All this gets worse if it gets windy since you’re competely exposed to the elements with no trees to block the wind. The middle section of the Megavalanche trail is basically one large meadow. Some of it is uphill so this is where the xc guys with superhuman lung capacity shine. Then comes the fun part. After a km or so of climbing up a fireroad, you’re rewarded with a fast downhill traverse with very few corners before you get into tight steep bikepark switchbacks. You can hit respectable speeds of 50+km/h on the traverse! The berms are really well built and you can carry quite a bit of speed through them too. There are two wood sections that follow, interlaced with a bit of fireroad and a few hundred meters of asphalt. The wood sections invite creative line choices (plus points for screaming out “Enduroline!”) but will snatch your front wheel if you don’t hit roots straight on or get off line on the loose off camber stuff. Overtaking anywhere on the singletrack is hard and this is what leads to those spectacular crash videos you find on youtube.
Apart from the race trail, there is an abundance of other little trails leading into Alpe d’Huez starting from the two DMC lift stations, as well as a few trails leading down to Oz en Oisans. There is plenty of variation in trail difficulty although most of the stuff is rideable, and for the most part jumps or overly exposed bits of trail have chicken lines around them. The rocky trails are really rocky, and seeing people fixing punctures trailside was a very common occurance.
For the roadies there is the iconic ADH climb with its 21 switchbacks. So basically everything you could ever want to do on two wheels.
The Stockholm (well greater Stockholm and Södertälje) crew representing! Tommy and Sebastian joined me on this trip.
Nothing but blown out dusty trails the entire week.
The boardwalk i never dared to ride.Tommy didn’t even recognise it was there and just rode it first try. Respect! In retrospect it’s not that scary, it’s more a question of commiting. It also got taken out of the quali race, apparently too many people were chicken to ride it and it was a huge bottleneck.
The long pedally section included in both the qualifier and the main race.
My new gloves are now my old, disposed of gloves.
A rather sketchy way of attaching a bike to a godola.
One of the numerous DH tracks leading into ADH.
Squashing jumps leading down into the village. You could get quite rowdy on this particular stretch of trail.
There was quite a bit of traction through the rocky bit from the last DMC station.
Quali line-up with a 100-something riders on course… just to ease you into the mass start chaos of the main race. I qualified 60th of 105 with a time of 0:28:09,58. Yes, the 1/100s seconds count.
Mass start dust cloud. About 500m in it was impossible to see more than 10m in front of you. Everyone was sprinting to get to the first turn as far forward as they could, so that din’t make planning a line on the loose corner any easier.
Further down into the qualification track, the lead pack broke off and there was a little bit more breathing room. Entering the first snow patch. It looks easy but the ruts are hub-deep. Pick a rut and commit.
A friendly brit who we rode with for a couple of days, at the end of qualifying. He’s right in front of me two pictures up.
The true attraction and the highpoint of the entire trip. (Pun intended) Pic Blanc. Very high up.
How high? Very.
The view down from Pic Blanc. The glacier which is a part of the Megavalanche route is in the bottom right.
The highest i’ve been. Neither the race nerves nor the fact i haven’t slept much the night before and had to wake up early helped…
Enjoying the view while trying to let my pulse settle.We had just about the best possible weather you could get in the Alps. Race day line-up at the start. By the time the Mega Challengers race started, the snow had turned into mush and was basically unrideable. Waiting to drop in with 300 people was truly nerve-wracking.
My race run didn’t exactly go without a glitch. After running start i tried getting onto the bike. I had apparently hit the seatpost remote and raised my seat. My backpack got caught in it and i couldn’t get far enough behind the saddle, so i got sent over the bars. Given the gradient of the slope, the bike ended up around 30m away from me. First thought: “Please let my brake levers be ok!”
Getting down some parts was easier on your butt. Letting go of the bike after hitting the deck here would have meant hiking up a fair bit to get it.
Prime example of how tight it can get at the Mega. The guy in front of me decided to walk a section of trail, while the guy behind me decided to overtake us both, lose his front wheel and land first on my handlebar and then on the ground by my front wheel, sending me off to the side.
Entering the top wood section. Steep at times with a lot of breaking bumps. I though my fitness would be a limiting factor. Instead it was my hands cramping.
Although it doesn’t look like much this is the loosest, sharpest switchback i’d ridden in a while, and also where i crashed in practice. Just a few cm off line to the right on the exit and the front wheel washes out.This is not only how it looked on the gopro, this was about the level of visibility in the forest sections. Dust interlaced by rays of sunshine.
The high speed fireroads.
I chased this guy for about 5 minutes. Although i felt i had it in me, it was impossible to overtake until the trail opened up. Or until his front wheel washed out in a corner. And he crashed. Danger! The track was remarkably well marked out. The river crossing is only a few hundred meters away from the finish. I was gasping for air but i knew i had made it through the entire race, without hurting myself or breaking the bike. That in itself counts as a successful Megavalanche.
The finish line. Oh how relieved i was to see the finish line. Exhausted. Came down in 194th place out of 318 in the Mega Challenger race, with the time of 1:25:19.200. The stumpy, caked in dust.
Notice the thick layer of dust from my nose down, basically wherever the helmet had vents got covered.
The 3-something minute edit with highlights form the entire week of riding.
One of the park trails where you could really get off the brakes.
Weirdly enough this video has tons of views on youtube. Why? People love crashes!