Guak!

Picture the scene: It’s the evening before the Megavalanche qualifier. We’ve all returned from a day of riding and a few of use are out on the balcony, fettling bikes.

Building bikes

One of the guys staying on the floor above us leans over their balcony:

Excuse me, do you guys have a 7mm screwdriver?

Funnily enough, we don’t, but it’s not long before Brett‘s upstairs taking on the role of works mechanic and bleeding brakes for them. It turns out they were legendary downhill world cup racers Tommi and Pau Misser (now co-owners of the mighty Guak empire), who’d come to the mega with their mum. She was busy cooking them dinner and shouting at them every time there was any danger of grease going anywhere near the carpet. Brilliant.

Tommi went on to win his qualifier the following day, with Pau finishing fourth in his. Whether it was because they couldn’t stop, we may never know…

For us though, “Guak” took on a whole new meaning. It became the call of some sort of rare animal, and could be heard ringing out across alpine valleys for the next week and a bit. GUUAAAARRRK! GUUUAAAAARRRRRK!

You probably had to be there.

Progression

You ride in and it all feels fine for the first couple of corners. You’ve got a nagging doubt though.

They say Brendan Fairclough built this trail so he could practise for Champery (widely regarded as the toughest track on the world cup downhill circuit, especially when it rains). The really steep descents have never been your strong point.

A few corners further down the hill and your internal monologue isn’t fit for publication. This is utterly ridiculous! How in the name of your favoured deity are you supposed to ride down it? That Fairclough fellow is a bounder and a cad!

Before you know it, you’ve let the gradient get the better of you. Mild panic, slippery roots and a tad too much front brake mean you find yourself in the undergrowth, entangled in your bicycle. After a bit of struggling and a lot more swearing — mainly at yourself — you manage to extricate yourself and get back on it.

Fresh start. You’ve just watched Si, Jon and Alex disappear down the trail ahead of you. If they can do it, so can you. You’ve ridden Sixt, so just apply the same techniques here. You’ve got the storm trooper kit on, so even if it goes wrong, it’s not going to hurt too much. You’re not exactly going at light-speed anyway.

It takes you a while, but you get to the bottom eventually. It’s something of a relief. Si asks you if you enjoyed it. You answer honestly:

Not particularly. Can we go and do it again?

It gets eaiser. I think it’s what they call pushing the envelope.

Random photo moment

Spy Sky

La Clusaz, France, July 2008.

Cables

I’m sat here with the Macbook on my lap. It’s still a brilliant machine more than two years later.

Well, it’s brilliant except for all the cables. Right now I’ve got the power cable attached, the ipod plugged in, another wire going off to my camera, then there’s the backup drive and a pair of earphones. I’m using a portable computer but I’m tied down by all of the peripherals.

Now, imagine if you could dock your ipod to a hub over there on the shelf and have the laptop talk to it wirelessly. It’d be ace, especially if your phone, camera, GPS, external drives and all the other gubbins could sit over there with it.

The thing is, most of these things can connect via the USB ports on the side of the Mac. If only there was a wireless USB standard and products by the likes of Belkin and DLink which could do exactly that… Awesome stuff, except for the distinct lack of Mac support. Damn and blast and buggrit!

So what do I really want to see from tomorrow’s Apple Notebook event? An even faster Macbook would be nice, especially if it had Wireless USB built right in.

Promo

“There was this massive log-jam in the first corner, couldn’t see what caused it.”
“Yeah, that’d be me.”

It was an adventure just getting to the start.

Alpe d’Huez was a dark grey that morning, with the mountain-tops shrouded completely in cloud. Shortly after I left the apartment the rain began to fall. Then the thunder started clattering around the valley and all the lifts closed. We wouldn’t be starting from the glacier today. Everybody took shelter under the ticket office. Some riders gave up and headed back to bed.

It took an hour or so, but we eventually got the go-ahead. The race would start from the top of the qualifier, before re-joining the main Megavalanche track a little way above Alpe d’Huez. I set off to the top with Garry. We met numerous riders coming back the other way — they’d got up early for the A-final, had frozen halfway up a mountain for a couple of hours and were heading back for an early bath. Infamous mountain-biking hard-nut Martyn Ogden was like a poor lost little lamb. Not us though. The thought of quitting now never even crossed our minds.

Fast-forward. I’m stood at 2800 metres again. It’s freezing. I, along with one of the Megavalanche girls (wearing a bright-red binbag) and a couple of others are bouncing up and down to the pumping euro-techo in an effort to keep warm. It’s almost working. A few minutes later, the A-final begins. We cheer like mad. They’re gone. Time for us B-finalists to get on the grid.

I lined up on the second row alongside Chris Seager-Smith (who went on to finish third in his category — nice work fella!). We shared an energy bar and generally readied ourselves. The sun poked it’s head out from behind the clouds. It might even turn out to be a nice day!

Then comes the briefing. The banging techno kicks in again. Allemont! The tapes go up and we’re off. Everything goes mental. This is fantastic!

I get as far as the first corner. Someone’s pedal finds it’s way into my front wheel, which suddenly stops rotating. Almost as suddenly, I find myself crashing to the ground, with hundreds of riders trying to get past or over me. I try to get up only to find someone is standing on my head. I relax for a moment, struggle harder and get off the ground. Jump on the bike. Start riding again.

That completely knocked the wind out of my sails. I spent the next couple of miles travelling backwards through the field. I think Garry overtook while I was on the floor. Brett caught and passed me in the hardcore rocky stuff. Anton (who could hardly hold onto the bars thanks to some accidents earlier in the week) was with me shortly before we reached Alpe d’Huez.

Then things started to change.

By the time we reached the town we were riding in blazing sunshine. A crowd cheered us all the way through those fast open corners and out the other side of the town. The perfect catalyst. I powered through there as hard as I could, before sitting down for the slog up the fireroad.

I laughed at the superhero helping someone fix their bike at the bottom of the evil zig-zag climb. I had a great time blasting down the open stuff on the other side. I got caught in traffic jam every time the trail went uphill. I chased a lad on a Commencal down the faster stuff. I charged past him up a road climb only for him to pass me once we got back into the woods. The singletrack seemed to go on forever, with streams, rocks, roots and braking bumps only making it more fun. The comedy lurid mud-slides down the steep, claggy switchbacks were brilliant!

Then all of a sudden I was at the footbridge. I know this bit — it’s the bottom!

I charged through Allemont like a maniac and crossed the line smiling. I’ve finished the Megavalanche! I’m still alive! Wicked!

I looked down at my front wheel to find one spoke had snapped and was flailing, a couple of others were very bent and it had a hell of a wobble in it. I hadn’t noticed all the way down, which was probably a good thing.

Results? Who cares?

Oh, alright then. Charlie finished 69th overall (great result), Alex took 103rd, Stu came in 121st and Rich was 190th. In the Promo (B-final) Garry was 94th (winning Masters 3 again!), Brett came in 150th and I strugged into 213th. Anton retired due to the aforementioned hands thing.

Same again next year?

Qualifier

This isn’t right. I’m getting nervous. I wasn’t expecting the nerves.

It might have something to do with where I am. 2800 metres above sea level, on my bike, lined up amongst 200 other riders. We’re ready to start our qualification race for the 2008 Megavalanche Alpe d’Huez.

The top 51 finishers go through to the main Megavalanche. The next 40 go into the Promo (or B final). The rest don’t count.

It’s all good though. I’ve ridden the whole course. I know the fast lines. I can do this. What’s more, I’m lined up next to Alex Marshall. He’s done this before and he’s quick, too. Just tag on and follow him down. It’s all good.

There’s the waiting. There’s the briefing. There’s the helicopters. There’s the mad techno playing over the huge speaker system. Thirty seconds to go. Alex and I wish each other luck and put on our goggles. Bike’s ready. I’m ready. Everyone tenses.

The tapes go up. Two hundred riders charge at once. This is complete madness! Sublime, brilliant madness.

Start of the qually

I pedal hard, change up a couple of times and slot in behind Alex. There’s riders everywhere. We go around the outside on the first corner and make up a lot of places. Somehow I stay with him on the inside through the next few hairpins before being barged off my line on the way into the final one. I’m forced around the outside and lose loads of time. Still, I pedal like a nutter down to the first of the snow and get through there in one piece. Alex is long gone. Plan B: Go it alone.

Suddenly I’m reminded of the altitude. My body is screaming that it needs more oxygen. Breathe deeply. This is really bloody hard and it’s only the beginning.

I pedal as hard as I can across the rocks. Follow Charlie’s line up and around the worst of the snow, missing out the utter carnage happening over there, then pedal hard again, across the rocks and onto the fireroad.

I want to push harder but I can’t. My body won’t let me. I pass one, maybe two people.

I reach the first of the tricky trialsy sections at hyperspeed. I don’t quite understand what’s going on here. Clearly someone up ahead can’t ride it, but just about everyone behind them is forming an orderly queue. Don’t they realise it’s a race? I ride past the lot of them, jump off the bike, run through the chaos, jump back on and head into the next section like a man posessed.

It’s a big rock field. Everybody’s going straight through the middle. I know better. I stick to the extreme right, hug the edge and come out onto the fireroad at roughly a million miles per second. I pass two people going up into the next section and dive into the rocky singletrack corner faster than ever before. Nailed it.

From here down, the trail goes mental. It was probably a nice singletrack down the side of a mountain once. Today, it’s a technical, rutted jagged rockfest. Exactly what this bike was built for. It’s all going fantastically until that nasty double-drop. I take the left line, something goes wrong and I’m flying over the bars. GARGH!

Stand up. Pick the bike up. Everything’s in one piece. This is still a race. People are squeezing past. Get on. Breathe. Ride. Get your head back in shape.

More rocky singletrack madness. I’m hitting it pretty fast and the flow’s coming back. The field’s spreading out a bit now. I pass a couple of people, a couple of others pass me. More of the sublime madness.

Eventually we hit the fireroad climb of death. Nearly everybody’s off and walking. I’m stood on the pedals grinding a 45lb downhill bike up there. This hurts. A fellow rider mumbles something about some people being too fit as I pass. There’s pretty girls cheering us on here, so I pedal harder. This really hurts.

At the top I hit the traverse. This should be a nice opportunity to rest — it’s a simple, fun downhill singletrack. Except we’re in a race, I can see riders ahead and I’m going to catch them. Oh, and I can see the base of the valley, a good few hundred metres below me — and nothing in between. It’s very fast and proper scary, until the trail suddenly zig-zags right. Scrub off speed, turn in early and I’m on someone’s tail. No way past here, so I follow them into a steep and gooey bit. A dopey english rider shouts “Allez!” from behind us. Nothing I can do but laugh as he slides off the bike and into the hedge.

Now it’s the switchbacks. I’m being held up now (unusual for me). I wait for a bigger corner, see the rider up ahead go wide and throw the bike down the inside. It’s messy, but it worked.

I’m passing loads of riders now. They’re all pulled over with mechanicals, punctures or they just plain can’t hold on anymore. These switchbacks go on forever and ever and ever and ever and WHOA! I get one wrong and nearly ride off the side of the mountain. There’s a whiff of hot brake pads around here.

Eventually the trail straightens out a bit. I catch another rider in the singletrack. I know there’s a fast fire-road section coming up though, so I’ll try and pass there.

No chance. They block every attempt.

I’m getting really tired now, but I know it’s not far to the end. Keep on pushing. I’m following the unpassable rider down a fast old cart-track. What was once a smooth stone road has become a veritable rock garden: BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BAMM! We both get through unscathed, then cross the bridge and onto the final section. It’s fast, except for the mad straw-bale chicane (which nearly claims me), a few scary steep drop-ins (one of which claims the unpassable rider) and a fast corner to the finish at Le Bessey.

I cross the line to find there’s absolutely loads of riders here already. I feel instantly dejected. I thought I’d done OK, but judging by the amount of people down here there’s no way I’ve qualified. I find Alex, who had a good run down, beating some big names.

I chat to an aussie in the bus queue and we agree that it’d be nice to qualify at all. We get on the bus up to Oz where lunch is waiting for us. I find the results, scan down them and go from dejection to happiness and then frustration. I finished 55th — good enough for the Promo, but just four places shy of the main event.

Bacca, Charlie Alex, and Rich made the main Megavalanche. Garry, Anton, Brett and Jez were joining me in the Promo. Now, to prepare ourselves and our bikes for the main event.

An ice-cold stream

Well that was expensive. I burned through a set of disc pads, put a hole in the side of my shoe and to top it all off, I somehow punctured my camelbak’s bladder. That’s a comfortable feeling, let me tell you. A slow but steady stream of ice-cold water running down the centre of your back until… well, you can guess where it goes from there. Then there was the unceasing headwind which somehow faced me no matter which direction I rode.

Despite all that, I had a bucketload of fun. I rode trails I’d not ridden in ages. I discovered an enchanted cottage hidden in the woods. I had a bleating match with a freshly shorn sheep. I blasted down the sides of fields, along fire-roads and though twisting technical singletrack. I sprinted up climbs with Rage Against The Machine shouting through my earphones.

I got home feeling better than I did when I left, and that’s what it’s all about.

Tarw

Coed y Brenin rocks, quite literally. I spent the weekend up there with a bunch of friends, old and new. The trails are rockier than just about anywhere else I’ve ridden in the UK, save perhaps Fort William. It’s the sort of terrain the current breed of “all mountain” bikes were built for.

Me on Pins and Needles

We started with Temtiwr, which is the shortest of the trails. A mere 9km or so and sadly too much of that is fire-road (this is a running theme). The Dream Time section is fantastic though — so much so that we went back to ride it twice.

After a hearty lunch we took on MBR. Again, too many fire-roads, but the singletrack was a great pay-off. Brutus is one of those incredibly technical climbs that you’re happy to get to the top of without putting a foot down, while Cain, Abel and the legendary Pink Heifer are all fantastic descents.

On sunday, Brett and myself had a go at the Tarw trail. The fire-road theme is all to evident here too; The bit after Heart of Darkness was particularly disappointing because it’s all downhill! Luckily, the singletrack on offer is nothing short of brilliant. Hitting Snap, Crackle and Pop at high speed is like tackling the dragon downhill track at Gethin; rocks everywhere and no easy way through it. Keeping momentum through there is a challenge in the best sense, while the slightly smoother Rocky Horror Show is absolutely flat-out fun.

There’s a few more photos on flickr. Thanks to Andy for organising it, and to Brett, Neil, Ash and Darren for making it such a good weekend. Fire-road be damned — I want to go back for another go at all that singletrack!