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.
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.