The Megavalanche or 'Mega' is one stage of the Avalanche Cup Series of races; it takes place in the French Alps every July. 'Something every mountain biker should do once' – Steve Jones 2003.
The race is considered the best in the series and is the most accessible for us UK riders. It's hard to classify the race, not DH, not XC, not a true all day enduro; I would describe it as the ultimate 'all discipline' mountain bike race. A mass start on a huge, very steep snow covered glacier followed by pure DH riding with gaps and drops into some very fast Alpine single track mixed up with lung busting climbs and tight twisty forest sections in blinding dust. This all happens at an altitude that makes walking a few metres a breathless task. More than half of last years fourteen thousand entrants were British, this number needs to increase as The French dominate the race and I was beaten by a man called Pierre Gay. I have read lots of articles about the race but they tend to skip over the logistics of actually racing as a privateer, I hope this helps...
(Alpine lake at 3000m)
Entering the race – Register at www.avalanchecup.com
. The page will be in French, click the Union Jack in the top corner and the site is translated back into French with less vowels. Persevere or use a dictionary. Once you get to the actual registration pages the translation is better. You will be given the choice of packages. Your arrival day will dictate the package you need. I went gold as I had 4 days riding before the qualifier on the Friday and wanted the lift pass. All of the packages get you into the qualifier and you can just get a day pass if you arrive early. The passes are E12 for 0700-1745 all lifts access. Registration costs between E69 – E119 but may increase slightly next year as Saab have withdrawn funding. Registration opens on January 11th at three p.m. There is a conventional downhill race which can be entered at the same time; this takes place at Oz on the Wednesday. Please don't forget to visit your GP for a medical certificate of fitness before you leave the UK. It is required to enter the race.
Getting There - I flew to Grenoble from Stanstead with Ryan Air; for those of you who have travelled with bikes before you will know it is not the easiest experience! I bought a proper bike bag but plenty of people used bike boxes. The airline limit bikes bags at thirty five kg so check before you leave. Flying is the quickest option but is a lot of hassle when you arrive in France. Unless you have hired a car you or can find a lift you will need to take three coach transfers. These take six hours to get to Alpe D’Huez and cost around E70. I would not fly again and suggest driving with a few people in a van / big car is the best bet. The shared tolls and fuel would work out cheaper overall. As the Monday return flight is timed very close to the airport bus arrival time most people shared the E200 price for a taxi to the airport. If you miss the flight, the next one is Wednesday. I wanted to miss it but my girlfriend had to be back at work.
Accommodation – STAY IN ALPE D'HUEZ! www.easyski-plan.com
. The shops are open out of season and all the parties, registration, trade area and events are there. Some guys saved money by staying in Oz or Allemont but the time they wasted actually getting to the lifts and runs did not make up for saving £30 on a room. We stayed in a chalet which slept 3 and had everything a person needs for self catering. Finding accommodation online was difficult so I used an agent called Linda to arrange everything; www.travelcounsellors.co.uk
. She got everything sorted in a day and I did not have to do anything. She draws commission from the companies so you don't pay extra for the service. She will arrange whatever you need; the types of accommodation are basic right through to five star. I saw rooms for one person right up to fifteen - twenty bed Alpine Chateaus'. The chateaus work out as the cheapest option overall. The restaurants are reasonable, I recommend the 'pasta party' at Le Passe Montage. We went twice, I was always good and I saw Absolom and Wildehaber having a Fondue party in there. The CRC team were also there having the mixed meat hot plate which I can recommend. Like a French tandori mixed grill with cheese and salad. The best bar is the Alpine Bar next to Club Igloo. Igloo should be experienced to see what it was like to party in the 80's and because the doorman has a 4 finger ring with ‘PIMP’ spelt out in gold and diamond italics. A pitcher is about E12 in the bars, E30 in the club.
What to take – Tubes, tubes, tyres, tubes, a pump, patches and tubes. I took a 6" front and rear Giant Reign (shout out to Rob Warner for the bike). I swapped the air forks for coil Pikes and put on Minion DH tyres front and rear. I did not use a dropper post, just chopped an old post down to a comfortable height and stood up whenever I had to pedal really hard. If you are taking a Joplin, get a spare clamp and saddle. The three guys I knew using Joplin posts all lost saddles due to broken clamps. I wore leg, back and elbow pads. YOU MUST HAVE A FULL FACE HELMET TO RACE. I took goggles and glasses, glasses are better as goggles get too hot but my glasses broke in a crash during the race so I was 'dust blind' on some of the lower sections.
I had 16 punctures. I ran 97p ASDA tubes on my first day of riding; I do not recommend the ASDA 97p range for the Mega. I changed to Maxxis FR tubes, pumped them to 40psi and only got four more flats for the rest of the week. I took a spare chain, lube, rear mech, cables, tyres, saddle and post, BB, pads and all the associated tools. I used 11 Tubes, both spare tyres, the chain, all my cables and 1 set of pads. There are plenty of bike shops but they are expensive. Decent Gear had a van at the expo area but were not any cheaper than the shops. iPods are banned from the race. I don't know how they would check?
(Drop in on qualifier race)
Registration and riding - Registration day for the event depends on which package you have. platinum and gold is Tuesday, silver onwards is Wednesday. Register in the big white tents outside the sports centre in the middle of Alpe D'Huez; queue in the line which relates to your race number. You will get your plate, lift pass and all lots of little freebies. Once you have the pass you can ride the qualifier, race run, DH course and all of the other tracks as much as you like. My two tips would be practice the glacier and know the qualifier inch by inch. Failure in the qualifier can put you out of the actual race.
(Main race start of glacier)
Bike set up – Loads of chain lube – the dust kills chains in a day, 40-50psi, 185/ 200mm rotors, DH tires and tubes, coil shocks or DHX Air cans, single crown coil forks with lock out and flat pedals. I saw everything from XC hard tails to V10's. The fastest riders all used 5-6" travel AM bikes. I did notice that the pros' all qualified on DH bikes and used AM bikes for the race. If you have a DH and AM bike it might be an idea to take both.Qualifier
Qualification – Allow 3 hours getting to the start, the middle lift is closed so you will need to do a fair bit riding before you even reach the start line. The qualifier is the hardest thing I have ever ridden, much worse than the actual race. I would describe it as the Fort William WC course but 40 minutes long with more dust and 200 other riders trying to kick your mech off. There is a mass start of 200 people, the 90’s Euro techno and helicopter hovering metres above the start to whip up dust got my heart rate up before I had even pushed a pedal. The start counts out and carnage ensues. A short bottle necked double track section leads everyone onto a small glacier covered in snow, after this you need to get over the lunar rock face and onto the dusty double track. Gain as many places as you can here as some single track follows and overtaking is very difficult. Watch out for people kicking at your mech as you pass, try to push them to your left as opposed to going past their left side. You need to learn 'Allez', ‘Rouse’, 'Permesso' and 'get out of the f***ing way' as people get off and push down the main track. The track goes through a very rocky downhill run with shore and gaps before opening into a wide fire road pedal section. I hoped to pedal like mad here on my lighter bike but sadly I was missing a vital bit of my bike, the chain. I still don't know how it got wrapped around my spokes but it made a horrible noise and ripped my rear tyre. I do remember a big hit from a rock which managed to put a big dent in my 'unbreakable' E13 so presume that did it. I stopped to try and fix it and realised it was all over. Then, an Italian guy holding half a rear wheel and a brand new Kenda offered me his tire. I got this fitted, gave him a pack of fig rolls and kept going. I could not use his Shimano chain as I had no pins and thought this would be taking advantage of his generosity. I managed to complete the qualifier by pushing, rolling, carrying and pumping the 'hardest DH race I ever did' (Kovarik) and somehow, I did not come last in my group. I was gutted but glad to finish. I did not realise that if I had withdrawn on a mechanical my second checkpoint position of 29th / 200 would have got me a better final position; this is worth remembering if you have a mechanical but had been doing well in qualifying. At the end of the race you get some food and a chance to watch other people finishing. I was sulking so went for a few beers. I did manage to chat to Fabiel Barel who said he had been in pain for 30 of the 31 minutes he was on the course.
After qualifying you need to go to the registration tent to get your race times and packs. If you finish 50-100 or 150-200 in group you race on Saturday. Everyone else races Sunday.
(Spot the missing part... End of qualifying)Start of main race
The race – Get to the top nice and early, I watched the first group starting to try to see which lines were best on the off camber start. This is pointless as 500 people all riding into a 25 metre bit of track does not leave much room for 'lines'. Best crash prize here goes to Kovarik who had his life saved by the netting on the lip of a sheer drop. In the ladies race respect has to go to Ann Caroline Chausson who did the entire pack in seconds and hit the glacier faster than any of the male riders.
I set off with about 120 riders and managed to get a good start by cutting over to the right and riding down the camber. I kept my feet up on the glacier and went faster than I have ever been on a bike; this was helped by my not bedding in my new pads properly and having no brakes. The glacier run got me to the front of my pack and my race went well from there. I can't break the entire course down as it would take too long, so... Galcier, rock section, DH course with short climbs drops and gaps, very fast Alpine single track, climb, grass track, DH run, climb (big), flat sheep track (long), DH run, fire road, Alpine Single track, grass track, wood section, sheep track, open hill section, wood section (climbs and flat), DH run, big road climb, wood section, fire road sprint, finish. I can honestly say I rode all of it. I passed loads of people pushing DH bikes on climbs, overtaking on some the DH and single track is tricky but can be done. I crashed twice on the DH sections when my confidence and ability had a fall out, I lost my gear cable in the first crash and had to wedge a tyre lever into the front mech, I only had one flat and got that changed in around 8 minutes so I was fairly lucky. Emotionally the race goes – Excitement, inability to breathe, too cold, too hot, fear, anger, extreme thirst, forearm pain, blindness, more fear and pain mixed together, exhaustion, elation, hunger. I came 16th in my race and 33rd / 660 in my series overall. I wanted to finish in less than 2 hours so was very happy with a 1.24 time given the mechanicals.
(Start of main race)
Overall, for a total of around £700 all in The Mega' was the best riding experience of my life. I made some great friends and enjoyed some amazing riding. I'm definitely going next year and now I have a good race time I don't have to worry too much about another nightmare qualifier (they account for previous race runs). I'm driving so let me know if you want to hook onto our convoy. Any questions, just ask..Article by: Steve Malone Images: ® Heather Verdon Have you experienced the Megavalanche? Let us know you comments and thoughts below.