To quote (badly - I'm going on memory here) Tim Krabbe's novella, the Rider:
“Cycle racing is life without the corrupting influence of civilization: in daily life, if an enemy collapses in front of, you offer him your hand and help him up; in cycle racing, you kick him to death.”
Never has this quote felt more apt than with reference to Megavalanche, particularly the qualifying race.
Being press, the organisers had flattered us with front row starting positions. Behind me 200 salivating, body-armoured riders waited impatiently to mow me down. The gun sounded and all nerves were forgotten as we stamped on the pedals and raced into he first series of switchbacks. Elbow to elbow we jostled for position, no one willing to give in to the intimidation we each tried to dish out.
Never in normal life do you find yourself in this psychological state. It's a return to the jungle, survival of the fittest – an escape from the “corrupting influence of civilisation”.
The quote returned to me as we chased across a vast rock plateau in search of the one or two viable escape routes. It occurred to me that if I fell down here and died, my body probably wouldn't be found for another three hours, by which time I'd be covered in the tyre marks of the 1000 remaining riders, currently at the top of the hill. Would I object to such treatment? Of course not. It's a race, and nice guys come last. I'd do the same, you have to, it's a race after all.
Onto the fireroad I sprinted for all my worth. Danny was still in sight, I must still be in the top 25. I just needed to keep people behind me on the singletrack and I'd qualify in the top 50 no problem. I overtook a couple of riders through the loose, drifty turns before the first stretch of rocky singletrack. This is my weak point, and I needed a clear run to be able to hit my lines and avoid crashing.
As soon as we hit the rocks, I hit my brakes. I'm a wimp, and an unskilled one at that. I got called every name under the sun, in every language common to western Europe, as I gingerly hit all the lines I'd worked out in practice. In the two days practising this course, I had never ridden it as clean or as fast as this. Still, it wasn't fast enough for the guys pursuing me on DH race bikes. In my weakest stretch of the course I lost only three spots.
Through the compression where Mick nearly killed himself the day before; over the roller where I nearly killed myself the day before; down the loose rocky chute – it was going perfectly.
Then it happened. Coming out of the penultimate rocky corner, before the safety of the fireroad and fresh, green, pastural singletrack, I clipped a rock: the tyre went bang, and that was it. Hopes of qualifying over. To make matters worse, in the melee of the rocks, I'd lost a contact lens.
I started to walk down the hill, dejected. I had 20 minutes of descending remaining with one good eye, and one eye that can barely make out a car at 100ft, plus I had to fix a flat. I might as well give up now.
Anyway, long story short: after much soul searching I fixed the puncture and rode down the hill like an angry pirate. Needless to say I didn't qualify for the main race or even the support race, although I was welcome to ride down the hill at my leisure the following day to post up a time. Danny, bike tester Mick, MBR designer Ben Smith and Cycling Weekly's Hannah Reynolds and Stu Bowers all qualified and would be up at 5.30am the following morning to scale the mountain for a 9am kick off.
Later that evening it transpired that young Ben would be unlikely to join the gang the following morning as what he had initially thought was a minor crash in the race, had resulted in a collapsed lung! Ben gets a lot of stick in the office for being a bit of a pushover, but we might have to change that opinion since he tried to self medicate the collapsed and fluid-filled lung with bruise cream. How the Doctor laughed...
He's now in hospital in Grenoble and should be out Monday – although we doubt his girlfriend will let him out riding again any time soon.
The night before the race, storms clouds gathered on the horizon. Thunder, lightning, wind and lashing rain prevented the nervous from sleeping, and probably caused the organisers a restless night too.
Dawn rolled around although it didn't bring a change of conditions. Danny and Mick rolled out the door at 5.30am to wearily join the lift queue for the mountain top. Except there was a change of plan. Conditions were so dismal that the organisers decided against taking 900 riders up to the 3300m high top lift station. Instead, they would start at the qualifying start, and take the riders cross country to join up with the Mega course proper.
The problem was, no one seemed to have told the lift operators, which resulted in hundred of riders standing around in the cold for a good couple of hours while a solution, and lift operator, was found.
Eventually, at 10am, an hour later than scheduled, the race began. Danny punctured twice and had to stop in Alpe d'Huez and buy a new tube, while Mick broke the hour and finished in the 70 somethings. At the front end, Renee (Zelwegger) Wildharber won. Again. This guy is like the Lance Armstrong of the Mega. Formidable!
Me? I didn't ride. I couldn't see the point. Instead I pushed up the mountain and took photos, then drove down to the finish to shuttle the boys back up the hotel. By mid-morning the sun had come out and sky was an awe inspiring combination of dark blue and low lying clouds. Perfect material for an MTB snapper.
I'll be back to Mega next year for sure. To say I have unfinished business is an understatement – un-started is more like it. With Brits making up 64 per cent of this years 1600 strong entry, maybe I'll see you there?