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Adam Craig diary: Racing mountain bikes down the slopes of the Alpe d'Huez

If it weren’t for a random call to Ross Schnell, I would’ve skipped World Cup Finals.  He said something I’ve been hearing from members of the North American Shred Posse for years: “What are you doing in July?  You should come to the Mega.” 

My normal response is the same for anything happening in July that’s not a World Cup or National Champs.  “I’m triple-booked that weekend anyway…”

Ross diplomatically pointed out that, as far as he could tell, July twenty-second was free, other than the Megavalanche down the slopes above (and below) Alpe d’Huez in the French Alps.  And it was the weekend before the final World Cup in Val d’Isere, which I’d planned to respectfully bow out of on account of not really riding very well in Europe this spring. 

But hey, a long DH race would be great prep for what could be my last World Cup XC race, right? 
Just so we’re all on the same page, the Megavalanche has to be the undisputed king of endurance downhill racing.  Dropping from 3300 meters at the top of Pic Blanc to 720 meters in the village of Allemont (that’s 2580m, or 8,385 feet) over the course of 33km.  That’s a lot of drop.  You climb some too, but not very much.  More importantly, the race is mass start.  On snow.  For about 3km.  In about three minutes… 

Start position (crucial to success and/or safety) is determined by a series of ten qualifying races on a different course, which are also mass start, in waves of 200 riders, and also involve snow.  Perfect. 

The top three riders from each qualifier get front row position in the final, 4-6th are in the second row, 7-9th third row and so forth.  The top 35 from each round make the proper final.  The others qualify for the slower waves, Challenger, Amateur and Affinity. 

Basically, it’s a whole bunch of people racing downhill together.  Super safe.  Fortunately, the organization requires the use of full-face helmets and body armor.  It’s good to see that, even in the land of limited liability, the promoter is wise enough to try and protect us from ourselves, and each other…

It’d been a while since Ross and I had gone to a race together, probably back in the Team Devo days, actually.  The fact that we were getting a chance to co-habitate for a week was made ever better that the days of that week were spent riding gondolas around in high alpine sunshine and working on riding downhill as fast as possible. 

Ross’ new, and quite pregnant wife Cathryn and my Rabobank/Giant Offroad Teammate Rosara Joseph joined us to round out the crew.  Ross had one Mega under his belt, so sort of knew the ropes.  At least where to go and when, ish…  This is good information, as the logistics of a 33km downhill course are challenging. 

Our three glorious days of “practice” involved a whole bunch of hurrying up and waiting in between riding the most diverse tracks I’ve ever experienced.  Doing one practice run meant leaving our apartment in Alpe d’Huez village aboard a 16-passenger gondola to the base of the Pic Blanc tram which dropped us at the top — of the world, from what I could tell. 

This track started raw and rad in the alpine before mellowing into berm-filled meadows.  It took around thirty minutes to practice and passed our apartment about ¾ of the way down to its finish in the village of Huez.  From here you could wait in a huge line for a cable car back to the Alpe d’ village or just pedal up the final five switchbacks of the access road made famous by the numerous Tour de France stages finishing on it’s slopes — joined by hundreds of Dutch tourists, on a pilgrimage to emulate their Tour heroes. 

With all due respect, I’d heard of the legendary Alpe d’Huez climb for years and was kind of expecting something more interesting.  It’s a busy dead-end road to a ski area, just like hundreds of others in this corner of the world.

OK, writing that all out kind of helped me process what a production it was to race the Mega.  Which we eventually did, and did pretty well.  The qualifier is key, and is basically an intermediate downhill race on trailbikes.  You HAVE to finish, and finish well, to secure a start spot in the final. 

I hemmed and hawed about what bike to bring, and in the end kept it familiar.  The Trance X 29 has been my fun bike of choice for the last year as we’ve tested and developed it.  Why not race it in France too? I knew it’d be good on the snow at least.

Plus, Rosara needed to borrow something so she was the lucky recipient of my trusty Reign X.  Having never ridden anything bigger than an Anthem X, she was like a kid in a candy store.  Suddenly dropped atop the highest mountain she’s ever had the pleasure of standing on with a full-face helmet and 160mm travel bike.  Lucky.  And fast. 

After starting her qualifier last and passing 75 girls she finished 25th, just enough for a front row start in the MegaLadies final.  This start turned into fourth place by the finish.  Pretty good for an XC bandit who’s never ridden a proper bike… 

Here’s a little rear-POV from some practice on the Qualifier Track >>

French legend Anne-Caroline Chausson won the women’s race casually by a landslide, just like her World Cup DH racing days.

The above sentence about finishing the quail intact and at the front being mandatory made me a touch nervous when, after a top-ten start in my heat, I was standing in the first snowfield trying to put my chain back on while half of the 200-rider wave filed past me.  S**t. 

Thinking I was clever, I followed what looked like a sneaky line that shortened the snow section after a tricky entrance.  The rest of the (smart, French) guys in front of me opted for the conservative line, knowing the risk of a mistake.  My mistake was small, barely stepping over the bars, but the dropped chain put me in a dire situation. 

My clever line worked in snow section #2 and the game of passing everyone in the race began.  It was fun.  And dangerous.  Which I needed anyway to wrap my head around charging down brutally rough trails with tons of random dudes. 

I overtook dozens of people, mostly in a safe manner, and finished 7th, 1:20 down on Remy Absalon.  So, third row for the final.  Not ideal, but not disastrous.  The biggest disappointment was that it would’ve been really interesting to stay upright and in the mix to find out just how fast Remy is. 

That guy has been the fastest rider in the fastest country for Enduro since it became a thing.  I need to know how good these guys are.

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