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

Adam Craig describes a seriously wild ride in France

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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.

Finals- Whoa.  I like to think that riding on the edge is something I’m into, but I was genuinely intimidated atop the top of Pic Blanc at 7am waiting for the sun to warm our bones and the freshly groomed, solidly frozen ski hill that was the start line. 

For about 200m before it doglegged right onto a 4m wide “road” made up of rocks of sizes ranging from fist to lawnmower-sized.  This led to more snow — lots more.  Some of it steep. Some with sharp corners. 

Growing up ski racing in Maine and actually doing some winter downhill bike races on snow, I’m comfortable with the white stuff.  Or was.  When my turn to line up came, I instinctively chose high right, just at the edge of the talus slope above the snow.  I assumed that with the steep, icy snow bottlenecking into a rockfield and all, that there would be a huge crash by the time the third row got there. 

I was right, but had no idea how huge until after the finish.

The energy up there is pretty amazing before the start.  It was a crystal clear morning, accentuating your view of dozens of huge snowy peaks, and allowing the helicopter film crew to get intimate with the start grid. 

Dance music pulsed from speakers on the line as 350 people awaited their fate.  Turns out most of them embrace it wholeheartedly. 

Almost immediately I could see bodies piling up to my left, so went for the high right route through the rocks, figuring it was slower, but safer (and ultimately faster) than the NASCAR scene developing below me.  I squeaked through and set about hauling ass down the lower snow slopes, amazed at the level of grip and control I managed to get on the groomed, frozen glacier…  Except for where there were old ice ruts.  Those were sketchy, and I narrowly avoided a few other impressive crashes.
Off the snow and onto the upper rocky singletrack I wondered what position I was in.  Could’ve been 100th, could’ve been 30th.  Either way, I could see the leaders of the race minutes down the mountainside.  Well, so much for thinking I could show up and be on the podium. 

Fortunately, even the random dudes I was with after the start melee are pretty good on their bikes.  I passed whenever I could, but ultimately had to wait until the course turned to the southern aspect and began traversing across the ski pistes of Alpe d’ Huez proper. 

Once there I set about overtaking fools like Sherman through Georgia.  Eventually I started recognizing people.  First was Jamie from Nelson, New Zealand.  He didn’t have a seat.  Before the main “climb” (a two-minute affair on a dirt road) I caught Ross.  My only comment for him was, “Good work surviving.” 

I crested the climb with enough of a gap on his group to stop and top off a leaky tire before we dropped in together.  This was exciting! 

Riding with a familiar face, especially one as inspiringly fast and smooth as Mr. Schnell, is helpful in a race this long and taxing.  We both weren’t smooth enough, though, and in the eight minutes of pounding braking bumps on the section down to Oz we both got dangerous levels of arm pump.  Ross had it bad enough that after I pulled off to let him by that his hands blew straight off the bars and he packed it in, hard enough to separate his AC joint slightly and tear out some of the stitches he’d gotten after a qualifier crash. 

When I made it to the next short road traverse I couldn’t even push the lever to actuate my DOSS seatpost.

Fortunately, thirty seconds of smooth road is enough to recover before the next woods section.  It was in there that Swiss Enduro legend Rene Wildhaber passed me on a shortcut line that I overlooked, he was about twenty meters below my unobservant ass and turned a ten-second deficit into a five-second advantage.  Right, next time I need the time to do more than two pre-runs of the whole course.  Thanks for the tutorial, Rene.  And, by the way, how the hell did you survive your start crash?  It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. 

By pedaling, tucked, down the first 200m of snow, he got the holeshot, normally the safest place to be.  Except he was going about 80kph when the bumpy snow gave way to rocks.  Sliding out just before he exited onto to the relative safety of the stones, Rene started tomahawking, and people started hitting him.  It was horrific.  Only three riders made it through, Dan Atherton, Nico Vouilloz and Franck Paroulin.  And, while we were talking in the parking lot after finishing 17th and 18th, he didn’t even mention it.  Just another day in the life of a European Enduro racer, I guess…
Remy Absalon got out of the start crash early and unscathed, enabling him to hunt down the gravity-oriented riders on the traversing bits.  But Nico was checked out by then, with nearly a minute lead after the climb.  Which is funny, because Ross and I passed the legend shortly after, walking back up the hill with his bike on his back.  Hmm.  What could that guy, who is the picture of competitive restraint and calculated control have possibly done in the open, flowing meadow singletrack to abandon the race? 

Turns out he was still pushing hard enough that he overcooked a corner, burping his tire and breaking his front wheel.  Amazing that a ten-time downhill World Champion was pushing that hard while leading this race.  It speaks to the depth of talent and overall challenge of this event.  You’re PINNED, mentally and physically, for, well, in eventual winner Remy’s case, 41:20.  In Rene, Ross and my case, it was more like 45:00.  But we survived. 

That’s an interesting emotion to have post-race.  Normally for this kind of event you’re pumped to take every chance possible, and these guys are.  I will be next time, now that I know the score.  It’s another level. 

But it’s not that far away…

Rosara and I had a forced rest day — which was extremely necessary — after our dispersal of equipment en route to Val d’Isere left us bikeless on Monday.  We kept it real with our Alpine travel plan.  Taking the bus from Geneva Airport to Alpe d’Huez with three bikes, a wheel box and two bags saved us a rental car for the first week.  Anna from Massageme.co.uk came down from Bourg St. Maurice to give us (and Tracey Moseley’s crew) some much needed massages before the Mega, and we sent parcel # 1, Rosara’s bike bag with my spare XC tubular wheelset, with her. 

The big package, my bike case with my XTC Hardtail in it, almost went to Enduro of Nations in Italy with Dan Atherton.  Fortunately, I swung by as he was leaving, identified this conflict in destination, and was able to get his mechanic, Pete, to take it to Val d’Isere.  It’d be more useful there anyway… 

SRAM BlackBox manager Jon Cancellier was kind enough to take Rosara and my Enduro bikes, but left on Monday morning, which meant a sort of bummer (to be missing out on more idyllic alpine riding) and sort of amazing (we were beat up) day off. 

Tuesday we caught a ride with the New Zealander-strong Lapierre DH team over the Col du Croix Fiere and Col d’Iseran to the awaiting World Cup scene of Val d’Isere.  Whew, Keepin’ it Real feels great, but sure is complicated.  Thanks for the non-same-team help, folks…

This could very well have been my last World Cup, although I’ll probably race Mont St. Anne again someday (hopefully with the aforementioned DOSS seatpost). I was thankful that Ross tricked me into coming to Europe, for two reasons.  First was that I got to be there while Michiel van der Heijden won the Under-23 World Cup overall title.  Second was that I rode at least one World Cup race in 2012 somewhere around my potential.  Both points made me feel pretty good.

Really, though, I took more satisfaction in watching Michiel over the course of the week than I did in my own relative success.  This young man has serious talent, and has his head squarely on his shoulders, regardless of his twenty years of age. 

He had a narrow lead in the overall standings with a few riders posing a serious threat to his title.  It would take a calm, smart ride to secure the Cup.

When I woke to the sound of a steady rain I was stoked for Michiel, as he’s quite good on his bike…  This might’ve been misguided on my part, as he was involved in a pair of start-lap crashes on the rain-slicked grass and settled into the second lap outside the top twenty.  Hmm. 

Having never raced at altitude (Val d’Isere is at 1,860 meters above sea level) Michiel was inquisitive as we were pre-riding about how to play it.  I told him “whatever happens, don’t go over your limit, you have to be smart and steady.”  He did just that, waiting another lap for traffic to clear before he got down to business and rode back into 5th place, with enough time to win the World Cup by 28 points.  Solid.

I tried to do the same thing, except staying in control of oneself at the start of an elite men’s race meant getting passed by the same bunch of guys who’ve been passing me on the first lap all year.  Like my U-23 teammate, I was patient and then started methodically moving through the field. 

The course was good — not great — but the sporadic rain made it more interesting and there were lots of places that being smart and efficient would gain valuable seconds.  I gained lots of them.  I rode from 67th to 26th by the finish.  Around the dinner table, the last time I’d be sat there with the Rabobank team, the boys pointed out that my last lap was 5th fastest.  Neat.  I’m still excited about moving on to different types of racing in the future, but it sure feels good to know that I can still ride at the World Cup pace, even if only for one lap per year…

I’d made Michiel a deal that if he won the U-23 title I’d let him borrow the Reign X for a little afternoon shred mission.  He upheld his part of the bargain and I was more than happy to sneak on the Gondola with him after my race, even though I was completely effed… 

We disembarked at 2700 meters in swirling mist and dropped into the most fun forty-five minutes of bike-park and pristine alpine singletrack I’ve enjoyed in a while.  Not surprisingly, Michiel has style for days on the big bike, he’s not a just a hardtail rider, evidently, or at least adapts quickly…  Either way, I reckon Giant Bicycles and/or the Rabobank team needs to get together to give the kid a bonus.  He’ll take a Reign X for sure.  And might just ride it in the Megavalanche someday… 

It gives me faith in the future of XC racing to have upcoming talent like Michiel on the way.  Mark my words, just like the last guy who won the junior world championship at Mont St. Anne (Julien Absalon in 1998 and Van der Heijden in 2010), this guy is going to win a lot of races in his day.  I can’t wait to see how many, and what kind…

Anyway, ‘twas a lovely two weeks in France.  I’ll be back sometime soon, I promise…