January 24, 2019
The Central Europeans are crazy about mountain sports and for good reason. With the Alps covering an area of 298,128 km² they have an overabundance to play on! They especially love their winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding and especially for the Alpine French i could imagine they would prefer for winter to stay all year round so they could keep skiing. They also absolutely love mountain biking so what if somehow they could combine the two? Well that is exactly what they have accomplished with the Megavalanche!
The Megavalanche or just “MEGA” for short is a mass start downhill mountain bike race held annually at the Alpe D’Huez ski resort in the French Alps. This crazy racestarts on the glaciated summit of Pic Blanc at 3300 metres and descends to the valley bottom at Allemond, for a total of over 2,600 vertical meters (8530 feet) and a 20 km (12 miles) distance.
Taking place at the start of July the race is known for its exceptionally fast speeds and winding turns over varying terrain, with hundreds of riders descending the mountain all at once. With the start line being on a fully snow covered Glacier the first quarter of the race is pure slippery high speed carnage!
The Megavalanche race was the creation of mountain bike pioneer George Edwards, who was involved in creating some of the first downhill tracks in Europe. The first race, held in 1995, saw 400 riders in attendance. The race is now run by his own organisation known as the UCC.
Depending on the weather conditions the course route can vary but the main race usually takes the riders around 1 hour to compete. When putting this in the context of a standard format World Cup Downhill race riders usually complete there down hill run in a little over 3 minutes!
The race has visitors from all over the world and has over 2000 competitors split up after qualifying into 4 separate races based on the riders speed.
Places are usually limited so it is best to book entry at the start of the year. Entry costs vary depending on if you prefer to own a branded jersey etc but at around 100 euros you get a lift pass for the resort for the week up to the race so you can practice as well as entry to the qualifying race and main race. You are provided with a race plate for your bike, race number and a special tracking chip for your jersey so that your race time can be calculated so you can be placed correctly in the rankings. They also provide you with an evening aperitif and lunch!
The qualifying races are held on the Friday and are a pure rock and dust covered gnarly 20 minute downhill run. With very little sprinting and pedalling the name of the game is to qualify without a puncture! A puncture or bike failure here is a big no-no as it will knock you down severely in time as the stage is so short. For this i chose to run my heavy carcass downhill tires and heavy duty tubes and added a little extra tire pressure to avoid snake bite punctures. I chose to run my suspension softer to take this into account as the course is harsh and super jagged at the top! I chose to forgo my tubeless set up as I’m still not convinced it is ideal on sharp rocks.
Once you have your qualifying time you will be put into one of four categories:
The Amatuer races are held on the saturday with the PRO and Challenger races being held on the Sunday.
Race day is pretty intense! Due to the mass start at the top of the Pic Blanc Mountain you will need to take four ski lifts to get there and coupled with the queues it can take a few hours! Thus for the 9am start of the pro race the lifts open at 6am! You must ensure you have a few hours to reach the start of your race as i know quite a lot of people who missed theirs.
You are divided into a line depending on the number of sticker that is applied to your helmet and this is the row you start on. The start line is around 60 feet across as it is just a full width snow covered ski run down a glacier! This is a bit of a hint as to what happens when the tape goes up. The start of the race is definitely by far the most exciting as the atmosphere is electric. As a heads up to the tape going up and the race starting the obligatory deafening media helicopter arrives from below and hovers over the startline to a huge applause from the competitors. Shortly after the early 2000s techno tune that has become synonymous with the MEGA begins blaring “ALARRMAA!” in a heavy French accent and as soon as the drums kick in the tape goes up and all hell breaks loose!
Carnage at 3000m
For the riders in the front row this is go time to begin their high speed descent of the snow covered glacier with speeds exceeding 100kmph! For the riders further back this signifies usually sliding backwards down the glacier on your back hanging onto the handlebar of your bike while it intertwines with 20 other riders bikes! I think this is actually the madness and camaraderie that makes the MEGA so fun that I feel the pros miss out on.
At the bottom of the glacier once you have managed to untangle yourself and your bike you begin the long slog of half riding and half running with your bike till you get past the snow. It is at this point you start thanking global warming for having an effect this year and reducing the snow! Once past the snow you begin the long high speed descent towards the ski villages.
Like the very early Downhill mountain bike races of the early 90s the MEGA actually has a number of climbs in the route. This forces the riders to prepare as good all rounders and these days there are few if no real downhill bikes in the race for this reason. The worst is a few km long gravel road climb that is like something out of the Tour De France’s worst climbs! It is on this hill that the time is lost or won as many people discount the high altitude climb as too gruelling and choose to walk up losing valuable time. This is where the endurance aspect of the MEGA comes into play and as i chose to prepare in the months before the race for this climb I passed many riders and made up for time loss being slower on the rough sections.
One of the great things about the MEGA is the local French audience who come out in droves to support the riders by shouting encouragement, providing bottled water and of course ringing their cowbells! The French love a good underdog and should you choose to ride up the climbs you will receive rapturous applause!
Towards the bottom the course you run into the forest and it’s dust and roots. With tight corners and trees to avoid you are at the last of your energy reserves and concentration must be kept up or you could have an unfortunate encounter with a drop or tree. As you reach the finish line you can hear the audience and cheers from the already finished riders and you ride around the last corner to a huge party with free lunch and drinks! Once checking the leaderboard for your position you can rest assured the party tonight in Alpe D’Huez is going to be a big one!
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