”Nope, definitely not racing
I have spent the last year smugly saying that after working at Megavalanche as a mechanic there’s no way I’d race it. I was so confident that I wouldn’t be racing that I didn’t even feel the tingle of excitement when I took a picture of Josh pointing at Pic Blanc from one of the hills in Les Deux Alpes, I was still very confident I wouldn’t be racing when I laughed and screamed in delight as I slid my way down the glacier and let the bike fly coming down the singletrack from the peak. When I rode the middle third of the race course, dropping into Oz I was beginning to get fomo at the thought of not riding it again until after 2.5k riders had raced it, but I was here to work and I didn’t fancy breaking my bike, so that was fine.
”Josh is racing there, I'm not 😉
Turning up for work the next morning and watching the riders arrive to catch the DMC up to practice the qualifying track my mind began to wonder and before I knew it, the unthinkable thought had entered my head. Suddenly, racing the Mega was the only thing I could focus on. How on earth could I let two of my close riding buddies from the UK race and not be up there with them. I love steep, rocky, gnadgery, loamy trails and this was those on steroids! So what that I was working when qualifying happens or that I was riding the 21-bend Alp d’Huez road climb on the Friday night when we had to be at the lift to go up for racing at 6am the next morning, I NEEDED to be in that race!
Thankfully the race organisers didn’t mind me racing on the proviso that I agreed to go last. It may seem that not riding the qualifying race was a lucky option but after a week of working long days, riding in the evenings and generally burning the candle at both ends there was no physical advantage – my body was definitely in sub-optimal state. As if to make sure of the fact, riding the famous road climb for Chain Reaction Cycles totally finished off my legs less than 12 hrs before the race.
However, what I hadn’t bargained for was the psychological impact of not riding quali’s and not riding the techy trails in general during the days leading up to the race. My confidence and excitement began to wain as I watched everyone coming down increasingly buzzing and full of camaraderie and stories of the epic quali track. Over recent months I’ve learned a great deal about my brain and my racing in general I chose to view my anxiety as excitement and trust that once I was up top I’d be able to enter the race zone and focus. I literally shut out the negative chatter in my head and remembered how I’d felt at various races over the last few years.
The Mega has become so popular that it is in effect 7 different races held over 2 days. Each night the piste bashers go up the glacier and groom the track, making it crisp and flat again. We were the second race off after eBikes, meaning that I was going up to Pic Blanc with my friend and Mega-housemate Nathan who races for Vitus. Congregating at the bottom of the DMC lift in the blue-grey light of dawn the cold quickly began to seep into our bones.
The race was still 3 hours away so we were strangely calm. To get to the top of the glacier you take two sets of lifts – DMC to the second station and then change onto a larger gondola for the final steep ascent. Lined up facing each other, with bikes on their rear wheels, the pre-race giggles got me as I realised that we looked like participants in some bizarre form of country dancing. My good friend from home Renee was one side of me and new kindred spirit, Nicky, the other as we stepped onto the lift. With strong winds that morning, the lift was buffeted as we ascended to the peak, but soon enough we were lining bikes up on the top and looking for shelter. Nathan was already there and we joined him in the stinking toilets to huddle and avoid the icey blast outside.
”Some of the girls, waiting to go up at 6am - 52 women entered this year!
A combination of the cold wind and early start meant that racing was delayed in the hope that the piste would soften. Flanked by home-riding buddies, Renee and Daisy, we hugged each other to keep warm and reduce nerves. Before long we became an international huddle of female mountain bikers like penguins closing ranks against the elements. Nicky raised her head, laughed, and announced that the collective noun for a group of female mountain bikers is a cuddle! Between cuddles and dancing we kept warm and agile until it was time to move to the start line.
I still need to learn to focus in the final couple of minutes before a race and in the exotic conditions of the top of the Saranne black ski run I really was not in the zone at all. I was simply there having fun with my friends, waiting to try my luck at riding a bike down a glacier. Dance music pumping, we were hyped when the horn blew for the start.
At the back of the pack I watched as everyone charged ahead. My plan was to ride tripod, as much as possible with legs out either side, as much as I could so I didn’t lose energy falling and getting up again – after the climb my legs felt like lead and breakfast was already 4 hours ago. Things started well and I made it halfway down the first slope before slewing off to the left and getting caught in the melee. Frustratingly I didn’t follow part two of my ice-riding plan which was to stay down and slide once I was down and lost time faffing on the rocks.
Back on the bike I made it round the corner, where one of the ebikers had spectacularly wiped out earlier in cartoonesque crash of cartwheeling legs, arms and bike! Thankfully he’d not been badly hurt. Miraculously missing an abandoned ebike mid piste I hurtled along with Daisy and Renee screaming and laughing just behind. At the top of the final steep section Daisy sat down and sledged beside her bike, while Renee and I decided to take the longer but slightly more gentle slope to the right. My race brain was beginning to kick in and I knew that taking that route might be faster in the long run and would conserve more energy. Reaching the bottom and catching up with Daisy I began to feel my competitive nature come through. I was here for fun but I really wanted to ride my best.
I was clearly still not thinking straight after the madness of glacier riding and was frustrated to miss lines that I’d ridden the first time I took the trail, meaning I ended up walking sections. Forcing myself to calm down and trying to get my breathing under control I began to focus more and felt my bike begin to sing. The top sections of trail are so technical that the only way to ride them is with trust and faith – let go of the brakes and look at your destination, your body and the bike will do the rest. Before I knew it I was cresting the big rock section and about to join the exposed single track that wound round the mountain and back towards Alpe d’Huez. The other side of the rocks I saw a young British girl I knew sitting on the edge, clearly in pain. I couldn’t help myself and reverted to being a Mum, my offer of food was refused (why do I always offer food in times of crisis?!) but a hug was warmly accepted and we spent several minutes hugging and chatting before I hopped back on and carried on. The hugs had helped me too and I found myself focused and digging deep to make up for a shoddy start.
Pushing as hard as I could I traversed the mountain, loving every minute of the riding. I spotted a rider up ahead and decided that although I was tired, I needed to catch her on the traverse as the trails were tight and steep from there on. Regretting not eating while we were waiting at the top, I opened my nearest pocket and found some iced gem biscuits. Shovelling them in I grinned to myself as I remembered Laura finding them that morning and handing them over. Turns out they were not the best race fuel as I felt decidedly ill cranking my way up the hill from hell after the Chain Reaction Cycles mechanic point. This is the worst section for riders, but the easiest access point for spectators which meant that when you needed it most you were surrounded by cheering and calls of allez, allez, allez! Spotting friends along the way, I was surprised but grateful to find a French rider running alongside me filming my torturous ascent. The thought of it being on video made me dig deeper and resist the urge to stop and vomit. Ahead of me the rider I was chasing was receiving a push from her boyfriend, which gave me the final impetus to overtake her the minute we made it to flat trails again.
In my mind the section down to Oz was the middle of the race and I found the strength to keep pushing, despite the tiredness from concentrating so hard. Steep and tight, the first section takes you straight down the side of the mountain before you enter the woods and endless off camber, rooty runs. With a random male rider on my tail – I’m still not sure if I imagined him to be honest, because I never saw him again after the woods – I glued my eyes to where I wanted to go and flew down the hill. A tight left hander which had left me hugging a tree earlier in the week was easy in the midst of race fever and I grinned from ear to ear as I made my way down. Breaking out of the woods it was time to blind ride the final third of the race. I’d heard that there were some cheeky uphill transitions in this section but nothing had prepared me for the dragging climbs through town. The unbelievable descents made up for it and for I lapped up the exhilaration of riding at what felt like warp speed, with no idea what I was riding across. I caught up with another rider and overtook her on the downhill, before she cheekily caught me on a climb. From there on I was determined to catch her again before the end of the race. Mission accomplished I had another rider in my sights but the end came too soon and she finished a few seconds ahead of me.
Coming through the finish line I spotted Daisy’s partner Mark and slumped on my bars in front of him. Renee came through shortly after and Daisy just behind that. The three of us had done it! Pride and exhilaration don’t come near to describing the emotions at finishing the Mega. We were on top of the world and I would have gone and done it all again if I could.
My roadtrip buddy, Josh, was racing half an hour after me so when the others headed home I soaked up the atmosphere and waited for him to come in. Now a good friend, Josh was the bike guide when I first started riding, so it was incredible to be out here with him racing and riding together. Watching him come through the finish line was amazing – we’d done it! We’d both raced the Mega and survived, time for a beer and croque monsieur while we hoped the queues for the bus back to the ski lifts would die down. They didn’t!
Less than 24hrs after the race, the elation was still there but the focus on next year’s race had already surfaced. Josh and I will race it again and we know what we’re going to do differently! Thank you so much to everyone at Chain Reaction Cycles and the UCC Megavalanche team who made it possible for me to race this year. I loved every single second of the 1hr 29mins it took me to ride it!