Online Feature: The iXS MacAvalanche

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As concepts go, it’s a simple but harebrained one. Take a hundred odd riders 700m up to the top of a snow covered mountain in a helicopter, start them off at the same time and then see who gets down to the bottom fastest. Easy.

Organised by No Fuss Events, the crew behind the equally mental Fort William Endurance Downhill race, the race was held on the slopes of the imposing Meall a’ Buiridh at Glencoe Mountain Resort near Fort William in the Scottish Highlands.

The format has been done over in Europe, where insanity bubbles that bit closer to the surface, but the iXS MacAvalanche was the first time a Mega Avalanche-style race has taken place in the UK.

Web boy Jon took a long drive up North to take part and this is his story, so sit down, get comfy and spend a bit of time reading…

Racers, meet snow... Pic by Michael Bonney - www.orangebikes.co.uk

“It might have been a race but the whole event was much more than that. The word ‘experience’ is overused, but I doubt that anyone that took part will forget it in a hurry. It was bonkers.

I’d been up to preview the course a while back and to be honest, having seen the course first hand didn’t do anything to calm the nerves when the email came through saying I’d been selected to race. Last time I’d worn most of the clothing I’d owned and still come within touching distance of hypothermia while standing around – and the sheer amount of ice and snow had made riding a bike quite tricky.

Happily, the recent sunshine had meant the snow had retreated up to just the highest reaches of the mountain – but this had made fresh problems for organisers No Fuss as the plan to take entrants bikes to the top in piste-bashers was now off and the snow was soft, to say the least.

This being Scotland – minus the torrential rain – I’d originally planned to wild camp, but after Dave from Orange warning me to be careful (be careful of what?) the thought of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ style experiences was well and truly planted in my mind, I headed to the percieved safety of a small campsite near the Claichaig Inn for a small sleep in an even smaller tent.

Someone's happy...

Sign on was from 7.30am and at the visitor centre the atmosphere was already buzzing. Lots of nervous faces and lots more excited ones too. The plan was that once we’d signed on we’d take our bikes up on the chairlifts as high as we could go and then we’d have to carry them up to the very top of the ridge where the race would begin. The first chair was fine – bike rack, safety bar, all mod cons – but the second, the ominously named Cliffhanger, was little more than a wooden slatted chair hung from a piece of wire. Taking a bike up on it involved perching your bike on your lap and letting the hard metal bits sit in your lap to stop it moving. All made harder if you’re trying to take the odd photo too…

All in all, it was a bit of a relief to start to final half-hour push and carry up to the top – it was also the first time any of us had seen what we’d be racing on. The course hadn’t been marked to prevent any pre-event cheeky practise and riding the course was banned on the day – so the first time we’d be riding it would also be the last.

The course was sparsely marked, poles and tape marking the boundaries, which left line choice an entirely freestyle affair – not that line choice would really be possible when you had a score of riders in front and behind you all aiming to get past each other. Going where you could would be the order of the day.

Crevasses were waiting to catch the unwary...

Seeing the soft snow, mini crevasses big enough to eat a front wheel, slime covered rock, hidden dips and solid tussocks that’d make up the course, my mood turned to surviving the event unbroken rather than gunning for any sort of result at all. Others started to mention body armour and I was rather glad I’d brought my lightweight 661 armour jacket and knee pads but I was still wishing I’d brought the full suit of armour – and possibly some chain mail.

Being some of the first to the top we put our bikes in what we thought would be prime spots and then headed down, which took the best part of two hours and mostly involved people falling over – on wet grass, on wet snow and wet rock. That said, the course was overwhelming dry, especially the lower half and I mean dry in a normal sense, rather than just dry for Scotland.

With massive blue skies, just enough wind to keep the midges away and warm sunshine my nerves were slightly soothed – and better than all that, I had a plan. Survive the top section and then, once the proper on-bike riding started, pedal like a lunatic and try and make up plenty of places. I’d take my chances on straightlining the tussocky bits and try my best to remember which side of the track I should keep to at different points – not easy when the whole course was estimated to take about 15 mins at race pace.

Although some riders had come tooled up with downhill bikes I was quite glad I’d gone for the 160mm option – and an uppy downy post would be invaluable on the long and pedally mid section. There’s always a couple who have to be different and to that end Iain from Hard Tail Nation had borrowed someone else’s singlespeed jump bike to do the race on. Apparently the high BB would make it perfect and there was no mech to rip off. Bonkers.

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