Megavalanche Virgin no more…

5am, the alarm buzzes. It’s dark, cold and thick blanket of fog hugs the van outside. I crawl out of bed; eyes barely open and get dressed. Full body armour and a down jacket. Still half asleep, I eat muesli, drink strong coffee and consider going back to bed.

After I ‘woman-up’, I gathered my kit and rode my bike to the lifts to meet my sister, who looked equally as cold and asleep. The stillness of morning was broken by the sound of the lift starting up. It wasn’t long before we got on and headed up the mountain, Pic Blanc (3330m). There wasn’t much of a view due to low cloud and fog from the day before, and plenty of snow on the top. The nervous silence in the gondola was broken when one of the other girls cracked a slight joke. There were about half a dozen of us in the lift from all over the world.

The nerves began to ease.

The start scrum

The summit was cold and cloudy. There was a two and a half hour wait before the race started, so it was time to layer up and get our heads down. The toilets were the only warm place around and were packed with women huddled up on the floor for warmth. It was a welcome place to be at the time. The odd man walked in unexpectedly, only to exit quickly with a look of fear at the hordes of female racers gathered before them.

Eventually it was time to leave the warmth, collect my bike and wait for my name to be called out ready to get in line. My qualifying run the day before had been better than expected. The qualifier started from Dôme des Rousses (2810 m) and finished in Huez (1500m).  I had a good start and no dramas overall, despite only ever having ridden the top half before. The course was fast, fun and dusty. I had a slight moment of tiredness but was spurred on by a newly made friend (who I was holding up) who cheered me on from behind and gave me that extra push to buck up and pedal harder. I felt ‘high as a kite’ when I’d finished. I felt so good; I’d survived! It was the best feeling. ITV4 even interviewed us on the finishing line. My position of 57th qualified me in line B.

Riding on thin ice - or deep snow?

So, number-by-number we laid our bikes out on the start line. The sound system was blasting out tunes that had everyone dancing and singing, making for a much more fun and friendly atmosphere than what I’d seen of the men’s race. The heavy fog and clouds weren’t lifting so the race was delayed by 15 minutes. There was very little visibility on technical parts of the track, and the helicopter couldn’t fly. A not so reassuring voice came on the tannoy to tell us this meant we wouldn’t be rescued if we were to fall off.
9:15am and it was time to get my race face on. I lost all sense of excitement and fear and felt nothing at all. The Megavalanche French techno blasted out and the adrenalin built up inside me again. It was time to race. Most people tried to head high for the rocks to keep off the snow. The first ten minutes was a blur, I don’t remember much but I know that once again I got a good start. But it wasn’t long before the snow slowed me down. I’ve done very little riding on snow, let alone in a mass start race at the top of an Alp and across a glacier, but off I went.

Go into the light...

There was far more snow than ideal. It was a long, hard slog too, which I either pushed or ran. When it was particularly steep I slid down on my bum, which was fast and fun. Finally the snow ended and the track became fast and rocky. I jumped back on my bike and everything was going well until I took a corner too wide and fast and got race tape tangled in my rear cassette. A marshal helped me to frantically unravel the tape, but it seemed to take forever as more and more riders passed. I began to lose my drive as the adrenalin that was pushing me slipped away. I pedalled on and caught a few that had previously passed me. This was good. I perked up again. However, technical single track and not being particularly fit didn’t always make it easy to overtake, and although most of the riders I did pass graciously let me by, some didn’t. I fell on a narrow scree part of the track and lost a few places again but jumped back on. After that it was time to pedal hard.

PIN IT!

I was exhausted from the snow making it harder work and a battle of my wits. The final hill to Alpe D’Huez was a killer for me. My thighs screamed and burned and my chest got tighter and tighter. The crowds cheered on every rider that passed but this time it didn’t help me pedal harder. I heard a few ‘awh’s’, which was slightly disheartening. I looked up to the top of the hill to where Jon was standing, camera and a can of coke in hand. My chest tightened again and by the time I reached him I was having an asthma attack, which was worsened by being momentarily stuck inside my full-face helmet. I gasped for air as Jon passed me my inhaler and it eased off. By this point, shamefully, I was in tears. I was only halfway and I felt already battered, disheartened and wanted to slip away to our van, which was tantalisingly just down the hill. Jon cheerfully told me to “go get ‘em”. At the time, I found this very insensitive and it didn’t go down well. But after ranting some obscenities at him, I furiously dragged my helmet back on and was off.

Nerves, anyone?

By this point the men’s race had begun to catch me up, but it was downhill all the way to Allemond so I kept going. I got caught between some very competitive racers and I pin-balled my way down the dusty switchbacks trying not to stop and at the same time, not get in the way. The tension between the male riders seemed to ease as we got further down and out of the switchbacks. Instead of angry shouts from behind me, there was encouragement so once again I was spurred on. Unfortunately this was a little too quick for my tired body to react to; I hit a berm, going up and over, and landing in a very large and uncomfortable pile of branches and logs. I lay on my back in agony. My bike had landed on top of me. After what felt like a long time, I raised my legs and kicked the bike in the air and off me. A spectator helped me up, I dragged my bike out the undergrowth and back on track. Onwards I went.

Emotionally and physically drained I felt my chest tightening again, my breathing amplified inside my helmet, I slowed until it passed. The rest was a stumbling blur and I was at the bottom (Allemond 850m), greeted by my brother in-law Bob. His laughing face told me he knew exactly how I felt without saying a thing. Then came another asthma attack. Bob helped me drag off my helmet and my sister (seemingly unfazed by her race) arrived and led me back to their van where I sat, head in hands, contemplating what had just happened.

Never in my life have I done anything so hard, or so physically and mentally demanding. If Megavalanche taught me one thing, it’s that I have never really pushed myself before and I’ve never realised that before. In the past I’ve climbed hard and applied myself to hard routes. I’ve ridden hard and forced myself to do technical things that I could easily have given in to. None of that compares to what I felt those two days at Megavalanche.

Another lap?

Granted, a LOT more training and fitness would have helped. I didn’t really ride my bike for a month or so before my week of training in Alpe D’Huez, and I’m certainly not my fittest by a long way. I knew it would be a mental and physical battle for me but nothing could prepare me for the actual race. However, it was all about the experience and taking part. Although initially I wasn’t pleased with my result, 67th, I have to remind myself that it was my first ever race and I made it to the finish. There are so many amazing female riders out there and I met so many lovely people that certainly made my experience at Mega, mega.

Positively, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about myself. I’ve learnt that I’m not afraid of a mass start race. I’ve learnt that I can push myself to breaking point, then a lot more. Most of all I’ve learnt never to think that ‘killing two birds with one stone’ is a good idea when combining a potentially stressful event with a family holiday.

Would I do it again? Watch this space…

Mega Kit

Bike

Choosing a bike for the race was tricky. It was between a full on downhill bike or an all-mountain. The track was less pedally than it had been in previous years (so I was told) and the technicality of it meant I needed a bike that I could manoeuvre around more than a full-on downhill bike, and one that would climb well, so I decided to go for an all-mountain bike.

Trek came to the rescue and very kindly sent me a Trek Remedy 8 just in time for our trip. As much as my forearms may have disagreed, I definitely made the right choice. The Remedy pedals really well, even without the Pro-Pedal on, and handled the technical down hill sections nimbly. I got rid of the outer big ring and added an E.13 DRS chain device and bashguard to keep the chain in place over the rough stuff. I also switched the provided Bontrager tyres for something a little burlier, namely the four ply Panaracer CG DH tyres, which were really grippy. I didn’t suffer from any punctures over the week, which is a testament to how tough they are.

Clothing

The Megavalanche race regulations state that you cannot race without a full-face helmet, elbow pads and fully fingered gloves. They strongly recommend kneepads and a long sleeved top too.

I definitely wouldn’t have done this race without body armour and I was lucky enough to be given some fantastic new kit to put to the test. Bluegrass sent me a full-face Brave, which I love. I have a pinhead and they do an extra small, which me fits great. It’s lightweight and has great ventilation. I’ve wanted to try out some Bluegrass products for a while now, so was very pleased when a box turned up. They also sent me a super comfortable Grizzly Lite D30 vest and some Bobcat knee and elbow pads. I really liked these pads and they protected me in all the right places.

Nukeproof sent me a fully armoured Critical Jacket to try out too. The jacket stayed in the right place and didn’t move around at all, it wasn’t too hot or heavy on race day either and I was incredibly grateful for it when I did a bit of body slamming with a hard bit of rock on a practice run of the qualifier. Top marks there.

The only kit that I really missed was a dropper seat post and a spare set of lungs…

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