Our roving, racing, reporter Rab Wardell of the Alpine Bikes Racing team headed up to Glencoe Mountain Resort a couple of weekends ago to take part in the iXS Macavalanche. Here’s how he got on…
There are a few races on the calendar which are unmissable. For me the No Fuss Events organised iXS MacAvalanche was one of them. Starting on the piste of Glencoe Mountain Resort – one of the most beautifule places on earth on the right day – and finishing at the foot of the mountain, this has to be the premier Enduro event in the UK. This was clear when looking at the riders deciding to compete over the second round of the UK Gravity Enduro series in Coed y Brenin: Joe and Hannah Barnes, Alex Stock, Crawford Carrick Anderson and Rich Thomas to name a few. This was going to be one hell of a race!
I rocked up early on Saturday morning with Nico Baisin and Richard Bord who had made the trip to Scotland specifically to cover this race for Velo Vert magazine as part of a Scottish road trip feature. I was also reunited with my pal, and wannabe Scotsman Dave Smith, an ex-roadie now living in Paris with Nico. The ‘auld alliance’ was new once more. There was a buzz in the car park and a small but enthusiastic field of around 140 riders where raring to check out the course. On Saturday we were to check out the lower half of the course before competing in one of three heats which would decide the A, B and C finals for the following day, with the first 10 in each heat making it into the A final. The next morning we would be afforded another morning of practice, but the snow section wouldn’t be seen until the race itself! Eek.
The four musketeers (yes, that’s us – I was d’Artagnan) got out bits and pieces together, full face lids, goggles and armour (shameless sponsor’s plug here – thanks to 2pure and POC for hooking me up, even if they did try to make me look silly with a bright pink full face lid – I pulled it off though) on to hit up the two chairlifts. The second is dubbed the ‘Cliffhanger’ due to its insecurity. Once at the top it was time to scope some lines and see what all the fuss was about.
Up on the mountain side my belief that this event was unmissable was reinforced: the views of Rannoch Moor, the classic Devils Staircase and the surrounding mountains were truly breath-taking. Our photographer Richard summed this up in a sentence saying ‘I can close my eyes, point my camera, take a picture and I have postcard’. Did I mention the weather was stunning when there majority of England was warned of flooding? No, I didn’t did I. It was perfect. After a little last minute faffing, some photographs and a look at the course from above we rolled down the trail and onto the first section of ‘off-piste’ moorland.
I was in good company with Nico, a regular on the european enduro scene, with high finishes in the Megavalanche and MaxiAvalanche races. His riding style isn’t representative of what you’d imagine of a typical Parisian journo: he is pinned! Not only that but he pedals like you’d would wound him up like a clock work toy. He has no medium pace. In fact I think he might just have an on-off switch on his back…
The trail itself was pretty wild with large, open expanses of tussocky moorland and drops into surprise, wheel grabbing holes wanting to pitch you out the front door and into the bog. It was also very pedally
The trail itself was pretty wild with large, open expanses of tussocky moorland and drops into surprise, wheel grabbing holes wanting to pitch you out the front door and into the bog. It was also very pedally. Once you completed the middle section of the track (disregarding the snow for now) and arrive at the top of the first chairlift station it was onto part of the infamous Glencoe downhill track, traverse the hillside, one more potentially front wheel-swallowing moorland before a fast and rocky ride to the finish.
After morning practice we all gathered in the cafe to be told our heats for the afternoon. It was a tense moment when the names where called out. The last thing I wanted was to be called out against all the big hitters. Fortunately Fraser and his team had spread the riders out well. I was in heat two and had some time to kill before heading up the mountain to do battle. I quickly cleaned the Remedy, changed clothing and made my way to the lifts.
It was a little surreal to be heading to race by boarding a chairlift while wearing goggles, pads and hanging a 150mm trail bike to the side of the chair: I’m normally warming up in lycra with a steep angled carbon XC bike. It was refreshing to be doing something a little different. Racing would be boring if you just stuck to the same thing all the time.
The heats started above the Cliffhanger lift on a small patch of snow. The riders lined up across the snow in a motocross style, and in the 20 minutes leading up to the start everyone was looking at their line down to the track. The start would be crucial with a bottle neck through a snow rut within the first 50 meters. Soon enough the relaxed chit chat was replaced with silence and focus, and the 30 second warning was given. After a count down from five to one, the snow crunched under spiked rubber and cleats pressed into pedals we were hurtling towards that single run in the snow. I got my elbows out and opted to make my way to the main trail quickly and I was into the rut in fifth.
Carnage commenced with riders dismounting and running through the soft, knee deep snow. As I remounted my chain had unshipped and I rolled into the first steep, rocky downhill section as riders around me picked different lines and some flipped over the handlebars sporadically. I had to stop to remount my chain and shifted into a big sprocket on the rear and the big blade up front to keep the chain tight. I resumed while still in the top ten and held this position to the bottom after battling riders across the moor, trying to pick a clean line and pump for speed. The bottom section was so much fun and mega fast! I rolled across the line in 6th place feeling wrecked from only six minutes of racing. Nico had ridden in heat 1 and had also finished 6th so we would meet in the main final the following day.
The next morning I spend the majority of the day faffing around with a chain guide in the car park at Glencoe. I had made the rookie mistake of assuming it would be alright, when in fact it wasn’t alright at all. I was lucky enough that Joe Barnes from Team MTBcut had a spare chain guide and chainring and he was also decent enough to lend it to me for the race. I had to miss morning practice to finish fitting the guide.
The snow is soft and deep, and it seem that at any moment you can go from walking on the surface to being knee deep in slush.
Fast forward to the top of the cliffhanger chairlift and the top 33 riders are assembled awaiting the B final to pass from the piste and past the lift station before we could head up to the start. Some riders where practising their snow riding on the patches surrounding the mountain hut. The riders from the B final and the top ladies stream past as the rest of us watch and cheer. Once the final rider has passed we begin the final push to the start point, around 200m below the summit of the mountain. The snow is soft and deep, and it seem that at any moment you can go from walking on the surface to being knee deep in slush. I break the buckles on my XC shoes and have to make some last minute repairs.
The start gate in narrow and as the other riders arrive I try to take in the views. Everyone is buzzing, taking a quick snap on phones or trying to make sure their helmet cam is in fact filming. We’re called forward on our times from the previous days heat and most of the ‘hitters’ line up beside their bikes not on them. I see this as a little negative and mount my bike on the second row, determined to start on my bike! As the start approaches the mood changes and everyone’s ready for a race. What commences doesn’t really resemble a bike race to be honest; it’s more like the opening scene to Saving Private Ryan crossed with Cool Runnings. I manage a handful of pedal strokes before flopping over the handle bars, along with the rest of the naive riders who though beginning on your bike was a good idea. I watch the rest of the field trotting off down the mountain while I try to get back on my feet and chase.
At the first corner I glance down to see Joe Barnes quite literally pinning it down the mountain dragging a leg for stability. Some riders try to mount on this lower section of snow, but it’s so steep and the snow is so deep it looks like suicide to me. I opt for the less cool option of bounding down the mountain, generally losing my footing and falling down the hill, but I’m going fast! I come out of the snow in a good position, maybe in the first 10, I jump on my bike and realise I’m breathing out of every orifice and I have blurred vision.
I chase the riders in front, one pulls to the side and throws his bike in a rage: that’ll be a puncture then. Into the first open section and there are riders all across the track, then all aiming for the same single rut in the snow, then all over the track once more. Then a rider flips over the bars out of the blue like a jeep flipping in an A Team battle. Not long after I’m victim to a comedy crash, landing on my back in a peat bog and the rider following me has no option to join me. I can only sum this part of the race as total chaos and panic. I’ve never felt the desire to pedal so hard at bog and over tussocks purely with the aim to pass another rider. I’m so focussed on over taking the rider in front that when I see him veer off of the good line I sprint past, only to realise I’ve missed one of the nessecary gates… Ah well I need a rest anyway: I stop and let the riders pass again.
I can only sum this part of the race as total chaos and panic. I’ve never felt the desire to pedal so hard at bog and over tussocks purely with the aim to pass another rider.
Once we drop into the top of the first lift station and begin the drop into the top of the downhill track I think I’m in around 13th or 14th place. I was chasing Liam Moynihan and one of the Buchan’s and I jumped into one of the compressions a bit quick and was fired out the front door, landing on the rock track a little harder than I might have liked. Alistair McLennan passed and asked if I was alright, which I was. I was up and about with the worst dead leg in the history of dead legs. I sorted my pads out and then tried to start riding back down the hill. I had to stop a couple of times and was generally a passenger on my bike!
I rolled into the finish and there was a great atmosphere. Everyone was able to tell a tale of a crash, or a nearly crash, or of generally how nuts a race that was! I was exhausted , but still joined in the chit chat. Nico had done well and finished in 13th. The Barnes duo had swept the wins in both the ladies and gents races and defended their titles, quite a feat in such an unpredictable race!
All in all it was an amazing race and I hope to do it all again next year!
Joe Barnes – MTBcut/Orange
Greg Williamson – Team Nukeproof
Fergus Lamb – Perth City Cycles
Hannah Barnes – MTBcut/Orange
Emma Holgate – Nevis Cycles
Fiona Beatie – New Girl on the Block!
David Christie – I Cycles
Martin Daun -Team Spooky
Tom Young – www.bigmountainscotland.com
James Orr – Flowtech Suspension
Keir Coupland – No Fuss Race Team
Jonathan Sunter – Leyburn Bikes
Thanks to Richard Bord for allowing us to use his stunning photography, No Fuss Events and iXS Sports Division for putting on such an epic event, Arnold Clarke for helping out our Musketeers with a van to get about in at the very last minute, 2pure and POC for sorting Rab out with protection and Alpine Bikes Racing for their support.