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Mediocre to Mega: From Rain Goddess to Mountain Queen (Sort of)

Deputy editor Aoife is taking on the Megavalanche, a mass start MTB race in Alpe D'Huez. Follow her journey as she gets herself ready for the challenge of a lifetime.

I was beginning to think my Mega training was a bit jinxed. At the rate my mountain bike riding was progressing, I was worried I’d have only ever walked down mountains come the Megavalanche. The worries were even invading my dreams, where I start off, realise I can’t ride ANY of it, and have a long and very embarrassing walk to the bottom.

[Not sure what I’m talking about? Check out my first post about what the Megavalanche is, and why on Earth I’m planning on doing it!]

Don’t get me wrong – I see no problem in walking sections I’m not sure about, particularly when riding things blind. I’m the kind of rider that prefers to have a bit of a gander and assess the route rather than just throwing myself over things. I do often wish I were more gung ho, but I’m just not built that way.

But my first two attempts at riding on actual mountains have been, quite literally, a washout. The first attempt on Snowdonia didn’t happen at all, as you could barely see the mountain was there at all, let alone ride on it.

I’m sure the added weight of water in my shoes affected my climbing ability.

So I booked another weekend, this time up to the Lake District, to do a big long ride out from Staveley and back over the well-known Nan Bield Pass. Everything was set; lovely accommodation in the Eagle and Child pub, packed lunches ready to go, rucksacks packed with the various bits and pieces you need for a day on the mountain. I was ready.

I traveled up in glorious sunshine on the Friday, but you can imagine what greeted my eyes when I looked out of the window on Saturday morning.

Rain. Low cloud. General gloom. Sigh. The previous weekend had been glorious.

I was beginning to feel like the character from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy who is always, always rained on. It turns out he’s a rain god, and the little rain clouds love following him and raining on him. Was I the same? Doomed to only ride in dripping wet kit?

But it wasn’t quite as bad as Snowdon, and I really really needed to try and get a big ride in, so out I went.  And actually on a lot of counts it was really good fun.

The fact that I’d been regularly riding to work and back was clearly beginning to pay off, as I managed the long uphill start section okay. At the top of the first climb the visibility was pretty low, and where usually I’d be able to triangulate where I was on the map using surrounding mountains and lakes, I couldn’t even see 20 feet in front of me so the going was slow and careful.

After feeling fairly certain I’d gotten completely lost, I dropped down into a valley to find I was exactly where I need to be. Time for lunch, and the second of the three big climbs of the day.

This one started off okay; up a bridleway at the valley floor. Then it turned into a rocky, steep, cobbled path, and so commenced a fair amount of pushing the bike up the hill. I only seem to be able to do this with the bike to my right; does anyone else have that?

There was an awful lot of water falling from the sky. It wasn’t so much that the rain was hard, as that it was relentless. Even a great pair of Sealskinz socks and gloves, which held up admirably for 4 hours of constant precipitation and puddle immersion, eventually gave up as water flowed down through the arm and leg openings. They did keep me warm even though they were wet, thank god. I am not good company when I have cold hands.

Eventually, I reached the top to a spectacular view of bugger all. Apparently there was a beautiful lake at the bottom. Still, at least it was downhill!

Apparently there’s a lake down there somewhere. And more mountains.

And actually, it was also a very good downhill for practising on. It’s a wide path with lots of loose rocks, gravel and tight switchback turns. Exactly the type of terrain I am terrible at riding.  Also exactly the type of terrain I was likely to meet on the Mega, so it had to be done.

The start wasn’t so good, as I completely failed to turn the first two corners, choosing instead to run (extremely slowly) off the side then get off to turn my bike. This was completely rubbish, and I had to sort it out.

I knew that I could do this, I had the skills, it was just something in my head stopping me. So I came up with a new strategy; I literally talked myself down.

If you’d been up on the mountain that day, what you would have seen was this: A bedraggled mountain biker in soaking kit (chamois and all), inching painfully slowly down the mountain on her bike, and shouting random phrases such as ‘Elbows out, Aoife! Elbows out!’ ‘Look up! Look up! Look up!’ and ‘Turn now! Do it!’.

Something like the mountain biking equivalent of Father Jack, I reckon, but hell it worked. I picked up speed, and made it to the bottom having ridden the whole way. Go me!

It wasn’t over yet though. Time for a quick snack, eaten hidden behind a stone wall for a bit of shelter, then off up to the Nan Bield Pass itself. Up is the operative word here, as it starts quite steep, and then gets steeper. By the last section we were literally carrying the bikes on our backs and climbing up the mountain. I was soaking wet, tired, and actually having a brilliant time.

I absolutely love being out in the middle of the mountains, and so long as I’m not too cold, I can deal with being soaking wet. It just makes getting changed into dry clothes, or even better jumping into a hot bath, all the more wonderful. It was the thought of both of those things that helped get me up that mountain.

The high swiftly turned to a low. At the top, there was no respite; in fact the wind and rain were worse than ever, the visibility terrible, and the trail was a river. And so I ended up walking most of the way back down. Even the flatter sections had muddy grass that was more slippery than a lubricated eel. I did try to ride a bit, but by now tiredness was kicking in too.

I actually got quite down about it, and may have had a little cry, which luckily nobody could notice amongst the rain. Even though I had managed a challenging section earlier, that was all forgotten and the same thoughts kept going round my head; you can’t ride this, you can’t ride the Mega, you’re going to embarrass yourself.

The bright lights of the Eagle and Child Pub. A sight for sore and weary eyes if ever there was one

I’m not sure what the cure for this is, other than getting down the mountain, making sure you’ve eaten enough, keep warm and remembering that one off day does not reflect the entirety of your riding ability. I’m still working on the last one.

Eventually, I made it to that hot bath. Sitting in the lovely warm bubbles, with the mud soaking out of my pores, I felt better. Nan Bield may have got the best of me for now, but in the words of the Terminator, I’ll Be Back.

Like this? You might like these too.

Want to see what the Megavalanche is like? Pro rider Hannah Barnes Rode the Megavalanche in 2013.

Ever wondered what happens at a Fitness Test? Find out in Mediocre to Mega: Fighting Fit (Or Not).

Fancy venturing away from trail centres and trying natural terrain? Here are the Pros and Cons of Natural vs Trail Centre Trails.

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