Somewhere in the woods, three quarters of the way down the Megavalanche racecourse, sliding down a muddy slope on my bum, dragging my bike, I reflected that this wasn't how I’d imagined my racing adventure to pan out.
The gloop encasing the wheels had stopped them turning, and the sheer volume of it had quadrupled the overall weight of the bike. I was brown top to toe, soaking wet, and very tired.
It was such a stark contrast to the elation I’d felt the day before when, in the beaming sunshine, I’d completed the qualification course riding the best I’d ever ridden in my life, alongside 60 other women.
Now in it's 20th year, the Megavalanche regularly attracts 2,000 participants. It's one of the most famous mountain bike races in the world, and for good reason - it's completely mental, but a fantastic experience!
Taking place in Alpe D'Huez, it consists of a series of races over the course of one weekend in July. The Qualification races on the Friday determine which event the men will compete in, and with only one race for the ladies, the Qualification run decides what position you will start the main Mega Lady race in. This year, just under 100 women took a place at the start line.
This isn't an event for the faint hearted under normal circumstances, but this year proved even more of a challenge. We were up against some of the worst weather to ever hit the Alps in summer. Dense fog and muddy slush replaced the blue skies and dusty trails of previous years.
The main course starts at the top of the Pic Blanc Mountain on a snowy slope, and descends all the way down to the valley bottom with plenty of technical sections and a few sneaky climbs thrown in for good measure. It’s a test of fitness and skill, and I’d spent the first part of the year trying to improve both.
A week of rain, dense cloud, and heavy snowfall on the peak combined with thousands of riders practising had totally trashed the lower part of the course. It was like a downhill Glastonbury Festival, but with bikes, less music and more swearing.
The snowfall on top meant for the women the routes of both the Qualification and Mega Lady race had to be altered. That iconic start of the snowy piste was swapped for a sleety muddy plateau, which was either a disappointment or a relief depending on how you felt about riding on snow.
The conditions were so bad that a number of people had packed up and left the sodden mountainside before the race weekend. I’d had a moment myself when I seriously contemplated backing out, but couldn’t think of a plausible way to do it other than intentionally injuring myself (a little extreme), pretending to injure myself (hard to keep up the pretence) or simply sneaking off and taking up organic farming in Peru.
So when I found myself, slightly dazed, at the Qualification start in a brief period of sunshine, I knew I had to make the best of it. Lining up alongside me were several British girls I’d chatted to online, and World Cup Downhill rider Manon Carpenter.
I’d somehow ended up in the front row, a prospect so terrifying I spent most of the countdown trying not to throw up into my full-face helmet. Then in typical, haphazard Megavalanche fashion, the intense mood lightened when a bloke decided then was the perfect moment to propose to his girlfriend, who was racing. Strange things happen at the Megavalanche.
They say the qualification course is pretty technical, and they are right. The top includes a horrifying stony section with a wooden north shore drop. Far beyond my capabilities, but easy enough to scrabble down the side of – and much easier to do in the race than it was in practice with flying mountain bikers zooming overhead and crashing all about you.
Past this and it’s technical but rideable, and I thanked my stars that I’d put in at least some groundwork as I pedalled my lungs out. Although it took me 40 minutes compared to Manon’s 20 minutes, it was over before I knew it, leaving me with an incredible sense of achievement and buzzing with adrenaline.
Contrast this with the white-blanketed start to the Mega Lady race. Everyone was eager for it to begin, but probably more so they could get out of the driving snow. The altered course followed the qualification track for the first part, and we’d all been there before so everyone knew what to expect.
The mudfest in the woods was another matter. In a race that usually takes between 50 minutes to an hour and a half to get down, I can tell you that three hours in I was still in the woods above Oz Station. I’d been alternately dragging, pushing, sliding and skidding my bike down the mountain for nearly two and a half hours by this point. It started funny, but by this stage everyone was feeling pretty hacked off. This wasn’t a race. This was ridiculous!
Bugger it, I thought. I’m going to finish it.
Thankfully the final section was more rideable. I met another girl, Josie, who cheered my spirits for the final leg and I began to get back in the swing of things.
Finally, after over four hours of what I loosely term, ‘racing’, I reached the end. As a fireman hosed me down, my achievement began to sink in. I felt more like a survivor than a victor, but that crazy race I’d been planning on doing for so long? I’d just done it
And with that, I wandered off in the direction of wine.
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