The gin was flowing a bit on Friday night after qualifying, after all, we had a day off on Saturday so we could chill a bit, just a day of sorting ahead. We hit a few bars and came across Martin Brookes (2nd fastest qualifier) who was really suffering after a couple of pints and being a non drinker, pretty funny! We went nowhere near the levels of Wednesday night’s drinking and Vini and I hit the sack, tired from the days riding.
Saturday was a much more chilled affair, a lie in then Vini and I cleaned the bikes from the day before. On closer inspection the Thomson post a seal had died, restricting its ability to hold the seat down, how fortunate I had brought the Jekyll test bike with me, time for some swapping. The weather was shite, raining again, so with no cover we decided to go up to the pits and get some help. We found help from a nice French chap called Kevin (good French name!) at Two Wheels, between us, we soon whipped out the Thomson and replaced it with the Stealth Reverb dropper, he made bleeding it look so simple.
Next up was a bike check with Karim Amour and his Lynx BH, this was done at his hotel, whilst Doc took the pics in the basement, an American rider turned up. He had just finished the Mega Challenger race, this chap looked so exhausted, he had set off at 10am and his race had taken him 4 hours, holy shit that was a much shorter track than ours, what had we let ourselves into?
Vini and I (after advice from Charlie Williams) decided to drive to where the main race would finish, leaving the van there, then getting the gratis bus followed by the gondola back up. This would mean we weren’t waiting around in the cold and rain for the bus back after the race, Charlie had said the last bus back was at 5pm. We get there just in the nick of time after the twisty 12k long drive down to Allemont, ditch the van, hide the keys and jump on the bus. Next up we get to Oz gondola station in the driving rain, its shut, oh bollox! One hour later after a lot of faffing around a taxi turns up, he already has 22 euros on the clock, he heads back down to Allemont and the meter is rising faster than an accountant’s bill. “How much will it cost back to Alp D Huez?” I ask, “85 euros” was the reply. Oh my god, that’s the most expensive taxi ever, I told him to drop us off at Allemont, where we came from on the bus, even that was 50 euros, robbing bastard! Eventually after a few phone calls my mate Hippy Rich saved the day by driving out to collect us, 3 ½ hours and 50 euros later we are back at the hotel, unbelievable!
We try and put our little excursion behind us, which had also caused us to miss the girls podium. We pop out for some fodder, then back to the hotel to get kit ready for the 6AM start. I couldn’t get to sleep for ages, the rock section and glacier going over and over in my mind, I have to admit I was concerned
6.30am, the alarm is buzzing, I look round, Vini is flat out, mouth open dreaming away, Doc in the other bed snoozing too, the idea of what we have to do today just seemed insane at silly o’clock in the morning, it was tough to haul myself out of the fart-sack and get ready for the racing. Vini and I shoot off up the road thinking we had to be at the Gondola for 7.15, we get there to find out its an hour later for our start lines, back to the hotel and we scoff brecky, as you may tell, we are really good at planning!
We get to the gondola at the correct time and it’s pretty quiet as we get aboard. I feel apprehensive, Vini is so worried he feels very sick on the way up, we swap for the next gondola, this one has a much bigger queue of riders, now it starts to feel real. 45 mins later we squeeze on the 2nd gondola, bikes on their back wheels, we line up like soldiers going to war. Luckily I have some mates from the UK on there (Aiden Bishop and Gummy) as the atmosphere could be cut with a knife, all riders mentally going over the mammoth task that lay ahead.
We get off the lift, riders everywhere, some buzzing, others looking nervous, Vini and I hit the dodgy toilet to drop the kids off at the pool then head out into the herd of racers awaiting to be lined up. We were soon called, Frenchies can never say my name right! We head down to the start area, basically a load of fat blue lines sprayed on the freshly groomed snow, Vini being row G and myself row H. Being that far back we realize we are tail enders, so much for fresh un-rutted snow. Music is playing and the cloud is low, fortunately no rain all day though. Riders are now buzzing, some jumping up and down to keep warm, we fortunately have Doc with us, he takes our jackets nearer the start time, but it aint really cold, even though its 3,300 meters high. Usual checks are done then a bit later than planned, around 10.15, the helicopter can be heard but not seen in the mist overhead, the music changes to the infamous dodgy euro Mega start tune. The last noise heard was that of the start siren and we were off.
The mass of racers urged forwards, I follow, immediately there are people going down and riders slipping all over the place. We go off the edge and the glacier steepens, there are so many ruts, I’m struggling to stay up but hanging on, choosing my lines as best I could. The top riders were already way off, flat out on the freshly groomed snow, things were so different at the back. Bodies were flying everywhere, riders were going down like fat Jordie girls on a Saturday night, it was insane. I get near the first corner and bosh I’m over the bars, back up and the rest of the glacier is just a total nightmare, I can’t ride it, too many ruts. I was literally feeling like I had learned to ride a bike that day, it ruined my mind just how shit I was in the white stuff. The snow just seemed to go on forever, I was riding some bits, pushing others, my lungs already not allowing me to give it full beans, I longed to see rock!
Finally the dark of the rocks were in view, my goggles had already had all the tear-offs removed and now I took them off, as they were steamed up and useless. I try to nail the rocks, desperate to get some lost time and places back, but it was just no good, as soon as I get moving my lungs are complaining and my hands pump up. I end up a passenger, just like in the beginning of qualifying, hoping my body will sort itself out so I can go for it, my aggression replaced by tiredness as I ride like a following sheep. I keep it going, some of the rock sections seeming easier than when we rode them on Wednesday. I wind my way down, exhausted already, how did I suddenly become so unfit? I look ahead at the miles of tracks full of struggling riders, this thing is so tough, I wasn’t enjoying myself.
Next up was all the pedaly single-track wet bike-park stuff, my hands calm down but the lungs wont let me push hard, I trail ride stuff, not wanting to look up at the shouting crowds on the long uphill fire-tracks, ashamed at my performance. Eventually it starts going downhill again, wet clay trail stuff, but simple and ride-able, that is until we hit the wood section! There are only two words to describe this section really ‘A JOKE’ and a bad one at that.
As with most of the track, it would have been amazing in the dry, but in the wet (just like Wednesday) this was completely un-ride-able. It was thick, deep everything-clogging clay, meaning the bikes had to be pushed or carried, at this stage I was fuming with the organizers for still letting it go through this area and not re-routing. This went on and on for what seemed like an eternity, dragging down the moral of the riders (of which none seemed to be racing anymore) I heard so many complaining and swearing, at the end of their tether. The track now seemed to be a free-for-all, with dodgy lines going straight down the woods in all directions, making for locals to gain a massive advantage over the riders that stuck to the track, Some of these lines went to no-where though, as some riders could be seen pushing their bikes back up the hill. I stop pushing and carrying yet again, exhausted I pull all the mud out of my forks and swing-arm for the 10th time just so the wheels will turn. The chain is off and my C-Sixx carbon top-guide snaps as I try to put the chain back on, tools out and that ends up in my pack. The chain guide became the least of my worries, I was beyond caring, hating everything in the world for the existence of this terrible part of the course. Finally I came out into the open after probably 45 minutes of wooded muddy hell
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Things finally sped up, the bike was actually rolling out on a wide slick DH section, I finally found a smile, I had forgotten about my lungs and hands and I could ride again, but on looking down the mountain to see the finish lake a few k’s down I knew it would be too little too late. More tight wooded section appeared, this was slick and tricky, some scary, but it was such a relief to be able to ride again. The final natural wooded sections, broken up by a bit of road and open grassland were the best bits, fast, flowing and fun, but after such a long time of exhaustion it was difficult to nail it. Eventually and after what seemed like an eternity I came in, 1 hour and 48 minutes later to a terrible (in my mind) 228th overall and 23rd Master, I was miserable and ruined and can still now quite happily say I will never do it again! I went and sat in the van and slept for half an hour, waking up to Karim Amour coming over to say hello, he made me feel a lot better when he told me of how he had had to push his bike through the wood section to take 8th place and informed me it was by far the hardest thing he had ever done!
The overall winner was Pierre Charles Georges (Scott France) who rode a 650b Scott frame and fork fitted with 26” wheels and spikes for massive mud clearance, this brought him down in an amazing 55 minutes, just under an hour faster than me, I must have been right behind him! Top Brit (and such an amazing result too) was 2nd fastest qualifier Martin Brookes (Whyte Bikes) who came in 5th, only 6 minutes behind Pierre. Also a fantastic Brit result was that of Joe Rafferty (Pro Ride Guides) who came in 9th, 2 places ahead of Sam Dale (Madison Saracen), he was 5 places ahead of Emyr Davies (Ride IO Specialized Wales), Vini (SPS Santa Cruz) came in to 143rd overall and 11th Junior
Sat here now writing this in our nice warm hotel, feeling tired but clean, I think back on the week’s activities and think whether I would recommend it to others as a race to do. Although I had a few nightmares, so many riders have said to me we were just unlucky. On this the 20th anniversary race here the rain and shit took over for the first time ever, all other races here have been warm and dry and I just know lots of it would have been amazing in the dry. Would I do it again, I’ll go for a no on that one, but not because it was shite, more because I don’t think these long races suit me and there are so many epic events across the globe. I am chuffed I finished the main race, I thought about quitting when we rode near Alp D Huez, but I never would. Originally 3000 people were entered and I ended up 228th, so I suppose I should be happy about that, but as a competitive racer, when I can’t give it my all because of lungs and hands I can only be disappointed in myself. I am now hydrated again and we start the long drive home tomorrow, I can now feel the gin calling me back to say good bye to this crazy alpine resort.
Big thanks to the organizers for the support!
Words: Jim Buchanan Pics: Doc Ward, Chris Roberts