I have a confession to make: “I raced the Megavalanche on an E-MTB.” Even as I say that, I can hear the keyboard warriors warming up their fingers for a vitriolic tirade of fierce abuse. But hold on for a second…this is no thinly veiled advertisement for E-MTBs, as I am a self-certified luddite, a steampunk…I don’t even play Pokemon Go! Hell, I didn’t get a smartphone until 2014. But are you not curious? Have you ever wondered just how far a modern E-MTB can be pushed? Where are their limits when thrown into a real battle? As I threw down the gauntlet and challenged an E-MTB to the ultimate test, there seemed one obvious race, the infamous and brutal Megavalanche in Alpe d’Huez.
The Megavalanche in Alpe d’Huez is an iconic mountain bike race; over the years it has grown into a pilgrimage for mountain bikers seeking the ultimate thrill ride. The mass-start event attracts thousands of racers annually, all keen to plummet shoulder-to-shoulder down the steep and icy Pic Blanc glacier at speeds of up to 100 kph. Beginning at 3300m, racers get a 30 km course full of snow, ice, rock, and technical singletrack. Aside from a short, lung-busting climb, most of the course would see us firmly in gravity’s grip, smashing over 25 kph and thus rending the motor useless, but this would be a test of geometry and components – not watts. It’s a brutal race that breaks both bikes and bodies…could an E-MTB survive? More importantly, would I survive?
I was here to race in the E-MTB category, now in its second year. This was also the fourth round of the UCC Moustache E-Bike Series, a race series that had already travelled from Lyon to Transvesubienne to Auron to Alpe d’Huez before reaching its final conclusion in Cervinia for the Maxiavalanche. Some of the previous rounds had required a sudoku-ninja level of strategy, while this round would simply require the ability to hang on like a chimp in a banana tree. I would be joining Moustache’s informal race team – the Collectif – riding with three very fast French racers (Benjamin Fouquet, Maxime Remy, and Vincent Jullio) on a team issue Moustache Samedi Down 27/9 race bike. While E-MTB racing is still in its beginnings and brings severe dangers, in order to gain perspective it is always best to experience it firsthand, especially in one of the world’s toughest races.
Due to work commitments, my schedule was tight. From the minute my plane touched down in Lyon there was no time to lose. It was hot as hell and a hard sun was baking the dirt – as we climbed the infamous twenty-one switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez, overtaking toiling roadies, I could see plumes of dust rising from the busy mountainside. We arrived to the melody of joyous hoots, panicked mutterings, and the sound of frame bearings beating themselves to death. The acrid smell of scorched brake pads and sweaty riders lay heavy on the air…it was good to be back in the Alps. Arriving at the pits, any worries I had about being under-biked for the race were instantly eased, as my Moustache Samedi Down Collectif was looking purposeful as hell. The 27.5” wheels were re-clothed with rugged Schwalbe Super Gravity casing tyres, and a big 180 mm RockShox Lyrik fork looked the perfect match for the super-plush RockShox Vivid rear shock. With wide, aggressive bars, it was a bike I felt I could get a little rowdy on – perfect. The powerful Bosch CX motor had been tuned to deliver maximum acceleration through the range, and punched forward with purpose; the Moustache felt every bit up for the challenge of the Megavalanche.
This was my first time racing an E-MTB in the Alps, and my first run was an eye-opener for sure! After a winter riding steep but slow Scottish trails, the full-gas runs down the rugged Alpine trails resulted in an exciting blend of too much speed immediately followed by too much braking. As smooth as a caffeine-fuelled rabbit, I buckarooed down the trail; I felt like I had forgotten how to ride. The extra weight of the E-MTB pushed me harder and faster into the turns than I was expecting, resulting in understeer and sketchy cornering – and late brake and slide tactics with a 25 kg rig are as effective as trying to stop a train by hanging off the side and putting your feet down. However, the Moustache Samedi Down had huge positives too, and not just the powerful shunt from the Bosch CX motor when charging out of turns. The bike has seriously potent geometry, the low centre of gravity providing incredible stability over broken ground and allowing the powerful 190 mm of suspension to eat up hits, holding a line through rock gardens like a Rottweiler running through a corn field.
Race day came around sooner than I was expecting, and the 5 AM alarm call that would have normally dragged me out of a deep sleep proved unnecessary. I was already awake, nervously counting cracks on the ceiling. Pulling on my back plate and full face my nerves peaked…I felt a little like a gladiator on his way to face the lions. As we made our way quietly up the mountainside, from gondola to gondola, all too soon we reached 3300 m as the lift swung to its stop – we had arrived. As we stepped onto the icy plateau, breath freezing in our lungs, our nervousness was momentarily lost as we took in the incredible vista of the sun rising over the Alps; however, anxiety came thumping back as we looked at the infamous glacier ahead. We could only see the first 20 m of ice before the slope pitched downwards and plummeted out of sight…it looked ridiculous! The E-MTB class was to be the first off. Our small band of digital warriors would be test pilots for the conditions, and it was time to race. We stood like modern-day samurai, staring as one into the abyss of the icy glacier ahead. Techno music ripped over the empty alpine void, and adrenaline surged through our fingertips as we shook with nerves. As the screams and cheers from the crowd reached fever pitch, “Alarma” rang out of the loudspeakers and the tape lifted – as one we mashed the pedals, the full ‘turbo’ power of our motors lurching us over the precipice and headlong down into the glacier.
How aggressively can you ride a modern E-MTB? It’s a question that we were answering as we barreled down the icy glacier, pushing speeds of 90 kph before charging into the rubble and debris of the lower mountainside. The Moustache Samedi Down Collectif charged through gardens of rock and boulders with great confidence; insane lines became the best lines as the powerful suspension hammered away beneath me. The long and arduous climb over the shoulder of Alpe d’Huez was dispatched in a blur of panting and powerful electrical energy, bouncing hard against the 25 kph limiter. I must admit to feeling pangs of guilt as the assembled crowd cheered me up the incline, knowing that the unmotorized racers behind me would be suffering a hell of a lot more. I felt like a superhero; electronically enhanced, I was gifted with the weight and stability of the burliest downhill bike combined with an urgency uphill that would rival the lightest of road bike exotica.[/emaillocker]
Crossing the finish line, the truth was staring us in the face: the times were in, and they were fast, damn fast! The fastest time of our wave was forty minutes, a monstrously quick time – in fact, it was the fastest time yet seen at the Megavalanche. The Moustache Samedi Down had survived the ultimate test, but more than that it had shown me how E-MTBs have shattered the age-old balance of performance versus weight. Love them or hate them, there are now no compromises: ignoring the burden of weight, components can be chosen to provide stability and performance, relying on the powerful motor to smash climbs. Lighter no longer means faster, and stability and reliability are the new superpowers.
In the pursuit of answering my initial question, I had raised another. Should E-MTBs be racing in traditional mountain bike events like the Megavalanche? No… I don’t think so. Our modern warfare had served as a novel sideshow to the main event – a snub to the spirit and physicality of the Megavalanche, and far removed from the fun and accessible spirit that MTBs promote. But I had to admit that while E-MTB racing certainly threatens the image of E-power, the Megavalanche had showcased just how capable the bikes have become, silencing those who believe that E-MTBs are not tough enough for ‘proper’ big mountain riding. Would an E-MTB survive the Megavalanche course? No – it would crush it.
For more information about E-Mountainbikes head to ebike-mtb.com!
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Words: Photos: Vincent Julliot