Running with the Wolves: Megavalanche 2015

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Michael Hayward goes to Megavalanche and survives the madness of riding flat out down snow banks and gravel the size of your head on a very big mountain. Check out his blog over here for more of his Euro racing odyssey.

Megavalanche has a reputation as a must do for mountain bikers. I had no real interest in it: the risk to reward looked well off for the clinically sane. So why was I at the back of the lynch-mob that is a Megavalanche qualifying heat, sweating profusely under the relentless French sun? Some things have a gravity of their own and can’t be avoided. It seemed I was running with the wolves.

Looking about I felt underprepared. The vicious bastards all around me were armoured up and ready for battle: big full face helmets, chest protectors, long thick jerseys, elbow and knee pads. Many had reflective goggles on, blocking out the whites of their eyes. They looked like riot police ready to go into a brawl – which is essentially what a mega qualifier is. I felt flimsy, pale and exposed compared to this show of protective might. My thin short sleeved shirt and tattered knee pads seemed vastly inadequate. I was going to be mown down and turned into many pounds of mincemeat by this frothing, depraved rabble. The helicopter was going to have to come and scrape up my pieces after the mob was done. I pitied the surgeons who would have to reassemble me like some huge, fleshy puzzle.

The field at Mega can be loosely divided into two categories: the Real Bike Enthusiast, fit and capable in the face of the rigours to come, and the Punter, the vast majority who ride bikes occasionally for fun and enter only this race because of its mystical and unique status in mountain bike culture. The latter category vastly outnumbers the former.

An important and growing subset of the Punters is the Brit on tour. These are generally middle aged men away for a boys week. They roam in packs. They are here to leer at fit young French women in short shorts, drink too many lagers and get well out of their depth on the mountain bike track. When riding a qualifier their saggy beer-belly peeks out below their chest protection and there is a barbarous look of brutality in their red piggy eyes. While not a true threat to the overall position of the Real Bike Enthusiast, they can cause real trouble in the mass start, when the bloodlust and mob violence of the situation fills their black hearts to overflowing. I can’t speak too poorly of them, because they must also help subsidise the entry.

Unless you’re a pro or a veteran of Megas past, your position in seeding is randomly determined: the further forward you are in your heat, the better your chances of finishing in the top 35 and qualifying for the main show. However, if you don’t get away clean from the front row, there are masses behind you seeing red and looking to ride over you until you’re a thin paste coating the gravel. I was number 121 in my heat, the last row, which meant I had a minimum of 86 places to make if I wanted to join in the mayhem of Sunday’s main event. I had to cut through these armoured lunatics like wire through soft cheese, a big ask. A strong start would be crucial.

Well a strong start was not what I got. The tape dropped and 130 perspiring mad-men all went for the same foot wide inside line into the first corner. From the back it was a pipe-dream and I should have bided my time. But idiot I am, I went for it like everyone else and got caught up in the savagery and general unpleasantness of the mass start. Think dust and metal, swearing and elbows. The result: I went down like a drunk in a swimming pool.

After that the red mist came down. I recall passing hordes of people on the gravel road switchbacks at the top, drifting into corners, barely controlled, spraying others with loose rock, sliding in close enough to bump elbows. I remember rolling over jagged shelves of slab rock off the brakes, pulling up and hoping for no front wheel haters on the other side. A brutal gravel road climb had me sucking in more dust than air and feeling my lungs coming out my mouth. Into the singletrack we went with no visibility, sandstorms coming off each riders tire and coming to rest in my exposed weeping eyes. Mindless rock reached out to bite tires and rims like zombies after flesh and brains. People were having fantastic crashes in the rocky corners, sending bikes and limbs flying into the ride line. Loose baby heads lurked in the dusty maelstrom, claiming victims.

The hands had begun to hurt just as a traverse appeared, another chance to bury myself. The whole time there was yelling: to pass, in fear, from anger. A scene of chaos. Across the road the track pointed down again, finally flowing. A series of small booters were sent to nothing, tiredness making some head-nodders. Suddenly we were in Alpe d’Huez village, giving it for one final pedal into the cage at the finish.

And then it was over. The sudden calm would have been better if there was any way of getting more oxygen in. The qualifier is just over 20 minutes but it feels much longer. Everyone at the bottom looked absolutely glazed. There was plenty of blood around but now no one actively hunted for it: the Megavalanche madness had worn off. Snarling savages transformed back into normal people after the deed was done. Some had pushed too hard: there was thin, watery vomit on the ground. Some didn’t make it to the bottom at all.

The toll isn’t just people. When I looked over my bike that night it was a mess: bars and stem no longer straight, gear cable snapped, chunks missing from my grips. This is Getting Off Lightly: through Mega week, the free campsite under the lift is always full of people rebuilding wheels, replacing tires, realigning derailleurs – trying to keep their broken metal pony’s clear of the glue factory.

The qualifier results were released quickly, and I was shocked to find I had ended up 18th – an improvement of 103 places on my start position. I was in the main show. There was also a lot of fear with this discovery, which would grow over the next two days. I now had to survive the perverse scenes of the glacier mass start.

Which leads to a question worth pondering: how has the Megavalanche survived for so long? This was the 21st iteration of Megavalanche. The event has been going since 1995 (as a side-note, the mens has always been won by a Frenchman). It has a reputation as a real brute, a no-holds barred brawler, a bone-breaker. You see it throughout the week. The rescue helicopter is constantly buzzing overhead, efficiently carting the latest victim down to the sickbay for a patch-up. I know people that have broken legs, arms, wrists and collarbones, dislocated shoulders, punctured lungs, and cracked multiple ribs at the Mega. This isn’t considering the minor injuries: the stitches, the bruising, the gravel-rash. Mountain biking is an inherently dangerous sport. There’s always going to be a bit of this anywhere riders congregate and push themselves. But is it a good idea to throw a mass start and an incredibly steep glacier into the mix? How has this madness been allowed to continue?

I don’t know, but I’m glad it has. It feels like everything in this world is working towards safety and homogeneity. At the same time there are increasing entry restrictions to do just about anything: you need to be experienced, you need to be qualified and competent. While this is fine, for some it waters things down a bit. That’s why its great that there is still room for a real monster like the Mega: it’s a chance for people to get out of their depth, feel fear down to their central marrow and piss in the face of grave risk. We get these chances less and less, but I feel they are not only important but also fun. It’s a great way to know you’re blood’s still working, to feel it surge all through your body.

Mega day. It’s an early start. The gondola began to load at 6am, 3 hours before the main show. Even then there was fear in the air, tangible and greasy. It thickened the further up you got. By the glacier it was hard to move through the stuff. By the last gondola I was looking for any excuse to be somewhere else. I have never paid to participate in anything I wanted to do less when the time came, an unusual feeling. I didn’t want to be there and I didn’t have to be, but I still was, and by choice.

After hours queuing or riding the two long gondolas to Pic Blanc, we were herded into the flat patch at the summit and left for a half hour to stew in our own juices. Megavalanche is a great leveller: it’s the only time I have seen fear emanating from pro and punk in equal measure, because the start of this race contains so much uncertainty, and yet is so critical to a good performance. Bad enough to be hitting 100km/h down a steep slope of ice, but why does there have to be 350 other screaming banshees on bikes just waiting to catapult themselves into my fleshiest parts? And why are there so many wicked rocks showing through the patchy snow this year?

There’s one noteworthy Mega tradition. Right before the start, a depraved piece of Techno from the 90’s attacks riders eardrums. The tracks is called Alarma, by a band called 666, and even the mention of it is sure to loosen the bowels of a Mega survivor. Midway through the music reaches a frenzy, and it’s then that the tape drops and the madness begins.

What follows is an absolute circus. It’s an indescribable scene, and a hard one to process when you’re right in it’s midst. It took a long time to get to the start line from row F (row 6 of 11), and it’s tooth and claw the whole way. Then we dropped steeply into soft snow already littered with bikes and bodies, trying to avoid the worst of it while holding some speed. After crossing a band of loose baby-head rocks (every mountain bikers favourite!) there was some firmer snow and it became possible to actually ride the bike a bit. But by then there was too much speed for the right hander, for you or another out of control wolverine. Remember we were jostling with hundreds of other frothing thugs this whole time. It was an inevitable pile-up.

The scene repeats itself with depressing regularity the whole way down the snow. In mid pack, even if you did everything right, there were loose cannons everywhere waiting to take you out. Crashing was compulsory.

After a left hand turn, riders got to enjoy the steepest section of the glacier. This is true terror. The rule for this section is to never let go of your bike. Never. Not under any circumstances. If a red hot disc rotor from somebodies stray wheel severed your hand at the wrist, cauterising the wound instantly, then the expectation is that the severed part would still be clutching the bar in a death grip at the bottom of this icy chute of doom. Otherwise you haven’t done Mega right.

When I got to here it was a mass of fallen bodies. Riding was impossible. I’m not an evil enough bastard to run people over in cold blood, so I took a moderate approach: I rode until about to hit someone, then ditched off and slid for the remainder, aiming to come to a complete halt before the stretch of rocks at the bottom. There is no way to self arrest in this section. I had tried during practice, and a combination of elbows, knees, heels and handlebars digging into the ice did nothing to stop my uncontrolled slide. Anyway, I did get to the bottom okay, only running into a few bikes and bodies, but unfortunately my derailleur didn’t fare so well. She was broken, and therefore my race was broken too. I attempted trailside repairs but they wouldn’t take. I was stranded without a drivetrain.

But what the hell. Finish the thing anyway. By then I was right at the back. The only people around me were the unskilled, the broken, and the plain unlucky. But to some extent your race is done when you get off the glacier anyway. It’s the most crucial part. As long as you stay good from there, the next 35 minutes are to some extent filler. That’s why qualification is so important: a front row start means there’s much less mayhem to navigate at the top. You can get away clean. Of the top 30 finishers this year, only 7 did not have an A row start. From the top ten, this drops to only one, Jamie Nicoll, who started in B and ended up 7th.

From the glacier onwards, Mega is a proper all mountain race. There are lots of nice chunky rocky bits, some fast flowing bits, some alpine sections and wooded fun. There is also a lot of pedalling, or in my case running. However there’s little that really separates this part from other races so I won’t bother with detail here.

I finished. Mega had firmly beaten me but I was glad I didn’t let it win. Due to circumstance I didn’t get the feeling of elation or reward I was hoping for at the bottom. However, when looking at the week at a whole I had a great experience. I would definitely come back, despite the risk, the stress and the great fear. It’s one of a kind. I’ve caught the disease. I had survived the wolves.

A bonus treat! It’s Jamie Nicoll’s glacier run from this year (above). I perked it from youtube. He’s harder than very hard nails, as you’re about to see.