Meggie Bichard is a vet by New Zealand summer and a pro MTB racer come the European summer, racing on board her Auric for Fuji Bikes she will be at each and every EWS this year. Here Meggie tells us all about Madeira from her point of view, crashes, cliffs, injuries and all.
Round 3 of EWS was held on Madeira, which is a Portuguese Island stuck out in the Atlantic, off the West African coast. As you fly in you suddenly see towering cliffs emerging from the sea, even the airport itself is perched on the edge protruding into the sea.
At 800km square and taking around 4 hours to circumnavigate by car the terrain varies from open moorland tops to rainforest to sun drenched rock. The main industry on the island is tourism – classically catering for the ‘newly wed or nearly dead’ but over the last few years the biking on the island has been increasing at a rapid rate as old hiking trails are opened up and new lines built. It’s now a popular place for Europeans to go for winter sun and riding.
Arriving a few days early we took the opportunity to explore and ride in the West. This felt wild and windswept and had great riding in between the bracken, Eucalyptus and open tops. The soil ranged from hero dirt to ‘black ice’!
For the race we were based in Machico on the supposedly dry, South Eastern end, but as seems to be the theme of this years’ EWS we had rain soaked trails leading up to and including practice. This was not ideal as the clay heavy soil created conditions slick enough to put you on the deck before you knew what had happened. I, along with the majority of the field it seemed, found the conditions difficult. You know how some trails make you feel like you’re a hero? Well in the wet these were the complete opposite!
To add to the difficulty factors, most of the riders were practicing the same stage at the same time so there was a lot of carnage. On day two of practice I hit a bike that had slid onto the trail and was powerless to prevent a head on with a tree. It turned out not to be a major but it didn’t help my confidence.
Come race day the clouds which had been clinging to the mountain tops lifted briefly giving us stunning views of sheer cliffs and deep valleys running into the sea and to everyone’s relief the rain held off. Stage 1 was physical containing approximately 12 minutes of sustained efforts with a series of slick clay switchbacks to finish. There were a few innocuous jumps, one of which took my partner, Ed Kerly, out of the race. He was caught out by a patch of clay as he approached the take off and hit the ground just before going over the lip. He badly sprained his ankle and needed to be helped off the course.
Stage 2 was a shorter stage with some punchy peddling and the odd polished rock feature to navigate – one of which had claimed a friends’ collarbone in practice.
Stage 3 was epic, if you’ve ridden Nydia track in NZ the top half of the race run was similar to this, but with more gradient and slick clay dragged across the rocks. There were sections of decent exposure which caused controversy with a lot of racers arguing it was not safe to race. Fortunately no one fell off the cliff. The lower section opened out and became drier with some dirt you could actually lean on. By this point my arms were pumped and I was struggling to hold on, I knew if I could let the bike go it would become smoother but I really didn’t trust my grip to hang on. I pulled over as World Cup DH rider, Miranda Miller, stormed on by. I tried to follow and was pleased to keep her in sight for a few corners. By the last couple of turns I was blown and thankful to see the finish line!
We then had a 2 hour transition including a lunch stop to the next stage. Traversing along a ‘levada’, which is a small waterway which litter the island- used for transporting the water from the wet to dry side of the island. Then on up a steep road which also seems to be a feature of the island!
Stage 4, final stage of the day and this one was dry! However it was significantly blown out with multiple holes appearing since I’d practiced it. One hole claimed my front wheel and I was over the bars and stuck under my bike still clipped in before I realised what was happening. Obviously a few other people had also had the same fate as I was surrounded by water bottles, headphones and other race apparel! I was slightly terrified I was going to get mown down by my 20 second girl, Miranda Miller as I floundered around under my bike. I finished the day in 17th, my worst result to date but I was happy to get to the finish for the day and I enjoyed riding the tracks more than I had in practice.
The sun decided to stay out for us on the second day of racing. The first three stages were in the same general area of pine forest and conditions on the first runs remained slick. Stage 5 again was another physical start to the day and incredibly greasy so it was difficult to keep the flow.
Stage 6 featured the legendary “Champéry Chute”. I had had 2 goes at this in practice with a 50% success rate. The key for us mortals was to drop in slow, as below the drop it was pretty much a no braking zone until the turn at the bottom. Come race run the rocks and roots and come through and I found myself careering towards the photographers and spectators at the bottom! The bodies dispersed as I drifted into the tape and somehow scrabbled my way back onto the track.
Stage 7 started on the fast open moor top. Through some rocky jumps I lost my chain. As it was a predominantly downhill run I opted to try and Aaron Gwin to the bottom however it quickly folded onto itself and jammed in the frame. After spending some time trackside with the bike upside down I was a wee bit fired up and actually started to get on top of the terrain. Not enough to stop Miranda catching me in the pinball rocks and roots in the lower section. My run was blown and I let her pass on her way to the stage win. I picked my way down the small remainder to the finish feeling a little demotivated.
With some lunch inside me I felt better and stage 8 turned out to be my favourite of the race. It was drier than in practice and was a hugely varied trail. Tight switchbacks in the rainforest ambience up top dropped us onto a pretty epic ridge. Below this was a historic hiking trail lined with rocks. I felt my rim hit the rocks a few times and was lucky not to puncture.
At the top of stage 9 everyone was talking about what they were going to drink later, we sounded like a group of alcoholics! Poncha, the local speciality made with sugar cane rum, orange and lemon was high on the list. Stage 9 finished in open paddock scattered with sniper rocks and grassy turns on the fringe of a sun drenched Machico. And yes they gave us a poncha as we rolled into the finish – winning!
What a tough 4 days of riding, my 18th place result wasn’t what I planned or wanted! I know these are the experiences that I’m looking for when I travel and I know it will make me stronger as a racer and as a person. I can’t wait to get to Ireland, I pulled a 10th place there last year so am hoping to repeat, if not better that this time around!