25 Sep 2013

RAF Downhillers at the Megavalanche.

 (Words, Photos, Jerseys and Riding by Kris Benson)

The Megavalanche is a mass start downhill endurance mountain bike race set in the beautiful resort of Alpe D’Huez. It is one of the most demanding but popular races of the calendar, attracting up to 2000 entrants including elite riders and competitors from around the globe. The main race departs from Pic Blanc (3300m) in groups of up to 300 riders and descends the mountain via glacier, loose rocky singletrack, fast flowing meadows and steep technical trails etched deep into the hillside and forest. The finish line in Allemont is a mere 32km away and the vertical drop is roughly 2580m!

(The team sporting custom designed Mega jerseys)
The Megavalanche is a true challenge of the cycling world. Most downhill races in the UK, and elsewhere, are roughly 5 minutes at race pace: a weekend of practice runs, qualifying and then races. The Megavalanche is a similar format except the qualifying race can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, and the main race from 35minutes to 3hrs! It’s a battle of pure physical and mental attrition, now throw in some of the most technical terrain and shoulder to shoulder racing and you reach the sort of challenge that members of the RAF thrive on - especially those in the RAF Downhill Team!

With five willing volunteers, our sights were set on putting RAF Lossiemouth and the RAF Cycling Association on the map in France in July! Step forward please; Cpl Ian Churchill (6 Sqn, RAF Leuchars), SAC(T) Phil Ashcroft, SAC(T) Kris Benson, SAC(T) Lee Mace (all from XV(R) Sqn, RAF Lossiemouth) and SAC(T) James Redgrove (12(B) Sqn, RAF Lossiemouth).
(Home for a week)
The team based themselves out of Camping Les Bouleoux in Allemont- a stone’s throw from the finish line. Accommodation was a basic chalet, a little tight for 4 grown males with a week’s supply of riding gear but comfortable enough for the duration of the stay. With glorious mountain views imposing on our site we made perfect use of the decking to host several BBQ’s!

The region of Oisans has fantastic transport facilities - each day free public buses were available to take us to the lift stations, equipped with trailers specifically designed to transport almost 50 bikes comfortably. The lifts from Oz en Oisans and Alpe D’Huez were quick and efficient despite the thousands of riders putting them to use daily.

Due to the style and grading of trails in France, it was important to become acquainted with the terrain we were to be racing on. It soon became obvious after a morning’s ride that the trail rating was much different to that of the UK. Some of the blue and red trails (comparable to the ski piste rating system) would likely be graded black or orange at home. However, the qualities were hard to match - every run brought a long hard smile to our faces despite the occasional thunderstorm that churned the trails into a greasier mudfest than Glastonbury festival!
(Getting into the Mega vibe)
Throughout training we used Contour and Gopro cameras to record trail footage - taking advantage of these recordings enabled us to review the footage and discuss track lines and terrain.  It was a great way to gain an advantage come qualifying and race day, and amidst the hilarious running commentary from Cpl Ian Churchill and SAC(T) Phil Ashcroft, it was truly an indispensable tool.

Each qualifying race was based on race plate numbers. Approximately 110 riders in each group raced for a place in the best race category they could. Only the top 24 riders would make the Megavalanche cut: all positions after that would then filter into the Mega Challengers, Mega Amateurs, and finally the Mega Affinity. The track was an intense downhill run that started at the top of Petites Rousses (2810m) - winding its way down the mountainside on gravel, onto snow and then increasing in gradient through rocky terrain and loose switchback turns before reaching mid mountain position and a change in tempo. Man-made trails with table top jumps, and sharp bermed corners swooped their way into Alpe D’Huez for a short section of urban riding - features including concrete drops and tunnels made for a fast and fun part of the race, where many locals were lining the streets and cheering on the competitors for a welcomed boost. They were even caught cheering “C’mon on RAF”! The final stage to Huez village featured dusty fast berms (no less than 20 in fact) carved into the hillside giving tired legs and arms a thorough wake-up call. A tight left hand corner spat you out onto the final road stretch where everyone could get onto the pedals and sprint to the finish line after negotiating a narrow entrance via a basketball court. Huez Village was strewn with muddy bikes and sweaty riders, all taking time to relive the ordeal and receive their position and race group allocation in the blistering summer heat.  But wait, no time to relax... there’s still race day to come!

All but SAC(T) Phil Ashcroft completed the Qualifier. An unfortunate overtaking manoeuvre resulted in both man and machine leaving the track, causing a little tumble and mechanical issue. Maybe next year Phil!?

 Qualifier Results

 Ian Churchill: 0:27:39 - 30th - Challengers

 Lee Mace: 0:30:11 - 59th - Amateurs

 Kris Benson: 0:32:08 - 65th - Amateurs

 James Redgrove: 0:40:13 - 81st - Affinity

(The summit)

Come race day, 300 riders were amassed at the top of Pic Blanc - nervous with excitement for the tapes to go up, but more so for Cpl Ian Churchill as the media helicopter burst into view for the Mega Challengers race! And off they went, arms from fellow competitors clashed and bikes slipped from under their pilots on the tricky snow covered start as everyone fought for the racing line through the carnage. After several km of snow the race soon becomes tight single-track, so putting down a good overtaking run was of great importance - navigating the snow was a difficult affair. However squeezing by with steep banked sides was even more so!

The main race traverses across mid mountain around one third of the way down, and despite the gradient easing off and double track sections, every rider continued to put pedal to the metal in order to shrug off close competitors and make valuable ground on those slowing down the pack, of which there were many! The Mega is a frustrating race for quick riders hoping to burst into a good position: every opportunity must be exploited. Before the track makes its way into the valley a tiring climb out of Alpe D’Huez really lets each rider recall the hard nature of the race - despite cheering crowds and water stations. Trying to ride, drink and breathe with a full face helmet on in the midday sun while putting in max effort is indeed a challenge in itself!

(Mass start!!!)
As you crest the climb and begin to descend through the avalanche gates the gradient once again increases dramatically - breakneck speeds could be achieved before carving into steep corners and tackling the forest section.  The lower third of the course ticked all the boxes for a fantastic ride, dusty rooted trails with plenty of grip gave for a lively but amazing ride as you stomped on the pedals and whizzed by huge fir trees and squeezed by as many competitors as possible. By now every inch of the body felt every bump and turn, muscles burned with lactic acid and lungs gulping for air - well aware that the finish line was not too far away all emotions could be ignored for that last ditch effort to achieve a better position!

Off the brakes and back to the task in hand, once the final bridge was passed a sprint (or a very loose version of it!) down the flat Land-Rover track (which seemed to last an eternity!) followed by the last two corners and the finish line was in sight. A huge crowd and mass of competitors to greet and cheer each rider as they wearily passed through the finish gate. The Megavalanche finally tackled!

 Race Results

 Ian Churchill:                     0:58:56 - 22nd

 Kris Benson:                      1:16:58 - 63rd

 Lee Mace:                          1:17:35 - 74th

 James Redgrove:            2:11:58 - 209th

(Hard fought results)

The team performed admirably: the results really do not reflect the hard work and effort put in! (Well maybe Ian Churchill’s does. 22nd in the Mega-Challengers is pretty impressive!) But despite this, we have all walked away with a feeling of great achievement and determination to once again revisit the Megavalanche, and tackle this behemoth race! Thanks go out to RAF Lossiemouth PEd Flt, SIF, the RAF Sports Board and Sports Lottery, not forgetting the RAF Cycling Association and lastly Cpl Andy Lochhead, who instigated the OV but had to pass the organisation on due to injury.

If the above narrative has left you chomping at the bit then get in touch with the RAF Cycling Association - or head to the official RAF DH Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/rafdownhillteam
(Vive la France!)

20 Sep 2013

RAF Win the 2013 CSR DH Series

(Andy Lochhead was on it before his season-ending crash at Innerleithen)
The RAF have won the overall Combined Services Racing (CSR) Downhill series for the first time since 2010. Indeed, the top 3 positions were secured by RAF riders in what was a very eventful 2013 season.

The CSR DH series consisted of 10 rounds this year comprising the Pearce Cycles and SDA DH series. Riders are awarded up to 20 points based on their overall result in the race and up to 20 points for their position amongst the other CSR riders. A maximum of 40 points can be claimed per round with the rider's 6 best finishes counting towards the total.

As in previous years, it proved impossible for any of the CSR riders to actually participate in 6 rounds. This is due to the numerous training courses, work commitments and operational deployments to the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Falklands that our riders must juggle during the season.

(Jamie Corsby in action at Bucknell)
Before the season even kicked off, the Army Team had demonstrated their intentions and ability to win the title. Brian Anderson had set the fastest time of the day in the 661 Mini DH race at the Forest of Dean followed by a first place in the Senior category at Rd1 of the Borderline series at Innerleithen. A daunting gauntlet had been laid down.

The first round of the CSR series (SDA Rd1) at Innerleithen saw a record turn out from the RAF team with 11 riders participating. It was a chance for some of the team to get to grips with their new Devinci Wilson bikes provided by Haven Distribution. Unfortunately, Andy Lochhead suffered a severe crash towards the end of practice on the Saturday sustaining a broken elbow, puncture wound to the chest and numerous cuts and bruises. This took him out of contention for the entire season and only in the last few weeks has he started to get back on his bike.

(Dave Page managed an impressive CSR top 10 finish riding in Vets)
Otherwise, it was a very successful weekend with impressive performances from team regulars Ian Churchill and Phil Ashcroft. However, it was Si Ward who raised the most eyebrows with an outstanding 2nd CSR place finish in his first season of riding for the team. A sign of things to come?

Normal service was resumed during the first two Pearce Cycles rounds with the Army Team and Brian Anderson in particular dominating. It was clear that something had to be done to prevent the Army from running away with the series. Step forward Nick "Pops" Larkin.

(Ian Churchill (left) and Phil Ashcroft (right) share a joke at the training week before finishing 1st and 3rd overall in the CSR respectively)

Pops organised an incredibly successful training week in early June at the new Antur Stiniog DH training facility in North Wales. World class training was provided by ex-World Cup racer Neil Donoghue. The team picked up tips and techniques that would prove invaluable over the rest of the season.


The team, now armed with knowledge and excellent new race jerseys (designed by RSD Sports of Wigan) started to claw back the gap. A notable performance from Ian Churchill at Killin resulted in his picture appearing in no less a publication that The Oban Times! Si Ward and Phil Ashcroft braved the extreme weather and track at Glencoe and were rewarded with a sizeable points haul.

(Chris Goodwin raced his first season for the RAF)

Back down south, Brian Anderson and the rest of the Army team dominated the Bucknell round of the Pearce series. With 3 rounds remaining, it looked like the series would go down to the wire in a three way fight between Brian Anderson, Ian Churchill and Si Ward. The gap was closed at Ae Forest with only 14 points separating the top 4.


Rumours then started to surface that Brian Anderson had been injured whilst riding in the Alps. Would he be fit for the final round of the series (Pearce 4) at Hopton? Without knowing for sure, the RAF team had to give their all at the final SDA race of the season at Fort William. Ian Churchill, Si Ward and Phil Ashcroft were all still in contention for the overall CSR win. On the day, that proved to be the finishing order so Ian Churchill topped the table for the first time this year with Si Ward in second and Phil Ashcroft in third.

(Matt Cook in action at Ae.)

With Brian Anderson missing the final round due to a confirmed broken hand, the rest of the Army team were unable to close the gap at Hopton. A slightly disappointing finish to the season in terms of excitement but altogether a very impressive season for the RAF. Injury always plays its part in downhill racing: what would have happened last year if Ian Churchill hadn't broken his wrist early in the season at Fort William? What if Andy Lochhead hadn't crashed at Innerleithen this year? Sadly, these things happen.

(Full results)

2013 has proved to be the most successful year for RAF Downhill in its history. New bikes, new kit, new jerseys, new team members, new training opportunities and results to back it up. The team will aim to build and develop over the winter coming back stronger and fitter, ready to retain the CSR title in 2014.


The 2013 season isn't over yet though! The Inter-Services Downhill Champs are scheduled to take place at Revolution Bike Park in Wales on 21-23 Oct. A final showdown between the Army and the RAF? Or will the Navy turn up and throw a spanner in the works?
(Ian Churchill scooped the 2013 CSR title and "Photo of the year" with this epic shot at Ft William.)