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!)