Biking’s most challenging race

Fusing unique cycling terrain with unrivalled speeds, the exhilarating Megavalanche race in the French Alps is an electrifying dash down ski pistes, glaciers and bone‑shaking trails. Mark Bailey meets the riders brave enough to seal a place in mountain biking’s most challenging “downhill marathon”

Megavalanche riders descending the Glacier de Sarenne in Alpe d’Huez
Megavalanche riders descending the Glacier de Sarenne in Alpe d’Huez | Image: LAURENT SALiNO / ALPE D'HUEZ TOURISME

For a single tumultuous July weekend each summer, the precipitous black ski run on the 3,330m-high pyramid of Pic Blanc above Alpe d’Huez is torn from its off-season slumber to play host to the longest and most challenging downhill bike race in the world. Months after the ski season has ended, but with snow typically still lingering on the upper flanks of the mountain, a select cadre of elite mountain bikers and recreational riders travel with their bikes on the gondola system from Alpe d’Huez to the summit of Pic Blanc, before launching into a relentless 30km downhill blast of gravity-assisted speed and excitement.

A change of terrain in the Forêt de Sardonne
A change of terrain in the Forêt de Sardonne | Image: LAURENT SALiNO / ALPE D'HUEZ TOURISME

Known as the Megavalanche, this spectacularly photogenic event sees riders race and slide (and occasionally fall) down ski pistes, snow-encrusted glaciers, forest trails and dirt tracks. During their epic odyssey from Pic Blanc to the village of Allemond in the Eau d’Olle valley, the cyclists plummet 2,600m in altitude. On the opening section of snow and ice, riders can hit speeds of over 100kph, despite balancing on tyres narrower than the width of an iPhone. “This is a unique global event and one of the fastest bike courses any cyclist can ride,” says René Wildhaber, a Swiss mountain biker who has won the race six times. “To start on a glacier and a ski piste makes this race very iconic and very fast. When the snow field has been smooth I have clocked 125kph.”

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Mountain biking may be commonly associated with cross-country adventures and muddy trails, but the Megavalanche is the pinnacle of a thrilling sub-discipline known as a “downhill enduro” or “downhill marathon”, which blends all-terrain adventure with searing speeds. Recreational riders can test themselves on downhill courses anywhere from Scotland to Bolivia, but the annual Megavalanche race offers blistering speeds and the longest rideable trail in the world.

The start of the race at 3,330m
The start of the race at 3,330m | Image: LAURENT SALiNO / ALPE D'HUEZ TOURISME

At the start of each race, the rarefied mountain air of Pic Blanc is rich in both glamour and adrenaline. The rotor blades of camera helicopters thwack in the skies above. Photographers jostle for the best shots. Premium mountain bikes, worth up to €8,000 each, flood the ski slopes. This is a rare event in which amateur riders get to rub armour-padded shoulders with the world’s best mountain bikers, and even the slowest finishers are guaranteed to earn serious kudos in the mountain-biking community.

The 2015 Megavalanche men’s champion Rémy Absalon
The 2015 Megavalanche men’s champion Rémy Absalon | Image: Hoshi Yoshida

When the riders begin to hurtle downhill, the mountain throbs with the immutable thrill of speed. The Sarenne glacier is a powder keg of excitement and danger. “It can be very frightening,” admits Rémy Absalon, a French professional who won last year’s race in a time of 40 minutes and 54 seconds (amateur riders can take 60-90 minutes to complete the course). “We ride full-throttle down the glacier in a big group with other riders and you have to watch out for ice, rocks and soft snow. But the adrenaline that comes from this kind of speed is what we all love.”

Riders on one of the hair-raising descents
Riders on one of the hair-raising descents | Image: Hoshi Yoshida

A handful of participants return home with broken bones. Others take scars as souvenirs. But French rider Cécile Ravanel, the reigning female champion, knows the pace and danger only crank up the thrill factor. “When you have a large group of women rushing along at around 80kph on the glacier, there is a special sensation that flickers between the desire to go faster and the urge to say, ‘Time to slow down.’”

Riders tackle the challenging route through the Forêt de Sardonne
Riders tackle the challenging route through the Forêt de Sardonne | Image: LAURENT SALiNO / ALPE D'HUEZ TOURISME

To put these speeds into perspective, Britain’s former Olympic track-cycling champion Sir Chris Hoy was capable of achieving speeds of 80kph in an indoor velodrome, while Mark Cavendish, one of the most successful sprinters in Tour de France history, blasts to the finish line of road-cycling races at a velocity of 75kph. Yet thanks to gravity and the low-friction surface of snow and ice, even amateur mountain bikers at the Megavalanche can momentarily sample speeds normally experienced only by cycling deities.

The start line at Pic Blanc
The start line at Pic Blanc | Image: Cyril Charpin

“It’s the fastest I have ever been on a bike, but that’s not a surprise when you’re flying down a ski piste,” says Alex Rafferty, a mountain-biking coach, ski instructor and mountaineer who has completed the race five times and whose brother Joe has finished in the top 10. Rafferty is no stranger to adventure. The son of a Himalayan mountaineer and underground explorer, he had climbed Mont Blanc by the age of 12. “I like to push my limits with new adventures, but it is hard to top the excitement of the Megavalanche.” Rafferty’s Pro Ride coaching company offers discerning customers private lessons hosted by former mountain-biking world champion Danny Hart to help them prepare for the unique challenges of the Megavalanche.

Cécile Ravanel, the Megavalanche 2015 women’s champion
Cécile Ravanel, the Megavalanche 2015 women’s champion | Image: Hoshi Yoshida

Launched in 1995 by George Edwards, a highly respected mountain-bike event organiser, the race began as an esoteric gathering of a few hundred competitors. At this year’s race, which is built around the weekend of July 9-10, up to 2,200 thrillseekers are expected. Riders practise on Wednesday and Thursday, enter qualification runs on Friday and complete the full race course on Saturday or Sunday (setting out in different waves defined by experience, age and gender), meaning the event can be neatly woven into an extended weekend jaunt to the Alps. There is now a sister version on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, as well as similar races such as Mountain of Hell in Les Deux Alpes, but the Alpe d’Huez event still boasts the fastest course.

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Speed is so important that riders of Wildhaber’s calibre treat punctures like Formula 1 pit stops. “One year I changed my tyre in two minutes using a carbon dioxide inflator canister, so although I lost 12 positions, I got back on my bike, let go of the brakes and clawed back the time.” Further back in the ranks, riders do the descent any way they can. Phil Topp was working as an IT specialist for the American multinational CSC when he first took part in the Megavalanche in 2008. Since then he has moved to Alpe d’Huez and set up his own cycling tour company. “I was just in the middle of the pack, but it was still incredibly fast,” he says. “Sometimes you’re not even pedalling – you’re sliding down the ice with your feet on the ground. It’s a real challenge, but that is part of the experience and the reward.”

All-terrain events like the Megavalanche have played their part in inspiring the recent surge in popularity of “fat bikes” or “snow bikes”, constructed with oversized 4-5in tyres that can blast over snow, bogs and scree. But these chunky machines are designed for cross-country adventures, not raw speed. Riders in the Megavalanche use traditional full-suspension mountain bikes, with a few minor adjustments, such as wider handlebars for better balance and sturdier 2.4in tyres for extra grip, in order to optimise their pace and performance.

The glacier section may be the most compelling part of the race, but the route hides other demons. “After the snow and ice you ride through rocky terrain, alpine meadows and forest trails, before hitting some swampy sections and dusty tracks,” explains Wildhaber. For time-poor, experience-hungry bikers, this medley of terrain is a key part of the race’s allure, allowing competitors to test themselves in a wide spectrum of landscapes in minimal time. “After you have finished the race you feel as if you have been on a big expedition,” says Wildhaber.

Opening up ski slopes to mountain bikers is a rapidly developing trend. Darco Cazin is the founder of Swiss-based company Allegra Tourismus, which specialises in converting ski slopes into mountain-bike terrain for the summer months. Allegra concludes B2B deals with hotels and resorts to oversee the upgrade of facilities and trails. “We started 13 years ago in Livigno in Italy and now have projects in Switzerland, Austria, Norway and Japan,” says Cazin. “This is a global phenomenon and a big movement. There are different subcultures in mountain biking. The Megavalanche is at the progressive forefront of the sport, but other ski resorts now see the potential of welcoming mountain bikers and diversifying their slopes. Our goal is to maximise return on investment.”

Multiple economic impact reports have revealed that modern mountain bikers are spending more and demanding more. “All the studies point to higher incomes and higher education, and lots of riders now come from industries like law, medicine, IT and senior management,” says Cazin. “They are looking for escapism, excitement and new challenges and they like having a high-quality bike and equipment. About 80 per cent of mountain bikers don’t travel with their bike but for those who do, consumption is high. Our data show that they spend more than golfers.” At Megavalanche it is not uncommon to see over €10m worth of bikes flying downhill at a race weekend.

Riders can invest in cutting-edge models and upskill through elite coaching, but when they launch their bikes over the precipice on Pic Blanc, the biggest challenge often lies in being able to override the body’s innate instinct for self-preservation. Yanking on the brakes isn’t always the safest option. “If you tense up on the snow or ice, you will crash,” warns Rafferty. “Despite going really fast you need to keep your body relaxed and that takes a lot of mental and physical effort. Sometimes in the forest sections your lungs are burning, your legs and arms are on fire and you are tempted to just let the bike roll for a bit, but it’s so steep that gravity takes over and you simply end up going even faster. It’s a bit insane. But the speed is exactly what gives this race its excitement and prestige. The real reward comes at the bottom when you realise what you’ve just done.”

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