Just back from summer hols with Hairyscary, les enfants and their daft Auntie Weezy. Highlights included The Megavalanche in Alpe D'Huez and the British Cross Country Championships at Innerliethen.
Breakfast of cold pizza at 5am without a hangover was a novelty I could have done without, but the family had scoffed the croissants and pains au raisins in the evening, forgetting that the Boulangerie wouldn't be open when I had to leave for the first uplift. Feeling slightly queasy after the pizza, consumed whilst being driven up the notorious 21 hairpins of the Alpe D'Huez road I made my way to the lift station.
Taking a 70 man telepherique full of great big downhill blokes complete with full face helmets, body armour and bikes was pretty daunting. We were marshalled by the lift operator to stand on the platform to await the lift in ranks of 10 or so, helmets on, facing each other, holding our bikes upright in front of us on their rear wheels. We waited like this, in trepidatious silence, wide eyed with anxiety, for the telepherique to settle into it's docking place. You hear stories from history of how young boys got swept up in parades of soldiers and ended up going to war with the big boys by accident. As the only female getting on this particular lift, I could imagine how that might have felt as I stood in line, dwarfed by them all. “Ahem! excuse me, I need to get off, I think there's been some mistake...”
For those of you who don't know, The Megavalanche starts at 3300 metres on Pic Blanc and descends via the Sarrennes Glacier (a black ski run) around Alpe D'Huez town and down to Allemont, at 720 metres, 37 km away. A doddle...
Most people try to go for a lighter medium travel bike; reason being that there are quite long sections that are level and pedally, quite alien to some of the downhill crew who would be entering. However, as I'm usually a jeygirl XC rider, I had chosen my biggest bike, a Santa Cruz Bullit, fitted with dual ply tyres and downhill inner tubes to protect from punctures on the sharp rocky sections. Rather jammily, I had a 'Gravity Dropper' (bought super cheap from the local buy-try-sell on geezer) this would optimise my position depending on whether I was on techy or pedally sections without having to stop and faff with my seatpost quick release. The Bullit wouldn't soak up the rough stuff as well as the 10inch travel bikes that some might be riding, but I hoped it would give me an advantage on the short sharp climbs and the almost level, undulating singletrack around the back of Alpe D'Huez town.
Speeding uncontrollably down a black ski run is somewhat disconcerting at the best of times. Take away your skis and replace them with a bike, and you have a recipe for potential disaster. Add in a mass start of nearly 60 'ladies' whooping and hollering and trying to maintain some kind of control over their metal mounts, and the result is quite bowel loosening. The men start in waves of 400 at a time (usually over 2000 of them in total) so I got off lightly really.
So gripped by the alien experience of riding a bike on steep snow and ice, I had a poor start and found myself amongst the back of the pack. Onward to terra firmish, I got into my stride on the loose but rocky stuff. Passing several women who were more unnerved by the rocky trails than the snow, I started to make up a good few places.
Close to Alpe D'Huez, a moderate climb on a landrover track was lined with spectators. Many riders push up this climb so I was cheered with many an "Allez! Allez! Go now!!" which helped me dig in deep. The road time trialling I've started doing with the local club and my cross country experience helped a lot on the flatter and uphill sections and I passed more riders who had gone for the heavier bikes for advantage on the downhills. It's difficult to pass riders once the trail gets onto singletrack and points down, so it was of more benefit to be able to power up and along.
Picking off another few riders steadily, I came to a long descending traverse across an alpine meadow where the vicious braking bumps began to tire my forearms out badly. I tried to shake out the arm pump as I came into the wooded section down into the valley and started to get into the flow of the tight, dusty and rooty switchbacks. Constantly on the brakes I went from single-finger braking, to two-finger braking, to whole-hand-grip-of-death-please-start-slowing-me-down-sometime-soon! braking. Coming up behind another, slower rider who was walking in this section I had a good close look and taste of one of the huge drifts of dust that were masquerading as berms as I had to brake on the apex of a switchback. First crash, last third of the course, nothing damaged on self or bike, I was lucky. So picked myself up, passed her and got back up to speed.
The lower part of the course emerges at a steel pedestrian bridge at the end of which I could see spectators cheering. My kids were there with my sister, yelling "go mummy!!" which brought a smile and a surge of power for the home sprint.I was delighted to find that I'd managed to make 26th place in the ladies' race overall, 8th woman in the 30+ category and 9th British rider. Angela Proctor was first lady Brit home in 8th place overall, one place better than her ride last year. The winning female rider was the incomparable Anne Caroline Chausson, 12 times Downhill World Cup winner and Olympic BMX rider.
Retuning to Blighty, as a cherry on the cake, I managed to cope with the drastic change from 7 inches to 2 and a half and from sunshine and dust to mud and roots to gain a silver medal in ladies Veteran category at the British Champs at Inners on my way home. Benefitting from being on almost home soil, and having ridden some of the course before during my first foray into downhill racing (yes, they used some downhill trail for the XC course! The cheeky people) I was amongst several Scottish riders who had an advantage on the day. Anne Murray, based in Inverness put in a storming performance on the stiff climbing and hairy descending course and took the gold in our category. Some holiday! When can I go back to work for a rest? :)