Thursday, 4 October 2012
Waking in the darkness, usually before the alarm as the incremental cacophony of sleeping bag and tent zips being un- and re-done triggered the first blush of consciousness.
Wriggle into todays riding clothes and bung on a jacket grab tooth brush and shuffle off through the campsite to breakfast, past the some dark and some blue-glow tents with other racers getting up and at'em.
With Breakfast done and the first fingers of light replacing the head torches the daily miracle of herding the first wave of 35 or so mountain bikers from campsite to uplift drop off begins. Timings are a little loose on some days but it always happens, and no one and no bikes are left behind. Not always the same happy outcome for timing tags or lunch baguettes...
Wave One - mainly the 'amateurs'- we get a brief briefing from Race Commander-in-Cheif Ash. He usually points out any pertinent danger-of-death aspects of the day's liason or race stages and bids us bonne chance as we commence the bike or foot based climb to the first stage of the day.
Some days the first stage is a few short km away, and these can be difficult to hit cold [in all senses]. Some take the best part of 3 hours of portage and amazing remote, undulating alpine ridgeline riding before arriving at the first mountain balise [balise: a marker, or station in French and the name given the SportIdent dibber stations used to bracket the stage timing].
Despite the internal chats and pep-talks before a timed run to 'take it easy', conserve bike and body, The Beep! of the balise immediately triggered the red-mist and each rider sets off on an wild ride ITT for the next few kilometers [sub 2km was the shortest to the 8km+ of Donkey Darko]. It was a wild white-knuckle ride of red-line heart rate and gambling on what will be around the next corner [and whether you can brake in time or survive it if you decide to let it run]. All until you spy one of the mountain staff [Ed, Shaggy, Phil & Rich] who will put themselves in the way of a speeding mtb-er to try and get your tag registered on the Valley balise.
The riding was truly amazing - superb high speed, high quality, high intensity, high penalty, high reward singletrack. The Racing aspect make the rider attack the trails - sometimes the gamble did not pay off, especially on the last day when a few folks succumbed to tiredness, treachery of the conditions or just bet all on red, when black won.
Oh, and there were switchbacks. So, very many switchbacks.
All riders are different, and each enjoy different types of riding so some of the special stages polarise opinion like marmite, some stages drew universal praise [or fearful dislike]. For the 'amateur' riders it was heartening to hear that the Pro boys & girls sometimes found the same bits of trail just as challenging/fun/terrifying, even if they found them so at much higher speed...
To get a flavour of the trails check out all the videos. To understand them you would need to get out there and ride them.
One thing that shone strong through the week was a true sense of camaraderie - from the riders, the mountain staff, the camp staff, masseurs and the glowing fuel-cell of the week - The Caterers. Not in the sense that it was a full on love in - there will always be little bumps, grumps, cliques and freaks at any gathering of humanity. Yet irrespective of any noise there was a relentless energy, a pervading sense of keep calm and carry on (fully pinned), and don't forget to bloody well enjoy it.
The amount of work put in by all the race staff is immense and deserves special mention for keeping a very challenging show on the road and on track for the week.
Also, the tech support offered by the Mavic guys and by Paul & Amy at Fox Mojo was much appreciated and kept a lot of wheels rolling through the week. Oh, and Paul is a star for letting me have his lunch the day I left camp sans baguette...
This years edition had a couple of twists mainly provided by Mother Nature. There were two days of monstrous, roaring, hariy-arsed thunder and lightening storms that were way more terrifying than most folks would care to experience.
Most of the Wave 1 riders narrowly missed a dowsing by the Day 2 storm by arriving at the lunch stop just as a two hour long horror-show kicked off. Minutes earlier we had barely wetted tires crossing a dry creek to dib out of the 2nd stage of the day at Shaggy's Valley Balaise.
Check the day 2 video for what it looked like around an hour later...
Little by little the shellshocked ghosts of the second wave of riders shlepped in and hid in the Mojo Fox van, under the Mavic Van canopy, or in the glamorous municipal bin-hut bringing with them tales of genuine terror from being on a bare 2000m+ hill top in the storm cloud with lightening sizzling and thunder booming around [whilst holding a big metal thing]. Last years winner was in such a rush to get off the hill he had a massive crash which ripped his trousers off. Really...
Day 7 started wet but but by midday turned sunny until most folks had beeped off the course at the last Valley balise manned by Mr Oxley [of Great Rock, and greater beard]. We also found out that the Monegasgue Polis had decided in their infinite wisdom that a bunch of grubby, bleeding, stinking and relatively low-net-worth ; ) mountain bikers were not welcome on their patch and would arrest anyone who dared cross the border. So we would drop down to Menton next town along the coast, and where the final campsite was, anyway. As the assembled throng firstly removed race numbers from bars and started down the switchback trail to the road the heavens opened. Thunder rolled and roared around the hills, the temperature dropped, so very much rain shot from the now steely grey sky and the lightening started zapping metal things on our ridgeline - like the power pylon about 30m away from where I was hunkered down trying to get my waterproof on. There was an immense noise and white flash even with my eyes tight shut. A couple of other members of 'Team Scotland' were riding just below the pylon when it was zapped and commented later that it was 'quite exciting' or words to that effect.
The storm put paid to any ideas of a swim in the sea, too - there was a 5 foot swell smacking into a steeply shelving pebble beach that did not look too inviting.
Almost everyone made the finish in one shape or another , although one unlucky soul - Sven Martin - had to make use of the helicopter extraction feature of his insurance to get off the top of the last days first stage with concussion and a bad arm break - leading to slightly subdued feeling at the end of the day.
The last 100m of the final stage also claimed a couple of others - a bit of ankle twisting damage, a leg-brace and a pair of park-tool blue crutches for SRAM's Jon Cancellier and a likely fracture for Jac's scaphiod.
The rest of the week had been relatively incident free, much to the appreciation of the race doctors. A few riders had narrowly avoided a nasty eye gouging from a branch early on, and one of the Brits had an unfortunate tumble on a day two liason which he survived unscathed until his bike landed on him cracking a couple of ribs and ending his race.
All in all testament to the skills, strength and determination of all riders that stepped up to take part.
Again? I am happy to have done it. I don't have any demons to slay with the race. At least once each day I felt like doing a Moitessier and removing the number from my bike and continuing the ride which, I think, was kind-of the point, anyway. : )
Bike was a Transition Bandit 29 - pretty much bang on for the job. An upgrade to bigger disk rotors stopped me overshooting every switchback... Everything worked. Only breakages were a small cut in the back tyre and I broke off the wee clutch lever thingy on my rear mech... and a few rim dings but no punctures. All day comfortable and totally happy on the descents and climbs, and not too much of a burden on the portage sections. Reverb dropper post was a boon and blessing.