Finals- Whoa. I like to think that riding on the edge is something I’m into, but I was genuinely intimidated atop the top of Pic Blanc at 7am waiting for the sun to warm our bones and the freshly groomed, solidly frozen ski hill that was the start line.
For about 200m before it doglegged right onto a 4m wide “road” made up of rocks of sizes ranging from fist to lawnmower-sized. This led to more snow — lots more. Some of it steep. Some with sharp corners.
Growing up ski racing in Maine and actually doing some winter downhill bike races on snow, I’m comfortable with the white stuff. Or was. When my turn to line up came, I instinctively chose high right, just at the edge of the talus slope above the snow. I assumed that with the steep, icy snow bottlenecking into a rockfield and all, that there would be a huge crash by the time the third row got there.
I was right, but had no idea how huge until after the finish.
The energy up there is pretty amazing before the start. It was a crystal clear morning, accentuating your view of dozens of huge snowy peaks, and allowing the helicopter film crew to get intimate with the start grid.
Dance music pulsed from speakers on the line as 350 people awaited their fate. Turns out most of them embrace it wholeheartedly.
Almost immediately I could see bodies piling up to my left, so went for the high right route through the rocks, figuring it was slower, but safer (and ultimately faster) than the NASCAR scene developing below me. I squeaked through and set about hauling ass down the lower snow slopes, amazed at the level of grip and control I managed to get on the groomed, frozen glacier… Except for where there were old ice ruts. Those were sketchy, and I narrowly avoided a few other impressive crashes.
Off the snow and onto the upper rocky singletrack I wondered what position I was in. Could’ve been 100th, could’ve been 30th. Either way, I could see the leaders of the race minutes down the mountainside. Well, so much for thinking I could show up and be on the podium.
Fortunately, even the random dudes I was with after the start melee are pretty good on their bikes. I passed whenever I could, but ultimately had to wait until the course turned to the southern aspect and began traversing across the ski pistes of Alpe d’ Huez proper.
Once there I set about overtaking fools like Sherman through Georgia. Eventually I started recognizing people. First was Jamie from Nelson, New Zealand. He didn’t have a seat. Before the main “climb” (a two-minute affair on a dirt road) I caught Ross. My only comment for him was, “Good work surviving.”
I crested the climb with enough of a gap on his group to stop and top off a leaky tire before we dropped in together. This was exciting!
Riding with a familiar face, especially one as inspiringly fast and smooth as Mr. Schnell, is helpful in a race this long and taxing. We both weren’t smooth enough, though, and in the eight minutes of pounding braking bumps on the section down to Oz we both got dangerous levels of arm pump. Ross had it bad enough that after I pulled off to let him by that his hands blew straight off the bars and he packed it in, hard enough to separate his AC joint slightly and tear out some of the stitches he’d gotten after a qualifier crash.