A few likeminded British riders thought that this year it would be fun to take hardtail riding a step further by setting up an Unofficial Championship to be held at the Mega. With hardtail riders from both the Cotic and Univega teams up for the challenge the idea was in place, but despite lots of interest on the forums few others could be persuaded that ditching their rear suspension for a 30km DH race was a good idea!
Recruitment continued well into Mega week. By the end there were 10 riders representing 4 different nations and with bikes ranging from the tricked out Nicolai hardtail with Rohloff hub down to Arnold's hardcore singlespeed semislick configuration! With 4 well placed Mega veterans and Cotic bikes offering a frame to the highest placed hardtail a serious fight was on to be crowned the Unofficial Hardtail Champion.
Top: Arnold, Tom, Me, Lloyd
Lev, Christian, Torsten and the two brits whose names I have forgotten, sorry guys!
Wednesday saw the first challenge with the Sprint Race over at Oz. This track is amazing with loads of fast flat out cornering big rock rolls and a huge drop down to Oz. This is DH racing well beyond anything found in the UK. Me and Tom were representing the hardtails, although I had to borrow Lloyd's number plate as I had missed the entry on the sprint. What I hadn't considered was this put the Univega name well up in the results, sorry Cy!! Racing wise Tom set a 5.13 which sat very respectively above a large number of `Full Bouncers.` Tom said he received a load of surprised looks as people were called up before him for the second seeded run!! I managed a 4.53 which left me in 117th position overall. Comment of the day came as I was hammering a berm and someone shouted "F*** me that guys on a F***in hardtail" Awesome!!
Thursday we took a pack of hardtailers comprising of Tom, Lloyd, Arnold and me to hit the top half of the Mega and eye up the level of competition. I was seriously impressed and slightly worried by the standard of riding. All 4 of us were flying down the snow and catching DH bikes down the singletrack getting some shocked reactions along the way. Lloyd and Tom were looking to be hot competition for the title. Lloyd, who is also a competitive cage fighter and so is used to taking a decent beating, was telling us how he would rather be punched in the face for 5 minutes than take the kind of abuse handed out by the mountain! He was hot on the pace on the downs as was Tom who had just taken part in a 100km road race that finished with the notorious 21turn climb up to Alpe d'Huez. His fitness is insane, destroying us on the climbs and not loosing bike skills to fatigue as quickly as the rest of us. Arnold was showing serious French style, he had a skinny rear tyre as this was all his frame would handle but this never held him back and he was absolutely shredding the trail with the rest of us.
Qualifying came around quickly and the pressure was hotting up. We had decided that the winner was to be chosen according to ranking in the main event as opposed to time down the mountain. This meant the qualifying event would decide it. Tom was the in the first group at the front of the grid while me and Lloyd were at the back of the grid in the second wave. Sitting on the second to last row I knew this event depended on being a hero off the start so a fast snappy gear was chosen and all the 4x skills were brought in to play waiting for the Eurotrash to blast across the mountain indicating the start. The helicopter was rising behind us as I eyed up the row in front looking for the best person to aim at in the ensuing charge. I attacked the side of the track and managed to get to the front quarter of the pack by the time I reached the end of the fireroad switch backs. By the time we reached the climb out of Alpe d'Huez I was placed in the top 30 but fatigue was playing a part. My hands were unable to control the bike down through the switchbacks over the other side of the hill. It was a fight between maintaining hold of the bars and grabbing enough brake to survive the corners. Lloyd who had not been far behind up to the climb had serious brake issues and with so much fade he had no chance of slowing into the switchbacks sending him deep into the shrubbery. Crossing the finish Tom was there waiting and having placed 30th in his group there was some tension as to who had made the top group. It turns out I placed 40th and so made the main race for the first time. Lloyd however had slipped back and so was in the Promo. Chilling at the top we saw Lev arrive back at Oz. He was missing a load of skin and had a ripped off mech hanger, putting him out of the game. One of the Brits who came through who's name I have forgotten had a set of self steering lefties forcing him to run the last section of the track.
The main race was a different story than usual. The organisers had been telling us on Friday that the weather was set to be 'Scottish' to suit all the British riders over for the event. Out of bed at sunrise and the sky appeared to be clearing. However the rain quickly settled in as we had to wait for an hour at the bottom of the lift. At which point we were told that the snow start was off and so we were to go off and pedal to the lift that took us to the Qualifying start. We were then left there effectively sitting in the middle of a cloud for a couple of hours without any news of what was happening. Eventually the lifts started rolling and we shuffled up to the start of the qualifying track. A lot of riders gave had given up choosing to head back to the warmth of Alpe d'Huez, or for the 10 other riders in my chalet not even getting out of bed in the first place, Lightweights!!
The track was rerouted along the start of the Qualifying track, down track 2 and then across to the flat out grass track down into Alpe d'Huez and onto the bottom half of the Mega. The track was actually really good and although no snow, the start was still bonkers. With now twice as many riders leaving the qualifying start at once and with a more even range in ability there was absolute carnage. Massive pileups across the moonscape at the top as people were pushed like lemmings off the side of rocks. Riders were funneling 50 at a time into the narrow start of track 2, filling the full width of the tapes and beyond. A stream of riders cheated heading down the fireroad with no action taken by the marshals. There was no chance of the pack spreading out so it was tight, tail to tail all the way through to Alpe d'Huez. Chasing Tom down I saw him fly front flipping through the air clipped in. his crash was huge, bikes and people going everywhere as other riders careered into him while on the floor. He said he was seeing stars! Tough as ever was back on the bike and made it to the finish.
The tempo of the race was down on previous years as the cold and wet of the start had knocked peoples competitive edge. The rain had left the steep climbs down in the woods unrideable and for a lot of people unwalkable, as people slipped around in the mud. This lead to long tailbacks and a chance to rest aching bodies. The mud was awesome, it was thick and tacky and with the steepness of the hill the motorbike noises were coming out as the bike was smashed into corners motocross stylee!! The sun was out for the finish, finally reaching the line after a long sprint down the road is an amazing mixture of relief and a sense of achievement. In the end I believe we only had 4 hardtail finishers showing the extreme nature of the event. I took the win with Tom coming in 10 minutes behind for second place. Two of our German representatives, Torsten and Christian, filled 3rd and 4th positions after completing the Promo. Walking back to the buses I heard a guy tell his mate that this was one of the best experiences of his life, I totally agree, the event is totally nutty and an insane undertaking. Congratulations to all the finishers as well as the organisers putting on a great event despite the issues with the weather.
Before: Cotic vs Univega
After: Univega defeated!!
Overall Hardtail Rankings
1st Robbie Rickman Cotic (164th - GBR)
2nd Thomas Gilfedder Univega (259th - AUS)
3rd Torsten Rolfes Nicolai (277th Promo - GER)
4th Christian Schott (303rd Promo - GER)
For more pictures click here.