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This is What Happened When a Novice Tackled One of Europe’s Toughest Downhill Mountain Bike Races

a high angle view of a mountain
A Novice Tackled One of the Hardest Downhill RacesDominic Bliss

Never have I seen so many mountain bikes in one place at the same time. On top of the glacier, high above the French alpine resort of Les Deux Alpes, there must be well over £4m in aluminium, steel and carbon fibre, all of it gleaming in the early morning sunlight. There are 763 bikes in all, laid out flat in 30 tight rows on the snow. Behind each one, shivering nervously in body armour, helmets and goggles, are the competitors in one of Europe’s most infamous downhill mountain bike races – the Mountain of Hell. One of them, close to the back and jogging up and down to keep warm, is me.

In about two minutes, when the klaxon sounds, all of us will jump astride our bikes and hurtle 25km down the mountain, from the glacier at 3,200m above sea level, to the river valley at 900m. On the way, we’ll encounter snow, ice, slate, scree, grass, mud, rocks, trees and declines that touch angles of 45 degrees in places.

How did I end up in this situation? What possessed me, a middle-aged man, to enter the Mountain of Hell?

Midlife crisis might be one answer. Don’t get me wrong – I’m no beginner when it comes to mountain biking. I’ve been practising the sport since I was in my twenties; I’ve ridden on mountain trails in France, Switzerland and the US, but I live in the flat river valley of west London. While I regularly put in the miles, the majority are on undulating trails, not alpine slopes.

Which is why, two days before the race, I engage the services of a local mountain bike guide. His name is Julien Bowman, a 29-year-old ski guide by winter, and a hiking and biking guide by summer. Having spent much of his life in Les Deux Alpes, he knows the trails like the back of his hand.

a machine on the mountain
Dominic Bliss

First off, I need a bike worthy of my mission. One of the town’s many sports-hire shops lends me a Scott Ransom downhill machine, with long travel suspension front and rear.

Julien decides to warm me up on a blue run on the west side of the valley – smooth, flowing and not too steep. So far, so easy. Then he takes me up in the cable car to try out the route of the qualifying run for the Mountain of Hell, on the east side.

This is far more demanding. High up on the mountain, at the start of the run, Julien can see I’m apprehensive. As we descend, stopping every now and then to survey the trickier sections, his advice comes thick and fast. ‘Keep your head forwards over the handlebars to stop the front wheel from wobbling,’ he tells me. ‘It’ll give you more control on the steep sections. Place your arms wide across the handlebars, again for more control.’ He insists I use just one finger on the brake levers, leaving the other four to control the steering. He urges me to use the automatic seat-dropper to place the saddle in its lowest position, especially as the trail steepens, to keep my centre of gravity as low as possible. And he advises me to keep my ankles loose and flexible so they pivot with the pedals as the angle of descent varies.

At one point, my front wheel gets trapped between two boulders and I’m thrown over the handlebars – luckily into a bed of soft meadow grass. Zigzagging at speed through a mountain glade, we come upon a flutter of butterflies, one of which ends up in my mouth, which is a first for me. By the time we reach the base of the trail, my fingers and knuckles are burning with lactic acid from all the heavy braking, but Julien seems to be quite pleased with my progress.

The next day, I ride the qualifying run for real. I’ve no ambitions to record a particularly fast time; I simply want to get to the bottom in one piece and continue building my confidence for the main event on the Sunday. The only problem is, I haven’t practised on snow.

A Long Way Down

The following morning, starting at 5.30am, all 763 riders queue up at the Jandri Express cable car in Les Deux Alpes, ready to be transported up to the race start line on the glacier.

Six at a time, we file into each car, holding our bikes upright and between our legs. Dressed in helmets, body armour, including elbow and arm guards, knee and shin guards – and every one of us more than a little apprehensive – we look like soldiers going into battle. In my car, there’s total silence for the 25-minute ascent to the summit, each rider lost in his own thoughts, psyching himself up for the imminent mayhem. Substitute cable cars for landing craft, and bikes for rifles, and this could be D-Day.

The race starters arrive in waves at the glacier, where it’s surprisingly mild for 7am. Some mill around nervously, taking in the alpine views. Many are seated in deckchairs, warming up in the sun like sleepy reptiles, or inside the cafe, snoozing. One guy has the number 666 tattooed on the back of his neck – appropriate, given the name of the race. Another is warming up his legs, making vigorous cycling motions while talking on his phone to his fitness trainer. Many are drinking coffee. One group of six are smoking an early-morning joint. ‘It relaxes your muscles,’ one of them says, smiling at me. This is the calm before the storm.

a group of people walking on a dirt road
Dominic Bliss

Then, bang on 9am, the storm hits: a klaxon sounds the start of the race.

The professional riders at the front lift up their bikes, sprint the first few metres and then mount. Within seconds, they’re hurtling down the steep snow. I take a position at the back of the field – wise, because by the time I reach the first turn, there are scores of riders on the deck, sliding down the icy piste. Some manage to hold on to their bikes but others lose them in the melee before trying to clamber back up the piste to retrieve them. A clutch of unfortunate souls have slid off the edge of the piste altogether, landing in the soft snow beyond. It’s total bedlam.

With no experience of biking on snow, I’m trying to work out the optimal technique. I quickly realise it’s essential not to allow the rear end to fishtail – even the slightest waver and I’ll be on the deck with the others. It turns out that the best way to descend is to take my feet off the pedals and place them on the snow, using my shoes like a snow plough.

After a few minutes, the snow gives way to shale, shingle and scree. This calls for a whole new technique, as my tyres skitter and skid across the loose stones on the singletrack trails, doing their very best to unseat me, especially on the tight hairpin bends. Generally, the trail is quite dry, although puddles occasionally splash mud into my face. It’s not easy to wipe one’s glasses while twisting downhill at breakneck pace. At one point, the rider in front of me kicks dust into the air, and I sneeze violently three times. ‘A tes souhaits!’ (‘Bless you!’) yells another competitor.

The scariest sections are the long stretches of singletrack with the mountain slope climbing steeply on one side and a long, sheer drop on the other. One false move of the front wheel and I’m a goner.

Before long, after a couple of short flat and slightly uphill sections, we’re back into a steep descent, this time on lumpy, and occasionally rocky, meadow paths that soon lead to the village of Les Deux Alpes. Here we encounter hundreds of spectators packed into the village square. Suddenly, riders are funnelled on to a wooden track rising up to a rather large gap jump. For the less ambitious among us, there’s a rabbit run around the side. Thank god, as there’s no way I’m risking a gap jump at this stage of the race.

Quickly, we’re out of the village and on to the final section of the race, a red trail that swoops and twists its way for 3.5km down the steep valley into the village of Venosc.

By now I’m feeling confident, settled into a race rhythm. But there’s a sting in the tail yet. Just as I launch myself on to the trail, the leading pros in the electric mountain bike category – who had started the race after us – begin to catch up. They’re in no mood to sit behind slower amateur riders, so they yell and whoop loudly, demanding to overtake. I wisely drift to the side of the trail and let half a dozen of them zip by.

Before I know it, I’m on the final few metres of the course. As I cross the line, the sense of relief, mixed with the adrenaline in my system, is like a narcotic high.

The race results are quickly posted online. I’ve finished 24th in my age category, with a time of just over 59 minutes. I’m happy with my effort – until I see that, overall, I’m 569th out of 608 finishers. The winner, a Frenchman named Kilian Bron, had recorded a time of just 22 minutes and 42 seconds.

Later that day, I watch the helmet-cam footage of his winning run that he posts on YouTube. It’s flawless. I clearly have some work to do.

Dominic Bliss was a guest of Les Deux Alpes. The next Mountain of Hell race is in June 2024

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