It’s the longest hour of the summer, the world’s best mountain-bike race: 1,800 starters, 2,500m to descend. No excuses. A marathon down the most infamous Tour de France climb: the Alpe d’Huez.
When you’re in the army – well, the Austrian army, at least – they teach you that if you get caught up in a nuclear attack, you’ve got to throw yourself to the floor with your head facing towards the point of explosion. You should be wearing a helmet to protect your head from debris.
If you open your mouth at the right time before the blast you can protect your eardrums. For health reasons, you have to wait for the radioactive wave to subside before firing back. “Nuclear explosion!” comes the call. Then get back down on the ground. (Hmm… Must really work in an emergency!)
Up here at the top of Pic Blanc in the western French Alps, things happen in a similar way. But there are differences in detail: a helicopter hovering 3,500m above sea-level, ie just above the starters, is blasting out really shitty Euro-trash pop, which is all the more unbearable for it being an ungodly hour and shattering the majestic peace up here above the clouds.
The band is called 666, the song ‘Alarma!’, and as soon as the nutter yelling through the speakers roars, “La Bomba!”, you know what you’ve got to do. Head down facing in the right direction. Mouth open. And into the pack. Let battle commence!
You can judge for yourself how hard this event is on YouTube, dirt.tv or the regular TV channels that make the effort to cover a race that starts at 3,330m and finishes an hour and two valleys later some 2,680m lower, at 650m above sea-level.
The jostling, tumbling and thronging that never seem to abate have to be seen to be believed. It’s as if the glacier is covered in ants, some of which have severed legs. But then you look closer and you see that every one of those ants is a person and what you thought were severed limbs are, in fact, bikes. And they’ve all suddenly tried to find another way down into the valley. Unsuccessfully, of course.
Even right at the start it takes several minutes before the last of the starters disappears over the brow of the hill and Pic Blanc gets back to normal. Normal apart from 400 sets of tyre tracks that is.
And these have been left by only the top 400 bikers who set off first. That’s not even a quarter of the original line-up. This select bunch, sent on their way at 9 o’clock sharp, are the fastest of the 1,800 – maximum – qualifiers. There are also about 80 women who go in a separate race.
For the full story pick up the July Red Bulletin Magazine.