Billed as “The Toughest Mountain Bike Race in the World” and taking place beside Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, the MB Race does not lack for superlatives. But are those deserved, and what is it like to race?
With a choice of three distances there was no need to sign-up for the 140km sufferfest, although I think you can only claim the toughest race kudos if you complete that distance. In the first edition in 2010 only one person finished the 140km course! (I also imagine that whilst there may be tougher races, it’s the toughest UCI sanctioned race as it is part of the UCI MTB Marathon Series.)
Competitors could choose on the day which distance to ride.
Having spent a lot of time in the Mont Blanc region once I heard about the race from Xavier (a London Dynamo friend, biker and skier who now lives in Chamonix) I wanted to do it and convinced Angus to join me. A couple of weeks before the race Angus and I exchanged some WhatsApps and Angus revealed he hadn’t been doing any bike riding but this wouldn’t matter because he was about to go on a walking holiday in Corsica as race training. This left me feeling slightly concerned about his level of preparation for the 3500m of vertical off-road ascent that was in store. However, having skied up Mont Blanc with Angus I knew he was tough and fit enough to complete the course, but I didn’t want it to not be an enjoyable experience for him.
There was a fine view of Mont Blanc when we registered in Combloux the day before the race.
Over a pizza after registration we talked about expectations our for the race and Angus said he had no idea what to expect with this being his first mountain bike race. His walking in Corsica has also led to some knee pain which was worrying him and we were both concerned with starting too fast. Although I was less worried because with a race number of 853 I was in the 5th of 6 starting pens, which I figured would be too far back to even see the faster riders. And to compound this disadvantage a relaxed attitude to getting to Combloux early on the morning of the race meant we reached the start pen two minutes before the start time of 6am.
This photo was taken at 5.59am!
The race may have already started by the point, though not a lot was happening back where we were (there were over 1100 competitors).
Most of the first climb of 400m was on the road and although I tried to move up where possible I felt I could have been going a lot faster. But an enforced slower pace probably paid off in the end. A forest track descent with too many people of varying speeds and some hectic overtaking followed.
This led to a traffic jam before the first big climb to the Col du Jaillet.
Once we all got going again everyone seemed a bit more relaxed and less pushy; there’s nothing like an enforced walk of 5 minutes to remove some the race urgency and make everyone realise that there’s no point in fighting to get a place or two ahead.
The volunteers helping at the food and drink stops were a good bunch. This stop, the first one was branded as the Village of the Smurfs.
It was soon followed by the longest uphill push of the race.
More long uphills, generally on gravel tracks, followed by interesting descents followed. I’d estimate that at least 80% of the descending was on trails rather than gravel tracks, which made it a lot of fun, though on the long descent to Les Giettaz there were too many slower riders ahead to be able to let go and get into the flow. Some sections were technical with tree routes, rocks and a few small drops, but with the exception of one or two rocky sections it was all rideable.
I had planned to race the 100km route so I was holding back on the initial climbs. As I left Flumet and started the longest climb of the day it was already getting hot and I realised I only had a few mouthfuls of water left in my bottle. I asked a marshal how far it was to the next drink stop and when he said 12km I cursed the race organisation as I had (mistakenly) been expecting a water point in Flumet. I knew that if I become really dehydrated on this climb I would pay for it later. Thankfully there was a house 20 minutes or so above Flumet which had a fountain in the front garden and the owners were being very accommodating to passing cyclists. After that it was a long grind uphill under the sun to the ridge leading to the Tête du Torraz.
There were a few sections on the ridge that were too steep to ride but at least that gave the opportunity to take a selfie.
I’d found I was faster than most of the other riders on the descents, which was a pleasant surprise and I think a result of starting towards the back of the field, so I sprinted to get ahead of the group I was riding with to have one of the final descents to myself. Unfortunately I got a bit cocky and my front wheel washed out after I took a bad line on a slightly sandy bend. No big deal. I picked myself up and carried on, only noticing a long way below that my Garmin mount had broken in the crash and I had lost my Garmin.
I decided to go and look for it and that if I was going to do that I would have to stop after 70km. Feeling angry at having made the stupid error that led to the crash I pushed hard in the final 20-30 minutes. My legs felt strong, probably because I had been holding back, so it was nice to able to pick off a few of the competitors who were ahead of me.
After the finish I set off back up the hill to look for my Garmin. My legs were heavy and although I think I would have completed the 100km it would have been a hard 2-3 hours in the heat of the day probably being plagued by cramps (which I had noticed coming on after the final ascent of the 70km route). When I heard a strange regular clicking noise from the road and upon investigation found a big nail in my rear tyre I thought that perhaps it was just as well I had stopped the race. I’m not sure when I’d picked up the nail but as it wasn’t leaking that much air I decided not to remove it immediately.
The sealant in the tubeless tyres did its job and although I lost a bit of air the tyre stayed up as I rode my bike while looking for my lost Garmin. The nail turned out to be 2 inches long when I eventually extracted it.
I ended up climbing another 500m on the bike and then walking 1.5km up the trail where I had crashed, dodging riders flying downhill. One of those was Angus. He stopped and I could see the confusion on his face as he processed, “There’s Mark. What’s he doing standing by the trail? Where’s his bike gone??”. Unfortunately, although I found the bend where I had crashed there was no sign of my faithful Garmin.
This is the bend. I chose the the inside line I think because it looked like it had less gravel and rocks on it. Whatever the reason, it was a bad choice.
I found Angus back down at the finish. He enjoyed the experience apart from the toughest sections of climbing – but he certainly wasn’t alone in that – and his knee had been okay. He also had some bad luck with his rear derailleur cable snapping, at the point where it attached to the derailleur. Luckily there was enough cable left to enable him, with some help from a spectator, to fix the derailleur in place the middle of cassette giving him a gear that was low enough for him to continue riding.
At the finish feeling that we deserved a beer and some frites.
All in all the event was good. The course was interesting, the descents generally fun single track, and it was inspiring to have some of the best marathon mountain bikers in the world taking part… even if the only time we saw them was as they were finishing. The winner of the 140km course took just under 9 hours, compared with my 6 hours for the 70km course! I came 53rd our of 587 on the 70km course, which is not too bad.
On the negative side the organisation could have been a bit better in places. For example, we both paid extra for a post race lunch but no-one at the finish seemed to have any idea where it was; a google search when we got home revealed that the lunch voucher was for a restaurant in Sallanches, the town below Combloux. Also whilst it was impressive that we were sent our race photos on the day of the race, the complimentary race photo was of a different rider!
But those are small gripes. I’ll be back again but next time to hopefully complete the 100km route.