Can a 29’er cut it at the Mega Avalanche? Let’s find out …

A couple of weeks back, we sent Ben off to find what it’s like to race a 29er at the Megavalanche. Read on to find out how he got on…

If you missed Ben’s opening piece on taking a 29er to tackle the Mega, you can play catch up here.

Now that Ben’s had a chance to digest his experience of the Megavalanche on a Nukeproof Mega 290, here’s what he made of it.

Getting up to speed

In the days leading up to the qualifying race on the Friday I had plenty of time to get used to the bike, the terrain, and the high speeds that the big mountains produce, and it was fair to say that I was loving my first long travel 29er experience on the Nukeproof Mega 290.

There were not many tight or steep sections on either the qualifying or main Mega track, and the open, flowing style of the terrain meant that carrying speed was the name of the game. As it happens, 29ers carry speed very well, smoothing out the lumps, taking the edge off the rocks and reeling in smaller wheeled bikes without much effort at all. There were literally only a couple of places where I felt a smaller wheeled bike would have been quicker.

Megavalanche UCC Sport Event Alp d'Uez Pic Blanc Remy Absalon Pauline Dieffenthaler Wideopenmag

As the week progressed, the trails got busier with the arrival of about 200 riders to the resort. Combined with 25 C heat every day, and no rain, this lead to crazy levels of dust (remember that?!) especially in the berms where the brown talc lay inches thick and often left you wondering of you had a flat tyre because of the vague and drifting sensations it gave you. One of the things that really struck me was the increased corner traction that the Nukeproof’s bigger wheels gave me in these conditions.

As long as I was brave enough to stay off the brakes, the bike would hold on and rail around, inspiring a lot of confidence.

Ben Plenge MTB Strength Factory Nukeproof Mega 290 Megavalanche Wideopenmag

Blowing out of my arse

Friday morning saw qualification races to determine if you would race in the main Megavalanche on the Sunday or not. Each quali was 150 riders and I was lucky enough to get a front row grid for mine (total fluke due to entering on the first day I think?) which would prove a big help.

The qualification race is more technical and rougher than the main race with more intense riding and only about 20 minutes long. With limited overtaking opportunities, getting a good start and lines across the open moonscape near the top would be crucial.

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One of the things that people say about 29ers is that they are sluggish and don’t accelerate fast compared to smaller wheels. Frankly I think this is a bit off the mark, especially on loose ground where the added traction at the rear wheel will always trump a smaller wheelset in my opinion. When the tape lifted I sprinted the big wheels forwards and found myself in the top few riders going into the first hairpin.

The next few minutes were a bit of a blur of dust, snow, taking the wrong lines, getting bashed into, falling off and generally blowing out of my arse! I dropped into the singletrack in about 25th.

With a couple of dodgy overtaking moves and a bit of luck I finished the qualifier in 20th place, securing myself a 7th row position in the main event. RESULT!

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Intense Primer 29 Leaderboard

Race day

Race day was uncharacteristically warm at the top of the mountain which was nice for waiting around, but not so nice for racing on as I would find out! With the helicopter overhead and the techno music blaring, the race was on. Nerves out the window, all I wanted was to get off the snow ASAP, but that would prove a lot harder than I thought.

The first part of the track is really steep and this is where I found the first and biggest limitation of riding a 29er at the Mega. The back wheel was just too big for my height to effectively perform the ‘ski-bike tripod’ as I call it. This resulted in a number of gonad-threatening, eye-watering moments as I lost control and was dragged, terrified, by my gusset towards the seatstays. This was NOT fun.

The soft conditions and volume of riders meant that riding feet up on the pedals was not an option as the ruts were just too deep and went in all directions except straight down. My lack of prowess on the snow meant I lost a lot of places at the start of the race, and heading onto the rocky traverse I had a lot of work to do.

The problem now was finding a way past people on the mainly singletrack trail that lay ahead. Whilst the Nukeproof’s big wheels were eager to pick up speed it seemed that the people in front of me were not and I constantly found myself wanting to go faster, but having to brake instead, tiring my hands and adding to my frustration. I picked off a few and then beasted myself on the climb, getting a couple more scalps before the high speed descent just over the half way mark.

Ben Plenge MTB Strength Factory Nukeproof Mega 290 Megavalanche Wideopenmag
Ben (far right, #225) in the mix at the start of his qualifier. Photo by Cyril Charpin.

Survival

The final wooded section of the race saw limited overtaking opportunities and surprisingly tight taping from the organisers. This section also had the steepest sections and some very tight corners that you would expect to be tricky on a 29er, but I found the only limiting factor was the rider in front being slower and less committed than I was.

1 long hour and 13 minutes later I finished my first Megavalanche in 241st place, over 30 minutes behind the winner, Remy Absalon, but still very happy and relieved to have survived my first mass-start DH race. You can check out the full results from the main event here, and check out the results from all the different races that weekend here.

So, is a modern, aggro 29er up to the job of racing the Mega?

In the case of the Nukeproof Mega 290, the answer is a resounding, ‘Yes.’

Whilst I found the Nukeproof to be a great bike for this race, there are a couple of caveats I will put on my opinion.

The first is that wheel choice is even more important for 29ers as they take such a beating. Whilst this was never a bike review, it became clear that the SRAM Roam 40s were barely up to the job as they needed re-tensioning every night and were very second hand by the end of the week.

The larger wheels and high speeds mean that your brakes are under immense pressure. The Nukeproof came with 180mm rotors, but 200 mm rotors are essential in my opinion. For my race run I managed to get one fitted and it made a huge difference. Two would have been better but they were in short supply for some reason!

To sum up how I feel about racing the Nukeproof Mega 290 I would say that I loved it. It think that it felt fun, stable, saved my energy and let me rip trails faster than on a smaller wheeled bike. At the end of the day it still boils down to the rider and their ability to adapt to the different riding style that bigger wheels require.

So, can you race the Megavalanche on a 29er? Yes seems to be the answer.

You may find that riding it hard and fast requires plenty of time on the bike and adjustment in riding style to wring the best of the performance out of the bike.

Catch the main race highlights here.