MTB Strength Factory‘s Ben Plenge tackled the Megavalanche in Alp d’Uez last year and has put together his top tips for surviving one of the craziest races on Earth.
All photos courtesy of Nukeproof/Laurence Crossman-Ems.
Being both a rider and an MTB performance coach, Ben has taken a step back from his own experience at the Megavalanche and broken down what a rider needs to be good at in order to not have any unmitigated disasters on the 37km, mass start downhill race.
The Megavalanche, simply known as ‘The Mega’, is as iconic a race as any in the world, attracting hundreds of riders every year to race down the glacier and deep into the alpine valleys below.
Based around the French town of Alpe d’Huez it offers a unique challenge to any mountain biker, with high speed snow and ice sections, tight woodland singletrack and rugged lunar landscapes.
It is physically demanding and if you are not properly prepared then you will know about it. The Mega is totally brutal and each year it breaks dozens of bikes and bodies. So, if you are heading out to do the Mega this year then how should you prepare?
I like to split the preparation up into on-bike and off-bike work. Typically on-bike training will take place on the weekends and maybe the odd ride during the week, with the off-bike work taking place in the gym or at home during the week.
On the bike…
You will need to toughen up your hands, grip and general downhill endurance over rough terrain. One of the best ways to do this is on an uplift day, or if you budget can stretch to it, then two or three consecutive days of uplift either at home or abroad. Places like Fort William, Bike Park Wales and Revolutions spring to mind as having long, rough descents that you can ride at pace on a trail bike. Once you are warmed up and up to speed you should focus on doing full runs without stopping at all.
Try to be smooth, fast and economical with your efforts to get maximum speed for minimum effort. In the race there are only limited opportunities to sit down and pedal so you will be be in the attack position for extended periods of time. Uplifts are a great chance to condition yourself for this aspect of racing such a long race. If your hands can’t hack ‘Dai Hard’ at Bike Park Wales then you are going to struggle at the Mega.
On race day you are going to spend a lot of time at very high heart rates, especially given the altitude of the glacier and the first part of the race. All of the longer pedalling efforts are below 4 minutes for most people meaning that when you combine these two factors it is clear that developing your power at VO2 Max will be critical to your success.
In order to improve your ability over 1-4 minute bursts of pedalling you can carry out simple but intense interval training sessions. One example would be a classic 1 min on and 1 min off for 8 to 12 minutes (depending on ability) followed by 5 minutes recovery and then repeat. Another great option that is very time efficient and is ideal for turbo training would be a pyramid workout:
1 min, 90 sec, 2 min, 3 min, 4 min, 3 min, 2 min, 90sec, 1 min of high intensity Zone 5 followed by the same amount of time easy spinning in Zone 2. So after the 3 min interval you would recover for 3 minutes and so on.
One of the main things to overcome on race day is the fact that you will have already completed several days (or maybe even a week!) of big alpine riding. Assuming you head out before the race you will have several days of practice, as well as your qualifier race to survive before you even worry about the actual race. Many people do not survive the week and make it to race as they over-do it injuring themselves or just knackering themselves out.
To boost your chances of getting to race day you will need a good level of base aerobic fitness. This will help you to tolerate the large volume of riding as well as aiding in daily recovery. The best way to improve this is with big all-day rides in the hills with your mates in the months before the event. If you can’t ride all day in Surrey then don’t expect to ride all day in the Alps and be able to function at full capacity after a couple of days.
Off the bike…
There are loads of things you can do in the gym to boost your chances of success at the Mega, but for most people not riding at the top level, the focus should be on robustness. That means minimising risk of injury in the run up to the race and on race day as well as being robust enough to tolerate the demands of the race.
The first step is to address those annoying ‘niggles.’ That bad back, or sore wrist that you have been working around for months will quickly become a major issue after days of riding the lifts in the Alps and they will potentially ruin your trip. Go to the physio and get checked out. Do your rehab exercises and make sure that you are heading out injury-free.
Strength and mobility.
Mobility is an often over-looked aspect of training that would benefit most mountain bikers, especially ones who sit behind desks or steering wheels Monday to Friday. If you can improve your mobility through movement, training and stretching then you will be able to move more freely on the bike. You will also be more robust for when you fall off practising on the glacier and accidentally do the splits or put an arm out to stop yourself! Better mobility, when combined with strength, leads to more robust racers.
Strength training is an important part of any racer’s development whether it is for the Mega or not, however the extreme length of the race means that your back and core will be severely tested. When planning your strength training you should focus on deadlifts (including single leg) and other movements that will target the hamstrings, glutes (bum) and back.
Off the bike…
You may also want to do bent over rows, stiff leg deadlift and kettlebell swings. Just remember that these moves must be performed with PERFECT form! To compliment the big lifts you should add in single leg and single arm work that will build strength as well as balance and stability in the ankles, knees, hips and shoulders.
To compliment the main strength work you will need to target your core as well. Use a variety of exercises to challenge it in different ways. Beginners may be fine with planks to start with, whilst more experienced lifters can add in rotation work with band or cables as well as added instability to really challenge you. A great way to do core work is to mix it in with some conditioning to finish a training session.
- 20 Kettlebell swings.
- 1 min side plank per side.
- 40 metres farmers walk.
- 15 Ab-wheel roll outs.
- 20 Kettlebell swings.
- 30 Russian twists with med ball.
- 40metres farmers walk.
The added bonus here is that you also get a great grip workout to help prevent the dreaded arm pump!
As always there are many ways to go about preparing for a race like the Megavalanche. I have given you some ideas that I hope are useful for you. The most important thing is to start the training early and address any injuries or issues ASAP. Doing 2 weeks of panic beastings before you get on the ferry is only going to tire you out!
Good luck at the Megavalanche. It really is an amazing experience!