Tim Dunford (Renvale) takes us through the tough MB Race
Photos courtesy of Sportpremium.com
The MB race is the self-titled “hardest race in the world”. The full "Ultra" course is 140km with just over 7,000m of climbing so on paper it does look like quite a challenge! Just to make it a little tougher it was hot this year. Very hot. On the start line at 6am it was 22C. By mid-afternoon it was 36! As you come back to the village after 70 and then 100km you have the choice to stop so you don't need to commit to the full ultra-distance until 100k in. Having won the 100k last year I wanted to tick the full 140k off my bucket list this year.
Looks so easy on paper...you ride up you ride down…easy!
I flew out with fellow endurance fan, George Budd. Our preparation for the race wasn't ideal. Our flight the day before was delayed so it was 10pm until we signed on, then after finding the gite in the dark and a quick bike build it was well after midnight before we got to bed. Then up at 4 for breakfast, which having not been able to find any milk was the surprisingly yummy combination of muesli and chocolate milkshake!
I had plate number 5, the game of beating your number board was going to be tough! The atmosphere at the start was brilliant. The town of Combloux really get behind the event and were out in force to wave us off to a chorus of cow bells. With 140k to go the start was leisurely, just as well as we headed up from the off with a road climb of around 6km to break us in gently. Apparently the pace was too slow for George who rode off the front of the lead group of around 15 riders, before looking around with a bemused expression and slowing up. The group split as we headed up a steeper, loose off-road climb before we flew down some loose rocky fireroad. Having had some practice the previous week at Sella Ronda I adopted the Euro "let go of the brakes and it'll be fine" approach, which seemed to work as I passed George and caught back up with the second group.
The calm before the storm. George (number 6) is either in deep concentration or nodding off!
Then started the major climb on the 70k loop. It started with some really loose, steep rocky sections before a bit of flattish road traversed round the mountain. After feeling pretty comfortable at the start I struggled on the fireroad section and George caught me along with 4 others. Not ideal after only 1.5h but I hoped this would be a temporary blip. The climb continued up through the forest on fireroad, before a short but very steep hike through some dense ferns eventually brought you to the top. The course then continued along the top of a very undulating ridge with a few short but sharp little(ish) rises some of which required a bit of a push! The descent off the top was brilliant with huge berms and jumps through the forest before spitting you out onto some eye wateringly fast rocky double track. I loved this bit and caught and passed the little group that dropped me on the climb.
The climbs soon spread out the field
Back through the start village after 70k and 5h it was very hot and we were only half way. The sight of the 70k finishing was tempting... No stay right, carry on! So off I headed on the second 30k loop. This essentially comprised one huge climb of two parts. The first bit was very steep and pretty technical up through the forest. On one section my rear wheel spun on a metal drainage bar before slipping into the drain leaving me still clipped in lying on the floor, much to the amusement of a rider I'd just caught. I got my own back by dropping him on the next rooty bit! There was then a bit of a rest on some flat fireroad which deposited us at the next feed at the bottom of the ski lift before a beast of a climb to the top of the mountain. This was super tough, climbing over 900m around a huge bowl to the top of the ski lift. It was pretty steep and there was no shade. With the temperature nudging 30 by now it wasn't all that fun! Still the top did come and I stopped to refuel again. With almost 7h on the clock I was struggling and felt pretty cooked. I was beginning to question my ability to do the full 140. The descent was super steep, with loads of rooty drop offs interspersed with super tight hairpins... Plus lots of big rocks thrown in for good measure!
Back through town after 100k and 7 and a quarter hours I didn't give myself the choice of stopping: I got in the 140k funnel, much to the delight of the race commentator. Literal translation - is he continuing? Yes, yes, he continues, how brave! Courage! He was probably thinking what a lunatic, doesn't he know it's hot enough to fry an egg and he's got another two mountains to go! The final 40k loop was the hardest thing I've ever done on a bike. After a relatively easy 5k on the road which by this time was melting, we hit the dirt and started to climb. This one wasn't too steep but still a good 40 minute climb. The descent was another technical, rocky, root infested single track affair, popping out into a field which I hurtled across, my arms were in as much agony as my legs and every bump and hop over a drainage ditch was a real effort.
Rooty mania! The awesome descents were just as demanding as the climbs
I'd made it to the bottom of the final climb, one final hurdle. Again it started with some road, although it was fairly steep. I could feel myself blowing, I tried to keep eating but it was so hot and my stomach was protesting at the thought of any more food. As we hit the off-road again it got really steep and loose. I tried to keep the pedals turning but after a few kilometres of wheel spinning I ground to a halt. I pushed for a bit to try and keep moving forwards, stumbling over the loose rocks. It was so hot my head felt like it was going to explode, sweat was literally pouring off my arms and legs. First one, then 2 riders caught me and I dropped to 10th. I so badly wanted to finish top ten, I gave everything to keep moving. At the top a family was having a picnic. Seeing the state I was in they offered me some Ricard, I thanked them but asked for some coke instead- I was out of it enough already, some super strong spirits weren't going to help. I'd avoided caffeine all day for fear of cramping in the heat, the coke tasted awesome and really hit the spot. The joy of reaching the top of the climb was short lived as we were on the same ridge as on the first loop, so there were a series of super steep little kicks to get over. Cramping and a little disoriented I got over the last, necked another coke at the last feed and started the drop. And what a descent, rocky gullies, roots and loads of switchbacks it was an amazing bit of single track. It would have been super fun on a trail bike having not ridden for 10 hours but my arms and fingers were in agony- I resorted to two finger braking to try and slow down. I caught the two in front after a bit of reckless fireroad bombing before the last little kick. Unfortunately due to the scale of the map attached to the number board, what looked like a pimple turned out to be another 15 minute, steep, loose grovel fest. I lost contact with the two riders again but looking behind I could see there was no one within a few minutes. It was a fast road spin back to town - with an obligatory short but steep road climb before we finally plunged thorough the town and the last few corners to the finish.
I've never been so pleased to finish a race. Pleased to have got top ten but being only 3 minutes behind 7th I was a bit disappointed I blew on the last climb. Every finisher of the full 140k is greeted like a hero, it felt truly amazing. As a bonus I finished 3rd in my age group so had a trip to the podium. I took care not to headbutt the lady mayor as I had the previous year when kissing her on the cheeks, I don't think she remembered as she didn't brace herself with fear!
The race took over the village of Combloux overlooked by the spectacular Mont Blanc
I've ridden a fair few 12 hour solos and no doubt this was so much harder. The climbs were brutal as were the descents and with the heat it was like riding in an oven. It felt like a real accomplishment to finish one of which I feel pretty proud. With a couple of mega tough races in a row I'm feeling pretty smashed, it's time for a mid-season break, no pedalling for a week then hopefully I'll be good for a strong late August and September. See you at Brighton Big Dog! Thanks as always to all my fantastic sponsors.