HELL AND BACK
ONE RIDER’S JOURNEY FROM FACING LIFE IN A WHEELCHAIR TO RACING THE INFAMOUS MOUNTAIN OF HELL
How one man went from facing life in a wheelchair to racing the infamous Mountain of Hell
Those words felt like a death sentence. So, how is it that, almost 20 years to the day later, I’m stood at the top of the Les Deux Alpes glacier, surrounded by 700 other riders, with Highway to Hell blaring out of the PA system, at the start of the Mountain of Hell race?
It all began in 1997, while I was serving with the Army Air Corps. It was what I’d always wanted to do – that and ride my bike. But then I was injured in a training accident and everything changed. I broke my left foot and tore my Achilles tendon, and this led to problems with my left knee, which were misdiagnosed. The surgery didn’t work, so then came the big turning point – discharge. In May 1998 I became a civvy. By September, I was struggling to walk, and trying to start my life again from scratch. I kept hearing things like: “You’ll probably be in a wheelchair by the age of 40.”
As far as I could see, I had two choices – let these circumstances dictate the shape of my life to come, or face them head on and be the one doing the dictating. I chose the latter. At the time, there were few adaptive sports opportunities, so I took up kayak surfing. That lasted for a decade – right up until I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that can cause blackouts and told I could never surf again. Are you spotting a theme yet? Another important part of my life had been taken away.
I wondered what else I could do, living in Devon. Then I remembered the good times, riding over Haldon and Dartmoor as a kid, and figured there must be some kind of adaptive mountain biking. I wound up buying something that would make most mountain bikers cringe – a hand-powered trike, with 20in wheels and a single hydraulic rim brake. When I contacted Gawton Gravity Hub to ask if they’d help me access their downhill trails, they bent over backwards to assist me. It was then that I became an adaptive mountain biker, competing in local downhill races, riding marathon cross-country routes on Dartmoor, raising thousands of pounds for charity and designing my own handpowered full-suspension prototype. During this time I encountered many people who wanted to help me – from Kevin, the guy who built my prototype, to Keith Bontrager [the American mountain bike pioneer], who had a real fascination with what we’d built, because it took him back to his experimental times in the early days.
Still, I knew I’d never be able to ride these bikes the way I could have ridden a normal mountain bike. With these frustrations, and more, came dark thoughts and a feeling of hopelessness. The career I’d wanted had been taken from me, along with the sports I loved. It was hard to find any positives.
Help is coming
Around this time, Help for Heroes [the charity set up to help wounded or injured ex-servicemen] came into my life. They helped get me back on the water and I wound up on the GB team for the 2016 World Adaptive Surfing Championships. I soon came down from that huge high though. Knowing that surfing would never be an independent activity for me again led me back to some dark places. Fortunately, mountain biking came to the rescue once more, this time in the form of e-bikes. Electric assistance meant I could finally ride wherever any normal mountain biker could go – I knew this was something I could do until the day I died.
Less than three months after getting back on a bike, I’d qualified as a coach and was running a club for inner city kids, but I needed more. I found out that Help for Heroes were putting together a team for the Mountain of Hell – a French race that starts on a glacier and sees you descend for almost 25km, from an altitude of 3,400m to just 900m. What better way to prove the medical predictions wrong than to do one of the toughest enduro DH races there is? Applying for a place on the team was a no-brainer. Of the 20 of us who started the training in January, there were just 10 left by June. Our squad had selected itself.
Arriving in Les Deux Alpes on June 28, we were left with only one day for practice. Woz, a former commando turned mountain dweller, agreed to show us the tracks, but a few incidents meant it took far longer than planned to descend the mountain. Then we were straight into Saturday’s qualifying. Thankfully, it had been agreed that we’d start at the back of the grid, regardless of our qualifying times, so that took off some of the pressure. We were soon into our flow, but riding as a team meant regular stops, as we waited for the slower riders to catch up. The mountain also took its toll, with two of our guys sidelined by injuries.
Race day meant an early rise, and the journey to the top was a feat in itself, with legs that don’t work that well (I have extreme difficulty just getting up stairs). But the breathtaking views once I'd rolled out onto the glacier were worth it on their own. Then AC/DC’s Highway to Hell started blaring out and I was raring to go. I’d waited a long time for this.
I rolled onto the snow and let go of my brakes. Hitting speeds in excess of 90kmh, I soon caught up with the crowd in front of me and grabbed a handful of back brake. Initially, the bite was good and the bike started to slow. But then the lever blew straight through to the bar, as the brake boiled. With no way of slowing myself, I started weaving through the ever-growing – and slowing – crowd. There was a moment when I thought I’d make it, then
There was a moment when I thought I’d make it... then my bar clipped the rider in front’s arse and I rag-dolled to the ground
the almost instant realisation that I wouldn’t, followed by an impact with a rider in front. Instead of hitting the solid wall of snow and ice, my bar clipped his arse and I rag-dolled to the ground.
Somehow, despite crashing at 75kph, I managed to hold onto my bike (that was the one piece of advice we’d been given for riding the glacier!) and was soon up and straightening my bar out, ready to go again. I wound up on my arse a couple more times, but by choice, before reaching the bottom of the glacier. Gradually, my rear brake started to come back. The rest of the descent mixed tough, rocky offpiste sections with some urban downhill, flowy bike-park trails and an alpine footpath with numerous drop-offs.
As a team, we weren’t quick, but that wasn’t the point. Our least experienced rider, Hardy, an RAF veteran, showed balls beyond words in completing the race. Each of us had managed to overcome unbelievable obstacles to reach the finish line. I didn’t see it at the time, because I was disappointed with some mistakes in my ride, but I’d just completed the first e-MTB descent of the Mountain of Hell and proven the medical people from my past wrong.
Where next then, for someone who’ll “never ride again”? Expect to see me wearing my Help for Heroes colours at plenty of other events, including the WoodlandRiders Winter Series back home in Devon. I’m also planning a return to the Mountain of Hell – I’m a racer now and need to know where I’d have placed if I’d been riding at my own pace!
1 Rocky horror After the ice and snow of the glacier, Mountain of Hell is all about stony scree slopes2 Go with the flow Below the tree line, there are fast, flowing trails to navigate3 Blue sky thanking Happily, Chris and the team had the weather on their side – if not always gravity…4 Two’s company They may not have been the fastest team down the mountain, but the H4H guys had each other’s backs