HELL AND BACK

ONE RIDER’S JOUR­NEY FROM FAC­ING LIFE IN A WHEEL­CHAIR TO RAC­ING THE IN­FA­MOUS MOUN­TAIN OF HELL

Mountain Biking UK - - CONTENTS - Words: Chris Jones Photos: Kevin Mar­chal

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?

Dark days

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.

Un­leash­ing hell

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

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