It was a bike race where you look around and see heaven, but when you're finished at the bottom, it hurts like hell.Christina Chappetta proved herself at the Mountain of Hell in Les Deux Alpes, France on July 1, topping her age category and completing the 25-kilometre course with over 2,500 metres of descent in 46 minutes and 39 seconds (46:39), over nine minutes ahead of her nearest challenger.
The course starts on a glacier, taking the 800 riders through ice and snow, before dropping into the Les Deux Alpes bike park, then an urban downhill cruise through the village, before finishing on a hiking trail that is only open to riders for two hours during the race.
To top it all off, it was Chappetta's first-ever mass-start race, and she began in the 11th row of 28 after qualifying first among women overall.
"It was pretty awesome to be up there at the front of the pack with those really, really fast guys and be in the mix," she said.
Though riders' upload started at 5:30 a.m., the race itself didn't kick off until 9 a.m. Thankfully, Chappetta said, temperatures were a chilly but favourable five degrees Celsius considering the elevation.
"You're waiting for hours for everybody to get there, to put their bikes in line. You're watching the sun come up and it's a huge party, obviously," she said.
With minimal chance to train and feel out the course, Chappetta's approach was to consider it as a blind race.
"My strategy was just to look ahead, stay focused. It's the longest downhill run I've ever done," she said. "You're starting at 3,600 metres, so it's really low oxygen. You want to try not to redline too quickly. I knew there was going to be a massive pedal about a third of the way down the mountain. We pedalled probably 80 to 100 metres of elevation ... It's a nasty, nasty uphill before you drop in again."
Blistering speed was also on order for the race. Chappetta estimated she hit top speeds of 80 km/h with the fastest man going 127 km/h.
"You think you're going fast and you're in control but all of a sudden, somebody flies by you," she said. "'Oh, OK, I could go faster.'"
While Chappetta said riders on course were cheering for her, especially after they spotted her ponytail. She said it was a little strange to be a rarity as a woman taking part.
"Coming from Whistler, there are tons and tons, hundreds if not thousands of women that mountain bike and are super amazing and inspirational," she said. "But here, it's like you're just one tiny, little girl in this sea of guys."
Through the tight switchbacks and razor-thin cliff edges, Chappetta eventually earned some breathing room and then found a riding buddy to partner with to complete the course.
"I tucked in right behind a local guy and he and I just got to rip the last few kilometres of the trail. By the end, we had a big hug and a big high five and said 'That was an awesome run,'" she said. "I was stoked. When I got to the bottom, I think I was screaming and I was so happy, so sweaty, so tired, so many things."
Only then could Chappetta analyze the damage to her bike: four lost spokes and twisted bars that she partially corrected after a crash.
"Usually in a downhill or enduro race, you just carry on, but it's a long run, so you just stop, make the most of it, get your focus back and finish strong."
Five local men also raced, with Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association (WORCA) vice-president Jerome David taking 12th in the masters 2 (40 to 49) division, while Benoit Reneault was 32nd in the same category. Resort Municipality of Whistler chief administrative officer Mike Furey and WORCA president Craig MacKenzie were 22nd and 24th, respectively, in the masters 3 (50-plus) division. Cadham finished 64th in the 19-to-29 event, but Chappetta said he deserved a better fate after flatting in qualifiers and starting right at the back of the pack. Still, she noted he passed over half the field en route to his finish.
Chappetta won the all-expenses-paid trip through WORCA, which offered four spots for local riders to go to France. Chappetta earned her spot through an application while others won through a local race. In addition to the riders and WORCA brass, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, Furey and Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Melissa Pace and others were also part of the entourage. The Les Deux Alpes municipality picked up the tab for every Whistler attendee to take part in the trip, which Les Deux Alpes is using to try to learn more about how to become an all-season resort.
As part of the trip, Chappetta said there have been plenty of other events aside from the race, meeting local politicians, speaking in local schools, exploring Les Deux Alpes, and going on amazing hikes thanks to the help of their hosts.
"They're things I can't even plan. If I were going on a vacation by myself, none of these things could have possibly come together so perfectly," she said. "It's been an amazing week of mingling, hanging out with the locals, getting to know what their mountain town is all about and how they succeed."