There are many spectacular mtb marathons across Europe, each with their unique attributes and attractions. Perhaps I am a little biased towards the MB Race, as it is my local event, but it has to rank up there as one of the most stunning ultra marathons, physically and visually. MB is a relative youngster amongst comparable ultras, only celebrating its 10th edition this year, but it has already developed a strong fan base with increasingly more riders wanting to test their metal on this course. This 10th edition was a full house and for the 2nd year running the weather was dry and dusty making for some super fast racing up front.
It’s called the Mont Blanc marathon for good reason as you are never far from views of this dominating peak, with choices of 70km, 100km or the full 140km ultra, but you can decide on the day and finish at any of the splits. For its 140km, the race packs in a leg shredding 7000m of climbing. For the distance, nothing else rivals it for time spent in your lowest gears. Laced with stunning singletrack, ridgeline trails and rooty, challenging descents, it’s a route not to be underestimated, not just for its terrain but also for the weather. Dry trails are not guaranteed. Some previous editions have been very wet. Either way, there comes a deep euphoria at the finish line from taming this brute. No climb is wasted, what the MB takes in lung busting climbing, it gives back in big and technical descending. The kind of descents you’d be high fiving your mates at the bottom, if this wasn’t as race.
What the route lacks is tarmac. Apart from the start climb out of town to string out riders, tarmac sections are kept to an absolute minimum, barely a few km along all the routes. With this though, there is nowhere to hide or easy kms to spin out fatiguing legs, the only respite they get is at any of the numerous feed stations. It’s a fully engaging route that regularly takes you above the tree line and along ridge top trails for stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Stronger riders will take around 9-10 ½ hours for the full 140km and with this year’s bone dry conditions, Spanish pro/elite rider Martin Roberto went under 9hours. Urs Huber, winner in 2017 and 2018 fell victim to a puncture and couldn’t reagin touch with the top 3, coming in 4th.
If you’re keen for this challenging and exhilarating ride, then sign up quickly. Top riders get seeded in the first box, for everyone else it is first come first served, the sooner the entry the lower the number you’ll be allocated. All riders from each distance head oiut together so the start chute gets packed with over 1300 entrants. The first few kms up a winding road climb does well to string everyone out, but once the route hits dirt, it soon narrows creating bottlenecks and numerous dismounts up the steeper climbs. If you gunning for a podium spot, sign up early and stay sharp in the first 15km to stay ahead of the crowds
The early km set the tone of this ultra. Climbs pitch upwards at barely less than 9%, some quite a bit steeper, the front wheel wandering in all directions as you stubbornly refuse to join others in walking. Which doesn’t always work out. The climbs are at least mostly on double track, allowing for over taking and glances across at the snow capped views. The descending is just as breathtaking, off camber rooty singletrack, rear wheels sliding out in the loamy dirt.
Feed stations are frequent, so depending on your strategy, speed and fluid requirements, you could get away with a single large bottle, but in the heat 2 bottles would be recommended. Stations are manned by couldn’t-be-more-helpful volunteers and a broad selection of calories from the usual bananas and dried fruits to reblochon cheese, actually in the perfect soft state for a cheese course at a dinner party.
By 19km, there is over 1150m+ in the legs at the col de Jaillet, and by 50km you at the top of the first 1900m+ peak. Once above the treeline past the feed zone at Gateau, take your eyes off the front wheel for a moment as the pitch levels out a little along this high ridge, to take in the view. From the peak, the next 20km is mostly descent to the 70km mark at Combleux, much of it on rooty, forest singletrack, but not without being punctured with numerous punchy climbs of course. Halfway and half of the overall climbing is completed. For anyone used to racing marathons, that was already a tough 70km, technically as well as physically.
It helps (I find) to break this race down into its various distances; 70, 100 then 140; part1, part 2, part 3 or however you want to work it. That 100 mark is not much further and ‘only’ 1500m more climbing. A simple, but nice touch as visual evidence of embarking on the 100 and then the 140 distances are the 100 and 140 number stickers attached to the number board as you come into the relevant feed zones just beyond the split points. With these attached there comes that boost to then complete that distance.
From Combleaux, the only way is up, for the next 16km, with some respite in the middle across le plateau de la Croix, before the sharp rise up to the highpoint of Mont Joux’s 1958m. WIth time to take in the view along this high ridge line, it’s a swift drop on open tracks before a brief climb to views above Megeve and drop back into the trees for a roller coaster 8km descent into Megeve and the 100km mark. The cut off time is generous at 16h30, but even if you are 30 seconds over it is strictly enforced. Don’t be late!
Heading through that split for the 140km in Megève, you know that you are but a handful of riders who will compete this distance and you’ll get that coverted finishers T-shirt. The support received from the volunteers at the 140 split is quite something. They encourage you take a moment to make sure you have enough food and water, giving you a real physiological boost that you can finish this beast.
From here there’s no messing about, it’s straight up to the race’s highest point of 1983m at Ban Rouge and a ride along another high ridge line. Fatiguing legs at least mean slower speeds to take in these stunning surroundings, before dropping back into the tree line and a steep drop into Praz sur Arly, 1000m over a mere 7km, bringing on significant wrist pump and heated rotors. If you have a dropper post, it’ll be worth carrying the extra weight.
From the 117km mark at Praz sur Arly, it’s a mere 700m climb separating you from the rolling trails across the 1700m high plateau and the final descent to the finish. From the parking de Frasses you’ll be on familiar trails, having ridden them towards Combloux, diverting off with 4km to go onto trails previously ridden upwards. Whether racing or riding for a finish, completing the full ultra is a massive achievement. 262 riders completed the 140 through dust, sweat and perhaps a few tears. The heat made it tough this year, the trees offering some shelter from the sun, but it was just so hot out there, many glad to be done, happy to have finished.
Bike wise, it is a real split between hardtails and fullys. Many of the top riders optimizing weight over comfort on hardtails, but if you do have a fully bring that. It’ll make the descents that more enjoyable. I had the chance to try out a Scott Spark RC World Cup, shod with their Fraser iC SL handlebar, not dissimilar to the Ritchey 10D bar, but with a modern twist. Once you get past the looks, handling is on point, more direct even, due to its single piece construction. Position is just as comfortable as any other flat bar. A custom, lightweight Scott chainguide comes as standard. Not that the chain is prone to coming off, but it adds security for negligible, added weight. And if you are wondering how easy tubeless tyres inflate on the Syncros rims, the supplied Maxxis Rekons went up with ease first time using a Topeak Booster tubeless pump and stayed inflated. The Scott Spark was an effective tool for this type of racing and the Traction control a noticeable asset on the climbs.
The MB Race isn’t just about the Ultra, but about a full weekend of events for all ages and abilities. There are numerous events for the younger generation with the MB Kids as well as MB First, MB Explore, MB E-Rando and the MB Enduro. IT is also part of the MTB Alpine Cup, a series comprising 4 events, the Hero in the Sudtirol in the Dolomites, the Grand Raid BCVS in Switzerland in August and la Forestiere in September.
The MB Race is beauty and the beast, set in stunning countryside, but a super tough day in the saddle. It is as rewarding as it is challenging and come prepared for any weather as you are fully exposed once above the tree line. If you are gunning for a podium spot, do sign up super early and don’t leave it too late either as it does sell out. What really makes this event are the trails, proper mtbing with absolute minimal tarmac. Whichever route you decide on doing, you won’t be disappointed. With so many events over the weekend, bring the kids and stay for a while as there is so much to do and explore in the area.
The start and finish areas swap between Megève and Combloux each year, so check before booking accommodation. Combloux itself is a small town on the way up to Megève where you’ll need to book really early to secure something local, but even when the start is hosted in Combloux, it is pretty much downhill from Megève and only a 6km ride. The flipside of course is a 6km trudge back up on tired legs! Depending on where you stay of course. For 2020, it should be Megève’s turn to do the hosting.
Race photos by Jérémie Reuiller. Scott Spark photo by Scott Cornish.