Amputee Tackles the French Alps in Megavalanche Race

German rider Stephan Büchler, born in 1980, lost his leg in 1997 due to Ewing’s sarcoma. Since then, Büchler has participated in various mountain-biking races, such as the Extremity Games in New Braunfels, Texas.

After winning gold medals at the Extremity Games in 2011 and 2012, Büchler wanted to push the envelope and take on a new challenge. The transfemoral amputee mountain bike champion competed in the 19th Annual Megavalanche Race in 2013, known as one of the hardest mountain bike races in the world.

Since 1995, the Megavalanche Alpe d’Huez, in the French Alps, has been an event that professional and amateur bikers flock to participate in. The numbers are staggering: an over 30-km downhill course on alpine slopes, a 2,500-m vertical drop and 2,000 riders coming from five continents to compete on a snowy, muddy and rocky track.

Stephan Büchler set out to race the mountain, not other riders.

Image: PROTEOR Handicap Technologie

As the only transfemoral amputee athlete competing, Büchler took on the challenge with a positive mindset. Given his limb difference compared with the other participants, his main objective was primarily to complete this extreme course, which is typically only attempted by the most fearless able bodied downhill racers.

“I wanted to participate in the Megavalanche to overcome the slope and the disability, not to defeat the other riders,” Büchler said.

Not all downhill

The day before his qualification race, Büchler carried out two complete training runs. Despite physical preparation and training, which started in December 2012, he became exhausted from the extreme descents. His forearms ached from tightly holding the handlebar and clutching the brakes and his residual limb took a substantial beating with several hard falls on curves. Büchler fared better than most, though; some competitors returned home with broken arms.

Qualification races took place on a near perfect day with optimal weather conditions. The competitors had staggered start times from the top of the Dôme des Petites Rousses (2,800 m). The goal was to reach L’Alpe d’Huez (1,500 m) as fast as possible to get the best starting position for the big race the next day. Knowing he would be slower than most other competitors who came there to win the race, he chose to go with the last group of riders to make sure he did not slow down anyone behind him.

The descent was intense and then the unforgiving slope put both bikes and riders to the test. The racers were neck and neck, wheel-to-wheel, and often have to find their way on narrow paths next to the edge of a cliff.

The curves were the most difficult parts to navigate. Able-bodied cyclists can negotiate tight curves by swinging their body weight from one leg to the other. Büchler tends to go straight because he cannot lean into his prosthetic knee and maintain balance, which put him at a major disadvantage in this type of race.

Nevertheless, in a commendable show of sportsmanship he stopped during the race for more than 20 minutes to help a fellow rider, German champion Antje Kramer, whose tires were punctured.

Tired but happy

Upon reaching the end of the course more than an hour later, Büchler was welcomed by a round of applause from the spectators and fellow competitors. Exhausted, he did not qualify for the official race the next day but was proud to have completed this extremely difficult course.

“It was a great experience. I got more pleasure than pain … but I suffered a lot,” he said.

He said his Proteor components performed well, and he eagerly anticipates the 2014 edition of the Megavalanche Race. — by Ludovic Piquemal

Disclosure: Büchler is an orthopedic technician for PROTEOR.

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