Meet the Race's Secret Weapon
Forget fitness, wing design and endurance, there is one unseen component of the race that is more key to success than anything else – thermals.
Flying 1,000km across the Alps involves a lot of things, like having an understanding significant other and friends willing to support you. And yes, it also requires a lot of endurance fitness given that on any given day you could be expected to hike 100km and climb a mountain or two. But unless you can hitch a ride on the invisible upward currents of air, you’re not going to go very far.
Thermals – they are the essence of paragliding. Without them, a paraglider is little more than a slow parachutist, gently falling to earth. But paragliding is more than that – it really is the ability to fly like a bird, soaring these upward currents of warm air, gliding along a given forward path before finding another thermal in which to climb. What distinguishes the best athletes is the ability to stay airborne for hours, gliding from thermal to thermal, staying high to cover enormous distances in a single flight.
Different wing designs may offer varying levels of comfort, speed and manoeuvrability, but ultimately performance comes down to the pilot’s ability to read the sky.
To see a great example of how an athlete picks up a thermal, check out the infographic of Sebastian Huber from Day 3 of the 2015 race below. He soars in a circular motion just like a bird.
The big challenge for pilots is therefore how to spot a thermal and read the terrain to know where the warm pockets of air are most likely to be found. Some of this is basic geography. “You need to watch the sun,” says Jochen Maier, from Flugschule Chiemsee. That means south-east facing slopes in the morning, and south-west facing slopes in the afternoon are obvious places for warm air to rise.
Other signs include watching birds of prey. “They are very good indicators of thermals. One of the best is to watch other paragliders,” he adds. This is why many athletes prefer to wait at the top of the Gaisberg at the start of the race to see how other athletes get on. (It’s not been unknown for an athlete to send his supporter up in the air first to test conditions before launching himself.)
“Another important source of lift for pilots are the valley wind systems. You have to figure out where they are.”
While paragliding schools can teach how to spot thermals, what makes the Red Bull X-Alps so exciting for paragliding and adventure fans is to watch how the best pilots in the world find them where none should exist.
“Some pilots are even able to smell thermals,” adds Maier. “You smell fresh meadow or forest and you can be sure it’s a sign of moving air.”
These athletes are seemingly gifted with a natural intuition for flying. There are not many who have this ability, but you’ll find 32 of them on the start line in July.